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.

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…


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.


(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.


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 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.


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, 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.

Singles of the year: #66 (NMC)

66. This Love – Maroon 5

After a pleasant couple of hours spent in the dimly lit opulence of the swishest new bar in Phuket Town, our waiter friend from the Banyan Tree decides to take the three of us clubbing at the joint up the road. We enter the compact, packed venue to the sound of Wild Cherry’s 1970s funk-rock classic Play That Funky Music, with a six or seven-piece live band “performing” in the middle of the main floor to the right. The guitarists are striking poses; the keyboardist is pounding away; the crowd are whipped up into a frenzy… but the music itself is actually coming from the DJ booth. Hiring a full live band to mime to records? OK, that’s weird. Is this common practice over here?

We squeeze our way up the steep open staircase ahead of us on the left hand wall, past more jiggling revellers (roughly 75% Thai to 25% European/American/Australian), navigate through the grinning crush of dancers on the balcony above the band, find a table at the back, and order our drinks. As the waiter returns, K and I realise that although the tune playing is still Play That Funky Music, it is no longer the recorded version; somewhere along the line, the band have picked up the beat, joined in with the record, and have now seamlessly taken over the performance. What’s more, they’re cooking up a storm.

With each successive number, the players swap places and instruments accordingly, with vocalists coming and going from a extended pool. On a huge video screen above the performing area – and thus level with us on the first floor – a classic rock video channel is playing with the sound turned down, giving rise to some odd juxtapositions: the sound of Enrique Iglesias’ Bailamos to the visuals of The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, for instance. K is convinced that someone behind the scenes is carefully matching up the sound and the vision (“that’s so clever!“) – but then, the Long Island Iced Teas are kicking fairly effectively all round.

At the opening bars of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, our collective Pavlovian response is not to be resisted. Within seconds, the three of us are chugging away at the front of the balcony, clinking glasses and bottles with the merry throng around us. The comparatively tall and burly Thai fella on our left – a serial clinker and hand-shaker, and lead candidate for the post of K’s new best friend – has, for reasons best known to himself, decided to hoick his T-shirt up above his chest, which he is now proudly slapping with the palm of his hand. Ours not to reason why. Down below, a broad-shouldered, homely looking chanteuse, whose innate campness puts me somewhat in mind of Nadia from Big Brother 5, is belting her way through the track with beaming, eager-to-please enthusiasm, repeatedly flapping her elbows against her sides as she does so. Meanwhile our impeccably groomed companion-cum-guide has cast aside his leather jacket, rolled up his sleeves, loosened his top, and is busily reconnecting with his inner Disco Bunny: all sideways shimmies, coiling gyrations and lingering, provocative strokes of the torso. It’s mental. It’s great. I love it. We all love it.

Living La Vida Loca gives me a chance to shove my way downstairs for a slash. Next to the urinals, and away from the other wash baisins, a single bowl is marked with a sign, in English and Thai: Vomit Station. Hanging on the wall at a wonky angle, a corpulent, squiffy-looking dame in a scarlet frock (think Beryl Cook does Bangkok) reclines awkwardly on a chaise longue, leering down at the tipsy micturators, a couple of whom are loudly declaring their respective sexual agendas for the night in the most unequivocally detailed terms.

The band’s range is impressive, ranging from recent pop hits to disco classics and rock standards. Back in our seats, I recognise the strains of Maroon 5’s This Love: a hit from a few months earlier which I had enjoyed well enough at the time, without exactly being overwhelmed by it. I hadn’t realised that it was so popular internationally. In this context, it sounds fantastic. It’s one of those instant flips that you sometimes get with seemingly inconsequential pop songs. Give them a context, an association, a memory, and you imbue them with a poignancy that can sometimes last for decades.

The DJ set which follows is even more eclectic, the dancers responding with equal enthusiasm, regardless of what is played. Although we cope manfully with the rinky-dink 200bpm happy hardcore bonkers nosebleed toytown techno, Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ tips us over the edge, firmly nudging us downstairs and out onto the street.

On the Saturday night, we’re back in Phuket Town, celebrating our friend’s promotion at a cheerfully bustling downtown restaurant, with a ever-shifting assortment of his colleagues from our resort; throughout the evening, they appear on motorbikes in dribs and drabs, whenever there’s a break in the stormy weather at the end of their shifts. The meal unfolds episodically and informally, with new dishes being ordered whenever anyone feels like them; then pooled, passed around, and left on the table for whoever wants them next. It’s a form of extended grazing, which we had spotted – with some degree of envy – at neighbouring tables of Thai diners during the week, at our favourite independently-run beachfront restaurant. It’s a style of dining which suits the food, and us, well.

Once the slight shock of our presence is overcome, our dining companions happily absorb us into the general banter, back-chat and gentle ribbing which dominate the table. On the giant video screens, live UK soccer is being shown; a national obsession, and ideal for everyone’s Saturday night entertainment. Time and again, people arriving at our table look at K, and make the same observation: you look just like Alex Ferguson.

As you may be aware, K and I don’t exactly follow the football closely. We therefore haven’t the faintest idea who Alex Ferguson is, or what he looks like. As luck would have it, one of the teams in the second match turns out to be Manchester United. Eventually, Ferguson appears on screen.“Look, look! Alex Ferguson!”

We roar with appalled laughter. Guess that “they all look the same to me” stuff cuts both ways, then.

Around the table, there is much talk of the paper birds. In certain areas of southern Thailand, newly emergent outbreaks of sectarian violence are threatening the peace, stability and economic well-being of the country. Indeed, with tourist numbers slightly down on last year, our companions are already worried that this might be taking effect. (We are quick to reassure them; after all, how often does the western media ever report on south-east Asian affairs?)

In response to this situation, the Thai government has devised a novel approach. Instead of sending the troops in, the country’s entire population has been asked to construct folded paper birds, containing messages of peace, to be dropped on the affected areas by the air force on the King’s birthday – which is tomorrow, as it happens. The original aim was to collect around 60 million birds – one for every citizen. However, in true Blue Peter Christmas Appeal fashion, the total number has soared beyond that, to an estimated 120 million.

I try to imagine the sight of 120 million paper birds fluttering through the air, bearing peace slogans. It’s an undeniably powerful, beautiful image. We canvas our companions’ opinions on the initiative. The feeling is unanimous: they, and just about everyone in the country, are solidly behind it. Back at the Banyan Tree, staff have been as busy as everywhere else, assembling and gathering their stock of birds. Slightly confused by the timelines, K and I resolve to make our own when we get back to the villa; we think it would be a nice touch if at least a couple of guests could add their own.

Sometimes, when I am a little tipsy, I can err on the side of overly sincere over-dramatisation. But then it’s Saturday night, and we’re all a little tipsy. Leaning across the table, I make my pronouncement. “If this mission is a success, then the people of Thailand will have taught the world a valuable lesson! I mean, imagine if the Americans had dropped birds on Iraq, not bombs!”

Oh, will someone please just slap me, before I turn into Yoko f***ing Ono?

This is also the last night of our holiday in Phuket. Everyone is asking whether we’ll be coming back. Having already made our decision a few days ago, we make a solemn promise: same week next year, hopefully in the same villa if possible. We have enjoyed a perfect holiday – the stuff of fantasies – and these affable, welcoming people have helped to make it possible. In all the conversations we have had about our resort during the evening, it has become abundantly clear that everyone takes a great pride in creating and maintaining such an idyllic environment (and such a prestigious one; for ever since it opened, the Banyan Tree has been repeatedly garlanded with awards). We would have sniffed out the bullshit by now, or the cynicism, or indeed the desperation; there is none.

“You should all take a real pride in creating such a perfect environment!” We are, as I say, a little squiffy.

“You must let us know when you plan to come back! We will create a special welcome for you!”They are, as I say, a little squiffy. We take our leave – somewhat earlier than we would have liked, but it’s a long day tomorrow – amidst smiles and handshakes, and warm hugs from our newly promoted waiter-no-longer friend.

That was close.

Boxing Day morning. Why has J texted me with this cryptic message?

What do you mean?


Sorry darling, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

Weren’t you staying near the tsunami area in Thailand not long ago? Must have knickers in a twist.

Tsunami? I’m straight onto the laptop … f**king poxy 56k dial-up … and into Google News … what the f**k? … and I’m searching.

“phuket tsunami”

“laguna beach tsunami”
“banyan tree tsunami”
Not a bean.

On the TV news, all the talk is of Patong beach, 30 minutes south on the same coast. Devastation. But at this early stage, still numb and near-tearful from the shock, all I can think of is the people I’ve met. The guys who work at the resort’s beach restaurant, where we took lunch most days. The nice couple from that Saturday night, who run the “reggae bar” next door. Our favourite independently run restaurant further down the beach, where you choose your own freshly caught seafood from the tanks. Whole livelihoods potentially destroyed.

In between bulletins, I’m combing the news stories on the web. Malyasia? Nah, skip it. Indonesia? Yeah, whatever. Sri Lanka? Come on, come on, next paragraph. I’m dimly aware that this is vaguely shameful, but I really only have one thing on my mind. Our hotel was maybe 200 metres back from the beach, with a network of three large lagoons immediately behind. If Patong is any guide, then prospects aren’t looking good.

Strangely, there’s very little “there but for the grace of God go we” about all of this. Funny. Would have expected that.

Late that night, a story comes up via a search on Google News: an eye-witness has described the Laguna Beach Resort (a large complex of five hotels, including the Banyan Tree) as “completely gone”. That’s it: just two bald words. I go to bed feeling flattened.

The following morning, another site has followed up the story, by speaking to contacts at the Laguna Beach. The story is false. A headland at the south of the bay has broken much of the force of the tsunami, causing the rest of the bay to experience more of a “major swell”. No casualties. A few minor injuries. Some rooms flooded in other hotels. Some damage to the Banyan Tree’s beach restuarant. Clean-up operation already in progress. Gratitude to staff and guests for their efforts. Beach to re-open on December 28th. Please focus attention and efforts elsewhere, to where they are most needed.

Strange to think of holidaymakers lazing on the beach, just thirty minutes away from such carnage. Finally, the “what if” scenarios start up. Would we be lazing along with them, or would we be lending a hand down in Patong, and would it even be a useful hand, or would we just be like the awkward dinner-party guests who insist on helping with the washing up without knowing where anything goes, and would it be best if we just confined ourselves to splashing our cash around, thus helping to re-establish swift normalcy to the tourist industry? Do your bit for disaster relief! Buy expensive cocktails! Utter, utter head-f**k.

But more than anything else on the morning of December 27th, what I felt was an immense sense of relief.

A pity it turned out to be so short-lived, then.

Woefully, pitifully, horribly short-lived.

Now read this. (via)

When good cliques go bad.

Amongst the numerous contradictions that have helped shape me into the fascinatingly complex individual that I am today, (and God, this ironic self-aggrandisement is going to have to stop some time soon, lest the wind should change direction and leave me stuck that way) my attitude to social cliques is a prime example. Rationally speaking, I retain a strong dislike for cliques: the insularity, the exclusivity, the unhealthily inward focus. Nevertheless, I am also the sort of person who has always been naturally drawn towards them, and into them. For there are aspects of cliquedom which attract as well as repel: the security, the dependability, the easy, instant support network – and, if I am honest, their essentially self-referential nature. I like the “insider knowledge” that membership of a clique confers – and I love the knowing, sharp banter which flows from that. Mine is a sense of humour which thrives on the delicious naughtiness of the in-joke; I delight in operating just within the boundaries of what constitutes good-natured teasing, safe in the knowledge that offence will not be caused.

Thus it is that over the years, I have found myself right at the heart of many a social clique. In my first year at University, our clique of maybe a dozen or so in residence hall was so flagrantly close-knit that we referred to ourselves quite openly as “The Clique”, and were happy to be known as such by everyone else. I’ve been in school cliques, office cliques, gay cliques (of various hues), neighbourhood cliques, clubbing cliques, pub cliques, house-share cliques… the lot. And for a while, they’re usually great places to be.

Until – inevitably – they start to disintegrate. A key member of the clique moves away – or changes job – or meets a new partner with a different set of friends, who doesn’t quite “fit in”. Or maybe they just bore of the repetition, and so start to move in wider circles. The pub changes hands; the club shuts down; the department is re-organised. Or, worse still, a feud breaks out between two or more of the clique members. Sides are drawn. Allies are recruited. This person and that person can no longer stand to be in the same room together. Suddenly, the illusion of permanence – that we will always be together, friends forever – is cracked, revealing the underlying, uncomfortable truth: that these arrangements are always temporary.

The ground is pulled from under your feet. You had come to rely on these people. Their constant presence had saved you from having to make conscious decisions about who you saw, where you went, and what you talked about. You feel uneasy, insecure – and, if you’re not careful – resentful, wounded, jealous, spiteful. The open banter freezes into covert bitchiness. The aggrieved muttering and finger-pointing begins. It’s all his fault, or her fault, or their fault. We thought you cared. You’ve spoilt everything. You were a false friend; you strung us along, and we never realised.

In these situations, closeness can turn to distance in an instant. Too late, you discover that with some people, it’s all or nothing. From gossipy huddles three times a week down the pub, to strained smiles and awkward small talk three times a year; in the street, in the supermarket, at someone else’s summer barbecue. It hurts. You can’t quite understand how everything changed so rapidly. You replay events and conversations over and over again in your mind, trying to find an answer, wondering what you did wrong.

Shows like Friends perpetuate a myth; the myth of the permanently inseparable gang. Yes, individual friendships can and do last – for years, for decades – but without need of the supporting structure of a clique to keep them alive.

These days, I retain a careful wariness of cliques. I will happily hover at the edges – picking up some of the banter, joining in some of the activities – but I will stop well short of total immersion. And yes, that applies online as much as offline. What’s more; I have discovered that I actively like the independence that this brings. More choices, more variety, more control. More interest. More scope.

“Darling! You’re looking as fabulous as ever tonight! Mwah! Mwah! Big hug! Now tell me all the latest gossip!” Enjoy it for what it is. But don’t be seduced by the illusion, however glittering and flattering it may be.

Swanky do.

I didn’t really want to go to the swanky hotel’s first birthday party – it was too soon after the excesses of the weekend – but K said come on, it will be a laugh, people we know are going, it’s free booze and gourmet nibbles, and it’s a good excuse to put on our smart new trendy gear and pose around a bit. Sometimes, he knows exactly how to speak my language.

“It’s cocktails and beer in the restaurant, or champagne and wine in the lobby.”

What a peculiar way to organise your drinks. We turn right and battle through to the lobby, winding through sprawling clumps of braying flash trash who think this do is the fucking business, mate. There’s a big queue for fizz – except that it’s more of a scrum, as most of the flash trash evidently consider themselves above waiting in line. No-one doing the rounds with trays, except for one lone waitress with just two glasses left; she promises to return with more, and is never seen again.

Awkward, over-calculated postures; fake smiles betrayed by eyes which are constantly scanning the brightly-lit space; everyone is performing, everyone is “on”. (And I choose my prepositions carefully, hur hur.) Playing the game is the only option. Our journalist friend (already battling to suppress his dirty looks when no-one is watching) introduces us to someone of his acquaintance who has wandered into our orbit.

“This is K, this is Mike, this is S.”

She smiles and greets K, swivels her head straight past me in one smooth, flawless motion, then smiles and greets S. In a split second, she has correctly calculated that I am an outsider at this game, and thus am no-one worth knowing.

As we have observed on many occasions, our journalist friend is blessed with uncommonly acute social antennae. He waits a minute or so, and then has another bash at bringing me into the game.

“This is Mike. This man is one of the country’s top bloggers. He’s just been featured in The Observer.”

(In brackets. In the middle of a list. At the back end of Page Two. But now is not a time to quibble.)

In a split second, she has snapped straight back round to face me, arm already outstreched, face wreathed in smiles. “Hi! Very pleased to meet you!”

As I, in turn, make my own calculations and act on them accordingly. Two can play this game, missy.

An enthusiastic, natural networker, our journalist friend has recently taken to talking me up everywhere as “one of the country’s top bloggers”. As I blushingly make to duck and wince – bobbing my face, Lady Di style, beneath an imagined (and long vanished) floppy fringe – I discover with some surprise that the old reactions of bafflement, condescension or total disinterest have all but vanished. People actually look impressed. Post-BdJ, her book deal, and all the attendant guessing games in the national press, everyone in these circles now knows exactly what a blogger is. Or thinks they do, at any rate. We’re the phemomenon du jour, don’t you know. We’re really frightfully au courant. No longer viewed as sad little loudmouths, bleating away to nobody in particular, we’re getting respect. What a richly ironic proposition – that the lascivious diaries of a call girl could finally be conferring respectability upon us all.

Back at the swanky do, I am slowly drowning. Our friend from the boutique hotel is regaling us with mischievous gossip about the boy band who checked in this afternoon. (“Our masseuse says that X has such stinky feet!”) For me, this should be conversational home ground – an easy lob. Nevertheless, it is becoming more and more of an effort of will to focus on what is being said. An overpowering sense of disconnection is taking me over. The people standing around me no longer seem quite real; it is as if I am observing them through a bubble. Even their voices are sounding muffled; words reverberating inside my head, but their meaning failing to reach my brain. I keep zoning out, staring into the middle distance, longing to be anywhere but here – and then frantically snapping back into the room, trying to arrange my facial features into some semblance of the requisite brightness, failing badly, and then zoning out again. Insulating myself with ever-thickening layers of guilt.

As the cycle repeats, panic starts to rise inside me, causing my heart to race and my temples to pound. I even feel slightly sick. I have to get out of this room. NOW. Handing my glass to K, I mumble an excuse and flee for the sanctuary of a toilet cubicle, where I sit for several minutes, trying to calm myself, waiting for the pounding and the throbbing to stop.

If I stay in here any longer, people will wonder where I am. A fresh wave of anxiety hits, pushing me back out into the lobby. I try and flash a look at K, but we are in uncharted waters here, and there is no meaningful signal which I can send. Besides which, he is playing the game to perfection, networking all around with his customary apparent ease, attracting people towards him with that understated charisma which he doesn’t quite know that he has. I have no wish to put him off his stroke. A new anxiety hits me: that I might be letting him down in public. The pounding and the throbbing return, even as a couple of goons in matching white sportswear suddenly materialise next to me, tumbling around on the lobby floor in an ill-conceived display – half judo, half breakdancing – which is presumably meant to be the evening’s “turn”. It is a staggering misjudgment. No-one quite knows how to react. Even the flash trash are looking uncomfortable.

And I can take no more. Another quick mumble to K, and I am out of the door before he even has the chance to react. Ten minutes later, I am back at home, sitting semi-catatonic in the dark in my Marc Jacobs pea coat and my too-tight Prada shoes, breathing in and breathing out, and finally understanding why K sometimes has to leave noisy gay clubs in a hurry.

New Dawn Fades.

(posted by Mike)

In the comments box attached to my Five Stages Of Working In Paris piece, John sums up exactly what it is about Charles De Gaulle airport that depresses me so much:

I think the awfulness of it is compounded by the airport it was intended to be, or once was. It’s got this towering modernistic sixties/atomic/space thing going on, but it looks so dated and thwarted and smells of dead cigarette smoke and old clothes.

Precisely. For someone of my generation, who was seven years old when Apollo XI landed on the moon, there is something particularly poignant about anything that reminds us of the thwarted technological Utopianism of the 1960s. Why aren’t we wearing silver bodysuits? (Mid-nineties ravers excepted.) Why aren’t we munching magic pills in lieu of boring old-fashioned food? (Er, ditto.) Why aren’t we travelling to work by gyrocopter? Why are there no giant cities underneath the oceans? Why aren’t we taking our holidays on Mars? Boo! Swizz!

The biggest recent example of Failed Space Age is, of course, the demise of Concorde, which made its final flight two days ago. K and I spent a lot of yesterday morning taking the piss out of Jonathan Glancey’s decidedly overblown front page piece in The Guardian, Time machine’s final trip leaves an empty sky:-

The sky seems a little lower this morning; a cathedral without a spire, a mountain without wolves…
And then she turned and pirouetted slowly into her hangar to meet and greet the massed ranks of waiting TV cameras, as 100 celebrities, captains of industry, competition winners, newspaper editors and at least one ballerina and a fashion model emerged from her nipped and tucked fuselage.
That trademark thunderous rumble, as if the clouds were being pushed apart by some titan, caused heads to crane from city streets as she took off or came in to land.
The future we dreamed of in the late 60s has dissipated somewhere between meso, strato and thermospheres.
“When once you have tasted flight”, wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards.”
But when you do so, what you will no longer see is Concorde.

Enjoy the free champers, did we, Jonathan? Tight deadline, was it?

When I was around five years old, and developing a fascination with words, I thought that the “biggest” word in the English language was “supersonic”. How could you possibly get bigger than that? The word itself thrilled me, conjuring up visions of nutty professors in white coats, busily inventing things left, right and centre.

Whatever happened to the “nutty professor” archetype, anyway? The chuckling white-haired boffin in his lab, single-handedly devising the future? Pensioned off, I guess, his place filled by faceless ranks of Product Development Managers. Technological innovation sure ain’t what it used to be. What sort of eager child nowadays could get fired up by romantic visions of Product Development Managers? Ah, there’s the rub.

My uncle, a retired government scientist, has always had a slight whiff of the Lone Boffin about him – although he is anything but nutty (quite the reverse) and isn’t a professor. In early retirement, he took to blowing up passenger aeroplanes, to see what happened to them structurally when they exploded – the objective being to find new ways to strengthen their construction. His team would buy second-hand fuselages (surprisingly cheap, apparently), take them to deserted patches of land, and blast them to smithereens. Nice work if you can get it, right?

Before blowing a plane up, its luggage hold would be filled with a full complement of actual luggage, in order to simulate the correct conditions. (A plane with an empty hold would explode in quite a different way.) To do this, my uncle’s team obtained large amounts of unclaimed lost luggage, which could then be put to use.

A curious and unexpected snag began to manifest itself. It turned out that a disproportionate amount of the unclaimed luggage originated from the Indian sub-continent. (It’s tempting to speculate about Hindu fatalism at this stage – “Our luggage has gone; it was meant to be” – but I shall refrain from doing so.) On inspection, this luggage was found to contain more lengths of folded material than luggage from other parts of the world (sari fabric, maybe?), to such a degree that it was producing a skewed sample – the softness of the fabric cushioning the blasts and producing atypical results. You have to admire the level of precision at which these guys were operating, don’t you?

Now, where was I? Oh yes: Failed Space Age. The first time that this concept hit me was in the early 1980s, when I took my first cross-channel hovercraft ride. Hovercrafts had come along at much the same time as moon landings and supersonic flight, and to me they had always reeked of Tomorrow’s World glamour and modernity. (The show’s chief presenter, Raymond Baxter, was of course another classic Boffin archetype, several years before the clownish Magnus Pyke started to downgrade the whole notion.) A brainy distant cousin of mine had even (so I was told at the time) built his own mini-hovercraft in his back garden; his youngest son could actually ride about in it. Jealous wasn’t the word.

(Incidentally, the same cousin was also a regular judge on BBC1’s Young Scientist Of The Year programme, where teams of nascent school-kid Boffins competed to produce the most exciting, innovative and – this is important – socially useful inventions. It’s a programme which could never be made nowadays. Young Product Development Manager Of The Year just wouldn’t have the same ring to it. The nearest approximation we have is Robot Wars, I guess – where social usefulness has been replaced by Philippa Forrester in tight leather kecks, making all the nerdy boys blush and stammer. Such is the nature of progress.)

It therefore came as a huge disappointment to enter the forlorn, forgotten-looking hovercraft terminal, staffed by “hostesses” of a certain age who were still wearing the same uniforms that had been designed for them in the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, these outfits had yet to acquire much in the way of retro period chic – they simply looked as if nobody had been bothered to update them, and re-enforced the suggestion that hovercrafts were an abandoned, dead-end technology. The rest of the world had moved on, leaving behind a bunch of rather passé looking matrons in matching tartan berets and mini-skirts, marooned in a shed in Ramsgate. The awful, noisy, bumpy ride which followed (I threw up into a paper bag) supplied ample explanation for this.

K remembers the opening of Charles De Gaulle airport being covered on the children’s programme Blue Peter, being deeply excited by its modernity, and being horribly disappointed by the grim reality twenty years later. We’re a scarred generation, we are. We need post-space-age counselling.

The five stages of working in Paris.

(posted by Mike, who has been up since 4:00 this morning and is therefore feeling a bit jet-lagged, even though the time difference was only an hour, and who is aware that what follows might consequently be a rambling, spaced-out jumble of a piece, but – since time is so tight in his newly acquired eurotrash-business-jetset lifestyle – is also keenly aware that it’s this or nothing, and that he can’t leave everything to his actually quite scarily talented guest posters, and oh God, he’s rambling already, OK, focus…)

1. This is bewildering.

Pitched into an unfamiliar (dare I say alien?) environment, where all life’s little details feel somehow other, one’s capacity for making the wrong choices increases exponentially. On difficult days, my expectations will shrink back to that classic, irreducible, middle-class English ideal: to get safely from one end of the day to the other without suffering any noticeable embarrassment along the way.

During my first week in Paris, this proved impossible. I pushed doors marked tirez, and pulled doors marked poussez. I caused bottlenecks in front of crowded Métro barriers, frantically scrabbling through my satchel for that sad little placcie bag containing my carnet of tickets. Given a choice of directions, I invariably set off in the wrong one. I struggled with suitcases, room keys, breakfast juice dispensers, coffee machines, small change, tables in cafés, plates of unfamiliar food (how the hell are you supposed to eat escargots, and why did I order the bloody things in the first place?), tips, the language (how I hated it when well-meaning Parisians answered my faltering French with grammatically perfect English, always, always, always – humour me, goddammit!) … embarrassment compounded embarrassment, leaving me feeling trapped inside a bad sitcom.

Mr. Bean Goes To Paris. Sometimes, I could almost hear the laugh track. I could even feel myself starting to pull the facial expressions. Behind closed doors, I sometimes did. Hey: got to keep yourself entertained somehow.

2. This is exciting.

Hang on a minute – I’m in freakin’ Paris! Cool as!

Pavement cafés! (Refreshingly free of all that creeping demographic segmentation, with hand-holding teenage couples bunched up next to gnarly old men, and neatly coiffed Madames next to merry groups of homeward bound office workers – every single last one of them smoking of course, but somehow getting away with it, because this is Paris, and this is what you do. Comme il faut, sort of…)

Beautiful manners! (None of that sod-you-mate Brit solipsism in evidence here, thank you…)

Timeless, understated elegance! (Thank God I got that ridiculous it’s-for-a-play-it’s-meant-to-look-stupid Hoxton Twat bleached fin hairdo chopped off in the nick of time…)

Iconic buildings! (Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Centre, Notre Dame, Louvre…)

All those sexy Marais ‘mos a-poutin’ and a-struttin’! (I’d do you, and you, and you, and you…)

Two nights running, I met up with Sarah, who had seen my shout-out on the blog a couple of weeks previously. Up until that point, my existence in Paris had been a steadily de-humanising round of work / eat / read / sleep. Now, I could finally start having proper conversations again. It still took a couple of drinks each night to unfurl my tightly sprung mental coils, but Sarah’s stimulating company gradually eased me back into a more functional, natural engagement with my surroundings.

Towards the end of the second night, I met Sarah’s charming Italian boyfriend, who spoke no English. So there we were, none of us native French speakers, conversing in the one non-native language which we all shared. My first proper French conversation in years. I don’t think I fared too badly, all things considered. The wine helped, of course – as it always does with foreign languages, relaxing you into a state where, the less you consciously try and search for them, the right words will instinctively start to bubble up to the surface of their own accord.

Sitting in the back of the Italian boyfriend’s car, zooming along the Seine embankment past all the illuminated guide-book sights, heading towards the twinkling Eiffel tower (that hourly light show turns out to look much better from a distance), I found myself grinning with glee. Wheeee! I’m zooming through night-time Paris in the back of a car! This is living!

3. This is fantastic.

Commuting to and from the office every day on the Métro with all the other workers, headphones playing Blur’s Think Tank or – best of all – Bowie’s Reality, newspaper on my lap, I started to feel like quite the proper Parisian. No longer the innocent abroad, but a seamless part of the crowd. Striding purposefully across the Port St. Cloud, with the crisp, clear Autumn sunshine lighting up the glass buildings ahead, and all those gorgeous height-of-autumn colours in the trees of the Parc St. Cloud, and on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne behind me. Heading back after an intensive (best behaviour in front of the client!) but surprisingly satisfying day’s work, to the hotel where they know me by name, and the little Internet place over the road, and my favourite local café/bar next door, and those wonderful early morning markets underneath the raised Métro tracks…oh yes, I’m up and running now, and lovin it lovin it lovin it.

4. This is routine.

Almost as soon as you’ve reached Stage 3 – the very next morning, in fact – Stage 4 stumbles up, bleary eyed, and clobbers you round the back of the head. In a trice, the thrill of the new evaporates, leaving you once again with that familiar feeling: same old, same old. After all: routine is routine, wherever you go. Suddenly, you’re back to wanting out.

5. This is enough.

You’re exhausted – okay, so it’s earnt exhaustion, “good” exhaustion – but no less knackering for all that. You feel ground down, fed up, wanting your man back, your home back, your life back. The misery of the shabby, over-familiar satellite lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport is the last straw – especially when you find that the bar’s shut. All your fellow passengers irritate you to distraction. The massed ranks of self-important business wonks are de-briefing into mobiles, with as much manufactured assertiveness as they can muster, all with the same emotionally distanced and faintly absurd vocal patina. There’s a tense Daily Mail type on your right, eyes narrowed and suspicious, muttering her inecessant litany of minor grumbles about absolutely f***ing everything to her silent, defeated looking husband, who looks as if he stopped listening years ago. You can’t get home quick enough.

On the plane, you put REM’s Bad Day on repeat, and crank it up nice and loud. When was the last time you kept hammering the same song over and over, because it gave you that “Yes! This is ME!” feeling? Pissed-off music for grown-ups. Bloody marvellous. Sipping your G&T from the trolley, you revel in your misery. In fact, you positively celebrate it. Dinner’s waiting when you get home. As you start planning your comic monologue, a wry smile creeps over your face.

I’ve not been in Paris this week. I’ve been in Cologne instead. Meaning a whole new set of unfamiliarities, of course – but somehow, I’m becoming familiar with the very state of unfamiliarity itself. If that makes any sense at all. (I can’t tell anymore; it’s getting on, I feel even more f***ed than I did when I started.) I’m beginning to sense that – for now at least, until even the familiarity of the unfamiliar ossifies into dull routine, as it surely must – this is actually doing me the power of good.

The Thespian Life.

I was fully expecting the world of Am Dram to be populated by the sort of characters you find in Alan Ayckbourn plays. There would be a grande dame figure called Pat (half-moon spectacles on a chain, voluminous paisley shawl), with a serenely magisterial air; everyone would be secretly a little bit in awe of her. (“You’d have to check that over with Pat, I’m afraid.“) There would be a “character actor” called Bernard, who would be given a Comedy Turn cameo role in every production; he would play all of these parts in exactly the same hammed-up way, mugging furiously to his loyal crowd in the audience. (“Good old Bernard – couldn’t have a show without him.“) There would be a slavishly self-martyring borderline hysteric called Hilary (Costume Department), who would rail constantly about having to do ALL THE WORK, with NO SUPPORT and PITIFUL RESOURCES, and absolutely NO THANKS AT THE END OF THE DAY FROM ANYONE. The stage manager would be a surly sociopath, answerable to no-one. There would be a subtle but rigidly stratified order of precedence amongst the actors – in effect, a miniature Star System – with an inner clique of three or four players who would constantly bag the best roles, to much furious sotto voce mutterings from the rest of the company. (“Well, I think we all know why Rupert gave the part to Helena, don’t we? I mean, I don’t deny that she’s a very pretty girl, but really…“)

To this effect, I have been pleasantly surprised. Everyone involved in this production has been – well – normal, and nice, and unpretentious, and socially skilled, and welcoming, and co-operative, and mutually supportive, and all of that. Who knew?

The constantly nagging question of the past three or four weeks: why haven’t I been doing this before? Why has it been eighteen years since I last acted? (Not even K has seen me on stage.) This – the acting – is actually one of the few things which I can do reasonably well. How ridiculous to have let it slip. I can’t begin to understand it.

I seem to be better at it this time round, as well. Back then, in the days of University Dramsoc, with all of its intimidatingly faux-soignee Crispins and Portias and Ramsays and Dinahs and Dominics, my self-subordinating timidity could hold me back. Besides, how much did any of us really know about the intricacies and nuances of adult human behaviour? Too many times, we would fall back on Doing It Like We’ve Seen It On The Telly – or else we’d come over all self-consciously Art-ay, in a kind of clueless sub-Samuel Beckett way. Whereas now, despite playing a deliberately stock character – the Camp Stereotype – I can work from real life observation, rather than guesswork and second hand imitation. He could have been James Dreyfuss, or Kenneth Williams, or Brian Dowling, or “Just Jack”, or Graham Norton, or any of the rest of them, but no – my little “Lexis” is his very own special creation, Lord love him.

To this end, Buni and I went out and conducted some Field Research a few weeks ago. In the Lord Roberts and @D2 (our local midweek gay venues), we trained our eyes on all the trashy queens, and solicited advice from all and sundry. What would he wear? How would he sit? How would he hold his cigarette? We tuned ourselves into the prevalent look: low-slung, distressed, “extreme boot cut” jeans (“flares” to you and me), mussed-up “fin” hairdos with the blonde highlights growing out, metal chains which dangle from the waist to the backside via the kneecap, buckled leather wristbands, chunky neck chains…quite a studied, carefully constructed look, it seemed to me. It would probably take hours to assemble, and much trawling through God knows how many funky specialist shops…

But, no. What I hadn’t realised was this: you can buy the whole look at Top Man. Every last little accessory – it’s all there for the taking, and my word, so CHEAP! Especially when Buni (my newly appointed Stylist & Personal Shopper) presented his NUS Discount Card at the till. Having set aside half a day to turn me into a trashy queen, we’d got the whole thing – including three changes of top – in less than an hour. (“It’s a mid-life crisis in a bag!“, we quipped, skipping out of Top Man together.) The ease and speed with which we were able to do this was both astonishing and somewhat disillusioning. Homogenised Chain Store Street Style: ho hum, how very humdrum. I really had credited the trashy queens with more creativity than that.

All that remains for my transformation to be complete: the haircut and the fake tan. Buying my bronzer in the chemists yesterday lunchtime, the sweet little old lady at the till smiled at me and said: “Ooh, going anywhere nice?

(Good GRIEF. It’s for a PLAY, woman. Because WHY ELSE would I POSSIBLY want to buy bloody BRONZER? Do I LOOK like the sort of person who would turn themselves ORANGE before going on holiday? Are you perhaps confusing me with SOMEONE ELSE?)

And, oh dearie dearie me, orange is most definitely the word. Shiny, luminous orange. David Dickinson, Dale Winton, Judith Chalmers orange. People in the office have already commented – and I’m still only on my second application. Just wait till they see tomorrow afternoon’s Spiky Bleached Fin hairdo. Ooh, there’ll be talk.

orange-dd orange-dw orange-jc

Ah yes: the Spiky Bleached Fin hairdo. Now, I’m all for taking my character as far as I possibly can – but, well, I’m visiting clients in Paris next week, and the flight leaves on Monday afternoon, and the salon doesn’t open on Mondays. It’s a good job that the guy who cuts my hair is an old friend, who might be persuaded to do me an out-of-hours favour on Sunday – because I simply CANNOT walk round the streets of Paris with orange skin AND a Comedy Haircut. At least, not without a sign round my neck, in two languages, saying: IT WAS FOR A PLAY. IT’S SUPPOSED TO LOOK STUPID. I AM NOT HAVING A MID-LIFE CRISIS.

The perils of the thespian life, eh? Still, I’m doing it for Art. So that’s OK then. Because Art trumps Life, every time.

Things which I never got round to blogging about, even though they happened ages ago, because I am the King of Procrastination. Part 3.

riley01Yesterday, Diamond Geezer talked about the Bridget Riley exhibition at Tate Britain, which ends this Sunday – so I guess this is absolutely my last chance to plug it. (We visited the exhibition over the summer, and both loved it – but I was on Hitzefrei at the time, so said nothing about it.)

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition starts with Riley’s heavy duty monochrome op-art work, with which she made her name in the 1960s. The cumulative effect of these pictures upon the eyes is so physically intense that if you’re not careful, it can actually make you feel slightly sick. Consequently, we both found ourselves staring at soothing patches of bare white wall every now and again, just to calm our poor little eyes down; the optical equivalent of a “palate cleanser” in a posh restaurant.


Moving through to the “multi-coloured vertical stripes” section, our first reaction was disappointment. “Cuh, swizz, nothing’s happening with this lot.” Because by now, we had come to expect every painting to f**k with our vision, Magic Eye style. Maybe, in the early 1970s, this had become a general expectation amongst Riley’s public. Maybe she had begun to feel burdened by this expectation. Maybe this was one of the reasons why she changed direction.


Our favourite section of the whole show was at the point where the strict, formal stripes had progressed into curvy waves, containing twists of colour. Warm, expansive, serene, mature, intensely pleasurable, and vaguely reminiscent of late Monet water-lilies in some inexplicable way.

riley04The subsequent “diagonal cross-hatching” phase – although I loved it 10 years ago, when it provided my initial entry into Riley’s work – now seemed a bit stale, a bit over-familiar, a bit too – dare I say it? – Late Eighties Habitat Duvet Cover. On the other hand, that’s hardly Riley’s fault. Indeed, over the years, she has consistently objected to the way that her work has sometimes been co-opted by the world of fashion and style (in particular by Mary Quant and the mods in the 1960s). It’s strange how these shallow imitations have at times posed genuine threats to the purity and the power of Riley’s original vision.

Next, I would have banged on about the Wolfgang Tillmanns exhibition in the next door gallery, but it’s far too late for that now (it shut a while ago). Excellent in a very different way – and in a way which appealed far more to me than it did to K, what with its sexy sheen of oh-so-stylish, aren’t-we-just-living-the-life, bleeding edge metro-homo fabulousness. Anti-glamour glamour, which finds as much beauty in everyday random rawness as it does in studied, posed artifice.

Some of this work had originally appeared in trendy style mags, such as i-D. Did it therefore even belong in an Art-with-a-capital-A Art Gallery? The simple answer: no-one ever seriously objected to a Norman Parkinson retrospective. Or a Richard Avedon. Or a Cecil Beaton. Like Tillmanns, they all dealt in supposedly transitory images, which were very firmly rooted in their own particular time. And yet, somehow their photographs simultaneously managed both to capture that time (definitively, iconically, fascinatingly) and to transcend it. I would contend that it’s going to be the same with Tillmanns. An originator (along with Jurgen Teller) of that whole anti-supermodel “gritty realism” aesthetic in fashion, I suspect that his work will endure for far longer than his detractors might imagine. But, as I say, no point in banging on about that now.

Right at the end of the Tillmanns exhibition, a video installation piece. Inside a large, pitch black room, pumping techno music blared out. Bloody good pumping techno music, at that. Grade A stuff. Mid-nineties vintage, at a guess. My era, in other words. It drew me in, like a moth to a flame, even as K started nervously looking at his watch. (“I’m not sure we’ve really got time for this…“) The far wall was a giant video screen, showing various images of club lighting. The lights were synched perfectly to the music. The camera never panned down to the crowd below.

I was transfixed. In my disco-biscuit-munching Glory Days, I would sometimes – as so many did – “have a wobbly” early on in the night. A sort of mini-anxiety attack. At times like these, one of my best coping strategies was to tune out from the mashed-up crowd around me, fixing my gaze instead upon the light show. I would then calm myself down by focussing all my concentration on the various complex lighting patterns that were being created, and the way they followed and reflected the music – reminding myself all the while that these effects were being carefully orchestrated by people who weren’t “on” anything at all: the lighting jocks, the DJs, the musicians. These were the people upon whom I would then train all my newly minted “empathy” – the sober, straight, creative ones. I found it deeply reassuring that they were all in charge, quietly directing the madness from behind the scenes. Thus stabilised, I would then eventually train my gaze back down towards the roiling throng around me – and joyfully reconnect.

“I don’t feel comfortable in here at all, Mike. Can we go? The riverbus leaves in five minutes…”

Another, deeper, more enduring level of sanity punctured my reverie. Torn by conflicted feelings of yearning nostalgia and slightly shamefaced foolishness – which I covered up as quickly as I could with self-deprecatory mockery (“Good job you’re here – I’d have been stuck in there for days otherwise, haha“), I stumbled towards the light.

Memories of Cerne.

Scaryduck posts about his adopted homeland of Dorset, and sends me spinning off into a nostalgic reverie.

My late grandparents lived in Cerne Abbas, a picture-postcard-perfect village which nestles under Giant’s Hill, home of that famously priapic ancient chalk carving, the Cerne Giant. Every Easter and every August, my mother, my sister and I would travel down from North Nottinghamshire to visit them; an epic journey, which would take us most of the day. Down the Fosse Way, through the Cotswolds (where we would turn off the road, stop the car, spread out our checkered blanket and eat our cheese or meat paste sandwiches), and over Salisbury Plain towards Sherborne. With no car radio to distract us, my sister and I would sing, play I-Spy, or maybe score points for the numbers of legs contained in pub names on our respective sides of the road. (I can still remember the surge of joy I felt as we passed – on MY SIDE! – a pub called The Horse & Hounds.)

Until around 1973, when the level of chalk erosion forced the National Trust to fence it off, anyone was free to clamber up the Cerne Giant. It was, of course, our favourite walk. But oh, my poor mother…


“Here’s his foot! And here’s his other foot! And here’s his leg … and here’s his other leg. OK: you take the left leg, I’ll take the right leg, and I’ll see you when we reach his … what is this bit, Mummy? I can’t work it out.”

“That’s his tummy, darling.”

“But it’s got all funny lines on it…”

“No darling, that really is his tummy. Come on, quickly now…”

“I know! I know! Why don’t we stop and have our picnic here for a change?”

“No darling, I don’t think so. Let’s climb up a bit further and sit on his face like we normally do, shall we?”

It was YEARS before I realised that the giant was sporting a big fat stiffy. YEARS! I had something of a sheltered childhood, shall we say.

The best place to view the giant from a distance is from a wide lay-by, just outside the village. Driving past this spot one lunchtime in the late 1980s, my mother noticed a large group of people, formally dressed, having a full sit-down banquet in the middle of the lay-by. They had erected a long dining table, covered it with a white linen tablecloth, and laid it with china plates, silver cutlery, wine glasses, the full works. Mystified, my mother made enquiries in the village. It turned out that this banquet was an annual event, which was well known to the locals.

Because of its manifestly priapic nature bloody great enormous penis, the Cerne Giant has always been known as a fertility symbol. As such, certain magical powers have been ascribed to it over the centuries. Indeed, legend has it that any couple who have been unable to conceive should make their way, at dead of night, to those very same funny lines on the giant’s tummy – where they should commit the sacred act of conception have a shag. On the side of a hill. In the open air. Lawks! Nine months later, they will be then rewarded with a beautiful bouncing baby, courtesy of the big fella himself.

Which is precisely what the son of the Duke of Something-Or-Other (or was it the Marquis of Thingummy?) and his wife had done, a few years earlier, in a final act of desperation, having previously been told that they were unable to bear children. Ever since then, on the exact anniversary of the shag act of conception, the couple would bring their friends to this lay-by, all togged up, best china in the boot, and they would have this celebratory thanksgiving banquet together.

A few miles away in Dorchester, my grandfather presided over the Quarter Sessions in the local court house – these being the criminal trials which were eventually replaced by the County Court system. Unlike his notorious predecessor, the dreaded (and dreadful) Judge Jeffries (known in the C17th as the “hanging judge”), my grandfather never got to hand out any death sentences – much to his chagrin, I suspect. (I can just picture him with a black handkerchief on his head, banging his gavel, and snarling “Take him down!” in his iciest tones.) A man of robustly traditional views, was my grandfather. After all, this is someone who once opined over dinner that society had been sliding downhill ever since the working classes had been granted paid holidays. Someone who refused to have a television in his house (“the dread goggle-box“), and who witheringly referred to TV quiz shows as “The Glorification of the Common Man“. (On the other hand: he did have a finely tuned sly wit, and was not above affecting a provocative stance for the sake of effect. Not unlike his grandson, in that case.)

As Scaryduck reports, the name of Judge Jeffries lives on in – of all things – a rather stuffily old-school restaurant and tea-room, just opposite the Dorset county museum . On shopping trips to Dorchester, we would collect my grandfather from the members’ room at the museum – where he would be sitting in an ancient leather armchair, reading The Times – and we would take luncheon together at Judge Jeffries. For me, this always felt like a major treat. For my first course, I would be solemnly presented with a glass tumbler of tomato juice, sitting on a paper doily, in the middle of a china plate. The waitress would then always ask me whether I wanted a drop of Worcester Sauce in my tomato juice. To me, this was the very height of sophistication. The main course would be plaice, chips and carrots (I didn’t like peas), and for pudding – oh, joy upon joy! – I could choose a slice of gateau from the sweet trolley. For me, there was nothing quite so awesomely splendid as the Judge Jeffries sweet trolley, where everything was garnished with glacé cherries, “hundreds and thousands”, or tiny little green chunks of angelica. Heaven!

Just beyond the Cerne Abbas graveyard, with the ruins of the old Norman abbey to the left, and the wooded foothills of Giant’s Hill down at the far end, lies the field known as Belvoir. For reasons which I can’t quite explain, but which probably have a lot to do with deeply embedded happy childhood memories, there is something magical, almost sacred, about this ground. It’s where my ashes are to be scattered. The details are in my will. Bury my heart at Giant’s foot!

Interviews and photo-shoots.

I seem to have morphed into a full-time Blog Interviewer today. Answers have been provided by Caroline (Prolific), followed by Sarah (Not You, The Other One), Elisabeth (I’m Hip To You), Chig (World Of Chig), Blue Witch, and John (Rainbow Villa). Meme-o-licious!

Meanwhile, the long, slow slide into self-parody continues. As well as having the cottage photographed for a forthcoming article in Peri0d Living magazine (or Menstrual Moments, as some of the freelancers like to call it), we’re now having the house in Nottingham photographed for a two-page editorial spread in the property section of the local newspaper (hey, got to shift the place somehow). Meanwhile, the house we’re buying is going to be featured in the Sunday Times in the next two or three weeks, so we’ve been told. Oh yeah, and the PDMG has been shortlisted for some sort of national garden design award – it’s the institute of something-or-other (British landscape designers?), but I’m not exactly sure what. It’s all a giddy whirl round here, I can tell you.

I should tell you a bit more about the Peri0d Living shoot. The photographer (a slightly grand and wholly delightful ex-theatrical type, with a neat line in outrageous quippery) and her assistant turned up rather earlier than expected, to be greeted by K in his dressing gown and oven mittens (being just about to remove the teapot from the bottom of the Aga, y’see). She didn’t miss a beat. “Darling, are those your Night Gloves?” We howled. It was going to be a good day.

We were initially rather worried that our beloved cottage was going to become re-styled beyond recognition, and turned into some frightful confection of period chintzery for the benefit of the Target Demographic. “You’re not going to bastardise our Original Design Concept, are you?“, we trilled, brows furrowed with concern. “It’s New Rustic Minimalism, you know. We invented it! Will it be too advanced for your readers?” However, the changes turned out to be fairly minor, amounting to not much more than swapping a couple of paintings around, and plonking down a few blousy-yet-tasteful flower arrangements on spare surfaces. We were also surprised to find the two of them actually adding clutter – teacups, saucers and biscuits on the kitchen draining board, shoes and shirts strewn about the dressing room – giving the impression that real people actually, shriek, lived in the place. Quelle horreur!

For one of the kitchen shots, the photographer decided that she needed one of us to stand beside the Aga. K duly disappeared upstairs to change. After about five minutes, he popped his head back round the kitchen door, still in his dressing gown. “Er, just one thing. Will I be cooking lunch, or will I be cooking dinner?” Because, obviously, he couldn’t possibly select an outfit without having a full back-story. (What’s my motivation for this shirt?)

I wouldn’t have him any other way.

Oh yeah, and for the “couple on the sofa in the sitting room shot” (well, me on the sofa and K sprawled at my feet, actually – a glaring mis-representation of our power dynamic if ever there was one, but I wasn’t complaining), the photographer insisted I change out of my best shoes, because they looked too much like trainers. The readers of Menstrual Moments might be ready for Challenging New Design Concepts Which Successfully Fuse The Period And The Contemporary – they might even be ready for Swanked Up Poofs Flagrantly Sprawling At Each Other’s Feet – but they were clearly not ready for Cutting Edge Casual Footwear. The horror!

The feature isn’t going to appear until well into the Autumn (we even had to light the fire, to give a suitable impression of Autumness). But don’t worry, I’ll be sure to let you know when it hits the news stands.

How to blend with the English – a bluffer’s guide.

(posted by Mike, inspired by Mark, and dedicated to D)

1. Cultivate an appreciation of draught beer. Vital, unless you’re an Old Compton Street queen (imported bottled lagers) or an Essex girl (Bacardi Breezers).

2. Sartorially, either go for anonymous muted tones from Marks & Spencer (you will think of this as your “classic” look), or else adopt a suitable street-style which “expresses your individuality” in some way.

3. Your sense of humour should be evenly divided between gentle self-deprecation, wry observation and bitter, withering sarcasm.

3a. If you consider yourself to be a person of breeding, then you should also add “hilarious” impersonations of regional dialects to the above list.

4. In conversation, be prepared to hold forth at great length on:
· the weather.
· house prices.
· the appalling state of customer service these days.
· road works, diversions, and detailed discussions of the best route from A to B, quoting full road numbers and motorway exit points.

5. Complain about everything – but never directly to the person or persons who have caused your grievance, because that would be drawing attention to yourself.

6. Never deliberately draw attention to yourself.

6a. Unless you are drunk, in which case the reverse applies.

7. Use any of the following words/phrases:
· Blimey!
· Dearie me!
· Cheers mate! (double points if used sarcastically to someone who is just out of earshot)
· Oh, that’s all we need…
· Too clever by half.
· Just a quick one, then.
· Anyway. (used on its own, in an attempt to wind up a conversation)
· I’d give him/her one. (an all-purpose expression denoting a wish to commit an act of sex or violence; meaning differs according to context and gender)
· Here we go! (South of England) / CUMM-on! (North of England)

8. Speak – Very – Slowly – And – Distinctly – To – All – Foreigners.

9. Never attempt sexual congress when sober. Because that would just be embarrassing. And you wouldn’t want that.

10. Never cry in public, except in the following circumstances:
· Royal funerals.
· Major sporting defeats.
· When appearing on light entertainment shows.

Finally: never win at anything. There is nothing that the English respect more than a noble loser.

Recitatively yours.


The poetry reading is in Beeston: a gentle, respectable, cosy suburb of Nottingham which is popular with academics from the nearby university. Some distance away from the city centre, Beeston has its own shops, its own big supermarket, its own mainline railway station, a few decent places to eat, and an extensive selection of much-better-than-average pubs. It’s a calm, self-contained part of town, where nothing out of the ordinary is ever likely to happen. Nice people live here. Nice people with pleasant, balanced, ordered-yet-active lives. People who have resolved their conflicts, set their priorities, vanquished their demons.

Yes, Beeston gives me the creeps all right.


Over the years, several friends have moved out here, each announcing their departure with “I know it’s a bit boring, but the house has got the space we need” shrugs and tight little smiles which hover midway between jokey self-deprecation, submerged regret and quiet, steely resolve. And then we never hear from them again. Ring them up to arrange an outing, and they’ll say: “But why would we ever want to leave Beeston? Beeston has everything we need. Our lives are here now. We have no need of Outside. Come to us. Join us. Never leave.

Yes, Beeston even scares me a little. Travelling back into town from the cottage on Monday mornings, I can feel its pull – can hear its siren whispers wafting over the central verge from the other side of the A52. “Join us. Join us in Beeston. There’s a life for you here. A good life. Why resist?

Driving around in search of the venue, one of my companions explains that poetry readings are held here every week. “Perhaps we could start coming here regularly?“, she suggests, brightly.

The voices – again the voices, swirling around in the dusk. First they’ll take our Tuesday evenings – then they’ll take our very souls. Resist! Resist!


I haven’t been to a poetry reading for maybe seven or eight years, maybe longer. Indeed – like opera, classical ballet, and nu-metal – I barely even touch the stuff. Or if I do, then I prefer to read it out loud, on my own, savouring the rhythms as much as the meaning. For despite my disassociation from the genre, I have a voice which is curiously suited for this. Instinctively picking up on the musicality of the language, I am somehow able to give a clear, measured, suitably understated yet broadly empathetic delivery. Even when I am still barely able to grasp the subject matter. I find this slightly baffling.

I found it particularly baffling one Sunday afternoon at a post-club chill-out in someone’s flat in Wimbledon, or somewhere like that, about five years ago, with a bunch of complete strangers I had met upstairs in Trade. Our host revealed that he wrote poetry in his spare time. A couple of sheets of A4 were duly passed around the group. Even before I knew what I was doing, I found myself reading one of them out loud.

As I progressed down the page, I entered a strange, split-level state of consciousness. My rational brain (or what was left of it) was aware that it had not even the faintest idea of the literal meaning of the poem – nor even whether it was good, bad or indifferent. Nevertheless, my instinctive brain could still, somehow, pick up on an overriding mood, or flow, or structure – or something – despite the fact that my sensually perceptive brain was by now so comprehensively battered that every letter on the page appeared to be in a different colour. At the end of my recitation, which had been received in total silence, there was a brief, respectful pause, followed by a flutter of soft, almost post-coital murmurings: “Oh…wow“, and “You read so beautifully“, and – from the host himself – “Thank you so much for doing that”. I felt simultaneously like a a gifted lyrical interpreter and a big fat fraud.


We arrive late. The first poet is already in the middle of a lengthy “song cycle”, and has to pause between “cantos” to let us in. Standing room only at the back. Am I in anybody’s way? Can my friends see anything at all? Dare I take my puffa jacket off, or will the rustling break everybody’s concentration? Oh God, everybody is really concentrating here, aren’t they? Look at them all. They look rapt. Is that how you’re supposed to look? Shall I try to look rapt as well?

OK, how does that look? No, it looks fake, doesn’t it? The poet will be able to see right through me. Hang on – nobody’s looking at me anyway. Egocentric fool. It doesn’t matter what expression you adopt. Now, concentrate. Focus on what he’s saying. Come on. Come out of yourself. Engage. Cross that line.

No, it’s no good. I can’t pick up the threads at all. The language is too dense, the meaning is too tightly packed, there are all these classical allusions which I don’t get. Would it be better if I looked straight at the poet instead of staring round the room? Would that be too intense?

OK, watch the mouth. Blimey – fancy wearing a jacket over a hooded top over a shirt and tie. Particularly a skinny little early-80s retro tie like that, in bright orange. Actually, it’s quite a good look. Sort of funky-academical. Come on, back to the mouth. Good clear diction he’s got, and a nice even delivery. The words sound good, even if I can’t crawl inside them. But really, this is the sort of thing that I’d prefer to read several times over, in my own time.

So, is the problem just with me, or is this stuff just not suited to a live reading like this? I don’t remember having this sort of problem when I used to go and hear Dymbellina read, back in the day. But then, I had always read her stuff several times over in advance. Nevertheless, surely there was a palpable, direct communication going on at her readings? Not like here, then. This is all a bit Poetry In Crowd, isn’t it? A bit up-its-own-arse? Or am I just retreating into the sidelines, in that protectively sneery way of mine?

I need to get over the feeling of “Gosh, so this is what a poetry reading is like, then.” I need to stop observing, and start participating. When did my concentration span get this bad, anyway? Maybe it’s because I’m spending too much time on my own in the office, hopping about from web page to web page, never having to devote appreciable periods of time to any one person, or thought, or task.

Oh look – over the road, one storey up – they’ve got their curtains open and the telly on, and he has come to the window and is staring over the road and down at us, because this sort of thing clearly doesn’t usually happen on his street on a Tuesday night, and now he’s calling her over to the window, and now they’re both looking at us, and I wonder what they’re thinking, and…stop, look away, come back into the room, this is a new poem, maybe you’ll get further with it this time…


The first poet writes a lot about gay sex, and likes his classical allusions, and is frequently funny. I know this because I received a signed copy of his new book for my birthday, which is essentially why I’m here. There’s not so much of the sexy stuff or the funny stuff here tonight, which is a slight shame if you ask me.

The second poet is from the States, and is part of the whole Poets Against The War thing, and so most of the poems she reads are about that. She has a way of looking sharply over the top of her glasses while talking at you, which reminds me of Germaine Greer on Newsnight Review. When she starts to read, her whole voice rises in pitch as she adopts a kind of “performance” style. This is not something I am used to, and I don’t know how I feel about it. She sounds altogether quite cross. She also plays the Gender Politics card full square: this is a man’s war, and you’d think that there was only one sex fighting it, she says. One poem takes the form of an open letter to George Dubya. It is as oratorical as it is epistolary, and so it works well, and I even manage to concentrate all the way through it. We are on the very brink of “war” tonight, and here I am listening to a visiting American poet of some repute expressing her anger and bewilderment and fear and scorn about it, and it all feels awfully Significant, and of Historical Import in some way, and there’s some part of me inside that is rather enjoying that.

(Incidentally: I’m not going to call it a “war” any longer. I’m not going to call it a “pre-emptive strike”, either. Like the letter-writer in today’s Guardian says: it’s not a “war” – it’s an invasion.)

The third poet is vague and dithery, and she doesn’t know what she’s going to read us yet, and she keeps losing her bookmarks and apologising, and she is just not quite of this world. In fact, she quite cheerfully confesses this to us. However, once she starts to read, her voice snaps into focus – into “performance mode” once again. There is a whimsicality here, and a sense of detached, amused observation by a slightly baffled outsider. But really: do people still think like that about the television set, in this day and age? These are the sort of thoughts my grandfather might have had fifty years ago, and he was something of an anachronistic fuddy-duddy even then. There is a lighter, funnier piece about a summer spent in a French chateau with a bunch of crashing snobs, which everyone enjoys – followed by an interminable, seemingly directionless piece about Hildegard Of Bingen which has everybody fidgeting and tapping their fingers. It is so long that the first poet only has time for one more poem before time is called.


Is this where I’m supposed to draw a pithy conclusion? Well, I guess I don’t have one. I can only conclude that poetry just ain’t my bag. So I’m going to end with a link instead. (On a weblog, you can always legitimately cop out like this. It’s a wonderful medium.)

The Clock’s Loneliness: a poem a day, weblog-stylee. The one-stop shop for all your daily lyrical needs.

Maybe that’s how I need to get started. One day at a time, sweet Jesus…

“Daddy, what’s sex?”

A cute story from Sasha about her childhood sex education reminds me of this little episode.

Late 1960s. Having successfully spearheaded a campaign to save the Chesterfield Canal from closure, my father is now chairman of the Retford and Worksop Boat Club. This weekend, at the club’s headquarters (the White Swan at Drakeholes), we are playing host to the Wolverhampton Boat Club, who are on an official visit. Their boats have been arriving over the past week, and are now all moored up in the basin, in readiness for the visit. On the Saturday morning, my father goes round them all on a tour of inspection, his young son Michael in tow.

In the cabin of one of the visiting boats, a joke eye-chart is hanging up:






There it is again. That word! It’s such a short word, and yet I still don’t know what it means. I love words. I’m an avid reader, devouring books which are really meant for children older than me, and I’m not used to being stumped by something so easy. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.

Later that same morning, the official coach from Wolverhampton pulls up, and the deputation disembarks. My father steps forward from our group to welcome them. There is one of those slightly awkward silences which is characteristic of such occasions.

At this precise moment, I run forward and pipe up.

“Daddy, what’s sex?”

The awkward silence is intensified. In the late 1960s, this situation doesn’t yet play very well as comedy. We are, after all, English. My father is forced to reply in front of the entire assembled throng.

“Not now, Michael. I’ll tell you later.”

The day progresses satisfactorily, and it is now time for our visitors to depart. Once again, we are all standing by the coach, waiting for my father to make the official farewell address. Once again, there is one of those slightly awkward silences. Once again – at this precise moment – young Michael runs forward and pipes up.

“It’s all right, Daddy! There’s no need to tell me now! This little girl from Wolverhampton has told me all about it!”

Ten years later, I am a gawky, self-conscious adolescent, living his life in an almost constant state of embarrassment. For the second time, we are due an official visit from the Wolverhampton Boat Club. The weekend before, my father tells me this story – clearly, he has decided that I am old enough to hear it at last. It’s undeniably funny – but frankly, it sounds just a little bit too cute to be true. Maybe he has embellished it for effect? In any case, I plead with him not to mention the story to anyone from Wolverhampton the following weekend.

In the club house (now relocated to Clayworth), my father makes a welcoming speech to the assembled throng. I am sitting right at the back of the room, in my customary chocolate brown polo neck sweater, head bowed. These are my father’s opening words:

“Well, as my son is in the room, I won’t remind you all of what happened on your last visit…”

A cheerful Brummie voice immediately pipes up.

“Something about sex and a little girl from Wolverhampton, wasn’t it?”

The entire room convulses in uproarious laughter and applause, as heads turn to locate me. My face is scarlet, and bowing ever lower. I will never forgive him. Never, do you hear! Never!

Neil Diamond – Nottingham Arena – July 23 2002.

So, still reeling from the shock that I would be seeing him tonight, I swing by Virgin on the way home to pick up some revision material. There’s a new TV-advertised compilation doing the rounds, but I go for something called The Greatest Hits 1966-1992. It’s in the sale, and the track listing is almost identical.

At home, I stick the CDs on while doing the ironing. The unfamiliar early 1960s hits sound good, but I’m looking forward to his early 1970s material the most.

Uh-oh. What’s this? Halfway through the first of the two CDs, the collection mutates into a live album. There is a ropey version of Red Red Wine which sounds like a cover of the UB40 cover. Then, one by one, his biggest hits are systematically murdered. The gravely, growling voice is shot to bits, the performances are hokey, the ad-libs too frequent, and the constant crowd noises irritating. Halfway through the second CD, we revert to studio versions, but the damage is done. Just what have I let myself in for?

He emerges onto the stage on a slowly ascending platform, clad in a sequinned midnight blue jerkin and Simon Cowell trousers. The hair is definitely all his own – in the middle of the third row, we are close enough to check. At certain angles, he has started to bear an uncanny resemblance to Bob Monkhouse. Still, he’s looking pretty good for his age (61). There’s a seventeen piece band behind him – string section, brass section, the works – nearly all of whom have been with him since the 1970s. Now there’s loyalty for you. It’s the first clue.

We are surrounded by the diehards. There are a lot of respectable looking middle aged ladies, beaming from ear to ear, who already know the exact drill for a Diamond show. When to stand up, when to sit down, when to flex, when to point, when to sway sideways, when to sing along, when to add backing vocals, when to applaud a particular line in the middle of a song – even when to make synchronised rowing motions. Seasoned, polished professionals. The ladies in front of us have already seen Diamond five times on his current tour. We take our cue from them for the rest of the show, flexing and pointing with the best of them. Hey, when you’re in Diamond Country, you have to honour its customs…

However, the audience is far more mixed than I was expecting. There is a teenage boy on the front row who knows all the words. There are loads of people in their twenties and thirties. The gender mix is maybe 40% male to 60% female, and the men are throwing themselves into the show with just as much enthusiasm as the women. We’re not dealing with a Barry Manilow situation here.

Diamond performs for two and a half hours solid, remaining on stage throughout, with only the briefest of disappearances before the encore. He sits down only twice, and takes very occasional sips from a single glass of water. His face trickles with thin lines of sweat, which are never wiped. I don’t even think he is aware of them. He is totally and utterly concentrated on his performance at all times.

The voice is in remarkable shape. It never deteriorates into the “gravel gargling” that I was expecting, and which I heard on the CD. Close your eyes, and it could be 1978. Maybe he’s looking after himself better these days. He may not have the widest of expressive ranges, but technically he’s flawless, as are his band. The sound quality is absolutely perfect, banishing bad memories of a muffled Roxy Music at the same venue last year.

This isn’t my kind of music, and beyond a certain nostalgic value, these aren’t really my kind of songs. Despite this, Diamond delivers one of the most flabbergasting, truly awesome shows I have ever seen. You don’t survive this long in show business without learning a thing or two about stage technique, and Diamond is a masterful performer. His secret lies in the extraordinary way with which he connects with his audience. This isn’t showbiz flash on his part, and it isn’t a Pavlovian response on his audience’s part. The reciprocation between performer and spectator is tangible, and real, and astonishing. Diamond feeds off his audience reaction. It fuels his entire performance. He is not satisfied with anything less than total absorption and enjoyment, from every single individual present. He positively demands it – but not in a preening, narcissistic, “You must love me!” Madonna style. He seeks to earn it anew, night after night. The more the audience gives, the more he gives back. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it.

He works every inch of the stage, delivering – if necessary – whole songs to specific sections of the arena, until he gets the reaction he seeks. I can only resort to cliché: he has us eating out of the palm of his hand. There is a strange kind of mutual respect at work here. The gaily bopping Pats, Jeans and Margarets aren’t abasing themselves in idol worship. Instead, they seem oddly empowered. They are also having the absolute times of their lives, letting go without letting it all hang out. It is a delight to behold.

Diamond’s songs deal largely in stock sentiments, but the thing about stock sentiments is this: when properly expressed, they are universal. That is one of the true powers of popular music, and it should not be dismissed lightly. There is a fine line between populism and schlock. This line comes perilously close to being crossed during the perhaps inevitable September 11 tribute, with its dedication to the police officers, fire fighters and service personnel involved. I feel myself beginning to wince, as each group is applauded in turn. As the crowd applauds “those brave servicemen who risk their lives, every day”, the nice lady next to me notices my half hearted clapping and nudges me. “That’s us lot he’s talking about”, she says, smiling, and motions towards my hands. I don’t suppose she gets thanked very often by her heroes. She’s probably more used to the poorly concealed wincing. Anyway, we’re not applauding the institutions here – we’re applauding the individuals. The tribute song turns out to be He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I get the message.

Sweet Caroline is pure end-of-the-pier pantomime. It has become a raucous audience participation piece, which goes like this. Audience parts in capitals.

Sweet Caroline (WOH WOH WOH!)
Good times never seemed so good (SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!)
I’ve been inclined (WOH WOH WOH!)
To believe they never would…

I fully expect either the Hermes House Band or DJ Otzi to pick up on this, and to release an annoying Europop Benidorm Anthem cover version any month now. Maybe they already have, and I just don’t move in the right circles.

However, it is Forever In Blue Jeans which is the one for me. Memories of the golden Summer of 79 come flooding back – of the boy I adored, who loved this song, meaning that I loved it too. We’re all on our feet, right to the back of the arena, giving it up for Neil.

He plays everything. You name it, it’s there – except for Song Sung Blue, the first song of his that I remember. Other than that, they’re all present and correct, and not buggered around with either. Even Red Red Wine and I’m A Believer, which were hits for other acts. The show seems never ending, and yet none of us (we compare notes later) can take our eyes off Neil at any point. I scarcely register the presence of most of the other band members. Compelling, charismatic, spellbinding. He could take us any place he wanted.

Towards the very end, he almost does just that. The platform at the front of the stage rises up like a pulpit, as Neil suddenly comes on like a crazed tub-thumping preacher man, delivering a bizarre sermon which starts off tongue-in-cheek, and ends up largely sincere. There is something about raising your hands if you truly believe in the Lord above. Hands are shooting up everywhere, without hesitation. Yikes. I am surrounded. It’s a little bit scary, and I have no trouble resisting this time. It’s the one time when the manipulation becomes overt, and the individuality of the crowd is submerged in hysteria. I don’t care for it much.

There was a cartoon in a recent Private Eye showing an ageing star sitting in an office, with a brash young man behind the desk. The young man is saying “Basically, you’ve got two choices. You can retire, or you can become ironic.” Neil Diamond has elected to do neither. 40 years in the business, and he’s still at the top of his game. I would love to know how many of today’s young pop pups will be able to do likewise.