Monday 30 April 2012

Don't forget the menthol...

It’s such a very long time since I last placed a thin white stick gently between my lips, held a flame to its end until it glowed with an almost throbbing intensity,  and then inhaled, feeling that hot tingly sensation at the back of my throat and a momentary light-headed rush.  I’m glad I stopped smoking – over twenty years ago now – and I have absolutely zero desire to ever start up again.  But I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it when I did. 

Smoking sporadically through my late teenage years, during college, and on and off for some time after was just part of normal life.  You could smoke just about anywhere for a start, certainly in all the places I frequented: gig venues, pubs and clubs, shops, train carriages.  It was as if everybody indulged in it – although I realise they didn’t.  I find it interesting to watch those old TV interviews, when both host and guest would happily puff away in between the probing questions and their responses, smoke visibly curling up into the air between them as if to illustrate their words.

Anyway, whatever you think about smoking, I really just wanted an excuse to post a single on here today which deserves to be listened to again because I think it’s great.  Its lyrics could only have come from a very different time (in this case, 1978).  It’s hard to imagine a song that is purely about the ‘evil weed’ ever being written again, well, certainly not in quite such a charming way as this one.  Enjoy.  With or without a cigarette.

Prag VEC - Cigarettes

Friday 27 April 2012

Pop pickin' perfection

Enthused by the good folks over at Grown Up Backwards and Unthought Of, Though Somehow, who were in turn inspired by a post over on Tune Doctor (still with me…?) I’ve been enjoying thinking about ‘perfect pop’ for the last couple of days. Big thanks to them! And hoping they won't mind me picking up the baton and running with it here...

It’s impossible not to start compiling lists in your head once you start considering what constitutes your perfect pop song.  There are many - but I’ve limited my list to these three.  They make me smile and want to dance and in the sublime sweetness of their melodies, brief though they may be, I can forget the cold rain outside and the mundane problems of daily life.  That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?  Hope they work for you too.

Kelli Ali - Here Comes The Summer

Big Star - September Gurls

The Monkees - A Little Bit Me, A little Bit You

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Playing along with the art school boys, part two

I was lucky enough to spend a little time recently in some London galleries and museums.  I say lucky because I think of it as a lovely treat to myself, something special - to get to the city and have time to savour a bit of culture.  Whilst wending my way between the exhibits, stopping to “ooh” and “ahh” at some, to be curious and intrigued by others, or simply remain nonplussed at a few, it occurred to me how much I’ve changed since my student days.  Seeing a few clusters of chatty teenagers whose pink hair or unconventionally combined items of clothing screamed out ‘art school trip’ reminded me of my own student group excursions.  We all loved those days out to a place deemed to be of sufficient cultural and educational merit for the tutors to organise a special coach to the Smoke – but not for the right reasons.

Trips to the Barbican, the Tate and the like presented opportunities to do three main things: pose, skive and drink.  We did at least appear well-intentioned on first disembarking the coach, glad to stretch our legs after the dull drive down the M11, having been cramped into the seats of rough textured orange and brown fabric, with flat, matted bits that had resulted from the unsociable chewing-gum-disposal habits of previous occupants.   Stepping into the fresh-diesel air from the stuffy vehicle with its smeary condensation-wet windows, we’d be ushered into whichever exhibition space we were visiting and, at first, it would all be very interesting and exciting.  I have a particularly fond memory of a show at the Hayward in which I was smitten by a mock-up bathroom painted, tiled and kitted out entirely in black (it went with my taste in clothes at the time).   The National Portrait Gallery was appealing too – I’ve never been able to resist looking at and enjoying faces.  But after we’d walked around once and the tutors had disappeared (doubtless to the nearest pub) we had other things on our agenda.  I’m sure I could have learned so much more had I not been as distracted by other attractions but, as they say, youth is wasted on the young.

A trip to the Royal Academy could end up with a wander down the Kings Road, having first bought cans of Skol that would be swigged from as we peeked in the doorways of posh shops we didn’t dare enter.  A morning at the ICA meant an afternoon at HMV and the small, musty-smelling record shops tucked away down nearby back streets.  We ventured tentatively into pubs - classic London dives with large central bars, high ceilings and flock wallpaper, so different from those in our suburban home towns with their copper kettles nestling amongst vases of dust-grey dried flowers.  Some of the nudes we viewed in the metropolis were not just the marble statues or Modigliani models, but the garish photos in Soho shop windows that made us giggle blushingly, and the front covers of magazines which I’m quite sure they never stocked at my local Martins.  Well, I suppose in some ways I did learn a thing or two.

I’d come home not so much with a head full of culture as with a throbbing lager-fuelled ache, a seven inch single in a paper bag, a new T-shirt or earrings and my one concession to the reason for the trip in the first place - a postcard of a Picasso perhaps, from the gallery’s over-priced shop.  The coach journey home was always a far more subdued affair than the outbound drive – the windows misted up with our beery breath this time, as we drowsily added new patches of over-chewed Wrigley’s to the existing ones on the upholstery.  Teenagers, eh?

Anyway, I’m very glad to report that my last trip was a cultural pleasure and made up for all those wasted opportunities.  I came home with a head full of imagery and experiences that educated, inspired and delighted and made me so glad I could go and fill my boots this time in an altogether different way.  I bought a couple of over-priced postcards too – well, you have to, don’t you?  I must say, I don’t really miss the student jolly.  This way was far preferable.

( is the art that you make...)

Friday 20 April 2012

Painted faces

Sixties model Verushka, from 'The Women We Wanted To Look Like'

You may have gathered that I’ve never been a frills and ribbons kind of female.  But I do have a penchant for one thing that’s very girly: make-up. I like to think of it as an art form.  From those first playful experiments in pretending to be a grown-up with my mum’s lipstick smeared on (mostly around my chin) to the drawing on of black and red geometric lines in my punk heyday, wearing make-up has been funWhen I go out it’s a part of my identity, still a bit of a statement perhaps - a little 'art' on my eyes being very much a feature of the total look I want to achieve. 

But I’m getting on a bit now and I wonder for how much longer I can keep applying my usual amount of slap without ending up looking like a drag queen’s impression of Barbara Cartland.  I question how much I use it as a confidence-booster too.  It doesn’t help that I need glasses a lot these days and I can’t see what I’m doing half the time, jabbing my pupils accidentally with a mascara stick (that’ll really help the failing eyesight), whilst my kohl line goes astray in an Alice Cooper stylee.  I’ve asked Mr SDS to tell me if he ever thinks I’m heading towards the dreaded mutton-dressed-as-lamb scenario, but I’m not sure he’ll see that through those old pink-lensed spectacles.  And rather shockingly I realise there are a few friends who haven’t even seen me with a completely nude face before.  Maybe they won’t recognise me?

I'm a tiny bit heartened though by this page from a book I've had for many years ('The Women We Wanted To Look Like' by Brigid Keenan, 1977). Here is the stunning sixties French model, Nicole de la Marge, undergoing her own make-up transformation. 

Tuesday 17 April 2012


The other week I heard a feature on the radio about coincidences and it stuck in my mind. A Professor at Cambridge University is putting together a study/survey on the subject so that he can explore the scientific explanations, and it was clear from his interview responses that he thinks coincidences are just that: simultaneous chance occurrences.  I mean, he doesn’t believe that anything cosmic or fated or supernatural is going on.   So, people are sending him their remarkable coincidence anecdotes to go through, many of which are the kind that can make your spine tingle a little.  One memorable tale was from a woman who had bought an old framed painting from a junk shop whilst on holiday abroad.  Upon removing the frame later she found, stuffed into the back, a page from a decades-old British newspaper, and on that page was an article which, amazingly, included a photo of her as a child!  It just made me think: what are the odds?  Surely too slim to be just chance? - there must be some reason behind it!  She was meant to buy that picture…!  Why she was meant to, I don't know - presumably nothing significant happened because of it -  but it’s hard to engage the logical, prosaic part of my mind and just accept that there is nothing more to it than mere coincidence.

I think small coincidences happen quite often but we rarely remember them for long.  They also say if you're the kind of person who chats to strangers you'll notice them a lot - those odd moments when you strike up a conversation with someone in the seat next to you on a 'plane 1000 miles from home, for example, and it turns out that their brother-in-law lives in your street - that sort of thing. It's a small world ("but I wouldn't want to have to paint it" as comedian Steven Wright so neatly said). 

But I’m sure everyone experiences one or two that seem particularly significant and bizarre.  My most striking one was when I was about eleven, walking through a forest with my family during a day trip and talking about my latest interest in penfriends.  I was already writing to children in Australia and Kenya and I’d now decided I wanted a penpal from Jamaica - that was what we were discussing (I was a fan of exotic-sounding countries...)  As we followed the track between the trees something small and colourful caught my eye in the dry leaves underfoot.  I bent down to get a closer look and found it was a postage stamp, of all things, and not only that  –  it was a Jamaican one.  What were the chances of there being a Jamaican stamp  in the middle of that forest on the rare occasion that I was there at all, on that path, talking about the subject at the very moment I came to it?  It’s a weird one.

The man on the radio talked about probability and it seems that what most think of as extraordinary is often quite commonplace – e.g. apparently there is such a thing known as the ‘birthday problem’ in maths; that if you put a group of twenty-three people in a room, there is a 50/50 chance that two of them will share a birthday. Something in me struggles with the idea that, with 365 birthdays to choose from, two out of twenty-three in a random group would ever be the same.  

Other coincidences that were discussed resonated strongly and no doubt do so for most people – such as all those times when you find yourself thinking about somebody and they phone/turn up/text etc. at that exact moment.  I can’t help liking the notion that some form of telepathy exists and that, if transmitters can send invisible radio and TV signals, then surely - with all the electricity in our brains and the complexities within our grey matter that science still cannot fully explain – it’s not totally implausible for us to be able to transmit and receive basic thought-waves/energy?  Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.  Who knows?  Am I thinking about you right now? 

Sunday 15 April 2012

Fine and dandy

I confess I’d never heard of Black Oak Arkansas before Friday night.  Or at the very least, any glimmer of recognition at the name was from thinking they were contestants in ‘Wacky Races’…  But, after watching ‘Sweet Home Alabama, The Southern Rock Saga’ on BBC4 that evening, followed by ‘Southern Rock at the BBC’, the name will stick in my mind for quite a while.  Or at least the imagery will.

I think most rockumentaries are interesting, no matter what the genre or how it fits with one’s taste.  I like the occasional bit of Southern Rock but have never really paid that much attention to the songs or stories of groups like the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc., so I found ‘The Southern Rock Saga’ revealing and interesting.  Good programmes like these get behind the music and into the personalities, the tragedies and the context of the time, and that’s what makes them so fascinating.  I came away with a much higher opinion of all those guys, who had rebelled against the conservative rural farming backdrop of their roots and the limited career options it offered, whilst still managing to represent the true essence of what it is to be a Southerner.  (Well, that’s how it came across to this British viewer.)

Anyway that was good, so we carried on watching the following programme which showcased a number of bands’ BBC appearances from the 1970s:  for example, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Delaney & Bonnie.  And Black Oak Arkansas.  

Well, please do yourself a favour and watch this clip.  I don’t expect all of you to like them – the song is fairly formless and the vocals are really rough.  Bear in mind it’s from the mid seventies, so it was before the new wave of spandex-clad heavy metal bands started strutting their stuff.  But I defy you not to find the flamboyant performance of androgynous vocalist Jim Dandy utterly compelling, no matter what your musical taste, gender or sexual orientation.  Fast forward to 2 minutes 20 seconds for your first taster of the man’s unique appeal (and I’m not talking about the bulge in his trousers).  Then again, from 3 minutes 5 seconds in until the end.  Even if you just watch with the volume off, I think I can guarantee he will make you smile.

Friday 13 April 2012

Wild youth

A lovely friend passed this old paperback on to me and I think it deserves an airing here.

What a great cover, eh?  It's from 1960.  Its stars look to me like they could also have been in one of those rockabilly bands, like the Polecats or the Stray Cats... 

Of course the book is not quite as shocking as the cover and preface would like to suggest... or maybe that's just to my modern eyes?

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Big sky country

For all the cracks in the walls and creaky floors I still like where I live.  Dating back 200 years our tiny mid-terrace would have been a Georgian hovel; I’m sure I’ve seen the ghost of Baldrick from 'Blackadder' tending to his turnips more than once – he would have felt at home here in Regency times, when it was no doubt inhabited by a family of fifteen who only bathed on their birthdays.  We’ve got problems with the hot water tank and woodworm, a 1980s bathroom suite and a kitchen which would shame Harold and Albert Steptoe  – I could go on but it’s too depressing – but still I’m comforted by the fact that it’s possible, eventually, hopefully, one day, to change those.  I’m a natural optimist, even if a foolish one.  It’s the bits you can’t change that matter, and if they’re ok then it’s a good thing.

And they are, mostly, ok.  Unfortunately I can’t change how busy the road out the front can be; in spite of being a rural area the route is a well-used one.   The trans-European lorries cause our doors and windows to shake daily, to a degree that I’m sure would show up on the Richter Scale.  It may only be once a year but when the Traction Engine event is on nearby, fancily painted steam engines with metal wheels rattle and clatter on the unforgiving road surface so much I think my teeth might fall out.  They toot their horns with a glee not shared by the crocodile of impatient motorists stuck in first gear behind them, whose cars in turn belch out exhaust fumes like angry, exasperated sighs.

It’s what’s at the back of these old red-roofed houses that makes the difference, though. 

Every day I walk to the end of our small garden and look over the gate.  Beyond is a sizeable meadow, owned by a neighbour who lets wild rabbits and the occasional pheasant enjoy sanctuary there.  Through the gate, the path leads straight to open fields, beyond which are more open fields.  The sound of traffic on the road is lost here to the sound of birdsong.  I can just stand and look and listen for ages and, when I do, all feels well in the world, even when it isn’t.

It’s not always completely peaceful.  Last night a black cat prowled up the path with something rather big in its mouth.  He saw me, dropped it and then I realised it was a dead baby rabbit.  At the same I heard a loud thumping sound and noticed parent rabbit very close by, urgently conveying its concern to the rest of the warren with its agitated foot movements.  Thump.  Thump.  I could sense its distress, and I wonder how many more babies it will lose to a predatory feline this season.

Spot the rabbit...

One year, a tranquil summer evening was disturbed by a helicopter, of all things, coming in to land in the  meadow!  Was some Head of State making a top secret visit to this quiet corner of East Anglia?  No, a neighbour's new squeeze just happened to be a pilot, so he flew in to see her.  I’ll resist making a joke about his chopper…

Other aerial visitors are more welcome: dusk in summer time is full of swallows, swifts and sometimes, if I’m lucky, just before dark, low-flying bats.  They speed through the air just inches above my head it seems, like tiny mice with wings that beat so fast, attracted by the insects getting drunk on heady honeysuckle nectar.  I feel intoxicated myself, just being in their presence. 

I’ve lived in damp, rented flats with no gardens before and I know I’m lucky to have a home in a little pocket of English countryside with all this behind my gate.  There are other places I’m sure I could live too – by the sea, or in Tuscany! – as long as nature is not too far away, it’s all good.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Sex, violence and Easter eggs

Hmm, I wondered if that would get you to look up from your chocolate bunny for a moment…  

It’s just that there are some very saucy things going on here right now and I feel compelled to share them.  For the last few weeks the world outside my window has been full of shagging, shouting and sparring, and it’s all about eggs.  Ah, Spring time.  This is bird life at its most active. 

I love this time of year more than ever for watching and listening to the garden birds.  Throughout the day there is constant singing – blackbirds with their enchanting, melodic ditties, a song-thrush with its strange repertoire of repeated phrases, the little dunnock and its flutey speeded-up trills.  They sound sweet to me but not so sweet to fellow members of their species who are no doubt hearing something along the lines of, “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” and “Are you looking at my bird?” (see what I did there?) as well as the more aggressive, “This is my property now so you can all fuck off…”

If the singing (shouting) doesn’t put off their rivals there is plenty of swaggering to back it up.  Dunnocks make me laugh the most – small, brown, fairly indistinctive and timid-looking the rest of the year, these characters are masters at macho posturing during breeding season.  They puff themselves up and lower their heads in the manner of a muscle-bound hardnut about to headbutt someone.   That’s when they’re not flapping their wings at each other like manic semaphore signallers.  It’s all very showy and is perhaps a way to avoid violent confrontation, whereas blackbirds and robins get more combative and will fight dirty if they need to.  Some conflicts have even been known to be fatal, but I’m glad to say I’ve never witnessed quite that extreme.  The loss of some feathers, pride and the claim on the territory/mate in question is usually where it all ends.

As far as the sex goes it seems that woodpigeons and collared doves are the least inhibited.  They’ll shag just about anywhere.  Usually on our garden fence or on the neighbour’s roof.  I’ll admit, rather blushingly, to being a bit of a voyeur here.  It’s just that they have these fascinating little rituals and my interest in nature is such that I’m not going to get prudish about a bit of exhibitionist pigeon rumpy-pumpy.  They seem to be the only group of birds who indulge in lengthy foreplay; some necking and nuzzling clearly gets them in the mood.  Then she goes all submissive to him and he lets out a cry as he, ahem, ‘triumphs’.  Once the deed is done they stick together too, in a kind of ‘afterglow’ moment I suppose; I half-expect each to pull a cigarette out from under its wing and have a post-coital puff. 

A little further down the line, when all this sexual and violent intensity has calmed down a bit, the results of all the posturing, pugilism and fornication will make their debut into the world.  I can’t wait.  I’ll hear the first high-pitched peeping sounds from the nest box and find fragments of freckled or mottled eggshell by the hedge.  Told you it was all about eggs.

Thursday 5 April 2012

The youth of innocence

It’s funny how life can take you on circular routes.  Little things that didn’t seem to have much meaning in one stage of your life can resurface in the future and take on greater importance.  It’s like when you hear a record from your childhood, decades later, and suddenly realise that you liked it all along, you just hadn’t appreciated that you would always appreciate it, if you see what I mean.  An example of that for me is ‘Days’ by the Kinks which was in the (admittedly rather paltry) family singles box around the year of its release, 1968.  I was only five and I loved it.  Played it constantly.  I only had a five-year-old’s appreciation of it, though, which is very shallow and instinctive, merely latching onto a small element of what it really had to offer – but it was enough.  I also liked the theme song for a ‘Cherry B’ advert (on flexi disc, remember them?), my ‘Pinky & Perky’ 45 and ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window’ on yellow vinyl….  but I have to say my taste for those has not endured as well as for ‘Days’, which I still love to this, ahem, day.

Another circular route I’ve been on has been in my career.  As a child I loved drawing, and I loved picture books.  I had no idea that many years later I’d be drawing for picture books myself.  It took a long while to get here, or even to realise that I wanted to get here, with several other unconnected side-trips en route.  Rather fittingly I still have some picture books from my own childhood and now I view them with new eyes.  I look at the techniques, the style, the composition, and I understand so much more than that five-year-old me did – and still love them.

Here are a few.  You can just tell, can’t you, that these were different times.  Thank you for the days…

Hmm...Mick, Keith, Ron or Charlie...?
From 'Myths From Many Lands' (1965)

...I'm not saying anything.
From 'Myths From Many Lands' (1965)

There's something Hockney-ish about this I reckon...
From 'Susan's Secret Garden' (early 1960s)

Perhaps more consideration should have been given to the order of the
words highlighted for reading practice at the top of the left hand page:
Police      found      sorry      policeman     crying
From 'Susan's Secret Garden' (early 1960s)

This is a gorgeous book - and I especially like the fab typeface.
From 'A Tale of Tails' (1965)

Well, I just love it.
From 'Oriental Tales' (1963)

And for some more lovely and far groovier 1960s children's book illustrations you may also want to check out this from the excellent Voices of East Anglia.

Sunday 1 April 2012

The Sixties soundtrack of our lives, part two

Here’s another great, evocative song that sounds as if it really should be in a Sixties film:

This one sets more of a pastoral scene for me, so here’s a little bit of clichéd imagery to go with it…

Scene I

Shimmery, white material fills the whole screen – slowly the camera zooms out and gradually it becomes apparent that it is the fabric of a dress.  It zooms out further to reveal the young woman wearing it, the shape of her body just showing through the flimsy summer frock which is made slightly transparent by the bright sunlight.  She’s walking through the long grass of a meadow, a dreamy expression on her pale face. The scene continues to zoom out until she is only a small figure in the distance, then it angles up to show just the vivid blue, cloudless sky.  A white bird flies silently across, left to right…

Scene II

… You choose…!  I’m no good at this film directing malarkey.
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