Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Michael Collins Syndrome

You don't have to fly especially high to become detached from humanity. Try climbing a tall building and looking down. A couple floors up, the once easily discernable facial features of your fellow humans will begin to blur. Their faces might turn into indiscriminate blobs. Climb the equivalent of another storey or two and you will no longer be able to hear their voices. From a very tall building, you might not pick out individual cars. The hum of the city might start to drift away.

When taking off in an airliner, the process is speeded up. Within seconds, the world will have fallen away to such a degree that you might have a job to identify even major landmarks and cityscapes. It will seem like you have entered another world - even though you know it is the same place.

From his capsule, Michael Collins would have been able to watch the lunar module descend to the surface of the moon. But Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might just as easily have been a whole galaxy away. Similarly, the shimmering blue planet Earth must have borne scant relevance to the voices on the radio from Houston.

And the same must go for time. A distance of a few years might not make a whole load of difference to your worldview, but look back over a decade and see what happens. Consider a lifetime before your own and you're suddenly staring into an abyss - a great unknown, full of mystery and educated guesswork.

It would be wonderful to see through time. And, just as telescopes and microscopes allow us a peek into different spatial dimensions, maybe one day we will be able to do just that. In the meantime, all we can do is follow the vague treasure map that history has left us.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Knee jerk

I have a terrible affliction. Sometimes my legs simply cease to function. When in the throes of an attack, the muscles may still be tensed but the limbs themselves are immovable dead weight. With superhuman effort, I can occasionally latch the palms of my hands onto the top of a knee, give it a good tug, and somehow swivel my body forward a foot or so. But apart from that, I am completely paralysed. I find myself welded to the spot, knees bent like an athlete at the starting blocks, unable to beat the gravity that ties me to my place. Try as I might, I cannot push forward.

It becomes particularly tough when I try to run. All the energy I expend in trying to make that first step seems to anchor me to the ground with even more force. My body is tensed and going nowhere. It's a nasty, debilitating condition that has afflicted me for years. And there is no cure.

It would be hugely depressing, except none of the above is true. Or to be more precise, none of this affects my waking life. But it happens a lot in my dreams - and has done over many years. It became so realistic that for a long time I was actually convinced that I had such a condition in my waking life. Rather than just being the stuff of dreams, I would go about my daily business convinced that at any random moment I could be stricken once more.

Last night I had another dream in which my legs refused to work. This time, however, I came prepared with the subconscious wisdom that this kind of thing only happens to me when I dream. A man came to my assistance as I lay immobile on soft, black tarmac near a junction, unable to walk to the pavement next to me. I was almost there - but needed his help to make that last physical step.

I said to my dream rescuer: "I used to think this kind of thing happened in real life, you know. Then I came to realise that it only happened in my dreams."

He looked at me quizzically and I thought about it a little more. "But now I can see that it DOES happen in real life too, right?"

He nodded his agreement and helped me limp to the path. Some time after that, I woke up. Confused.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Iggy's Bogies

I've always loved Iggy Pop. I don't think I could ever really trust anybody who doesn't. So when an opportunity rose to meet the man himself some 18 or 19 years ago, I took it.

Iggy was charming and warm. A little fella with a big heart. And though my meeting with him was brief, it was sweet and memorable. I had my photograph taken with him and I got him to sign my copy of his then-current LP, "Brick By Brick".

The picture from that meeting remains a great personal favourite. My friends Pete and Alison are in the snap, and Iggy has his arms draped over our shoulders. He is half scowling, half beaming in a fashion that is entirely his. He looks so cool - and we don't look too bad either. My LP cover was signed 'To Andy, Iggy Pop x' and featured a little drawing of a face and curly bogies drooping from each of Iggy's nostrils on the back cover photograph. An Osterberg embellishment in dazzling blue ink.

It looked cool enough to hang, so shortly after I got it home I put it in a frame and stuck it on a wall close to the large bay window in my lounge. Pride of place.

The summer of 1991 came and went, and all the while my treasured Iggy autograph shone proudly from my wall. A friend came to visit one day and sauntered over for a look. "Hey, why have you got this Iggy Pop LP in a frame on your wall?" he asked.

"Oh, that's been signed by Iggy. Check out the bogies! He added them himself."

"What bogies? What autograph?"

I raced to Iggy's wall. My friend was right. This was an Iggy Pop LP sleeve with nothing special on it. At all. All trace of signature and hand-daubed bogie squiggle had vanished. The sunlight had bleached the watery ink into a big pile of nothingness. Not a trace of Iggy's customisation remained.

Sadly, I took the frame from the wall and removed the Iggy sleeve. I put it back in the record rack where it now belonged - it was just another LP cover once more. I found something else to hang on the wall in its place. Something less special.

Fast forward a few years to the 'American Caesar' album. Not a bad record at all. 'Wild America', a mid-90s blues/punk rant against the red, white an' blue is an Iggy classic for sure. I got it on release day and devoured the copious sleeve notes as I played it. On the first page was the facsimile of a hand-written note from Iggy himself. It said something like: "I am not a rock star, I am a human being like you. If you want to write to me, feel free. Here is my address. If you write to me, I will reply."

So I put my little story down on paper. I kept it respectfully brief, but told Iggy how I once had his autograph, how it was blasted into a vacuum by sunlight, how I hoped to meet him again one day. I wished him well for the future and thanked him for the music, I put the envelope in the post to the States and forgot all about it.

A good few years later, an A4 card-backed envelope dropped onto my doormat. It had a New York City postmark. So much time had passed, but when I opened the flap and pulled out the 8x10" black and white promo photo of Iggy Pop I knew instantly what it was about. Iggy had signed it "To Andy, Iggy Pop x" and had drawn a little face. And from each nostril drooped a curly hand-drawn bogie... in permanent black ink.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The 15.08 train to Claptonia

I thought about buying a pasty but three things stopped me:

1) The West Cornwall Pasty Co. Ltd could never match the sky-high pie standard of the Ivor Dewdney Pasty Co. Ltd of Exeter. People, please do not be hoodwinked by lazy claims of Kernow propagandists. The best pasties in the world are assembled in Devon... not the land of tin.

2) The small West Cornwall Pasty Co. Ltd stall appeared to have run out of all but the largest, £3.30, pasties. And that's too much cash to blow on a thermo-hot snack with weak potato content, too many onions and all the meat shoved down one end, right?

3) I had the luxury of time on my hands - and therefore the freedom to shop around.

Liverpool Street Station in the middle of a Friday afternoon is a pleasant place to be. I noted that the employed seemed happy with the imminent promise of another weekend. And way above our heads, beyond the undusted Adshel lightboxes and CCTV cameras (with their anti-pigeon spikes attached like ridiculous and lethal punk haircuts) London shone invitingly through a broad, angular glass ceiling.

The sky was not yet dusky, so the daylight that beat through frosted panes cast a cool glow over the elevated chrome walkways that encircle the timetable boards like the mezanine floor of a museum. But if I was a walking exhibit, this was a very poor show I was putting on. I ambled in one straight line through the centre of the station, taking in the sights of a cash machine, Paperchase, Delice de France and WH Smith. That's all. Until, wedged between a Boots and a Claire's Accessories, I discovered the cheese stall.

I thought briefly about asking the lady behind the counter if she in fact had any cheese. At all. Or, to be more accurate, I wondered what would happen if I adopted my very best Footlights accent to proclaim: "It's not much of a cheese shop, is it?" But I held back. It's entirely possible that this woman has forced a laboured smile to field many a less-than-hilarious Cleese-ism in the past. Or perhaps I do my fellow man a disservice? Perhaps nobody is actually crass enough to pull off such a stunt as that? To drop that particular sketch into conversation...

The tiny wraps of cheese looked tempting, particularly the pick'n'mix basket where six samples could be selected for a couple of quid. And there were fully made-up rolls, baguettes and sandwiches with a variety of comestible dairy middles on offer. I played it pretty conservatively with a strong cheddar and caramelised onion bap, costing me £2.10. Then I bought a small takeaway cappucino from Costa Coffee for £2.00 and I marched in £5.00 shoes towards Platform 2 for my £1.60 train ride.

The bench seat was all mine on the second carriage of this un-packed 15.08 service to Chingford calling at Bethnal Green, Hackney Downs and Claptonia. I pulled my paperback novel from my jacket pocket and started to read - but gave that up to stare through the still-gaping sliding doorway instead. I have always been fascinated by these precipices, shrouded in shaped and formed metal in 1972 or 1976 by Gammel or similar. I don't understand why I feel comforted by these openings. Whether on tube, train, bus or helicopter, I have always found the transience of the footway as it lingers at the edge of the world outside to be both tantalising and fascinating. It's like looking out through the flappy entrance of a tent, or standing in your porch. Sometimes, presented with such a view, the David Bowie instrumental 'A New Career In A New Town' enters my head.

I like to contrast these views, from one platform to the next: station to station. Searching my soul, I think this might have something to do with my childhood memory of taking a magical sleigh ride through a Christmas grotto in the corner of Exeter's 'Dingles' department store. I could feel the sleigh bumping around in the darkness - but I knew, of course, that it was not actually going anywhere. Yet when I dismounted with mum and stepped through the black curtain at the side, we had arrived in a different scene altogether: one with Santa in it. I had been tricked - in a lovely way.

Perhaps it's that special mystery that I enjoy. The anticipation of new surprises, new views, just as soon as the door re-opens. It gave me a good feeling about the journey ahead, as the door snapped shut and the unseen platform signalman blew his whistle in the traditional "POO-WEE-OOP!" manner that remains as timeless as 'A Brief Encounter'.

Trundling now out of the Liverpool Street tunnel and through the other side, I gaped in silent wonder at the East End industry spread out beneath me. The train ran on tracks some 20 feet in the air, just like the 'El' railway in Chicago. Massive factory buildings, thriving enterprises from decades and decades ago, were now split into smaller enterprises or turned into leisure centres and gyms. But the painted signs on their walls still held a candle to their history, as the proud base of Ernest Wall & Son or The London Pipe and Weld Co. Ltd.

From my giraffe's eye view, I could look down on the world of autumnal London, complete with men repairing motorbikes, parks with equal counts of dogs and children, and roads full of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians having scant awareness of the mighty train snaking along the brickwork arch ahead of them.

The journey, including two stops where the door slid open to proffer a new view from my favourite transient doorstep, was brief - but long enough to give me a delicious taste of the narrow pizza slice of London that I call home. As I made my way up the steps of Claptonia station, I tried to shut out the sound of the beeping Oyster machine ahead, and of the iPod blaring dodgy rap bollocks into the ears of the man climbing the steps besides me.

Were it not for those 21st century sounds, I could have lost myself in a wonderful time-travelling adventure. But I was home, and my daydreamy journey had come to an end. As all journeys must do.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Memorex E-180

I don't think life is like a book, open or otherwise. It's more like a video cassette.

If you keep the damn thing recording, it will fill up in no time. And once your tape is full, you're left with only a few alternatives - either rewind and record over some bits, erase everything and start again, or keep it as-is and file it away on your little shelf.

I know people who have picked all three options. The ones who have filled up their tapes, good and early, seem quite happy to replay their lives as often as they like. The tab has been removed. But ultimately it's the same story with them - again and again and again.

I've seen people who have lived very full lives, yet rewound to cover some bits with something new. A minor reinvention, if you like, a bit of an upgrade here and there - but with the basic story still intact from the beginning.

And I'm familar with the crowd who are happiest when they blank the whole damn thing and start again.

I think I fall into the second category, with leanings towards the third. Something inside me would really like to throw it all on the fire and start again. Something else inside me is already doing this, bit by bit. I'm quite happy with the decisions I've made in my life to date. Some of them I could have made a little quicker, but we can't have everything.

The important thing for me - and I know this doesn't suit everybody - is that I will not resort to the first option, no matter how comfortable and reassuring that might be. It's probably too late for me to do that now, anyway.

I like the adventure and danger of life. I haven't immersed myself as deeply as I should, but I will. I will.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Tamworth Ghost

I have difficulty believing in ghosts these days. The idea of the human soul living on after death as an autonomous spiritual presence doesn't compute with me. I am open to the possibility, and I believe we do have some influence on the phsyical world beyond our own lifetimes. But the idea of a fully-formed entity visiting us from beyond the grave is, I suggest, a combination of Victorian fiction and well-intended wishful thinking. These days, I subscribe to the idea of a non-mortal collective consciousness that impacts on what we see as the physical world.

With that caveat, though, here is a true ghost story starring me and the wonderful yet now-defunct rock band, Tokyo Dragons.

We were in a vacuous venue in Tamworth, in the Midlands: The Palace. It's a grand name for a bland, cheaply-carpeted club for young rockers to spill beer and jump around in. It had been converted from a derelict cinema and the Dragons were playing this particular night. I was the driver.

As we lugged amps, guitars and drums through the door at the side into the backstage area, the affable local crew and promoter shared a little history of the place with us: the dodgy metal bands that had played there before, the festival they were trying to get together for that summer, and Charlotte... the house ghoul.

They were serious. Charlotte, they told us, was the ghost of a young girl who haunted her favourite picture house. The club owner said he had seen her shadowy image drift past his office as he cashed up. The front of house soundman said he regularly contacted her through seances he would conduct in the little dressing room off to the side of the stage.

The Dragons and I had been through some ups, downs and bizarre events already on this particular tour. So we enjoyed this latest distraction and during the soundcheck thoughts of Charlotte were running high in our minds. It became a bit of an in-band joke. Drummer Phil Martini, in particular, took up the baton big-style and made spooky sounds into his vocal mic while his levels were being checked. "Woooh, I'm a scary ghosty called Charlotte..." he mocked. "Look at me, I'm so scaaaaaary," etc. I remember either Mal or Steve, the twin guitarists, warning: "I wouldn't take the piss, Phil. She'll 'ave ya!"

Fast forward to the dressing room, where we're sat around drinking, waiting for doors to open. Phil the ghost-mocker is crouched on the floor, leaning against one of the walls. We're all chatting quite merrily when, without reason or warning, a mirror toppled off a tabletop and hit him - thwack - on the top of the head. It looked like it hurt a lot. "Told you you shouldn't have taken the piss out of the ghost," someone says. More laughs.

A short time after that, it's my turn. I'm sat on a sofa, mobile 'phone in one hand, bottle of lager in the other. I'm texting a friend - telling her about the haunted venue we find ourselves in. As I type through the letters of C-H-A-R-L-O.... my right hand and arm make an involuntary spasmodic jerk. I have soaked myself in beer, having shaken the entire bottle into my face. As the sticky liquid drips off my ears, nose and chin, I find myself surrounded by incredulous faces: "What are you doing, man!?" I don't know - it felt like my arm was not my own.

Third and final event. This time, after the (really very good) show. I'm stood in the doorway of the dressing room, talking to the band. This time, it's guitarist Mal who gives me a soaking. He took a swig of beer, turned towards me and sprayed his entire gobful of Becks into my face. It was another case of "What are you doing, man?!"

Mal didn't know - and was hugely apologetic. I was hugely wet. We were all hugely baffled. But it had to be the ghost, right?

We spoke about it to the soundman who, surprisingly, was hugely sceptical of our stories. Must have been an accident... you must have shivered... must fix that mirror etc. A little later, we allowed him to go through his seance act so he could show us the 'real' Charlotte, but for all his dramatic deep-breathing, he was clearly leading us on.

As for our experiences, I just couldn't tell you what happened. I didn't enjoy getting two beer soakings, and I know I would never willingly throw beer over my own head. I'd like to think that Mal wouldn't willingly drench me, either - but he's on Facebook so maybe he'll let me know for sure... And Phil (even though he's a drummer - ha!) surely doesn't like banging things against his head. Pretty confident about that.

The troubled Palace shut down shortly after the Dragons gig and has since reopened as a faceless sports bar. I have to wonder if Charlotte is still a visitor there, giving the chavs a good soaking...

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The day the Germans came to town.

In the early 1940s my mum was a young girl living a young girl's life in a pleasant westcountry city. Like all the girls at her school, she was well aware of the war going on outside her window - even if her home was hundreds of miles away from the theatre of conflict.

For her, the war existed on the wireless and through family updates of her brave Uncle Harold, a Lieutenant fighting with the Devonshire Regiment in Tunisia. Close to her home, too, the Americans had set up base in the County Ground, a sports stadium which was originally built to host speedway races, rugby and a dog track. She liked the Yanks - they were generous to their hosts, and would shower the local kids with sweets and bubblegum. The local mums would be given nylons. My mum has had nothing but good things to say about our cousins from across the pond ever since.

As the blitz of London took hold, a young girl was evacuated to Exeter and moved into my mum's family home. The two girls got on well, but the visitor ended up half-inching a tiny replica Bible with the Lord's Prayer written inside in very small letters - my mum's most prized possession. That caused a lot of upset, as did regular radio broadcasts by William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw, the Nazi propagandist who issued thinly-veiled threats to British listeners. "Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling," he would drawl in his peculiar mid-posh British accent, before identifying future Luftwaffe targets with alarming precision: "Coventry, with your broken town clock..." etc.

My mum hated Lord Haw Haw and was terrified by him. She had good cause.

In the summer of 1942, Hitler ordered bombing raids on some of England's most beautiful cities. None of these were military targets in the slightest: they were reprisal raids. Exeter was attacked on May 4 of that year, as a response to the Allied bombing of Lubeck. Ernst Von Kugel, a German bomber pilot, remembers: "I saw whole streets of houses on fire. People were running everywhere - it was a fantastic sight. We thought of the thousands of men, women and children, the victims of our deadly visit. But we thought of our Fuhrer and the command he gave: revenge."

My mum lived, protected by the air-raid shelter in her house. One of her friend's houses was flattened. Exeter was devastated and would never look the same again.

Sometime later, and details are sketchy but it might have been on a similar raid over nearby Plymouth, my mum had an even closer encounter with the Nazis. By 1943 or so, the Germans had become brazen about their raids on the sticks. The RAF was busy defending the South East and, coastal anti-aircraft guns aside, the westcountry was rather open to attack. It seems like on the way home from a raid on the docks at Plymouth, some German aircraft decided to use up whatever ammo they had on a little extra-curricular visit to Exeter.

It could have been a Stuka, it could have been a Heinkel bomber - all my mother remembers is the screaming engine of a warplane hammering along Exeter High Street, guns blazing in the daylight, hoping to pick out any civilians who got in the way. She recalls the postman diving under his mail cart, and she remembers her mum, my grandmother, pulling her to safety into the doorway of Lyon's coffee shop. As the plane streaked past at rooftop level, she saw the pilot's head in the cockpit: she had seen a German!

It struck terror into her heart. She's related the story to me a few times over the years, and each time she ends it with a shudder. "I was a very frightened little girl," she'll say. "I had never seen a German before."

Needless to say, 1945 couldn't have come quickly enough. Not only could my mum enjoy oranges and - what's this? - bananas again, but she could put herself to good use as a young member of the British Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Soon, her world would get brighter and no longer a fearful place. She would enjoy dances at Buller Hall, trips to the cinema and, through her brother Ray, she would eventually meet my dad. The rest, as they say, is happy family history.

But on this Remembrance Day I will be thinking about her Uncle Harold. He was killed by mortar fire on April 9, 1943 just a few days before his 27th birthday. The internet has brought us closer to him, in the sense that there are many reports of his 5th Battalion's movements in Tunisia. He now rests at the Enfidaville War Cemetery and although I obviously never met him, I'll be thinking of him on the 11th hour on the 11th day of this 11th month.

God bless, Harold.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Execution of Samir Shah

I'm no lawyer. But come on.

Last night's Channel 4 feature-length drama, 'The Execution of Gary Glitter', was a top flight piece of television. It blurred fact with fiction pretty seamlessly by taking the arrest and conviction of Paul Francis Gadd (aka the performer Gary Glitter) to a whole new level. The entire premise is this: the death penalty has been restored to the UK for child rapists and murderers and Gadd is sentenced to swing. With incredible realism, the fallen star is reduced from an arrogant and cocksure defendant to a sobbing wreck on the gallows.

As a catalyst for debate, there is no doubt this was a success. Seconds after transmission (before the end, in fact) Channel 4's website was already filling up with heated comments from both sides of the table. The 'hanging's too good for 'im!' brigade were out in force as, of course, were the 'execution is state murder!' lot. I'm sure the debate will roll on and on.

I enjoyed the programme and found it chilling, voyeuristic and very well executed (if you'll pardon the pun). Gadd's final moments on earth made for compulsive, brutal, voyeuristic entertainment thanks to an incredible performance by Hilton McRae. It was horrible. And all the while I was watching, I couldn't help but wonder: why on EARTH would Paul Gadd agree to have his name, stage identity, image and voice duplicated in this way and to this end?

Then I came across this message, on the C4 discussion board, from the programme's executive director Samir Shah: "Some have asked whether Paul Gadd knew about the film. We let Paul Gadd know of the film but we did not ask for his permission."

I beg your pardon? As Dennis 'Machinegun' Thompson said so eloquently in MC5 - A True Testimonial, "Oops. Looks like we slipped our dick into the wringer..."

I don't know anybody who wasn't appalled by Paul Gadd's crimes. It was correct that he should be tried, convicted and punished for them. But let's be fair: he has served his time. And while some might say he deserves all the derision, disgust and post-Soham kneejerkery that society can throw his way, I do not.

Gadd has been passed a golden opportunity here. We live in a nation where people actually believe in the X Factor and Jade Goody. My friends, some of us are stupid. Some of us will believe this play, which was rolled out as a faux documentary, to be based entirely on fact. Many mentalists will use this to call for the death penalty to be returned.

So how will Gadd react? He has a great claim for damages ahead of him, doesn't he? I was shocked into wide-mouthed grimace by the portrayal of his death - so how must the man himself feel about it? It's an act of torture and cruelty. Isn't it like the scene in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence where Jack Celliers is chained up in front of a firing squad ready to be executed? The Japanese soldiers fire blanks and Celliers, fully expecting to die, gasps "that... was a good one..." in a heroic fashion.

But Paul Gadd is no hero. I doubt he will take this graphic depiction of a death which many thousands of viewers will now wish on his neck with the same gusto. He may see it as a threat to his safety. And what if his children (oh yes, they are mentioned in the drama too) decide they have been mentally damaged by this dramatic realisation of the capital murder of their dad?

Rather than a provocative debate on celebrity culture and society's reaction to same, this dramatised corruption of a celebrity's story will surely have major legal ramifications. Because, whatever you might think of Paul Gadd, in the eyes of the law he has paid for his crime. And under the same legal system, he has a right to protection.

The coming months could prove interesting.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Sometimes nature conspires to make its presence felt in an awesome and potent way. I don't think I will ever forget the day I met the horse and her child.

In the early 1990s I was working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Wales. The news editor at that time was a despicable little man whom I loathed deeply: a horribly insignificant specimen who perpetuated a regime of drunken bullying and tyranny that had its roots set in the very top of the company. These were failed journalists who used the strength of their number and their job titles to justify taking their inadequacies out on the rest of us. Most of us could see them for the pitiful clowns they were.

The feeling was more than mutual - so I used to get sent out of the office, and out of everyone's hair, a LOT. Often I would come back with a cracking story which I would write to my usual high standard. No room for false modesty here: I was a very good journalist. Other times I would be sent out on some kind of wild goose chase. I believe they wanted me out of the office, any which way, in case I went mad and put someone's face through a computer screen. There was a time this might have happened.

One morning, I was despatched in the office Ford Fiesta on a particularly ludicrous mission to a farm somewhere on the English-Welsh border (and therefore outside of the catchment area of my paper). I was to meet and interview a woman who had attended a well-to-do wedding... perhaps it was the nuptials of some minor royal or other? I really don't remember. All I recall is that it was way outside of our circulation area, nobody would be interested in anything this toff had to say, and I was the person assigned to the job. Whoop.

I remember pulling up on the lane outside the walled perimeter to the massive country house where I would meet Lady Haw Haw or whatever her name was. The estate was imposing and sprawling, and I didn't want to sully the driveway with the shabby, unwashed pool car. Instead I parked out on the road and proceeded on foot through the iron gates, feeling under-dressed in my crumpled suit, un-ironed shirt and holy shoes. As I strode up to the house, an animated woman appeared suddenly from a doorway, speaking to both me and someone on the wireless phone in her left hand: "Are you the gentleman from the Western Mail? Come in, my lovey..."

She led me into her kitchen, a massive stately home affair with cluttered French dressers against each wall, a massive aga cooker range, several sinks and a small cellarful of wine. She motioned for me to sit down at a colossal oak dining table while she carried on talking on the 'phone. Seamlessly, she popped open a bottle of champagne and charged two glasses without letting her 'phone convo subside. She pushed one glass across the table to me, then hung up.

"Darling - Andy, isn't it? - Andy darling I'm so terribly sorry I'm such a mess, my horse has just given birth and she's in a terrible state. The foal isn't able to stand up and it doesn't look good, darling, I'm waiting for the vet now and I'm afraid I'm in such a terrible mess too. Do have some champagne. Now what do you want to know...?"

I pulled the notepad from my jacket pocket and scribbled down whatever it was I needed to scribble down about the pointless weekend wedding that this woman had been to. As she related her tale of society excess, she seemed precisely as disinterested as I was. She was running on nervous energy, pissed up on champers and worried to death about her new-born foal. She talked non-stop until she was silenced at last by the rumbling of a Landrover creeping up the gravel driveway.

"Oh Andy, darling, do you mind awfully? That will be the vet. Come along if you wish, bring your champagne... come on now."

She scurried out of the door with me following behind her - champagne flute in one hand, notebook in the other. The vet - cloth-capped - climbed down from his cab and spoke in serious tones to my hostess about the complicated equine birth.

"Right, let's go and have a look at the little one," said the vet in his calming country way. We walked, as a threesome, around the side of the imposing house - two of us clutching glasses of bubbly. We turned the corner and...

It was another world - or rather, the world as I knew it had changed quite tangibly. The champagne undoubtedly helped, but the atmosphere had become charged. It was cold and a light breeze blew on my face as we made our way as quickly as we could out onto the field. The ground was clumpy and grassy underfoot and as the skies darkened with an impending thunderstorm, the light took on a newly surreal shade. Under my feet the grass glowed a vivid green, the champagne in my hand shone like gold, and the horse and foal ahead of us loomed both large and somehow very small; strong yet depressingly helpless.

The vet had already raced ahead and was gently trying to pull the foal to its feet. It crumpled on its delicate new-born legs like a spider, falling to the ground again. Its distressed mother snorted and whined in distress, looking from its foal to the vet to us. I believe I made eye contact with this new mother at the very second that a massive, brutal flash of forked lightning cracked through the sky ahead of us. The awesome rattle of thunder followed. The desperate horse must have thought this was the end of her world. The crying woman, who was now clinging to my arm, seemed to think the same. I was in the middle of a confused, bizarre and sad situation.

The journalist in me drank in the scene greedily, preserving as much as I could to memory. It struck me that the blackness of the clouds matched the blackness of the horse's eye. The savage blue-gold of the lightning that streaked across the sky matched the ludicrous accessory of the champagne - a celebratory drink, here being sipped while we watched a baby animal take its first and last breaths.

The vet sent us packing, knowing that the animal had only moments left to live. I walked back to the house, my head full of respect and terror for the forces of nature that could bring a new life to the world and take it away again, almost immediately. I thought about that foal's brief experience of this planet - a fleeting glimpse of its mother, some humans, the cold earth, the mighty lightning, and then back into the anonymity of death.

It was all terribly sad. I returned to the office, wrote about the bullshit posh wedding, and kept the rest of that day's events to myself. But I no longer felt like it had been a wild goose chase. I felt that a point I could never understand had been made.

It seemed almost like Mother Nature had wanted to be quoted: "Put this down in your notebook boy," she appeared to say. Then she showed me her best - and worst.

Monday, 26 October 2009

You're Fired.

You've heard the rumblings from the commonwealth, you've more than likely downloaded the record already (naughty bleeders) and you're in a state of anxious excitement like me. Maybe you've got friends in Canada who've seen them already; you've certainly read about them - probably argued the toss about them - on discussion boards the worldwide-interweb over. If you're one of the lucky ones, you'll have a ticket for their easily sold-out London show in March.

Arcade Fire as an event is imminent and, clearly, it's time to stop pussyfooting around. They could do without the responsibility, I'm sure - but I for one am pinning a lot of hopes and dreams on our cousins with the shared queen. I demand a lot from my music and I expect Arcade Fire to change my life. By summer 2005, in fact, I expect likely lads singing about skag and stupidity to be a figment of embarrassing memory.

That's not too tall an order. Arcade Fire's debut album cuts an astonishing dash. Vast, landscape-levelling sounds pulsate from its all-knowing brain. Precision-positioned violins scream blue murder over a soothing guitar, piano and vocal bedrock to produce a sound that is at once highly familiar (Bunnymen, New Order, Bowie, Suicide, Talking Heads, British Sea Power, blah blah blah) yet also utterly surprising, exciting and original. Chants and associated eerie oriental vocal antics, in both English and French, give this wonderful record a plausibly religious, possibly shamanic feel. The stuff of magic.

Onto this rich canvas are painted curious little ideas and images, of which the 'Neighborhood' four-part segment (oh yes, you can throw the traditional track one, track two format out of the window right now) is the most pronounced. These tales of family ties, family loss, deep memory, time-travel, catastrophe, astral flight and the 'escape' gene will shatter your heart one second; swell it with bravery and pride the next.

What an imagination! Chief fire officer Win Butler's grown-up but childlike tales are weird, dreamlike exercises that have no peer in modern music. A snowstorm engulfs the town and memories fade through eons to zilch in 'Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)', a vampiric brother seeks a brave new life by destroying family photos while his tears are collected in a cup during 'Neighborhood 2 (Laika)'. Icicles grow over the hands and eyes of parents in 'Neighborhood 3 (Power Cut)' and the planet is plunged into desperate darkness.

Then there's 'Wake Up', a wavering call for action to children, powered by a tambourine-led beat. It covers the passing of the age, the betrayal of memory and the disastrous pursuit of man. "We're just a million little gods causing rainstorms," shrieks Win. "Turning every good thing to rust."

The record officially ends with sadness and hope, memory and loss, bravery and passion - all combined for listening pleasure in the wonderfully haunting 'In The Backseat'. Life is a journey, friends, and we're all still learning to drive.

Except, it doesn't really end there, you know. The last track, I find, is one of my own making. It's not on the CD - it begins moments after the plastic has stopped spinning around. It's a moment of blessed silence, and you're going to need it if the power and majesty of this thing is to sink in sufficiently. The last 'track', then, is your own heart, your own breath and your own brain ticking, clicking and seething away.

What an album.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

The biggest kick, the cruellest trick

As I get older, I get more motivated. The more motivated I get, the older I feel.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Stiky Wicket

I really didn't want to ever have to write (and worst of all, publish) one of these things while drunk, but I've kind of made a promise to myself that this one would be 'as is'. A slice of blogema verite, if you will.

I've just come from a quiet pint turned full-on night out with Stiky and Gwen. I'm hammered. There was always going to be an element of old-time talking to the night, but I didn't quite suspect that I would get quite so far back into the zone as Stiky took me.

We had beers, we shared reminiscences, we looked at pictures of Stiky and Gwen's children. I was astounded by Rafe, Stiky's kid. He used to be 6. Now he's 18. He buys his dad pints. Wow.

Gwen's 16 year old is Alice. She's mates with my mate's teenage daughter. Small world. They should join together, form a band, play gigs. Play with our minds.

Stiky reminded me about incidents from the house I lives in 18 years ago. He reminded me about the parking ticket he got all those years ago. We remembered the gag about his band, Rollerco. "I've got all your records!" I would laugh. It was true. I'd pressed up 1,000 copies and they were all in a cupboard in my bedroom for years.

We went to the Underworld for a gig. The first band was alright. The second band were great. The third band was incredible.m They were like all the hardcore bands I had seen in Newport TJs in the early 1990s, all stuck together. I didn't care who they were, who was in the room, what had happened today or what would happen tomorrow: from some 15 minutes on, I was in the zone. I felt my legs go, then my arms, my head. I was twitching this way and that - I was feeling the music. Stiky had his arm around my shoulders, was bellowing something into my ear. Just like 18 years, ago it was incomprehensible. Song ended, new song began. I knew nothing - NOTHING - of the lyrical content. But the delivery shoved everything through.

I looked around me at kids half my age, watching politely. Semi-transfixed. I saw Stiky approach the stage, mid-song, to congratulate the guitarist on his last solo. That's how we used to roll. Convention, history, decorum... bunkum. It means diddly squat. This is me, this is Stiky, this is now.

I blubbed like a fool. Gwen asked me if I'd enjoyed myself. I hid my eyes in the shadows of the evening and suggested that it was my round.

I had such a great night, I totally forgot to go to Echo and the Bunnymen.

I had the time of my life.

(Written and edited for grammar only within 20 minutes, 16 Oct 2009. No rewrites.)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

You say you want an evolution?

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, a follower of Icke or a believer in UFOs. Nor am I particularly impressed by the various religions on offer to this world (although the Hindus seem like a pretty cool bunch).

I reserve a healthy scepticism for the many oddball theories about our human origins that are out there. The least believable, to me, is the six-day creationist stuff in the Bible. Of the mainstream theories, Darwin's evolution seems to hold the most water.

Human evolution has accelarated way beyond the development of animals and plants, though, and there are many theories as to how this could have happened. Perhaps the most 'out-there' suggestion is also the one that I keep returning to as the most likely. Ironically, this is the one where Darwinism and Creationism appear to meet.

The oft-repeated and refined von Daniken-esque suggestion is that our current species is a derivative of homo erectus that was genetically modified many thousands of years ago. The story goes that scientifically advanced extra-terrestrial visitors to planet Earth gave our ape-like ancestors a genetic kick up the rear: larger brains, a longer life etc etc. The stuff of science fiction? Perhaps, but as research into the human genome and cloning techniques advance through the 21st century, the theory gains weight.

Revisiting the Adam and Eve story in 2009 is an interesting exercise. It's an absurdly accurate analogy for laboratory development of a new human species, is it not? 'God' (our advanced alien friend) takes a rib (strip of DNA) from Adam (himself) and creates an Eve (supercharged amalgam of alien and homo erectus). And if YOU were going to create your own little slave from scratch, wouldn't YOU wish to impose the same rules that were applied in the Garden of Eden (laboratory)? Namely, don't ask questions or there'll be trouble...

Having made a little workforce, perhaps to build its pyramids, henges and cities, the aliens left or maybe died out. The books that make up the Old Testament are littered with references to giants, nephilim (crossbred humans and 'angels'), people living for several hundred years and messengers coming down and then buggering off. The Noah story would appear to relate a rescue mission from a dying planet, complete with a cargo of DNA samples. Somewhere along the line, the human race was abandoned, and left feeling orphaned and perhaps homesick by alien proxy.

It's these feelings that dominate the drive to question our origins and our 'creators'. If you want to take a proper punt on it all, isn't it a bit interesting that church spires are rocket-shaped? When we pray, we put our hands together in an aerodynamic shape do we not? We think of 'God' as being in the heavens. we think of Jesus in terms of coming back.

We've been dumped. As a race, we want our collective daddies back. We want them to come and collect us and take us back to their place, because locked in our genetic history is a misty memory of where we came from. Either that or the stories in the Bible are a record of our future - a prediction that WE are the aliens who will abandon our Earth, travel to another planet and create a new race 'in our image'.

There. How do you like them apples?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

All the world's a stage

The concept of an audience spread out like a fan before a stage is as old as the hills. It makes logistical sense, of course, to have an orator, singer, performer, musician, film actor or whatever in full view of the people he is addressing. But does it go any deeper than sheer layout mechanics?

Back in the late 1990s I had a dream that I was at a live gig from the future. I could tell it was not the present because the audience had by and large abandoned the floor and were instead hovering in prone position, at various altitudes above sea level. The floating punters at the top of the building (which bore a very close resemblance to the old Leeds Town and Country) were tilting their heads slightly so they could look down on the musicians who were for some reason still rooted to terra firma.

The lower-level ones (which included me) sort of swerved around a bit, like they were lying on hoverboards, and there was also a smattering of people stood in the traditional manner, on the floor. The logic of the dream told me that the floating spectators had paid more for their unique P.O.V. And my dreamy head also suggested to me that this surreal effect was achieved through an air-thickening process that turned the air to something like water.

It struck a chord because I'd had a similar dream as a small boy, while at the dentist. I was put under with laughing gas and while the dentist prodded, poked, drilled and yanked at my gnashers I experienced the most surreal dream of my young life. In it, I was stuck floating in some kind of viscous air inside a cavernous cinema building. I was being sucked slowly towards the silver screen, with a tremendous atmospheric pressure all around me. A gentle ringing sound was in my ears.

It was only when I was considering material for this blog that it occurred to me how similar these dreams, which occurred 30 years apart, had been. A bomb dropped when I thought about the two scenes: one was a music venue, presumably because I was heavily into attending gigs at that point. The earlier one was a picture house. Why not a venue? Because I hadn't yet attended a gig - but I had been to the flicks.

Eureka? Two very potent dreams, both featuring a high density atmosphere and both involving large numbers of people facing a stage.

I've been trying to work it all out. Could the viscosity of the atmosphere and head-tilting towards the stage/screen be symptomatic of my suppressed memory of birth? Was this 'me', waiting for my call to stage? Or does it run deeper still?

I've always found it hard to be part of a church service or a good gig without feeling a massive emotional tug. I once wrote a review about crying at a gig, but what I didn't say at that time was that this is a feeling I have to fight most of the time. I frequently have a massive lump in my throat when I attend live music, almost regardless of content or quality. The good stuff takes me over the edge, but even the rubbish has an effect. You will only rarely see me smile in front of a band. Most of the time I'm fighting to keep control.

Is that how everyone feels? Is there something magical about the audience/stage configuration? Is it really just people on a wooden platform with a whole load of other people in front of it? Or does it go deeper into some matrix-like place? Does any of this have to do with my predilection for mulling over life decisions when I'm in the middle of a gig? I do find the atmosphere very conducive to big thinking. The church of noise, indeed.

Oh, this is tough! I guess it's harder than I thought to say what I feel sometimes, but if any of this strikes a chord please feel free to add your thoughts. I don't know if or how any of this is connected, but hey - I thought I'd throw it out there.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Morningfrown ride

We've all got dream stories - and here are a couple of mine. These are from my early life, they have a recurring theme and an interlacing pattern... and they're kind of dark. One of these was a terrifying experience that my brain would revisit night after night after night when I was a child, totally against my will. I was so glad when it ended.

Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of nice dreams too. Lots of great flying dreams, for instance. One in particular was so vivid that I can picture it in perfect recall even as I type this, some 25 years after it fizzed around my brain. Oh, and then there are the ludicrously symbolic ones, like the time I dreamed the word 'tessellate'. That one was a bit Monty Python-esque: "TESSELLATE" turned up on shop signs, street signs, in speech bubbles, scribbled on pieces of paper... at one point, I even dreamed a gaggle of nuns saying that word over and over again.

But the grim ones were properly grim. When I was very young, my active imagination would throw up the outline of fierce tigers in my room. I'd need my mum in there to shoo them away. Then Dr Who's cybermen would be waiting for me. It didn't help, at all, that the early seventies were prone to power cuts. Not only would the front room be plunged into darkness, and usually during a Dr Who scary bit, but the outage would leave me with no closure, no resolution. As my mum would set out the little nightlite candles I would still be left in the dark (literally) over whether the Doctor and his sexy assistants had been able to vanquish their plastic robot foes.

I'm not sure where my wireless dream came from. That was pretty sinister. In that particular horrorshow, my brother's transistor radio (we shared a bunkbed-ed room) would fizzle and crackle as it sat on the windowsill, and then sparks and explosions would emanate from the soft fabric mesh grill on its front. Smoke would billow from it and I knew it would spell trouble. It might sound lame, but for an eight year old it was pretty bleak. And it happened night after night.

There was a worse one. That involved me being stuck at the bottom of a sheer, metallic-grey cylinder made of toughened steel and measuring some 20 or 30 feet across. I would be pressed up against one of the cold walls trying desperately to avoid the tight-fitting plug that would be descending slowly towards me. I knew I'd be crushed and I would feel the heavy metal slab pressing down on my face like an SS officer's boot before I'd wake myself up in a panic.

Some eight or nine years after this dream which, again, would repeat itself night after night, I had cause to visit the peculiar domed building next to the Greenwich pedestrian tunnel under the Thames. The liftshaft inside looked just the same as my dream-state prison. Funny, that.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

This donkey's gone to Devon.

Two decades ago I had a full head of floppy hair, a job on a Welsh newspaper, a girlfriend called Jo and a best mate called Chris Strange. These were happy days.

Home for me was a converted garage in the grounds of a large house in Bridgend. It was cramped and cheap and I loved it. My landlady, a lovely lady called Pat, had described it in the local rag as a ‘compact and bijou garden flatlet’. I took it on as soon as I saw it, renaming it: ‘La Shed’.

There was just enough space for a fold-away sofa bed and a large wooden storage trunk in the main room, while the kitchen corner, shower space and bog occupied a walled-off area at the rear. It was small but perfectly formed.

Chris, an affable Brummy, worked in the same first floor office as me. Most days, we’d spend our lunch hours scoffing pasties and scouring the racks at the local Roxcene Records for new releases. We had an amicable and economical arrangement: we would buy an LP and a blank tape, split the costs, and then Chris would get the tape (he had a stereo in his blue Vauxhall Astra) and I would get the vinyl (I had the record player). It sounded like a decent deal to me.

We shared several great records this way - Frank Zappa’s ‘Broadway The Hard Way’, that one with the flower on the front cover by The Swans, the first Stone Roses album, ‘Copper Blue’ by Sugar… But the daddy of them all, by some considerable stretch, was ‘Doolittle” by the Pixies.

It may have been 1989, more than a stroppy teenage ago, but I can still remember that first audition like it was yesterday. Chris and I were sat cross-legged and attentive on the floor of La Shed, side one of ‘Doolittle’ facing upwards, shiny, virginal and turning at 33rpm on my record player. We both still had our ties on from work, the 4AD sleeve with its copper-coloured unhappy monkey motif was on the floor, Chris could well have been studying the lavish art-lyric booklet that came with it - I don’t recall that detail. My eye was concentrated on dropping the needle cautiously onto the 4AD run-in groove. “Wsssh-click!” and in. Volume up, kick back. The gauntlet is down. Impress us if you dare Black Francis, Mrs John Murphy, David Lovering, Joey Santiago. Impress us if you CAN!

“Ding ding ding ding, dang dang dang dang, dong dong dong dong, ding ding ding ding…” ripped out of the quiet roar of the run-in groove, the now familiar bassline leaping from my tiny Pioneer speakers to fill the wooden-clad shed. It was followed swiftly by a choir of guitars, a fairytale riff and Black’s maniac fat-kid vocals. I don’t need to tell anyone how utterly, utterly brilliant ‘Debaser’ is - do I? But back then, auditioning the song on its birthdate along with the rest of an excited world, it seemed for a while like the end of the eighties was going to become very special, very quickly.

My eyes met Chris’s as Kim’s backing vocals helped speed the song to its breathless climax. We both looked away; stared at the record spinning on the deck beside us. As the track broke down to the drumless guitar acapella and shrieks of “Got me a movie - ha ha ha ho! Slicing up eyeballs - HA HA HA HO!”, my neck became a quiver of tattered muscles and broken nerves, and my arms found hairs and goosebumps that haven’t come back since that rainy early evening in La Shed.

The song ended. Chris, excited beyond belief and dog-wild in the eyes, blurted out his enthusiasm: “Fuckin’ hell son, that’s fucking amazing! Stick it on again!”

Back it went… “ding ding ding ding, dang dang dang dang etc…” - and so ‘Debaser’ shattered our nerves and preconceptions for a second time.

“Go on, son. Play it again!” A third spin - and this time we’re analysing the track a little. Picking up the references to “Un Chien Andalou”, enthusing over this bit or that, wondering aloud what tracks like ‘I Bleed’ could sound like, while remaining utterly unable to get past ‘Debaser’. “Doolittle” could have been a one-track album for all we cared. It was perfect, just perfect, in those first few minutes.

That first mildly obsessive, definitely repetitive session left an indelible mark on us both and, even after we finally got around to committing the thing to tape, we went back for more listens of ‘Debaser’.

Needless to say, ‘Doolittle’ quickly became my favourite album, and Pixies my favourite band. I hunted down and invested wisely in ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Come On Pilgrim’, I dug out a cassette of a Peel show with ‘River Euphrates’ on it, and I managed to find one of those generic NME freebie 7″ singles with a Pixies track or two.

On a subsequent visit to HMV in Cardiff, I found the 12″ of ‘Gigantic’ in the racks for a couple of quid. I took it up to the counter and the sales assistant’s face reddened in a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

“That’s sick!” he said, shaking his head at the naked crying boy baby image on the front cover. “That’s fucking sick…” he murmured as he keyed the info into his till. I couldn’t fathom the problem but I liked the idea that the Pixies could cause such a reaction. Debaser, indeed.

Before long, I joined Chris as a car owner with a tape deck. Luxury. I put ‘Doolittle’ onto one side of a Memorex C90, ‘Surfer Rosa’ onto the other, and played them both continuously as I cruised my British racing green Datsun Cherry along the leafy A48 from Bridgend to Swansea or Cardiff. I would croon along to ‘La La Love You’, whine to a ‘Mr Grieves’ backing and scare fields full of cows and Welsh farmers with a cranked-up, windows-down ‘Crackity Jones’.

Yeah, these were happy days indeed.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Going medieval

There's a scene in the film 'The Man Who Fell To Earth' where Thomas Jerome Newton is speeding through rural America in the back of a posh car. As he heads for his lakeside destination he looks out over Wild West settlers, a wooden one-horse town and some covered wagons - and the cowboys look back at him.

Newton, an extra-terrestrial alien, is aware that he is looking back through time. The Waltons-esque farming family in bonnets, braces and breechers who drop everything to stare at the mysterious black and silver object flashing through their settlement are not. But for an instant both are visible to each other, through the vacuum of a century or more. Something supernatural has happened - like a crease in the fabric of time.

I can't pretend to have enjoyed the same experience as demonstrated in this brilliant film, but from time to time I do get a glorious view of days long gone. I call it 'going medieval' and, while I don't consider it a 'vision' as such, it does seem to be a little more lucid and real than a mere over-active imagination.

At its strongest, I can look down a busy road and witness the scene polarising into two differing views. It's like a filter is being applied, or I am donning magic goggles. I can see the road as it truly is with cars, shops, shoppers, bicycles and people - but I can also see the same street with very different buildings - with horses instead of cars, with people looking thin, badly dressed and dirty, and everything covered in straw. Always lots of straw. Generally, there'll be a fire burning somewhere in the street. It looks medieval... like the 13th century, or something.

The one common factor which links the two scenes is always the sky. Although the medieval one does not have aeroplanes in it, it is always the same colour and has the same clouds. And I am able to flick between both scenes, using my mind's eye, like I am quickly turning the pages of a book to reveal a 'before' pic and then an 'after'. The sky is the only constant.

I cannot claim that the medieval views I experience are authentic in detail - they're probably not. And, like I say, I do not believe them to be full-on visions: they are more like full-colour artist impressions of what might have been, one day, many centuries ago.

I wonder if the source of all of this is that great British corporate tradition, the pop music festival? I've attended a lot and the crowds that wander around such events, particularly at night, do take on an historic air sometimes. And the campfires, singalongs, alcohol and communion with nature are all a bit pagan, are they not?

I also wonder if my favourite scene for a medieval turn, Kentish Town Road NW1, might have entered my consciousness only after I learned the true-life history of the Assembly House pub at the top of the hill. It was here that people would gather, centuries ago, to be escorted through violent lanes to the city of London: protected from bandits, thieves and highwaymen by an armed escort of soldiers.

Certainly, the most common time for this 'going medieval' thing to occur is when I'm about to say goodbye to someone, to get a separate bus from them, to head to another part of town. It arises therefore at the beginning of two journeys, to two different homes, in two different parts of London that could just as easily be two separate villages. The night buses turn fleetingly to carriages, in my minds eye, and I very quickly 'go medieval'.

So what's this all about? It's baffling, fairly rare (it happens to me perhaps just a few times a year), interesting and a little confusing and sad. Anyone else get this?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The wall-to-wall is calling...

A middle-aged man getting excited by a few dozen painted boards? Ha!

On Friday afternoon last week I was stood on a stage with Mal Troon, guitarist from Gemma Ray's live band. There is nothing unusual in this; it's what I do for work a lot of the time. We had just dragged heavy amps, cabs and drum cases from the back of a van through a narrow stage door onto this street-level platform. As we put bits of equipment together, the lighting tech in the booth at the back of the stalls shot swirling practice streaks of colour across the dark theatre, bringing slices of the art deco interior to life. In seconds, this modern West London concert facility was magically transformed. Suddenly this was no longer the HMV Apollo, home to Jack Dee's TV series and season six of the bleedin' X-Factor. As Mal and I gazed out over the rows of still-empty seats, the venue was transported back to its legendary status: we were stood, ladies and gentlemen, on the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon.

The name means different things to different people. Mal was, I think, chuffed to be treading the same boards as Bruce Sprinsgteen. Paul, the front of house soundman, was digging the AC/DC vibe. And my head was swimming with fantasies of Ziggy Stardust.

This was where David Bowie made his last stand with the Spiders from Mars on July 3, 1973. As I looked out, I saw the same landscape as he would have done all those years ago. I daydreamed the frenetic 'Ode To Joy' intro and wondered what it would have been like to step out from the wings in a ludicrously glittery garb. I hovered around the front of the stage and imagined Ronno to my left, Trevor to my right, Woody behind me. Then I looked over my shoulder towards the spot where Bowie's first costume change had occurred (between 'Hang Onto Yourself' and 'Ziggy Stardust')... and caught sight of Ian Hunter showing his grandson around the stage.

I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, asked him how last night's gig had gone, that kind of thing. And all the while I thought to myself, hmm... what a charmed existence this is, eh? Mott The Hoople recorded half of their legendary 1974 live LP right here... on this very spot. And here I am, in the same location, talking to the man behind all of that. All the while, incidentally, I was wearing a jacket bought from Overend-Watts.

As the soundcheck ended, doors opened and the hall gradually filled up with 3,500 expectant people. More magic filled the air - as it always does at great gigs. Gemma and band played a blinder, and as I helped to clear the stage after the last song I couldn't resist a jog over to the stage-right lip where my friends Martyn and John were waving at me. I grabbed their hands, cheesily, just as Ziggy had done during 'Let's Spend The Night Together' 36 years previously. Then I walked across to the other side carrying a drum carpet and heard another friend, Neil, calling me from his seat in the stalls. I clutched the rolled-up mat close to me: "Me and Mick Ronson!" I hollered back, ridiculously.

Back in the dressing room, everything looked just the same as it did in the old films. Have you seen 'A Hard Day's Night?' Just like that. Backstage visits from Jimmy Page and Mick Jones of Led Zep and The Clash respectively only added to a super-surreal atmosphere.

And back out front, finally watching Ian and the boys rattle out so many magical Mott hits, I actually caught myself feeling a strong wave of faux nostalgia for a time that I was actually way too young to have experienced for myself. I sang along to 'Saturday Gigs' somehow believing that '69 really was 'cheapo wine, have a good time, what's your sign?', even though as a five year old urchin I wouldn't have had the first clue...

This had been an extraordinary peek behind the curtain for me. I've been privy to the inner circles of many varied music productions - from the Water Rats to Wembley Stadium. But this one, aided by a decent dose of honaloochie boogie, had been a journey through time that I don't think I'll be forgetting any time soon.

It's good for your body. It's good for your soul. The golden age of rock'n'roll.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Father's Day

Well, this is the day. Half a decade ago, my dad left us. I can still feel the shock and pain of that morning as if it were today. But I also feel the unspoken relief that his long illness had come to a peaceful end. My dad died in his sleep, with his family around him, on October 2, 2004.

Naturally, I have many regrets. There are many things I would like to do over - many conversations I would like to have another stab at. I am saddened to see, through the clarity of hindsight, that I was fighting such a massive mental breakdown during my dad's last months that it must have fogged my view of what was going on. I was in almost total denial. So much so that when my doctor asked me if my dad was dying - while on one of my frequent surgery calls to complain about (psychosomatic) chest and neck pains - I could not comprehend the question. It simply would not compute. Only on the last night before he died, I recall, did it finally occur to me that the end could be around the corner.

And so my last conversation with my dad was about spark plugs. Car maintenance filled a void that I couldn't bear to look into. It was small talk to mask the big, big conversation that was bursting to come out of me. I couldn't cope, you know? I just... couldn't... cope.

Nowadays, I'm happy to say I'm coping a lot better. My sadness is still there, of course, but balanced with happiness and gratitude for being able to grow up with a dad in the house. I had 40 years of being my dad's son.

My dad was nowhere near as lucky. His father, Frederick Barding, died of a brain haemorrhage at home on Christmas Day 1932 - when my dad was five. His mother, Edith, died when he was eight - on New Year's Day. My dad was never one to display emotion, and so I can only guess at the turmoil that must have been going on inside him on both those public holidays. His sister has kept a Christmas card from her mother with a prescient inscription: "There never dawns a Christmas morn nor comes a brand New Year, without us feeling in our hearts the ones we hold so dear."

So I have 40 years to be grateful for and the luxury of the rest of my life to digest and evaluate them. As I do so, little by little as each day passes, I find myself adopting some little mannerism or trait or attitude that reminds me of him. As my sister-in-law, Mandy, said when dad's ashes were being scattered, "he's living on in all of us now - he's part of all of us." It sounded like religious baloney to me at the time, but now I'm starting to get what she means.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The light that dances.

My very first encounter - of several - with what I propose to call 'angels' occured in the early 1990s. There were no wings, no trumpets, no heavenly bodies. But it was an event so heavily laden with symbolism, metaphor, the metaphysical and the spiritual that it changed my life irrevocably. For the better? I really don't know... but here's hoping. I find it hard to talk about it with any certainty, other than to say that it happened in a timely fashion and solved a very particular, rather serious dilemma for me at the time. So thanks for that!

It's much easier to tell my second angel story. This was the most spectacular one, anyway: it makes for a better tale.

I was sat at home in Mellon Street, Newport, reading the book 'Ask Your Angels' by Alma Daniel. It could be argued that I was asking for it. I looked up from my book and - KAZAM! - there in front of me, hovering like an air hockey puck hovers above an air hockey board, was a button-mushroom-sized ball of golden yellow light. It was the colour of a Crunchie wrapper and floating with aerodynamic perfection. I gasped and smiled, and it swept this way and that, teasing me with its agility before sweeping around the back of my head, back around to the front of my face, then out of the living room via the closed window.

It was like having a super-agile firefly in the room. The warmth and colour of that ball of light was tangible, but not oppressive or too bright. It looked a little like Jupiter does through a medium-sized telescope. It was accompanied by a strong feeling of 'fun'. Whatever that light was, it was playing with me and I was being gently teased. It's kind of like it saw the book I was reading and decided to give me a playful poke in the ribs.

I was impressed, of course, and I think I was lucky. Not even my closest friends know this bit, but shortly after this event I appeared on a chatshow with Alma Daniel - the author of the book I was reading. We both discussed our experiences, and Alma concluded by saying that she had 'kind of moved on' from the whole angel thing. It was like the angels had made their point by making their presence known. And now it was time for them to move on.

That's kind of how I feel, too. I'll try to explain this a little better in a future 'Letter from Claptonia'.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The two Isabellas

I've just come from a great weekend away with the whole family. Everyone: no apologies for absence tendered at all. The occasion was my niece Laura's wedding. It was a splendid, romantic, fun, inventive affair in a rural country house location. It was unusual - a themed wedding, based around the V Festival where my new nephew-in-law Scott proposed to Laura and she said 'a'ite'.

It was a wonderfully sunny Sunday: a chance to catch up with everybody in a spectacular location - to take new photographs, to be photographed, to re-affirm the bond that we all enjoy as a family unit. I'm very lucky to be part of a clan that is close, and seemingly getting ever closer with time.

Among the guests was the newest member of my family, Isabella. She's a darling little 16-month old - so full of the excitement that new life brings. She walks very well, grabs things, watches, learns and absorbs everything within her grasp. She's been blessed with her parents' great looks and her face exudes the hope of a future that will stretch beyond mine. It's almost - almost - possible to catch a glimpse of the future and envisage her as a stunning half-Sicilian, half-Devonian grown-up. And that's unusual for babies. Usually they all look like Winston Churchill...

A day earlier, I took a drive ten miles out of town to a tiny hamlet called Clyst Hydon in search of another Isabella and another wedding. It took a little while to find a villager who could direct me to the tiny off-road church where Isabella Maeer married William Newton, 111 years ago today. Happy anniversary!

Isabella was 28 when she took the hand of William, a groom gardener three years her junior, on September 8, 1898. I had their wedding certificate in my hand as I snooped around the churchyard. As luck would have it, the church warden was stood under the eaves of the church door with his alsatian, taking a break from lawnmowing duties. "My great grandparents were married here," I blurted out. He let me inside to have a look around. I stood at the same altar where Isabella and William exchanged their vows; the start of a union that would lead to my grandfather, my mother, my sister, my niece and ultimately to another Isabella five generations and 111 years down the line.

I found out that the couple came from Aunk, a very tiny community a mile away from the church. Aunk consists of just three or four cottages, a farm and a sprawling manor house estate. My great grandparents could have come from any of those. Perhaps William married the archetypal girl next door? Maybe they both worked at the manor house? I had a look through the imposing railings at the entrance gate and wondered.

A day later I was in another manor house at the opposite end of South Devon, enjoying Laura's fantastic wedding feast and watching baby Isabella toddle about. The day was quite rightly all about Laura and Scott's future together, but as Iwatched Isabella I found myself thinking about the deep past too - and her great great great grandmother with the same first name.

So on this very special 111th wedding anniversary, I propose a toast. To the future! To the past! To the two Isabellas!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Remembering Jon Eydmann

There will doubtless be many people far better qualified to pay tribute to Jon Eydmann. But that's not going to stop me devoting a little 'Letter from Claptonia' to his memory.

Jon was born four years and two days behind me, and I first came across him some 28 or 29 years into my life. By then, he had already managed Suede and Spitfire and had moved into a life of A&R-ing at Fire records in London.

I was in Wales and I had my rather grim day job as a journo to occupy me, as well as my shadowy second life as a fanzine writer. I had to keep the two apart - as much as I could, anyway. The paper I worked for was not keen on its staff engaging in forms of expression that it could not profit from. But, looking at it from the other side, the office did have a photocopier, a stapler and a telephone. I was able to make my little desk a base for some pretty effective fanzine operations. The photocopier took a right hammering.

Into my life came Jon, with record upon record of great stuff for me to review. There was some seriously dodgy stuff too, of course. The funny old mid-90s. In there somewhere would have been the occasional call to interview some of Fire's roster. Gigolo Aunts got a cover piece in my zine (it was called 'Frug!' by the way), and there must have been more that I can't quite remember. I do remember Jon badgering me to interview a band called Supermodel. I did it - but I can't remember if I ran it or not.

Then local band Novocaine signed to Fire, and things started to get more interesting. Their guitarist, Richard Jackson, shared my house with me and the 'phone calls and contact with Jon hotted up a fair bit. I remember him coming to Newport a few times on Novocaine business, or perhaps to check out other bands in the (hey) New Seattle, and somewhere in my fading memory is an image of Jon walking down the street with a ridiculously over-sized parka on - hood up, an' all. I also remember sharing many beers with him at a number of gigs and festivals. He was one of those people who would always be around. And he'd always be fun to be with.

One time, Jon suggested that my fanzine and his label should hook up on a joint release. A 7" single that could be given away with the 'zine. Great idea! The deal was that I would chip in £100 towards the mastering and pressing, Fire would take care of the business and pay for the rest. It was a good deal for me. I got to choose the tracks...

"Play the CD and just pick your favourites and we'll go with that," said Jon at the time. And so 'Frug on Fire' was born - a shiny black piece of 7" wide circular plastic with Everclear on one side, Fitz Of Depression on the other. It went down well and that particular issue of Frug! in 1994 or 1995 or something, with 60ft Dolls on the cover, sold quicker than my pirated work photocopier could bash it out.

The day the singles arrived in a big box at my house, I called Jon to say thanks and to confirm delivery. "Had a good look at it have you?" he asked. "Yep. Looks great. Just playing it now. Sounds good, Jon!"

"Have a good look at it," he said. And was gone.

When the record had finished playing, I plucked it from the turntable and examined the run-out grooves. In the window light I picked out the words, etched onto each side of the 500 singles. It was a message from Jon. "To The Bard", it said on one side. And on the other: "Don't forget the hundred quid mate!"

I notice from his Facebook page that Jon was planning on seeing The Joy Formidable at the Garage in London in a couple of weeks. If he hadn't died in an accident on holiday in Italy this week, I would have seen him there and, doubtless, we would have clinked glasses at some point. We might not have remembered much about each other, but that Everclear/Fitz of Depression single would surely have come up in conversation. Ironically, I've got one on eBay at the moment. A little piece of Jon that will somehow fling itself to some afficionado or other of mid-90s alternative rock music. Hopefully it will find a good home, somewhere in the world.

I've got a copy for myself still, Jon. And you got my hundred quid eventually, didn't you?

God bless.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Shakespeare vs Goethe

"I wasted time. And now time doth waste me."

What are you trying to do, Mr Shakespeare? Sir? Put the fear of God into us? I'm all for calls to arms, but sheesh! That's a little defeatist, is it not? At best a warning to get a wriggle on?

True, as we get older a lot of things pass us by and a lot of chances slip through our fingers. On the (dramatic pause) walk of life, I've already missed a few intriguing short-cuts and secret pathways that might have irrevocably changed things. Maybe even for the better. It's highly regrettable, but what can we do?

Can't turn back the clock, as someone as wise as William 'Mr Pessimist' Shakespeare here would have said. If only we could, eh? There's so much I would like to try while blessed with the benefit of hindsight. There's so much sheer laziness and dicking around that I would cut out of my ambitions and goals.

The best I can hope to do at this middle-to-late stage of things is adhere to the wisdom of the sheet of paper I saw stuck to the wall of the Retrobate record shop at the bottom of Muswell Hill. It's a quote by Goethe: a cleverer person than me.

"Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits onself, then providence moves too... whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.


I'm frequently stalled by the hesitancy that is the essence of Mr Shakespeare's little quote (from Richard II). It would be nice to be encouraged by the providence that Mr Goethe promises. It's happened before and it will happen again.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Girls Alewd

I was looking through some old emails to see if anything still existed of my days as an online music writer. The stuff I did that was printed - in proper mags - is still out there in dentist waiting rooms of course, but I was eager to revisit my terrible interview with The Residents and my hysterically over-egged review of Arcade Fire. Actually, my interview with the 'Fire, their first ever in this country (wahey!) was a blast too.

Anyway - no sign. Lost, presumed deleted into an uncaring ether. Probably not a permanent blight on mankind... we'll survive. But I did find this, which a niece or two of mine might find funny. A record of the day I interviewed Girls Aloud in an office of Universal Music in Kensington on the morning of October 10, the year of our Lord 2006. Seems like, ooh, three years ago. This originally appeared on PlayLouder.com and here it is reproduced in its entirety:

PlayLouder and Girls Aloud? Together? In the SAME room? With our reputation? With THEIR reputation? Someone's got to be having a laugh, eh?

But no. It happened! The world's greatest 21st century pop band gave a five minute audience to our good selves on the crest of what will be their biggest year yet.

"Something Kinda Ooh" is already downloaded onto everyone's pods and into everyone's noggins, and their best of – 'The Sound Of Girls Aloud' – will surely be on smarmy Santa begging letters from Cricklewood to Hollywood.

This was hardly going to be anything like our usual swearathons with the likes of Electric Eel Shock, so we bathed and shaved before our date with these proper pop stars. Hope the girls appreciated the effort.

It didn't half feel weird, mind. Your correspondent doesn't mind telling you he felt like a fish out of water. Pleasantries were easily exchangeable, but where would the common ground lie? Do any of them have a Membranes album at home? Do Girls Aloud, like us, dream of a Jacob's Mouse reunion? Will they be buying the new Bo-Peep LP?

It would seem not. They like Lemar and that new one by James Morrison. We don't. We only like that bloke out of Keane because he went nuts.

So why speak to PlayLouder, girls? You know... have you even heard of us?

"Sorry, no," says Nadine - one of the few gobby ones. "We're doing strange interviews this time. But then, we're strange characters."

Cheryl: "We are a pop band, you know. We would never try to pretend that we're cool indie people or rockers or anything like that. But the type of music that we've been doing, right from the beginning, has always been down to us. We're always interested in changing."

Aha. So maybe a change is in the air, eh? The new single has got some spunky beats to it and... hold up! The girls did V in the summer. Rockin'!

Nicola: "We knew that we would stick out a bit, there. We went down really well in the tent at V, but we don't have any plans to become a festival band at the minute."


Cheryl: "We were shitting ourselves. You hear so many horror stories - don't you - about people weeing in bottles and throwing them on the stage. And booing. Especially when you're a pop band going into the festival thing. It's a scary business but we went down really well. We're really grateful. The tent was rammed and people couldn't get in."

Those that did make it inside were treated to something a bit special. Something kinda ooh-eck, you could say: a Girls Aloud cover version of Kaiser Chiefs' 'I Predict A Riot'. By all accounts, that went down rather better than Sporty Spice's murdering of 'Anarchy In The UK' a few years previously. So what was all that about then?

Nadine: "We did that for our arena tour this year and it went down well. It could have gone either way at the festival, but luckily people really went for it. They were jumping up and down right to the back – it was brilliant."

You like your covers, eh?

Cheryl: "People go on about it like it's a bad thing but we've had that many original tracks, and credible ones at that, that we feel we can do some covers from time to time.

"If we like the song anyway, we enjoy covering it. And sometimes if they don't get covered people never get to hear about them, and they're often great songs. It's good to bring a great song back."

Do you think your fans are hearing some of these songs for the first time then?

Nicola: "Some of them, yeah. Some of our fans are really young."

The subject turns to reality TV. We want to know if they feel the girls feel lucky to have survived this long. Most of their comrades have fallen by the wayside. Look at Hear'Say. And Gareth Gates. Can anyone remember that fat girl's name, even?

It's a question they have clearly been asked a million times before -and the mood of the interview changes dramatically and hilariously the second it is posed. The Others might fend off a million identical questions about guerrilla gigs with a quip, a shrug and a stiff upper lip. Not so, Girls Aloud. They hold no pretensions and groan more than audibly. Arms are folded, eyes are rolled into sockets, one of them glares at your correspondent in an 'I hate your life' way. Funny.

But Cheryl has a go at answering all the same:

"People want to be impressed and they're a lot wiser to pop music these days, "she said. "They won't fall for a shitty pop record. If someone's coming up with something that's not good enough it won't last."

Papa's got a brand new bin bag.

Anybody who knows me or who has had the pleasure of seeing any of the bedsits, houses, flatlets, sheds, bedrooms or hovels I have proudly called my own since my first recce away from the bosom of my family will be surprised to learn this: I am a very tidy person.

I admit, the evidence is not strong. As I sit on the edge of my bed surrounded by carnage, Claptonia Towers is less des res, more res mess. Records, books, mags, CDs, DVDs, posters and other hoarded selections of tat wait patiently to be recycled to the world via that great global clearing house that is eBay. But that's the thing - this junk is not junk, per se. It's just junk in waiting.

In my head, these precarious piles of once-loved 7" singles are already dead to me. I don't get emotional about objects and possessions any more. It's a blessing - it really is. Now, I'm just waiting for the new owners of these things to come and collect them; or rather, to let Paypal and the Royal Mail do the procuring and delivering. That's a very tidy arrangement, to my mind. I am very excited, for instance, at being able to ship a Belle and Sebastian LP to a guy in Indonesia - and not just because of the brass in pocket that is left on this side of the process (great little side effect though that is). I am in love with the idea of getting this stuff out to what is probably a more righteous home than it occupies right now.

My tidying ambitions do not end at eBay. I'm also very keen on filling bin bags with junk and getting them the hell out of the house. There's something very cathartic about putting a load of food packaging or banana skins into a black bag and throwing it all away. But I am a meticulous person, which is why I can spend a whole day on a tidying mission and not have much to show for it. I sometimes think of myself as a reverse archaeologist who so carefully studies all the topsoil that is about to be chucked into a skip that he misses the beautiful Roman mosaic under his feet.

It's chipping away, isn't it? And that's the sort of activity that makes me feel like a tidy person. Get this: that's exactly what this blog does for me. By putting down some of these silly considerations and ruminations, I'm sort of recycling them out of the clutter of my brain. These 'Letters from Claptonia' are as much a part of the whole tidying process as bin day or a run to the Post Office with arms weighed down by eBay parcels. With each blog, I peel a fresh slice from my head and let it wander out there - perhaps, one day, to somebody who'll appreciate it.

It can't hurt. Maybe in time, I will even feel like this computer must do when the movies and music and pictures are all transferred onto discs. Imagine having all that new space...

So, please, be my guest. Take as much or as little as you want from these 'Letters from Claptonia'. I'm just having a bit of a clearout.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Achtung, Birdy!

A short epilogue to the last 'Letter from Claptonia' - the one about Flappy etc.

Today I went for my afternoon constitutional in the secret park near my house. I call it 'secret' because, so far, it remains free of the crowds of well-behaved children and screaming adults that seem to blight the majority of London's green spaces. This one is nice and quiet, with a predominantly orthodox Jewish clientele. Oh, and a gentleman who dresses like a lady - only not very convincingly. Relatively speaking, I must look like a right chav in my t-shirt and Primark jeans. I wouldn't want that important fashion/cultural balance to be tipped, so I shall call it 'Park X'.

Anyway. It was absolutely roasting in Park X this arvo. I sat down in the blazing sun, ready to get stuck into some more of my book (Kurt Vonnegut Jr's 'Welcome To The Monkey House') and my takeaway coffee from the 'Park X' cafe, when my peace was shattered by the "Cra! Cra! Cra!" of random birds. I looked at the pigeons, but they were quiet. I studied the crows, but they too were mute. Not a peep came out of the ducks. No squawks from the geese flying high overhead, either.

Then a blur of green feathers streaked past me. A bird, about a foot long, glided gracefully then flapped frantically towards the tree nearest to me. It landed, was lost for a second or two in its camouflaged state, then flapped its wings and was visible once more. What could it be? An escaped parrot? Or a green woodpecker?

I needed information so I called my mum on my mobile. We both agreed, from her bird reference book, that it must be a woodpecker. Odd that it didn't have a red head, though. Something didn't quite add up. So I elected to take more professional advice. And who better to consult, of course, than a bona fide indie pop star?

I txted Noble from British Sea Power. A fine guitarist and a rampant twitcher. Twas he who taught me about the 'lbj' (little brown job' that is the generic name for a small bird of undetermined species... the sort of creature you can expect to see a lot of on birdwatching jaunts. In seconds I had my answer back in my Nokia: "Parakeets. They are wild in London now. Totally tropical."

"Really?" I txted back, excitedly.

"Make a nice kebab".

I sought a second opinion from The Secretary, a sagely soul in Totnes, Devon. Here is a man who knows his high-flyers, renowned as an expert in ornithology, aviation history and the life and times of Rosa Luxembourg.

"Prob parakeets. Hundreds fuckers across Ldn. Shoot em."

It all fitted in perfectly - these were parakeets. And the more I looked, the more they seemed to fill the Claptonian skies. Further research informs me that there are something like 10,000 of these exotic birds now living in and around London. In the space of around an hour, I saw about six of them.

But what on earth are they doing here? How did they get from their home turf at the foot of the Himalayas to a random tree in Park X, Claptonia? And why on earth would they want to live here?

One fascinating theory is that Jimi Hendrix, star of this week's re-run of the Woodstock movie, released a breeding pair from his London home for a stoned giggle sometime in the late 60s. Apparently, parakeets can live quite happily for a good 30 years - so the birds I spied might well be the chicks of Jimi's original brood.

Which is nice.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Birds, aye.

I'm not what you'd call a bird nut or anything - but I've always held a candle to our feathered friends. As a schoolboy, I'd be hyper-excited to get an invite round to a chum's mum's house for tea if I knew there'd be a budgie squawking away in the corner. And on the rare occasion that I got to square up to a parrot - nose to beak - you can imagine my glee.

While still a shorts-bearing sproglet, I would covet the times that my mum would break up the boring Saturday grocery runs with a quick dive into the pet shop in Sidwell Street. The rabbits, kittens and fish would be cool enough, but it would be the African Greys, the Macaws and the Mynahs in the back room that would grab my full agog attention. The first time a Mynah whistled back at me and a parrot mimicked my dad's "Hello!", I thought I'd faint with joy. Can it really be possible to talk to these animals? To grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals, just like the good Doctor Dolittle?

One time, circa nine or ten years old I think, I suspected a pet budgie might be heading my way for Christmas. That was an exciting prospect but like I say I've never been a bird nut per se - and at that tender, invincible and forever-cosseted age, most things are exciting. I ended up with a whizz-bang Meccano set - ace!

I suppose my relationship with birds took a supercharged leap in my early 30s with the arrival of 'Flappy', a bedraggled but beautiful little crow that I befriended outside the offices of the Western Mail and Echo newspaper in Wales, where I slaved as a hack. The Flappy story is a long one (long enough for Bob Dylan to turn into a ballad, I suspect) and his sad and surreal tale will follow in a later 'Letter from Claptonia'.

For the present, suffice to say Flappy and I became great mates over one summer, autumn and dark winter. I would feed him every day with pork pies blagged from the sandwich shop outside the office. "Is it for your bird? Here you go then..." they'd say, handing over a bag full of miniature pastries. Flappy - who always lived in the same tree - would come hopping down, one branch at a time, when he saw me coming with his lunchtime bounty. I'd break the pies into little bits and toss chunks onto the earth under his tree, his little empire, while I'd sit there and contemplate my existence. There was recognition, respect and something deeply spiritual going on between me and that bird. I was there when he died, at the murderous talons of bigger and stronger crows, one fateful afternoon. I could only watch helplessly as my feathered friend used his last ounce of strength to drag himself into a bush to die. I was devastated. I think at that time something died and was reborn in me too. Don't panic, it's not a religion thing... but it was a big one for me, and I will have to come back to all that.

My next close contact with birds, apart from the nesting swans and ducks that I see in the pond, canal and river near my Claptonian home, occurred on St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly. I was there on a camping trip to see British Sea Power play an extraordinarily rural gig, but I had been blighted by full-on flu. While the band and a gaggle of music press and friends went out for an afternoon pint, I lay shivering in the baking heat, with my thumping head sheltering inside my tent and the rest of me dangling outside to ache in the sun. I drifted off into a feverous sleep, groggy from the illness, the heat and the paracetamol until I was woken by a tapping on my thigh. I brushed off what I assumed to be one of my friends trying to get me up and out for an adventure, but still the prodding continued. I unzipped the tent flap and sat up sharply and angrily - and found myself face to face with a tiny wren who was fearlessly jumping up and down on my thigh.

I sat up a bit and he jumped off. But then he jumped back on again and carried on hopping, seemingly unfazed by the knowledge that I could at any time crush his tiny bones with just one slap. He hopped, chirped and trotted up and down my leg until I realised he wanted a share of the bag of fruit that was sat next to me. I bit off a small section of apple and tossed it at him. From nowhere, his mates came into view - all wanting their own bit of this fruity action.

I'd never seen wild birds acting so tamely, with the obvious exception of Flappy, and it struck me that the Scillian vibe must be a very laid back one - for humans and animals alike.

There is no crime on the Scilly Isles. And just as the locals think nothing of leaving their doors open at night and their cars unlocked with bags in full view on the back seat, so do the birds of St Mary's trust the flightless giants they share the island with to act peacefully.

That would not happen on our mainland, of course, where it seems de rigeur for children to run screaming through frightened flocks of pigeons in parks, unhaltered by their goon-faced, jeering grown-up guardians. In Claptonia, as in most places today, the birds are poised to take flight whenever they need to, which is frequently. That has to be a great shame. Perhaps the trust between man and bird will return one day. Honestly, though, I think that particular bird has flown.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Dancing like my dad

We all have a picture of ourselves stored in our mind's eye. This will generally be a much younger, more invincible model of ourselves. In arguments, we might see ourselves as stern of face and handsome; forceful and commanding. In emotional times, perhaps we picture our caring faces, radiant and beautiful, beaming down benevolently onto others. What we care to imagine might well be a million miles from reality. Why, even now I'm something more akin to Hemingway battering out scintillating prose in a Havana hotel lobby... in my head. But in cold reality, I'm cross-legged and shirtless on top of an unmade bed in an untidy room in Claptonia.

For most intents and purposes, I used to picture myself as the 19-year-old me. Youthful, perhaps a little more stylish, and full of life and adventure. Nowadays, my inner-eye is more likely to present me to myself as something akin to my dad, circa 45 years old.

I think that's a very good thing. I had a great relationship with my dad when I was growing up - though I flinch to recall my teen years. I was Harry Enfield's Kevin gone wild. I must have been a right bastard to live with, but my dad didn't seem to mind. That's what makes dads so great.

I look a bit like him - I look a LOT like my brother. But while neither of us (more's the pity!) seem to have held onto our hair like our dad did, I think we've inherited something much more valuable.

My dad was never the kind of person to pay attention to any kind of negativity or defeatism. He was almost ridiculously ambitious in everything he did - and he had the energy and bravery to follow his dreams beyond their accepted conclusions.

Before I knew him, when he was just a snip of a lad growing up in the 1930s depression, family rumours abound that he and his brother and sisters would be sent to the local market to pinch food for dinner. We really don't know we're born, you know. My dad's parents both died when he was very young, as did his half-brother, and he was packed off to live in a children's home. He never talked about it much, beyond relating the odd heartbreaking tale about spartan Christmases and birthdays as a nipper, but we've since found out a bit more.

As he went into adulthood, he came into his own. He signed up for the RAF and served in Iraq and Kuwait. Then he held down breadwinning jobs to support his brood - us lot - while simultaneously pursuing his callings in life. And this is where I like to think I'm turning into my dad...

He liked football, a lot. And greyhound racing. And athletics. But rather than spectate, jog or have a kickabout in the park, my dad would go the whole hog. He became a referee, he became a steward, then a referee's secretary, then a football league chairman, then a greyhound racer, then an AAA committee member. He'd give lectures to schools - he'd take my class for football training. He became the manager of a major greyhound track. He decided one day he'd like to be a tipster - next thing you know, 'Spinney' is giving tips to readers of the local paper...

In short, he never saw any reason to hold back. Why be a participant when you can be king of all participants?

This is the greatest legacy that my dad passed onto me - this divine sense of drive. Nothing is impossible and everything is achievable. Almost without me noticing, I started on this father'n'son path when I was still in school. I was into astronomy as a kid - why shouldn't I teach myself to an o'level in the subject? Why not build my own telescope? And why not ask Patrick Moore to help? I want to be a journalist when I leave school? So I become one. Simple as. I'm into music? Let's do a fanzine, let's do a label. Let's write for the NME. Then Melody Maker. Then the NME again. Let's manage bands. Let's get stuff in the charts.

I'm not sure what I'll be doing in the coming few years but I know I will have the freedom to do precisely what I want and to an extent that will probably be a pleasant surprise to me. I will try to look at the world both through my eyes and through the eyes of Lew Barding. Because he's somebody to look up to.