Sunday 25 February 2024

7 Teen seconds

I found myself feeling all unexpectedly soppy and fondly reminiscent about something on telly the other day.  I was watching one of those repeats of old Top of the Pops episodes being aired by BBC Four, this particular one being from 7th February 1980.  The line-up encapsulated the period perfectly - an eclectic mixture including The Selecter and The Specials alongside Queen and Cliff Richard, *AC/DC, The Chords and The Tourists.  What a delightful pot-pourri of pop, with a couple of exposed hairy chests, some pork pie hats and a peculiar horsetail (?) head-dress thrown in for good measure (I leave you to work out who wore what), but the act that really did it for me - and I was surprised at the effect they had all these years later - was The Regents, performing '7 Teen'.

Ah... what a time.  It was the year I was going to turn 7teen too, so there was that connection, and I really did like the song - just not quite enough to buy it.  But the thing that really got me on seeing it now was the reminder that it was a time when you could be the lead vocalist in a band and go on-stage on a TV show wearing a non-descript red sweatshirt type top and tape a couple of home-made 'pad' things onto your shoulders.  Like epaulettes.  But stuck on with white gaffer tape.  And your two backing vocalists were fresh-looking and un-self conscious, having the time of their lives, ramping up the silliness with their unpretentious charm, as if they were just playing around in front of a bedroom mirror.  I could imagine going to college with them - I love the thought that we could've been mates and found myself envisioning them rehearsing in the lunch-hour; the  naive, swaying back-and-forth, side-to-side dancing that we all did - getting the giggles.  Oh!  I want to be in The Regents!

You also have to love a song which includes the words "she's a beautiful mutation" (so new wave!) and if they could only have got away with it I wish they could have performed it with its original mention of "a permanent erection".  That was how it was first released in 1979 but (of course) an alternative censored version needed to be issued to ensure its radio play (and subsequent hit status) so we lost the erection to a permanent reaction...  All good, though.  

Anyway, I do like it when you've forgotten or pretty much dismissed something from the past and then it sneaks up and surprises you in the sweetest of ways.  When it takes you back and makes you smile and reminisce affectionately, even though it also reminds you that that particular time is never to return.  And when it makes you just want to watch it and hear it again...

The Regents: 7 Teen

*Special mention must also go to a particular line in AC/DC's 'Touch Too Much' which was shown in this episode:

"She had the face of an angel, smiling with sin, the body of Venus with arms"  With arms.

Monday 22 January 2024

In and out and in and out

She's here!  With a pretty, pearly red complexion she's only a cheap model but I'm finding my way around her buttons and the slinky way she moves.  All I have to do is to unpop her leather straps and with my fingers in all the right places, give her a good squeeze and, ooh, she makes the sweetest (and loudest!) sounds...  

Oh, I know, everything about a squeezebox screams innuendo and that's just fine by me.  I love her! I love my little concertina. I itch to play, make music and embrace her bellows; oops, there we go again.  But don't you think there is something very sexy about the whole accordion family (in the right hands)?  

The rewarding thing about this new hobby is that it's not hard to make some half-decent noises (dependent on your point of view...) in spite of lack of experience.  Single notes, scales, simple chords too - even on their own those chords can sound delicious.  It's firing up parts of my brain which haven't been in use since primary school when learning to play the theme tune from 'The Wombles' on the recorder with its chewed mouthpiece, the taste of wet wood on my tongue, trying not to dribble.  I think the concertina is actually much more pleasurable to dabble on, even though it's a big challenge to my grey matter in trying to remember (on this one anyway, the Anglo concertina) that you get different notes on moving in and out.  But I definitely want - need! - the mental exercise, and an instrument you can play without smudging your lipstick or getting splinters in your tongue is definitely a bonus too.

Evidence suggests that it can improve cognitive strength, memory, motor skills and co-ordination, reduce stress, etc., plus I was reading an article the other week which mentioned how it can help creativity.

"There is something about enabling yourself to try things and not have expectations about what you will produce," said 2019 Turner Prize winner Helen Cammock, who is now having trumpet lessons.  Anne Ryan, an Irish artist who works in paint, ceramics and sculpture, took up tap dancng for similar reasons and said, "I'm crap at it but I come out glowing and feeling like I have spread a little bit of love..."

I know I'm crap at this too, but the glowing feeling is happening.  After a couple of ten-minute sessions a day with the bedroom door shut (is there no end to this double entendre?)  I feel motivated and de-stressed.  Unfortunately, especially given this modest instrument's quite shocking volume, I doubt the neighbours feel the same (more like distressed) but give it time (sorry, neighbours).  If I can keep it up I'd like to be able to play along to something different, oh I don't know what - Bowie, Clash, Small Faces....obscure '60s psych perhaps?!  Just what the world needs, some bad concertina covers... 

But I'm enjoying it. And if anyone here knows how to play a 20-button Anglo concertina and can share some tips, they'd be most welcome; I'm sure the neighbours would agree.

At Martin's suggestion last time:

The Who: Squeeze Box

(Top photo shows 1920s actress Winifred Westover)

Sunday 7 January 2024

In stitches, part two

Well, it's been a very long time coming but on this dull January day the moment is right for me to bestow upon you some more fine fashion tips from the pile of old knitting magazines which had me oohing and ahhing for all the wrong reasons a few years ago.

If your life is a little short of levity at the moment, I can honestly recommend a quick browse through the pages of some 1960s editions of 'Pins and Needles' for some mindless therapy.  

Of course exercise is also good therapy - one hour of high intensity knitting in an unheated room burns up 174 and a half calories (... don't check that...) -  but it turns out there's an easier way to shed a few post-Christmas pounds (and heat the room at the same time with the flush from your cheeks): try holding embarrassingly awkward poses for a family photoshoot wearing only your newly created woolly sports undies...

You can read whatever you like into this one... (and click to enlarge).  Promises, promises.

And if only life were this simple... hmm... 

"Start something exciting?"  Only as long as you also know how to cast off, as he's looking a bit shifty to me.

There's nothing remotely patronising in the tone of these ads, oh no

But I fear that after a lifetime of knitting for my husband I could end up looking like this...

...much to the horror of everyone else, including Tom Jones (as if giant daffodils weren't scary enough)

But the knitting isn't limited to golf jackets and nightmare dolls - why not crochet a bowl?  Or, to put it more aptly, why crochet a bowl?

Ditto the above...

Happy New Year!

Sunday 24 December 2023

'Tis the season to be arty

Well, it wouldn't be Christmas around these parts without posting some slightly less than conventional Yuletide pictures!

Hoping to improve my concentration levels next year and be a bit more present on the blogs, I've been very neglectful....  In the meantime, here's wishing you a happy, peaceful festive time and thank you for everything.

Artist and designer Erté, 1920s

Fashion illustrator Rene Gruau, 1950s/60s

Marc Chagall, 1930

Andy Warhol

Edward Hopper, 1928

Picasso, 1959


Norman Rockwell

Brian Wildsmith

Salvador Dali, 1968

Salvador Dali


Friday 3 November 2023

Snapshots of an English town

Two more stops and I would've landed in Wivenhoe.  I didn't - I got off the train from London on Tuesday night at the usual junction and took the connecting one back to Suffolk, but I was sorely tempted to carry on to that small estuary town just South East of Colchester in the hope of bumping into someone whose music, words and philosophies have very much made me smile in recent days.  The brief fantasy flitted through my mind as the onboard announcement listed the stations yet to come -  oh, if I could only disembark in Wivenhoe and magically spot him in the street, I would tell Martin Newell exactly how much I had just enjoyed reading his book, 'A Prospect of Wivenhoe, Snapshots of An English Town'.

There's such a lot one can say about Martin Newell, he's been around the music scene for decades and I first came across him in the late '70s when he strutted his stuff with his band Gypp at my local gigging haunt, an intimate music venue/arts centre at the far end of my town.   I saw so many bands then - sometimes three or four a week (including school nights).  Only a few stood out that well or went on to greater things, but the memory of him as a compelling, and frankly rather scary (to me anyway) in a glam-rock-yet-Dickensian-way frontman  - endures.  The next time I was aware of him was much later in the highly recommended book 'Lost In Music' by Giles Smith, who was at one time a member of Martin's band The Cleaners From Venus.  And then....well, for the most part I didn't think too much about him, nor hear much more of his music, until being pleasantly reminded by an excellent now-retired music blogger from Seattle...  Here I must divert you to Brian's brilliant blog should you want info, insight and some fine songs, as his knowledge of Martin Newell's output over the years far exceeds mine.

As for this post, I simply want to express my appreciation of one of Martin's literary works  which I decided to buy after his name came up again in conversation with a lovely friend.  It's the book mentioned earlier which I've now just finished reading - described on the back cover in his own words as being: 

"...a work of the greatest affection.  It is about Wivenhoe.  It is about East Anglia.  It is about England."

Being English and having lived in East Anglia since the age of three, there's much that resonates, but I think too there's an awful lot that would still be meaningful and interesting wherever and whoever you are, not least because Martin has such an engaging way of story-telling and skilfully sketching out the characters from the real-world tales in which they starred.  Like all the most charming memoirs, it's a perfect blend of relatable, ordinary(ish) daily life with the eccentric, the bizarre and the left-field, beautifully seasoned with humour, politics and a poetic turn of phrase.  As I devoured the book in bed every night last week I could so easily imagine the characterful houses and pubs, the ageing professor with his big garden, the bus ride to Brightlingsea, the picketing miners who lodged in the cellar, the May Fair with its raucous bands, cider punks and its "dense alien cloud of cheap hairspray and dope fumes." - plus so much more.  And not just because I live in East Anglia.

Perhaps one of the best things I took away from this book, however, is that oft-needed reminder that in a world where much that was once considered non-conformist has been appropriated by the masses, your true artists, bohemians, offbeats, free thinkers, etc. are still out there, always have been and always will be.  A reminder that life doesn't have to be neat and tick all the societal boxes, that we should stay true to who we are and not feel pressurised to fit in with something that doesn't naturally sit right with us.  Maybe that all sounds a bit deep but I find myself increasingly clinging onto these reminders, perhaps because it sometimes feels that the margins they/we inhabit are getting ever smaller.  But to delve into Martin Newell's world, albeit one from the past in this particular case, felt... well, like having a brilliant, satisfying conversation with a much-loved and familiar but eminently interesting friend you haven't seen in ages, and to realise you're not alone.  Perhaps a lot like blogging too.

I leave you with one of my favourite paragraphs from the book which just sums that up for me, where our narrator fondly describes the family from whom he rented a small studio:

"This was a family and here was a portrait of them.  There was a bloke who did an unusual job, a cheerful woman, an angelic-looking eleven year old boy, a deviant dog and a masochistic cat.  And there among all the exercise books, the film scripts, the uncompleted homework, the waiting tenants, the endless visitors and all the chaos, was life.  Not conventional life, not a half-asleep, better-drive-to-Tesco-you-don't-have-to-be-mad-to-work-here-but-it-helps sort of a life.  But a real life - with motorbike spares left where they shouldn't be, a washing-basket next to a book of medieval history and a pub sign for The Fool and Bladder - a prop from Steve's film - in the backyard."

I love it.  

Oh, and of course, a song!

The Cleaners From Venus: Summer In A Small Town

'A Prospect of Wivenhoe - Snapsots of an English Town' by Martin Newell was published by Wivenbooks in 2008 and is still available from some online retailers... mine cost lest than a fiver.  

Tuesday 10 October 2023

The serious stuff

Our lovely blog pal Rol has been running an excellent, thought-provoking series over at the ever brilliant My Top Ten, about mental health. I hope you won't mind, but I'm also reposting something on the subject, which I wrote several years ago.

--- ~~~~~  *** --------- *** --------- *** ~~~~~ ---

Today, October 10th, is Mental Health Awareness Day. It makes a change from the recent International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19th), which sounds quite dignified really compared to Step In A Puddle And Splash Your Friend Day (January 14th). You might be interested to know that there is also a Noodle Day, a Mad Hatter Day, a Cherry Cheesecake Day and a Do Something Nice Day, amongst others.  I don't really like the idea of having set days for anything; I'd rather we just talked like pirates, stepped in puddles and splashed friends, ate noodles and cherry cheesecake in mad hats and did something nice any time and any day we felt like it - but I can't knock any attempt to encourage openness on mental health issues, and it seems like today's the day.

Back in the early '70s, when my mum stopped getting up in the mornings, surfacing only occasionally during the afternoon or early evening to replenish her glass of water, I was told that she was ‘ill’. Yet there was no sneezing or coughing or chicken pox spots so it was a different kind of illness to the ones I knew about. I can’t remember what else was said about it and, being only eight, I was more preoccupied with my own small world, which was no bad thing. But when mum came downstairs on a dark, wintry evening and headed straight out the front door with just her dressing-gown over her nightie and slippers on her feet, it was obvious something was seriously wrong.

I just have a blurry memory of the rest of that night – I recall her dressing-gown which was powder blue with white trim, and those pink fluffy slippers, and I remember what she said as she started to walk out the door and down the road.  My dad ran after and somehow persuaded her back inside, but I must have blanked out any more detail after that. Whatever happened resulted in mum being admitted to the Psychiatric Ward of our local hospital, where she stayed for some weeks.

Visiting her in such surroundings was disturbing but, unfortunately, it became something that I had to do on several different occasions in different hospitals over subsequent years.  It's a weird thing for a child; an unnerving place, but at the same time I was aware that my mum was 'supposed' to be there with those people.  They were all grown-ups after all, people whom I thought were meant to be looked up to and relied upon. That was probably the bit I found hardest with my mum; my first memorable experience of an insecure feeling: the realisation that I couldn't depend on her, that she wasn't really 'there'.   Anyway... in the Psychiatric Ward with its cheerily patterned curtains and orange chairs, there was always a man who thought he was Jesus and stories of strange behaviours abounded: the lady who’d made a habit of running down the busy high street without any clothes on, and the blank-faced man who thought he was still fighting in WWII.  And always someone who thought they'd had a radio implanted in their brain to listen to their thoughts.  

Mum was diagnosed as having clinical depression (as opposed to manic), which sounds very gloomy, and gives the impression of someone who mopes around every day and never smiles, but which is not what she was like at all.  There was just something going on which, combined with certain aspects of her personality and some traumatic life events, made her susceptible to some very deep lows. When she wasn't suffering from these, she was incredibly kind, chatty, strong, reassuring, gregarious, warm, broadminded and creative, always doing things for other people (often befriending and taking in various waifs and strays with their own mental health problems, and doing voluntary work for charities like Mind). But when she went downhill she just lost interest in everything and withdrew from the world. During her later years, with the help of good, understanding doctors and the right mix of drugs, she was able to pretty much manage it by simply shutting herself away until it passed. It was really only on the very worst occasions that it affected her behaviour in more severe and worrying ways and made her say and do things which were, quite frankly, a little mad.

Stating the obvious but it's a depressing and difficult subject, yet it touches so many people, either those who experience it first hand (and I don't believe any of us are immune) or those who know them. I can feel myself tensing slightly as I write because it brings back that sort of unsafe feeling of discovering that the grown-up parent I thought I could lean on wasn't always that, and deep-down that fear of the unravelling of 'normality'.  Nowadays, though, I wonder more about how life must have felt for my mum at those times, how much worse it was for her than for me. I feel sure that her mental health crises at least taught me a lot, and hopefully provided me with a better understanding and empathy.  And if that's also the intention behind having a Mental Health Awareness Day then I truly hope it succeeds.

Thinking of those whom I know are struggling with their mental health at the moment and here's hoping for far better days ahead.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Playing to learn

The problem with Jonny was that, no matter how much he practised, he was never going to master playing the cello.  And he practised a lot.  We knew this because we heard every screech and every scratch of his bow scraping slowly against those strings - our family dining room backed onto the converted garage where Jonny tortured his instrument for hours at a time on a daily basis.  I should add that he was only nine, two years younger than me, but he was as far from being a child prodigy in a string quartet as it was possible to be.

The neighbours' converted garage not only housed Jonny's cello but also a neglected upright piano.  I was friends with Jonny's sister Lindsay and it would be fair to say that she and I also shared his misplaced musical aspirations.  When 'Tubular Bells' had been around a little while and everyone was talking about it, we took it upon ourselves to compose a similar opus on said piano.  I mean, how hard could it be?  Neither of us had been taught to play any kind of keyboard but I knew my way around descant and tenor recorder, I had a pink and white plastic tambourine and, as for Lindsay's musical abilities... well, actually she didn't have any unfortunately, she was tone-deaf.  But she did have the piano.

We tinkered around on that thing in the cold garage room in the Winter of '74/'75, surrounded by boxes of apples from the tree in their unkempt garden, various unidentified electrical appliances and a permanently rolled-up rug in the corner.  The piano was, of course, untuned, but we put a couple of little themes together by remembering to press this key and that, the third black one along and those two white ones at the same time, etc. - convinced that at the end of it we would be as famous as Mike Oldfield - more so, in fact, because we were only 11 - and have a best-selling album in the charts.  'Cause it's that easy, isn't it.

Such is the naiveté of childhood - and how lovely it was really to have that.  We messed around on inadequate musical instruments without inhibition and taught ourselves to remember our made-up sequences, motivated simply by the joy of doing it and our daft fantasy ideas.  Isn't it a shame that at some point in life all that carefree attitude gets replaced with something more serious?  Music lessons demanded progression and perfection, there might even be exams.  Unrealistic personal expectations led to frustrations and frequent giving up.  I've started to wonder if I could go back to that childhood approach and learn to play an instrument without all the adult stress that might accompany it - have some fun, not be too hard on myself, see what happens - especially as they say that learning to play one later in life can boost your brain's health, help with cognitive function, improve your creativity and memory too.   It's just a shame perhaps (for the neighbours, anyway) that my ideal instrument of choice would be an accordion, and that I live in a terraced cottage with quite thin walls...

I keep thinking about it, though, because I just love the accordion - the way it sounds, the way it looks.  I'm wondering: maybe start with a cute concertina at least; it takes up less room too.  Does anyone reading this know how to play one?  If you could play any instrument (that you perhaps don't already), what would it be?  

Anyway, let me treat you now - here are three favourite songs with accordions:

Johnny Allen: Promised Land

The The: This Is The Day

Fairport Conventon: Si Tu Dois Partir

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Chronically iconic

Three times in 36 seconds!

Quite a feat.  According to my recent evidence, Vernon Kay currently holds the record for this particular accomplishment.  Some might even call it an iconic achievement.  But please don't, as I may be tempted to scream...    I nearly screamed at the car radio when he did it too.  It was a couple of weeks or so ago when it actually happened, during his morning slot on Radio 2 (not my choice of station): Vernon Kay used the word 'iconic' three times in 36 seconds.  (I know, such a nerd, I timed it!)

In the short segment I heard he used it to describe Jeremy Vine as the "iconic broadcaster and journalist", a few seconds later he announced Cathy Dennis as "the iconic singer songwriter" and then, just as I was drawing breath ready to emit a shriek of despair at this lack of verbal originality (my "iconic" detector now on full alert), in the very next sentence we were treated to his description of Cathy's big hits as "iconic, anthemic tunes".   And who knows how many other times it may have turned up when I wasn't listening?

Of course, once you tune into it you find yourself playing 'Iconic Bingo'.  For example, in their current TV ad, Lynx invite you to "smell iconic".  Maybelline cosmetics want to sell you "iconic foundation".  Magazine articles tell you all about a city's "iconic eats".  A quick look through some recent song lyrics and I find lines such as, "lately I've been feeling iconic", "I'm living so iconic" and "iconic brings us together"...   Arghh!

Every artist, every book, every film, musician and landmark - they're all deemed "iconic" now.  Some of them surely are; I've no issue with that - the adjective was once brought out only to describe something really special, something rare perhaps, undeniably symbolic or memorable, thus it made its point perfectly, we knew what it meant and it had gravitas.  So I can't help but find it irritating and a little sad really when terms which were once used sparingly and pertinently like this lose their value - it all seems rather lazy, dull and predictable.  We've such a rich and evocative vocabulary, full of choice and nuance; words are such brilliant tools and (last time I looked, anyway) they're free!  Instead of "iconic", mightn't it be more interesting to hear a few other descriptions in the mix, such as totemic / eminent / acclaimed / unforgettable / renowned / seminal / emblematic / esteemed / famous (or infamous) / distinctive... etc.?

I know language evolves naturally, meanings change and always have done, but some grate more than others.   When the same word is used to describe both the Eiffel Tower and your local bakery's doughnut recipe, you know it's had its day.

(Just as I type this post, a promotional email has popped into my inbox from M&S entitled 'Meet our icons'.  Who/what are these icons?  A checked suit, a roll-neck sweater, loafers and a top-handle bag.)

Siouxsie & the Banshees: Icon

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