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 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.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Town and country

Ten animals seen in or near a garden on the rural outskirts of Exeter:

1) Badger
2) Fox
3) Hedgehog
4) Horse
5) Rabbit
6) Dog
7) Cat
8) Bee
9) Wasp
10) Ant

Ten animals seen on or near the 'Murder Mile' in Clapton, London:

1) Water vole
2) Fox
3) Newt
4) Rat
5) Dragonfly
6) Swan
7) Goose
8) Tadpole
9) Squirrel
10) Heron

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Rocket From the Crib

No sleep till Hammersmith? Brooklyn perhaps? Sod that! I need my shut-eye as much as the next man. But it's not always easy to find a place to lay one's hat. Your body may be crying out for a bed, but you can't always get what you want. So you have to improvise - make your bed, lie in it, get down deeper on down and try not to roll over Beethoven. You see, when you're all bound for morningtown - and it's still many miles away - whatever gets you through the night is alright. It's alright...

In no particular order, then, here follow ten of the most ridiculously rock'n'roll nights I have enjoyed to date. I hope there will be many more ludicrous crashing-out adventures to follow. In the meantime, in the words of Robert Smith and his chums, let's go to bed. Do do do do...

1) In a two-man tent with David Devant AND his Spirit Wife on the misty, rain-lashed slopes of the Sussex Downs. The Vessel's glamrock-battered eardrums were protected by plugs, but I still managed to ruin any chance he might have had of a refreshing sleep with the might of my awesome snoring. Very proud.

2) In the entrance lobby of an apartment complex in Dublin. A paperboy was buzzed in through the outer door and we followed... about six of us. We huddled together in thin strips across the full width of the entrance hall, meaning anybody who wanted to come in or out had to tiptoe through the slumbering torsos.

3) Inside half of a former film-prop giant grizzly bear suit at the Isle of Wight Festival. Earlier that day, I had appeared onstage with British Sea Power enacting a mock battle betwixt band and beast. Except it didn't seem all that 'mock' at the time. At one point, Noble (the band's guitarist) stabbed Ursine Ultra (the bear) in the face with a plastic heron purchased from a garden centre. This violent moment, preserved on the official festival DVD, is of course my finest hour. The lower regions of the bear are very warm and cosy btw.

4) In a hospital in Sheffield. I befriended a fanzine-writing doctor at a Rocket From The Crypt gig in the Leadmill, and he said I could crash at his workplace. Sounded good to me. Of course, if I'd thought this through I would have realised that his place of employment is Sheffield Hallam Hospital - and crashing over 'at his' means sleeping in a bona fide hospital bed. I woke up on a ward feeling rather disconcerted.

5) At a Bruce Springsteen gig in Hyde Park. I was completely hammered from a Glastonbury run followed by a night shift... followed by Neil Young in London followed by a night shift... followed by this. I fell fast asleep lying down on the grass in the heat of the summer sun. When I heard Bruce come onstage to massacre 'London Calling' I could think of no logical reason to unzip my eyes. So I had another forty winks. And so it continued until I heard 'Born To Run', about an hour and a half into the set. By that time, I'd determined not to even look at The Boss, so I walked out of the park backwards. I think I could be the first person ever to have gone to a Springsteen gig and not once glanced at the stage.

6) In a telephone box on Haldon Hill in Devon, in the middle of a winter cold snap - having missed the last train home after a John Martyn gig. My friend Ju and I set fire to telephone directories to keep warm. Eventually, when the cold got too much to bear, we rang his dad and got him to pick us up. Shouldn't think he was best pleased.

7) On a night bus in a garage somewhere on the outskirts of London. 'Gay' Keith and I had nowhere to stay after a gig in the Electric Ballroom. Then we hit on the bright idea of using our travelcards to get night buses to random distant places and back - thus racking up a good 30 minutes or so of sleep at a time. It worked spiffingly until one early-hours run out to High Barnet ended with the bus diverting back to a depot, going through the bus wash and parking up for what was left of the night - with us two sleeping beauties oblivious to it all on the top deck. We made our ginger escape around 5am, then headed for the 'Hotel Circle Line' where a continuously-running tube provided a much cosier environment to catch some zzzzs.

8) At five different Spiritualized gigs. I like the band, but I can't stay awake when they're playing. Something to do with the hypnotic effect of the music coupled with the strobe lights, I reckon.

9) Standing up in a crowd at Crystal Palace Bowl during a Ride set, 1990. Pixies were headlining. It had been a long day - Cud were difficult to sleep through but Ride were not. I had been practising trying to sleep while standing for some weeks before this, thinking it would make a great party trick. I never managed it free-standing, but helped by a sardine-esque crowd, I got 20 winks or so while Ride hammered through 'Leave Them All Behind'.

10) In a 24-hour kebab joint inhabited by mentalists and a man with blood dripping from each of his fingers.