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.


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.


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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Awe, surely

Aw, this was a nice post it began. More spam, obviously, but it made me think of the really funny John Wayne thing that may or may not have happened.

Apparently John Wayne was on the set of some Biblical epic film. He had to shamble up to the Cross and say: ‘Surely this was the son of God.’ So he did, in his normal John Wayne way.

The director wasn’t happy. Not very moving, much too John Wayne. ‘Could you put a bit more awe into it, John? It’s supposed to be the Son of God up here, nailed to the Cross for all our sins. Let’s do it again.’

So they did. John Wayne shambles up to the Cross again, takes his Roman soldier’s helmet off, wipes his brow and says: ‘Awe, surely this was the son of Gahd.’

I know. Sorry.

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Bring Out Your Goods & Your Chattels

In an hour, the first people are coming to look at buying my house. And if I’m selling the house, downsizing, I might as well sell the furniture as well. Some of it or all of it. There isn’t anything really valuable. The most we ever paid for anything was probably the sofa, which was about £800 and that was a mistake. Next most was my red Bauhaus wardrobe, which was about half that, along with the church pew. The wardrobe lives near Ampthill and seems at home there. The pew, well like some other bits of furniture here, that’s a long and different story.


My partner, significant other, my girlfriend, my ex, my whichever and all of these, lives in flat in a converted church in a Glasgow suburb. We bought the pew together, along with a dainty little chest of drawers and a nice little table. Both of them were pine, nineteenth century, not very valuable but rather nicely, finely done.


I still have the big pine cupboard, the pot cupboard and the mahogany table I bought for my first flat in 1986, twenty-seven years ago. The mortgage would have been all paid off now.  It seems like almost a lifetime ago and for some people I supposed it is. It’s enough time to be a grandparent, without any unseemly haste. I bought all three of these things in a tiny shop on the north side of Upper Street in Islington, a bit east of the Slug & Lettuce, where I always meant to have breakfast on a Sunday but couldn’t afford it. It was the kind of shop you’d never see there now, but all of Islington was a different place in those days. I think they had a single light bulb to light the whole shop, the single left-over tiny room crammed full of solid old furniture, all of it exactly what I needed. A pine cupboard that looked as if it came from a French farmhouse and maybe it did. A solid Victorian table, a little on the small side that was my kitchen table once and my computer table now. A pot cupboard that never really worked out, just a little bit not deep enough to work as a set of shelves with doors to hide them.


The thing is, these things are mine. It’s not just I’ve had them for years. I found these things. I went to the shop, the little lock-up that was squatting in Upper Street before the rents went sky-high, when impossibly enough the landlord couldn’t get anyone to take the retail space near the King’s Head. I’ve moved them around from my flat to north of the park, to Abbots Langley, to Yoxford and now to here in Tunstall. I think I’ll sell the pot cupboard, not before time. Truthfully, the pine cupboard has always been too big for anywhere I’ve ever lived. I’ve never had a French farmhouse. I don’t think I ever will and I certainly don’t have a big van to get it there. It would look better painted, a deep flat red, off-white for the top, rubbed back with steel wool and furniture wax. But that might be for someone else’s life, someone else’s kitchen. I hope they love it too.


That kind of Islington is long gone, the same way I’m long gone from there. I don’t know what happened to those two guys selling really nice furniture, cash only, under their single lightbulb, without a till or even a heater in that tiny windowless shop on Upper Street. Except actually, I do.


Any more for any more?


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