Before I could be corrupted by booze, fags, girls and Southern Death Cult, this young man's mind was focused on stargazing.
By 14, I had a telescope, could find my way around the constellations courtesy of the 'Observer Book of the Sky at Night', and had signed up for membership of the British Astronomical Association. The pink card covers of their periodicals hid pages of head-numbing digits relating to lunar phases and the circulation of Jupiter's satellites. No pictures. Just data.
Night after night, west country weather permitting, I would peer through my little refractor at Jupiter from the patio outside my parents' house and attempt to replicate the delicate belts and spots of that planet through pencil shadings on paper templates handed out by Jim Muirden of the Exeter Astronomical Society.
This was a fun group of astronerds, of which I was pretty much the youngest member. I lapped up anything and everything they had going - pub meets, observing outings, coach journeys to places of vague tourist relevance to the heavens.
One weekend in maybe 1979 or 1980, we all schlepped down to Torquay for a meeting of our regional parent group, the Devon Astronomical Association. Eminent faces from the local astronomical scene were all there. And I have since forgotten all of their names.
One of the most eminent was sat right in front of me during the keynote speech of the seminar. Like I say, his name has slipped my mind - possibly forever. But I will never forget the visiting guest speakers or what they had to say.
Sir Fred Hoyle and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe were co-architects of an extraordinarily volatile theory of the evolution of life - that viruses and biological compounds originated from space and were transported about the great vastness by comets. The intimation was that this is how life might have kicked off here on earth.
The eminent local astronomer seated in front of me was apoplectic over these new theories. And he wasn't alone. Outrageous claims were being made. Borderline science fiction was being peddled. And nobody wanted that. Science FACTS, if you please, mister speakers.
The eminent local astronomer let out a snort, then another. He had decided that his contempt for the subject matter would be heard. There followed a 'pah!' of disbelief. Some light laughter rippled about the hall. As the two scientists continued to expand on their extraordinary suggestions, murmurs spread around neighbouring seats as amateur astronuts took the debate off the stage and into the ears of their colleagues. It got noisy. A Q&A session which followed got a little heated. The overall mood, you could say, was 'incredulous'.
For some fortuitous reason, I had my brother's portable cassette recorder with me, as well as an external mic. I recorded the whole speech, but the tape was peppered with rough sonic explosions from the angry stargazer in front of me, such was the violence with which he threw his unbeliever arms above or behind his head at every uniquely preposterous suggestion emerging from the stage.
I hope I still have that tape in a box somewhere. Looking back, this was my "Rites of Spring" moment. Just as Stravinsky had a hard time putting his ballet out there, so Professor Wickramasinghe and Sir Fred Hoyle had a nightmare propagating their theories of panspermia (Wiki it, people) to the amateur scientific community.
Writing 11 years ago, Prof Wickramasinghe described the atmosphere quite succinctly: "In the highly polarised polemic between Darwinism and creationism, our position is unique. Although we do not align ourselves with either side, both sides treat us as opponents. Thus we are outsiders with an unusual perspective - and our suggestion for a way out of the crisis has not yet been considered".
This week, of course, the Philae probe has landed on a comet. Amazing. Oh, and did you see the news today? There are organic molecules there.
I see this as a win for science. But, even more exciting, it's a win for the mavericks who dared to think outside the box. Sir Fred Hoyle died in 2001, aged 86.
Thursday, 31 July 2014
Smalltown England: 1982.
It’s a crime to want something else. It’s a crime to believe in something different. It’s a crime to want to make things happen. Somebody should write a song about it.
I was 18 or thereabouts when I got to know Jon Driscoll. He was more or less the same age, a few months older, and like all teenagers we were each racing to find our voice in the world. I was the new lamb at the local weekly newspaper, having freshly failed all the A-Levels that Exeter College could throw at me.
My life had quickly locked into a circuit of unedifying wordsmithery: a low-rent production line of wedding photo captions, pensioners-pointing-at-potholes and ticker-tape homecomings for local Falkland War “heroes”.
Jon, on the other hand, was getting stuck into something much more righteous – his fanzine, ‘Beast’, was badly printed, badly drawn and barely legible, but an intensely satisfying read.
Its pages (the ones which hadn't worked loose from cheap staples and become lost forever) were messily crammed with local gossip, worthy political rhetoric and stupid cartoon strips like ‘Mr Rubbish’. Death Cult and King Kurt gig reports were common, as were features on local heroes Cult Maniax, DV8 and Toxic Waste. There was information about and for local squatters. The ‘Diary of a Doley’ column was ascerbic fun for early eighties readers. Come 2014, it’s matured into valuable social history.
‘Beast’ was very sweet. Looking back on the few copies I have somehow managed to hoard over the decades, it’s the little things which make me smile my toothiest grins. Things like Jon’s advice on which local grocery shops sell the cheapest carrots.
I was drawn to the zine and to its creator. Jon and I would see a lot of each other at Timepiece, the local alternative (we didn’t have words like ‘indie’ or ‘goth’ back then) nightspot.
We would be at the same gigs, too. A great deal of these were promoted by Jon. And a fair few would include topless compere duties or a poetry set from him. Some of his verse was serious stuff. And a lot of it was about being fat. Take his “I Am Fat” song, for example:
“I am a flabby bugger, I weigh too bloody much.
When I bend over, my feet I cannot touch.
“I overfill the train and overload the bus.
“And when I sit in armchairs, they usually bust.”
Or something like that…
We liked each other, I think. It’s hard to tell when you’re 18. I sense that I could be pretty childish and irritating back then, a trait which Jon delicately tried to address with his poem “Andy Barding Why Don’t You Fuck Off And Die?” It was debuted at a packed Exeter University Pit in 1984 (I was there, fixed of smile and red of face in the shadows). And then it came out in print. Thanks, Jon.
Thick-skinned (and arrogant) as I was, I clung ever closer to the guy. I wrote a few bits for the fanzine, I became a regularish visitor to his slightly smelly first floor flat in Pennsylvania (it’s a part of Exeter). And I helped (or maybe hindered) production of ‘Beast’ by taking a turn at cranking the stiff handle of the strange wet-ink duplicator which sat on a plinth in Jon’s hallway. I have vague memories of my dad providing this machine, a cast-off from Devon County FA newsletter production. Or maybe dad just donated some ink or something. Maybe it was neither. My memory is vague.
Jon had a huge colour TV, no light in his lounge, and always enough cider to go around. My favourite memory of him (and one of my favourite memories from my youth as a whole) is of the two of us prowling the night streets of Exeter for hours in our seriously altered state, exploring craggy moss-covered walls, railway sidings and streets full of parked cars and drunkards. We were young, inquisitive and so very hungry for the adventures of life.
As years rolled on we gradually lost contact. Then one new day of a new career in a new town, I bought ’30 Something’ by Carter USM on a lunch break. I saw Jon's chubby chops dominate the inside gatefold picture and rang up the record company. They put me in touch with someone or other and I soon found myself on a train to Cheltenham, destined for a Carter USM gig and a smiley reunion.
We lost contact again. But then I saw him at Phoenix Festival for another smiley reunion.
We lost contact again. Then a mysterious message came through my Facebook page from an octogenarian woman from Worksop called Haley. “Pssst… it’s me, Jon.”
We chatted a lot through that medium. And through Facebook posts we slipped back into the cheeky way of communicating with each other that had been a staple of our 18-year-old selves.
We tried to fix a meet-up a couple of times, but Jon's ill-health thwarted those plans. Occasionally our chat windows would blaze with sincerity overload as we reminisced about this, that or the other. One late night, with Jack Daniels and coke in particularly bountiful supply at my end, I found myself on the receiving end of a compliment that lifted me so high I will never be able to forget it.
“You’re my inspiration, you know.”
“Fuck off, Jon.”
“You are. I blame you for everything.”
Rest in peace you fat, glorious bastard.
Monday, 14 July 2014
Back in the olden days scraps at gigs were commonplace. Casuals would kick off, cause trouble, goad the ‘sweaties’ into fights. I never got hurt, especially, which explains how I am able to reminisce over such violent scenes from my youth with a contented sigh and a rosy tint to my cracked spectacles.
I recall Kirk Brandon halting an early Spear of Destiny set mid-song to call somebody a ‘wanker’. I remember Ian Astbury imploring a terrified audience to get stuck in with the mightily violent-looking half-stripped chicken dancers occupying (and vehemently defending) the Southern Death Cult mosh pit – THEIR mosh pit. And relatively recently I was part of a scattering crowd who had a guitar targeted and lobbed our way, like some kind of six-string spear, by Noble from British Sea Power.
Violence is not a good thing, of course. It’s ugly and sad and I’m not here to endorse it in any way. But the atmosphere at gigs has since turned so far the other way that it almost seems as if a teeny weeny ruck might not be a bad thing.
Ticket prices, secondary ticket prices, ill-conceived sponsorship deals and an unrealistic sense of artistic value have all led to live music’s downfall. It’s exactly why Arcade Fire are shit these days.
Music should not be about £60-plus tickets. Gigs should not feel like a swift after-work half with mates from CitiBank. Live music should be edgy, weird and open to anything – there should be potential to turn good or bad.
But look at those recent Hyde Park gigs! Shit sound, shit organisation, terrible line-ups in the main, and all stupidly overpriced. There were premium tickets available to allow rich wankers and their wanky mates to SIT DOWN for Neil Young. There’s a grandstand built for them. Like it’s Goodwood or Aintree. Volunteers were wandering around in t-shirts saying “Ask me about getting a better view.” That’s a mountain of wrong, right there.
Barclaycard are one of these companies that should not be allowed to interfere in music. But, ironically, their inability to sell enough tickets could very easily have sparked some kind of glorious revolution. I think it came close.
Faced with a LOT of unsold tickets for their week of Hyde Park gigs, they did the decent thing and faked a clerical error – one which put a shitload of tickets on sale for £2.50 a pop. Their face was saved by internet rumours (good work, Barclaycard interns!) that these were ‘family and friend guest tickets’ that leaked onto the marketplace by accident. But, rest assured, they would all be honoured.
ALL BOLLOCKS. Of course.
Anyway, word spread quickly (hey, well done again interns!) and the gigs were soon more or less sold out – and all without upsetting those idiots who had already spunked £60 to see McBusted or the Liber-fucking-tines. Win!
This was a good thing. But what a pity that these Poundland tickets didn’t fall into the hands of some proper scumbags, eh? Things would have been very different with a few thousand pissed up bad boys and girls, lobbing Strongbow cans at Pimms-sipping picknickers.
A less polite crowd, indeed, might have seen Arcade Fire come onstage with their weak papier mache heads intro scene and call them directly to task for it.
“Oi! Arcade Fire! What the FUCK are you doing?”
These parks and fields were once warzones. I’ve seen piss bottles lobbed at Daphne and Celeste, at Fifty Cent and at Bonnie Tyler. Those were the days, my friends.
OK, so, let’s not go that far. Piss is bad for the hair. But Barclaycard in their ineptitude at least managed to underline the notion that £2.50 is quite enough to pay for a big concert ticket. And it really is, you know. Production costs are only high when they are permitted to get that way. It doesn’t cost THAT much to keep a band on the road, it really doesn’t. There is NO reason, no reason AT ALL, why the Stones cannot play for a tenner.
I hope this turns out to be the start of something. I hope all those people who paid £60 for their Hyde Park tickets get to hear about the £2.50 offer and revolt. I hope more people reject the ludicrous prices being asked of them. High ticket pricing and secondary ticket pricing are strangling music. Sponsorship is strangling music. Cosseted bands are killing music. Something better change.
Saturday, 25 January 2014
Once upon a time I was a newspaper journalist, living and working in Cardiff. Sometimes, after finishing work for the day, I would call in at one of the city centre pubs for a quick drink. Rather a lot of my colleagues were of the same disposition, so we went out together fairly frequently. And every now and then, generally just before a weekend, we would get a gang together, hit the town, and drink a LOT.
We had an established late-night routine which suited such long, boozy sessions well. It would always begin with an animated trawl around the city centre pubs. More than just a few ports of call, naturally. Pints would be sunk, shop would be talked, jokes would be cracked and, like bitches, we would sometimes tear apart the characters of absent colleagues.
Come the dreaded bell (always at 11pm sharp in those days) a call would come from within the party to adjourn to a bar we knew called Kiwi’s. This would be roundly hailed as a BRILLIANT IDEA, if not an especially progressive one. Kiwi’s was our de facto post-pub destination. A no-brainer. And so our small pack of pisshead hacks would rise as one and stagger across St Mary’s Street to extend the night’s revelry.
Kiwi’s harboured many attractive features. Crucially it remained open until very, very late. It was also very handy for hooking us journos up with more of our kith and kin. As various late editions of our daily newspaper were painstakingly put to bed back at our offices, Thompson House, so the tired and thirsty subs and print-room boys would knock off, grab their coats and make for Kiwi’s. A chilled first pint of the night would reward their short, sober walk. And we hacks, already on our tenth or eleventh jars, would be waiting for them with beery grins and a cluster of tables and barstools which we had commandeered for the benefit of all.
Our relationship with Kiwi’s was strong. They wanted our money: we wanted their booze. So we flashed our press cards a bit, jumped the odd queue, swerved the weekend door tax and generally lorded it about a bit in there. This narrow bar, wedged inauspiciously between rinky dinky jewellery stores and fashion boutiques in what was by day a well-to-do shopping arcade, was our press bar of choice - and we made full use of it. We Western Mail-ers were on permanent nodding terms with the doormen, bar staff and guv’nor.
Meanwhile an actual press bar, called ‘Press Bar’ and sited directly opposite the front doors of our place of work, remained entirely unpatronised.
Nobody ever left Kiwi’s early. Or so it seemed. Perhaps we collectively considered it ungracious, in some way, to consider jogging on before the staff decided among themselves that it was high time we were booted out. So we stayed on course, drinking and chattering through most of the wee hours. Every now and then, one or two of us might have ventured up the narrow wooden staircase to the small dancefloor upstairs. But this was rare. The music was generally awful. And there was no bar up there.
Closing time was always late – but it still came, every night, nonetheless. When it did, we would allow ourselves to be ushered out quietly and quickly. We knew and accepted Kiwi’s rules. Then, still sheltered under the arcade’s glass and iron canopy, honourable drunken goodbyes would be said to those parties heeding distant calls from warm beds. Off they would trot, gradually, to their suburban Cardiff digs… more than likely picking up a bag of greasy chips or a kebab on their way to the cab rank.
But, let’s back up. Consider our friends from the nightshift. They started late: they have drunk less booze. They are more than likely gagging for yet more pints. But can this desire of theirs be accommodated? Thankfully, yes. It can.
Only a few minutes’ walk from Kiwi’s, in Charles Street, the super-late drinker’s salvation lurks underground. Very few passers-by suspect any late-night/early morning activity beyond the dozen or so wrought iron gates which punctuate this road. But the experienced eye of the Western Mail nightshifter knows which one to swing quietly open, which concrete basement steps to quickly trot down, and which of Charles Street’s anonymous front doors to gently rap on. Behind that door is a secret all-night bistro.
There’s food, gentle Spanish music and, most importantly of all, a fully-stocked bar.
Just like Kiwi’s, this joint knows its newspaper clientele very well. A barmaid serves drinks, with no sign of ever planning to stop, while the sun outside slowly gains height. And it’s here that the nightshifter will stay, until he himself decides it’s about time to re-emerge, blinking through the cruel daylight and barging past confused city centre shoppers, to head for his home and a few hours sleep behind thick curtains.
And it surely doesn’t need saying? Any dayshift journos who find themselves still up and at it, happy to keep their nocturnal colleagues company through this final stage… well?
They will of course, by this time, be very, very pissed indeed.
Thursday, 16 January 2014
THE DEAD do pretty nicely out of us, the living. We forgive them all mortal transgressions (no matter how irritating they might have been while alive). We would rather focus on treasured memories of earthly goodness. We do what we can to keep their spirits and names alive through misty-eyed remembrance. And we frequently concede that our fondly-related anecdotes, fine and remarkable stories that they are, benefit from the subtle little tweaks in dialogue and circumstance that we bestow upon them. We are proud to be fine ambassadors for our absent friends. Our dearly departed.
We do this because we love them and we miss them. And because we respect and pity them. But there's a little something else in there, too. We're a little worried. We don't understand death, you see. And we cannot be 100 per cent sure that the dead aren't still, you know, here.
That fanciful feeling, probably propagated a little too successfully by religion, that death is followed by something approaching omnipotent immortality, is both appealing and slightly worrying to us mortals. Do we want to be watched over by our dead friends and relatives for the rest of our lives? Is that a beautiful and angelic thing to happen? Possibly not.
A better notion is that of the temporary guest pass. Something that allows the dead to swoop back into the mortal world to maybe say some goodbyes or exert some kind of supernatural influence to universal benefit. That would be a cool thing. And I think it might happen.
My flight of fancy is this: when people die, they re-integrate with the universe. For a short while they are able to exert some kind of influence on the world they have left behind. The dead have superpowers. For a little while, at least.
Here are some anecdotes that will mean nothing to you:
1) My father sent his old car to his funeral.
2) Liz sent a butterfly to her funeral.
3) Ali sent a rainbow to her funeral.
Maybe the transition from life to death is a lot more like going to sleep than we realise. Maybe, when we die, we get a little bonus time to swoop around and do something a little crazy with the world before we are led away from it forever.
We all have to sleep sometime, but before the lights go out. You know. Maybe leave your mark somehow.
I like the idea of a last hurrah. So does E out of Eels. Here's a verse from one of his songs.
"You're dead but the world keeps spinning
Take a spin through the world you left
It's getting dark a little too early
Are you missing the dearly bereft?"
Eels 'Last Stop: This Town'.