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Authors: Nick Hornby

High Fidelity

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A RIVERHEAD BOOK
ESSENTIAL EDITIONS
HIGH FIDELITY

NICK HORNBY is the author of the novels
A Long Way Down
,
How to Be Good
,
High Fidelity
, and
About a Boy
, and the memoir
Fever Pitch
. He is also the author of
Songbook
, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, and
The Polysyllabic Spree
, and the editor of the short story collection
Speaking with the Angel
. The recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters' E. M. Forster Award, and the Orange Word International Writers' London Award 2003, he lives in North London.

Worldwide praise for
Nick Hornby and
High Fidelity

“A wonderful journey, full of music, movie, and TV digressions. It's a masterpiece of droll insight into one of the most charming lost souls in recent literature.”

—New York Daily News

“If Rob sounds like a desperate case, well, that's because he is…. He cannot divorce pop life from real life, and seeing him try to sever the cord melts your heart.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“Includes wry observations about contemporary life as a single man, as well as some haunting romantic blues.”

—Entertainment Weekly

“Rob is a completely realized individual…. In writing about this contemporary type, Hornby refuses the false choice between male backlash and fiction that is bloodlessly P. C.
High Fidelity
stakes out a territory both more complex and more true to life.”

—The New Yorker

“A substantial yet effortless read, as skillful and stimulating as a good album.”

—The Village Voice

“An all-too-true guy's tale…a total howl.”

—Mirabella

“Reading
High Fidelity
is like listening to a great single. You know it's wonderful from the minute it goes on, and as soon as it's over, you want to hear it again.”

—The Guardian

“If it were possible to bet on books racing to the top of the bestseller listings, then this would be the one to stake the mortgage on.”

—GQ

“Without a contrived moment.”

—New York
magazine

“Hilariously accurate.”

—London Sunday Times

“A triumphant first novel…true to life, very funny, and moving.”

—Financial Times

“Hornby is brilliant on the vagaries of the sexual and emotional dance. There are passages that make you laugh out loud (or wince) in recognition.”

—The Independent

“True to the book's form, the bestseller top-five list beckons.”

—Dublin Sunday Tribune

“Excellent, funny first novel…the book no music snob should be without.”

—Marie Claire

“Fast, fun, and remarkably deft: a sharp-edged portrait that manages at once to be vicious, generous, and utterly good-natured.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“On-the-edge tale of musical addiction.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Hornby's amazingly accomplished debut should definitely appeal to music fans (and snobs), but it's his literate, painfully honest riffs on romantic humiliation and heartbreak that make the book so special.”

—Booklist

ALSO BY NICK HORNBY

FICTION

ABOUT A BOY

HOW TO BE GOOD

A LONG WAY DOWN

NONFICTION

FEVER PITCH

SONGBOOK

THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE

ANTHOLOGY

SPEAKING WITH THE ANGEL

HIGH
FIDELITY
NICK HORNBY

RIVERHEAD BOOKS

NEW YORK

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), cnr Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1995 by Nick Hornby

All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
RIVERHEAD is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
The RIVERHEAD logo is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
ESSENTIAL EDITIONS and its logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The Library of Congress has catalogued the Riverhead hardcover edition as follows:

Hornby, Nick
   High fidelity / Nick Hornby.
   p. cm
   ISBN: 1-101-14735-0
   I. Title.
   PR6058.0689H54       1995       95-8469 CIP
   813'.54—dc20

Version_1

FOR VIRGINIA

THEN…
 

MY
desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nicholson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you'd sneak into the top ten, but there's no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you're just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we're too old to make each other miserable, and that's a good thing, not a bad thing, so don't take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are gone, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it's just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.

1. A
LISON
A
SHWORTH
(1972)

Most nights we used to mess around in the park around the corner from my house. I lived in Hertfordshire, but I might just as well have lived in any suburb in England: it was that sort of suburb, and that sort of park—three minutes away from home, right across the road from a little row of shops (a VG supermarket, a newsagent, an off-license). There was nothing around that could help you get your geographical bearings; if the shops were open (and they closed at five-thirty, and one o'clock on Thursdays, and all day Sunday), you could go into the newsagent's and look for a local newspaper, but even that might not give you much of a clue.

We were twelve or thirteen, and had recently discovered irony—or at least, what I later understood to be irony: we only allowed ourselves to play on the swings and the roundabout and the other kids' stuff rusting away in there if we could do it with a sort of self-conscious ironic detachment. This involved either an imitation of absentmindedness (whistling, or chatting, or fiddling with a cigarette stub or a box of matches usually did the trick) or a flirtation with danger, so we jumped off the swings when they could go no higher, jumped on to the roundabout when it would go no faster, hung on to the end of the swingboat until it reached an almost vertical position. If you could somehow prove that these childish entertainments had the potential to dash your brains out, then playing on them became OK somehow.

We had no irony when it came to girls, though. There was just no time to develop it. One moment they weren't there, not in any form that interested us, anyway, and the next you couldn't miss them; they were everywhere, all over the place. One moment you wanted to clonk them on the head for being your sister, or someone else's sister, and the next you wanted to…actually, we didn't know what we wanted next, but it was something, something. Almost overnight, all these sisters (there was no other kind of girl, not yet) had become interesting,
disturbing,
even.

See, what did we have that was any different from what we'd had before? Squeaky voices, but a squeaky voice doesn't do much for you, really—it makes you preposterous, not desirable. And the sprouting pubic hairs were our secret, strictly between us and our Y-fronts, and it would be years before a member of the opposite sex could verify that they were where they should be. Girls, on the other hand, quite clearly had breasts, and, to accompany them, a new way of walking: arms folded over the chest, a posture which simultaneously disguised and drew attention to what had just happened. And then there was makeup and perfume, invariably cheap, and inexpertly, sometimes even comically, applied, but still a quite terrifying sign that things had progressed without us, beyond us, behind our backs.

I started going out with one of them…no, that's not right, because I had absolutely no input into the decision-making process. And I can't say that she started going out with me, either: it's that phrase “going out with” that's the problem, because it suggests some sort of parity and equality. What happened was that David Ashworth's sister Alison peeled off from the female pack that gathered every night by the bench and adopted me, tucked me under her arm, and led me away from the swingboat.

I can't remember now how she did this. I don't think I was even aware of it at the time, because halfway through our first kiss, my first kiss, I can recall feeling utterly bewildered, totally unable to explain how Alison Ashworth and I had become so intimate. I wasn't even sure how I'd ended up on her side of the park, away from her brother and Mark Godfrey and the rest, nor how we had separated from her crowd, nor why she tipped her face toward me so that I knew I was supposed to put my mouth on hers. The whole episode defies any rational explanation. But all these things happened, and they happened again, most of them, the following evening, and the evening after that.

What did I think I was doing? What did she think she was doing? When I want to kiss people in that way now, with mouths and tongues and all that, it's because I want other things too: sex, Friday nights at the cinema, company and conversation, fused networks of family and friends, Lemsips brought to me in bed when I am ill, a new pair of ears for my records and CDs, maybe a little boy called Jack and a little girl called Holly or Maisie, I haven't decided yet. But I didn't want any of those things from Alison Ashworth. Not children, because we were children, and not Friday nights at the pictures, because we went Saturday mornings, and not Lemsips, because my mum did that, not even sex, especially not sex, please God not sex, the filthiest and most terrifying invention of the early seventies.

So what was the significance of the snog? The truth is that there was no significance; we were just lost in the dark. One part imitation (people I had seen kissing by 1972: James Bond, Simon Templar, Napoleon Solo, Barbara Windsor and Sid James or maybe Jim Dale, Elsie Tanner, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, Elvis, and lots of black-and-white people my mum wanted to watch, although they never waggled their heads from side to side) to one part hormonal slavery to one part peer group pressure (Kevin Bannister and Elizabeth Barnes had been at it for a couple of weeks) to one part blind panic…there was no consciousness, no desire and no pleasure, beyond an unfamiliar and moderately pleasant warmth in the gut. We were little animals, which is not to imply that by the end of the week we were tearing our tank tops off; just that, metaphorically speaking, we had begun to sniff each other's bottoms, and we did not find the odor entirely repellent.

But listen, Laura. On the fourth night of our relationship I turned up in the park and Alison was sitting on the bench with her arm around Kevin Bannister, with Elizabeth Barnes nowhere in sight. Nobody—not Alison, or Kevin, or me, or the sexually uninitiated retards hanging off the end of the swingboat said anything at all. I stung, and I blushed, and I suddenly forgot how to walk without being aware of every single part of my body. What to do? Where to go? I didn't want to fight; I didn't want to sit there with the two of them; I didn't want to go home. So, concentrating very hard on the empty packs of cheap cigarettes that marked out the path between the girls and the boys, and not looking up or behind me or to either side, I headed back toward the massed ranks of the single males hanging off the swingboat. Halfway home, I made my only error of judgment: I stopped and looked at my watch, although for the life of me I don't know what I was attempting to convey, or whom I was trying to kid. What sort of time, after all, could make a thirteen-year-old boy spin away from a girl and toward a playground, palms sweating, heart racing, trying desperately not to cry? Certainly not four o'clock on a late September afternoon.

I scrounged a fag off Mark Godfrey and went and sat on my own on the roundabout.

“Scrubber,” spat Alison's brother David, and I smiled gratefully at him.

And that was that. Where had I gone wrong? First night: park, fag, snog. Second night: ditto. Third night: ditto. Fourth night: chucked. OK, OK. Maybe I should have seen the signs. Maybe I was asking for it. Round about that second ditto I should have spotted that we were in a rut, that I had allowed things to fester to the extent that she was on the lookout for someone else. But she could have tried to tell me! She could at least have given me another couple of days to put things right!

My relationship with Alison Ashworth had lasted six hours (the two-hour gap between school and
Nationwide,
times three), so I could hardly claim that I'd got used to having her around, that I didn't know what to do with myself. In fact, I can hardly recall anything about her at all, now. Long black hair? Maybe. Small? Smaller than me, certainly. Slanted, almost oriental eyes and a dark complexion? That could have been her, or it could have been someone else. Whatever. But if we were doing this list in grief order, rather than chronological order, I'd put it right up there at number two. It would be nice to think that as I've got older times have changed, relationships have become more sophisticated, females less cruel, skins thicker, reactions sharper, instincts more developed. But there still seems to be an element of that evening in everything that has happened to me since; all my other romantic stories seem to be a scrambled version of that first one. Of course, I have never had to take that long walk again, and my ears have not burned with quite the same fury, and I have never had to count the packs of cheap cigarettes in order to avoid mocking eyes and floods of tears…not really, not actually, not as such. It just feels that way, sometimes.

2. P
ENNY
H
ARDWICK
(1973)

Penny Hardwick was a nice girl, and, nowadays, I'm all for nice girls, although then I wasn't so sure. She had a nice mum and dad, and a nice house, detached, with a garden and a tree and a fishpond, and a nice girl's haircut (she was blond, and she kept her hair a sort of sporty, clean, wholesome, form-captain midlength), and nice, smiling eyes, and a nice younger sister, who smiled politely when I rang the doorbell and kept out of the way when we wanted her to. She had nice manners—my mum loved her—and she always got nice school reports. Penny was nice-looking, and her top five recording artists were Carly Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and Elton John. Lots of people liked her. She was so nice, in fact, that she wouldn't let me put my hand underneath or even on top of her bra, and so I was finished with her, although obviously I didn't tell her why. She cried, and I hated her for it, because she made me feel bad.

I can imagine what sort of person Penny Hardwick became: a nice person. I know that she went to college, did well, and landed a job as a radio producer for the BBC. I would guess that she is bright, and serious-minded, maybe too much so, sometimes, and ambitious, but not in a way that makes you want to vomit; she was a version of all these things when we went out, and at another stage in my life I would have found all these virtues attractive. Then, however, I wasn't interested in qualities, just breasts, and she was therefore no good to me.

I would like to be able to tell you that we had long, interesting conversations, and that we remained firm friends throughout our teenage years—she would have made someone a lovely friend—but I don't think we ever talked. We went to the pictures, to parties and to discos, and we wrestled. We wrestled in her bedroom, and my bedroom, and her living room, and my living room, and in bedrooms at parties, and in living rooms at parties, and in the summer we wrestled on various plots of grass. We were wrestling over the same old issue. Sometimes I got so bored of trying to touch her breasts that I would try to touch her between her legs, a gesture that had a sort of self-parodying wit about it: it was like trying to borrow a fiver, getting turned down, and asking to borrow fifty quid instead.

These were the questions boys asked other boys at my school (a school that contained only boys): “Are you getting any?” “Does she let you have any?” “How much does she let you have?” and so on. Sometimes the questions were derisory, and expected the answer “No”: “You're not getting anything, are you?” “You haven't even had a bit of tit, have you?” Girls, meanwhile, had to be content with the passive voice. Penny used the expression “broken into”: “I don't want to be broken into yet,” she would explain patiently and maybe a little sadly (she seemed to understand that one day—but not now—she would have to give in, and when it happened she wouldn't like it) when she removed my hand from her chest for the one hundred thousandth time. Attack and defense, invasion and repulsion…it was as if breasts were little pieces of property that had been unlawfully annexed by the opposite sex—they were rightfully ours and we wanted them back.

Luckily, however, there were traitors, fifth columnists, in the opposing camp. Some boys knew of other boys whose girlfriends would “let” them do anything; sometimes these girls were supposed to have actively assisted in their own molestation. Nobody had ever heard of a girl who had gone as far as undressing, or even removing or loosening undergarments, of course. That would have been taking collaboration too far. As I understood it, these girls had simply positioned themselves in a way that encouraged access. “She tucks her stomach in and everything,” Clive Stevens remarked approvingly of his brother's girlfriend; it took me nearly a year to work out the import of this maneuver. No wonder I still remember the stomach-tucker's first name (Judith); there's a part of me that still wants to meet her.

 

Read any women's magazine and you'll see the same complaint over and over again: men—those little boys ten or twenty or thirty years on—are hopeless in bed. They are not interested in “foreplay” they have no desire to stimulate the erogenous zones of the opposite sex; they are selfish, greedy, clumsy, unsophisticated. These complaints, you can't help feeling, are kind of ironic. Back then, all we wanted was foreplay, and girls weren't interested. They didn't want to be touched, caressed, stimulated, aroused; in fact, they used to thump us if we tried. It's not really very surprising, then, that we're not much good at all that. We spent two or three long and extremely formative years being told very forcibly not even to think about it. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, foreplay changes from being something that boys want to do and girls don't, to something that women want and men can't be bothered with. (Or so they say. Me, I like foreplay—mostly because the times when all I wanted to do was touch are alarmingly fresh in my mind.) The perfect match, if you ask me, is between the
Cosmo
woman and the fourteen-year-old boy.

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