The world won’t end.

(I meant to post this yesterday, but no matter. One day’s delay shouldn’t make too much difference, in the overall scheme of things.)

The band sounded more like Dymbel’s cup of tea than my own: well crafted, neat and tidy US college rock, and the sort of thing that Uncut magazine were big on at the time. If you liked REM, Wilco and Big Star, then you’d probably be into them. Dymbel loved all three acts – still does, for that matter – and so we decided to give them a punt.

It felt odd, and strangely inappropriate, going out to a gig on the night after the news event which had locked us all in front of our TV screens for hours on end, in slack-jawed, dumbfounded horror. Especially since the band were American themselves. Far too early to contemplate a rocking good night out, surely. But what else were we to do? In any case, the tickets were already purchased. Might as well, then.

The Social was far from full. A subdued smattering of diehard music geeks, mostly male, stood around, making quiet conversation. Everything felt slightly unreal. We were all still in that initial, shell-shocked, calm-eye-of-the-storm phase: trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened, but still some distance away from being able to analyse the background, predict the implications, super-impose our own world-views. It was enough, at this stage, to feel the loss.

The band took to the stage. Unassuming, non-starry, dressed-down, regular guys, with solemn, somewhat distracted expressions.

The singer grasped of the microphone, and said something like this.

“Obviously, we’ve been thinking all day about the terrible events that took place yesterday, in our home city of New York, and trying to make contact with our friends and families over there. We don’t want to say anything more about it, though. The only thing which makes much sense to us right now is our music. So all we really want to do is play our music. Thank you. And if anyone’s buying, mine’s a Jack Daniels.”

Within the first few bars of the opening song, a member of the audience had placed a glass of Jack Daniels at the front of the stage. Every time that it was emptied during the set – which was more than a few times – a new glass materialised.

Having vaguely expecting some sort of Major Statement, I couldn’t help but feel a guilty twinge of disappointment. This wasn’t the sort of music that fitted a tragedy of these dimensions. Too polite, too constrained, too rooted in seemingly small, everyday concerns.

The band played on, brows knotted, eyes to the floor. The crowd applauded, in diffident moderation. The bar did a steady, roaring trade.

Slowly, the mood of the crowd and the mood of the band converged. An intensity grew in the room, of a nature that was over and above the material being played. Something was passing between us, that could not be expressed in words. Words were immaterial.

Towards the end of the set, someone shouted for a song off the new album. The singer dismissed the request with a quick, momentarily appalled shudder.

“No, there’s no way we can play that tonight.”

The set ended, to sustained, fervent applause. Everyone in the room was steaming drunk – but drunk in a contained way. Like at a wake.

“F**k it, let’s do it anyway.”

The encore commenced. It soon became clear that this was the song that was requested earlier. The lyrics were about someone dying in a plane crash. It was jarringly inappropriate and yet horribly pertinent, like that heartbreak song on the radio which wasn’t exactly about you, but which you related to anyway, because you needed to universalise your pain.

The song concluded – but the band played on, seizing its basic chord patterns and jamming on them, with steadily increasing noise and ferocity, losing themselves in the music. With every repetition, they moved further and further away from the neat-and-tidy college-boy politeness, and out into something quite other, above and beyond themselves.

The singer bent himself double over his guitar, his face contorted and crimson, thrashing furiously yet purposefully. His thick, nerdy spectacles fell off the end of his nose, toppled onto the stage, and remained there. He didn’t even seem to notice.

The jam drove ever onwards. This no longer felt like a gig. It was a communal catharsis; a doomed exorcism, which could only hope to hold the demons at bay for as long as the band kept playing. Perhaps they would never stop.

In a squall of feedback, stepping back from the brink, they stopped. And humbly stepped straight off the stage, and into the sparse crowd, who tentatively edged around them, still roaring their applause, but not wanting to intrude too far.

Behind me, sensing my hesitation, a tall stranger nudged me forwards.

“Go on, mate! They f**king deserve it!”

I smiled, but stayed put, keeping a respectful distance: drunkenly dazed, but keenly aware that we had witnessed something unprecedented – and hopefully never to be repeated.

I doubt that the band would want to be remembered for this, so I shan’t mention them by name. You probably wouldn’t have heard of them anyway.

Besides, it was, in a strange way, private. Just between us.

Exactly five years ago, plus the one day.

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Arbeit macht frei.

(Today, Joe asked his readers: What’s the worst job you ever had? This is an extended version of the answer I left in his comments.)

Aged 17, in the summer of 1979, I took a holiday job at a wholesale warehouse, back in the South Yorkshire town where I was born. Well, I say “took”, as if there were some element of choice in the matter; in actual fact, there was none.

Rather than have me loaf around at home for six weeks, my father decided that it would be “character-building” for me to step out into the “real world”, and so had a word with the bosses of the warehouse: two brothers, both the living embodiments of the puffed-up small town plutocrat. From their handlebar moustaches, cherry-wood pipes, watch-chains and waistcoats, to the cut-glass decanters of whisky in their offices and the mahogany veneer on the dashboards of their Bentleys, they could have stepped straight from a left-wing political cartoon of the 1920s. All they needed to complete the picture were little bags of cash piled up on their desks, each marked with a big pound sign.

The interview, with the warehouse’s kindly operational manager, was a mere formality. After no more than a couple of minutes, he beamed his congratulations. “You’ve got a job!” Fifteen pounds a week, start Monday.

Up until this point, I had never been burdened by much in the way of hard manual labour, as the soft folds of flesh on my palms would (and still do) testify. Indeed, I was more or less your classic lily-livered nine-stone wimp, with meekness to match. Whereas nowadays, I can generally laugh off my perpetually troubled relationship with the physical world (“I exist on a rarified cerebral plane!” “I’m an effete drawing-room fop!”), my exceptional lack of physical co-ordination and stamina was still a source of great self-consciousness and shame.

Nevertheless, I was greeted warmly by my new colleagues, most of whom were only three or four years older than me, when I joined them at the loading bay for crate-shifting duties. The work was tough, and my body never stopped aching from one day to the next – but I did my best, and my comparative lack of skill was accepted with no more than mildest of ribbings. (“How many O-levels did you say you had? Ten? Yeah, but I bet you can’t lift this crate – here, catch!”)

However, it was only a matter of time before word got out that I was “a friend of the boss” – which was hardly surprising, as the older of the two brothers frequently gave me a lift back to my father’s office at the end of the working day. In truth, I despised the man – and felt downright loathing towards his lazy, arrogant younger brother, with the scarlet face and the liver spots, who barely bothered to disguise the contempt he felt towards the men whose labours kept him in creature comforts. Since rank-pulling was all he had, he duly insulated himself with delusions of his own natural superiority, and strutted round the warehouse in a perpetual state of faux-patrician peevishness.

The contempt was, needless to say, mutual. It was also contagious. One by one, my former comrades gradually cold-shouldered me, their former good-natured joshing replaced by icy stares and silent, barely suppressed malice. Only the older men continued to treat me as before, their knee-jerk them-and-us mentalities tempered by observation and experience. Occasionally, one of them would take me aside and discreetly ask after my welfare. (“Some of these young ‘uns, they won’t understand.”)

I should have confronted the situation, of course – but my sense of disempowerment was total. Instead, I bit my lip and knuckled down, my already low self-esteem plummeting ever further.

Eventually – and presumably this was for my own well-being, and kindly meant – I was moved out of the loading bay, and taken to the larger and much quieter warehouse round the corner. There, I was given a small (and fairly blunt) hand scythe, with which to cut down the tall weeds that flanked the long entrance drive. The job took many days, and was mind-numbingly arduous. I particularly remember the younger brother standing over me as I struggled on the first morning, taking puffs on his pipe, and hissing into my ear: “Don’t let them see you’re a weakling.” Once again: them and us. I deeply resented being placed into the middle of this set of assumptions and perceptions, but continued to say nothing.

(What I wanted to do, more than anything else, was show solidarity with my fellow workers, to explain that I was no management stooge and no industrial spy, that I thought that their bosses were wankers just as much as they did, and that I hadn’t even wanted the shitty job in the first place. But you can see the potential pitfalls in that.)

There was one last humiliation in store. My step-sisters – who had their own reasons for despising me, but that’s a whole other story – had a friend whose boyfriend worked at the same warehouse. Word of my progress, or lack of it, filtered back, and was eventually, and with no small measure of relish, thrown in my face. (“You don’t do any real work. We’ve heard! You just sit in the garden all day!”)

Still saying nothing, I comforted myself only with thoughts of escape. Four months later, I seized my chance, never to return.

A few years later, I met the younger brother once again, at a formal dinner that was regularly staged by the self-styled intelligentsia of the local business community (no women admitted). My father had dragged me along, eager for the fifth generation of first sons to make his social debut, and had duly shoved me into an ill-fitting hired dinner suit, with a particularly rank frilled trim on the lapels.

“Monty, do you remember my son Michael?”

“Of course! We showed you how the other half live, didn’t we!”

I think I was supposed to thank him for his avuncular magnanimity, and for the valuable life lessons that he had bestowed upon me.

Oh, I had certainly learnt some lessons. But they weren’t the sort of lessons that anyone could teach, even if they had been minded to do so. And so I assumed an appropriately grateful expression, and smiled, and turned away as quickly as good manners would allow.

Consequences: Post 1.

(posted by Mike)

Hey ho, here it comes. As the crowd cheers in delighted recognition, Dymbel and I exchange meaningful shrugs. Massive fan that he is, this one has never done much for him. As for me, I grew tired of it a long time ago. Even in the context of last Saturday in Hyde Park, where so many dull songs by lesser acts took on new, grander resonances, I remained unmoved. Now, I simply tune out and drift off.


In the cottage, late last Friday evening. K has gone to bed; I can already hear the snores from upstairs. I’m staring at the telly, pleasantly trashed, not yet ready to let the feeling end, giving free rein to the right side of my brain, letting it lead me through whatever unexpected connections it chooses to make.

Which is when it hits me.

The part of me that I hate, that causes me all the wobbles, the angst, the Self Esteem Issues…

The part that procrastinates, that under-achieves, that won’t dare to try because it’s so sure that it will fail, that’s ruled by fear, that has erected thick barbed wire barricades around the prison yard of its comfort zone…

The part that says I can’t, and I won’t, and why bother, because you can do it better than me anyway …

The part that ties itself up in Gordian knots of guilt and blame…

…it’s just a part of me. It’s not all of me. It’s not even most of me. And so I shouldn’t fall into the trap of letting it define me. Because the greater part of me is better than this.

How do I know this?

I know this because I am loved by the most wonderful man I have ever met.

And if he can see worth in me, then ipso facto, that worth must exist. Because, for all the accusatory shit that I might choose to fling at myself, two irreducible truths remain:

1. All sentimental bullshit aside (she’s the best mum in the world/they’re two little angels), he is the most wonderful man I have ever met.

2. His love for me is beyond all reasonable doubt.

Why hasn’t this occurred to me before? I am loved, ergo I am worthy of love. Accept this truism, and it could me give me some of the strength I need in the perpetual battle which I wage with my darker, weaker self. Indeed, there is no reason why I cannot use the greater part of myself to heal the…


*snap*

And you’re back in the football stadium.

Having stated and re-stated its lyrical themes, the song is now peaking, by means of an extended instrumental passage. Insistent, repeated triplets, steadily increasing in intensity, are rippling out from the stage in waves of pure, positive emotion, accentuated by wordless, staccato barks from Michael Stipe. The stage lighting is bright now – so bright that, even at this distance, I can feel something of its warmth in the cool, damp, dusky air.

In front of me, and indeed all around me, thousands of pairs of hands are stretched up high in assertive V-shapes, obliterating the view of the band, engulfing me in one shared feeling of joyful, certain release.

So, hold on, hold on. Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on. Everybody hurts. You are not alone.

Ambushed by unexpected emotion. The corny ones will get you every time.

The Bay City Rollers: Nottingham Arena, June 21st 2005.

Additional note: July 5th 2005. Although this piece was only originally written for the small audience who reads my weblog, Google has seen fit to give it a high ranking for the artist concerned. I should therefore sound a note of caution for people who have arrived here via search engines. What follows is a harsh review, which some might consider disrespectful or even offensive. It is, however, an honest and accurate record of the thoughts which went through my mind while watching the show in question. As a blogger, I make no claims to objectivity; however, it is also not my intention to cause gratuitous offence. If this review offends you, then please accept my apologies, whilst bearing in mind that this is just the personal point of view of some random bloke off the Internet. After all, it would be a boring world if we all thought the same way…

As this was the first night of the “Once In A Lifetime” package tour of former 1970s teenybop idols, neither Miss Mish nor I knew quite what to expect. So we were initially a little bowled over by the demographic make-up of the audience, which was almost completely comprised of very excited women in their forties. Very, very excited women in their forties. With tartan accessories. (Some of them had been awfully busy on their Singer sewing machines.) And custom-printed T-shirts. (One lady in front of us had SHANG-A-LANG emblazoned on her back, while her companion had plumped for the more direct LET ME IN.) And cellophane-wrapped floral tributes, to hurl over the barricades at Les, or Merrill, or Little Jimmy, or one of the two Davids. And, in the case of one particularly determined Bay City Rollers fan who spent a good ten minutes before the show engaged in protracted negotiations with no less than three security guards: a teddy bear with a tartan bow around its neck.

(One shudders to think of the negotiation tactics she was prepared to wheel out, although the stony-faced but slightly fearful expressions on the faces of the three guards spoke volumes. At one point, she even started waving the paw of the teddy bear at them (“Look, he’s saying hello!”), in a last-ditch bid to melt their hearts. Conclusion: be very, very afraid of middle-aged women bearing teddy bears.)

As the Bay City Rollers – sorry, Les McKeown’s 70’s Bay City Rollers (there’s a clue in there for you) – took to the stage, almost the entire first three rows of the audience stormed down to the front, where they formed a kind of hormonal mosh-pit. (With so much polyester rubbing together, it’s a wonder we didn’t see sparks flying.) As Mish and I were in the fourth row, on the end of an aisle, we were therefore granted excellent sight-lines to the stage. However, we also had to endure the din of an almost constant pitched battle next to us, as teeming hordes of stoked-up, tartan-clad Angelas and Nicolas and Deborahs and Amandas begged, beseeched and clamoured to get past the security guards that were stationed right next to us. They never gave up, either. Sometimes, one of them managed to distract the guards long enough to allow three or four more to barge through, squealing with glee, camera phones primed and ready. You wonder whether any of them were listening to the music at all.

Mind you, one could hardly blame them for having other concerns. Alone out of the four acts on the bill that night, the music of the Bay City Rollers has steadfastly refused to accrue any modicum of nostalgic appeal whatsoever. It has always been, and will always be, wretched, piss-poor, joyless stuff: cranked out by backroom hacks to fill a lucrative niche, and performed by useful (and ultimately expendable) idiots, with no artistic or emotional investment in their craft, on any level. And I speak as someone with a considerable fondness for supposedly “manufactured” pop, providing it is done with style, or wit, or love (three boxes which the likes of Take That managed to tick effortlessly).

So imagine how much more reduced the experience would be when confronted by “Les McKeown’s 70´s Bay City Rollers” – featuring singer Les McKeown, and an anonymous bunch of hired hands. OK, I’ll give them their due: they were a tolerably competent bunch of hired hands, who blustered efficiently through the Rollers canon while a scarlet-jacketed McKeown (there was an inescapable whiff of Butlins about this) dutifully trotted out the sha-la-las and shang-a-langs with all the emotional engagement of the slightly sad-looking geezer on his own in the corner of the pub on karaoke night.

It was the eyes that gave him away, really. They were the dead eyes of someone who found himself shackled to a body of work which he had almost certainly grown to despise, but which – not having had sufficient wit in his youth to avoid the pitfalls of unscrupulous managers and dodgy contracts – he was obliged to perform, in perpetuity, in order to put bread on the table. Not having made any true emotional investment in his glory days, there was therefore no way for him to recoup any of that investment in middle age. Through his grim-faced, disconnected, slightly pained performance, you could see that performing had probably never held much joy for him in the first place. Yes, he was badly advised and ripped off in the past. But nevertheless, you reap what you sow.

Not that any of this really mattered to the assembled Angies and Nickys and Debbies and Mandys, for whom the years were rolling back apace. They just wanted to sway their hands in the air to Bye Bye Baby and Give A Little Love, go a little mad for a night, and relive the follies of their youth. McKeown was just the catalyst for this collective act of remembrance. It was barely even about him. (Maybe it never was. Maybe he knows that now.) All he really had to do was turn up, stay in tune, and not f**k things up too badly. Easy work, when you think about it.

Even so, McKeown was able to get away with granting himself the odd mild indulgence: a re-arrangement here, a different rhythm there, and even a barmy section in the middle of Shang-A-Lang, where the band suddenly lurched into a few bars of Deep Purple’s Black Night. (Maybe that was one for the small contingent of stoic husbands who had been dragged along for the evening.) Towards the end, he even flashed a couple of broad smiles. However, and without wishing to labour the analogy unfairly, they still struck me as the smiles of a deluded addict chasing a long-vanished high.

Write Like A Diva: contestant #3.

(Click here to view the rules of the game.)

Looking at things from a certain angle, you could say that I was at my gayest as a child. Not sexually gay, of course; that goes without saying. But innocently and instinctively gay, before I even knew what “gay” was, or that there was any stigma attached to gay behaviour. Playfully gay. Shamelessly gay. Gaily gay.

It came out in so many ways. Intense schoolboy crushes, but with none of the unrequited agonies that would come with adolescence. These were crushes in which I sought nothing back; I was merely content to idealise, to idolise, to bask in the glow. Fantasies of a twin brother, who could be soulmate and playmate – or of having au pair BOYS around the house, rather than our regular stream of Scandanavian sixteen-year-old girls. (In this respect, I realise with hindsight that my father was a very canny man.) Sighing over cute boys on the telly: Cliff Richard, Fraser Hines as Jamie in “Doctor Who”, Derek Fowlds on the Basil Brush show. Just wanting to BE with these people. To be included in their gang. To have them smile at me, take my hand, whisk me away to a land of fun and freedom.

But oh dear God, I could be such a little tart with it. Chasing boys round the school playground for comedy kisses, mouth puckered, arms outstretched. Or grabbing them by the waist and forcing them into a waltz routine: da da-da da daah, deet! deet!, doot! doot! It gave me a bit of a reputation. But not unpleasantly so; my antics were observed with bemused good humour rather than overt hostility. Somehow, I always got away with it.

“Michael, have you ever heard of homosexuals?”, a classmate once asked. I would have been nine or ten years old by then.

I shook my head. It was a new word.

“Well, you’re definitely one of them.”

I didn’t even bother to ask what one was. Just grinned and shrugged, then wandered off to do something else. The nearest I got to any conception of a separate sexual identity was with my recurring marriage fantasy: just imagine if they changed the law just for one day, so that boys could get married to boys! Because if they did, then I’d ask T.N. to marry me. Then we could be together for ever and ever, ah-men.

Although come to think of it, there was also my “male-only town” fantasy. A special town, which would only admit men between the ages of… well, I forget what the exact ages were, but I do remember the rule which said that men who reached a certain age would be obliged to move out of town. Oh, and I’d only admit good-looking ones.

Very Brave New World. Very Logan’s Run. Very circuit-party body-fascist. The clues were all there, should I have chosen to disclose them; but even at that age, I knew it was best to keep certain thoughts to myself. Male-only towns? Come on; that’s weird by anyone’s standards.

(It had a name as well, my sexy town. Shall I tell you? Don’t laugh. KIRBY. Yeah, I know.)

And then there was the snowball incident.

My grandmother’s sitting room had a large, three-paned bay window, looking out onto her small back garden – and, adjacent to the right, the playground of Doncaster Grammar School for Boys. One mid-morning break time in January (they must have started term earlier than me), I was sitting on the floor next to the window – all misted over with condensation – when I became aware of a commotion from outside. Wiping away a small patch of condensation at the bottom of the right hand pane, I peered through.

All across the playground, dozens of laughing and leaping teenage boys in blazers and ties were pelting each other with snowballs, in one almighty snow-fight.

Fun. Freedom. Inclusion. Contact. Anything-goes delirium. I had never seen anything more exciting in my life.

This is where it gets really gay.

After the break was over, I felt the most churning sense of loss. I needed to see more of this. Badly.

And so I stood up, stretched out my index finger, and wrote the following message in the condensation on the right hand window pane.

PLEASE GRAMMAR SCHOOL BOYS COME BACK AND PLAY SNOWBALLS AGAIN SO I CAN WATCH.

(In reverse lettering, of course. Come on, I was a bright kid.)

It didn’t work. Begging never does. I’d learn this much later in life.

But even that wasn’t my gayest moment ever.

That would be the Ken incident.

My cousin from Essex was a keen collector of Barbie dolls. She had loads of them in her room, all arranged in fun little tableaus; I particularly remember a groovy little bunch of them discotheque-dancing together. I was a bit jealous; you couldn’t do that sort of thing with my boring old wooden guardsmen, all featureless and identical in their drab little fort.

On one of her visits up North, my cousin brought a new doll with her. A boy doll! I had never seen such a thing, and was thrilled to the core; this was something new and exciting. I didn’t know you could have boy dolls!

His name was Ken, and he was Barbie’s boyfriend. Ken was dressed in the latest Carnaby Street fashions: intricately patterned salmon-pink jacket, cream slacks, and a matching cream cravat, in lurex. He also had a string attached to his back. If you pulled it, he said “Hi, I’m Ken!”, in a bright American voice.

HOT.

I played a lot with Ken that afternoon. That clingy bitch Barbie scarcely got a look-in.

At bedtime, I sneaked Ken away with me, and placed him on my bedside table for easy access. That way, I could pull him any time I wanted.

“Hi, I’m Ken!”

“Hi, I’m Ken!”

“Hi, I’m Ken!”

I pulled him, and pulled him, and pulled him.

“Hi, I’m Ken!”

Pulled him with the lights out. Pulled him all night long.

“Hi, I’m Ken!”

Pulled him “just once more, and then that’s it”. But extra-hard this time. Yeah, YANK that string.

Oh.

Oh dear.

Oh dearie dearie me.

I turned the light back on and examined the doll, his cream lurex cravat now somewhat awry from all the exertion.

The frayed and severed string told its own tale. I had broken Ken. And now I would have to ‘fess up to my cousin in the morning.

My first moment of Gay Shame. There would be many, many more.

But none that would ever be quite so gay again.

I WANT MY F***ING APPLES.

Regular readers will already know that K and I have enjoyed mixed success with trendy London hotels. For every agreeably expectation-satisfying experience at One Aldwych, Threadneedles or the Malmaison, there has been a corresponding St. Martin’s, Hempel or myhotel Bloomsbury (sic) to leave us with a nasty taste in the mouth and a mockingly extortionate figure on the credit card bill. It’s not even as if we’re hard to fool please. Flirt with us at reception, stick some Jasmine & Geranium Body Wash in the bathroom and a couple of squares of Green & Blacks on the pillow, and we’re yours for life.

This time round, a recommendation in the Guardian Travel section alerted me to a decent-sounding introductory deal at the newly refurbished Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch: a vast place, which has shed its former faded shabbiness in favour of a slick, minimal (mais bien sur!) £95 million re-fit.

I wasn’t convinced. In the small print at the bottom of the bill, I discovered that the Cumberland, for all its Ian Schrager-esque pretensions to super-sleek bleeding-hedginess, is actually owned by the Thistle Hotel group: that byline for bland corporate mediocrity. (Meta aside: note how I cannot even get across the concept of bland corporate mediocrity without resorting to boring stock phrases such as “bland corporate mediocrity”.) And that was the key to understanding this joint. For all its clear gleaming surfaces, cavernous open spaces, wittily surreal flourishes, and the inevitable Big Lobby Art, there was no mistaking that tell-tale underlying whiff of the corporate.

The decidedly mezzo-brow, derivative nature of said Big Lobby Art provided the biggest clue. That painter who rips off Bridget Riley’s multi-coloured vertical stripes, only with nice polite “tonal shades”, all airbushed and fuzzed over in an attempt to look tasteful: she was there. That sculptor who does those boringly life-like human figures, such as the walking shopper and the man resting sideways on his elbow, which I’ve seen round the corner from the Thistle Hotel in Newcastle: he was there. Safe choices, selected by committee. The Athena Gallery does Charles Saatchi. Meh.

I can only conclude that the Ian Schrager hi-gloss boutique “look” has become so entrenched in the popular flicking-through-Wallpaper*-in-the-airport consciousness, that even the dreary old business chains are starting to pick up on it. How long before Travelodges are rebranded tLodge+ or something equally “conceptual”, with ambient electronica wafting through the lobby and a goldfish on a plasma screen wriggling above the check-in counter? Betcha someone in head office is “scoping it out” right now, even as we talk.

My room was the expected symphony of blonde wood, oversized Egyptian cotton pillows and limited space, with the self-consciously “quirky” bonus of a large etched glass panel behind the bed, depicting a mythological scene. (Something to do with a man and a horse, I think. It didn’t hold my attention for long.) An outstretched china hand rested enigmatically on the desk. A large plasma screen on the wall offered excellent TV reception, as well as high-speed Internet access using the wireless keyboard provided … at a urine-extracting £5.99 per hour, if you please. I mean, I’m hardly Mister Best Value Consumer Rights at the best of times, but really. The bathroom was freezing, with no discernible means of heating. (In the morning, the shower took over five minutes to reach almost-lukewarm.) But worst of all: there was no mini-bar. Granted, there was a fridge: but it contained nothing but two plastic bottles of mineral water.

I checked the directory of services. Nope: no reference to a mini-bar whatsoever. And hold up, what’s this in the introductory guff?

Upon entering your room, an outstretched hand tempts you with a pair of firm, ripe apples.

(I paraphrase, but you get the gist.)

SO WHERE WERE MY F**KING APPLES THEN? Was this because I’d booked at the “introductory” rate, and they thought they’d save a few bob on sundries?

Well, mustn’t grumble. I unpacked and ate my smuggled-in Pret A Manger sandwich, glamorously sprawled out in front of Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway in my underpants, got dressed, and mooched down to the bar for that authentic Lost In Translation experience. Marooned on a bar-stool with a Budvar and Word magazine, trying to look like I belonged. The mysterious loner, eschewing company, and feeling really comfortable with it too, no, really


Arriving back in the not-even-that-early-anymore hours, I paused for a couple of minutes in the now almost deserted lobby. My reverie was soon broken by the sight of an exceptionally beautiful woman gliding noiselessly past me, on the way from the lifts to the main entrance. Full, glossy shoulder-length hair. Head bowed, eyes firmly trained to the floor. Thick, expensive coat clasped protectively, almost defensively, around her slender form. For a second or two, I thought it was Naomi Campbell, in full incognito mode. My only wish is to be invisible; this charisma is my curse.

Until she reached the door, and I spotted the dark, seamed stockings and the mile-high f**k-off stilettos. At 6:45 in the morning.

Of course.

My little BdJ moment-ette. A passing whiff of the transgressive, dispatching me to my slumbers with feverish re-examinations and deconstructions of every last nuance.

Was this the capable professional, adroitly negotiating her customary dignified, low-key exit? Or the broken, ruined fall-girl, skulking away from the scene of her shame and disgrace, her bedraggled, tawdry finery mocked by the dawn’s early light? Ah, the strange twilight world of the heterosexual! We shall never know.

Singles of the year: #10 (NMC)

10. F**k It (I Don’t Want You Back) – Eamon

1999: Turn Your Lights Down Low – Bob Marley & Lauryn Hill
1994: I’ll Stand By You – The Pretenders
1989: Promised Land – Joe Smooth
1984: Holiday – Madonna

F**k what I said, it don’t mean shit now, f**k the presents, might as well throw em out, f**k all those kisses, it didn’t mean jack, f**k you, you ho, I don’t want you back…

For all the perceived “scandalousness” of this blog – the bursts of should-he-really-be-saying-that? confessionalism, the coy, veiled references to buried-safely-in-the-past misdemeanours – an altogether different set of dangerously unhinged impulses seem to be snapping at my feet these days, tempting me into committing ill-considered indiscretions which I might later regret.

For now that my Inner Party Monster has been more or less safely tethered, it is my Inner Middle Aged Daily Mail Reader which is rattling the cages and struggling to break free. All this Colonel Blimp-ish disapproval of modern manners and mores – from where has it sprung?

Warily threading my way through the city centre on a Saturday night not so very long ago, I caught myself eyeing up a screeching gaggle of severely under-dressed young binge drinkers, clacking their way up Pelham Street on their way to the Hockley pick-up joints, and thinking – actually, truly thinking, without any discernible level of redeeming irony – do their mothers know they’re out dressed like that?

Sneaking a semi-interested peek at Top Of The Pops last Spring, I caught 19 year old Eamon performing the UK’s Number One single – a song with the word “f**k” actually in its title – and found myself thinking: OK, that’s it. The barbarians are at the gates. It’s the death of Empire, the end of civilisation, the dawning of a new Dumbed Down Dark Age of unfettered coarseness and brutality.

I mean to say: this was Top Of The Pops! The programme I used to watch before bedtime with the family, hoping that Clive Dunn or Rolf Harris or The Scaffold or Mary Hopkin might be on! And here was this callow, insolent youth, miming to an absurdly “cleaned up” version of the track which merely involved the surgical removal of the rude words in question:

What I said, it don’t mean – now – the presents, might as well throw em out – all those kisses, it didn’t mean jack, – you, you – I don’t want you back…

And this from a year where the UK singles chart contained one record with the sampled word “motherf**ker” repeated over and over again, and another record which described the consumption of poor-quality ecstacy tablets in forensic detail, to say nothing of the “answer record” which succeeded Eamon at Number One: a charming little ditty entitled F**k You Right Back. I mean, what’s coming next?

“It’s the Nation’s Favourite Song! Straight in at Number One, it’s Give Me Back My F**king Gear, C**t Face!”

What’s more, nobody but me seems to be in the slightest bit bothered by any of this. It’s like I’m the only one who has even noticed. Did I miss a meeting or something?

Compare and contrast with the wholesome innocence of the Top Five from the particular week in Summer 1971 when, aged nine, I first started “following the charts”. Tom Tom Turnaround, Me And You And A Dog Named Boo, Co-Co, Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep … and a record by Atomic Rooster called Devil’s Answer, whose title I didn’t dare to speak out loud in front of my parents, because it had the word “devil” in it.

Aged nine in 1971, I would be told off for saying “Damn”, “Oh God”, or even “Good Heavens”. Aged nine in 2005, I would be expected to collude in the flimsy fiction that the Number One song onTop Of The Pops actually went: “– you, you – I don’t want you back“.

Aged nine in 1971, I had never even heard of the F-word. That came a year later, when one of the cooler kids in my class faux-casually dropped it into conversation on the way home from school.

“Oh, bloody f**k.”

I can still hear – and see – him saying it (and repeating himself, for effect) and wondering what it meant, but not daring to ask, because I already had a reputation for being comically naive about these things.

(So naive, that I spent a year or so thinking that sexual intercourse took place between a man’s “little thing” and a lady’s nipple, because the nipple was the rudest part of a lady’s body that I could think of, and besides, if milk could get out, then surely the other stuff could get in. “Down there” never occurred to me, because “down there” was simply where a willy wasn’t. Nothing to see here; please move on.)

(Although, when I thought about it, sex must be an awfully uncomfortable business. How did the man manage to balance his “little thing” on the lady’s nipple without it slipping off? Perhaps you could buy double-ended plastic funnel things, to help things stay in place. Also, wouldn’t the lady have to bury herself halfway down the bedclothes, and wouldn’t that get a bit hot, and she might suffocate? I really didn’t like the sound of any of this, so why did grown-ups get so excited about it?)

(But I digress.)

Aged fourteen in 1976, I brought home Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek And Clive comedy album; unaware, despite the warning message on the cover, of just how staggeringly foul-mouthed it was. Seeing the warning message, my father snatched the record from me, and demanded to listen to it before I took it up to my room.

Sitting at the head of the family dinner table, the rest of us all seated for lunch, he solemnly placed the record on the family hi-fi, and solemnly donned the family headphones.

An uneasy silence descended, as my father’s face grew redder… and redder… and redder.

After five minutes or so, with a great show of dignified self-control that (as so often was the case with my father) bordered on the farcical, he solemnly removed the headphones, and addressed me with one of his quiet, steady, only-just-keeping-it-together voices.

“Michael. There are … words … on this record … that I didn’t even know existed until I joined the army. You are to listen to this on headphones ONLY, in your bedroom ONLY, and you must promise me that you will NEVER let your sisters hear it even for a SECOND DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?

Within the week, he’d nicked it. Late one night, I could hear him playing the track Winkie Wanky Woo to his friends downstairs, and them all falling about laughing.

His vocabulary was never the same again. Seriously. Swore like a trooper after that. And they say that these things don’t deprave or corrupt.

Aged 42 in 2005, I realise that the word “f**k” has virtually lost all of its power to shock. They’ll be using it on Children’s TV by the end of the decade, I reckon.

“Hello!”
“Hello!”
“Hello, and welcome to Blue Peter! We’ve got a f**king good show for you today!”

You just mark my words and see if I’m wrong.

Back to Eamon, then. So how did a song which initially repelled me end up as my tenth favourite single of 2004?

Because I actually sat down and listened to it, that’s why.

And realised that, rather than being the puerile exercise in lowest-common-denominator Gonzo Capitalism of my imaginings, (“Tee-hee, he said f**k, I’m buying it!“) Eamon’s single fits easily into a tradition of classic teen rejection ballads which stretches all the way back through to Atlantic soul and Fifties doo-wop. He’s hurt, he’s betrayed, and as the pain hardens into bitterness, so the anger comes flowing out, nullifying everything that he thought was good and pure. From “Baby I love you” to “f**k you, you ho”.

Great pop.

Fucking great pop.