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.

Brian Wilson – Nottingham Royal Centre – Friday June 7th, 2002

For Fraser’s review at Blogjam, go here.
For Lilou’s review (in French, but well worth the effort) at blogmebogmoi, go here.

As you know, I was worried about this one. Brian Wilson may have been one of pop’s greatest creative geniuses in his day, but that day has long passed. He has been dogged by mental health problems for the past 35 years, and is regularly described as “fragile”. His flat, strange, autocue-driven performance at the Buckingham Palace concert earlier in the week had made me squirm. According to our local paper, this was the most expensive concert ever to take place in Nottingham, with tickets at a whopping fifty quid a pop. Had we shelled out all that dosh, only to bear witness to an embarrassing karaoke freak show?

The opening number (Cabinessence from the 20:20 album, I later discover) is one of the most bewildering and disorientating things I have ever heard on stage. The acoustic is terrible, the sound separation is hopeless, the song is decidedly odd, Brian is an eccentric a figure as he had been on TV, and I just can’t make sense of any of it. This is not a good start.

Obscure album track follows obscure album track. I don’t know any of this stuff – unlike Dymbel and Mir, who recognise every song. Mir in particular is a true Wilson fanatic – this is someone who has both mono and stereo versions of the same original EPs, for instance. Both of them have already seen Brian at the Royal Festival Hall earlier in the year. They know what to expect, and have briefed me accordingly. I am therefore still making huge allowances for the man.

Actually, he’s doing OK. Yes, so there are two autocue screens, mounted on either side of his keyboard – but when you’re an acid casualty survivor with short term memory problems, what are you supposed to do? Without the safety net of an autocue to fall back on, he probably wouldn’t be touring at all. Yes, so his performance style is strange, especially the rather literal hand movements he uses to illustrate the lyrics (tickling the corner of his eye at the word “crying”, for instance). However, his very fragility serves to expose the child within the man, making for a sincere, unaffected, and genuine performance, unvarnished by conscious stage techniques. There is another advantage to this. Wilson’s childlike nature means that, aged 59, he can still get away with singing songs of innocent, youthful wonderment, without ever striking a metaphorical false note. As for the literal, audible false notes – well, we know his voice isn’t what it once was, but there are no major wince-making mistakes, and whatever he lacks in physical technique is made up for in emotional acuity.

Dymbel and Mir assure me that, compared to the London gig, Brian is on top form tonight. Returning to our seats after the interval, Dymbel is even able to convey this to Brian’s wife, who is sitting three seats away from me (on the sixth row of the stalls), along with her sister, Brian’s best friend and his wife. Maybe it’s their presence which is helping to sharpen his focus – apparently there had been times in London when he had looked half asleep. He is also smiling a lot more. In fact, he looks luminously happy throughout – as well he might be, as tonight’s crowd are hugely enthusiastic, with frequent standing ovations between songs. Mrs. Wilson is particularly demonstrative and supportive, rising to her feet after every number and extending her outstretched arms to him, willing him on.

The night starts clicking into place for me with the first number I recognise, In My Room. It is performed exquisitely well, with beautiful backing harmonies from the band, and takes me straight back to the summer of 1975, when my room was my sanctuary, my album collection was almost my whole life, and my Best Of The Beach Boys LP was never off the turntable. The unexpected poignancy touches me deeply. The acoustic and the sound mix have also been steadily improving, and the performers and audience have begun to create a mood which is very special. The other highlights of the first part of the show are a rapturously received Heroes And Villains and Surf’s Up, concluding with Do It Again, our first proper knees-up of the night.

So, with Part One having pleased the diehard fans with interestingly selected back catalogue material, it’s time for some more familiar stuff. Accordingly, Part Two consists of a straight run-through of the Pet Sounds album from beginning to end, followed by Good Vibrations. With the possible exception of the title track, which is a bit of a mess, It is a magnificent performance, with I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (how true, how true!) as its standout moment. During God Only Knows, I observe each member of the superb ten-piece backing band. Their expressions say it all. They are lost in the music, absolutely loving what they are doing, and presumably aware of the honour they have in recreating some of the greatest pop music ever recorded. The band radiate good-humoured enjoyment throughout. You sense that this is a happy tour.

You also sense, with relief, that Brian is not the re-animated zombie that you were worried he might have been. Rather than being pushed around from venue to venue, and being told what to do by those around him, he is clearly in artistic control here. The song selections are his, the band is his, and it is his presence which sets the mood for everyone else on stage. However, the band have successfully made one request, as I Know There’s An Answer becomes Hang Onto Your Ego once again (to my initial confusion, until Dymbel explains). This pleases the fans no end.

Part Three is devoted to uptempo, celebratory Beach Boys classics: Help Me Rhonda, I Get Around, Fun Fun Fun, Barbara Ann, Surfing USA, stuff like that. We’re all on our feet, frugging away, rolling back the years. The man has delivered in spades. This is one living legend who hasn’t let us down. The legend remains intact.