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.