Thursday, 20 March 2008


This has not been a good week.

This week, four elements of my childhood have been taken from me, which is unpleasantly like growing up.

Firstly, Arthur C Clarke died. His predictions, his fiction, his desire to bring science to the masses and make it accessible made him seem a constant. Without him, I would not have shortened my middle name to HAL for a while. Without him, I wouldn't have known the joy of tunelessley blaring Also Sprach Zarathustra before jumping into a swimming pool. I've never really understood 2001, but thanks in part to Arthur, I understand science and, more importantly, I've learned to love the fact that there is so much I don't know, don't understand. Thank you Arthur, for my curiosity and the sense of awe.

Secondly, Paul Schofield. At 15, for English Literature, I studied 'A Man for all Seasons'. I enjoyed the play, the text and then, the film was run for us to watch. The story itself, the dramatisation, Robert Shaw as Henry, John Hurt playing a weak man on the downhill slope in the way only he can, all helped bring the text to life. But then I heard Paul Schofield speak. I heard him say the words that I had read on the one dimensional page, and my breath left my body. It may have been the most understated bravura performance I've ever seen, ever will see. Perhaps he understood the need for contrast against Shaw's Henry, knew he couldn't compete with that, but he conveyed a man's doubts, his anguish, his fear and his strength with nothing more than his eyes and his voice, both in the way he spoke the words and, importantly the way he didn't. His silence conveyed so much and only served to underline that wonderful, rich voice. Thank you Paul, for bringing a text to life and making the history live for me.

Thirdly, Brian Wilde. An unassuming actor, he was a key charecter in what to my mind is still one of the best situation comedies of it's time, indeed, of any time. Porridge. However, he is probably better known for the Last of the Summer Wine, in which he played the hapless 'Foggy', a man constantly trying to exceed his own reality and convince others he was more than the sum of his own parts. As the hapless Oliver Hardy to the Stan Laurels of Compo and Clegg, he would always be the butt of jokes and the scorn of his friends. Although not a great fan of the program itself however, three things remain with me from this - the wonderful scenery of that Yorkshire village, the gentle fun that three old men could have, wandering through it and the fact that, no matter what they had been through, at the end of each episode, they would be togther, friends. Thank you Brian, for making me less afraid of being old.

Finally, John Hewer. Most people will not know who he was. Although he'd been an actor for many many years, not many will know him. At least, not by that name. Yet millions of people would know him immediately by the name of his character - Captain Birdseye. For over 30 years, he was the figure who advertised Birdseye Fish Fingers. I have early memories of sitting in my friend Stephen's house, eating fish fingers, knowing they were good because the Cap'n said they were. I don't really have much to thank him for, but he's probab;y a larger part of my childhood than all of the others combined and, as such, I find myself saddened by his loss out of all proportion to his contribution.

Increasingly, my life feels like a game of cosmic Kerplunk. I sit at the top as, below me, the sticks of my past are pulled away, one by one.

One day, hopefully not too soon, the final stick will be pulled out and I will tumble down and each stick withdrawn makes me more aware of how tenuous my position is.

I can only hope that, when I do, someone will post the words "thank you" on their blog when they hear the news.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Next Course

Some years ago, we had our last family holiday.

My Father had his heart set on having an apartment in the South of Spain and was having a place built there. His dream was to sell his business, trade down on their house and spend the winters there, taking his grandchildren and playing with them in the warm sun. But, in the meantime, he rented a villa and persuaded my older brother to come with. One last family holiday.

Of course, he wasn't to know about the Cancer that, even then, was beginning to knaw at his flesh or that he would never live to see his apartment finished, so he wasn't aware this was the last holiday but, nonetheless, he was the sort of man who made each moment with him special, as if in some way, some biological level, he suspected.

We spent spent the days by the pool, or on the beach, enjoying the feeling of sun on our skins the way only the English or a Trogladyte can, eating out in the evenings, sampling different restaurants, different foods, glowing from Mediterranean cuisine.

One afternoon, for a change, I wandered into the local town. Whitewashed, thick-walled buildings, tiled floors, terracotta roof tiles, the town was almost a parody of itself and yet avoided the touristy cynicism so prevalent down the coast. As I wandered, window shopping, mindless in that way you can become when shopping for nothing, with no time constraints, I came across a shop with a cool interior beckoning me in.

What the shop sold has faded like so many memories - I have a vague recollection of wicker, or pottery, but one thing remains fixed in my memory, a buoy to fix those memories of the trip, of my Father to.

On the stereo was playing, softly, a piece of music. Suddenly, as I listened, all thoughts of everything, everyone else faded and I was entranced.

The music was Rodriego's Concierto de Aranjuez

I can't explain why, but as soon as I hear this music, I'm transported. Wherever I am, I close my eyes and can see the shadows the setting sun casts on the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that sits behind the coast of Andalucia. I can hear the chirping of the insects, feel the warmth in my bones, the smells of cooking, olives, oranges, bourganvillia. My heart slows, my breathing deepens and once again, I'm with my family, my Father. Although an adult, for a moment, I'm absolved of adult responsibilities, duties, the weight of duty.

I can't listen to it in the car, as I would not be in the present and rarely do I have the time to sit, listen, drift.

But sometimes, just sometimes, I will put it on and, as a soft tear rolls down my face, I smile and know that, oddly, I'm home.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Just Deserts


I didn't mean desserts.

BBC Radio 4 has a program that has run for many years, called Desert Island Discs. A guest - celebrity, politician, musician, author, whatever - is invited to list the 8 records they would take with them if stranded on a desert island, and why, what they mean to them. At the end, they have to select just one to keep, along with a book (the island already has the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible - don't they all?) and a single luxury.

As a format for an interview, it's unique, insightful and very entertaining. As a way of documenting your life and giving an insight into what makes you who you are, it's very powerful.

I often muse on my 8 desert island discs, which I find change with regularity, depending on mood, circumstances, bank balance. Yet for all this, there are certain constants, so I have decided to try to list them here, to give myself a touchstone of my changing inner self. I don't intend to post them all now, but will do them as they occur to me and it will be interesting to see if my opinion changes. However, I will leave them to stand and won't cheat.

1) Streetlife - The Crusaders with Randy Crawford

In 1981, I went to the Capital Radio Jazz Festival, an open air concert at Knebworth House, a stately home north of London. Some 20,000 people sat in a field, watching acts like Dizzy Gillespie, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, Spyrogyra, Shakatak, A Trad New Orleans Jazz Band and others. It started at noon and finished at 10pm.

Top of the bill were the Crusaders.

It was one of those rare English Summer days, when the heat is comfortable, but not oppressive. A heat that warms your bones and your soul in equal measure. Warm enough to sleep, cool enough to not worry about burning. One of those days that erases thoughts of leaving. A picnic, friends, sunshine, music, nice people and the lack of pressure that comes from being young enough to be free of responsibility.

As the penultimate band finished, everyone prepared for the Crusaders. Roadies scuttled across the stage like manic crabs, and the crowd shuffled and moved like grains of sand on a dune, expectantly, positioning for a view.

Finally, to a roar of approbation, they came on.

Most of the set has faded into the cotton wool of my memory, a vague recollection of dancing, grinning, clapping, cheering and finally, all too soon, it was nearly 10pm and darkness begins to envelope the bowl, creeping up like a sea mist, a comfort blanket to settle the day to sleep.

The song ended, and Wilton Felder came up to the mike.

"We have to finish at 10pm" he said (Boos)
"Sorry, but we're not allowed to go on beyond 10" (Louder Boos)
A pause

"But we're not going to finish ONE SECOND before" (Huge Cheers)

With this, he steps back and, raising his sax to his mouth, begins to play. Gentle, emotional notes, so clear it's almost as if you feel rather than hear them. A soft improvisation, variation, unclear what it is. Yet.

Finally, the theme becomes clear and expectation builds. The vocals come in, soft, personal, directed to me alone.

If you know the song, the full version rather than the sugar-free one often played on the radio, you will know that this is the precursor to the opening bars, the four loud, vibrant, exciting chords rising up the scale, that herald the start of Street Life proper

As those four notes rang out, everyone cheered and, on the fifth, as the full band came in, EVERY light on the stage, which had been dark until then, came on.

Every time I hear the song, the hairs go up on my arms, the back of my neck.

Every time I hear it, I'm 19 again and happy.

Even as I write this, without even hearing it, my body reacts and my eyes fill with tears.

My life has had many happy moments - hopefully will have many more. Yet this sits in my soul as one of the best days, one of the best moments in my life, when everything was good and there was an air of innocence and simplicity that can't be recovered.

So when I listen to Street Life, when I hear the sax solo, my heart lifts and I remember that sometimes, life can be perfect.

It gives me hope. The link above is not the right version, does not have that gentle build, that sweet tension, but I hope you enjoy it and that it gives you hope too.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

When I'm calling youooo-oooooo-ooooh!

When, in 50,000 years, archeologists from Ulton-Minor visit the barren remains of Earth, they will discover many things, and marvel at the terrible ways we developed to inflict cruelty and pain on each other. Yet the worst excesses of the inquisition, the horrific practices of the Khmer Rouge or terrible interrogation methods of the KGB and, latterly, our defenders in the war against terror, all will pale into insignificance when the Ultro-Minorians discover the greatest horror and indignity that man can inflict on man.

The offshore Call-Centre.

Last week, I realised my Visa card was about to expire and had not received the replacement.

Terror clutched my soul, but, there was no choice, if I wanted to avoid identity theft, penury and a life in a carboard box, I would have to go where there be dragons.

Call the number.

Press 1
Press 4
Press 3
Press 1

Accept that calls may be recorded for security and training purposes.

Be thrilled that, despite 'unexpectedly high call volumes, my call is important to them'.

SO nice to be important to someone.

Finally, a human voice.

Hallo, my name is Sfhjhsfosjfhsohan, how may I help you today?

This is actually a good start - normally, you get a pronounced Asian accent, and the words "my name is Trevor". He knows it's not. You know it's not. He knows you know it's not, but you somehow just accept it. When else, when someone opens a conversation with an outright lie, do you just let it go.

This time, I barely understand his name, but hey, that doesn't matter, I want to discuss my credit card, not invite him to dinner.

I explain the situation and he assures me the card will be here by the end of the month. Yes, I reply, but normally they arrive weeks beforehand. It will be there by the end of the month sir.

Ok, but today is the 26th. "Yes, so that gives until Friday, it will be there. Is there anything else I can help you with today?" So I tell him I've moved and can update the address on my other card and send me a new Pin and the call ends.

This morning, I awake with a splitting headache (I thought Alcohol was meant to be good for you?) and realise it's the start of the month, and no card, despite Sfhjhsfosjfhsohan's promise, so here we go again (for the purposes of brevity, I will assume you remember the process).

"Good morning, my name is R_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _er (didn't even get close to catching this one), how may I help you today?"

I explain, and tap tap tappity tap.

"Ok, this card was sent out to you on 1st December."

So, why didn't Sfhjhsfosjfhsohan tell me that? Anyway, it hasn't arrived.

More security questions. Have I lost my pin. No, but I can't remember it. I asked for a new one. That's not arrived either. Have I lost my Driving license? Have I lost my passport? No, just my patience.

Finally, he confirms he has "Blocked my account and will send me out a new card, but oh, he can't send it to me because they have changed my address"

Changed my address? No, that was on my Mastercard, it's my VIS.... oh.


I have two cards with the same company. I have just blocked the Mastercard, the one I received and activated safely. The one I changed the address on. My Visa, which is alone out there in the big bad world, is a different number.

Through the same process. Same security questions (did they think I may have changed my postcode, telephone number or date of birth mid-call?) and block that card.

However, they will have to write to me and I will have to send back proof of address before they will send me the new card, because I've changed it.

So, now I have two defunct cards -one expired, one blocked (they can't unblock it), it will probably be weeks before it's all sorted out and I don't even have the satisfaction of getting angry with them as, despite Sfhjhsfosjfhsohan's original incompetence, this is mostly my own fault.

Lord knows how these criminals manage identity theft, I can't even manage my real one.