“One of these days I’m going to quit my job, get rid of all my shit, become a hobo and learn how to play the harmonica”
Which is exactly what Ellen did. Now, when you walk out of Arizona in order to start a new life, how do you decide where to go? Simple. Ellen pinned a map of the world on the wall, turned her back and tossed a dart over her shoulder at it. This was how she fetched up in Italy, a place called Cassole, she fell in love with it; adored how everywhere you looked was the background to a Renaissance painting.
There was a bar on the piazza. Occasionally, when they were short-staffed Ellen did a bit of waitressing. Sometimes after a glass too many, she would take out her old harmonica.
And play the blues.
“Dear Alex (she had written) Sunday was so sad. It nearly broke my heart. I don’t know how I walked away. I thought I was being strong.”
I look at the envelope, postmark London NW 2. I stare at the familiar looping script on the crisp white notepaper, and read on. “I phoned you because I wanted very much to talk to you and find out your plans. I realise now that I shouldn’t have done. Just as I shouldn’t have sent the text or come to see you on Sunday. I thought it would help things, but I realise it was being very ,very selfish. All along I know I have been very, very selfish.”
I reach into the top cupboard and take down a bottle of Becks, holding the letter in my mouth as I open the beer and resume reading. “I can only ask you to forgive me for the way I’ve behaved. I don’t deserve it. Believe me this really is all my fault. I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to speak to me again. All along you have been so reasonable I can’t believe it. You really have been marvellous. A saint. This only made me feel worse, and behave more unreasonably myself. It is not your fault Alex. It isn’t. It’s me. I did it. I thought that by choosing Kevin I was doing the right thing for all sorts of reasons.”
I take a good slug from the beer. It tastes metallic in my mouth, but I can feel the familiar comfortable glow as it hits my empty stomach. I grab the bottle and with my free hand holding the letter now push open the door to the front room and walk in. “The thing that really confuses me about all of this is that I don’t know what I want. The fact that I can’t make up my mind means I believe that something is wrong. I still don’t know what it is.”
I sit down in one of the chairs and take another swig of the beer. “You were right when you said that you thought I had got myself in so deep I didn’t know what to do. Things happened so quickly that I lost control over events. Believe me I wanted to tell you so much, but I felt that there was so much else to sort out in our relationship that it would just be the final straw. I thought you would go mad, walk out. I misjudged you then and I know I did you a grave misservice; but can you understand that – thinking that way? I couldn’t tell you because I didn’t feel ready or prepared to lose you.”
I put my feet up on the table and light a cigarette. I take a deep pull on it and exhale the thick smoke through my nose and mouth. “So many times I looked at you and thought ‘What am I doing? I can’t bear to lose you.’ I did think it might all blow over, but it didn’t. In a way it is because it was a less sure choice. I knew if we stayed together it would have top be 200% commitment and sureness. Compared with that Kevin was just a prospective relationship with all the usual sorts of reservations and uncertainties.Less demanding I suppose.”
Cigarette In hand, I pick a stray bit of tobacco from my tongue. “He used to ask me what you had that he didn’t. I tried to explain how special it was, but I don’t think he realised. I know he’s never had a first love so I didn’t expect him to. You’ve still got a part of me that no-one will ever have.”
Smoke eddies from the tip of my cigarette. “I did think that once I’d decided something I’d be happy. But I wasn’t and I’m not. I just feel lost and displaced. I suppose that this is a natural reaction when someone who has been there for so long suddenly isn’t.”
I take another long pull at the Becks and find myself snorting quietly “I never expected Kevin to replace you though. I knew no-one else would. All the things I said on Sunday were true. I still love you very much. I miss you. Nothing is the same. Please forgive me Alex, I don’t trust myself any more, or anything I feel or decide. I am trying to do what’s for the best even if I’m wrong. I will always love you. Ruby XX”
I realise that it is starting to get dark, so I get up and turn the light on. I screw the letter up, take a last deep drag of my cigarette and stub it out on the ball of paper, I walk through to the kitchen, drain my Becks and throw everything into the bin.
Now the real question is do I have time for a soak in the bath before I go and pick up Juliette? We are going into town tonight to the cinema.
I think I can manage it.
I went to the Hospital last week for an EMG. That is an Electromysomethingorothergram, for the uninitiated. The doctor bore more than a passing resemblance to Matt Lucas in looks, mannerisms and voice. All of which I have to say I found a little disconcerting.
Dr Steve, or is Matt Lucas?
‘Hi. My name’s Steve.’ He said by way of introduction
‘And you’re …’ He glanced at his notes. ‘… Andrew. Lovely! Now let’s have a look at this arm shall we?’ and took me through to a room, where sitting next to a bed was a computer attached to lots of little wires.
It just so happens that I have had one of these nasty little tests before, so I knew what was coming. I remember the jolts of electricity from electrodes placed on the skin going down my arm, causing individual muscles to fire and jumping about like a cat on a hot tin roof in response. Then the needles which were stuck into the muscles which are stimulated by movement of the arm or by wiggling the needle in its site and readings taken. Not neccesarily painful, but extremely uncomfortable.
‘The test is designed to check muscle and nerve connectivity and shouldn’t take too long. All right?’ He said in his Matt Lucas voice. Yeah right, let’s get it over and done with, I thought. Now needles I can take. I mean I wouldn’t jab them into myself for laughs, but since having had to self-inject every day for four months, I don’t have a problem with them. So he stuck the needle into eight or ten sites, and the electrical activity in the muscle was recorded. It was the part of the test designed to measure general muscle activity which is done via the electrodes which caused the trouble. It reminds me of when we were kids and used to hold on to farmers’ electric fences (as you do)
That sure looks fun
Each time Doctor Steve presses a little button – barely concealed in his chubby hand: I hit the roof. He begins to show signs of frustration, as I am hopping about so much he is finding it difficult to get a reading. In fact during the course of one particularly extended series of shocks, he definitely gives me a glare. As if to say: ‘Come on, get a grip’. What neither he nor I realise is that this is because he hasn’t switched it off while he is taking his readings. So I am rewarded by the sight of him jumping about three feet into the air as he goes to peel the electrode off my hand and completes the circuit. He looked flustered. More by his own discomfort than mine I suspect.
I am minded to say something about Health and Safety, but decide to let it lie.
Here it is, repackaged with extra content in a bumper Christmas Special. New improved title! Bits I forgot in the original! Proper ending! All mistakes corrected! The ideal Christmas gift!
Yes, yes I am familiar with the concept of Proofreading and faithfully swear to use it sometime. But until then, here is Khan Stand Losing (Formerly known as Khan Get No Satisfaction)
Back in the dim and distant past, before Harry met Sally, Snickers were still Marathons and if you wanted to go to France you had to get a boat or plane, I find myself teaching in a Secondary Comprehensive school in Middlesex. With, I’ll have you know, some very illustrious former pupils. None of whose names spring to mind at the moment unfortunately – except the girl who is in Grange Hill, and the girl on the local BBC news team; the one who’s married to the Sports Correspondent. Oh! and Fearne Cotton and Mick the Mad Cabbie …
It is an alright kind of school. In fact it is a grammar school, back in the day; when in order to gain entry pupils have to pass a tricky little exam called the Eleven Plus. I never take an Eleven Plus, which is just as well, as for me at that age school is a breeze, a place to meet your pals and have a laugh. Indeed, come to think of it, so are the whole of my school days – to such an extent I become extremely suspicious of those types who claim that ‘the Child’ is like a pot waiting to be filled with knowledge and facts. In my day I may be a pot, even a pot waiting to be filled, but not with knowledge and facts, more like Sherbert Dabs, Everton Mints, Spanish, Fruit Salad chews and so on.
Anyway so here I am a young, impressionable, idealistic teacher in his first school – of course this is arrant nonesense as both my parents are teachers, so I know the score as far as the old Chalk and Talk dodge is concerned from day one. However, it seems I make some friends in high places as for my second year there I find myself timetabled to teach Wednesday afternoon Fifth and Sixth Form Games. Now this is felt by one and all to be a great honour; and if the truth be known a bit if a wheeze. But great fun nonetheless. A chance to show your prowess (or otherwise) in the sporting arena and for the kids to see you in another light and marvel at your athleticism or revel in your buffoonery. The range of options available, clearly reflects staff expertise and is quite mind-boggling now I think back to it eg. Football, Rugby, Athletics (track and field) Cross Country, Tennis, Badminton, Squash, Golf, Ice Skating, Volleyball, Skiing, Climbing, Sailing. Canoeing, Kayaking, Weightlifting and Ten Pin Bowling. For my sins, at one time or another, I run the Ice Skating, Skiing, Volleyball and share Footy duties with my old mate Chawkey.
Well, it just so happens that the Girls’ Squash option is for many years the domain of Head of Geography, Mrs Croaker, one of the number of old salts from the grammar school days, who although she looks a bit of a ferocious old fossil who has a habit of shooting first and asking questions a couple of weeks later, is actually an OK sort of Judy once you get to know her.
Legend has it that one day she turns up at the squash club, in Northwood with her girls to find one of their courts occupied. Mrs. Croaker storms right onto the court demanding to know what the blazes and who is responsible and why this court is in use when the school has it booked every week since before Jesus is in sandals…
The two guilty parties, their epic battle interrupted stand looking at their trainers like naughty boys until finally someone comes down from reception to sort out the mix up. Which they quickly do, and in no time at all Mrs Croaker and her girls have forgotten all about it.
And the sheepish target of Mrs. Croaker’s fiery invective? The player who dares to take her court? Well, if it is none other than the then World Number One professional squash player Jahangir Khan from Pakistan, who is considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game. He wins the World Open six times and the British Open a record ten times. From 1981 to 1986, he is unbeaten in competitive play. During that time he wins 555 games consecutively, the longest winning streak by any athlete in top-level professional sports as recorded by Guinness World Records.
I wonder if it is worth looking at the odds on Jahangir vs. Mrs. Croaker, but figure no bookie would be sap enough to come within a million miles of such a contest. Old Mrs Croaker wins every time, hand running.
I think you can probably insert your own caption here
One of my companions has just made a fire beneath his bed using his clothes. He said he ‘was cold’. Thank God he didn’t have any matches. Mind you during the course of a chilly September night with draughts creeping in from the ill-fitting windows alongside my bed, I would have been glad of a bit of warmth and the restful glow given off by smouldering underpants and socks.
Guess where I am?
I’ll give you a clue. It begins with ‘H’.
No, but you are close.
Of course, I’m in Hospital!
This time the surreal nonsense began in the cab here. The driver furnished me with all manner of interesting facts. Such as:
“Did you know the human body can live for 40 days without water?”
“Or is it food? Yeah, must be food….”
“Well, I suppose, if Jesus did it ….”
“Did he? He done all that then?”
“Well, according to the Bible, 40 days and 40 nights in the desert …”
“That must be Lent then? When you give up chocolate? Just imagine 40 days and 40 nights without chocolate. It’s a good job Easter falls when it does”.
The current admission is for surgery to re-implant the electrical contacts in my brain, to hopefully target better the stimulation, and in turn give greater relief from symptoms. I give the Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein a nod as I book in at reception. She was actually called Henrietta, the ‘ugly duckling’ daughter of Queen Victoria, except she never got her hands on a Swan-conversion kit. She was married off to a penniless minor German aristocrat, Prince Christian. She devoted her life to ‘good works’ and was a supporter of the Suffragette Movement. What doesn’t look quite so good on the CV is that she was apparently addicted to Opium (that is the drug, not the tarty perfume) and Laudanum. I resist the temptation to inspect the fine craftsmanship and intricate carving on the staircase, and make my way up to the ward.
After bedding down looking forward to relative peace and quiet: there being only three of us on the ward, the night became typically eventful after a patient is brought in somewhere about midnight screaming and shouting the place down. Apparently he’d had an operation the previous week, gone home and existed almost exclusively on painkillers. Now I’m no quack, but even I know that painkillers will give you constipation. So after the registrar had had a good feel of his distended stomach and bowel, and assured the patient he was (unfortunately) in no danger, he promptly fell asleep and gave the rest of us a virtuoso display of snoring and farting. By 5am I could take no more and was ready to fucking strangle the bastard. So I got up.
DBS set up
The beginners guide to Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery – A practical approach. Part two
After undergoing a battery of tests, I join the surgical team to discuss the situation. There are basically two options. The first, is to move my electrodes – but where to? My problem is that the implanted electrodes in the Sub Thalamic Nucleus of my brain are exactly were the textbook says they should be. Also, what I didn’t know until then was that every time they go into the brain they need to drill fresh holes in the skull through virgin bone. Even for a re-implantation. Not good. A Second option would be to fit a fresh set of electrodes in the Globus Pallidus, with which there have been some successes in reducing the uncontrollable movements (Diskynesias) which are a side effect of anti-Parkinson’s medication. Again this would mean fresh drilling, but would mean that the original set of leads stay in place. Now my ears prick up at this. The advantages are that existing benefits could be retained and fine-tuned by means of the leads in the Globus Pallidus – in theory. Disadvantages are a whole second run of cabling down the right side of the head, to match the left and the insertion of an additional IPG (battery and Implanted Pulse Generator about the size and weight of a large-ish mobile phone), into my chest below the collarbone, or the abdomen.
Hmmm. don’t much like he sound of that.
For those of you who battled through the particularly inept piece of writing that marked the opening of this tale of tales, and were paying attention, you will recall my attempt to explain the intricacies of Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, using kitchen utensils, an AM radio and some fruit and veg. It maybe of help to expand on this to explain my current predicament in laymans terms. So, to recap, you will need one coconut, one cauliflower, 4 kebab skewers, copper wiring, AM Radio, power drill and a new potato. Here’s a coconut I prepared earlier. In it I have the two original holes. I now have to make two fresh ones to re-implant the kebab skewers or to attempt a fresh insertion into the Globus Pallidus. So I drill the two holes as before making sure I leave a good gap between new and old.
The Kitchen’s getting a bit crowded here. Anyone fancy a Malibu?
Now take … Fuck, I’ve dropped the coconut. That’s torn it. It’s cracked across the top from hole 1 to 3 and No, I can’t use the other half of the shell, because for reasons which seemed perfectly sound at the time, I cut it in half again to fashion a horse’s ‘clip clop’ hoof sound effect. Rats! Okay, lets gaffa tape it up, or failing that I can use some silicone sealant. Like everyone else does, everywhere. Where was I? Yes, now the cauliflower make sure … Oh I don’t think I can be bothered with this.
So, back to the Professor’s office, and what to do? The question is batted backwards and forwards, while I, gung-ho for surgery no more than an hour ago, am quickly losing my nerve as it becomes evident that any additional surgery will at least as difficult, if not more so, than the original foray; and that there is every possibility that it could leave me worse rather than better off. Finally it is put to the vote – my consultant (expert in programming DBS systems), Chief Surgeon (one of the world’s foremost practitioners in this field) and his assistant (again highly experienced in DBS) unanimously advise not to proceed on the basis that my test scores indicate an overall improvement of 50% and because surgery would be a ‘shot in the dark’, for the moment at least any way, it presents too much of a risk.
So there we have it. Down to me now to make the most of what I’ve got. Cue Operation Independence.
I can’t think of an amusing way to round this tale off, so I’ll just bring you up to date with Mr. Death’s Door, my constipated screamer from last night. As I packed my gear, I was more than satisfied to find that nature – or rather some industrial strength laxatives had taken its course, and Our Friend was now beset by a monumental case of The Green Apple Quickstep.
Now then. Long long ago when Professor Green was still in the infants, a friend of mine teaches in a secondary comprehensive school in West London. He is an alright kind of teacher: not brillliant, but not hopeless either. In fact, he keeps his classes in pretty good order, which is the type of thing Headteachers and senior teachers generally approve of, because it means less work for them. Moreover, he gets on pretty good with the kids and their parents too, and is thought of as a safe pair of hands when it comes to the teaching dodge, which is just as well as he is at it for well over a decade by now. Besides, he teaches Art so nobody gives a cuss anyway as long as no-one is throwing paint around or walking about the school looking like Coco the clown.
For six years my friend is a Sixth Form tutor. This means the kids it is his responsibilty to register and look after in what is known as ‘Pastoral Care’ are of the older variety and studying for important exams such as A level, AS level, GNVQ, NVQ and FA. On the whole these kids are much more mature than the younger ones and it is usually thought of as an easier ride than having to cope with hundreds of ankle-snappers. Although what with sorting out love-affairs, hungover students, what radio station to have on in the mornings and the ‘ghost writing’ of endless UCAS applications for university and colleges the kids have no intention of going to, I’m not so sure.
Well it seems that someone is looking a bit too closely at the allocation of teachers to form classes and they spot that our hero is generally having a fine time; whereas they could put any old dipstick in to look after a six form group it is so easy; and use him far more profitably ‘up the sharp end’ let’s say, as a form tutor to a band new crop of eager-faced, enthusiastic Year 7 students. (My friend says there is nothing to make his blood run cold such as eager-faced, enthusiastic year 7 students.)
In considering this state of affairs, it is evident that his relationship with these eager-faced, enthusiastic year 7 students could last as long as 5 years: until they reach year 11 and their GCSE examinations. He ponders a while about the year 11s he teaches and the year 11 forms he knows and how he will be blowed if he has such a shower of shi – apologies I was about to use an educational term there which not everone would have been familiar with; he will be blowed if he has such a group of disaffected and disobedient pupils in his form in 5 years time.
So he figures on training up his new class of eager-faced, enthusiastic crumb-chasers so that they know things like what is right, what is wrong, where to hang their coats and bags, to always carry their homework diary (signed) and probably most of all: to stick together in the face of adversity. And how does he manage the latter in prticular? Well on their first day in their big school, they get to go around and have fun taster lessons in subjects like science and technology. You know the ones which use all the cool equipment and apparatus that you never ever see again all the time you are at school. After that they have something called ‘lunch’ then go to their form rooms with their new teachers for ‘a de-brief.’
It is at this point the pencils come out. Right. Who’s feeling strong? (says my friend). Some hands go up (This is a good start. No 30 voices all yelling out together) OK. One is chosen and thrown a pencil. See if you can break it. Well, snap naturally, snap it is no big deal, snap. Anyone else? Hands go up. Snap, snap, snap and so on. After about 4 tries my friend chooses the biggest, strongest in the class and chucks them thirty pencils, tied together with 2 elastic bands. Now, have a go with that. Well, this guy ends up going purple in the face trying: he can’t do it. Eager hands go up again, and the next one has a try and so on and so on until they get to bashing them on the table and just as someone has the bright idea to drop them out of the window, my friend takes the pencils back.
You know what these are? He asks them. He sees 30 eager-faced, enthusiastic children staring back at him (in fact, he tells me to this day he still sees those same 11 year old faces and admits that if he was an old softy it would choke him up more than somewhat, but that thankfully he isn’t)
You know what these are? He asks again. These are like our class. We all stick together and look out for each other, for if we don’t, look what happens; at which he takes a couple of pencils from the bundle, and breaks them snap, snap like so. If we don’t stick together, people will be able to break us easily or wear us down. In this class we take care of each other.
Well, it seems to work pretty good, for although to begin with my friend plays the ‘Old Mr. Grumpy’ once he feels his class has got it together he begins to kick back a bit, and what do you know, by year 11, they are not a shower of shi – apologies, I have slipped back into complex educational jargon again. They are not a class of disaffected youth with a resentful, isolated teacher but best of friends who spend their morning registration time enjoying each other’s company (as well as sorting out love-affairs, hungover students and what radio station to have on)
In fact my friend tells me he keeps in contact with nearly all of that old class by something called Facebook, which seems to be a bit like the old town crier (You know with the bell and ‘Oye! Oye!’) but works with electricity and is much quicker and quieter. They are all grown up now, some are married, many have crumb-chasers of their own but they always remember the fist full of pencils.
Affectionally dedicated to AD and thanks to Chawkey for the idea.
Somewhere I have generally avoided if the truth be known, save for a couple of forays into deepest darkest Colchester. And the inevitable journeys into the hearts of darkness that are London Underground termini in the early hours of the morning, such as Upminster, Dagenham, Barking etc; which, though pleasant enough they may be during the daylight, are distinctly unwelcoming to the traveller, slowly-sobering as they (me) try to figure out how they have managed to slumber through so many stations and how the fuck am I going to get home.
Having said that, it does occur to me that actually I spent a good proportion of my time learning drive on the roads in the county of Essex.
Learning to drive
But my first driving lessons, however were courtesy of my Dad on the beautiful country lanes (deathtraps) around our home, Seascale in the Lake District. One day, after sitting in the car for a few minutes, looking out of the windshield at clear blue skies, listening to a grinding, whirring sound as it slowed and faded; the sound of front wheels that no longer have contact with a road surface, but which are running free and gradually losing momentum. (They were able to do this as the fuschia Hillman Avenger* that we were sitting in had come to rest, yours truly behind the controls, at an angle of 45 degrees after taking on a dry stone wall and fence.) My Dad turned to me, stiffly – It may have been the whiplash – and said “Let’s swap places” reversed it back onto the road and never mentioned it again.
(*It was the ‘70s)
So it was at the age of 26 while living in Bromley by Bow in the East End of London that I eventually learned to drive when the streets of Whitechapel, Mile End, Old Ford, Stepney, East Ham, Ilford and Barking were my training ground. I must confess, I had my doubts about my instructor: not because she was a woman, but because one memorable lesson she told me to drive up the off-slip of the A12, Blackwall Tunnel road just to the north of East India Dock road. All my instincts said ‘Noooo’ and I voiced my concern but she wouldn’t have it until we got to the apex of the tight loop that the road makes to find two lanes of traffic bearing down on us. I think it probably prompted the quickest three point turn I’ve ever done. Funnily enough, she never mentioned it again.
My first car was a 1971 1.8 Marina coupe: GLD 967J. What a car. I remember the day I bought it, which also happened to be the day I moved from Bromley by Bow to Sudbury Town, Wembley. A Momentous day. It began an icy December morning. I had to get the tube at what seemed like the crack of dawn, from Bow to Ickenham where the car was garaged, collect it, then drive (my first solo drive) down the A40 into and through central London back to Bow to load up my gear. Then a drive in the gathering gloom to Wembley to take possession of a three bed house I was to share for a year with mates Chawkey and Wiz. Not content with that, later the same evening I went to a party I’d been invited to near Rayner’s Lane. In itself, unremarkable except for the fact that it was there I met and fell in love with the woman I was later to marry. But that’s getting ahead a bit.
Look at that! Marina 1.8 Coupe. Poetry in motion. Sorry that should read Pottery in motion.
On the subject of the Marina, for those of you who know the stretch of road (A501) that runs from Grays Inn, past Euston, Baker Street and finally onto the Marylebone flyover. Well I’d not been driving long when one night, coming back from watching speedway at Hackney’s Waterdon Road stadium, now, of course virtually the epicentre of the 2012 Olympic Park. I managed to get from King’s Cross to the A40, without a single red light! Couldn’t do it now of course. Too many new sets of lights. And speed cameras.
One of the things about Parkinson’s – what my then consultant, Richard Crawford described as this ‘insidious disease’ is that eventually you lose your driving licence as, quite rightly, you are deemed too disabled to safely control a vehicle. Not a good day when that happens. I don’t dwell on it, but I did love driving, and if you’ll forgive the conceit, think I was a pretty good driver at that.
A real blast
One of the things I used to get a real blast from was driving the school minibuses. The first one I drove was an old Transit ‘crewbus’ with the wooden bench seating in the back, down each side – wouldn’t be allowed of course these days – interior coverered with a generous layer of fine dried mud, kicked off hundreds of pairs of football boots. Naturally you had to undergo rigorous training before you were allowed to take it out. As I recall, my minibus training consisted of driving it in a circle in the school car park and then stopping it.
I remember some good times in it though. Taking it to France with a group of kids and staying in a beautful old French farmhouse south of Boulogne. In Slough for ice skating, getting it stuck under the car park height restriction because of the bloody roof rack. Again at Slough (different school and more modern buses) the one I had elected to drive, unbeknown to me had a slipping clutch. Apart from having to nurse this bloody bus there and back, the nearest I got to the ice was Wexham Park Hospital where I spent the entire evening with one of the girls who had taken a tumble and hurt her wrist. Needless to say when we needed any ‘wheels’ for jobs at home – clearing out the garage for instance, going to IKEA or if the car broke down, there was always the minibus and it became quite a familiar sight outside the house in Sudbury Town.
Ray loading minbus. Ealing Town Hall
The minibus also came in handy when we needed to move the band’s equipment around. At the last school I worked at there were always concerts and talent shows, so for a laugh a few of us got together and decided to do a couple of numbers. We had great fun and soon a couple of numbers became a couple more and a couple more, until we had over an hour’s worth of fairly eclectic covers of songs as diverse as (Iggy Pop) ‘Passenger’ (Radiohead) ‘High and Dry’ (U2) ‘With or Without You’ (Green Day) ‘Pulling Teeth’ to (Van Morrison) ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ (The Beatles) ‘Back in the USSR’ and (Abba) ‘Mama Mia’. At the time, our main rivals were the 6th Form band. Two of whom subsequently stuck at the music caper and now make up 66.6% of chart band ‘Scouting for Girls’, and therein lies a bit of a story.
I was a big fan of the ‘second wave’ punk band The Ruts right from the outset and remember their first airing on John Peel’s show. I had seen them live, twice in Newcastle and liked their energy, intelligent songwriting and their ablity to bring in other musical influences (specifically Reggae and Dub) without it sounding blue-eyed and artificial . I played their first album “The Crack” again and again in the slug-infested flat I shared in Stoke Newington with my best mate Aky and the former members of Sade’s band. I can’t think of a single person I played it to over the years who didn’t like it. Key to it all was the distinctive guitar sound and innovative playing of Paul Fox.
(Paul Fox far left)
Now, it was coming up to the Christmas concert and the Sixth Form band had a little ace up their sleeves in the shape of a promising drummer, one Lawrence (Lorry) Fox. Despite being four years or so younger than his fellow bandmates he got the gig because he was so talented and had his own pretty cool Gretsch drumkit. It wasn’t until the night of the concert as we stood on the hall stage admiring this professional-looking drumkit, that I was introduced to proud dad Paul, who was there to see his son’s debut. And then the penny dropped. It was Foxy, the legendary Ruts’ guitarist; and the drumkit, of course was the band’s original kit, given to Lawrence, by drummer Dave Ruffy. Anyway our band dutifully did our slot which closed the first half just before the interval, during which, Paul sought me out. “It was crap wasn’t it?” I said. He looked at me, thought for a while, grinned and said “Well, put it this way Andy…I wouldn’t give up the day job!” And so began beautiful freindship only sadly cut short by his untimely death in 2007.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
To be able to out-perform the Sixth Form band when it came to school concerts was one of the things that prompted us to get ourselves organised and get out and about to play ‘real’ gigs: weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, you know the sort of thing. And so it was that our first live appearance as The Crabs (not my idea) with yours truly on bass and vocals was at Eastcote Hockey club in Middlesex, A ramshackle clubhouse with function room and bar and which sported a mass of corridors and a labyrinthine collection of passages and was prone to flooding.
Russ our, guitarist, discovered these passageways and was soon able to navigate most of the hockey club – in the dark. In fact, most of the exits opened out into the changing rooms which were our green Rooms – Lovely! a pungent mix of mud, Deep Heat, sweat, lager and stale farts.
Well, to cut a long story short… On the night, Russ decided to go ‘walkabout’ during one of his guitar solos in Oasis’ “Some Might Say” using his ‘wireless radio’ guitar lead. He’d planned his route: Main Bar, Gent’s toilets, playing all the time, from there he was to go through the juniors’ changing room and up on to the back of the stage – except that unbeknown to him, one of the doors had been locked so he had to go back and of course, got lost. Meanwhile, as we continued to play on stage, no idea where he was, his guitar lead began to pick up the local cab service signal, the Police waveband, Heathrow Air Traffic Control and a Turkish Radio programme. He finally made it back after we had played 47 choruses, got all the Turkish league football scores and ordered everyone’s taxis home for the night.
We must have played twenty-odd gigs during our time which (honestly) included four weddings and a funeral. (Strictly speaking a memorial service. But close enough.) One of the weddings we were booked for, I couldn’t make as I was in Spain, so the Bass player from the band Ride took my place. Apparently when he saw my amp he was delighted ‘A Carlsbro Stingray! I’ve always wanted to use one of those.’ Then midway into the second song he blew the bloody speaker.
A to B In the Yellow Beastie
Getting our gear from A to B had also begun to get a lot easier and a lot more fun, courtesy of ‘The Yellow Beastie’. The school had bought an old banana yellow Land Rover Defender for use in preparing the school grounds for the frequent car boot sales and fairs it used to run. Whenever we had a gig and there was no fair or boot sale, in exchange for a donation to school funds, it was ours. And by far and away the most fun vehicle I have ever driven, even though it handled worse than a Lancaster bomber, and had a wider turning circle. It was a pig to control in narrow suburban streets, but when you cranked it up and travelled in a straight line, it was like shit off a shovel. The only problem was you had to plan your braking about fifteen minutes in advance if you wanted it to stop.
One booking involved travelling over to Stow on the Wold. Another wedding, it was a beautiful summer’s day. A Saturday. We had packed the ‘yellow beastie’ the night before and I had parked it outside our house overnight. I set off about midday with Russ and Nic (drums). Trevor (guitar) was already over there as he was one of the wedding guests. Ray (Our sound and lights man) was playing cricket and would join us later, which meant that we would have to set up all the gear without Ray’s watchful presence. Well, the journey was great, the ‘Beastie’ was in fine form and we pulled in at Stow in plenty of time. We bought two bottles of chilled white wine. Then on Nic’s direction we made a beeline for the most amazing house belonging to friends of his, and for which he had a key. Its owners were on holiday – so we had the run of the place: tennis courts, sun loungers and a beautiful outdoor swimming pool. Wine opened, we were in heaven.
We were also late for our rendezvous with Trev who was beginning to get his knickers in a twist more than somewhat, sitting in a village hall looking at a bare stage. Especially since we had neglected to phone or text him.
Rehearsals for Stow gig.
Preparing stage for Stow gig
When we finally showed he was almost apoplectic.
But there was no real harm done, once Ray had arrived and sorted out all our ‘stage spaghetti’ thus reducing our chances of electrocution by 100%. In fact it was great. A lovely warm summer’s evening. We played pretty well. One of our best I reckon. I remember part way through one song, looking across at Russ I was beaming a huge smile, he caught my eye, he was doing the same thing. I knew he was thinking the same as me, that this was just fucking great. I could do this every night for the rest of my life.
Pictures and audio: “Do Anything You Wanna Do”
Unfortunately, I had to get back to London that night, so once the ‘beastie’ was packed, I left the lads to carry on drinking in the village square and made my way home. The Land Rover was brilliant. I drove fast, but felt completely safe. I got back about 2am, but paused a bit before going in and making for bed, just to savour that summery quiet of the wee small hours.
All things considered
Moving band equipment about wasn’t always as straightforward. I’ve been in and out of a number of bands over the years, but the one I have most affection for looking back was called The Pressure Drop in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Now believe it or not on one occasion we took all our gear: bass amp, guitar amp and drum kit to the venue we were booked to play at (Havelock Hall, one of the Leazes university halls of residence) on the number 41 bus! I’ve no idea how we managed it, especially since there was a fair walk from the stop at the Spittal pub to the venue.
Poster. I used Cecil Beaton’s war photographs on all the band graphics
The band was Self: guitar and vox, Keith: bass, Stalker (AKA Simon Stalk/ Stalker Suave) drums and later, Jill: frilly dresses and vox. and of course our ‘honourary’ member roadie and sometime driver, Naughty Nige. We set out with a true punk ‘Do it yourself’ ethic. I could play guitar, but neither Keith nor Stalker had instruments let alone the ability to play them. We all worked during the summer 1980, and by the september had the basic gear and a sufficient level of musicianship to get us off the ground. The Jam was our loose template. I wrote most of the songs, which were mainly comments on what I saw or heard around me, or personal relationships. For instance there was one song we played which (although he never realised it) was a commentary on my deteriorating relationship with the drummer. I’ve got to say, all things considered we did develop into a tight little unit, and although only a threesome, with nothing much to fill out the sound: no keyboards, effects or suchlike, we made a pretty good noise, largely the result of Keith’s intelligent and solid bass playing which allowed Stalker the framework around which to build his machine gun fills and thumping bass kick.
Live at Balmbras. Note Ruts T shirt
We played our fist gig to a packed house. Literally; it was a house party in Benwell and it was packed full. We were in the upstairs front room. There could only have been space for 15 to 20 people in there. The recording we made of the evening’s performance features the arrival of the local constabulary, investigating complaints about the noise, and shortly after, a deep ‘boom’ followed by muffled shouts and the appearance of people covered in what seemed to be white circus make up. In fact, it was plaster dust. The ceiling below had collapsed. As we packed our gear up and made our way home, the streets were covered in sets of white footprints all of which emmanated from the house in question.
We then went on to perform at a variety of venues over the two years or so we were together; The New Darnell (off Barrack Road) The Londsale in Jesmond, Newcastle University, Balmbras – The famous music hall in the Bigg Market (reputedly where ‘The Blaydon Races’ was given its first public airing.) We gradually became more competent as we got more organised. We had a rehearsal space over in Felling. It was an unused room above a builders workshop/storeroom that we had access to, pretty much when we wanted. We never got bothered by anyone – however loud we played AND there was a pub pretty much next door. Brilliant! The only problem was its distance from home. For about eighteen months, the band was our lives, and we spent whole days – whole weekends rehearsing.
Other bands who were on the scene, so to speak as us were Punilux (Punishment of Luxury), Arthur Two Stroke and The Chart Commandoes, Insecure, Eaten By Missionaries and The Rythmn Methodists, who were sort of our mentors. They had recorded and released an independent single “Don’t Rely On Me”. They took us under their wing, but often we found ourselves in a ‘catch 22’ situation where we wanted to play live, but venues – such as there were, were reluctant to book you if you weren’t self-sufficient (eg with your own PA, transport etc all of which cost money: the one thing we never had.
The Sabrejets above, sadly not us. Our ace cameraman booked for the night we headlined was due (to technical reasons) unable to provide us with suitable images. He forgot to put a fucking film in the camera.
Probably the best venue in the city at the time was The Cooperage, a really atmospheric old dingy quayside pub, with a function room which featured a low, beamed ceiling … and no stage. So the performers were at the same level and touching distance from the audience. Much to our surprise and glee we came home on afternoon to find a note pushed through our door, from The Rythmn Methodists, who had been booked to play the Cooperage the following night. They needed a support: would we do it? Too right. It was a mint gig and off the back of that we got our own headline slot.
The gig we took all the gear to on the 41 bus!
Top of the bill at the Cooperage, along a brief tour of the North West (one night in St. Helens: long story) were probably the most satisfying gigs we played. By this time was had expanded the line up to include the drummer’s girlfriend. She ticked all the boxes – that is with the exception of the one marked ‘Ability To Sing’. She was always flat. I think people thought is was just part of our quirky sound. To tell you the truth I needed someone else to help me front it. Neither Keith nor Stalker sang. I was pretty confident with my voice, and playing the guitar belting out into a mic was no problem. In fact, it has always felt/feels the most natural thing in the world. I could cut all the Weller/Strummer shapes quite convincingly I think (this was why with the exception of the songs I took in the Crabs – ‘Anything You Wanna Do’, ‘High and Dry’ and harmonies here and there; I always felt like a spare part playing the bass. I was a bit lost without a mic in front of me) No, I was crap at all the ‘in-between’ songs bit. The talking to the audience, introducing the songs. All that. I guess I was too shy. I’d written most of the lyrics and music, arranged it, sang and played it, but just couldn’t do the ‘frontman’ bit. Be different now, of course, after a working life spent at the front of a classroom.
Tea with the Mayor (and getting drunk with Nick Brown)
Anyway, the ‘Newcastle scene’ proved too small to sustain even the small number of bands around and in 1982 the inevitable happened and we split…. Just as a more interesting Newcastle scene began to emerge. I became a founder member of a musicians’ collective which emerged from council-run workshops in conjunction with Special Projects ( a kind of drop in centre for musicians and those interested in stage sound and lighting and funded through the Recreation Department of the City Council) Originally called Band Aid – this is well before Geldof and Ure – we joined forces with another group of like-minded individuals around at the time who called themselves Metropolis, and re-named the group Lula Music in September 1982 Leading lights at this early stage were Julie Cranston, Rob Meek, Nev Punilux and Keith Jeffrey. It was basically set up to bid for Inner City Partnership money via the council to set up rehearsal and recording facilities which would be accessible for local bands, and a music venue; along the lines of Sheffield’s Leadmill. We used to meet at the city library. An EP was recorded and released to raise awareness of the project, featuring four bands Darkness & Jive, who Jeffrey managed – so no conflict of interest there then – Kant Kino, Prayer Before Birth and frankly, the only decent thing on there, the mesmerising “See the Light” by Illegal Sane. It sold 400 copies, one of which I am the proud owner of. Anyway, around this time the project was causing some interest and representatives of the group we invited to take with the mayor up at the Civic Centre. (this is true!) It was so funny, because we weren’t the only ones there: it was a sort of weekly ‘meet and greet’ session. So there was this ‘Blue Rinse’ set a sprinkling of golf club types and then this rabble of red and green- haired herberts in leather jackets, lurid mohair tops, bleached jeans or tartan bondage trousers, Doc martins or monkey boots! But it was great. There was no spitting or fighting and we all sat round sipping tea from dainty cups and nibbling cucumber sandwiches and cakes.
A few of us stayed on, and made a bee-line for the bar when it opened. We were treated to free drinks all night by the local councillors and MP Nick Brown, later a member of Blair’s cabinet. Needless to say my recollections of the evening from 7:30 onwards are somewhat hazy. What I do remember is I was starting to get cheesed off with the petty politics of it all. I had also met by this time, through an advert in Windows (The city’s main music shop) a great bass player, Mark Jackman and was starting to rehearse with him and a drummer. He was a terrific musician and we had one of those relationships where, when we jammed each seemed to know what the other was going to do next. Incidentally, his girlfriend, Liz had the most spectacularly soulful voice.
So with a cracking rythmn section behind me, a burgeoning scene (Lula, eventually did get its venue: The Riverside) The Kane Gang and Prefab Sprout about to put the North East on the musical map again, what did I do? Yes that’s right, turned my back on it to go and work in an off licence down in ‘The Smoke’.
Now then, while visited by two old schoolmates recently we got to chewing the fat more than somewhat about the good old days, after which we came to the conclusion that save for some minor mental scarring our schooldays amounted to a hilarious, surreal experience – a sort of ‘Kes’ in real time. On pondering this I got a flashback the other day from my time at middle school which proves my point. I walked into the boys toilets just at the end of break to find 3 lads (for the life of me I can’t recall who they were), but of the two main protagonists One had his leg fully outstretched, shoe sole against the wall, while the other was taking short run ups and kicking the leg at a point midway between knee and ankle. The owner of the leg hadn’t done his Maths homework and wanted someone to break his leg, so he could get out of the lesson!
Now I wish to state that the bleakest house I ever saw was in Newcastle.
It stood, and in fact still does, so my sources tell me, on the Westgate Road, which follows the line of Hadrian’s wall (more or less) out of that fair city, whereupon the wall continues across the country to the Solway Firth.
Graingerville. No number. Just Graingerville.
You know how buildings by the shapes of their windows, shutters, doors and so forth can like cars, suggest a sort of ‘human’ face? Personality even? Well Graingerville did this. It looked like Ronnie Kray.
I became acquainted with it during one bitter cold winter some time back when The Human League were riding high in the charts with ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’, and I wore someone else’s coat.
Full of malicious intent, it stood some way back off the main road, next door but one to the Chinese Chippy.
I didn’t live there. No, I lived in a much smaller house, if just as cold. It really was a wicked winter and thanks to someone who shall remain nameless, our cosy West End semi was left uninhabited over Christmas with water on and of all things, a dripping bath tap. Now I don’t know whether you have ever seen a bath-sized, bath-shaped block of ice before. Great comic potential I daresay, especially when thinking of a suitable drink to put it into, but not such a laugh if bust pipes and a potentially frozen backboiler mean you’ve no heat to defrost it. Add to that the ‘Ice Palace’ trim down the drainpipe and around the front door and you’ll understand why that particular January you could barely move for monkeys looking for welders.
Anyway, back to Graingerville. I’ve got to say, it must have been a classy joint in its day. Built for Richard Grainger, of Grainger Market/Street fame, circa 1839 of dressed (ashlar) Sandstone with a Welsh slate roof; it had steps up to the front door, a basement, two stories, two sitting rooms and an attic. You could almost imagine it in its heyday. Home to a well-to-do Edwardian family: servants downstairs, stiff upper lips upstairs. Unfortunately, during the brief spell I knew it, it was in the hands of some very unscrupulous landlords, whose treatment of their tenants, students at Newcastle Polytechnic, was nothing short of diabolical. I’ll give you two examples.
The tenants had complained about the state of the gas fires. They were old, far from adequate, and clearly had not been serviced in many a year – in fact, I swear the feet of the fire in the attic had ‘SPQR’ and ‘Romanus fecit’ stamped on them. The gas pressure was so feeble that as the occupants in turn ignited their fires, the flame on the first-lit diminished to such an extent that there remained just the faintest of flickers. The landlords told them that it was all in hand and to worry not. Shortly, new British Gas pipework would mean more gas than they knew what to do with. Well, this was laid to rest and exposed as A Big Old Lie by a simple call to British Gas. It soon became clear that the renewal of so many miles of ancient pipework would be the owners’ responsibility and set them back a considerable amount of cash money. So there was a snowball’s chance in Hell of that happening.
Then there was the story of The Lock. This was the straw which broke the camel’s back as far as Graingerville and the tenants were concerned. One day the front door lock fell off. The door was rotten and over the years the cylinder lock – there wasn’t a separate mortice lock – had been subject to a fair amount of punishment, and one day it simply fell out. The landlords refused to replace it, The tenants dug their heels in and refused to pay the rent, whereupon the landlords began the strong-arm tactics: calling around unannounced, making threats and generally being thoroughly disagreeable about it all. Indeed, any attempt to get them to deal with the raft of problems with the house was met with hostility. Even the gadge who came to fix the ceiling in the lower of the two sitting rooms, filling and painting while water dripped from the rose onto his nose never came back.
In fact, I am staggered to discover that it is a Grade Two listed building; status granted in 1976 – five years before the period I refer to. All I can say is that English Heritage would have got their knickers in a twist more than somewhat had they known what was happening at Graingerville. To whit and to boot, here is the full story of this episode in the life of Graingerville.
It comes along about 11 bells one night and I am returning from a night on ‘the Toon’, accompanying some of the residents of Graingerville and their partners. It being a such a bitter night, I am invited in by same for a cup of hot something to keep me going on the remainder of my walk home. We tread carefully on the ice up the path. Now what’s this? As we walk up to the house, the unlocked front door is ajar. Stepping inside,we are greeted by the sight of about half a dozen people sitting in the hall eating their chips and gravy from the Chinese next door. I admit to being a bit nonplussed, but the residents are quite used to it as it is an apparently frequent occurence and not so strange if you think about it for the hall is furnished with seats in the manner of a waiting room. It being such a cold snap, the take-away customers, rather than eat in the street, seek out the shelter and comfort (If not warmth) of Graingerville’s hall. So we bid them Good Evening and Bon Appetite and go up to one of two sitting rooms, where I am more than a little bemused to find myself walking ankle-deep in what appears to be grass. I don’t wish to come across as rude or conservative in my taste for floor coverings, so let it lie. In the same way, I try not to bat an eyelid as I am served a coffee in what seems to be a tupperware sandwich box. The reason for this, I discover later is that all the crockery and cutlery is frozen in one big heap in the kitchen sink – and has been since before Christmas, it now being Jan. 18th
Well, after losing all sensation in my fingertips and fearing the onset of frostbite, I make my way back to our cosy semi with the novelty ice-cube. Once in bed I fall into a restless sleep in which I find myself back in Graingerville, taking a nightmarish tour of the darkened house.
It begins in the basement which appears semi-flooded. There is no light save that given off by my unseen guide and the torch he carries. I can see shapes cut by odd pieces of furniture … and a supermarket trolley. We go up the stairs into the hall, as mentioned. Now in the dead of night, dark and still. To our right two rooms, in the front as the torchlight flickers I make out a bed, and strangely, all around the outside of the room including the bay window: seats; like out in the hall, again reminiscent of a waiting room. Anxious flashes of the torch belonging to my silent guide signal me to retreat and enter the room at the back. As soon as I enter, the hairs go up on the back of my neck higher than Don King’s on a bad hair day. I notice another bed and the sound of cascading water, seemingly down the back of the building. But what sort of a place is this? Of course, the penny drops. If it is nothing more than an ancient doctor’s surgery and waiting rooms. Again my guide motions me to move. So we climb the staircase into the ‘grass sitting room’. While I find it trickier terrain to cross than previously, in the dark, I do notice it has grown splendidly and am wondering what they use for fertilizer, when I am elbowed into an adjoining room, which seems to be a kitchen of sorts. At least it has a sink in it. And inside, frozen together all manner of things: plates, cups, rubber glove, potato peeler…There is an urgency about my guide now, we run up the pitch black stairs, by-passing the upper sitting room, which I take a glance into. I’m not sure, but this seems to be carpeted with snow, so one way or another I figure the Welsh slate roof is in need of some attention. We pass another bedroom, and finally burst into the attic. As I spot another figure in the darkened room, my guide at last speaks: ‘Are you fucking ready then? Let’s go’ And with that, we depart the building.
I never see the inside of Graingerville again from that day to this, but it seems the tenants do what is called a ‘moonlight flit’ meaning they depart said accommodation in the middle of the night, owing a month’s rent and what with all the rush forgetting to leave a forwarding address. Not only that, but they find a supermarket trolley which comes in very handy indeed for carrying all the lightbulbs, light fittings, cutlery, odd items of furniture etc. such as they are likely to need in their new joints.
And the grass sitting room? Well the carpet is damp for so long and the landlords do nothing about it, that one day one of the tenants’ partners slings a handful of mustard seeds onto the floor just to see what will happen. In fact someone tells me that same year he wins a gold medal at the Benwell and Elswick Summer Fete in the jams, chutneys, marmalades and mustards tent, but I am inclined to take that with a pinch of salt.