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

Thursday 14 September 2023

Still here

Red kite

Hello, how are you?!  Several weeks have gone by and the cobwebs in the corners of this blog are gathering cobwebs of their own, but I'm still here...

A bout of Covid (my first) knocked me back last month, but the leaden-legged fatigue and peculiar effect on the tastebuds (I couldn't have distinguished between a rice pudding and a vegetable jalfrezi in a blind taste test) thankfully passed.  Now I'm "in-between" work projects and, aside from many overdue jobs to do around the house, it's a pleasure to take a breather and get immersed in nature outside for a while.  So, screen time isn't a big draw at the mo.

Ah, but outside is, I'm addicted.  By day I've been spotting the biggest, fattest garden spiders I've ever seen, and have been exhilarated by my first ever sighting of a live grass snake in the leaf litter.   I can hear the mewing of buzzards (we've never heard so many round here before) and watch the beautiful aerobatic displays of red kites over the rooftops and fields (still relatively new to these parts and they thrill me every time.  Did you know they have a wingspan of around 5ft?!)  By evening, it's the occasional, surprising close encounter with a bat as it flits with beating wings in somewhat manic fashion past the honeysuckle - and my head.  There's evidence of a hedgehog's wanderings too (those animal faeces recognition skills come in handy) and I can't help but have a fondness for Mrs Brown Rat as she lifts her nose, ears twitching independently, to sniff me from a safe distance (although had to stop feeding the birds for now in an effort to persuade her to move on).  Still, a chiffchaff skims the buddleiah, delaying its return to Africa while the weather's so warm here.  A stunning hornet (the native European species) wows me with its size and tiger colours, and the Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies bask on the kitchen window frame. With surprising speed, Cabbage White caterpillars rhythmically munch through toadflax (love that name) pausing only to drop off neat little parcels from their opposite ends... who knew you could even see a caterpillar take a crap?! - all part of the cycle...

I could watch, and listen, and smell all this for hours; it's my salve... I recommend it to everyone, even if only for a few minutes a day. Even if it's just what I used to do when I lived in a top floor flat looking out at the orbweb spiders in the corners of the windows and the magpies bouncing on the opposite rooftops.  Just get whatever you can.  I'd recommend it to Putin et al.  Honestly, mate, I'd like to say to him/them in my Utopian dream world, just sit back and watch the bees and the birds for a while and wonder at the simple pleasures of nature, how marvellous and precious it all is, how it deserves our protection, and you might just feel a little bit happier inside and appreciate the value of peace and harmony.  Oh, if only...

Bumming about in nature doesn't leave a lot of time or motive for blogging but I really don't want to lose the blogging either- it's very important to me too, the source of some lovely friendships and also something of a salve.   So I will be back!  Just maybe when I've finished watching that wasp drinking from the bird bath and the convoy of ants on a mysterious mission running along the path....  See you soon.

Wednesday 9 August 2023

Lady go diva

Argh, I do love a crappy play on words and that title certainly is one of my worst.  But, anyway, it’s the best I can manage to describe what I did the other day which was not to ride nude through the streets of Coventry, but instead to go down to that lovely V&A Museum in London with a couple of friends and catch the latest exhibition: DIVA.

And it was quite an experience, my first of wearing a Bluetooth headset while wandering amid the exhibits, so you get the accompanying soundtrack to each encounter at your own pace.  (If it goes awry and you can hear Maria Callas while standing in front of a picture of Siouxsie Sioux “just turn your left ear towards the display you want and it'll correct itself,” the guide had advised.  It worked pretty well.)  It was like a gentle ride in a time machine – at one turn you can be watching and listening to Mae West on a screen where a scene from I’m No Angel plays out and then, as you walk between the cabinets and travel through the ages visually, your ears are filled with each relevant artist’s songs, from Nina Simone to Bjork, Debbie Harry to Lady GaGa, Shirley Bassey to Madonna, etc.

Debbie Harry's outfit from Blondie's European tour, 1979

Sade's ensemble from her Love Deluxe world tour, 1993

The word “diva”, originally derived from the Italian for a female deity, is very broadly interpreted at this show and it does include some whom many may not think fit that description - for example, a few young 'uns who haven't really reached legendary status, plus a handful of male “divas” are also represented (a fine pair of Prince’s bespoke high heeled boots in particular caught my eye, such small feet!)   And the label can have a pretty negative connotation too.  But when it comes to this exhibition, who cares really? - I decided not to be picky in this context!  It's a general theme, and the result is a celebration of flamboyant costume, creativity and the performing arts and with a sprinkling of politics thrown in too (feminism, racism, gender).  I found the whole thing informative and interesting, especially as there are posters, photos and illustrations plus a few other little artefacts alongside all the eye-catching garments and I just love seeing them all for real.

Prince's boots

A Dolly dolly!

Sade's hand-written lyrics for 'Immigrant', 2000

I was especially excited to see some incredibly imaginative ensembles from the more distant past, for example this astonishing two piece (and Health and Safety nightmare) worn by Josephine Baker, fantastic! 

Perhaps what struck me most about the oldest outfits on display, particularly those from early movies, was their exquisite, quality craftsmanship and intricacy.  They were beautifully preserved too.  Some of the more recent ones, whilst more extravagant and ostentatious, just didn’t compare and had an air of fancy dress party about them, to me anyway (but don’t tell anyone.  Elton would be highly insulted, I'm sure.).  And I found myself reflecting on the thought that, at the other end of the spectrum, an elaborate, delicately crafted dress worn by Clara Bow, for instance, would have really only been viewed by its cinema audience at the time in black and white, with no chance to pause, rewind, replay countless times at home, etc., and no intent to linger on its detailed splendour as we might now.  So I'm just happy that I had the chance to do a little time travelling, and to linger on them myself.

Here's some footage of Debbie in that outfit, performing Heart of Glass at the Glasgow Apollo, as part of the live set filmed by the BBC on New Year's Eve 1979.

Saturday 22 July 2023

Oh shit

I never thought the time would come when I would be posting my excrement through a mailbox - but the other day that’s exactly what I did.  And I suspect a few of you have done so too…

The reason being (other than fantasising that the person at the receiving end could be Jacob Rees-Mogg) I had a certain milestone birthday earlier this month and thus a couple of days later received an extra little birthday present from our lovely NHS – so thoughtful of them!  You probably know where I’m going with this: it was the bowel cancer screening kit in its neat card envelope, a cute little sample tube, complete with clear, illustrated instructions.  (I would quite like to have been commissioned for that artwork – it’s not every day you’d get to draw a job like that  get a job to draw like that.)

Well, I think it’s brilliant that we have the opportunity here to do these tests for free and at our own convenience so I was quite strangely excited to have a go.  And this post is just about writing itself with all its double entendre...

Anyway, it does take a little bit of what you might call ‘forward planning’ but honestly it’s no hardship, and then when it's all done, dated and ready to despatch, you can say you’ve pushed your excrement through a mailbox too, and write a blog post about it.

All of this brings to mind a song I particularly loved when I was 15 and first heard as the B-side of a much treasured and brilliant Buzzcocks single, ‘What Do I Get’  I know it’s not about the actual, erm, ‘substance’ (are there any songs out there that are?!) but as a swear word ‘shit’ is pretty excellent.  My poor mum and dad just kept shtum when I insisted on playing it at full volume on the family stereogram.  They did the right thing, of course, making a fuss would have just given me cause to rebel against them but instead they accepted it all with good grace. In fact my mum probably secretly liked it; I'm pretty sure that 'shit' (along with 'bugger') was her favourite swear word - she didn't hold back - and it has become one of mine too; it's the perfect response to stepping barefoot on an upturned plug, or when a handle on your Tesco 'Bag For Life' gives way and deposits your Maris Pipers all over the pavement, or if you have to answer the door to the postman wearing a freshly applied exfoliating clay face pack.  We've all been there.

The lovely Susie Dent explains more about it here (I thoroughly recommend her videos on all our favourite profanities):

And of course the song.

Buzzcocks: Oh Shit

Sunday 9 July 2023

Yorkie bar(s)

When you find yourself in a bar or restaurant talking about everything from the Southern Freeez, Bruce Springsteen and Shed 7 to the perils of snoring, the loudest gig you've ever been to, terrifying Public Information films from our childhood and how you file your music collection as well as the joys of mashed potato and the cut of David Bowie's trousers, you know you've fallen in with the right crowd...

And so it was that I recently found myself doing exactly that in the esteemed company of fellow bloggers Alyson, Charity Chic (and Mrs CC), John Medd  (and Mrs M) and The Swede - all of whom I'd had the great pleasure of seeing at our first "mini meet-up" in Edinburgh* a year ago, but this time we convened a little further South in York.  It's a city I'd never before visited and one I'd definitely like to return to as it was something of a whirlwind trip this time, but I'm just glad to have made it. It was actually bit of a test for me too; earlier in the year, hard as it seems to imagine now, I couldn't even envisage coping with staying away from home and the sensory overload of such an event, so I'm glad to say that although things are sapping my concentration a little, I've now reached the point where I can push past it enough of the time.  And I'm determined to keep doing so!  I know I wasn't alone in having some background concerns on this occasion either, and very much hope that the trip provided as much of an uplifting break for others too.

But anyway, back to the point, York was lovely and the company was even lovelier.  My memories are awash with (amongst much else) random snippets of the very small but perfectly formed Blue Bell pub, a certain blogger's delightfully dapper hat, a charming multi-tasking bus tour guide, the unexpected views onto houses from the Medieval walls and the most enormous Calzone you've ever seen in the most welcoming Italian restaurant you could go to - all mingled with smiles, seamless conversation, good food, drink and laughter.   As I've said before about blogging, it's a fantastic example of  how geographically distant strangers can form connections and have that sense of understanding and camaraderie, all just stemming from what we've expressed in our pages.  I haven't been very good at keeping up with that side of things lately but it hasn't seemed to have mattered, so here's a huge thank you to all.  I have indeed fallen in with the right crowd.

Perhaps in future, depending on whereabouts in the country we end up, others can swing by too?

Loved this font on a building viewed from a section of the city walls

and this gorgeous beetle art around the corner from the hotel

*minus Martin who unfortunately couldn't make it this year

Wednesday 31 May 2023

I feel alive, I feel the love

 “Enjoy the rest of your day,” the young woman said cheerily as she put her belongings back in her little crossbody bag and walked, in a faintly zig zag pattern, away from our table on the parched grass.  She had the sweetest, warmest smile.

My friend and I had just been giggling with her, giggling in that helpless way like we did when we were kids.  We'd spotted her walking in our direction, catching our eyes as she provided us with an unintentionally comedic scene: she was taking two or three steps at a time, then pausing to bend forward, hunching over to root around in her bag, but each time she did so the plastic beaker of wine in her other hand tipped forward too, spilling it on the ground.   She’d straighten up, take a few more steps, then repeat the bend and the rummage, totally oblivious to yet more spillage.  And again – more steps, another fruitless fiddle about in the bag and, oops, there goes the wine ...and she still hadn't noticed.

Wordlessly we motioned to her to use the table where we were sitting and she gratefully emptied her bag onto it, treating us to a running commentary on its contents, punctuated by infectious laughter.  It’s hard to find a lipstick in a deceptively deep bag when you’re a little worse for wear.  Bless her, she found it eventually, after the phone and the sunglasses and tissues and the hairbrush and TicTacs and a blister pack of paracetamol…  after which we provided her with the services of a talking mirror (“Yep, that’s fine! No, it’s not all over your cheeks!”) while she applied it blindly, trusting us not to let her walk away looking like Robert Smith.  Well, I felt a little flutter of  love for this girl in that brief moment, for her sweetness and her laughter and her tipsy candour, I glimpsed a little of my young self in her too.  Or perhaps it was just that I was feeling very mellow and just glad to be alive in the laidback, loved-up way that being outdoors surrounded by the sound of guitars and the smell of doughnuts can inspire.  The sun was shining too, at last.

The small music festival on my doorstep had started that day and, honestly, it was a proper tonic just to go and soak it all up. I’m so lucky, I’m sitting in my garden now as I draft this post out on a scrap of paper the following afternoon, and I can hear it from here: the bass a constant, some vocals drifting in and out as the breeze carries them to me, probably not even half a mile as the crow flies, across the green, the graveyard and a few rooftops. But on Saturday, to be right there (in a field very familiar to me for being populated by sheep and jackdaws the rest of the time) and just to “do” the whole festival thing was still special.  And even though the artists we saw were not ones I would have chosen to see in other circumstances, they were perfect for this moment; I let go of any pre-conceptions completely and just enjoyed what was on offer.

It was especially good too to witness three headline acts all featuring more "mature" women; very heartwarming when you are one yourself.   So yes, Katrina Leskanich is 63, Carol Decker is 65 and Natalie Imbruglia is 48.  They were all in fine voice, classy and energetic, and looked fab - and I felt kind of proud to have them on my home turf too.  Katrina & The Waves performing 'Going Down To Liverpool' was a highlight.  What's that you say?  Why yes, of course they did 'Walking On Sunshine'!  And whilst I can't think of any T'Pau songs I would actively decide to listen to, Carol Decker had some great between-song banter and I couldn't fault their performance.  Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night for me was Natalie... I've never really given her any thought; 'Torn' was one of those ubiquitous songs of the late '90s and that was about all I could think of but, you know, she really rocked out at times and I was far more impressed than I could ever have imagined; I got a bit of a Bangles / Susanna Hoffs vibe.  Good on her, because she turned me around completely! 

I could only make it to the festival on the Saturday night, but late on Sunday night we did at least get to hear Shaun Ryder's unmistakeable lilt drifting over to our windows and down the chimney on the northerly breeze.   Black Grape were playing and I hope he was suitably sweary, it wouldn't be Shaun without a few expletives surely?  

I'll be thinking about that, plus the girl with the giggle and the spilt wine, next time I walk through that field with the sheep and the jackdaws. They will still be just as much of a tonic.  

Any festivals happening for you this Summer?

Friday 19 May 2023

Checking into the Chelsea, fanzine style


Welcome to an experimental 'fanzine format'  blog post!

Inspired by some comments on the previous post, and also influenced by my much younger fanzine creating self, I took to paper, pen, Pritt Stick and scissors to make this one.  I can honestly say, I've really enjoyed working like this, away from the computer screen.  I can also honestly say, it took bloody ages.  Still, it was fun and the only other downside is that there's no chance to edit it now, but I'm a long-time fan of the DIY ethos and the charm of imperfection.  As for the silly amount of time it took, well, sometimes don't you just wish that everything did anyway, and then we could all slow down a bit?

I hope that wasn't too hard-going to read...

Here's the link to the documentary:

and that great clip of Nico performing 'Chelsea Girls':

Thursday 11 May 2023

Screened out

 Argh - my hand aches.  I've been doing that thing I used to do a lot of when I was younger - you know, when you hold a plastic tube with ink in it and move it around to form alphabet letters in different combinations across a piece of paper: some actual, physical, manual, how-we-used-to-do-it-in-the-olden-dayes writing.

I started, but haven't yet finished, hand-writing a new blog post but before I go back to that one I wanted to precede it with an explanation (also hand-written and to be transposed to what you see here).  I haven't posted on here for ages and feel I've been regretfully neglectful towards my lovely fellow bloggers too - I'm so sorry! Thing is, I've developed a bit of a problem with spending much time in front of my computer screen; I'm sure this must be due to the round-the-clock tinnitus and unfortunately it's just my brain's way of coping for now.  Reading and writing at any length on screen has become extra tiring and I'm finding it hard to concentrate comfortably, and then that effect has placed a kind of psychological barrier in the way too - sort of associating computer time with having that feeling and thus just wanting to be far away from it...  

Hopefully this will pass as it's still early days but in the meantime I decided to embrace the analogue instead.  And how good it is!  I always knew I was an analogue girl but when I'm immersed in all the things I already enjoy - like drawing, walking, reading a (physical) book and putting my hands in the worm bin (that's a bit niche, I know) I barely notice the noise either.  In fact, drawing is amazingly therapeutic and I'm sure there are some credible scientific reasons behind this to do with the parts of the brain that it engages and exercies - a subject I'd love to read up on more, apart from the fact that I'd probably have to do most of that online.

Anyway, after scribbling these words on paper and just typing up quickly here my brain feels so much less cluttered and fatigued in the process.  I think I'll try this method for a while to see where it goes - hopefully it will help me to revive this blog a little but, if all else fails - well, can I post you a letter?!

Saturday 1 April 2023

Just like a dream

 I had such a lovely dream last night I hope you won't mind if I share it here.  Because it featured Robert Smith*!

Before you ask – no, it wasn’t that kind of dream.  But it was incredibly feelgood, and there is nothing quite like waking up after having a particularly pleasant dream, instead of either just a nonsense one, or worse - an unsettling or frightening one.  The emotions we feel in our more vivid reveries often seem to linger on the following day, just like an actual experience would and again, much like in real life, there’s great pleasure to be had in actively revisiting the good ones in our minds to keep those feelings alive.

So, in the dream, Robert Smith was a lovely old pal from my college days.  And I was back at some art school, within a big campus area, walking about in the sunshine waiting to meet up with some mates and go to a gig, when this (young) Robert appeared out of the blue.  He just put his arm around my shoulder as he fell into step with me and a warm, easy, lovely conversation ensued throughout the rest of this sweet unconscious flight of fancy as we wandered around together on a soft Summery day.  There was music as well – meeting up with the DJ who was going to do the set before the gig and who played us a few previews of his record choices, all of which were completely imagined and yet I heard them vividly, as real songs.  I wish I could recall the tunes, they were good; I remember lots of fuzzy guitars and a lively bass.  Do you ever dream up music in your sleep too?  If only we could record it!

“I’m definitely going to treat myself to Three Imaginary Boys”, I announced as I remembered the dream this morning (and then giggled at the ambiguity of what I'd just said…)     But it was just that I had bought and loved TIB soon after it was released many years ago and, somehow, like many other albums I’d owned in my teens, it had been replaced by something else I’d subsequently decided I’d listen to more.   Now I have a hanker to own it again and to keep it forever this time.  I find myself doing this more and more with the music I loved so much in my formative years but later let go.  As has often been said I’m sure, it goes much deeper than just the music - it’s about the feel of the time, the associations, youthful memories, identity, growing up… so much more, all of this wrapped up in 12” of vinyl and some idiosyncratic cover art.   

Anyway, thanks Robert, for inadvertently turning up in my head last night and being one imaginary boy in that dream.  It really was lovely to see you!

The Cure: 10.15 Saturday Night

 *I know why he featured – we’d been watching a repeat of ToTP in the evening on which he was playing keyboards with Siouxsie & the Banshees for ‘Swimming Horses’ (excellent to see again).  Plus just a few days beforehand Martin had posted the perennially charming Love Cats on his excellent blog…

Sunday 26 March 2023

The sparrows in my head and a jugular bulb

I hope you won't mind the medical nature of this post, but if you've ever had a CT scan you'll perhaps agree that it really does seem like something straight out of a sci-fi movie.  The idea of being fed through a machine as red laser lines make intangible marks across you, and having your veins injected with 'dye' so that someone else can see the inside workings of your head, your blood vessels, even your brain, is (no pun intended) pretty mind-blowing.  And for us patients in the UK it's all for free.  Thank you, wonderful NHS.

I couldn't help wondering beforehand what else might show up inside my head, though - a mouse's nest?  A boxful of dreams?  All the things I've ever lost perhaps (that hoover nozzle we were looking for the other day?  My book on 1970s interiors that mysteriously went missing in 1995?)  But, I'm glad to say, the thing they did find was the thing they were looking for - the answer to the question I've had going round inside there for the last three months: what's causing me to hear that 'flock of sparrows' that I wrote about here, cheeping away every second of the day...? 

I'm so relieved to say it's not a tumour, or a narrowed artery, or a build-up of pressure around the brain, all of which can cause this Pulsatile Tinnitus.  I've had two ECGs as well, and full blood tests, and things poked inside my ears and up my nose, plus a hearing test, and they all turned out ok, so it's felt like a long three months.  But I found out last week, thanks to the result of the CT scan, that I do have an anomaly, which is an 'enlarged jugular bulb' (this, as a very lovely friend suggested, really should be the title of a track by Peter Hammill or the like, shouldn't it?  I can hear it now, a noodly instrumental perhaps.)

After a lot of wondering, worrying and some dark nights (and days) of the soul, it's such a relief to have a diagnosis at last.  For anyone who's interested in our incredible anatomy, as I understand it the jugular bulb is something we all develop at around 2 years old, a pouchy part of your jugular vein, at its top, where it bends round and forms a kind of junction with a sinus vein.  My 'bulb' is now pressing against or protruding slightly into the inner workings of my ear and so it's like putting a loudhailer up to your jugular.... which perfectly explains why I can hear my blood flow pulsing past all the time (and seemingly a few other noises from inside my skull too - it's a busy place!)

I do wish I could get rid of the incessant noise but, unless things get very extreme or there are any physical developments requiring intervention, I have to learn to live with it.  Habituation is the key - training your brain not to tune in, to ignore it - apparently the more attention we give something the more our brains automatically log its perceived importance (this particularly applies to anxiety too).  So I must keeping working at it, and the lovely ENT consultant is going to monitor things regularly too; I go back for a follow-up in June.

In the meantime, music and art and other happy distractions are, as ever, therapeutic, and I'm so grateful I don't have to do a job which requires me to sit in front of a computer screen all day as that has definitely become a bit more tiring and uncomfortable for some reason.  In fact my circumstances couldn't be better really, I draw and paint for a living (I've also reduced my hours a little) and I do it with music playing or the radio on, and birdsong outside my window.  The cheeping of real sparrows is fine; Spring is, well, promising anyway, to turn up soon and at least the heartbeat in my head keeps confirming I'm alive!

Let's have some more Buzzcocks... they do seem to have cornered the market in tinnitus-related themes...

Thursday 16 March 2023

Pipe dreams

 "I wasn't picking up cigarette butts..." says Andy, in a scene from Series 2 of the ever wonderful 'Detectorists', as he bumps into Dr Tendai, who, shortly beforehand, had interviewed him for an archaeology job in Botswana.  "Clay pipes," he continues, "I saw some bits of clay pipe in the flowerbed..." He holds out his palm to show the chalky white pipe fragments.  "Broken bits of pipe that people used to smoke."

They do look like cigarette butts, but I've found myself just as acutely aware of their existence as Andy is, any time I'm pottering around in my garden.  Only yesterday I wasn't even digging or anything, I just glanced downwards briefly to where the snowdrops have emerged and a piece of clay pipe was just lying there, looking up at me.  Well, not exactly looking up at me, but you know what I mean.  Not buried, not even dirty.  Just lying there in the open, above the soil, as if it had been strategically placed there by someone five minutes beforehand for me to spot.  Who is that phantom pipe layer?!

These are some of the pipe fragments I've found in the same circumstances, all of them in this small, humble garden, all of them brought to the surface naturally - by worms, birds, moles, voles, Wombles, who knows what, but they just appear now and then, unsearched for - and I love it.  

They may only be tiny remnants of the existence of ordinary men in buckskin breeches with tobacco-stained moustaches but they'll do for me - little time travelling morsels from long-gone lives.  I totally get why Andy holds onto them and keeps them in a glass jar - I do the same.

Back to the scene in 'Detectorists'.  "How old are they?" asks Dr Tendai.  "These ones are Victorian.." Andy points to the thinner fragments, "but that one's early 18th, maybe late 17th Century."  "How can you tell?"  Dr Tendai's curiousity is clearly piqued now.  "Older ones are thicker and they had a much smaller bowl because tobacco was so expensive..."

Thick and thin together

I haven't found any sections with the bowl intact yet but now I know, from Andy's explanation and yesterday's find, that I had in my hand a little piece of (thicker) pipe which must once have been puffed on by someone around 400 years ago.  Here's another fragment with some relief decoration at one end still showing too.

I can't help it, I just love how something so small and simple can resurface after hundreds of years and make me feel that myserious connection the way it does.  I hope I'll keep finding cigarette butts bits of clay pipe in my flowerbeds.


I was wondering about some music to accompany this post too.  Well, I could have given you Crackdust, the Botswanian death metal band mentioned by Andy and Lance in this episode - honestly, they're real - but how about an unexpectedly stompy glam version of the Nashville Teens' 'Tobacco Road' instead?  

Albatross: Tobacco Road, 1975

(Although, if you're still curious about Crackdust...)

Crackdust: Mortal Decay

Sunday 26 February 2023

Reverting to type

Ah, the typewriter!  Like the Mouli Grater and the accordion, the typewriter is one of those random modern day objects whose combination of aesthetic and purpose just gives me a warm, tingly feeling.  I love the way it looks and sounds, I love its symbolism; it’s imbued with personal memories too.  It came to mind the other day when I stumbled across some wonderful old typewriter adverts from Olivetti – but more on those later.

While we're at it, though, feast your eyes on a Mouli Grater and an accordion...


But back to the typewriter.  My mum had a lovely manual one (I think it may have been a Hermes, or was it an Olympia?) from as far back as I can remember.
  It had a hard, grey, curved carrying case, and all the usual features that give this relatively simple machine such character.  The little bell that warns you when you’re getting close to the right hand edge of your page, the long carriage return lever with its smooth, satisfying action, and those marvellous typebars hammering their characters onto the paper like multiple, cascading fingers.

I got to know that typewriter well as a child, not just through the clicking and clacking and tinging of my mum’s activities (she used to offer home typing services to students and academics) but from my own endeavours at making story books.   Learning to replace the ribbon tape properly seemed so sophisticated, and I particularly liked the fancy double one which had both black and red ink options.  Unlike my mum, who magically knew where everything was without looking, I ‘hunted and pecked’ at the letters, my little fingers not always having the strength needed to imprint them hard enough.  Or I’d accidentally press a couple of the keys at the same time, tangling the long typebars at the centre of it all, which I’d then have to delicately prise apart.

I had to learn to touch-type the proper way years later, in the ‘80s, after I applied for a job only to find out at the interview stage that a pending offer depended on that particular ability.  I didn’t even own a typewriter but I really wanted the job so I borrowed one – by this time at least a less clunky electric one – coupled with a Pitman’s Teach Yourself Typing book, set it up on the little table in the kitchen of our rather shabby rented flat and set about learning the magical craft of using all the fingers on both hands correctly.  It’s remarkable really, isn’t it, how your brain develops this automatic ‘muscle memory’, yet if you were to ask me to consciously tell you the full keyboard layout I’d struggle.  Anyway, I managed it, I passed a 40wpm typing test and got the job, and the ability to touch-type at speed has never left me.

 Of course we had no idea that just about everyone, regardless of typing skills or lessons, was going to be using a keyboard pretty frequently in the coming years.  How do you type?  Do you have to look at the letters or have you developed your own perfectly good muscle memory technique without using all your fingers?  And did you ever choose to tap away at a typewriter for a fanzine or other pursuit, long before the days of keyboards and screens?

There’s a part of me that would still quite like to own a vintage manual machine.  I want to hear that bell again and slowly wind the paper onto the platen, then see a few imperfections in the results, a slightly wonky line or a tippexed-over mistake.  And of course that familiar font!  But using it regularly would probably frustrate the hell out of me, never mind bruise my fingers, and it would no doubt end up dusty and neglected in a cupboard - alongside a Mouli grater and an accordion.

Anyway, here are some of those gorgeous graphic adverts for the typewriter by Olivetti, from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.


Then there's this great album cover graphic too:

Billy Bragg: William Bloke

Some random facts about the typewriter:

The original version of a machine that impressed letters onto paper was created in 1575 by an Italian printmaker, Francesco Rampazetto.  But the first to be officially known as a ‘typewriter’ was patented in 1868 by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes.  By 1873 he had produced 50 of these machines but was unable to sell them; it was only when the gun manufacturer, Remington, bought the rights in 1874 that it started to take off.  The first author to submit a typed manuscript to a publisher was Mark Twain. And the longest word that can be typed using left hand letters only is 'stewardesses' (you never know when that'll come in handy).

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