Sunday, 12 November 2017

Requiem for Mary Barns

Being the Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of Mary Barns, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Jaz Coleman and Myself.

Life leads us down peculiar paths. When universal forces are in playful mood, the mystery and magic imparted can be utterly fascinating. The universe tells its own jokes, and they can be pretty funny ones. It favours synchronicities, puns and the processing of order in its adventures. It loves a parable, a metaphor, and a neat resolution to a complicated puzzle. If we're willing to let go, to allow it to navigate, life has a habit of steering us away from the mundane. All we need to do is take the punches with the prizes and live for the moment, no matter how momentous our doubts about such activities might seem.

Today, Remembrance Sunday, started with a classic subconscious pun when I visited my local secondhand emporium and came away with an LP by 'War' and an anarcho-punk compilation CD called 'Anti-War'. I bought a Killing Joke CD too.

I dropped the War LP on the passenger seat, popped Anti-War into the CD player of my car and drove into town, where I picked up a charity shop book called 'Dickens on an Island' for £1.99. I love Charles Dickens. I love the Isle of Wight. This book, a summary of the time those two great forces of English culture and history met, seemed to me to be sent from the heavens.

I went for lunch in the George Inn, an early 19th century pub in Newport. It's entirely possible that Dickens, too, could have dined here. I ordered roast pork, added lashings of apple sauce, opened the book, and started reading...

I quickly learned that a passage Dickens included in chapter two of David Copperfield was more than likely inspired by an island epitaph. Specifically, the words on the gravestone of Mary Barns in All Saints Church, Calbourne. I punched the church into Google Maps while I ate my roast spuds. 4.8 miles.

I finished my grub, walked back to my car, peeled a parking ticket from the windscreen and set off for Calbourne. I put the Killing Joke CD on and considered the requiem for Mary Barns while the song 'Requiem' played:

"Afflictions sore, long time I bore. Physicians were in vain.
"Till God did please to give me cure, and ease me of my pain."

I was on a mission - a mission made public by a Facebook live video. This is not something I would usually do. The inspiration came in the moment and for a spurious reason - Mary had died in 1779. It seemed right and proper, somehow, to speak about her using the technology of today. It's an acknowledgement of the centuries. A tribute.

I walked up to the church and first saw some graves from the 1970s. I turned left, found some dating back to the 1760s. Then, after just a minute of looking, she loomed in front of me. Her tombstone was worn but still legible. A winged cherub adorned the top edge of it. As an aside, the same cherub that I had used for the cover of a record I put out in 1994. At that moment, I was occupying the same space as Charles Dickens most likely had - physical space and mindspace. I was thrilled, and a little sad.

Mary died at age 14, it transpires. In two days it will be the 238th anniversary of her death. She will not know, of course, that Dickens almost certainly read her epitaph - a full 70 years after it was carved into stone - and immortalised it into one of the greatest novels ever written. Nor will she know that some idiot with a charity shop book and a smartphone would visit her grave two centuries after her death to tell the people of the internet about it.

There's a line in Alice In Wonderland where Lewis Carroll writes: "Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way." That's kind of how I feel about days like today.

That £1.99 charity shop purchase, that LP, that CD, today's date, the Georgian pub where I ate my dinner, the windy grasslands where I tried to make my Facebook video, the church, the grave: all these things conspire to form the impression that a true connection to the deep past or, sometimes, the unfathomable future is not only possible but is commonplace. It's a supernatural feeling that is wholly outside of our control yet available to all. Good times.


1765 - Mary Barns is born
1779 - Mary Barns dies
1800-ish - George Inn, Newport, is built
1812 - Charles Dickens is born
1848 - Charles Dickens visits Isle of Wight
1849 - David Copperfield is published
1870 - Charles Dickens dies
1964 - I am born
1980 - Requiem by Killing Joke is released
1994 - I Was A Teenage Gwent Boy LP is released
2002 - My motor car is manufactured
2016 - A pig is born
2017 - A pig is butchered and roast pork is served

Friday, 14 October 2016

Remembering John 'Bunny' Haire

Sometimes, to get a good grip on an unbearably huge topic it pays to focus on the small stuff. Living on an island is handy for that. A limited environment lends itself to an appreciation of the tinier details. It enables a microcosmic perspective to develop and flourish.

Last weekend I spent pennies on a little boot-sale whim of a book which has taken my breath away. "Battle in the Skies over the Isle of Wight" by H.J.T. Leal is an extraordinary WW2 dossier - a day-to-day account of life and death beneath just one tiny patch of aerial battleground.

In chronological order the known lives, deaths, injuries and heroic escapades of German, English and (notably) a large number of Polish airmen are diligently recorded. There are tales of great derring-do and cute old-fashioned attitudes in this modest volume: a captured Luftwaffe pilot is taken to the pub for a pint before being led away as a prisoner of war, for example. And a crash-landed Messerschmitt fighter plane is paraded through Newport town centre, where a 3d donation to the 'Spitfire Fund' will buy your turn in the cockpit.

But there's horror, too. Young pilots burning to death in their cockpits or crashing headfirst into one of our cliffs. And there's the ever present almost-daily daylight terror of 500-plus German killing machines crossing the island at rooftop height, droning their way over the Solent, intending to flatten Coventry or Exeter or Southampton.

The RAF would try to stop them. And the recounted tales of dogfights - those yarns that have made it to the pages of history, anyway - make for thrilling and chilling reading. Take the story of Hurricane pilot Sergeant John 'Bunny' Haire.

He crashed on the island twice. The first occasion, on the afternoon of Sunday October 27, 1940, saw his aircraft crippled by a German ME109 near Bembridge, during a fierce aerial dogfight. He managed to bank his stricken plane 20ft over a cliff to the sea, where it dropped in just six feet of water. Miraculously, he was unhurt. He clambered out onto the wing, then waded to shore. The local coastguard took him in, he was given dry shoes to replace his soaked boots, and after a bath and some food he was sent back to base.

After a few days' leave, he was back on airborne patrol. Then, a little over a week later, the 20-year-old Sergeant was shot out of the Isle of Wight skies for a second time.

Local ARP warden George Calloway said in a letter: "The Hurricane was on fire, having been attacked by Messerschmitts, and looked like it was going to crash on the houses of Arreton. Instead of baling out, the pilot stayed in the aircraft and steered it away into open fields. Only then did he attempt to bale out, standing on the wing before jumping. However, he had left it too late for his parachute to open fully and he fell to the ground.

"I rushed into the field with others including the Rev Edward Burbidge to try to help. Sadly, he died as the vicar was saying prayers over him. We used the farm gate to carry his body out of the field."

Local farmer George Moody wrote a letter to John Haire's parents:

"Several planes were fighting overhead and one came circling down out of a clear blue sky over the farm. Smoke seemed to be coming from one side of the machine and the pilot, after going round twice, turned into the wind as if to land. Almost at once, however, flames poured out from the front of the plane and it made a dive to earth, the pilot baling out at once. 

"I dashed in my car to the field, but unfortunately could do nothing. The plane was blazing and the ammunition going off, while a short distance away lay the pilot. I took his helmet off but could do nothing for him. 

"I was very struck by the peaceful and calm expression on the face of the gallant boy. He was untouched by fire and to my inexperienced eye seemed to be asleep. His parachute was ineffective because he was so low when he baled out. 

"I am a farmer and unused to letter writing but I would like to express my deepest sympathy to the parents of this very gallant gentleman, may God rest his brave soul. Happily this is not the end - it cannot be; such dauntless courage and bravery could never be finished. His spirit somewhere lives on and will never die."

John Haire's body was returned to his native Belfast. Meanwhile, the German pilot who shot him down this second and final time was himself shot down and killed - also over the Isle of Wight - three weeks later. And the RAF pilot who shot the German pilot who shot John Haire was also shot down and killed. And so it continued...

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hama Blags Da!

MAYBE IT’S the whiskey talking, but I really miss Chris Toma. I know that sounds stupid. I never even met the guy. But I feel like we connected, him and me, in some small way, over his data-packs. I spent 18 months going through them all for my book and when you do that, when you dig in and really root around inside ‘Toma-world’, well, you can’t help but appreciate what an immense character he truly was. A real astronaut’s astronaut, if that makes any sense.

Luckily for me, he’s also got a great way with words. So my role as his official biographer is an easy one. His data-packs (all 3,000+) make terrific reading. Understandably, it’s the so-called ‘Lazarus Log’ (LO 415 S) that most people want to hear about. That’s where he laid out his audacious plot to, as he put it so eloquently, “beat this damned death thing if it kills me”.

We all know he made it. Kind of. And it’s all in the book (which I’ve almost completed, by the way). You’ll have to buy it to get the full story, but my Eurasian publishers - Schoost and Hogg – have asked me to scribe a brief advance summary to send out to newspacks, e-mags, casts... stuff like that. So that’s what this is: a bit of a sketchy overview of Major Chris Toma’s pioneering GravWav outer-stellar and exo-planetary explorations, touching on his discoveries in the Cygna Delti system (and on the surface of XP.5 Orthen in particular). And, of course, his incredible antics as a space cuckoo.

Like I say, I’ve had a few whiskies. Last weekend, I attended his memorial service over on NASA Hill, overlooking the ruins of Canaveral. That was an emotional send off. Twelve years have passed since we last heard from him. He has been declared dead, finally.

Toma always hated 20th Century music, so he would have loudly disapproved of the choice of song for his committal: ‘You Only Live Twice’ by Nancy Sinatra. But I thought it was an inspired selection. So inspired that I had a couple drinks to celebrate. Something I wouldn’t normally do. So, like I say, again, this might read a bit wonky. But bear with me. I’ll try.

OK, then. Ready? OK.

Major Toma was just 68 days (Earth time) into the surface exploration of Orthen when the data-pack containing his fateful LO 384 Y Log dropped onto the GW pad in Houston. As is still the case now, gravitational wave communications were a purely one-way entity. Just like GW partition travel, it’s a one-way ticket. We got our messages from the action man, but we just couldn’t send any back.  So NASA was unable to give Toma the bollocking he should have expected for veering so off-map with his language.

He revelled in this. He had fun with it. Even when he had bad news to share:

“Hello humans! Can you hear me thinking? I assume you’re seeing everything I’m thinking? Good. Well, Houston, it looks like we have an actual problem this time. How d’you like that?

“Look up here, man...” at which a bio-report flashed onto the reader in the form of a pale red overlay. “I’m in danger. I’m not quite right at all. Am I?”

Too true. These bio-readings were way, way off kilter. Radioactivity readings rested within the margins of safety, thanks to his Russian-made suit, but Toma’s cellular make-up had taken a massive, irreparable hammering. And it was getting worse. Skin cancer, of the most aggressive kin, was the bottom line. It was all over his bio-report, plain as day.

“So what happened is this. I gaffer-taped up the joints on my suit, because the helmet monitor wasn’t happy with what it was sensing. And it seems I might have been a teeny bit too late with all that, I’m sorry to say.

“To cut to the chase, my lovers,” he said, “I think I might have got some Orthen dust stuck in the ribbing under my left boot - well, both boots. And it’s worked its way through the perma-layers, like Orthen dust is wont to do, and it’s hit my skin. And we always knew that wouldn’t end well. The dust here, man, it’s not good. Not good at all.”

Toma went on to concede how, back in the Ranger with his suit removed and boiling in the de-rad tank, he found himself absentmindedly brushing dust from the bottom of his bare feet with an ungloved hand: “Like I was a kid at the fucking beach. Except this wasn’t sand. It was the horrible, grey dust of doom that kills anything that dares land on Orthen. Oh shit. I’m a goner...”

He was right. The Columbus VII Orbiter (which continues to return data signals from 220 miles above Orthen) had already sampled and scanned the surface material for us. And it’s totally toxic to any and all non-Orthens. Chris knew that risk and the decision to go ahead and land was entirely his call. Like I say, he was an astronaut’s astronaut. In his own mind, he had to go down there.

On landing, he reported to Orthen’s dominant species, as is accepted etiquette for galactic explorers these days, and received a timid but not-unfriendly reception from the host species. The locals were incredibly curious about his ‘smiley face’ suit patch. They spent hours and hours examining and measuring it, cross referencing the decal’s round, black eyes with his own.

But after a day of that, they let him go. He set up base in the Ranger, sortie-ing out for scientific forays once a day. The planet just carried on its business, as if he wasn’t there.

These Orthen natives, we have learned through Toma’s logs and the Orbiter’s observations, are Class V Humanids with moderate to mobile evolutionary markers. Broadly speaking, they’re at the stage we humans were at around the 15th or 16th centuries.

They present something of an anatomical anomaly. Biological analysis reveals artificial genetic modification (most likely Raphide), pointing towards extra-planetary occupation somewhere down the line. But in spite of that, their organic arrangement is unique among the 407 Humanid species recorded galaxy-wide to date. The brain tissue is split across three nodes within an enlarged chest cavity, while circulatory organs (heart, liver etc) occupy glandular cavities within four upper limbs. There is no heartbeat, just an irregular rotation of body tissue.

Toma described the mysterious nature of his alien hosts better than I ever could: “I can’t tell you why,” he wrote. “But I can show you how. They were born upside down. Born the wrong way round.”

They have nominal skulls which contain no vital organs – just an oversized optic nerve array which links stereo rhomboid oculars with the central brain node buried in the torso. Typically, the Orthen humanids enjoy a generous lifespan of 180-200 years (Earth equivalent). But as Toma revealed to huge excitement back here in 2084, it doesn’t necessarily end there...

“Holy crap, these guys get two bites of the apple!” he wrote in his LO 384 H log. “At least, some of them do. Some of them get to rise again, like Jesus or something, and have a for-real, real-deal afterlife. They each know from birth who will get it. Needless to say, the ones who don’t get to be born again are mightily pissed off about that.”

More facts were saved for the data-pack. Here’s Toma’s summary:

“The Orthen humanids fall into two very distinct camps. The Caprins live standard 200-year lives and then die. The Hamas are physically identical to the Caprins until the point of physical death, when they transfer to a meta-spiritual existence.

“At that time, all physical presence is lost, but memory and some character traits are transferred to a new out-of-body plane of conscious existence. Nobody seems to know if it’s any fun or not, but it’s as close to the human concept of an afterlife as you’re ever going to get. And these upside-downer people are totally nailing it.”

All attempts by Caprins to emulate the Hama rebirth have yielded nothing. Bitter wars have been fought as a result. Neither society is permitted to mix with the other. They’re pretty easy going, on the whole, but the afterlife situation has tethered undeniable tension to the surface of Orthen.

Toma: “Local mythology insists this spiritual second innings never lasts longer than 12 years (Earth equivalent), but the Caprins still want what they see as their fair share. They’re very jealous about it.”
Toma continued in his log: “Both Hamas and Caprins share a kind of cathedral, more like a Romanesque villa, I suppose, in the centre of Ormen, close to the coastline of the planet’s primary land mass. Interestingly, neither society knows who built the thing. It’s just accepted that it was always part of the planet. Like the death dust. The structure is divided into two wings, and neither party is permitted access to the other’s territory.

“Here, and only here, can the Hamas communicate with their departed family members. For several centuries, these messages from beyond the grave, so to speak, have also been broadcast live via primitive loudspeakers across the holy ground surrounding the villa. I think this might be so the Caprins aren’t encouraged to harbour any more resentment of their Hama neighbours than they have to. But it’s just as likely that the Hamas are showing off.

“You’ll often hear the Hama song of the reborn outside the great villa doors, broadcasting to the great outdoors. The ‘Hama Blag Sda’, as it’s called. I think that means something like ‘Hama, returning for duty.’”

With anxiety descending, Toma must have felt like those Caprins. Nursing his own decaying body, thanks to the deadly dust of Orthen, Major Toma would have been contemplating his own mortality. Caprins died – Hamas lived again. It seemed so unfair. And now he knew he was dying, he wanted ‘in’, too. But if the Caprins, who at least shared the Hama biology, couldn’t grab a slice of immortality for themselves, then, really, what chance did he – a human, from Earth - stand?

This weighed heavily on his mind in log LO 415 T:

“Well, I’m dying too, Houston. I can’t get around that. And just like those Caprins, I’m going to have to lump it I guess. What’s frustrating is I think I’m pretty close to understanding how it might work. You’ve seen how Columbus VII reports elevated GravWav signals from the Orthen surface at the point of a Hama physical death? I don’t know how that works into the situation. But it must mean something.

“If I had a little more time, then I might turn that understanding into a plan. And maybe, just maybe, I could then work out a way of jumping into a Hama corpse, or something, and buying another 12 years for myself. If I could only get a dying Hama spirit to raise a metre then stand aside for me...”

“But. Damn it. My bio-data reckons I’ve got no more than a few days left. And I don’t know how much of that time I’ll be fully conscious. So I’m going to go and do some deep thinking. And if I get any bright ideas, I’ll make sure you hear about it. And if I don’t, well, I guess this is goodbye. So, goodbye. And thanks for all the fish.”

That was the last coherent log we got from Major Toma. There were other short missives, spanning a couple days, but none of them made too much sense. There was more rambling about GravWav manipulation, some religious thinking-out-loud and much complaining about the moondust which was about to cover him. But most of the time, the web of pain wrapped tightly around his skin kept him silent.

As NASA waited for Major Toma’s sad and inevitable death, Orthen’s radio silence, so to speak, was deafening. Until that fateful moment when his bio-data finally flatlined.

At that instant, Columbus VII picked up some unusual chaos 220 miles below. There was a commotion breaking out on the planet’s surface. Caprins were going crazy, dancing some kind of alien jig, a strange non-circular, non-linear fiesta involving all four upper limbs. They were hammering violently on the gates of the Villa of Ormen. The Hamas panicked and tried to slam the gates shut. Barricades were erected and fires were sparked. Pandemonium.

The Orbiter’s intuitive instruments honed in on the melee. The villa loudspeakers were blaring out across the holy ground, as always. But, this time, the voice sounded distinctly non-Hama:


Then this:





Originally published in "47-16: Short Fiction and Poetry Inspired by David Bowie" (Penny Dreadful Publications, 2016).

Sunday, 17 January 2016

V.9221. Or CPDR.33318. Just for the record.

I like David Bowie. And I like records. Once upon a time, in a happy land far, far away, I combined both these interests to become that most peculiar of creatures: The David Bowie Collector.

I don't collect any more, though I still have a LOT of records. Economic necessity, coupled with a phenomenon you could call the "Diminishing Return of the South American 7" single" (the Mexican pressing of Blue Jean in its joyless EMI paper sleeve is barely discernible from the Brazilian one - but the collector needs to own both and they're going to cost twenty quid a pop), knocked the expensive collecting game on its head for me.

But while deep in the throes of my obsession, hoovering up rarities from friends, record fairs, mail order companies and Record Collector private ads, I was like a cat in a Whiskas warehouse. I had hundreds of Bowie LPs and hundreds of 7" singles. And hundreds of eight-tracks, too. Catalogue numbers on labels, matrix run-out information on the dead wax, tiny print on the corners of picture sleeves... these were my manna. I was sitting on a pretty decent collection, right up there with the more serious of my collector peers. Clearly, we were obsessed.

I've held onto one copy of each UK album release, from the 1967 Deram debut onwards, and have shifted the rest. That's right: my Yugoslavian Never Let Me Down is no longer in the house.

So it goes. But I have my memories. And here are ten of my favourites to be going on with:

1) Station To Station (France RCA 7", 1976). Who'd be mad enough to try to make a single edit out of the epic, wandering Station to Station title track? Those gaga cuckoos at RCA France, that's who. This carved-up edit was withdrawn (probably at the behest of David himself, I should think) and only a handful of jukebox promo copies escaped the pressing plant. I found a copy for £2.50 at Brighton Record Fair, where the dealer had it labeled as 'France TVC 15 (the song on the b-side), picture sleeve missing'. Bargain.

2) Ziggy Stardust LP (UK first pressing, 1972). The very first pressing, with matrixes ending in -1E on each side. This is the one with the slightly different mix of Starman. The 'Wichita Lineman' bit is quieter than later pressings. This one sticks in my mind because of where I found it: at Woolworth's in Exeter, around 1979. It had clearly been sitting in the racks, unlooked at, for all those seven years, so immaculate was its condition when I bought it.

3) Knock On Wood (France RCA 7", 1974). Snapped up from a record shop in Brussels, this one stands out for its unique and very attractive picture sleeve: a live shot from the Diamond Dogs tour, David looking moody and mean in a Shakespearean cape.

4) The Prettiest Star (Germany Mercury 7", 1970). The original version, with Marc Bolan on lead guitar. The Germans released this in an aesthetically wonderful picture sleeve - a live action shot of our David, curly-haired and shiny-suited, clutching a 12-string guitar. Lovely stuff.

5) David Bowie Special (Japan double LP, 1976). A compilation album with a unique full-face cover snatched from a scene in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Japanese lyric inserts are always great entertainment, especially when the words are transcribed from guesswork, and Japanese pressings are always king. For such a determinedly throwaway society, our Japanese friends sure know how to build a record to last.

6) The Konrads - I Didn't Know How Much (Canada Decca 7", 1965). OK, so this is not a David Bowie record. He's not on it. But the record is interesting because it was uncatalogued until I managed to unearth a copy. This I did by searching for Konrads on eBay every bloody week. When this title, and the also-unheard of 'I Thought Of You Last Night' on the flip, turned up on a Canadian single and then an American promo, I really thought I had struck gold. Twice. Not quite, it turned out, but this post-Bowie Konrads single, seemingly rushed out without the band's knowledge all those years ago, was an interesting find nonetheless.

7) Drive-In Saturday (UK RCA 7", 1973). Nothing madly rare about this one... but the b-side, Bowie and the Spiders rocking through Chuck Berry's Round and Round? Spectacular! Mick Ronson's guitar solo is peerless on this.

8) Memory of a Free Festival (UK Mercury 7", 1970). Fantastic, hippy-free reworking of the fantastic and epic song on David's second album. This organ and guitar-heavy release was helpfully split into two parts. That's a very sixties thing to do (just about hanging on into the seventies).

9) Low (UK RCA LP, 1977). Just look at that sleeve. It's like... how more orange could it be? This delicious-looking record, with the song titles and credits confined to a tiny sticker on the back, is so bright and so seventies it can be seen from space. Almost. And, my God, it's a fantastic album.

10) Davie Jones and the King Bees - Liza Jane (Vocalion UK 7", 1964). In actual fact, I never owned one of these. It's always slipped through my fingers. It's David's official debut on record, and it resonates with me because it's my official debut too: I was born and the record was released on the same day, Friday June 5, 1964. Thanks mum. You done good!

Naturally, Liza Jane on Vocalion has always been a top dollar record. And I've always been too skint to buy one. But one day I might just bring my collector self back into play, and snap one up. One day. One day.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Life is a Circus Krone

Yesterday, I boasted of the ingenuity and bravery of the long-distance David Bowie fan. Getting into the smaller, more convincingly sold-out shows could take a great deal of imaginative effort. So I claimed. But it was all talk, no trousers. I should have offered an example, but I didn't.

Here's one...

It's October 12, 1991. Tin Machine are a week into their tour through the rain and snow of Europe. I'm part of a small travelling army of fans gearing up to enjoy gig #6 in Munich. Except we're running very, very late. A day off in Venice ended with our car being towed while we sight-saw, putting us way behind schedule and a considerable chunk of Lire lighter. By the time me and my two travelling compadres, Ali and Pete, pulled up outside the rotund Circus Krone it was pretty much curtain-up time.

We had no advance tickets. A glance up and down the strasse confirmed our fears: there were no touts. A hand-drawn sign on the door screamed that the show was "SOLD OUT. GUESTLIST ONLY".

We were in trouble. We stared at the sign. GUESTLIST ONLY. Hmm. GUESTLIST ONLY...Hmm...

"Hi, I'm on David's guestlist!" I heard myself blurting out to the man on the door, my English accent more pronounced than it had ever been. I was hoping for a little extra British-flavoured gravitas.

"OK, name?"

"Yes, it's Andy, er Alan, um Thomas, I mean Hughes..."

Teutonic head tilted, eyed the list, then me. Then shook. Nope.

Pete took over: "We're probably under a different name, can I see the list?"


"OK, he might know me as Richard. William, Willie, Bill..." oh God.

By this time, Pete had curled around my side to flank the bouncer. I could see his furtive eyes darting surreptitiously down the list, much of which had already been struck through.

"I think he said he'd leave it in the name Pop Rocky," said Pete.


"Oh yes, Pop Rocky. I'm Pop Rocky. And so are they." I nodded at Ali and Pete. This could get serious. We'd surely been caught out. This was ridiculous. We'd pushed this envelope a little too far.

The bouncer's steely gaze fixed mine, a little angrily. Then shifted to his clipboard, where fingers were detaching an envelope and pushing it into my quivering hand. The words 'Pop Rocky' were handwritten on the front.

"Enjoy the show," he said. We rushed forward to the ticket booth, tore the envelope open and - bless my fuckin' stars - THREE tickets. AND an all-areas photo pass. Which meant, ladies and gentlemen, that we all got in for free, and Pete was able to take his video camera with him. He got a good film out of it. I'll put a clip on Facebook.

Just don't tell Pop Rocky about this. Right?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

David Live

Lucky me - I was born at the right time. I got to see David Bowie perform live. I got to see David Bowie perform live an awful lot, actually.

Pretty much all my young man's money went towards it. Europe and beyond was my playground from my late teens onwards. Newcastle, New York, Newport or Berlin Neueweld... if David Bowie was booked to play, I'd get myself there and get myself in. Somehow.

I made a lot of friends along the way, many of whom remain close to this day. We got to know each other somewhat intimately through sleeping on floors, in airport lounges, railway stations, shop doorways and the like. Once I slept with three other people in the frozen back of a mini-van. My friend John slept in a Victoria Station luggage locker, his feet sticking out the open end so he wouldn't get locked in by mistake...

We hitched, we drove, we stowed away on ferries - we did whatever it took to get to the gig. Ticket buying, trading and upgrading became akin to a full-time job on the bigger tours. And as for those rare private shows, secret gigs and closed-shop TV performances? We got into most of those too, by fair means and foul, and by employing bravado and ingenuity that would, I think, astound.

How many Bowie gigs did I chalk up over the years? I stopped counting a tour or two ago for the sake of my sanity. It's well into three figures though. And, to misquote Gigi: "Ah yes. I remember them well."

I'm genuinely sad that nobody will ever get to enjoy the sights and sounds of a Bowie gig again. I used to feel jealous of those slightly older, slightly more switched-on types who saw the Ziggy, Aladdin, Diamond Dogs, Soul and Thin White Duke shows. Alright, so I still am. But I am also truly happy and blessed with the lot that I got - and I only wish there could be more.

David Bowie was a performer like no other. He really was. To bone up on the history of the man, as laboriously documented in a mountain of books as well as in cuttings and titbits garnered through my own reasonably fastidious research, is to discover just what an intensely focused young man he was.

He worked hard, ridiculously hard, to hone his gallery of talents. It's fair, I think, to say that unlike some lucky bastards David Robert Jones was not born talented as such. He had to earn his stripes. He taught himself to read music from a self-help book. I have no idea how he learned to play guitar... probably the same way. Then he found a piano, learned the hard and long way how to play it, and had the balls to bash out a classic piano-driven album ('Hunky Dory') almost straight away.

Balls were in abundance, too, at the creation of Ziggy Stardust. It takes some front to step onto the streets of Finsbury Park, Epsom or Newcastle dressed in a rainbow suit, wrestling boots and more lippy than is befitting of a lady. In conservative old 1972.

It was such an immensely creative time for David. He was inventing and reinventing himself, diligently chiseling away at the character he wanted to present to the world in the basement rehearsal space of what is now a corner chemist's shop in Greenwich. But I digress...

To see David Bowie live is, or was, to see all these incredible disciplines set out in order. What a performer! I remember the gig following my 19th birthday (I was given the bumps outside the concert hall the previous night), seeing the man perform 'Fame' from my envious position right up front against the Birmingham NEC stage. David was miming, pretending to sign autographs and hand them out. As he shuffled along the stage, eventually meeting me square-on, eye-to-eye, his make believe pen scribbled on make believe paper and the make believe autograph was proffered to me in mime fashion. I did the decent thing: I reached out and took it, folded it in half and stuck it in my pocket. Where it magically disappeared.

It was a daft but captivating moment. One of many, for me. Mighty is the craic of seeing David perform a secret rehearsal gig with Tin Machine, as nominal support act to a local band in a Dublin pub, in front of no more than 100 people. I was upfront, my chest clashing with his micstand. It was punk as fuck.

 Transfixing it was, too, to watch David belt out 'Something In The Air' in New York, his giant voice expelling so much air it turned to a visible cone of steam in front of him.

I could, and undoubtedly will, go on (and on). But not today. Today, I'm just happy to reflect on some of the fun I had earning those caps for Bowie fandom. The last time I saw him play was his last UK gig at the Isle of Wight festival. Funny, the Isle of Wight is where he made his very first public performance, too. At Scout camp, aged 11. And it's where I live now.

David last toured in 2004, which means in practical terms that nobody in their mid-twenties or younger would have stood much chance to see him, even once. So I mean it when I say I am truly grateful for the times I did get to share with this brilliant man and his often brilliant bands.

You might be wondering what David made of us lot? He was asked about this in interview once. I can't find it right now, but the quote went a lot like this:

"I recognise a lot of the people who come to my shows. I consider them friends. We're like old friends."

Rest in peace, old friend.

Friday, 20 November 2015

"And red mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City..."

... is a line from Future Legend, the opening track of David Bowie's 1974 album 'Diamond Dogs'. It's all very dystopian, Burroughsian and Orwellian. In 1979, we all thought: "Wow! David Bowie predicted 'The Warriors'!" But it's 2015 now, and I'm thinking this: "Oh dear. David Bowie went and predicted London."

The capital nightscape used to strike me with awe and excitement. The view up and down the river from Tower Bridge, with riverside lights twinkling and cars and people rushing up and down its banks, was always a beautiful and inspiring one. The balance of old architecture and new buildings, even as recently as ten years ago, was pretty much acceptable. Heritage and culture seemed assured and ingrained in London's fabric, as did the notion of growth and wide-open possibilities. There was a sort of mutual respect between the old town and the new.

Just look at it now. Nowhere on or near Tower Bridge can you look downriver without being assaulted by the monstrous vision of the Walkie Talkie building. A ghastly carbuncle which burns pavements, blots horizons and serves no great purpose. (Have you been to its rooftop garden? Of course you haven't.) That's all you see behind the drawbridge, now. It's horrible.

Then there's the cheese grater. The gherkin. The Shard. OK, I guess I can live with The Shard. But taken as a gang, these gargantuan buildings are clearly not a good thing. Either London wants to look like a Martian colony under a giant dome, as visualised in '60s sci-fi, or it wants to look like London, complete with the Monument and St Paul's and Big bastard Ben. The mix of the two - just like those arty photographs of the moon poking out between skyscrapers - doesn't work. Again, it's horrible.

And, of course, there's more of this wanton destruction to come. An unwanted underground railway called Crossrail appears to be giving developers carte blanche to take a wrecking ball to any old landmark that gets in the way of something sterile, new and under-occupied. There's money, it seems, in stark and empty new property. Not in Victorian factories and tanning yards.

Soho? Denmark Street? Who needs them? Why keep the late Ken Colyer's smokey jazz clubs alive when you can just as quickly level them and build a block of posh flats in their place? You could name it The Colyer Mews (or something). You could stick a plaque up. That would be nice. No need to keep history - get rid of it, stick a plaque on the new thing. Shall we talk about Battersea Power Station? Let's not. It makes me too angry and sad.

So, you see. London's heritage, history and culture is being erased for the short-sighted financial gain of the greedy few. Private rents and house prices today are actually, certifiably, obscene. Those people who are happy to live on rice if it means they get to paint a picture or write a book or make a record can't afford to do even that any more. So off they go, the artists, out to the sticks. It's all part of London's rapid sterilisation.

I love London, so all of this hurts. And however hard I try to get on with my life and let other people get on with theirs, and just hope for the best for the future, I just can't. And do you know why?

It's those red mutant eyes that gaze down on Hunger City. It's the red lights of the cranes at night, dotted up and down the river, zig-zagging the once bustling and exciting West End, scattering through the South London suburbs and beyond. Blood red lights which are supposed to stop helicopters from smashing into them (something they're not entirely successful at) and which denote major construction going on underneath. London is plastered with the things. They're demonic, like a glowing red pox pointing towards a disease that is spreading fast and becoming terminal.

London is not in safe hands. And for that reason. I'm out.