Radio Days

About a thousand years ago, or in the 1980s which sometimes feels like much the same thing,  there was a superb show on the radio called A Prairie Home Companion. Way back when jihad was just something the Dukes of Hazzard used to say I travelled around the prairie, and that ain’t no lie. I got caught in a prairie lightning storm outside Colby, Kansas, sleeping in my old Chevrolet while I went to hunt Hunter Thompson, but that’s a whole other story. The whole point of the Prairie Home Companion is that nothing much happens on it, which is much the same as what happens on the prairie and if you think it’s easy to make that sound realistic on the radio, think again.

Lifeboat Party

It was my first live radio show today. The Lifeboat Party went out on www.Radio at noon. Come February it’s going on old fashioned radio as well as out as a web broadcast, so I can really put the F in FM.

So today I’d cycled out to the auctions at half past nine to see what was happening, see whether my friend with the live milk farm was there (she was), see if there were any bicycles I could buy and sell on eBay to Japan (there weren’t, but it did happen once) and to see if friends from the village really were going to buy some chickens at the livestock auction.

Tracks Of My Tears

Well, they meant to. It’s about comfort zones. What you’re used to. The bidding started on a cardboard box containing four Light Sussex chicks. Hardly anyone bid. They went for £2. No, all four for £2. The person I knew was going to bid on some hens. He’s got a sensible, responsible job where he needs to keep control of a lot of different things going off at the same time. And he froze, bidding on a chicken.

When I cycled on to Framlingham my show was about the same. The first ten minutes were fine. My guest came in and if I got the name of her company wrong it was sort-of ok. It was after that, when the mixing deck froze so I could only play CDs and I couldn’t remember which CD was in which rack and …..


Looking Counter Clockwise

Ok. Nobody in Suffolk would know the difference between the Gotan Project and Federico Aubelle at noon on a back-to-school Monday anyway. But I do. And I need to do it better next time. Rabbit in headlights. Moth to a flame. You know, I’d sell my soul for total control.

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Real life

The trouble with life is all the stuff that goes with it. Household repairs. Irritating, upsetting, unsettling letters saying you have to do someone else’s job for them to sort out a mess they’ve made on the basis of their assumptions and if you don’t it’s your fault and no, don’t ever ring them again because they aren’t going to answer the phone. And that’s just the tax office.

It gets in the way. I haven’t written anything for weeks. It’s making me wonder who I am. Was the book any good? I was told the other day it was boring.

‘But you said it was well-written?’

‘Yes. It is. But it’s boring. Nothing happens.’

And then you’re straight into I don’t think that’s true and it’s not supposed to be an action-thriller and sometimes stuff happens when things don’t actually happen and I’m not walking out on you I’m just going for a cigarette and would you like a drink when you get back. All that stuff.

And getting my first radio show ever in the world and learning to work the decks (I know. Get me. And my posse, as I believe it’s called). And going for interviews to start a training course and finding I liked the one I didn’t expect to like much more than the other one, which is much better in some ways and has a better reputation but also has a much higher commuting bill attached to it.

And going to a wedding. I’ve never met the bride. I last saw the groom five years ago or thereabouts. He was something to do with a tango show in Yeovil. A girl I had one date with 15 years before was there. I didn’t recognise her now she was 40 and dressed in weird woolen clothes of a style I’d only seen in Miss Marple films. Odd.

So all of that stuff and other things and the end of summer and what to wear to this wedding which isn’t in a church. It might have been better if I hadn’t picked up the shirt I was going to wear just after I’d fixed an old bicycle I was out riding this morning.

It’s still sunny, just cool enough to make cycling brilliant. The roads were empty, this rural Saturday. A peaceful, calm morning and the promise of better weather to come. I hope the wedding is the same.

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Drinking at lunchtime

Back in the day, when that woman from the Darling Buds of May was still er, budding with Pop Larkin and hadn’t even met Michael Douglas who was still on the set of Wall Street, one of his lines was famously ‘Lunch is for wimps.’

Trickle-down Theory

He was playing Gordon Gecko, the character who also came out with the 1980s mantra, Greed is good and please let’s move swiftly on before all of us who were there have to admit how much we took that to heart. Gecko was the embodiment of the people who we now subsidise, the ones whose wealth mysteriously didn’t ‘trickle down,’ in theory or otherwise. Gecko did deals on a mobile phone the size of a housebrick, in his dressing gown, on the beach. Yeah, we all thought. That could be me one day.

Except for the lunch thing. Greed is good. Lunch is better.

The anti-lunchers tried to spin it as decadence (And your problem is, exactly?) and a loss of control. And that could happen. I remember going to lunch and being asked to order some drinks. Wine? Sure, you have whatever you like? She waited until the bottle was brought to the table and open before she said: ‘I don’t drink at lunchtime.’

It was presented as if I had a problem drinking when clearly I had no problem drinking at all, unlike the person who was going to lose control after two glasses of wine. Or said she would, anyway. Losing control of the amount she ate didn’t seem to be any kind of problem, but that was obviously a different story.

I never believed it. I’ve always thought if you can’t sit and share some food with someone, or at least a drink, there’s something deeply wrong with them. Life gets better when you sit and talk to people. Food makes a neutral, natural setting for that to happen.

And if I hadn’t been sitting having lunch with a friend this week I wouldn’t have bumped into someone I knew who also believed in the business efficacy of the working pub lunch, who’s just offered me some script-writing work and wants me to do a voice-over test.


Lunch is for wimps, is it? Missing lunch is for people who can’t be trusted.

And if you ever wondered where the darling buds of May thing came from it wasn’t just HE Bates. He nicked it from Shakespeare, who lived in Stratford on Avon, where I was born, where Ben and Claire and Peter and Liz in Not Your Heart Away went one evening a thousand years ago. It’s sonnet XVIII, since you ask.

Sonnet XVIII

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

As we say down the Plough & Sail. Sometimes. It depends on the company.

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One of those Facebook days

You know how it is

As the cliché goes, it’s complicated. We met about six months ago and argued about almost everything and about two months ago we came to an understanding. It’s very special. Quiet. Grown-up. A lot of the time we don’t say anything. Not very me-words at all. On Sunday we’d both had too much to drink and something was said I took badly. It was my ego that did it. What was said could have been true, just in the context it was said. I took it to mean in every context and I was hurt and upset. I did the stupidest thing I could chose out of my massive long list of utterly stupid things I keep handy, lightly oiled and ready for instant deployment for situations like this. I wrote on Facebook. I deleted it before I could send it. I wrote another, more restrained, much more bitter and pretentiously self-pitying version. I deleted that too.

Then I did a hugely uncharacteristic thing and thought about why it bothered me. The answers were pretty simple. Because I had drunk too much. Because I can see how it could have been true. Because of how I took it. Because of the stuff in my head. Because I was thinking like an idiot, projecting my own doubts and insecurities onto the words someone else had said and saying ‘you said that!’

That’s the trouble with words. Once they’re out you can’t decide what anyone else is going to think about them. You can say ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ but it doesn’t matter. Once it’s out you’d better hope the other person thinks the same way you do because there’s nothing else you can do but hope. You can’t decide how someone else is going to interpret your words. You can’t decide how they’re going to feel.

Brand New Degree

Once upon a time someone worked for me who as a brand new graduate said one of the most stupid, 100% gold-plated guaranteed just plain wrong things I have ever heard and trust me, I’ve heard a few: “I say what I like. People have to take me as I am.”

I don’t know what they teach in universities these days, but they don’t. People don’t have to do anything you think they have to do or say they have to do, unless they have a gun at their heads. Even then it’s still their choice, not yours. People don’t have to take you as they are. You don’t have control over what’s in their heads. But you need to be aware of what’s in yours.

So I didn’t send it. Nothing at all. Not even, ‘we need to talk.’ Because we really didn’t, not then. In the morning I checked to make sure I didn’t send the silly, petty, hurting, pathetic thing I’d thought, something more suited to coming out of the mouth of a fourteen year-old than the person I hope is me now. I hadn’t sent it.

Dead dogs in a skip

But it was still a shock when the same person sent me a picture of what looked like dead dogs in a skip on my phone. I thought maybe somehow my message had been sent after all. I thought it was a metaphor, or maybe just an indication of where I should end up along with the dogs for being such an arse. It wasn’t quite the Mafia-style horse’s head on  my pillow, but it felt not far off. It was only when I went onto Facebook on a laptop that I could see the whole thing. The dogs weren’t dead although they were in a skip, tied up for transit in a way I can’t see the Royal Veterinary College recommending. The words that weren’t displayed on my phone were on a bigger screen explained what was going on, asking me to make it public.

I did more than that. I tracked down the phone numbers of the people who definitely know what was going on with these dogs and posted it, so they should be getting one or two calls around about now.

I think things are ok with my friend. I hugely hope they are. I really do try not to be a total arse these days. Mostly I think I avoid it. And I’m truly sorry when I don’t. I think I’m finally growing up. A bit, anyway.

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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.


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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