Monday, December 26, 2011

Neigh, Neigh and Thrice Neigh

One of the awkward things about being the child of divorced parents is the extended family. I've never got on with my stepdad's sons and their families. But my mum and sister do and yesterday we were the only ones left out of Christmas Dinner at my stepbrother's.

And so to the presents.

My mum likes going to see musicals in the afternoon. She's 80 and an evening performance is really a bit too late. So as a special treat she is now to see an evening performance of a play with her husband, stepchildren and step-grandkids.

Not any old play, though. It's War Horse.

From what I can gather, War Horse was originally a children's book written in the early 80s, for readers aged under 10. The play based on the book includes lifelike mechanical horses. It is a real tearjerker. Steven Spielberg has jumped on the bandwagon and made a film of the story.

From what I can gather, a book written for 8 year olds is seen as raw material for a family show. Not for 8 year olds but for a 13 year old boy, a 16 year old girl, a 45 year old woman, a 50 year old man, a 78 year old man and an 80 year old woman. All together, all feeling the same emotions, all releasing their inner child.

When I was 13, when I was 16, I would have hated the idea of my parents deciding my entertainment. It was my entertainment, my choice, I was an individual with my own ideas, would have hated to be associated with children's entertainment, wanted to be a grown-up.

I am now 50 and feel the same way and I'm sure I will if I reach 80.

But we have a generation of middle aged parents who refuse to grow up living vicariously through the inner children of teenagers and pensioners. "We've been and we know you'd love it. This is our gift to you, a chance for you to come back with us in wide-eyed innocent wonder to the land of childhood."

I'm sure my mum and stepdad will love it, despite the lateness of the performance. I'm sure the teenagers will love it, too. I'm sure I'd hate it as since I was 8 I've been old and cynical and unable to fit in with the crowd.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Aimless (8)

I joined the local junior tenpin bowling club which met every Saturday morning. We had a competitive league and played the odd match against other clubs, as far flung as Tolworth and Whistable. At Whitstable it felt like you were bowling into the sea. And we all got to play in the National Championships! It may sound grand but if you were a member of a club and weren’t rubbish at bowling you got to play in the National Championships. We were the cream of Britain’s young bowlers (the only ones practising on a regular basis). I bought my own bowling ball, inscripted with my misspelt name ‘Jeff’ and we had yellow bowling shirts with cloth badges sewn on showing our achievements. We hadn’t really achieved anything, we just turned up and enjoyed knocking as many of those pins over that we could.

Moving on from the Focus compilation, the next prog record I bought was a single, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It wasn’t until I got a Saturday job, though, that I began to buy records in any quantity.

The kids I knew were into prog and heavy rock and I went along with the fashion. Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd. School was prog-a-go-go. And in 1976 I went to my first gig, if you could call it a ‘gig’.

There was a new radio station opening in London called Capital. The big cheese at Capital was Dear Dickie Attenborough. To commemorate the opening of the station Dear Dickie held a bow-tie reception and concert by none other than Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. We arrived at the Wembley Exhibition Centre in time to see Dear Dickie roll up in his Roller. It was such a special occasion and Rick didn’t let us or the occasion down as he played a selection of his hits from albums such as King Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, real toe-tappers. He blew our young minds with his stagecraft wizardy. It was an excellent introduction into the world of excess that was prog. I recorded the show for posterity as the whole gig was broadcast on Capital.

I settled down into the corner of the living room, large 70s headphones cutting me off from the family life going on around me. This corner of the room with its ‘music centre’, record player, radio and cassette deck all in one, was to be my home every evening after homework. I’d be taken to other worlds by ‘Little’ Nicky Horne, Tommy Vance and David Rodigan. ‘Little’ Nicky, as opposed to ‘Diddy’ David, played me not only the AOR stuff I was beginning to get into such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, but tracks from the exciting pub rock scene, The Motors, The Tyla Gang and Greg Kihn. Punk was not an issue, in fact I only heard about it when my dad asked me if I’d heard about this new form of music played by young idiots who didn’t know how to play their instruments. I didn’t read the papers or watch the news in those days so I hadn’t heard. And I was learning the guitar at that time so I dismissed the young idiots completely. I thought you had to learn your licks and chops to rightly have an audience.

As with Tony who taught me tennis, Brian was another of my dad’s friends from work who kindly agreed to teach me guitar. My dad would take me to Brian’s flat and he would patiently show me how to play chords then write out the words and chords to easy songs and we played and sang together. I had no discernible talent but Brian got something vaguely listenable out of me. Neil Young’s Heart of Gold was a particular favourite of mine, though I was embarrassed by playing Free’s Feel Like Making Love with Brian, especially when his wife walked in on us. Though I was past puberty, the last thing on my mind was sex and I wasn’t really ready for singing about my sexual longings in front of a married couple. I don’t think I ever will be ready for that!

Nonetheless, I enjoyed going to Brian’s and used to look forward to him teaching me another chord and playing me another song from his extensive record collection. Where else would I have heard Trapeze?

My musical career never came to anything. I practised and practised but all I could do was efficiently strum chords. I wanted to be a guitar wizard. Instead I was a prototype tube station busker, blowin’ in the wind, would never have made a fortune out of it in a million years.

The AOR I was listening to on ‘Little’ Nicky Horne’s show I was also lapping up from the local library and illegally recording onto cassette tape. I would cycle to the library, leaf through the wonders on offer, pick out something by Neil Young or Bob Seger, check that there were no more scratches on the records than on the illustrations accompanying them and cycled them home, flapping against the side of my handlebars in the wind and rain. To my immense pride, I never scratched a single LP.

My dad asked me a few times to get him some records from the library. I got him a Rolling Stones live album and several James Last records. My dad most enjoyed big band music, the big band sound was wired into his DNA. And James Last was the man to make modern chart music palatable for an older generation.

My dad’s favourite chart song in the mid-70s was Heart of the Union by The Strawbs. He took it at face value as a pro-union singalong though we know now The Strawbs were taking the piss out of working class union members and their sheep-like adherence to a movement which had outlasted its relevance in the modern world which was fast approaching its Monetarist nightmare.

My mum’s song was Art Garfunkel’s I Only Have Eyes For You, a beautiful version which I would have hated then.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tears of a Clown

We've all got a story to tell. We've all lived our lives, interesting or not, it's not important. It's the way we tell the story that matters.

And, of course, comedians are the best at telling their own stories. Although they may not have had the most fascinating lives, they are all natural story tellers. The way they use their words, well, they can make the most banal situation glitter. Take Russell Brand. Not one autobiography, but two, the second very necessary to give us a glimpse into the world of a transatlantic star.

Today, pushing a trolley up and down the aisles at Asda, I was encouraged several times to buy the autobiographies of James Corden and Rob Brydon. They were both addressing me, the customer, directly. James said his book was only £9. Imagine the value in that! James and Rob were speaking between the Christmas songs. Rob did his little man in a box voice which always cracks me up. It sounds like a tiny little man speaking from inside a box.

James and Rob starred together in my favourite sitcom of this century, Gavin and Stacey. James not only starred in it, he also co-wrote it! Imagine the stories he has to tell in his autobiography just pertaining to that sitcom alone. And Rob, giving his own unique view of the whole Gavin and Stacey experience. A different view from James's.

I am fascinated by comedians, what makes them tick, how they grew up different from but the same as the rest of us. I am fascinated by their relationships, how they relate to family and friends. I am fascinated by their addictions, their failings and their triumphs. The modern comedian's dissection of his life is an insight into the human condition, how we deal with the ups and downs of the most stressful age in our history. They are us, magnified.

I urge you to go out and buy these two books for your loved ones this Christmas. They will love you all the more for it.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I associate work with anxiety and depression. I have just done four days' work and I feel pretty anxious and depressed. I haven't got depression, though. I passed the NHS online questionnaire with flying colours so I know I'm not depressed.

Before I was made redundant in June I'd had two years of worry at work. The company was insolvent and it was my job to decide which Peter to rob to pay which Paul. The creditors all took their turn to be Peter or Paul. I had sleepless nights and panic attacks, finally culminating in a redundancy ending 25 years at the same firm, the first 22 years being reasonably happy ones. There were plenty of other redundancies too and our working family had been destroyed. It was a hell of a wrench leaving but a hell of a relief, too. My emotions were all over the place.

And so to jobseeking. I was calmer on the dole, though sleeping too much. I went through the jobseekers' hoops, applying for jobs I didn't want just to get their measly £67.50 a week. But I wasn't getting shortlisted for these shit jobs, anyway. After 100 applications and three failed interviews I was giving up hope of getting one. I didn't need them, anyway. I had money in the bank to keep us going for some time.

Then I struck lucky. I got two interviews in a week. Shit money, highly pressurised. I couldn't believe my luck. I had a bath, dressed up in my suit, had a shave, combed my hair, just like they advised me to on the Getting a Job course. I got on well with both the interviewers. They both said how extremely busy the jobs were and I said I don't like sitting around doing nothing. They reiterated just how busy and stressful the jobs were. One of them said she'd been to see the Foo Fighters at the O2 with her daughter. I said I would have liked to have seen Nirvana at their peak. She said she really liked Seasick Steve. I said I had a friend who used to like Seasick Steve! We were getting on like a house on fire.

She didn't get back to me but the other woman offered me the job. I accepted and told everyone I knew that I wasn't a loser any more, after five months' unemployment I'd got a job and I was back in the land of the normal.

I received congratulatory texts and cards. I geed myself up for the job. I'd have to start sleeping less. I did. I had hardly any sleep for the next six nights.

My manager worked from six in the morning till eight at night. There were two other staff in the office. Nobody spoke to anybody else about anything other than work, and that was a rare occurrence. The three of us had our desks facing in the same direction, one in front of the other. My desk was in front of the window, looking out on miserable buildings, cranes and piles of skips. Most of my job involved matching up copies of purchase invoices with purchase orders, scanning them and sending them to other members of staff to authorise, then when I'd received the go-ahead to pay, initialising the original invoices and filing away the copies and purchase orders under the relevant job numbers. All very simple except looking for the purchase orders on the server was complicated by the fact that every purchase order initiator had his own way of saving them or didn't save them at all. Oh, and we were two months behind with entering invoices on Sage because my predecessor had left without warning at the beginning of October.

I had half an hour for lunch and nowhere to go for a sandwich. I made my own sandwiches to bring in - cheese and piccalilli, cheese and Branston pickle, cheese and Vegemite. I ate at my desk, reading Twitter on my phone. Nobody spoke in their lunch hour. Nobody had anything to say about anything. The world outside did not exist.

On Monday I had another batch of invoices placed on my desk. I looked in vain for the purchase orders. I stared at the computer screen for five minutes, stared at the miserable buildings and the cranes and the skips for five minutes, holding back tears of frustration. I decided to leave that evening and never come back.

So since then I've got all emotional. My anxiety is back. I can't imagine a job I'd be able to get without the result being this reaction. I've booked an appointment with my doctor for next Tuesday. I've never met him before. I don't know what to expect from him.