Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The death of an octopus.

The fish market on Quai des Belges in Marseille is a heck of a place. It must have been a mess in 1943 when the Nazis smashed it up, but it's since been rebuilt as a fully functioning seafood outlet and (for curious British visitors like myself) a free aquarium.

Fishermen line the harbour with blue plastic trays on legs, filling them with eels, crabs, lobsters, octopi - whatever their nets and pots have dragged out of the sea that morning. A bucket or two of sea water is added to keep them alive for a bit so proper freshness of wares can be demonstrated. And to give tourists like me something to look at.

For the creatures in the trays it has to be a one-way trip. I assume any animals remaining unsold after the morning trade will be thrown to the hungry gulls who squawk their impatience from the walls of the Vieux-Quai. No point chucking them back. The pressure change, warmth and dryness of air above the Mediterranean waters would surely kill these deep-sea creatures, horribly. After a while.

But, for now, they're alive and dancing a final sub-aquatic tango in an alien place. The lobsters and crabs, crammed together into one plastic tray, are clacking and crawling over each other. Some of the bigger crabs have their powerful claws clipped together with bright blue elastic bands so they can inflict no injury on fisherman, customer or fellow crab.

A few trays along, I catch sight of the octopi. Three or four are writhing in a few inches of water at the bottom of a box. Their suckered tentacles are both beautiful and repulsive, in the same way that a big-ass spider might be a compelling spectacle but completely terrifying (to me). An octopus in front of me is pushing his head up out of the shallow pool, and it seems for a moment as if his small, blinking eyes are looking upwards to make contact with mine.

As he (it might be a she - I have not a clue) wriggles on, a Marseille woman in winter coat and scarf leans into the tray and points out two octopi to the man facing her across the stall. A rough hand grips one octopus by its head and a mess of heavy, wet flesh and tentacles is plucked out of the tray and dropped into a pink plastic bag. A second animal follows. In seconds, the handles of the bag are tied in a loose knot and the whole wriggling heap is dropped roughly onto some scales beside the counter.

The pair are weighed and a price per kilo is offered and accepted with a nod from the shopper. The bag is untied again, and while the woman searches her purse for Euros the fisherman's hand pulls one of the animals back out of the bag. I see its almost-human eyes again and see its tentacles flail about in confusion. Then, in a flash, I see another hand drive a knife or screwdriver or similar quietly and without fuss into the octopus's head. It stabs through its fleshy underneath, through its beak and to its brain somewhere between its eyes. The tentacles droop slowly. From animal to dinner in a few short seconds - as easy as chopping up a carrot.

And that was the end of the octopus.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The shock of the new.

Early on a Sunday morning, before the birds or car-booters have woken, is a great time to see London. A few weeks ago, when the volcano did for all the 'planes, the view across Peckham Rye from the heights of Forest Hill was particularly spectacular.

The sky was a rich indigo canvas on this day, being peculiarly void of all vapour trails, smoke and noise. Through the van windscreen, as I crept over the precipice of the hill to begin the slow descent towards the heart of London, I could see the whole city spread out before me. It was quite some picture: St Paul's Cathedral, a handful of churches, a bridge or two, Parliament maybe, Monument certainly. These brick and stone relics from time glowed warmly under the young sun. The breaking day seemed warm and inviting to my tired eyes - but for one detail.

Overshadowing it all was the stamp of modern man. The Gherkin, the towers of banking commerce, the wire and glass around Liverpool Street all glowered over these lesser buildings like bullish older brothers. The littler constructs seemed like an irritant to their larger neighbours: they were getting in the way. Of progress. The low, fat moon added insult to injury. Nature and history - elegant, important history - were being swamped by this newness.

My rose-scented image of fresh London parkland grass was wiped from my mind's nose by a fog of diesel pumps, burning rubber and pollution. London suddenly turned ugly and damaged. But then, just as quickly, the scene flipped and these super-modern buildings took on a beauty of their own. The swollen, sunlit satellite glowing behind their walkways, elevations and mobile phone masts served to illustrate a unique, modern geometric beauty. Not so bad after all, eh?

And so, in different lights, London declares differing interests. I've no doubt that these historic buildings, in their original context, would have been surrounded by the ugliest of squalor, smog and disease-ridden streets. So this modern world must surely be better? Right? No?

That's the dichotomy of it all. As I look and wonder at London in the early morning, with its futuristic buildings towering over the landmarks like an opening scene from a far out 1960s sci-fi film, I have to wonder hard: which do I prefer? The here and now or the there and then?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The devil in the detail.

When Gordon Brown fell on his sword this week, he did so with a great deal of dignity. It's a shame that his odious successors do not share the same quality.

Clegg is this century's first national traitor. He took the king's shilling and sold his centre-left party and electorate out to the right wing. Rubbish. 24 hours after this sickening cow-tow, he was warming his feet in Cameron's cast-off slippers and making perverse u-turns on Trident and immigration policy. More misery will surely follow.

What do you think? If the polls had returned a radically different result, would Labour have sold their souls to the Tories for the chance - any chance - to co-govern? Of course not. In matters of basic political ideology, it's apparent that Brown has his principles and will stick to them. Clegg, to his eternal disgrace, will not. That's basic schoolboy rule number one broken, right there: he should have asked his mate from Eton about that.

Brown delivered his retirement speech with a great deal of humility and perhaps a whiff of relief that his shift was through. For perhaps the first time since he'd been elected PM he was able to slip back into the role of card-carrying Labour man: and it suited him.

There was no such dignity surrounding Clegg or Cameron. Guilt and shame shrouded the former, a desperate cluelessness the latter. Cameron's opening address showed a man strikingly out of his depth, still spouting party political rhetoric when the time for all that was over. He sees the country, I think, as little more than a bloody big council. He struck me as a winger; a conman who somehow managed to swindle his way into the country's top job. He knows he doesn't really belong at No 10, but he'll pop the champagne anyway and do his best to shuffle through. Our American friends have been here before. Hail to the thief.

Brown made his way to Buck House in a blue Daimler. Cameron was in a silver Jaguar. Am I alone in finding this vehicular choice a little insidious? They're very similar cars, yet the Daimler has always borne a sedate, British, gentlemanly distinction... while the Jag seems representative of either East End gangsters or the 1960s cop cars that chase after them. And the silver paintwork is synonymous of the garish USAF Mustang fighter planes of WW2 - rather more gung-ho than the Spitfires and Hurricanes in their camouflage colours.

Brown retired from the hot seat with great decorum and dignity. Cameron came swaggering in with just a little too much pride in himself. Luckily, perhaps, we all know what pride comes before.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Annexe

Cartwright, Mackey, 'Chalkie' White, Pearson, 'Bummer' Bob Staddon and other teachers (whose names I stand little chance of remembering) would always do their best to impress the same notion onto all of us Hele's School boys: that the years we spent in their classrooms would be the happiest of our lives.

Of course, as rebellious urchins with snot-stained blazer sleeves, scuffed shoes and heads full of mischief, we would never accept such a fanciful notion. And, a few heart-warming episodes aside, I still don't. I think the best years came later. But I have a certain fondness for these formative times - and I still recall some of the more enjoyable details as well as the moral lessons I learned way back then.

The first two years of 'big school' were spent on a semi-derelict former POW camp on the edge of the city of Exeter. I was in form 22B in 1976, aged 12. It evolved into 32B after a year. Our first home-base was a once-portable temporary wood cabin in a square of grass between the more permanent 1940s brick blocks on the old military barracks. All of these huts surrounded in a typically random arrangement (to confuse would-be Luftwaffe pattern bombers) a large quad, where we would run around, play football or terrorise each other with tales of invading fourth or fifth form bullies.

At lunchtimes and breaks, a few pence could be made through a rudimentary shove ha'penny game, up against the wall of the block where Cartwright took woodwork. And once a week or so, all these pennies could be blown at the Tuck Shop, or Chalkie White's stamp auctions.

We had a school hall which abutted onto a canteen where paper dinner tokens pinched off a roll like bus tickets were exchanged for meals on small plastic plates, laid out on semi-hexagonal, yellow formica-topped tables. We had a metalwork room that smelled of oil and allegedly had a wild mouse in residence, and there were a couple of science blocks where we frequently ran amok with stolen chemicals. Away from the main drag was a music room where inappropriate records with naughty words were brought in to spin on the cumbersome school gramophone whenever Chalkie couldn't be arsed to try to teach us anything.

We behaved horrendously around our science teacher, Mr Urry, who drove a three-wheeler car and had not even the slenderest inkling of how to control us. Poor sod. And we were constantly reminded by one particular teacher - I don't remember his name but can picture him now, plain as day - that there were kids in Papua New Guinea who would 'cut off their right hands' (his words) for a chance of the sort of education which we were permanently so flippant about. Well, whoopee doo...

I remember my first (and last) after-school detention, but I don't remember what it was for. I remember getting into HUGE trouble for stealing exercise books and other bits and pieces, and I remember the alternating piping hot/ice cold showers in the grit-covered games block next to the quad.

Once I'd left, I never expected to ever have cause to return. But for shits and giggles I went back to the annexe a few years ago and took a cautionary look around. The site, under development according to a large wooden sign, was fenced off from the roadside but I was able to crawl through a gap in the hedge, a 40-something intruder with no plausible alibi if I were to be nicked by security. The whole place was protected by guard dogs, according to the warning sign, but once through the hedge I could see or hear none. And I could see or hear nothing particularly worth protecting, either.

All the brick-block buildings had already been torn down to their foundations. Grass and even a few young trees were growing in tufts through wide chasms in the long-abandoned concrete floor of what had been the school hall. With a little effort, I was able to work out my old routes from science block to English class... past the pathway where I was (quite justifiably) given a bloodied nose in front of a gaggle of 20 or so baying boys by Paul Hooper in 1976. I'd called him a 'turd'. Sorry Paul.

I found deep track marks where 22B's home classroom had once stood, and recalled setting off a load of fireworks there (brought back from family hols in Sweden). I walked up and down steps to a maths block that I'd last walked up and down 30 or so years before - with the obvious difference that these now went nowhere. And I identified the path to the gateway towards the main road, which led to Top Field, down Wood Water Lane and to my home - where in the 1970s my dad would have been waiting in his armchair, having finished his super-early shift delivering bread, to hear my adventures or misadventures of the day.

I also found part of the floor of the shower block with broken water pipes still sticking out of the drains like a mini ground zero; a perverse shrine to bad, bad rugby matches on turf which seemed to always be intercut with razor-sharp granules of sand. Not good on the knees. I picked up a piece of floor tiling and twisted it between my fingers, letting boyhood feelings, memories and ghostly voices slip through the decades towards me. I stood in the quad and had a good look around, feeling guilty and a little angry with myself for getting so nostalgic and almost tearful. "They're just the remains of buildings," I sort of reassured myself. "What am I thinking? That this place should be kept as a permanent memorial to my youth, just in case I one day want to have another look around? Ha."

I put the tile fragment on the dashboard of my car and drove away. The annexe has since been completely remodelled into housing blocks and bears zero resemblance to its past life. I caught it just before it completely lost its shape. In time, the souvenir shard of tile that I took back with me to London disappeared somewhere too - as all keepsakes must, eventually. It's time to say goodbye to the old Annexe. Goodbye.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Last Stop: This Town

The Thames. Its clippers, the Victorian bridge lit by street lamps, moonlight and Venus. The voices of drinkers and foreign students drifting upwards towards the modern skyscrapers and wharves. London at night, beside the river, is so beautiful it gives me a huge ache inside.

I find it easy to picture my soul released and flying over this fairytale scene, on its last stop to this town, delighting in the hubbub while mourning each passing second of its final flight a few metres above the lapping waves.

I am invisible. As I rise gently through the air the drinkers keep drinking, the tourists keep tourist-ing. They are unaware that a life snuffed-out is singing its swansong above their heads. What a beautiful way to go!

I so hope that this is the way we all get to leave the party. Dramatically, quietly and in a special and personal way. Like holidaymakers at the end of a season, packing bags and heading for home after an exhilarating trip to sunny climes, richer from the experience. How tantalising it is to dream that a surreal final fly-past could be waiting at the end of it all. And how preferable to the gloomy reality. Box. Earth. Fire.

What a shame, though! To have to say goodbye to all this, for all eternity. How great it would be to pop in, from time to time, to check in on this ever-evolving planet. Perhaps we do. In the meantime, I try to appreciate it for what it is - but in so doing I am forced to also accept that one day my carnival will be over. Sooner or later, it will be time to shuffle off. No lingering goodbyes, no postcards, no 'phone calls. Just goodnight Irene. And thanks for all the shoes.

Living in and for the moment is the best that one can hope for. And what a blessing it must be to be able to fully appreciate that.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Never mind the ballots.

I have enjoyed an illustrious political career in my two score and five years.

Not really. Though watching the newest crop of televised idiots on the baby-kissing trail, I am reminded of several personal brushes with party politics: some funny, some like sharing a bath with Hitler.

I had the misfortune of meeting John Hannam, the since-disgraced philanderer and Conservative MP for Exeter, when I was 14. To my discredit, I was standing in my school's mock election as a Tory candidate. To my further discredit, I bloody won the thing. This might have had more to do with the stickers and rosettes that I was palming off to my circle of mates (schoolboys LOVE stickers) than my considered electioneering speeches. I had blagged these freebies from the monster-like Hannam when I went to his campaign office to ask for help with my project. His lackeys gave me a bumper bag of balloons, badges et al and pushed me into the hallowed central office to meet JH himself.

"So you want to be an MP just like me, do you?" he'd boomed with a twisted grin on his face. "Well, good for you! There's loads of money in it, my boy." He laughed sickly. I disliked this man a lot. I was not his boy. I vowed to somehow make up for my election-winning disgrace and a few years later I became a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. For a year.

By that time, I'd become a news journalist - a job which brought me face to face with some of the biggest politicians du jour. I remember interviewing a grossly unpleasant William Hague on his appointment to the Welsh Office - a job he clearly had absolutely zero interest in. Similar story: John Redwood. But I loved meeting and interviewing the fantastic Michael Foot and his dog, and I even had a bit of a laugh with Neil Kinnock. Kind of. When I was introduced to him as 'the gentleman from the Western Mail' he retorted 'there are NO gentlemen on the Western Mail'. Charmed, I'm sure. The work experience wannabe hack who accompanied me to the interview did a cracking job of knocking him down a peg or three. When Kinnock admitted that he sometimes found it hard to argue against Margaret Thatcher in Commons because she's 'a woman', the cub reporter wasted no time in telling him: "that's bollocks, Mr Kinnock." I suspect she went on to become a fine journalist.

Other meets? I followed Robin Cook around a hospital and found him a bit 'meh'. Mo Mowlem gave the most arse-crushingly dull speech I have ever had to sit through, and Geoffrey Howe was surprisingly decent. Jeffrey Archer, unsurprisingly, was a massive wanker.

While working on a Sunday paper in Plymouth, I would also have regular contact with Lord David Owen aka Dr Death, who at that time was a regular face on 'Spitting Image'. It was fantastic to be able to interview a real-life muppet.

I covered a few elections and by-elections. I fondly remember a regional BBC producer sleep-muttering directions at a portable TV in the corner of some count or other as the national round-up showed Michael Portillo unexpectedly losing his seat. "That's it," he suggested to an imaginary camera crew, squaring up to the tiny screen. "Nice... nice... stay on the face. Stay on the loser's face. Hold that frame... fill the screen with his disappointment..."

But my favourite political encounter, of all time, has to be the time Harold Wilson came to my 'hood. My dad walked me to the Labour Party HQ on the corner of our road, where the pipe-smoking PM was to make an appearance. It was my fifth birthday and, while I clearly remember the crowds and the BBC outside broadcast TV cameras on the street corner, I also remember the bollock naked hippy on the roof across the street who pelted the PM with flour bombs. He was led away by the bobbies for a clipped ear and tanned backside, and I was led home for banana sandwiches.

These were great times. Much greater than 2010, sadly, when living, breathing Nazis are allowed to share an election platform with slightly lesser evils like Tories. My local BNP candidate, Steve Tyler, seems a particularly seedy character. Worse, even, than Hannam and Hague. But not Archer, of course. Tyler's ready for any questions you might have, by the way. His number: 07804 149103.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Tea with Vincent

The Drains were a rather brutally-bad punk band from Newport in the late 1990s. They had the misfortune of having me as their singer and guitarist. Mike Morgan from The Five Darrens was the bass player and floating drummers included Slim, Carl Bevan from 60ft Dolls and Steve Evans from Novocaine.

We only ever played a small handful of rather terrible gigs. A couple in the Legendary TJs, a couple in Le Pub, one in the Riverside. I would post an mp3 but I've never had one. Somewhere is a live tape, but it's terrible. And probably lost. But I thought I would resurrect this song for Vincent Van Gogh's birthday, nonetheless.

It was written with him in mind at a time when I had the cool breeze of Prozac fanning around my face. I was in a bad shape mentally but was on my way back up the cliff. I felt some kind of connection with the painter. I decided that I might be able to help him out. Ha.

The song was inspired by my long-term desire to liberate his paintings from the galleries that imprison them, and to burn these jails down. I've always considered his paintings to be rather unhappy where they are. Particularly in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which is a deeply unsettling place. This feeling of Vincent being wronged by his legacy was compounded by the chance sighting of a thin, ginger-haired figure in the window of a train to Cardiff. The traveller was the spitting image of Vincent's self portraits. In the song, I put the sighting down to Wendy: an old work colleague. Why? Because Wendy nearly rhymes with 'friend'. The Drains were not too subtle. I did say!

Anyway. Written-down lyrics are the height of pretension, unless you're Bob Dylan or something, which I'm not. But for Vincent, on his birthday, here are the lyrics to 'Tea With Vincent'. The offer of a cuppa still stands of course. I would get the absinthes in - but I don't think that would be a good idea...


Are you watching from the stars?
Have you heard of aeroplanes? Or motor cars?
Are you watching from the sky?
Have you seen your film? It's brutal, how you die.

I've just made a pot. Would you like me to pour you a cup?
I saw your picture in a shop. I took it home, I hung it up.
Won't you come back down? I'd be so proud to show you around.
We could take your pictures out - and burn the galleries down.

Let me introduce my friend. her name is Wendy
And she'll never talk again.
She thought she saw you on a train. Had to pinch herself
And blink and look again.

I've just made a pot. Would you like me to pour you a cup?
I saw your picture in a shop. I took it home, I hung it up.
Won't you come back down? I'd be so proud to show you around.
We could take your pictures out - and burn the galleries down.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Remembering John Sicolo

John Sicolo was a local legend and much, much more. He was an international treasure.

The tributes pouring in on social network sites (more than 3,000 people signed up to his Facebook memorial page in less than 24 hours - and his passing was recorded as the most ‘tweeted’ about subject yesterday) pay testament to a man who was loved, respected and admired by thousands.

Newport TJs might not have been a particularly unusual place compared to the rest of the UK live music circuit, but the huge character that was John Sicolo made it unique in many ways. His legendary hospitality (he would frequently put visiting bands up for the night in his own house and he would always cook them a hearty dinner) is still talked about across the globe. Therapy?, Green Day, The Lemonheads and thousands more have all benefitted from his genial hospitality. And they don’t forget. Laurie Lindeen, singer with Minneapolis band Zuzu’s Petals, wrote on his tribute page on Facebook today: “Such a lovely, generous authentic human being. In his home was my first conscious lesson of seeing what a family could be. Now he’s joined back with his beloved, may he rest in peace.”

When more and more local bands started to form around the influence of so many American, Canadian, Japanese and European punk and alternative groups, John was right there supporting in every way possible. I promoted several band nights in TJs and John never charged me a penny for hire of the club or its facilities. And when I set up a fanzine (Frug!) and record label, John was right there with encouragement, practical help and a financial buffer. The compilation LP I released in 1994, ‘I Was A Teenage Gwent Boy’, was dedicated to him and his late partner Trilby Tucker (the T in TJs). Right now, I’m thankful that John turned up at the photo session for that record. His face is on the sleeve, in record collections the world over, for ever.

John was a great friend, a fantastic raconteur, a really excellent cook and just the kind of inspiration that a young ambitious buck could wish for. He was much loved by all the bands he saw along the way and helped propel to success: 60ft Dolls, Catatonia, Skindred, Rocket From The Crypt and many, many more. He was much more than a club owner: he was a kindred spirit, a guiding light in many respects and a willing participant in the still largely unheralded artform that was our rock’n’roll. He was very quick to recognise the value of our uncompromised ambitions and dreams, and he dived in with as much help as he could offer.

Personally, I will never forget his welcoming call whenever I would walk into TJs (“Andy Bastard!”), or the frequent dead arms (John liked to greet regular visitors with a playful punch). There are so many good times associated with John locked away in my memory that I am guaranteed many happy future years of recollection and remembrance.

When the work that we young folk of Newport did in the early to mid 1990s is finally given the recognition it deserves, John’s part in that process will truly be recognised. For now, the world will have to catch up with the 3,000+ (and growing) participants to his tribute page. We know. We know.

Whatever happens to TJs in the future, it’s what went on inside the walls that counts the most. I sincerely hope that John’s legendary frame will one day be commemorated with a big, big bronze statue and placed somewhere prominent in the city. Great writer though WH Davies might have been, I think it’s time Newport celebrated a more modern cultural icon.

I really did think he would outlive us all. This is a devastating time and my heart goes out to John’s family.

Tara John. You rock!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Remembering Mark Linkous

Sparklehorse never bothered my radar much, beyond me listening to their records a few times and attending one or two of their gigs. I have a strong memory, though, of Mark Linkous sprawled flat on his back on the stage of Bristol's Fleece and Firkin, delivering his songs with eyes fixed to the ceiling. He was either too lethargic or too depressed to stand up with his bandmates. He just lay there, his limp hand occasionally bringing the mic just close enough to his mouth for his cracked voice to be heard.

The tortured soul. Seen a few of these over the years. Most are entertaining or enthralling. 'E' from Eels manages to tick many boxes by turning his stupidly unhappy family background into great music, gushing with humanity and soul. It's a pleasure to empathise, to learn.

Depressed performers make great art but how sad it is - how very, very sad - to lose one. Musicians and music fans have always seemed like family to me, in a way, and when somebody like Mark Linkous is moved to take his own life one cannot help but wonder if there was anything one could have done.

Mental healthcare and attitudes to depression have come on leaps and heaps over the last half a century. Prescription drugs, meditation, counselling and self-help techniques can all help to keep people alive until they can figure their own way out of their abyss.

You would think that music would have a cathartic effect, and maybe it does. But while artistic expression might sometimes help to purge the heart and soul of self-destructive thoughts, it can also leave an unhappy person that much more open and vulnerable. When you set yourself up as a tortured troubadour ('the dog that ate your birthday cake' as Mark would have it), how easy is it going to be to find a happy course through life?

I'm very sad that Mark Linkous decided to take his life. Staying alive is very tough for some people. While many find it easy to find joy in living, some people need to summon up enormous amounts of courage and determination to get through each day. If you know somebody like that, please do what you can to help them.

It's a wonderful life, for some. Damn that black dog. Damn it to hell.

Friday, 5 February 2010

In bed, no one can hear you scream.

I like to wake up gently in the morning. Anything less than gentle is rude - a rude awakening. I've had a few of these lately.

I woke myself up screaming once. What was all that about? I'd been in the midst of a colossally complicated dream. I have since forgotten most of the gory details. Towards the end of it, though, I do recall being inside a complicated house with lots of floors, lots of rooms and cubbyholes. It looked very familiar because this labyrinthine palace had appeared in my dreams before, ages and ages ago. I remember clearly the route to what I identified as my part of the house: I have to walk to the front room, climb through a trapdoor in the ceiling, hoist myself backwards into another passage, go down some steps and along a short landing, then up some more steps and into a narrow corridor. Home sweet home is along the passageway on the left (hope that's clear?).

Except on this occasion, my home was less than homely. I had been invaded by lots of people who, while seemingly harmless enough, were not welcome all the same. I had no clue what their business was. Why were they in my house, touching my stuff? Invading my space? The bloody nerve! I was not best pleased, and when I finally made it to the door of my room my eyes fell on a most disturbing scene. Somebody had (gasp!) tidied the place up and put the Hoover around, and a packet of tobacco had been left on the bedside table (I don't smoke). Harmless, relatively, but this is a dream and if I want to over-react I will. So I screamed. Nothing came out of my mouth, so I screamed harder. "Wah! Wah! WAAAH!" I wailed, until I literally woke myself up - still screaming silently.

Follow that? OK. A few days later I woke myself up laughing. I'd been trying to show two Italian girls how to catapult a huge heart-shaped projectile into the air with a massive rubber band. That has to be super-symbolic, eh? Anyway. The ladies couldn't grasp the technique and kept getting it wrong, so when a huge wooden speedboat-galleon type vessel cruised past at a rate of some knots, they ran off. The boat circled on the horizon and sailed back into view. As it banked on the waves, it tipped enough for me to see Stewie Griffin from Family Guy on the upper deck. He was dressed as the Pope with a mitre, a sinister grin and an arm around each girl. "Victory is mine!" he proclaimed. I laughed and laughed and laughed, and continued to laugh after my nocturnal chortling had woken me up. That was a good one - and if you're reading, Seth McFarlane, you can have it. It's on me.

The last one was not so good. I had been anaesthetised by a dentist and was barely conscious. But as I felt him fiddle with my teeth, it sort of dawned on me that I shouldn't be unconscious at all. I shouldn't even be at the dentist. So I tried to bring myself back into the waking world to make it stop. But it was too difficult to focus - I was too groggy. I had to force myself awake, both from the unnerving situation in my dream and from sleep itself. It was an unpleasant experience which led to even more macabre thoughts throughout the day. Not happy.

And on that bombshell. G'nite all.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Remembering Dudley Harris

One of the coolest things about being a 12-year-old kid with older sisters is the boyfriends they bring back to the house. My elder sister, Joy, used to date a David Bowie fan. I inherited the copy of Aladdin Sane he originally bought for her as a result. The lad himself, who I remember sported a fine shade in black nail varnish, didn't last too long. My dad scared him off with the unforgettable exchange: "Do you intend to marry my daughter?" "No, sir." "Thank God for that..."

Both Joy and my other sis, Chris, would sometimes frequent the Quay Club and Tiffany's, Exeter's hip'n'happening mid 1970s nightspots. Boys, one has to presume, would have been involved.

One fine day, Chris brought home a particularly cool kid called Dudley to meet the family. He worked for a jeweller's shop, had David Essex hair and an infectious laugh buried under a dyed-in-the-wool Devonian accent. He wore platform shoes, his collars were of the standard mega-girth and there was a lot of brown in his wardrobe. A keeper, in other words. Welcome to 1976. Or was it 1975?

As the wee kid in the family, I was spoiled rotten by this newcomer. Dudley splashed out a fair few quid on first day covers of collectable stamps for me to hoard. And he eagerly joined me out on the patio in my passion for astronomy. Boys, eh? As his relationship grew with Chris, I'd get taken along on little day trips with the two of them in her rather suave Singer Chamois, which always smelled strongly of those little traffic light air fresheners that dangled like scented talismans from the rear view mirror.

A year or so down the line, in 1977, skateboarding became fashionable for the very first time. I had to get involved - and I needed Dudley's help. He came up with the perfect solution, courtesy of a single roller skate and a plank of wood. I have perfect recall of Dudley's face in the passenger window of that Singer as he and my sis pulled into Spinney Close, his thumb aloft and skate in hand, victory beaming across his face.

Dudley and my brother, Graham, bonded strongly through music and I sort of tagged behind and tried to join in where I could. I got a Sex Pistols tape from a kid at school, which Dudley listened to on headphones, and I remember him bringing home the Bowie 'Thin White Duke' bootleg, borrowed from a chap at the bakery where he now worked alongside my dad.

Records were pooled in the family, which meant I got to borrow Dudley's 'Suffragette City' single (yes, there is a strong Bowie theme emerging here - even though Dudley was at that time an ardent Elton John fan). I'd run the short distance home from school every afternoon to give it a spin. And I borrowed his copy of 'Stage', the live album from 1978. I still have it.

One of my happiest memories of Dudley is from seven or so years ago, when I was on a visit to Exeter. We took a trip in my car down to a massive boot sale, where I rummaged for stuff to stick onto eBay and Dudley looked for reggae singles to add to his pile at home. We were each lost in our own little worlds, but having an excited giggle together.

Nowadays, if I want a piece of Dudley I only have to look at his children. He comes pouring out of Tracey, Mark and Kirsty. They look and sound so much like him and they have his peculiar inner strength, in spades. At least one of them has his appetite for spuds.

On his last day on this planet, I got a call from my sister to say the doctors were about to turn off the machine and he'd be leaving us, gently, in about 20 minutes. I was a little under 100 miles away, alone, in my house in South Wales.

I spent the first five minutes wondering what to do... then I hit upon my plan. I dug out his old copy of Stage, and put it on my turntable. By the time the record got to "Heroes", the 20 minutes was up. I imagined Dudley climbing ever-higher through the sky. So I cranked the volume up a bit. I hope he got to hear it. I'm going to put that LP on again today, but track three on side one will be more appropriate this time.

Five years. Not forgotten.

Thursday, 21 January 2010


There's a new Facebook 'app' that seems every bit as pointless as Farmville, Mafia Wars and the rest. I've been sent an 'angel', I've been invited to look at it and I'm being prompted to send it back to a Facebook chum.

I'm not going to do this. Though I see the attraction.

For many years I was a bit of an angel freak. I bought and read just about every angel book you could imagine and a few that you really couldn't make up. 'Dolphins, ETs and Angels' was a particularly wild one. Back in those days, I was heavily boned up on the subject. There wasn't a lot I didn't know about angels. And I still remember a lot of it today.

It's a broad and complicated subject because the very essence of the word has been subverted through the ages. The Christians did a good job of rather unrighteously recruiting angels to their own cause, and Renaissance artists did an even better one of blowing the image up into the archetypal handsome white dude with wings.

The last time I saw one, in the flesh as it were, it was neither a religious event nor a winged deity. It was a rich, glowing orb of indeterminable size and density - and it identified itself by putting on a little show of aerobatics. In my lounge.

With the benefit of 15 or so years hindsight, I am finally beginning to appreciate how lucky I was to have been shown such a phenomenon. So many people have reaped benefit from angelic visitations or communications but, as I'm slowly realising, not many people get to actually see them. Angels dressed in human form are rare enough (seen one of those too), but I got to see the whole lightshow. Something I will never forget, obviously.

I will stop banging on about it now. I am grateful for the experience and I have no doubt it had a great effect on my life at the time. I'll be honest - I really don't remember much about the years that immediately followed that event. It was a strange time for me. But what that incident, and the years of reading books on the subject, hammered home for me is that angels (whatever they are) do like to show themselves in mysterious ways.

Rather than appear as obvious orbs or winged creatures or mysterious strangers who save people from runaway trains, they are much more inclined to make their presence known through metaphor, acts of synchronicity, music, geometric patterns, works of art and frequently very, very clever puns. That sounds like a cop-out but it's not - because they soar above the mundane. If an angel is involved in something you see, hear or feel... by crikey you'll know about it.

Whether they come from within or without and whatever their purpose (and I think the guardian angel concept is a bit old hat to be honest with you - I see them as more like a companion species to us earthly types), when they seek attention, they get it. And having got that attention, they'll have a point to make. And it will be a good one.

So the appearance of that Facebook app, as benign as it may seem, might be pointing towards something a little more special. Let's see.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

This note's for you.

The Garage in Highbury used to be one of my favourite London venues. I've seen some amazing gigs there: 60ft Dolls whipping it up for Christmas, British Sea Power ringing handbells and singing 'In The Bleak Midwinter' for New Year's Eve, Rocket From The Crypt absolutely decimating my expectations of rock'n'roll, and Jesus Lizard - complete with David Yow walking on the ceiling. Yes. That's walking on the ceiling.

So when the place closed down with a leaky roof I was gutted. And when it reopened I was pleased. Until, that is, I saw its new name.

The Relentless Garage is not the same animal that it was, because - and only because - it has a new forename. It shouldn't make a difference. What's in a name, eh? But it does. It makes a hell of a difference because product sponsorship and endorsements do not belong in music. That should be rule one. The Hammersmith Odeon is a magical place but its sheen was tarnished by the addition of first Carling and then HMV to its monicker. And who was the bright spark who changed Odeon to Apollo? Bring me his head. Same goes for the O2 Islington Academy. OK, so it was pushing things a bit to call it The Marquee Club. But now it is a rough venue made rougher through sponsorship.

I have no colossal objection to product endorsement per se. I realise it's a necessary animal. But I am very uneasy about the motives of these corporations. Why would they want to buy into a place where people have a drink, have a dance and watch a band? What business is it of theirs? Is it true that Carling kicked Guinness out of the public bars at Reading and Leeds festivals? On what level do these characterless companies expect their sponsorship to work? I do not - and will not - drink Relentless. I will drink other energy drinks. I do not - and will not - use an O2 mobile 'phone. I will use another mobile provider. I do not - and will not - drink Carling. I will drink other lagers. I do not - and will not - shop in HMV. I will use other record shops.

Music is best when it's spontaneous, dangerous and irreverent. When you allow outside forces in, it goes wrong - it opens a door that should remain shut. The bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar.

You know that TV ad where the kid uses 'unlimited texts' on his large corporate mobile 'phone provider to get his band together? Have you seen the follow-up ad where he smarmily hooks up with acoustic guitar-toting strangers with NUS cards sticking out of their back pockets - on Myspace? That's what you get when you allow business into music. You get people who shouldn't make music, making music. Aided by people who should leave music well alone. Because they don't understand it. It dilutes the pool.

Relentless. Indeed.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Future Preface

When my publisher, Beckhurst and Ward, asked me to get my teeth into an anthology of my early and unpublished work, I was retiscent to say the very least.

I've worked my way through a good number of this kind of collection before and, to a man, they've always been a bit on the disappointing side. Publisher and reader alike harbour the same impossible dream: a deeper insight into their author's psyche through the examination of his/her obscurer bits and pieces. But it doesn't often work like that. (Oh, of course the publishers also want to make a few quid* on the side.)

For one thing, my earlier stuff really isn't all that good - as you're about to find out. Sorry! Included in this collection are a number of blogs written for my "Letters from Claptonia" project, back in the good old days of the Internet. Sometimes I miss the separation of being able to sit down at a computer and write these things. But times change. Certain essays, such as the eulogies to my father, are worth keeping, for sure. But my clumsy attempts at fiction seem listless and pale compared to later efforts.

At least, looking back through these things (the whole collection is available to view at OLMIS - the Old London Museum of Internet Studies - by the way), it is clear that I did have a grip on what lay around the corner for us humans in terms of mind-melds. I was picking symbolism, synchronicity and metaphor apart for a bloody past-time. And this, dear friends, was pre-2012.

I am indebted to Simon Badgee and Phil Tayling of the Bardboys i-group for their contribution of old print journalism that I had mercifully forgotten about. Where these two herberts found this stuff, I hate to think. I long since gave up hoarding my clippings. Some of these are too terrible to share, but I still stand by my review of the dreadful Huggy Bear and my lambasting of some of the lamer music acts of the late 1990s. The news journalism, from my very early days as a scribbler, is not up to much at all. Though from a historical perspective my coverage of the Newport Siege is maybe worth dipping into at least once.

Towards the end of this anthology is a short story entitled 'Flappy' which might ring some bells with readers already familiar with my best-known novels, 'I Saw A Bird' and 'Pie-Eater' (published 2042 and 2043 respectively). To call 'Flappy' a prototype is perhaps over-stretching things, but I certainly kept some of the themes and characters explored in that original story. Though the name and description of the news editor character in 'I Saw A Bird' is rather different to "Waldo" in 'Flappy', it's not that difficult to see that both are based on the same seedy culprit.

I suppose this collection has one or two alright-ish bits. It has a fair sprinkling of stinkers and a few unforgivable warts but way back then - like everybody - I wasn't expecting to live forever.

This is not a summing up, by the way. It's not a curtain call. A new novel is under construction and according to my i-physician I have a good few years in me yet.

This book is dedicated, as usual, to all of the cats in the old place.

Enjoy. And thanks for all the cheese.

Andrew J Barding, New Chicago April 2056.

* Quid. Slang for £s. The currency of the former United Kingdom.

Monday, 11 January 2010


My friend Neil took me to the pictures on Saturday afternoon. The main feature was less than three minutes long and in 'a seriously poor condition', according to the British Film Institute fact sheet. Tempting?

Cued up for the silver screen was a missing (presumed wiped) clip from a July 1967 "Top of the Pops" show. The BBC had long since junked this programme - along with many others from its archive - but this off-air recording had festered for nearly 43 years in the collection of an unspecified 'eminent rock musician'.

The clip was on one-inch video tape, an abandoned format, and in a deeply sorry state. Technicians at the BFI's lab in Berkhamstead struggled to transfer what footage they could as the fragile reel shedded its dusty oxide with each rotation. Their painstaking project was archaeology in action.

Pints in hand, Neil and I settled in our plush black cinema seats and waited. Our fact sheets warned: "The picture quality is poor and sometimes non-existent. The picture rolls and sometimes disappears altogether, the sound fades in and out and rolls when the picture does. Virtually not one single minute was unscathed and yet... and yet...."

The BFI's Dick Fiddy was similarly pragmatic as he took the stage for his introduction. "The best way to watch this," he suggested, "is to imagine that we've discovered an amazing machine that gives us a tiny peephole through time."

We leaned forward as the lights dimmed. At once, a beaming Alan Freeman filled the screen, beseeching pop pickers to welcome that week's number three hit parade disc - from Pink Floyd.

The picture flickered, the sound dropped out, then Syd Barrett's face broke suddenly through a digital dropout to sing the opening line to 'See Emily Play'. After a few seconds, the music stopped. It rolled monstrously to a slowed-down growl, like a terrible death machine going into spasm. There was another flash of rolling picture, a drumkit, a flash of guitar, then a small explosive pop followed by a monochrome snowscreen. A flatline hiss roared through the speakers and we stared through the dots on the blank screen, willing the image to return. Another 30 seconds of black and white clarity followed and we once more saw Syd, resplendent in a tailored psychedelic jacket, sweating from the cheeks downwards: his chin glistening across a 20-foot screen. His eyes seemed full of excitement, nerves and worry. He looked, to borrow a 1990s vernacular, 4REAL. The BBC cameras turned to Roger Waters, his hair cropped savagely short, like a pageboy in blue velvet at a David Lynch wedding. He looked sinister and distant; uncomfortably numb.

By pop TV standards, this had to be special. These creatures were surely sent from space. Unlike the (actually very good) Turtles clip that followed it, this was more than kitsch 1960s nostalgia. Pink Floyd had re-emerged through this digital blackout like resurrected monsters from a different time and planet. They had come back for us. It was like that scene in Quatermass and the Pit, when the scientists in the Hobbs End tube station get their first view of the locusts from Mars...

It was a thrilling, voyeuristic, exhilirating experience, and Neil and I went off to drink wine and talk about it. Did the tape damage add to the experience? Did it make this clip more of a relic than it was? Is it just funny old telly? Or were Pink Floyd in 1967 really something to get excited about?

Perhaps a little of all these things. We had born witness to an extraordinary performance. And as we battled through the ice and arctic winds that whipped through the South Bank, we agreed that the archiving of pop culture by the BFI had to be a good thing. Pop culture has finally become more culture than pop.