Read all about it

I’m not from round ‘ere. Eerily like Ben in Not Your Heart Away, I grew up in a country town. Also like him, I don’t think I knew anything much about the countryside that I hadn’t got second-hand and decades out of date from Thomas Hardy or Housman. The process was helped by my school, the local C of E (it was just the school, not a lifestyle choice. People didn’t have lifestyles in those days) village Primary in Wiltshire, where we learned to read on Dick and Dora. Well, not me, my parents made sure I could read before I went to school. That said, Gibbon’s Decline And Fall was still a bit of a struggle. Dick and Dora wasn’t about co-eds in Minnesota at all, but a reading primer that I later found-out had been replaced everywhere else in 1949.

Well, not at Southwick Primary it hadn’t. It’s fair to say it totally warped my world view. Obviously every decent family had an Aga. Daddy went out to work every day, wearing a suit and tie (brown or dark grey in summer, of course. Why do you ask? Everyone knows that), slipping casually into a pair of flannels and a cardigan when he got home, invariably on time, by steam train. Daddy had a car with running boards and an income sufficient to keep Mummy at home in some style, long before our fetishisation of Agas and vintage cars felt stylish to anyone at all. Dick and Dora the children, (no, one doesn’t talk about contraception. Mummy and Daddy may well be and obviously are quite progressive in that respect, but one simply doesn’t) in their own turn looked after Fluff the cat (also eerily named after my cat, I think) and a dog. I can’t remember what kind of dog it was. Probably an Airedale or something similar, one of those sturdy dogs you used to see on wheels, pushed around as children’s toys. Well, I used to, anyway. It almost certainly wasn’t a Rottweiler or a trendy Iberian waterdog or a pit-bull, muzzled or not.

Chaps’s hats were expected to blow off in Spring gales as March roared in like a lion and went out like a lamb and somehow that was something to do with the lamb of god. Houses had fences around them, gardens provided eggs and vegetables as well as flowers and umbrellas (remember them?) blew inside out, usually in November, unless you were lucky enough to get one through to March, when the lamb/lion combination would mean another visit to the umbrella shop.

It marked me. In almost every garden I’ve ever had it hasn’t felt right unless there was rhubarb and mint growing and let’s face it, that isn’t the hardest stuff to grow on any rubbishy old soil. (Gardening tip: plant it. Leave it alone until it’s ready to eat. Eat it. You will have more rhubarb and mint than you know what to do with). One of the most pathetic things I ever saw was coupled with hearing one of them. The pub chef was walking down to the shop while someone told me what a great chef he was. When he came back he’d bought a jar of ready-mixed mint sauce. Obviously the pub had run out of vinegar, sugar and the bushels of the stuff growing practically everywhere. Maybe he’d read the new Janet and John books instead. I never have. Spiritually as well as at Southwick Primary, they were after my time. Childhood leaves its mark, good or bad. But adulthood is its own responsibility.

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Our Daily Mail

 

I love croissants. Always have. I’m not talking about the powdery cold pretendy left-overs wrapped in plastic (bread hates plastic. It’s entirely mutual) that grace supermarket shelves. Real ones. Fresh ones. When I lived in North London there was a bakery about 200 yards up the road from my flat. When some poor Lynne or Tansy or oh-so-wow Miguette (yes, I know. Result and so on) had been inveigled into visiting what was on inspection so definitely not my very groovy pad, at least she got fresh croissants and strawberries in the morning, to add a really uncomfortable sugar-rush to the four pints of Stella hangover and the bone-adjusting discomfort of the futon I’d made.

In some ways sadly, Time moves on. The bakery closed because people who liked croissants moved out and the parking was a nightmare. I sometimes got them in hotels, but mostly they were disappointing. It never really struck me that I could make them myself. I knew there was steam involved somewhere, but putting aside visions of exploding bricks shattering all over my kitchen I thought what consumerism encourages you to think: it’s too difficult for me, I’d better buy it. And then this week a strange and disturbing thing happened from which I may never recover. I read something useful in the Daily Mail.

Read All About It

To be fair, it wasn’t the actual Daily Mail, but a tiny supplement specifically about baking breads someone who cares gave me. Early on in the little book there was a croissant recipe. Yeah, right, I thought. Diana was murdered by MI5. And Cameron’s got soul. It wasn’t even 200 words but it was a revelation. Like most baking, most of it is waiting, not actually doing anything. Actual doing stuff time, maybe 10 minutes at the outside. Time overall, a day and a half, one way or the other. The longest bit was just mixing the dough right at the beginning. About three minutes and like all baking the quantities are important. Not to get all Heston Blumenthal, but baking is one area of cooking where you can’t just use the ‘some’ principle (as in ‘peel some potatoes.’ How many? Well, how many do you want? That many.) Roll out the dough to about 1cm thick and put five ounces of butter in it. No, it’s not unhealthy. If you were going to eat this every day it would be. You’re not. So don’t get precious.

Fold it on itself then do it again. Stick it in the fridge overnight. Next day, roll it out and fold it again. 20 minutes later do it again. 20 minutes after that, do it again. Forty minutes after that, roll it out thinner than I did, cut it into triangles wider than I did and roll them up, so the pointy bit is last. Now the technical bit.

You know that wonderful crunchy thing the very best croissants have? That’s mostly because they’re fresh. That salty undertone to the rich taste? The glaze. Oh how very technical that sounds. Beat an egg in a bowl. Add a pinch of salt. Brush it over the rolls while you’re waiting until they’re starting to push their folds apart and the oven gets hot. Do the steam thing, preferably in a proper French steam oven if you’re Mme Poilane, one of the very realest food heroes, or by chucking a cup of cold water into the roasting tray you left in the oven while it gets hot if you’re me and your daddy didn’t have a helicopter, forgot how to fly it and left you a bakery.

Twenty minutes later you can say “Croissants? With maybe some honey, or perhaps some gooseberry confiture? Baby?” Use the only two decent matching coffee cups and saucers you have. And of course, don’t forget the strawberries.

 

 

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Customer Service

What a pile of utter BS.

I haven’t been online this week because OneBill’s idea of resolving customer disputes is to cut people’s phone line off if they don’t do as they are told.

A few years ago I signed up with OneBill when they promised £10 a month line rental and inclusive phone calls.

The last time I bothered to look at the bill it was £25, month after month. Which isn’t a lot, but I hardly ever use the phone given I’ve got an all-the-calls-you-can-eat package on the mobile. Well, on the new mobile. Vodafone had the same approach to customer service OneBill has. I told them I couldn’t get any signal and it had got worse over the past few years.

No problem sir. We’ll cancel your contract.

But you’re investing millions of pounds a day. Your website says so.

Not to worry sir, we’ll cancel your contract.

Why can’t I have the service I’ve paid for?

Don’t worry, we’ll cancel your contract.

I appreciate these people on the end of the phone don’t have any autonomy and they’re only doing their jobs. Actually I don’t. I don’t care what their problems are. I am paying their wages, and they’ve got a job this week, which is more than I have. If “I was only following orders” didn’t cut it as an excuse at Nuremberg I don’t see why it should now.

Consumer Units

We are being treated not even as consumer units, but disposable ones. Not by all companies, by any means. But some of the biggest, EBay, who simply don’t deign to answer queries, Amazon, more talking to a wall, the Post Office, so farcically over-priced and unproductive and so stupid they actually show a graph of the decline in postal volumes on the same page as a graph showing the increase in the CEO’s salary, all the way down to the ‘we’ll cancel your contract’ approach displayed by Vodafone and OneBill, it’s the same message: there are plenty more customers where you came from. Think yourself lucky. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.

It’s nice to be thought of as disposable, isn’t it? How many earnest young marketing executives do you think there are there, brightly debating customer churn and retention strategies, right this minute? The really dangerous thing is this: these companies employ lots of people. They’re some of the biggest employers in the UK. Just like the banks, when they lay people off and entrust them to the tender care of food banks and repossession sales, the way they’ve treated other people just makes most people think ‘good.’

Luckily for me there’s wifi at the local pub, 200 yards from my house, until I get another provider sorted-out. In state-of the art England today it takes an entire working week to push a button and connect the line. Honestly, it does. BT told me, with a straight face, not even crossing their finers behind their back and smirking while they said it. This isn’t a Third World country. In the Third World people treated like this would start burning down office blocks.

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Delicious spicy buns

Matron! Well if that doesn’t improve the SEO ratings I don’t know what will.

I haven’t eaten manufactured foods for a long time. I don’t buy ready-made pizza, pies, humous or pretty much anything already made. As a friend’s father used to say about shop-bought cake, it’s second-hand.

When you make things yourself you know what’s in it. You know what short-cuts you took, the flour you ran out of half-way through, the water you put in instead of milk, all those kind of everyday things that aren’t exactly cheating but mostly aren’t because you know about it. And I don’t want someone else’s compromises.

A lot of people are going to read this and say ‘that’s alright for you, but I haven’t got time.’ They were a bit short of time a hundred years ago too, with a child every other year and no electricity most places. I don’t have a television. That saves me a huge amount of time. I get my once a week fix of The Sweeney on my laptop.

No More Vodafone Day

But yesterday I had something to celebrate, getting out of a mobile phone  contract with Vodafone, who decided that although they’re investing £2.5 million per day in a 4G network that will stream even more useless X-Factor celebrity-based crap directly into people’s heads they can’t find the pennies to give me a phone that works if I don’t hold it out of my bedroom window, which is picturesque but arguably inconvenient. Stupidly, I celebrated by buying some Jamaican spicy buns. It made me realise why I don’t buy this stuff. It’s never what it says.

When I think of ‘spicy’ I think of cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, musk, a very non-Ipswich world of exotic tastes and mystery. I did warn you it wasn’t a very Ipswich imagining. And oddly, these spicy buns, with their statutory four bits of ‘mixed fruit’ per bun just weren’t like that at all. The herring in mustard sauce wasn’t much better either. It wasn’t the worst breakfast I ever had. That was hotly contested between a $4.95 All-You-Can-Eat somewhere in Illinois and  the La Plaza hotel in Brussels, which probably just sneaked the coveted award for feels-like-hangover-stomach-although-you-weren’t-drinking-last-night. I think it was the boiled mini-sausages that did it, back when I still ate stuff like that.

I looked-up the La Plaza on Trip Advisor to see what it’s like now. It was nearly ten years ago I was there, in a huge, wood-panelled room that seemed like a set from a 1940s noir movie. I wrote about a fictional house that might have been haunted in Not Your Heart Away, where Claire was convinced that she was being watched long after Tex Beneke sang:  “I know there’s something following me that I can’t see” in  A Little Man Who Wasn’t There.  That hotel was the only place I’ve chosen as an adult to sleep with the light on, in case the jackboots and the grey uniforms walked again.

 

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So far so fiction

Just for my own vanity and to convince myself there’s actually something getting done (and of course to give myself an excuse for not writing today, because I was doing this instead) I thought I’d make a list of the things I’ve written.It’s not a hugely long list, nothing that should worry Will Self or Julie Burchill. 

In the beginning, there is, was and will be A Day For Pyjamas, to lift shamelessly from The Once & Future King. That’s something I haven’t read for years, not since I stayed up half the night reading it one May morning long ago in Veryan, down on the Roseland Peninsula, gone there for the usual reasons. ADFPs was written when I was 18, in a flurry of activity immediately after my A Levels that might possibly have been better expended before them. It was short at just under 50,000 words although for years I was convinced it was 82,000; there were no word-processing programmes back then. It was staccato and brittle and when I read it now I think that it could have been developed into something more. I had no clue about how to go about getting it published and I’ve told that story elsewhere here, how I sent it to Pan thinking if they published Sven Hassel they’d probably want a crack at this too. They didn’t. After some shambling around with and by Bath Arts Workshop, so much a part of the right-on revolution that they managed to burn their own building down experimenting with a cooking fire on a 200 year-old wood floor, it went in a drawer to be taken out periodically to impress the more impressionable girls I wanted to convince I was artistic and that they really ought to.

Unfinished

Over twenty years later in 1999 I wrote Unfinished, a radio play based on a true story. All my writing is based on true stories; I don’t have much imagination, but I like tales and talking. Even listening, sometimes. When I was about 10 years old there was a plan to build a big new road through marshland near Nailsea in Somerset, where my mother’s family lived for hundreds of years. In those days it was a big village outside Bristol rather than the sprawling commuter suburb it’s become and being close to Bristol it had its share of bombing in World War Two. Before that, around about 1920 my grandfather became the first man in the village to fly; two airmen put down on the Moor and held a raffle for fuel. My grandfather, born in 1901 won the raffle and saw the world he never left circumscribed by his ten or so minutes in the air. Several of the older people in the village knew there were un-recovered and certainly unexploded bombs on the Moor. They were all over the village. My grandmother had a German incendiary bomb on her windowsill all through my childhood; all of her friends did, until the day when predictably, someone discovered that one of them quietly sitting there for the past thirty years wasn’t the emptied-out metal casing everyone had happily assumed it was. That was the story really, the war lingering on in this quiet, sunny rural place where my grandfather ran the pub and the Air Raid Patrol, just before the village was swept away under a tide of breeze blocks and hire-purchase.

Suffolk Blue was a short story about a man who finds some valuable stamps and wonders how to sell them without the owner noticing, whoever the owner might be. I had a story about the fall of the Twin Towers in my head, about a man who simply walked away using the cover of the disaster to re-start his life. Selling some maybe stolen stamps was part of the imagining of that bigger story I still haven’t done anything with.

Golden Cap was a bit of flash fiction I liked a lot, apart from the fact it’s too short. That’s not meant to be funny. I don’t really see the point of flash fiction if you’re going to take the time to sit down and read something anyway. It was about Dorset, theft and the sudden realisation your life is going to change that day, in this case that of a wealthy female City worker who finds herself unceremoniously out of a job.

School Lane or more properly The Universal Boy was entered for the Bridport Prize last year and didn’t get anywhere; when I saw the school-run sagas that did I wasn’t that surprised. That was another true story I heard at first hand from a man in a pub around about 1998. A thin, white haired man in his 70s was arguing with a thickset shaven headed drinker in his 20s. The old man was furious at being called a Nazi just because he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He told how his village had been visited one day in April 1945 by a car load of SS men who collected all the boys together, marched them up to a bunker, gave them machine guns and grenades and told them to stop the Americans who would be there in about half an hour. Job done, the SS men bravely drove off towards Switzerland. The village schoolmaster paraded all the boys in the village square then beat them senseless before he made them throw all of their new weapons in the ditch and saved all of their lives. I keep meaning to do more with that; it needs quite a lot of work finding out about German villages first and there are other things to do.

There was Recover written for Ip-Art, which was a runner-up last year, a daft bit of nothing about an imaginary new drug used to alleviate the symptoms of old age, essentially by putting patients into a coma. That was quite fun to write and fun to be at the festival, in the Spiegeltent.

I Was An Accidental Sex Tourist is repeatedly failing to get published in any of the self-proclaimedly edgy and street magazines.  It’s a mystery to me, really. I think it’s quite a good story, putting me in mind of a day I went to Tijuana. No, I don’t know why either. It wasn’t for the donkey-show.

The very most recent thing I’ve written is No Batteries Required, which might well be coming to you on a local radio station very soon, if you live in Suffolk. It’s about a bankrupt chicken farmer who blames an Eton-educated celebrity chef for the EU ban on battery hens and decides to kidnap him to make him recant, live on TV. It’s not the farmer’s fault that the Prime Minister wants to make the chef Minister of Food and drives down to his farm the very same day.

Not Your Heart Away, well, you can read the story of that all over this blog. Is a book, might get an agent, might be a film. I’ve done one proper pitch for it and someone’s really kindly helping me get it into shape for another, much more grown-up and prepared pitch soon. Which reminds me I’d better finish tidying it up.

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Learn to play the saxophone

Back in Wisconsin – it’s not a bad start, is it?

Actually it’s not a brilliant start if you know Wisconsin. Nothing much happens there. It’s a land of lakes, America’s dairyland, full of pine trees, water and mosquitos, empty roads and rain clouds a lot more of the time than I expected that summer. A place of big old wooden barns on farms that looked like something out of a child’s picture book, or the American picture books I grew up on, anyway. Hexmarks cut into the lintels told an older story, one the Scandinavian settlers brought with them in the 1800s when they came to clear this land.

Like any country place, there wasn’t much there. The local people were either desperate to get away or sometimes just desperate, trapped and often as not contemplating a lifetime of temporary jobs and drunkenness, pretty much the two options available when some of the lakes had eight feet of snow of them four months of the year.

I saw an elk there, splashing through the shallows near an island I’d sailed too, so impossibly huge it was like a dinosaur up close. On land I wouldn’t have got so close. Writing this is bringing a lot of memories back, so much I nearly wrote  gotten.

I was on summer camp. I went there to teach children to shoot because I couldn’t find a job in England that summer. I didn’t want to join the Army or be an accountant or a solicitor and where I lived there didn’t seem to be much else to do as the factories shut and the ordered world my parents talked about seemed to be as credible and real as anything else parents ever say, which in my house wasn’t much. For eight weeks six days a week I drilled the basics of not shooting yourself or anyone else by accident or design into groups of five children, aged between eight and sixteen. I bought a twelve year-old Chevrolet and tooled around the backroads like a Springsteen refugee, sometimes with one of the counsellors from one of the other summer-camps nearby.  Where I grew up we sometimes had Max Boyce singing how the pit-head baths were a supermarket now; if I drove around Eagle River today I could reflect on how Nancy-Jean was a professor of performance art now and won awards for her story-telling children’s books. The difference seemed significant to me, then and now.

The time and place for Nancy-Jean’s story and how I drove down to Indiana and cleaned up a sawmill the wrong side of the railroad tracks isn’t now; now was when I started to learn to play the saxophone. I had a friend on camp called Mel Taylor. I still can’t find-out what happened to him. He came from Kentucky where every boy learns to shoot and fish the same way you learn to tie your shoelaces anywhere else. His uncle made speedboats and played the saxophone. He’d loaned Mel his old one to take to camp, see if he wanted to learn to play it. He did a little, I did more, so a few afternoons a week I’d borrow this old tenor sax and take it out to the shooting range after we’d closed, or out into the woods beyond if I was feeling more uncertain about the sound than usual. Mel was able to show me how to put my lips on the mouthpiece, just about and the rest was up to me. I had a load of Glenn Miller songs in my head, along with Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Motel’s Total Control. It was a long time before I could even think about having that over anything I played.

I wanted to come back to London and join a band, maybe stay with a friend in Camden while I worked the pub-band circuit, drinking Scotch whisky all night long and playing just what I feel. A foggy wet winter on Eversholt Street was a lot different to anything Steely Dan had in mind though, as I knew already.

That’s how it started. It’s still going on. There isn’t anything much about saxophones in Not Your Heart Away, except I kept playing Kate Bush’s Saxophone Song while I was writing it. I kept hearing that sound in my head for pretty much always.  You’ll find me in a Berlin bar, in a corner brooding. You know that I go very quiet when I’m listening to you summed-up a lot of that book, listening to my memories, listening to ghosts of the past and the future. That’s just what I feel. I’m still learning to play it. These days it’s a 1924 Martin Low Tone.

 

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Stranger than fiction

Stranger than comedy, anyway.

I was sitting in a pub at the end of last year talking with a man known in the foodie community as The Sausage King, but not a name I felt I could ask for him by in The Crown.

You know something about food, he said. How about doing something on my radio show?

I was trying to distance myself from food a bit which some recent photos show might be a good idea. So I suggested I did something else.

What?

I don’t know. Er, how about a celebrity chef gets kidnapped by a bankrupt battery chicken farmer and made to recant publicly after he’s campaigned for free-range hens? I’ll call it No Batteries Required.

Ok, do it, he said. Darn.

After stopping and starting a bit I did it. Predictably the chicken farmer gets arrested so I had a defence solicitor and a police sergeant review it to make sure at least the procedures were believable. I just had email from one of them today. “How did you know about the whatever? You’re not supposed to know that.”

Without spoiling the story, the whatever was put in because it was the most ridiculous thing I could think of in the circumstances. I didn’t know about it. It’s almost as ludicrous as the chicken tattoo. But I so hope the Prime Minister really does have that tattooed on him where people can’t see it.

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Low Tone

Back in 1995 I got a saxophone for Christmas. I thought it was a shotgun.

It was an easy mistake to make, the kind that could happen to anyone. We’d gone down to a flat we’d got hold of in Lyme Regis and while it was all French Lieutenant’s Woman it was freezing and bleak and apart from walking there wasn’t a huge amount to do. When I brought the bags in from the car I thought the heavy square box was a cased 12-bore, which was unexpected but then, so was a saxophone.

I’d wanted to play one for years but got slightly beyond the age when you can tap on garage doors and ask the teenagers practising if you can jam with them. No thanks to Jimmy Saville, but as Louis Jordan used to sing, you cain’t get that no more. 

I was about thirteen when I bought my first LP, the original RCA Victor Glenn Miller recordings from 1943/44. Nobody liked that, then. Older people who knew it from the first time around didn’t seem to listen to it, but maybe they’d heard about enough of it already. I still can’t see how that’s possible. People my age weren’t into it then. It’s nice to know that one or two are now. It wasn’t just me.

I don’t know what it is about that sound. It wasn’t so much Tex Beneke who arguably had as much to with establisahing how the band sounded as Glenn Miller did himself or Charlie Parker or even, as we learned, them Duke boys’s big city uncle, Bill Clinton. It was all of it, the wrap-around warmth of the sound. That would have been something I could have done with, back then. It was reassuring, somehow, the reassurance helped by the distance between then and now, because you can’t hear that Big Band sound in England, something like Moonlight Serenade without realising why all those Americans were here, bringing the tunes with them. Close your eyes to that music and you can still see the Fortresses and Liberators slowly waltzing through the sky, the quick step as the bomb loads drop away, the dainty pirouettes of the fighters boring through the formation, the innocent wisp of smoke from first an engine, then a fuselage and then the pyre of twelve men dropping through five miles of sky. It was an odd childhood. We were haunted by the War. Nobody talked about it. It was so big nobody had to. My school was full of kids with names from two thousand miles away whose parents hardly ever spoke about how they got there. Every toy-shop window had the plastic 1:72 scale Airfix memorials to the jeeps and tanks and planes and boats lots of our fathers knew much too well back when they were just ten years older than we were, looking through the glass from the street.

Learn to play the saxophone

But it was still good music. It was what I wanted to play. And later, when I heard it, I wanted to play Louis Jordan and the Motels and Dexy’s Midnight Runners and of course, of course Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Springsteen and Steely Dan and Cole Porter. I liked that honeyed sound. I liked the seduction of it all. Who wouldn’t? When I was on summer camp one year in Wisconsin I used to take a friend’s uncle’s sax out into the woods and learn how to make sounds with it and by the end of camp I could run through some of the easier Glenn Miller tunes from the memorial library in my head as well as have a stab at the solo in the Motel’s Total Control. There was someone I really, really wanted to play that to. One day, maybe.

Learning to read music would have helped and it still would, but until then I just have to play just what I feel, in the absence of a more formal, structured approach. I know I should. I will. But I’ve got stuff to do first. You know how it is. I’ve got to listen to Deacon Blue – no, the real one, the one Deacon Blue got their name from – a lot before I go back to Every Good Boy Deserves Favour on the stave. That’s the song I want at my funeral. How cool would that be?

The Spring I got my sax I had four top front crowns done. I spent nearly two hours getting my teeth ground off. The dentist told me it wouldn’t hurt and he was right, but he warned me it would probably do stuff to my head, stuff you couldn’t see. He was right about that too. He’d told me to bring a CD in. He forgot to say bring a CD that is going to take your attention for a long time but one you don’t mind never listening to again. It was Mozart. I haven’t been able to listen to it ever since. After that I was more than a little wary of biting hard on anything for months, even though my brand new Terminator-style replicant teeth would have happily bitten straight through the mouthpiece and looked darned good while they did it. Even so, I didn’t want to play sax for a long time.

Me and Teresa, sax and voice

Once I’d had a dream of living in Camden and playing in pub bands. That was a dream that might have happened if I’d (a) had a saxophone then and more importantly (b) done anything at all about it. Just recently someone was getting a band together, a reunion of a band they’d had at university. I said I’d play. I’d never, ever played in public before and up to the night before I was still wondering if anyone I was with would ever talk to me again if I said I wasn’t going to do it. But I did it, thanks to some wonderful support. It taught me something I wish I’d learned a long, long time ago, even if I do still remember how that music used to make me smile. Friends don’t care if you mess up. They care a lot more if you don’t do what you can.

When I got back home after that weekend I’ve tried to get an hour a day practising, accompanying those old tunes, the really old ones and the ones that when I first heard them weren’t old at all. I looked up my Martin Handcraft on the web, using the matching serial numbers to find out when it was made. This particular Low Tone, so old they didn’t call them tenor saxes in those days, was made in the summer of 1924. I’ve cleaned it as well as practiced more with it. I’m going to get a decent brass mouthpiece because I think it deserves something a little better than the £9.99 piece of plastic I’ve been using and losing control of the reed on, after about half an hour. Odd to think of it being that old though. That same sax, all the way from Indiana, was around before every one of the musicians I’ve been talking about here. Any one of them could have played it. I don’t know how, or when it got to England. But I can make a story about it.

 

 

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No habla Espanol

I’m just starting to learn Spanish. I like the sound of it. And I like the poetry and pathos of the contents page of my Teach Yourself Spanish book. It’s a whole romance of its own. But an odd choice of issues to learn to talk about in another language. It’s not supposed to be a book about adult relationships, surely. But this, just the contents page, this is a whole affair.

Contenth

Saying someone’s name. Seeking clarification and help.

Asking people where they live and saying where you live. Asking for and giving telephone numbers.

Asking for a room in a hotel. Asking where something can be done.

Asking and saying how far away something is.

Ordering food and drinks. Saying what you prefer.

Saying what clothes you want, finding out how much things cost.

Changing money, giving your address.

Talking about yourself, describing your house and your neighbourhood, making comparisons.

Saying what your occupation is, how long you’ve been doing something.

Saying how often you do certain things.

Asking people what they like. Saying what you are going to do. Asking to speak to someone on the phone.

Talking about past events. Saying how long ago something took place. Talking about the weather.

Era muy pequena. Asking and giving reasons. Saying what someone was like.

Saying how you used to spend your time.

Ha sido una equivocacion. Passing on a message. Saying what you have done.

Expressing supposition and certainty. Expressing conditions.

Me encantaria. Making suggestions. Accepting and declining an invitation.

Le sirvo un poco mas? Expressing gratitude and pleasure.

Siga todo recto. Giving instructions.

Me duele la cabeza. Explaining what is wrong with you.

Saying what sort of person you are looking for. Expressing hope with regard to others. Expressing doubt.

 

 

I promise I haven’t made-up one single word of this. There’s an intriguing switch between the eternally youthful Leslie Phillips optimism at the beginning of the relationship to the jaded, je-ne-regrette-rien moue of the boulevardier by the end, if you’ll pardon my French.

So pausing only to say “I say, ding dong,’ I’d better get started.

 

 

 

 

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A Reunion

I’ve just got back from a university reunion, with people I haven’t seen since the 1980s. I ‘m coming to realise that whole real people have been born, grown-up, married, had children, bought houses and died in that time. It’s an odd feeling.

There were people there I’d known and lost touch with, others I’d only met once or only on Facebook. I walked around the places I used to walk, looking for someone I knew very well, but I never quite caught up with me, disappearing down those stone streets.

A lot of stuff had changed. Brilliant independent shops had become the kind of shops you could find anywhere else, another triumph for Chris Patten and the Tory government’s universal business rate that made it easy for the chains to ‘compete’ and offer ‘choice’ so long as it’s their choice and the competition is run according to their rules. And no patchouli oil. There was a time it was as if they’d sprayed the stuff out of crop-dusting aircraft over Milsom Street. Now there wasn’t a single shop in Walcot Nation that sold it. Not even ‘Appy Daze, the herbal high head-shop, where I had a chat in my Barbour with the white dreadlocked owner and we both bemoaned the fact that The Man had won, man. Heavy trip. Bummer. Maybe next month he’s going to have some essential oils, but the only essential oil we knew about back then was that funny green stuff you spread up the side of a Marlboro back in the days of Not Your Heart Away. Times, as they say, change. The past is another country. And besides, the wench is dead.

Bath was still beautiful. Those funny trees up on the hill, the ones you can see from the main street, Milsom Street, still look as if they’ve been painted on scenery flats in an amateur dramatic production. I got my first pint of decent beer, Wadworth’s 6X, in years after being exiled to the likes of Adnams and Tolly, away from the place I said out loud as I drove past Swindon was still ‘nearly home.’ But the first pub, the Saracen’s Head I went to was empty at noon on a Saturday. It used to be standing room only in the Sary and a sea of voices and cigarette smoke. The Hat And Feathers was shut until the evening and had become a steakhouse.

I still don’t know how I feel about that weekend. It’s left me thoughtful and calm, like the wonderful peaceful walk I had on Sunday morning with someone I’ve talked to on Facebook a lot but only ever met once before. It taught me something too. I’d foolishly said I’d bring some instruments to help out someone’s band. I said I’d play. Back when I’d just left Bath I wanted above pretty much everything to play sax in a band and gig in pubs. This last Sunday, I did for the first time. I was worried about it, but then we played for over two hours and while I missed some notes and messed-up others, so did everyone else and it was ok. It was more than ok.

Then a trip out to the airport and a picnic of bread and humous and water and blueberries in a damp layby discussing the fall of the Moorish civilisation as the rain gusted over rusty farm machinery dumped outside someone’s stone barn. It was as close to a perfect Sunday as I’ve got for years. It was being with people who are part of me. And new ones who feel like that too. Thank-you all. I needed that. Everyone does.

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