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.