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Glenn Miller – Writer-insighter

Resolutions: 2014

There’s an old Wicca tradition about bad stuff. I know, I’m doing a lot about traditions at this time of year, but it’s a good time of year for it. Christmas is over and whatever you think about that, the days are going to get longer and longer until they’re magically, sleep-stealingly long, the way they were when I swapped stories and dreams with someone with a bottle of wine under a eucalyptus tree last summer.

After this year I have a lot less bad stuff to get rid of. But I’m going to write down some things I’m going to do this year and being a hip and happening kind of guy I thought I might as well put these things here, where everyone can see them and challenge me on them. So here they are. My resolutions for 2014. Or goals. My resolutions are for me and those they affect. My goals, well, this will kick me on along towards them. As we say down the stables.

1) I will direct and broadcast No Batteries Required on radio.

2) I will re-draft No Batteries Required as a screenplay and pitch it to Cascade, same as Not Your Heart Away.

3) I will find an independent publisher for Not Your Heart Away.

4) I will learn to play the ukelele. Actually, on advice from a friend who thinks my saxophone playing is pretty good, I’m sending the ukelele back and making a promise to myself to play the saxophone every single day. A quick blast through Kirsty McColl’s A New England  was today’s effort, copied from the radio. The radio in my head, anyway.

5) I will perform 3 poems at the Open-Mic night at The Old Mariner, Woodbridge, 29th January.

6) I will write The Cloud Factory.

7) I will finish writing Janni Schenck, which started life as School Lane.

8) First I will decide the format for Janni Schenck, film, book or play.

9) While I’m there I might as well re-draft No Batteries Required as a stage play and get it performed, probably using the same actors and actresses who are doing it for radio.

10) I can’t actually think of a tenth thing. I mean, I can, but I can’t really put that on here publically so not that, not here. Instead, I will get better at playing my old low tone saxophone. I might even team up with someone who can do the music while I do a 1940s crooner set. This is a thing in my head. In a progress update I’ ve found someone, but she’s a bit committed. Life stuff. You know. Stuff.

I don’t know why when I was 14 the first album I ever bought was original 1944 RCA Victor Glenn Miller recordings. But it was and they were and they’ve stuck in my head forever. And I thought the other day that a Christmas present to myself might usefully be a mic-ed-up concert uke to accompany the songs I’ve always known. The Nearness of You. Fools Rush In. The Glenn Miller version obviously, not the pathetic Bow Wow Wow lift musak one. And probably Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens, the song my disappeared friend Simon Talbot used to introduce his radio show in Florida, about a thousand years ago. Or maybe How Long Will I Love You? If you want to do something useful in 2014, find Simon and tell me where he is. A lot of people who love him would like to know. And we don’t. It’s been years now. We miss him. A lot.


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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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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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