Monday 28 January 2013

I'm with the band

A slight smell of stale cigarette smoke lingers in the stingingly cold night air. The floor of the back of the transit van where I sit feels icy, even through my trousers. My back hurts, leaning against something hard and unyielding, its corner poking into my shoulder.

There are six of us – no, hang on, actually there are seven of us, trying to ‘snuggle’ down between amps, drums, guitar cases, backdrops and bags of leads and pedals, behind the cab, hoping to catch a little bit of sleep as the vehicle we’re travelling in rumbles down the motorway in the bleak early hours of a winter morning.

The guitarist, drummer and bassist, and their three girlfriends, one of whom is me, make up six. The vocalist and his girlfriend are sitting in the front with her brother, the informally appointed roadie. The seventh person in the back with us is a ‘fan’ who is cadging a lift back home after the gig. When everyone was packing up at the end of the night - always a long-winded and frustrating business - he’d asked, “Any chance of dropping me off in Hull?”  (or wherever it was).  With the band’s badges on his lapel glinting in the streetlights as he’d made his request, the bass player and self-appointed spokesman for the group could not have refused. However, the detour for this additional passenger takes us an hour out of our way back home and it feels like an eternity when we’ve got another 150 miles to go. But this often seems to happen at gigs; there is always someone in the van travelling back with us who hasn’t travelled out with us, and usually it’s someone who smells strongly of sweat and dope and farts, with long limbs and a bulky rucksack, taking up precious space and time. And space and time mean more than anything on the home-bound stretch, because everyone is knackered, hungry, dehydrated, cold, squashed up, uncomfortable and grumpy. Everyone just wants to get home as soon as possible, longing for deep sleep in a warm, soft, bed. But at least nobody can accuse the band of being ungenerous in that respect.

It was the early 1980s and this became quite a frequent event for a while as I travelled with my boyfriend’s anarcho punk band to an assortment of venues up and down the country. We usually tried to get back the same night, which in reality meant arriving home just as the sun was coming up.  A few times we stayed over, like once in a damp squat – a condemned terraced house with no plumbing (ironically it was in Bath) - and another time on the floor of tiny council flat in a high rise in St. Helens. That one had plumbing but, by strange coincidence, the toilet was broken. We had to use the bath.

My memories of those days are a melange of odd moments and images. From being stopped and searched by the Mets as we travelled home through South London, to seeing a cow giving birth as we ventured through the Cumbrian hills on the way to a gig near the Windscale (as it was then called) nuclear plant. From hearing rumours that British Movement skinheads were going to storm in and give everyone a kicking at Grimsby (they didn’t), to paddling in the sea before a gig in Fareham. There were the unkempt crusty/hippie children climbing on top of the van at Stonehenge, where tales of Hells Angels with knives made the place feel distinctly unwelcoming and the schedule got so far behind that in the end the band didn’t play anyway. And there was the punk in Burnley who was ‘wearing’ a condom, attached to his face between safety pins (one in his lip, one in his nose. It was quite a look.) It turned out he was the singer in one of the support bands, whose only memorable number was a re-worded demolition of Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ endearingly entitled ‘Fuck Off Everybody’.

I remember the inter-band arguments, the waiting around at soundchecks, the sharing of bags of chips with chilli sauce at The George Robey, the listening in on fanzine interviews, and the way only Northern punks sported moustaches… Strangely enough, perhaps, the thing I probably remember the least about is the performances. They were good, though.  Of course.

So where are they now? The bassist founded a record company, the vocalist and drummer are fine and I met them again a few years ago, and the guitarist… well, he’s in the kitchen right now, making me a cup of tea.

Saturday 19 January 2013

The cat, the rat and the blackbird

Not much snow here really, and certainly not the apocalyptic blizzard that was forecast, so I won't be making any voluptuous snow-women like I did last year (she slowly got droopier and droopier as the temperature picked up until eventually her curvaceous appendages just dropped off...)

But the thing I love about a light sprinkling of the white stuff is looking out in the morning to see who's been around already, leaving delicate little tracks before my clumsy clumpy booted footprints spoil the canvas.  This morning I see evidence of Ratty (he's probably back under the car bonnet now as I type).  The blackbird and a neighbour's cat have left their trails too.  I can't help but get a picture in my mind of all three of them out there at the same time, setting aside their differences for one magical hour and going off together to build some snow-rats, snow-cats and snow-birds.  It's just a shame that they must have melted before I could find them.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

96 tears?

Well I don't know about ninety-six tears, but I read somewhere that the average amount of tears a person cries in a lifetime adds up to around 120 litres. That seems an awful lot to me – equivalent to filling up six kitchen sinks! – but given my own propensity to cry at the drop of a titfer these days, maybe I can believe it. 

I’ve never been a cry-baby - never the girl sobbing in the corner at a party, or blubbing in the loos at work, unlike several women with far tougher exteriors whom I've witnessed in my previous life of office jobs and Christmas piss-ups.  I’ve never cried at leaving do's and I’ve never cried at weddings.  I’ve been thinking about the subject today though because I know I’ll have to deal with my runny eyes (and even more embarrassing runny nose) at the funeral on Thursday and I know I’ll be trying hard to hold it all back - I also know that I won’t succeed.

Well that’s fair enough, it's a sad occasion - but I do get that throbbing behind my eyes as those hot tears try to make their escape at the silliest things too sometimes, like simply seeing footage of, say, a beautiful bird in flight (especially if there's some emotive music in the background).  It's a strange response to something wondrous and happy and I don't really understand it.  I try to repress that prickling sensation from beneath my eyelids as if it's something shameful, but usually fail and then end up laughing at my own ridiculous-fucking-patheticness.

Still, I’m so glad I’m female and that I am at least “allowed” to cry.  It must be harder if you’re born with the Y chromosome, where there still seems to be that unspoken expectation to keep tears at bay at all costs (as well as to have emerged from the womb with an innate knowledge of how to put up a shelf / unblock a drain / maintain a car, etc...) purely because of your gender.   We all know what it’s like to fight those ‘stupid’ emotions, to try and swallow them away, and pretend that your eyes are a little glassy because you just sneezed, or your nose a little red because you just rubbed it….  But really, when you think about it: why? Why do we try so hard not to show how we feel when it’s as real, as universal and as valid, as any other emotional expression – like laughing, or smiling, or frowning?  

I’ve known more than a couple of men to get tearful at times (by which I hope you won’t get the wrong impression!) and I’ve found it both moving and endearing - a revelation of compassion and depth.  John Peel (bless 'im) openly admitted that as he got older he found himself crying more frequently and more easily than ever before, so it's not such a bad thing for a man to do, is it?!  Or maybe it's an age thing?  Whatever - each time I worry about that emotion creeping up on me and feel silly and embarrassed, I just remind myself of him and I don't feel quite so soppy.  I'm sure I still have a few more kitchen sinks to fill, and it'll probably be triggered by something relatively innocuous a lot of the time.  You still won't fnd me weeping at a wedding or puffy-eyed at a party, though....  now that's just far too girly!

I couldn't resist the tenuous link, seeing as I'm still musically on a Suede trip!
The Tears...

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Rattus Norvegicus

Right, so I got the sad stuff out of my system, now let’s talk about something more cheerful.



The car battery died yesterday (oops, sorry – I was going to steer clear of the death theme this time) and when we lifted the bonnet, there on the lifeless battery there was, no, not a rat sitting looking up at us twitching its whiskers, but certainly evidence of one.  A perfect little rat turd, in fact…  What’s Ratty been doing under our bonnet, though, I wonder?  (Apart from the obvious…)

I’ve been finding perfect little rat turds in the compost bin lately too.  He obviously likes mouldy carrot peel and  lettuce hearts.  And probably the worms that live in there too -  those rats, they’ll eat anything.  Mind you, we’ve had rats in the composter before; a nest of them one summer.   Once I opened the lid to find a rather surprised little baby – very cute.  He didn’t know what to do as he couldn’t see an escape route and got himself into a bit of a panic.  Stupidly I thought I might be able to catch him, in whatever I could find nearest to hand, which was a small bucket.  I started to try and lower this bucket over him and he went absolutely nuts, leaping up at it and, well – have you ever heard a rat scream? This one certainly knew how to make a big noise, shrieking and screeching like a thing possessed.  It sounded a little too human and I seriously worried that the next noise I would hear would be the screaming of a police siren, summoned by a neighbour fearing that a violent murder was being committed three doors down…   I gave up and left Ratty Junior to calm down and burrow back through the decomposing cabbage leaves and broccoli stalks.

Being out here in the country, surrounded by fields, it’s obvious that brown rats are everywhere.   I know they can spread disease but I think these country cousins must be fairly clean-living or surely we’d all be going down with Weil’s Disease – especially if it’s true what they say about always being within six feet of one.  It’s obvious that they’re extremely social, intelligent animals and they’re really quite a pleasure to watch.  However, not wanting them to become too comfortable round here in the past I hoped I could relocate them but my attempts at using a humane rat-trap (not a bucket) failed miserably – no amount of tempting bacon hanging inside it was going to fool these clever characters into stepping anywhere near a metal cage, it was if they knew exactly what it was for.  Unfortunately lovely Mr Blackbird didn’t, though, and one morning I found him inside, confused and exhausted but unharmed.  I was very glad to be able to release the catch and gently lift him out, whereupon he made that little clucking noise and flew off to reinstate some ruffled feathers, not to mention his pride.

Since the population of cats has quadrupled round here in the last few years I’ve seen very few rats venture into the garden, but before that they used to be quite audacious, scampering down the path, climbing up the hollyhocks and shinning up the bird table. Now it seems they’re keeping a much lower profile.  Either that or they’re so intelligent they’re secretly getting to grips with the workings of our car engine, probably gathering out there under the bonnet at night in their hordes whilst referring to a Haynes manual.  It wouldn’t surprise me.  Now, if they could just learn how to use toilet paper…

(I love this film!)

Friday 4 January 2013

For MB

Sorry to be a little downbeat here but sometimes when you’re thinking about silly things like the timer on the oven not working properly or the fact that bread has gone up by 5p a loaf, something pulls you up short and puts a few things in perspective, and that happened today. 

A friend of ours died this morning.  He had leukaemia and had been unwell with it for over a year, but during that time he’d had an admirable and incredible stoicism and positivity about him.  A month or so ago he was upbeat about the news that the NHS had received funding for his third bone marrow transplant.  In spite of being told it only carried a 5% chance of success, it was a hope he wanted to cling to.  However, he never became well enough again to actually have the operation. 

I’m so glad that the last time I saw him was on a really beautiful day.  Even though summer had long passed and the evenings were getting chilly and darker, that Saturday lunchtime when Mr SDS and I plus some other friends met him at a pub was like a Mediterranean July.  It was so hot that we sat outside soaking up the sun, the ice melting in our drinks, and the back of my neck even got a little burnt.  Our friend was in great spirits and, whilst a little weak physically, you’d be hard pushed to tell at first glance just how ill he really was. 

This pub is in one of the more upmarket, touristy villages round here – ok, if I tell you that it’s owned by Marco Pierre White you’ll get the idea.  There are pictures of MPW inside and apparently if you eat there you can go home with a postcard of him to put on your wall.   Whoop de doo!  We didn’t eat there.  When we saw the drinks bill it was obvious we were paying a premium just to be served by somebody who might have wiped the bar with a cloth that MPW’s PA may once have touched.  I think lunch for the six of us would have cost as much as that bone marrow transplant.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it was the price of the drinks that made our friend a little unsteady on his feet rather than his condition.  In fact, when he ordered them,  his speech was a little slurred too. Ever one for a mischievous comment he explained to the barman, “It’s ok – I’m not drunk!  It’s just the drugs...” 

I’ll remember him as a truly larger-than-life character – charming, funny and spontaneous, with a very real twinkle in his eye.  He’d lived quite a rollercoaster life, full of experiences that most of us can only imagine. 

We’re going to raise a big glass to him tonight - here at home.  We’re not paying those pub prices again.  Our friend would understand.

For MB, who loved Bowie

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Thank you for the music

As I’ve mentioned before (stop yawning at the back there…) I suddenly have a lot of work on.  I’m tackling three projects simultaneously but I must be the world’s worst multi-tasker - even drinking a cup of tea at the same time as remembering to breathe properly is a challenge and frequently results in messy snorting episodes and my pallor turning a frightening shade of blue.  So I’ve got myself into a right pickle about how I’m going to complete it all on time and to several clients’ satisfaction.  I think (worry) about it and I dream about it and that’s when I’m not actually doing it.  I worked on Christmas Day and I worked all day today, it’s relentless.  I do love what I do, I know I’m lucky and it’s “not a day down the mines” as Mr SDS relishes in reminding me  -  but as it’s  all I do and I have to rely completely on myself and whatever small degree of creativity I can muster, it makes me very anxious at the same time.

However, there’s one thing that really helps.  I have a little CD player under the desk in my shedio, safe from stray paint and spilt water, and the difference it makes having music playing while I work is incredible.  I wonder why that is?  What is it about music that is so therapeutic yet so motivational?  It keeps me calm (it doesn’t have to be calming music – none of that new age windchime whalesong ’n’ waterfalls stuff; upbeat and noisy works fine for me).  It lifts my spirits (although admittedly I don’t listen to Radiohead…) and it distracts me from everything else so I just feel in the here and now, as if I’ve gone into a special room, not just physically but also inside my mind, sealed off from every other aspect of daily life. 

It's while I'm painting in my shedio that I listen to music the most, so right now that’s a lot.   The CD player may be humble but with my PC about to draw its pension – so old it’s a wonder that its Windows aren’t mullioned – I sometimes have difficulty with web-based listening.  Youtube frustrates me with its streaming (it would take ten minutes to play through a Napalm Death number, you know what I’m saying)  and I daren’t load anything big for fear of my hard drive melting like a cheesy toast topper.  It’s always great to hear something via a blog - especially on recommendation by cultured aficionados with good taste (yes, you!) - but it’s still transitory…   It's no wonder I always come back to good ol’ physical CDs. 

So it was with delight that I opened my post the other day and found a compilation (I can’t get used to calling it a mix) that a friend had put together.  This friend (a cultured aficionado with good taste, of course) and I used to swap tapes, going back at least a couple of decades now, and I think we know each other’s musical background, preferences and fixations quite well.  It’s been a while since a fresh new selection came my way and the timing was perfect.  I slipped it into my modest machine in the shedio and from the moment the first track kicked in I was off, painting happily away, soothed and at the same time stimulated by more music.  Unfamiliar songs lifted my spirits, a few familiar voices kept me calm.  Long live the compilation CD, especially when it’s both a surprise and full of surprises - and your friend understands you!  I may get my work completed on time yet.

Crayon Fields: All The Pleasures Of The World
(one of many cool choices)
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