Maybe it’s Suzanne Who’s Mad.

We spent Saturday evening at Brummie Lawrence and Jo’s house. They were having a garden party to celebrate Jo’s birthday, so the usual crowd was there: The Sexton and Pen, Jacko and Nurse Lynn and Mad Kev and Suzanne.

Now, as you probably know, Mad Kev is not known as Mad Kev for no reason at all. It’s because he is impetuous, clumsy, tactless and, well, mad.

This was a man who took the view that a narrowboat could be made to go at maximum speed with very little need to control it, since there were canal banks either side to stop it going anywhere it shouldn’t.

Many years ago, Mad Kev arrived at a gathering with an enormous gash in his forehead. He’d been chiselling a doorframe to take a new lock and decided the most accurate way of doing it was to stand with his eyes level with his working area and hammer away. Towards himself. Still, it was only 8 stitches, he reasoned.

The same Mad Kev, who, on a stag do, after we had been yelled at to leave by the angry landlord, hurled a stone doorstop in the shape of a hedgehog at the beleaguered man’s forehead, scoring a direct hit and rendering him unconscious.

Or the time he gave his first wife a birthday present by hurling it across the dining table where we all sat for a celebratory meal. Again, a perfect head shot. I think she regretted asking for cycle spanners.

Mad Kev tends to be more extreme after adding alcohol. When you see the special look in his eyes, you make sure to keep out of his way.

So it was more than a little surprising when Suzanne, married to Mad Kev for nearly 20 years, told us about Mad Kev’s latest DIY project from earlier in the week. He’d been fitting some worktops.

“Suzanne – hold this piece of wood whilst a saw it,” he requested.

She duly did and Mad Kev went to work with his circular saw.

Which just goes to prove that the love and trust that Suzanne had in her husband would overcome all his previous personal traits and accidents. It was truly inspiring and touching.

Suzanne only lost the tip of her index finger and a slice out of her middle finger. Hopefully the skin grafts will go well.

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Rural Spaceman’s Guide to Gardening

We are experiencing a particularly lovely summer in the UK at the moment, which means that many people participate in outdoor activities.

The older I get, the less enthused I am by the outdoor life. The sheer joy of selling our trailer tent earlier this year was only tempered by the disappointment of not being able to set fire to it and dance around its melting carcass in the light of the flickering flames.
Which brings me to the hobby of gardening. I know lots of people love gardening, but, for the life of me, I really can’t see why. What’s more, the older I get, the greater the number of people who are interested in it. They talk about plants together. Sometimes, a gardener tries to engage me in conversation about gardening.
“I don’t garden,” I explain to them. Most of the time, they back away and look for somebody else to talk chard with. Occasionally, they continue to tell me how they’ve planted seedlings and expect a good stock of tomatoes/lettuce/celery. I nod and feign interest before backing away slowly myself.
I remember my dad, a couple of years after he retired; we went to the pub together.  He’d always had the same opinion of gardening as me.He had a resigned look in his eyes. He shook his head, looking sadly into his pint of bitter.
“D’yer know what? I’ve started gardening and going to the garden centre. That’s how fucking bored I am.”
He was very productive, however, giving most of it away (see vegetables, below). So, on to a few tips:

Weeds.
“Weeding is so therapeutic,” I heard one deluded lady gardener say once. I was made to weed the garden when I was a small boy. All I can remember is sunstroke, a very tired body, scratched, dirty fingers and an inability to sleep due to the discomfort.
Rural Spaceman’s Gardening Tip: Don’t weed. Tarmac. Or hire a gardener.
Vegetables
Yes, gardeners get lots of fresh vegetables, but usually all at the same time. I do not want to eat a dozen cos lettuces of varying sizes in two days. Or not eat any lettuces at all, since all sorts of wildlife are more than happy to eat it before it is picked (cropped? Harvested?)
This all happens after the gardener has spent months outside in all weathers, putting the plants into pots, then in big areas of mud , covered with nets and protected by various insect repellent materials either organic or not. Too much water, it dies. Too little water, it dies. Then there’s the blight and other diseases.
Rural Spaceman’s Gardening Tip: Go to a greengrocer. Buy what you like whenever you like.

Landscaping
I think this means setting out your garden to follow a certain style. There are town gardens, country gardens, Japanese gardens and probably lots of other gardens. I think ours is called a country garden, because it has a lot in it.
Melody Lane, the bare chested gardener, has worked in our garden for several years and finds the freedom of going topless necessary for her connection with nature. The other staff, especially Benfield the butler and Parslow the groundskeeper, fall over themselves to help her out whenever they can.
“Are you going to take some of these old plants out?” I asked her one day. Melody , crouching in the undergrowth, suddenly straightened up and glared at me. She put her hands on her hips , her nipples pointing at me accusingly. I stiffened.
“I think you’ll find this is a country garden border,” she informed me. She tends to converse with Lady Barton St Mary about anything horticultural.
Rural Spaceman’s Gardening Tip: Don’t upset the staff. Especially when they know more about it than you do.

Flowers
They’re nice. Some of them smell. Others don’t. Most of the ones we bring indoors end up as a brown mush in a vase after a couple of months. We have flowers in our garden, but not the type that Lady Barton St Mary likes from the supermarket with cellophane wrapping and a bow. I could pick some out of the garden for her, but she’d either accuse me of being simple or suspicious of my motives. Melody Lane TBCG would just be angry with me.
Gardeners know the names of flowers. Some of them know the latin names too. Lady Barton St Mary does. It’s like a secret code.
“Oh, Melody, have you planted any diplidocus delicious this year?” she’d ask.
“Of course, next to the smellus floridocus”, Melody would reply, puffing her chest out.
Then there was the time our friend She-La! a singer who had a hit in the 80s with Touch Me (but not there), called around to see Her Ladyship. I opened the door, but She-La! appeared to be distracted.
“Oh hello, I was just admiring your peonies,” she trilled.
I blinked before swallowing hard. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or shocked.
“Pardon?”
“Your peonies are lovely!” she smiled.
Before I corrected her subject-verb agreement, I realised she was talking about some flowers in the garden.
Rural Spaceman’s Gardening Tip: Buy flowers from a shop. Girls like them. Look out for misleading flower names that could possibly lead to problems or inappropriate knob jokes.

Nasty Things.
Then there’s the issue of dangerous plants. Last week I had to release our garden furniture, which had been enveloped by the hedge. Normally, I’d have given it a cursory tug before leaving it for another year, but I was feeling brave. The leafy substances I can deal with, but I also had to encounter what can only be described as organic razor wire. I went off to the shed to get a pair of gloves. The organic razor wire still managed to pierce through the gloves, making me howl like a wolf and swear like a trooper, confirming to my neighbours that I am indeed a potty mouthed clot.
Lady Barton St Mary informed me that this would have been something called ‘brambles’. I had another (few) names for it. I believe that some brambles grow black berries that you can eat, as opposed to those brambles that used to grow on council estate greens, producing beautifully shiny black berries. If you were to eat these, whilst hiding from somebody during a game of ‘2468Allevio Knockout’, you’d either go blind, shit yourself or both. I’ve seen many a child on my old council estate stagger from the bushes screaming, hands in front of them, walking like a penguin.
Rural Spaceman’s Gardening Tip: Kill all plants with spikes on, along with biting insects. Don’t eat berries from council estate bushes (Latin name blindycus shityerpants).
To conclude, here are a few examples of things you may or may not find in the garden:

IMG_0866(left) A wonderful example of flora unmorticus, commonly known as Zombie Flowers. Often found in gardens where plants have died and nobody could be arsed to get rid of it.

Related to flora umorticus domesticus, or Indoor Zombie Flowers.

Distinct smell: rotting vegetation.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0868(right) A country garden. Under no circumstances must you refer to this as a ‘bloody mess’. It upsets the staff and Lady Barton St Mary. Apparently this is what it’s supposed to look like.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0869 (left)

This green stuff is called thyme. Or Rosemary. I’m pretty sure it’s not sage. Sage is a different green, which doesn’t help me, because I’m colour blind. You con convince yourself that it smells like any of the above. Or strawberries, tic tacs, cream soda or Brian Blessed.

It goes with lamb. Or pork. Or summat.

 

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(right) Catnip. Or Mint. I can’t tell. The best way to find out is to pick some and wave it in front of your moggy. If it ignores you, it’s mint. If it humps your arm, it’s Catnip.

IMG_0871(left) Something with thorns. Scratchy bastard. Kill it. Kill them all.

IMG_0872(right) Because this is growing in the middle of the driveway, I’m pretty sure it’s a weed. But don’t rely on me.

IMG_0877(left) I was fairly sure this was a weed too, but Melody Lane the bare chested gardener has tied it to a stick with some of her old knicker elastic, so it can’t be.

I hope you’ve found my guide informative and useful. If you will insist on gardening, just remember one thing. You’re trying to organise nature. You will ultimately be defeated.

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What the World Needs Now is Burt, Sweet Burt

Lady BSM’s brother, Drew, spotted it quite a few months ago. Burt Bacharach was playing at The Symphony Hall in Birmingham – did we fancy it? We did.
Now, the decision to go and see him may have been driven initially by some sort of post ironic attempt at celebrating kitsch, but on the journey to the concert, we realised perhaps it was something more. You see, Burt Bacharach played a major part in our childhood during the 60s.As soon as you hear the opening bars to a Bacharach song, The Look of Love or Alfie, for instance, I’m immediately transported back to those times of swirly carpets, sunny summers, mini skirts, radiograms and turtle neck jumpers.
In fact, when I was 7 years old I would imagine myself as a grown up, attending sophisticated cocktail parties, wearing sharp suits, smoking king size cigarettes and listening to … Burt Bacharach songs.
“So, what do you think the top 3 Burt Bacharach songs are?” asked Drew from the back seat of the car as we travelled up to Birmingham.
“Walk On By has to be a favourite, “ I suggested.
“Ooo good one, The Stranglers covered that,” replied Drew.
“I Say a Little Prayer, that’s my favourite,” said Lady BSM.
“Yes, Aretha is so good, “ said Drew, “so is Dionne Warwick – Anyone Who Had a Heart…”
The discussion continued until we decided to ‘Google’ it. The results were surprising at first, but after some consideration, made sense. (See the results at the end of this blog).

There's Burt!

There’s Burt!

The Symphony Hall was an impressive venue- we had tickets in the circle, in the middle of the second row. This meant we had to disturb quite a few people to get to our seats and a chance to mention the audience demographic. Although not the youngest members, we were definitely at the younger end. There was lots of grey hair, slacks and spectacles. There was a queue to use the gents as men either tried to start or tried to stop peeing. You could tell this was the type of audience that wouldn’t tolerate any to-ing and fro-ing without a stern look or reproachful sigh. In fact, one or two bristled, their poise stiffening, when I stood up to remove my jacket. You could sense there suspicion. This young whippersnapper could have been a punk rocker, you could almost hear them thinking. They would have been correct.
There were arrows formed using white tape on the stage floor, pointing towards the grand piano.
“Do you think that’s to help Burt?” I asked Lady Barton St Mary.
“Well, he is 85,” she mused, “and it may be a bit dark when they turn down the house lights.”
Burt made it to the piano, looking good in a suit and bright blue shoes with white soles. He moved very deliberately, as if not to make any unintended movements.
“Good evening,” he said, “this is my first visit to Birmingham. What a beautiful city; canal boats! Wonderful architecture! What a gem of a place!”
He explained that tonight they would play some new songs as well as all the favourites, which was politely received by the audience, most of whom would have been happy with the ‘old’ stuff.
He sat at the piano, counted in the 10 piece band and they were off into a medley of songs. Suddenly Burt looked positively animated, his hands flowed over the keyboard as he played hit after hit… What the World Needs Now Is Love, Don’t Make Me Over , Walk on by , This Guy’s in Love with You , I Say a Little Prayer, Trains, Boats & Planes, Wishin’ & Hopin’, (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me… all 2 minute vignettes of absolutely classic songs.
Stop, Burt, stop! Don’t play all your hits in the first 10 minutes! What are you going to do for the next hour and 50 minutes??!!!
That’s what we were all thinking. How naïve we are. Do you know how many hit songs he’s written?
The medley ended and Burt picked up the microphone to introduce Josie James, one of three singers for the evening, the other two being John Pegano (who did a pretty good impression of Elvis Costello and Tom Jones) and Donna Taylor. They were all very good – who would have thought?
Anyone Who Had a Heart, Windows of the World, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself …
Burt then took some time to tell us little of his history; touring with Marlene Dietrich, writing songs in a New York block filled with publishers. Was it easy? No. In fact, he had to borrow $5000 from his father to carry on. Finally, one of his songs became a hit. Then another, then another. Burt paid his dad back. Burt played the songs – Magic Moments – yes, he wrote that! – The Story of my Life and then, to the delight of horror film aficionado Drew, the theme to the film The Blob.
Another medley: The Look of Love. Arthur’s Theme, What’s New, Pussycat? The World is a Circle, April Fools.
Then Burt had a go at singing. Now, Burt’s 85. To be honest, it was more like a Tom Wait’s tribute to Burt Bacharach. But, then I thought, they’re Burt’s songs. He’s 85 years old. He can do what he likes!
There was an encore. Burt led the singalong version of ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’, old people in the boxes started dancing and jigging about. It was like a geriatric mosh pit.
Then he thanked the audience once more and with a nonchalant wave, strolled away in that deliberate manner recognising his advancing years. But he’s still cool, as well as being one of the most successful songwriters on the planet.
On the way home, we realised that we were all suffering from Bacharach earworms – humming, whistling or singing sections of favourite songs. Drew suggested we see if we could catch each other singing a song and score points from each other. He was the first to fall with ‘Do You Know The Way To San Jose?’
‘Trains and Boats and Planes’ turned out to be my downfall. Lady BSM? ‘Say A Little Prayer’, of course.
The earworms continued the following day.
Yes, the songs are easy listening. Yes, some of them are cheesey. But with all the trouble going on in the world, do I want to be a grown up living like that?
I say, put on my lounge suit, pour me a cocktail, put ‘Look of Love’ on the radio gram and snuggle up to Lady BSM. What the World needs now, is love, sweet love…

Top 3 BB Songs according to The Washington Post:

* #1 – Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head #2 – Arthur’s Theme #3 – I Say a Little Prayer

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Retirement Practice

I am now officially on my summer holidays and Lady Barton St Mary has booked Monday off, when we will be travelling to Birmingham to see Burt Bacharach in concert. This meant we had a long weekend together, alone.

“Perhaps this would be a good way to see what retirement would be like,” she said on Friday night,

“spending the whole weekend alone together, just pottering about.”

It sounded interesting. We’re not quite ready for retirement yet, but the idea seemed appealing. Of course,when she said the whole weekend, she didn’t include the 1 hour manicure treatment with Nancy Cuticles on Saturday morning.

“Well, I won’t see much of you today, then,” I said.

“I’ll only be an hour and a bit,” she replied placatingly, “ you can make a start on cleaning all the garden furniture.”

She left at 11.15am and I made a start to my retirement weekend. I pulled the garden table which had been undercover for 3 years into the middle of the lawn. It was covered in moss and mud. It had also been used by the builders as a convenient position to store their scaffolding at one point, extremely heavy scaffolding that had put all the joints of the table under extreme pressure. So much so that the table formed a perfect parallelogram when finally revealed. This meant that my first duty as a trainee retiree was to fix said table. I collected all my tools and made a start.

After an hour, the table was rigid and fixed. Time for a break I thought, heading indoors for a refreshing pint of cider from a newly opened 3 litre box. It was still cider, not my favourite, but refreshing. So refreshing, I’d finished my pint in no time, so refilled my glass and went outside to continue my retirement.

With a big bucket of soapy water, headphones on, ipod playing, I started scrubbing the table, taking occasional sips from my cider glass. The sun shone, the cider was going down well. I decided it would be easier to bring the cask outside.

Lady Barton St Mary phoned after a couple of hours. She was going to visit her parents, was that OK?

I continued with my scrubbing and drinking.

Lady Barton St Mary arrived home several hours later.

“You’ve had quite a lot to drink haven’t you?” see asked,  looking at me askance.

Indeed. I’d successfully finished off the cider, helped by switching to beer every other pint. Quite a lot was an understatement. I was close to another level of reality.

Despite trying to act like a normal human being, I fell asleep in my tea, my salad making a rather comfy pillow.

“Perhaps you should go to bed,” suggested Lady BSM, calmly.

I lifted my head, peeled the cos lettuce from my head and admitted defeat. It was 7.30pm.

The first day of retirement had been rather challenging.

I awoke early on Sunday, somehow managing an 11.5 mile run with Noel and Dave. The last 4 miles saw Noel and Dave head off home, leaving me to chug in, but at least I did it. I was ready for retirement day two.

Lady Barton St Mary joined me to help with the cleaning process. We have some garden chairs that needed a fair amount of work. Now, I have to admit, I have an inexplicable dislike for these chairs. They’re heavy, awkward, and don’t fit under the table. Lady Barton St Mary, however, likes them and refuses to entertain my plans to put them on the wood burner.

After half an hour of scrubbing and rinsing, I suggested that perhaps our old pressure washer could do the job. I’d forgotten we had it; it has been sitting in a battered box at the back of the garage for years.

I unloaded it onto the lawn and tried to change the lance fitting. No joy. The lance would not budge. I pushed and pulled it. Lady BSM pushed and pulled it. No joy.

“Ah! There are some instructions in the box!” exclaimed Lady BSM, pulling something from the packaging with her finger and thumb.

She was right, in a way. Certainly, it was a book of instructions, which had got

The vital instructions. In English. With sticky pages and half eaten by rodents.

The vital instructions. In English. With sticky pages and half eaten by rodents.

wet at some point, sticking the pages together; whether this had happened before or after the mice had eaten half of them, I couldn’t tell.

Lady BSM went off in search of instructions. I tested the pressure washer, plugging it in. It roared into life. After a concerted effort to find the instructions for a B&Q Pressure washer TRY330PWA 1650W, she had no luck. Meantime, after a bit of heaving and swearing, the lance came off in my hand. Problem solved. I attached the brush and turned on the pressure washer. No luck, it wouldn’t start. More cursing, probably overheard by my neighbours, who have heard my cursing before, when I flooded their house with another of my DIY projects a couple of years ago. By now they probably think I have a specific form of Tourette’s.

I sent Lady BSM in search of a fuse, which she duly found. No luck. The pressure washer seemed dead. In on last vain attempt, I took the washer indoors and plugged it in. It roared into life, spitting soapy water all over my feet. Success!

The rest of the afternoon was spent eradicating all muck from the garden

furniture. The playful look in Lady BSM’s eyes told me I should keep my distance; otherwise I could receive an unexpected colonic irrigation if I inadvertently bent down to pick up my bucket.

We stood back and observed our afternoon’s work. Lady BSM reclined on the newly washed bench.

 

Before: dirty, ugly old garden chair.

Before: dirty, ugly old garden chair.

 

 

IMG_0879

Very clean, ugly old garden chair. No, it doesn’t look any different in the photos, does it?

“Shall we have a gin and tonic?” I suggested. She looked suspiciously at me.

“Only the one,” I reassured her.

We sat back in the early evening sun, the ice clinking in our glasses, full of gin and tonic, the light dappling through the trees.

“What do you make of retirement so far?” I asked her.

She gazed out across the garden, a wistful look in her eye.

“What, you mean washing garden furniture and making sure you don’t drink too much? “

Not so bad, then.

 

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Get Back in The Boat

 A few weeks ago, Lady Barton St Mary informed me that we would be spending a weekend on a boat with The Sexton and Pen.

IMG_0826
As some of you already know, boat holidays are not unfamiliar to me. Only a couple of years ago, we had spent a week on a boat on The Norfolk Broads, organised by Gerald, my old fag from school and his wife, Sarah (who won’t use her title for political reasons). Sarah saw it as an opportunity to spread the word of Marxist, socialist, feminist, vegetarian extremism to the inhabitants of Norfolk, through the medium of loudhailer. Gerald saw it as an opportunity to commandeer the master bedroom with en suite bathroom and turn the entire vessel into a gin palace. The Sexton and I tolerated this, taking comfort in being able to take a poop in Gerald’s en suite whenever we could; with the volume of food provided by Pen, this opportunity was often more than once a day. We had to spend most of the time on the main vessel, although for a brief period of time The Sexton staged a demonstration by occupying the dinghy, in a protest against Gerald’s strict rationing of one chocolate Brazil nut per day.
But this time we were on a narrowboat,travelling on The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, which runs through softly undulating West Midlands countryside, according to the Canal and River Trust website. Also, we would be joined by Steeley the Tinkers’ Friend and his wife She-La!, who’d had minor chart success as a singer in the 1980s.
Now, The Sexton, Pen, Lady BSM and I already had extensive narrowboat experience in the 1980s, just around the time She-La! was warbling ‘Touch Me (But Not There), when we were ‘young and stupid’, according to The Sexton.
That particular trip was taken with Mad Kev and his first wife, Jane. Mad Kev was self-appointed tiller man. He would think nothing of starting the boat at 6 am, ripping up the Birmingham Canal system as fast as he could. He’d reach terrifying speeds in canal terms (12mph), dragging anglers and their keep nets into the water in his wake. Mad Kev showed that it was possible to overtake another narrowboat even if another one was coming in the opposite direction. We watched on, helpless, as a father desperately clung on to his wife and young children in a small inflatable dinghy as Mad Kev hurtled past, causing huge waves.

One day, I witnessed a real life slapstick comedy moment. As Mad Kev propelled the craft through the water, The Sexton and I were aware of a fast approaching marina. A man, carefully seated in a rowboat, was concentrating hard on painting a perfectly straight line on the side of his boat, unaware of Mad Kev looming up behind him. The Sexton and I waved furiously at Mad Kev, to no avail, then tried shouting a warning to the man with the paint brush, absorbed in his work. The inevitable happened. The expression of the poor boat decorator as he was launched into the air, painting a rather accurate right angle on the boat, will always be with me.  The man wailed plaintively, before launching a volley of abuse; Mad Kev looked straight ahead, merely giving his latest victim the two finger salute.
Jane provided us with another of our often told stories on that trip, known as the ‘Jane’s Hot T-Shirt Story’. One very hot day, Jane, after several glasses of wine, was chattering away to The Sexton and I. We sat opposite her at the small dining table. Jane, suddenly exclaiming how hot and sweaty she felt, lifted her t-shirt to wipe her brow. At this point, we discovered that Jane was not wearing a bra.  The Sexton and I exchanged glances. A few minutes passed. Jane repeated the action.
“What’s wrong?” she enquired this time, looking at the expression on our faces, “is there something on my face?”
The Sexton gave a polite smile and pointed to his temple. Following his lead, Jane lifted her shirt once more to give her forehead a good rub. She stopped suddenly, holding the shirt against her face for a few moments, aware of her faux pas. She slowly pulled down her shirt and stared balefully at both of us.
“Oh shit. I’ll never hear the last of this,” she sighed. She was wrong. It would be us and our old friends who would have to endure the constant re-telling.

But now we were older. No Mad Kev to get us around both Birmingham Rings in a week, showing us how to save time by ramming lock gates to release several tons of water on our heads.
We arrived on the Friday, with provisions, as requested by Pen. We needed enough food and drink to last us the weekend, Pen insisted. This meant that by the time we’d loaded food into the car, there was very little room for luggage. Or passengers. By the time all the food and drink had been loaded onto the boat, it appeared to have sunk an extra four inches into the murky canal water.
We set off for an hour. Then it was time for tea, eaten on the towpath: cheeses, cold meats, hot chicken, salad, crisps, ham, beef, French bread, sliced bread, cakes, biscuits, crackers, twiglets, chocolate… a veritable feast. As were we, since the insects took the opportunity to eat us alive. For the rest of the weekend, we looked like a boat load of chicken pox victims.
The sleeping arrangements: Back in the 80s, we had some form of bunk bed affair. I’d ended up on the bottom bunk and being claustrophobic, had woken up in the middle of the night convinced that I’d been buried alive.
This time, there were two double beds in a line, frequented by The Sexton, Pen, Lady BSM and me, with Steeley and She-La! slightly aft of us in the loosely described master bedroom. You have to get on well to survive these conditions.
When I say conditions, I mean being woken at 3 in the morning as The Sexton unleashes an almighty cough, followed by a fart that sounds like a particularly intricate solo part for a bugler at The Trooping of the Colour. Combine this with Lady Barton St Mary’s trademark ‘broken lilo snoring’ , Sleep seemed a distant memory.
At breakfast the following morning, The Sexton continued to cough and splutter, occasionally using one of his inhalers to soothe his asthma and hayfever. Steeley observed him carefully.
“You’re not really cut out for the outdoor life, are you?” Steeley said.
“Not really,” agreed The Sexton, a former dairy farmer, “but I can’t use a computer keyboard,” he explained, holding up his fingers, which are like perfectly cooked pork sausages.

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Pen’s historic breakfast. This one is The Sexton’s.

The canal was a delight. The Sexton took over the Mad Kev role without the mad bit, whilst the rest of us worked the locks, of which there were many. Steeley loves this sort of responsibility, running ahead like an enthusiastic Labrador, opening and closing as many lock gates as he can. If he could, he would have done all of it, so, as a good friend, I often let him.
Saturday was a triumph for Pen. She managed to locate a good Indian restaurant in the local town of Wombourne. What’s more, she was confident in booking a taxi to take us there.
“Can you pick us up from Bridge 53? We’re from the canal!” she explained on her mobile phone. After several attempts, as taxi firm after taxi firm hung up on the loony canal woman, she  finally succeeded. Although Pen insisted on calling the town Womblebury.
Eventually, she got it right.
“Wombourne!” she exclaimed.
“Every minute!” shouted The Sexton, initiating a whole evening of “Wombourne every minute” tourette’s.
I had been hoping to watch the World Cup 3rd place play off game on the TV, but the wives said it would be nicer to have a meal out. Imagine their dismay as we were shown to our table, underneath a 50 inch screen showing Arjen Robben cheating and Brazil fans crying, all in glorious high definition. The womenfolk were very tolerant, helped by a magnificent curry.
The taxi ride back proved to be a little harder to organise. The efficient woman had finished her shift to be replaced by a late night numpty, sending one taxi for four, leaving Steeley and I to wait for another one. By 11.30, Wombourne (every minute) was deserted. A car’s headlights approached and we watched as the taxi slowed and stopped. Steeley walked over to converse with the driver.
“What’s the name?” asked the driver. We mentioned The Sexton’s.
“Nope.”
We tried mine.
“Nope.”
Steeley?
Same answer.
Steeley’s attitude changed.
“Look. Mate. We’re in a deserted street. Next to a cricket pitch. We’ve ordered a taxi. You’re driving a taxi. Who the fuck else is waiting for a taxi?”
“Pen,” I said.
The driver looked at me.
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

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Let me do it, let me do it! yelled Steeley.

The following day we went back through all of the locks from the previous day. It hammered down with rain, but we didn’t mind that much, sending Steeley out into the wet conditions. Overall, we travelled 10 miles in a weekend.
On the journey home, Lady BSM mentioned how narrowboat holidays were good, because you had to relax, but also had work to do when going through a lock. I have to agree, canal boat trips are chilled. As long as Mad Kev isn’t the tiller man.

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Who is John Grant?

It’s probably fair to point out that, two years ago, I’d never heard of John Grant. It was the title song of his second solo album ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ that brought him to my attention; a haunting song that reminded me of Jim Morrison at his best, a rich, baritone voice. Pale Green Ghosts would fit nicely onto a Doors album.

 

I decided to listen to the album. After three tracks I was captivated. I bought it and downloaded it onto my ipod, intending to listen to it on my long Sunday run. I wasn’t disappointed. His voice was superb, the music wonderful… but what he was singing completely threw me. These beautiful melodies combined with lyrics full of expletives and dark humour:

Remember how we used to fuck all night long, neither do I because I always passed out …

Then a truly romantic love song, which I’d listened to earlier, but hadn’t been listening closely enough to the words. Then it dawned on me. John was singing about another man.

I have no problem with this, but having heard him interviewed on BBC 6music and seen a couple of photographs – a large, bearded hunk of a man, wearing a baggy t-shirt, woolly hat and loose fitting chinos, he didn’t fit the usual image of an openly gay man. Whatever that is. (Stop digging this hole now).

This is him.

This is him.

So I did some research.  John Grant had been in a band called The Czars. They’d recorded a couple of albums and split in 2004. Then John had a nervous breakdown, a drug addiction and was HIV positive. He left the music business and moved to Germany. Six years later, the band Midlake, big fans of John’s work, tracked him down, finding him working as a waiter.They persuaded him to return to their studio and record a solo album, which they would produce. The result was Queen of Denmark. It was given an ‘instant classic’ award by Mojo magazine in 2010, a true rarity. Another album full of quirky lyrics:

“I wanted to change the world, but I could not even change my underwear”

I bought Queen of Denmark. Then The Czars albums. My John Grant fandom had me in its grip, unlike any other artist had for many years. The next logical step was to try and get to see John live, but it seemed that he tended to play festivals rather than gigs. Having retired from the festival circuit many years ago, preferring a feather bed and a buffet breakfast rather than listen to John Grant in a field whilst looking at the back of somebody’s unwashed head, I thought I would be lucky to get the chance. Then I heard a rumour that he was playing at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I bought two tickets in the front row of the circle as soon as I discovered they were on sale.

Of course, I wanted to share my new found musical hero with my friends.

“Who’s John Grant?” asked The Sexton. We were on a weekend away with him, Pen, Jacko, Nurse Lynn, Brummie Lawrence, Jo, Suzanne and Mad Kev. We were taking it in turns to choose a track to play from You Tube Music. I chose ‘Where Dreams Go To Die.”

After about a minute, I looked at the incredulous faces of my friends. The Sexton sighed.

“Bloody hell. Is this music to end it all to?” asked The Sexton. I looked for approval from the others. No luck.

“Shall we listen to something else?” asked Nurse Lynn.

Perhaps ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ was the wrong choice.

“We’re going to see John Grant tomorrow,”  I told Gerald, my old fag from school, visiting Randall Towers with Sarah for the weekend.

“Who’s John Grant?” asked Gerald. I played him ‘GMF’. He listened intently for 10 seconds. Sarah sighed.

“God, this is shit,” he said. Oh well.

On the way to Stratford, I decided play some John Grant for Lady Barton St Mary to fully acquaint her with his awesomeness before the concert. After about 20 minutes, she sighed.

“Does he do any upbeat songs?” she asked. I thought for a moment. There was ‘Black Belt’ and ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’, but this was John Grant. He writes songs about break ups and breakdowns.

“Shall we listen to something else?” she suggested. Oh dear.

We arrived in Stratford early, having booked a table at a restaurant for a pre-show dinner. But first we went and had a look at the theatre, deciding to go for a coffee in the rooftop bar.

“Sorry, we’re closed for a private function tonight,” said the bar man, “these two ladies will escort you back downstairs,” he continued, pointing at two uniformed females standing side by side, “we’re trying to hold the lift, you see.”

“Who’s booked the room, then?” I asked one of the ladies. She shrugged.

“There’s a concert here tonight, some bloke called John Grant. I’ve never heard of him.”

I explained I had all his albums, he was a songwriter, some of his songs had been covered by Sinead O’Connor. She looked at me blankly.

“I think I’ve heard of him,” she mused as the lift door closed, having dispatched us on the ground floor once more.

At the restaurant, the waitress led us to our table. We explained that we were going to a concert at 8pm. She asked what we were going to see.

“Who’s John Grant?” she asked. By this time, I felt like I was in an alternative version of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.

Finally back at the theatre, we mingled with the other concert goers. Lots of them wore big bushy beards, mostly male. Lots of them were quite obviously gay. I’d forgotten that John Grant was hugely popular with gay people. I mentioned this to Lady BSM. She rolled her eyes.

“You’re the gayest straight man I know,” she said, “if I wasn’t married to you, I’d think you were.”

The opening act was terrific, Gemma Ray, another haunting voice and look that suggests she’s from the Deep South of America rather than the deep south of England. Accompanied by her bassist and drummer, they made some very sweet music.

Then the main event. John Grant and his Icelandic band (for that is where he lives now) come on to the opening bars of ‘Vietnam’. His voice live is amazing, effortless, rich, perfect. What’s more, he is a very funny man, self deprecating and engaging with the audience.

“Here’s another song to end it all to,” he says cheerfully before giving a heart rending performance of ‘It Doesn’t Matter To Him.”

I’m delighted, trying my best not to sing along to every song too loudly. He doesn’t disappoint. Someone had asked if he was going to sing ‘Song to the Siren’, written by Tim Buckley, but said he wasn’t, since Elizabeth Frazer sang it so much better. I beg to differ.

John explains his love of ABBA before singing his version of ‘Angel Eyes.’

The encore sees him sing ‘Drug’, a Czars song. There a smattering of applause, which amuses him.

“And that’s why that band never succeeded,” he chuckles.

Then he’s gone. Lady BSM leans on me on the way out.

“That was really good,” she says. I think she means it.

I loved it. Being in an audience in a Shakesperean theatre in Stratford singing along to GMF was a delight:

“I am the greatest Motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet, from the top of my head, down to the tips of the toes on my feet…”

Yesterday I bought us tickets to see him again in November with The Royal Northern Symphonia at Bristol Colston Hall. Do you think they’ll ask who he is?

 

 

 

 

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Just the ticket – A World Cup Story

Wordpretzels, you may be aware that the World Cup Football finals are taking place in Brazil at the moment. If you’re not, let me explain.

To my American readers, when I say ‘football’ I don’t mean large men in armour and crash helmets full of testosterone and cocaine fighting over an undersized rugby ball for 10 seconds at a time before having a break. I’m talking about ‘soccer’. When I say ‘world’, I actually mean all the participating teams come from different countries rather than different states.

Now, lots of English people get very sniffy about our football being called ‘soccer’ by the people of the USA. However, they are quite mistaken, because the correct description of association football is the shortened term ‘soccer.’ So, the Americans are right and we are wrong to be so snobby about it.

Anyway, the World Cup finals take place every four years, like the Olympics. Similarly, the location of said finals is decided years in advance. Also similarly, this appears to involve lots of backroom deals, bribes, fancy gifts, sex workers and recreational drugs. Allegedly.

However, it hasn’t always been so. In 1966, the World Cup finals took place in England, with the final being played in a suburb of London known as Wembley, in the iconic Empire Stadium, with its twin towers.

It just so happened that my dad, a heating engineer and plumber by trade, worked as a site foreman for the company who were awarded the contract to refurbish the changing rooms ahead of the final. My dad, a keen football fan and a regular at Arsenal’s ground in Highbury, was delighted. Years after, he would tell us about how he met England centre forward Jimmy Greaves in the lift (elevator). Greaves stared at my dad for a moment before asking:

“Do I know you?”

My dad, the character that he was, stared back.

“No. But I know you,” was my dad’s rather menacing reply.

I was nearly 6 years old at the time and just getting interested in football. The World Cup mascot for 1966 was called World Cup Willy, one of the best names ever for young schoolboys.

“Do you like Willy?” we used to scream at each other, laughing uncontrollably. It’s still funny now.

world cup willie

Anyway, the changing rooms were completed just before the competition started. England made a slow start, drawing their first match with Uruguay,  but got better, seeing off Mexico and France in the group stages. I can vaguely remember the quarter final against Argentina, when the commentator became very agitated with the ‘animals’ of Argentina as they tried their best to knock seven kinds of colour out of our ‘brave boys.’ (English football seems to like to draw all analogies from war situations. Make of that what you will).

I cannot remember the semi-final, just a vague memory of my dad coming home from the pub one Sunday lunch time and saying that Geoff Hurst wasn’t fit to clean Jimmy Greaves’s boots (a mighty compliment from an Arsenal fan towards a Spurs player) and that Eusebio ‘was a fucking genius’. As a 6 year old I was able to repeat an edited version to my interested teachers.

England won 2-1, but Eusebio did score late on to give England a bit of a worry. Bobby Charlton got a brace, but as my dad always maintained:

“They always show the 30 yard screamers that go in the top corner of the net. Not the other 10 shots that hit the bloke sitting in row Z behind the corner flag.”

England were in the final. It was a couple of days later that the letter arrived.

“27th July 1966

Dear Mr Randall,

Thank you for all your hard work in preparing the changing rooms at The Empire Stadium ahead of the World Cup football finals. As a gesture of gratitude, please find enclosed two tickets in the Olympic stand for the final match on 30th July.”

My dad put the envelope on the mantelpiece and left for work. The next part of the story is from my dad’s perspective and repeated to me over the years. Try and read it in a cockney accent.

“So, I goes into work and sees Reg (my dad’s workmate and friend for many years).

“Ere, Reg, I says, I’ve only got two tickets for the fucking World Cup final! D’yer fancy it?”

Reg, sucking hard on a cigarette, thinks for a moment. Reg isn’t a big football fan. He prefers jazz.

“Ain’t we gotta job on Saturday, Albie?”

“Well yeah, but…”

“Nah, mate. Let’s earn a few bob. The krauts are gonna wallop ‘em anyway. Fuckin’ waste a time.”

 

And that was that. Reg and dad, who used to do ‘cash in hand jobs’ at the weekend to supplement their income, decided not to go to the World Cup Final, but to do one of those instead.

For anybody (specifically American) who is unaware of the enormity of this sporting event, let me put it this way. Imagine your team reaching a Superbowl final. One that is held every four years and involves every talented country in the world. An event that is very unlikely to happen in a lifetime at least.

England won 4-2 in extra time. The match had everything. Controversy, pain, stress, triumph and jubilation.

As I grew older, my dad would occasionally remind me of these facts and how he could have told Reg that he was going to the match with me.

“I could have taken you son,” he’d say.

“Yes, dad, you could have,” I used to reply in a measured tone.

About 15 years ago, I was listening to a radio programme. Its subject was sporting memorabilia. Somebody phoned in, saying they had a  1966 World Cup Final ticket stub, was it worth anything?

The expert said no, not a great deal.

“However,” he continued, “a 1966 World Cup Final ticket, unused, would fetch upwards of a thousand pounds. If it came with an authorised letter, you’re looking at £2000.”

I phoned my dad. I had a feeling that he’d kept the letter in the inside pocket of his Crombie overcoat. I wanted to give him the good news.

“Hello dad. I was just wondering about those World Cup tickets…”

“I know. Reg said let’s do a job. I should have taken you…”

“Yes, yes, I know dad, never mind. It’s just weird that you kept hold of the tickets, because…”

“Yeah, I know, but yer muvva fancied a clear out. I ‘ad a look in me pockets and fort why am I keeping these…”

 

 

 

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