SEVEN AND THE RAGGED TIGER

Seven is a highly potent number. It concluded the head-count for both dwarves and Samurai; it provided us with the seas, the deadly sins, the colours of the rainbow, the wonders of the ancient world and the ages of man. It gave us the right quota of brides for the right quota of brothers, the amount of years for a marital itch, the veils needed for Salome’s erotic dance routine, the title of a disturbing 90s horror movie, Enid Blyton’s secret alternative to her famous quintet, the necessary inches for the classic pop single, the correct collection of rogues for an intergalactic outlaw called Blake, and – of course – the assembled days of the week. It seems to have followed me around. I was born in a year ending in seven, lived at a No.7 for the best part of two decades, and my current home is a residence whose separate flat and house numbers add up to…you guessed it. And now I have seven months on the clock to measure my faltering progress through the brave new world I was dumped in as 2017 drew to a grim full stop.

Careful – I’m perilously close to a pattern so familiar on Twitter, that of relentlessly focusing on the one topic over and over again with mouth-frothing fanaticism. I never used to do that, but I never previously wrote for this blog whilst trying to recover from…er…well, a breakdown. No touchy-feely alternative word for it. I certainly don’t want any of my jottings to be viewed as ‘therapeutic’ as a consequence, however. Even if trying to get back into the habit is undeniably a form of therapy for me, I should imagine coming to such posts as a reader when burdened with that awareness could make approaching them akin to a ‘duty’, precluding either enjoyment or stimulation and reducing the whole exercise to the reading equivalent of a professional goalkeeper allowing a special needs child to score a penalty for charity. I’m sure a holiday in Salisbury would seem more appealing right now.

OK, let’s try to widen the picture a little by saying Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Bored already, alas. Mind you, it was two years ago when we all made our way to the polling station and cast our vote, so should the subject still be the main headline day-after-never-ending-day? Tiresome doom ‘n’ gloom predictions abound on both sides if it does/doesn’t turn out how either want it; and I’m afraid I’ve reached the point where I’m beginning to not care anymore. Most days, I feel as though this country is incurably f***ed anyway, but that’s probably because on many of those days I feel as though I’m incurably f***ed. Sorry, it’s not you; it’s me.

I ain’t no Jacob Rees-Mogg, extolling the economic virtues of Britain breaking with the EU whilst relocating my Russia-friendly business interests to Brussels-friendly Eire; and I ain’t no Lord Adonis, wistfully waving goodbye to the Continent from the window-seat of a private plane flying over the Alps with a teary-eye that foresees endless referenda until the desirable result is achieved. At the same time, much like that gruesome twosome, mine is not an objective perspective right now – though I at least have the decency to leave the subject alone as a result.

I suppose I could indulge in the contemporary trend of anniversary-marking to fill otherwise empty column inches; it’s not like I haven’t before, after all. This year we’ve got 10 since the financial crash, 30 since Acid House, 50 since the Paris Spring, 70 since the birth of the NHS, and a century since women in the UK won the vote (well, as long as they were over 30). The latter two have received the most attention, with the NHS anniversary in particular plumbing a nauseating nadir of sentimental media waffle that has run parallel with – and appears contradicted by – the shocking revelations from Gosport and Chester. Mysteriously, very little coverage has been given to the impenetrable layers of self-interested and self-satisfied management swallowing up the bags of cash that governments routinely throw towards the NHS in the hope some of it will filter down to frontline nurses and patients. But I guess that doesn’t fit the celebratory narrative.

Anyway, I’m not really paying attention. My much-missed feline companion passed away two years ago this month, yet just the other night the light caught one of her long-discarded nails embedded in the carpet – unseen since 2016. This tiny, seemingly insignificant fragment of a friend lost to me forever felt like an invaluable, precious gemstone when I excavated it; but any trinket touched by the lost keeps them close when we can no longer draw them to our breast. Some bin or burn such mementos because they cannot bear to be reminded; others find these articles imbued with a comforting resonance that serves as evidence they really were in our lives and we didn’t imagine them. As someone once said, was it just a dream? Seemed so real to me.

But, what the hell! School’s (almost) out for summer, so let’s switch our attention to the World Cup and Wimbledon. Better that than allow our eyes to linger on ladies’ legs and other exposed body parts lest we incur the wrath of those who permit female drooling over topless Aidan Turner whilst simultaneously condemning male longing to varnish the delicious porcelain flesh of Demelza with one’s tongue. Long may her Cornish bosom heave, for drama is one of the Beeb’s few remaining assets; by contrast, claims by the BBC’s box-ticking ‘comedy controller’ that the Pythons wouldn’t happen today because they were ‘too white’ gives an indication why the corporation’s current comedic output is so dire. The sun must have gone to his diversity-mangled head.

I remember 1976, but it was different then; I did things in hot weather I can’t do today. Besides, fun wasn’t as ‘organised’ forty-two years ago as it is now; adult involvement in childhood summer pursuits was mercifully minimal. I feel fortunate to have had the freedom to climb trees, kick balls past woollen goalposts, and arrange toy soldiers for a pitched battle to the strains of ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’. I steered clear of the Boy Scouts and the Cubs because I didn’t want grown-ups imposing their twee, sanitised idea of fun upon me. Pity the poor monitored kids of 2018’s heat-wave, who have never been left to their own devices and consequently can’t entertain themselves.

No, the best thing about this time of year – if you burn the midnight oil, of course – is reluctantly retiring to bed around 3.00am and catching one last look at the world outside your window. The landscape still consists of silhouettes, but the sky isn’t black; it’s a luscious shade of blue that enables you to already discern the next day on the horizon, as though it were a great wave rolling towards you in slow motion, one that only matures into its finished form when it washes over you several hours later, stirring you from slumber in the process. That’s a nice image to leave you with, at least. You don’t need a weather-man to know which way the wind blows; but may you always have a tiger in your tank.

 

© The Editor

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THE WAY WE LIVE NOW…AND THEN

We may hate it, but advertising slogans can often linger. ‘Say it with Flowers’ said Interflora; and, as it happens, whenever I think of Interflora, I think of Interpol. Perhaps the association stems from an obvious gag on something like ‘The Two Ronnies’; many of their gags were obvious, but the obviousness of them was overridden by the comic charm of the performers. Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, flowers – delivered to the doors of the consummated as well as the unrequited, sometimes motivated by guilt, sometimes by the need to remind someone you love them. They make an ideal house-warming gift, for example, when it comes to a new residence, being as they are the most potent symbols of rebirth and regeneration when love is in the air.

No, I’m NOT going to write about that shameless exhibitionist’s manual known as ‘Love Island’; besides, Nigel Kneale beat me to it by half-a-century with his unnervingly accurate satire on lowest-common-denominator twenty-first century television, 1968’s ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’. This remarkable example of cultural soothsaying is one of the most uncanny crystal balls in TV history. If you haven’t seen it, do; once you get over the occasionally theatrical acting and groovy 60s aesthetic impression of the future, the way in which it predicts the worst our goggle-box can offer today will evoke associations with everything from ‘Castaway’ and ‘Big Brother’ to the aforementioned STD-through-the-keyhole voyeur-fest on ITV2 and even the grotesque Smartphone suicide-watch trend. The dialogue – short, snappy and uncomfortably familiar in its irritating abbreviations – mirrors Orwell’s belief in how language will eventually be narrowed and compressed into simple sound-bites. The ominous first words on-screen are ‘Sooner than you think…’

The play’s oft-stated division between the privileged and the rest (‘High Drives’ and ‘Low Drives’) inevitably evokes the Us and Them gap that the Brexit vote exposed; but to me it also anticipates the downgrading of one particular demographic in this country – one that is firmly rock bottom on the social scale fifty years later. A recent ‘initiative’ by a leading publisher that sought the input of unpublished authors made it clear who they were looking for. London-based, Oxbridge-educated chattering-class warriors burdened by the unbearable baggage of box-ticking have their preferred minorities to pat on the head and patronise, as novelist Lionel Shriver has bravely pointed out (much to her predictable Twitter crucifixion); and if you happen to emanate from a white working-class background free of further education, forget it. You are very much Low Drive – or ‘Gammon’, if you prefer; it’s the insult it’s OK to eat between meals without ruining your appetite.

For some, it matters not how many Sikhs are photographed with their arms round him, as Tommy Robinson’s EDL past will always brand him a white supremacist; but both sides of the barricades have their own version of the truth and never the twain shall meet. Like similar headline-grabbing stunts by Peter Tatchell, the amateur agent-provocateur tactics of Robinson could be said to be looking for trouble and inviting arrest along with accompanying publicity. But maybe the climate requires such actions in order to receive any acknowledgment within media circles whose contempt for ‘the Gammon’ is evident to anyone bereft of blinkers. Somebody once proclaimed the face of Tommy Robinson will one day feature on a far-flung future bank-note. Another agitator called Thomas – the late Mr Paine – was similarly derided and demonised in his day, yet is viewed rather differently two-hundred years later, so who knows what criteria the Bank of England will employ when it comes to its cover stars of the twenty-second century? A shame Nigel Kneale isn’t around anymore. He probably would.

Another fortune-teller called Karl Marx apparently said ‘The more you have, the less you are’ – a good point if applied to those who measure their worth by the number of material goods they possess; but how is that statement interpreted by the collectivism that contemporary Marx disciples espouse, especially in the Labour Party? I’ve always been averse to collectives, instinctively recoiling from their ‘block vote’ rhetoric; I‘m too much of an individual, never a team player. If I’d been gifted with sporting prowess, I’d have been at home on the tennis court rather than the football pitch. The problem with collectivism is the compulsory sacrifice of the individual voice to the consensus, and that’s just not me, Jeremy.

Jonathan Meades in his recent excellent BBC4 treatise on the uses and abuses of the English language spent a section dissecting the collectivist clichés that arise when eleven men play eleven more; but he primarily focused on the jargon employed by the Law, politics and business to mask true intentions in a tsunami of verbal diarrhoea that is deliberately intended to leave the Gammon crying ‘My brain hurts!’, therefore throwing him back into the primordial embrace of ‘Love Island’. The sad fact is that this works because we allow it to, just as we allow one knee-jerk response to a pair of tits on a lifeboat-man’s mug to damage the public standing of the RNLI, or we allow consensual sex to be reclassified as rape. Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it – whatever that means.

At one time, it could mean Noel Coward or Anthony Burgess; Margaret Rutherford or Terry Thomas; Tony Hancock or John Arlott; John Osborne or Quentin Crisp; Peter Sellers or Peter Cook; John Betjeman or John Lennon; Ian Nairn or Oliver Postgate. The Great British manufacturing industry wasn’t merely about economics; it was also about individual voices – all lost now to revisionist market forces. We don’t make ‘em like that anymore because we’ve been absorbed into the global village chain-store, flogged at half-price by a new breed of national shopkeepers.

Another neglected gem from the pen of the man who gave us ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’ was an obscure anthology series produced by ATV called ‘Beasts’; it’s creepy in that unique way only 70s TV can be, set in a Britain when the moribund and the macabre meet. One story concerned a poltergeist in a supermarket, though not the kind of supermarkets we have now; it was a store owned by one of those small regional chains that no longer exist, like Hillard’s or Vivo. Viewing this time capsule recently, I experienced a strange sensation of warmth as childhood brand names flew off the shelf at the height of the petulant spirit’s rage. Rows of Ricicles probably wouldn’t be within the poltergeist’s sights today, no doubt censored by finger-wagging government guidelines on sugar intake – let alone a version featuring Florence and Dougal on the front of the box.

And so, restlessness forced me outdoors a month ago; I went for a meandering walk – and if you’ve made it to this paragraph you’ll know by now I’m good at meandering. Unfortunately, simple exercise (physical or mental) no longer seems a valid enough reason to stroll alone. When I ended up on a local park, my aversion to collectives worked against me; I felt increasingly self-conscious re my sore thumb solo status, surrounded as I was by women and dogs. I had neither with me, though I came home to the ghosts of both. And cats. But I end where I began, thinking of flowers as potent symbols of rebirth and regeneration. Maybe I should get some. Life may now be a silver medal, but at least I can make it smell nice for a few days.

© The Editor

THROUGH THE PAST, DARKLY

Grinning and bearing my way through precisely six months of paralysis following the abrupt stopping of the clocks last December has had a funny effect on my perception of time. Frozen as both participant and observer, one way of suppressing a sense of uselessness at my sudden inability to respond to contemporary events in the customary manner has been to retreat into a digitally restored version of the past. After all, when circumstances rob you of the present and deprive you of a future in the process (or at least the future you thought you were getting), the one certainty you can turn to is the past, a place where the ground beneath your feet is reassuringly solid.

This is a painless post in terms of writing (and, one hopes, reading); it’s simply me taking a stress-free diversion into my viewing habits of the last half-year, one that may strike the odd chord merely as an entertaining interlude. And, as it’s not unusual for this blog to mine a bit of nostalgia from archive telly, I speak today of ‘Special Branch’, a series produced by ITV back in the days when it added up to a good deal more as a broadcaster than the vacuous vacuum it currently inhabits. It’s a series that has also provided me with a convenient distraction from recent events via the DVD box-set.

Originally a dramatic, franchise-justifying product of the fledgling Thames Television, ‘Special Branch’ first appeared at the fag-end of the monochrome era in late 1969. Starring the chunky-faced Derren Nesbitt as DCI Jordan, the series dramatised the middle man between CID and the Secret Service at the height of post-Philby Cold War paranoia. Nesbitt’s Jordan was a flash young buck whose startlingly dapper dress sense always made him look as if he’d just stepped off a gentleman’s fashion shoot for ‘Town’ magazine; a bit of a flamboyant oddity in stale environs populated by both stuffy Whitehall suits and crusty Met veterans, Jordan nevertheless got results as well as gorgeous ‘dollies’ resplendent in the big hair/false eyelashes/micro-dress ensembles popularised by the likes of Bobbie Gentry at the time.

Constantly thwarted by MI5 mandarin Moxon (played with slimy languor by Morris Perry), DCI Jordan eventually threw his career away when the seductive charms of recurring double-agent Christine Morris (the Bobbie Gentry blueprint par excellence) proved a little too seductive. But then, Jordan was very much a man of his time – a time when men weren’t marginalised by a media intent on portraying the male of the species (and his ‘toxic masculinity’) as the embodiment of all evil whilst simultaneously wondering why so many examples of this useless, redundant relic end up jumping off rooftops.

Like most British drama of the era, ‘Special Branch’ in its original format was divided between studio sets shot on videotape and location inserts shot on film. Occasionally, embryonic OB (Outside Broadcast) cameras were used for exteriors, but the blatantly artificial lighting and shaky visuals suggested the time was not yet right for its use as a regular system for anything beyond on-the-spot news reports. The more familiar contrast between studio VT and location film was industry standard then and only seems jarring decades after the event, as does an acting style informed more by theatre than cinema. However, it clearly irked some working in TV and eventually led to the aesthetic rebirth of the show following a two-year hiatus in 1973.

Euston Films was established by Thames as a means of shooting serious, grown-up dramas entirely on film, both indoors and outdoors, and must have been a gritty innovation in the early 70s, particularly when compared to the slicker fantasy-adventure filmed series from the ITC stable. The revived ‘Special Branch’ was its first outing and it wasn’t just the look of the series that had changed. The cast received a complete overhaul as well. Out had gone Detective Chief Inspector Jordan and his superior (played by Fulton Mackay long before he became a familiar face courtesy of a certain prisoner name of Norman Stanley Fletcher); in came the craggy countenance of DCI Alan Craven, played by George Sewell. Prior to his recruitment to the side of the good guys, Sewell had mostly been a character actor playing villains; he had a memorable role in 1971’s seminal Brit gangster flick, ‘Get Carter’. After ‘Special Branch’, he reverted to type; but in the part of Craven, Sewell excelled as a hard-boiled copper that the viewer could entirely believe in.

Considering the controversial role the actual Special Branch played in Northern Ireland in the 70s, the TV version of the department largely avoids such contentious areas and also distinguishes itself from its earlier incarnation by mostly steering clear of staple stories surrounding suspected spies and Marxist student revolutionaries. Often, the storylines seem suited to a series focusing on routine police work, though there are numerous ‘firsts’ present, not least the fact that the lead character has a girlfriend who happens to be black. Nobody would bat an eyelid at an interracial relationship today, but this was pretty groundbreaking stuff in 1973; in retrospect, the mixed-race love interest between Craven and a nurse called Pam is a refreshing development for mainstream drama and one that wasn’t built upon for several years. Moreover, there’s also the mental breakdown of a regular cast member, something which is handled with both surprising sensitivity and a welcome absence of ‘issue’-led sentimentality so commonplace in present-day soaps.

The key ingredient in the reboot of ‘Special Branch’ is the introduction of the old cop/young cop dynamic when Patrick Mower appears as DCI Haggerty; initially a ‘guest artist’ (as the opening credits imply), Mower’s arrogant and swaggering character is then bedded in as a permanent presence, providing the show with some testosterone bite and laying the foundations for the Regan & Carter double act of the series that ultimately succeeded it. Paul Eddington is also added in a pre-‘Good Life’ role as an MI5 bigwig whose urbane pomposity serves to frustrate the more hands-on approach of his subordinates on the street. The cast list is fleshed out by members of the wonderful rep company of character actors that peppers British TV drama of the 70s, some of whom eventually found leading roles of their own.

After two successful ‘seasons’ (as is now the norm to say), ‘Special Branch’ was dropped in favour of ‘The Sweeney’, a series produced by the same team, and one which took many elements from its predecessor but crucially cranked up the macho violence in the process. Thanks to consistent reruns from the early 80s onwards, the adventures of the Flying Squad have rarely been absent from our screens and have become established as the retrospective template for British police dramas, inspiring tributes as diverse as ‘Life on Mars’ and the memorable ‘Comic Strip’ homage, ‘Detectives on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. But none of that would have happened had not ‘Special Branch’ paved the way.

I don’t know why, but an antiquated series produced in a different country has served a need almost half-a-century on for someone struggling to cope with the wasteland bequeathed to him, and has also opened a portal into a past far more alluring than anything the present can boast. An entirely irretrievable image of England, of course; but we all find our own personal panaceas when confronted by the unbearable. This has been mine – well, one of them. And when it comes to dealing with the troublesome twenty-first century, those of us who experienced at least thirty years of its predecessor can always count on its cultural artefacts to provide necessary shelter from the storm.

© The Editor

PETUNIA PITSTOP

Overwhelmed by both a sudden injection of big-budget big bucks and the exotic distraction of tax-saving excursions to tax-haven locations, John Lennon famously reflected on the change in cinematic circumstances during the filming of ‘Help!’, the second Beatles movie. Strumming away in the Technicolor upgrade of the Bahamas, Lennon wryly remarked, ‘I’m an extra in me own film.’ Well, I’m making my second cameo appearance on my own blog since December, and I’m afraid I’m only passing through again. The kind words and encouraging response to the last post may have failed to elicit a written reply on my part, but all comments were much appreciated, as were the numerous re-tweets by long-term supporters. It’s nice to feel loved, virtually or not.

Before I go any further, I apologise. This was never intended to be – and indeed, never has been – one of those blogs that exist solely as a narcissistic outlet for an author assuming his or her life is as fascinating to the readership as it is to him or herself. I’d hate for this instalment to be regarded as the point at which a blog with an unlimited remit shrank into a narrow sequence of hastily scrawled postcards from the edge. I’m trying my best not to make this a regular habit, honest.

Of course, just as a novelist’s autobiographical journey tends to infiltrate the back story of their lead character (however hard they fight against it), identification with the subject matter under discussion on here has regularly led to vague asides – or more explicit references – to my own back story. Even a piece I wrote about the Israel/Palestine thing a year or two ago (I forget when) was given a little more emotional substance with the tale of my Uncle Joe and this long-gone figure’s membership of the Palestine Police in the years leading up to 1948; ditto the revelation of the family lineage linking me to the Enola Gay’s flight over Hiroshima in 1945. I suppose it’s only natural that many of the news stories to have caught my eye and provoked a post are stories I’ve made some connection with, thus (hopefully) elevating them above simple journalistic reportage, of which there is already more than enough out there.

I know this hasn’t always happened; plenty posts have simply been vociferous responses to events that have angered or infuriated me, fuelled by nothing more than anger or fury. And, it goes without saying, there’s always the mischievous spirit of satire on stand-by to intervene when the ludicrousness of politics – identity or otherwise – has risen its daft head yet again. Having said that, whenever my own life experience or that of friends and lovers has bled into a post with a wider surface context, I personally feel I’ve usually managed to get the balance right (as Depeche Mode once observed) and have successfully steered clear of self-indulgence.

To return to the second paragraph, I don’t believe my life is especially fascinating – though I will concede, however, that being able to view it with a degree of out-of-body detachment helps me ‘manage’ it. Watching a decline and fall through the mirror is undeniably unhealthy, yet curiously compelling in the same way one’s gaze can never be entirely averted from the bouncy genitals of a streaker. You can’t help but look, despite yourself. The fact is I tend to interpret life experience as material for ‘Art’ (no less pretentious word was available, alas), and I’m talking both good and bad life experience. In the case of the latter, it’s the kind of thing that makes uncomfortable reading for those who know me; but as I only appear capable of coping with crises if I respond to them with pen, paper or keyboard, there’s no alternative in the great battle for survival. I’m certainly not enjoying scrabbling around for tiny fragments of hope down here at Rock Bottom Central, but I do feel as though my life is out of my hands right now and I just have to deal with it in the only way I can – until the day comes when I’m in control again.

If it is true that dwellers of an urban environment are never more than six feet away from a rat, it feels right now as though I’m never more than six minutes away from remembering recent events that led me to where I currently reside – no book, music, movie or TV show can remove that from the room. Therefore, reading, listening and viewing habits work in empathetic conjunction with the mood of the moment.  It’s no contradiction that sad songs speak loudest to us when we’re sad; the last thing we need when feeling like shit is being ordered to get up and boogie. Moreover, it’s both amazing and comforting that the most trusted voices to have serenaded the listener throughout adult life have something to say for every occasion. Indeed, we are reassured when the voices that have been there for us when times are good are also there for us when times aren’t; and we know we’re not alone when our friends sing of suffering. Just listen to Marvin Gaye’s contribution to 1974’s ‘You Are Everything’, an otherwise gooey duet with Diana Ross; when he sings ‘Oh-whoa, darling/I just can’t go on, living life as I do/comparing each girl with you/knowing they just won’t do/they’re not you’, you know he’s not only been there, but he’s bought the company that made the T-shirt in true Victor Kiam fashion.

Silly YouTube videos may well be the babies I nonchalantly dump in children’s homes once I’ve popped them out, but they make some people happy and – for the moment – they are serving a useful purpose that other outlets currently aren’t. They are in no way a pointer to revived spirits, merely a means of keeping idle hands away from the Devil’s gaze. Nevertheless, they have survived unscathed and perhaps act as an unexpected manifestation of the obstinate resilience we all seem able to produce when confronted by our deepest fears. Hell, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Sometimes, however, the smallest, most innocuous interventions make a difference. Old Mother Cable may conveniently sidestep his shameful role in the scandalous selling-off of the Royal Mail as he attempts to big-up the latest Lib Dem ‘revival’ by posing as a political moral barometer; but the postman (or woman, in my case) can still deliver the goods in the face of privatised indifference to the customer. Anonymous surprises through the letter-box can momentarily put the brakes on any recourse to Alanis Morrissette when the helplessness of the dispossessed is desperately seeking a soundtrack; and the anonymous have nothing to fear. I may be a wounded animal, but that animal isn’t a dragon. All this proves is that, whilst the systems with which we make contact may be myriad in this century, the oldest (well, after smoke signals and carrier pigeons) hits the mark even now, despite Vince’s best bloody efforts.

I shan’t bore you with further details, though – oblique or otherwise. Yes, I’d like to get back to the wider world and escape the confines of the internal compound (trust me, it’s crap in here); but it ain’t easy, however many open goals the media leaves on my doorstep. Bear with me if you can and I’ll try to phone home again next time I’ve got some spare change.

© The Editor

IT’S BEEN A LONG COLD LONELY WINTER

How fatal taking for granted the loyalty and devotion of one’s audience can be was never better illustrated than in the swift falling from favour of the poor old Bay City Rollers. Almost omnipotent in 1975, the nice-but-dim young Scotsmen were the UK’s belated home-grown answer to The Osmonds. Possessing the clean-cut boy-next-door appeal guaranteed to send nascent female hormones into the same overdrive as Utah’s most famous family firm had done, the rise of the Rollers dramatically served to usurp the Mormon musical missionaries. Prompted by their astronomical British success, the Rollers then looked to replicate it on the other side of the Atlantic – despite the fact this had already proven to be a futile exercise for immediate pop predecessors like Marc Bolan and Slade. Yet the Rollers got off to the best possible start when ‘Saturday Night’ shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 at the beginning of 1976, an achievement that naturally booked them on the next flight to America.

But the timing of the Rollers’ Stateside expedition was especially unfortunate. In 1976, two emerging musical genres that would go on to dominate what remained of the 70s – Punk and Disco – were luring away sizeable chunks of the pop audience from the hormonal cauldron of the teenybop arena; at the same time, those unmoved by Donna Summer or The Sex Pistols were mesmerised by a certain self-contained Swedish hit-machine. Rollermania was also destined to be a temporary phenomenon – a necessary rites-of-passage ritual for teenage girls before boyfriends and babies, as well as being the last hysterical hurrah of a frenzied trend that defined the decade until it grew up and moved on. The band returned home from what turned out to be a short-lived stint in the American spotlight to find their audience diminished and the zeitgeist having relocated; they never scored another No.1.

However random or irrelevant this brief detour into the reassuringly safe refuge of pop culture history might appear to be, it is my roundabout way of making a point. Deciding to tentatively return to a medium I had no choice but to plunge into suspended animation five months ago might make it appear as though I reckon it’s ‘business-as-usual’ and we pick up where we left off in December. As much as it flatters my ego to imagine it, I’m aware that assuming all regular commentators and readers have spent every day of 2018 so far scanning their inbox first thing on a morning in the hope of seeing a notification informing them a new ‘Winegum Telegram’ post has appeared – and their days therefore being ruined as a consequence of this not coming to pass – is utterly absurd. Yes, I’m conscious kind comments have continued to periodically pepper the blog during the hiatus; but to envisage lives revolving around the proclamations of Chairman Petunia, and collapsing into complementary stasis in the absence of them, is a conceit even I would never countenance.

How do I explain why coming back to this has been so difficult? Oh, well – think of string and the length of it. Perhaps it’s been so difficult because ‘gifts’ that previously provided satisfaction and a sense of purpose (if an absence of income) lost their collective value for me. Experiencing a severe dent to self-confidence re my ‘creative capabilities’ was one reason for ruling out a return; recent reunions with old posts on here – read for the first time with real detachment – left me impressed albeit simultaneously disbelieving I’d written them. Yes, each element is connected and affected. One particularly devastating bombshell can have a big enough impact to bleed into every facet of one’s life, even areas that have no direct relation to it, triggering a chain reaction that can leave one pretty bloody winded. Until the event that knocked me for six, I could write a post for this, put a jolly little satirical video together for YouTube, and maybe even work on a novel – all in a day’s work. And now, everything has either slowed to a snail’s pace or ground to a complete halt, which is a crippling state of affairs for someone whose identity is defined by his creativity; this is actually the first prose I’ve written since December. Noting regular references to depressive bouts in past posts, I feel almost envious of the author’s naivety, realising I had no real idea how low I could go; but even someone with ‘previous’ isn’t prepared for the kind of emotional meltdown I’ve undergone, and Nietzche’s assertion that ‘if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss will stare back at you’ has been an unwelcome guest at my dinner table of late.

Don’t think I haven’t noticed news stories that I would no doubt have penned plenty posts about had I still been active; but being relieved of my duties has spared me extended exposure to items that would only have added to my unhealthy state of mind had I had to immerse myself in them via the compositional process. The necessity of such survival tactics means I’ve allowed the opening months of 2018 to pass me by in a way I never have with a year before; but I’ve been powerless to prevent my paralysing inertia. Having said that, I did manage to condense many of these headlines into one video a month or so ago, which felt like a small step in the right direction; it says what I felt needed to be said without having to devote a dozen posts to the subjects featured, so it was a tiny triumph of sorts.

Even with the invaluable support of close friends, however (many of whom have revealed touching depths of understanding and empathy), I remain frustratingly entrenched in a Groundhog Day distinctly lacking colour or joy and where the only thing I’ve been able to detect around the corner is a bloody great brick wall, forcing me to adopt the ‘one day at a time’ approach to life – one bereft of forward planning and predictions, though also, mercifully, devoid of Lena Martell’s greatest hit (Sweet Jesus).

During the darkest sections of this extremely dark tunnel, the only contemporary cultural artefact that seemed capable of holding my attention was BBC4’s French police series, ‘Spiral’ – and that was mainly because any wavering from the subtitles would bugger-up the plot, so I had no alternative but to concentrate. Otherwise, unable to focus for long on a book, I lost myself in a steady diet of DVDs that provided nostalgic comfort food for the head as well as solid no-nonsense drama that has stood up remarkably well 40 years on. Give ‘The Sandbaggers’ a try if you enjoy old-school Cold War espionage in the le Carré mode; one of you out there already has – that much I do know (according to the latest memo from C, anyway). Similarly, a superb album of eccentric curios and buried treasure unearthed by St Etienne’s Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs titled ‘English Weather’ got me through the winter on a loop, whereas Joni Mitchell at her mid-70s peak is easing me through the spring. Only wish these healing hands could carry me back to where I was before I needed them; but they can’t.

Knowing not if this post is one-night stand or series reboot, I can’t guarantee when the next one will be; but architectural historian Jonathan Glancey’s reflection on the sad descent of architectural critic Ian Nairn into drunken disillusionment and an all-too premature end feels relevant. ‘If you do fight continually against the things that make you angry,’ he said, ‘you get exhausted…exhausted in your mind, exhausted in your heart, and exhausted in your soul.’ Modesty prevents me from placing my own humble kicks against the pricks in the same league as Nairn’s poetic tirades aimed at architects and town-planners from the 50s to the 70s – tirades that graced the pages of national newspapers and networked TV screens. I do recognise a kindred spirit when I see one, however. Symptoms of Nairn’s downfall seem uncomfortably familiar as well, which is why any return to regular writing on here has to be motivated by a genuine compulsion to do it (rather than a misguided sense of obligation), believing I can do it, and being convinced people actually want to read it.

So, that’s the best I can do right now. You heard it here first. Okay. Until we meet again…soon, I hope…

© The Editor

TTFN

I suppose some of you regulars may have started to wonder where I’d gone. The brutal truth is I just can’t write at the moment. I’m only pushing myself to write this because I feel I owe you for your loyalty over the past couple of years. This week, I experienced a bereavement that has utterly numbed me and completely killed the urge to compose. I can’t offer any sort of take on the remaining weeks of this vile, wretched year and the last thing I can face right now is the thought of having to relive it by reviewing it. Even if I tried, the end result would be so bilious and bleak that it’d make the last-but one post read like a jolly holiday brochure. You may have noticed a more cynical and pessimistic edge creeping into recent posts, anyway; I didn’t want this to become a permanent trend or a defining characteristic of a blog I’ve always tried to enliven with gallows humour as my hand is on my heart and my tongue is in my cheek.

Some might say carrying on regardless by churning out sardonic articles about something in the news every day could serve as a convenient distraction; to be honest, the most time an average post takes to write isn’t much more than a couple of hours, anyway, so it’s not as if the exercise is especially taxing. But if all you feel like doing is raging at the world in a relentless tide of negativity, it would quickly grate with the reader; besides, if that’s what the people are looking for, there’s always Alex Jones’ YT channel.

At the moment, anything I even attempted to write would just be too depressing, too despondent and, frankly, too much – not just for you, but me too. Away from online discourse, I’ve even broken a previously-unbroken habit of 13 years, that of writing a private diary entry every night before bedtime, because I can’t face documenting the day’s events anymore.

I won’t inflict any of this on you, so I’ll be taking a break for a bit. Right now, I definitely doubt I’ll add another post to 2017’s long list, and I can’t say with any degree of accuracy when normal service will be resumed. Bidding good riddance to 2017 implies 2018 will be welcomed with open arms, but I’m certainly not looking forward to 2018 because I simply can’t see it being an improvement on the twelve months we’ve just endured. As far as I’m concerned, it’ll probably be even worse. It’s hard to envisage anything remotely positive up ahead, which does somewhat reduce the likelihood of posts that might put a smile on your face. And I don’t want to dwell on how much I’m hurting because it could easily translate as self-pity, like ‘All By Myself’ on a bloody loop – the Celine Dion cover. Imagine that.

For two years on the Telegram and perhaps around the same amount of time on another (now-defunct) blog that I reckon most of you here can recall, I’ve been a busy bee and haven’t paused to catch my breath for more than two or three days at a time. In the end, I may find that two or three days more than that away from the blog might rekindle the compulsion to pick up where I left off and I could be back within a week; but I don’t feel that way today. I feel burnt out. Maybe a longer sabbatical than I’ve so far taken really will help to recharge my jaded batteries. Who knows? I’m not intending to call it a day completely. Even though it has brought me zilch financial riches, writing’s all I can really do and I generally can’t stop myself from doing it. With that in mind, I suppose it’s inevitable I’ll return as long as I feel I’m wanted.

For many, the majority of life is lived in a monochrome Kansas that is made tolerable by brief glimpses of Technicolor Oz. It should be the other way round, but it never seems to be, alas. Kicks in the teeth are commonplace, body blows par for the course. It sucks. And it doesn’t matter how hard you work and how many hours you put in, the rewards are usually conspicuous by their absence. When/if that rare moment of magic called happiness comes along, for God’s sake grab it, cherish it, and always remember just how precious it truly is; never take it for granted; it can be painfully transient, and when it’s gone it’ll rip your heart out.

I don’t think I’ll have another opportunity to say it, but thanks for your constant support, and have a good Christmas if you can. After all, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

© The Editor

THE GOOD-TIME GIRL NEXT-DOOR

Some exits appear preordained in terms of timing. That Christine Keeler should pass away just a month or so after Westminster was mired afresh in a so-called sex scandal that pretty much paled next to the one she will be forever associated with is pretty immaculate timing. Her death at the age of 75 also came just a week after declassified files revealed her brief beau John Profumo’s involvement with a Nazi spy in the 1930s. When the knee-touching exploits of Michael Fallon and the office porn of Damian Green hit the headlines, the Profumo Affair was never far away from being evoked again; but 1963 was a different world to 2017. Christine Keeler’s involvement with a prominent Cabinet Minister as well as an alleged Russian spy is often credited with not only contributing to the demise of a Tory Government, but for also shining a light on the double standards of our ‘betters’ that helped bring about the collapse of the curse known as deference.

Private orgies at one end and bits on the side at the other were equally permissible amongst the upper echelons of British society as long as discretion was practiced. Vices were not paraded as they had been during the Georgian era, but vices had never gone out of fashion; they’d merely gone behind closed doors. After all, it was the job of the ruling class to ‘set an example’ to the lower orders; if they fancied a bit of rough in a Lady Chatterley fashion, they went about it quietly because that was very much frowned upon. The social melting pot of clandestine gay drinking-dens was a perennial source of anxiety to the powers-that-be not so much because they were concerned about the ‘scourge’ of homosexuality, but because the mixing of the classes would negate deference and risk bringing about the downfall of all they held dear.

Working-class ‘tarts’ of either sex remained alluring forbidden fruit to the upper-classes, however, so it was no surprise that Christine Keeler and her fellow London night-club hostess Mandy Rice-Davies hooked-up with a man bearing the unforgettable job description of ‘Society Osteopath’, Stephen Ward. Ward opened the doors to that Society for two girls of humble means, and who could blame them for grabbing it with both hands at a time when their alternative options were both limited and humdrum? Ward’s impressive client list included Viscount Astor, bastion of the establishment, and rising star of the Conservative Party, John Profumo.

The affair between Profumo and Keeler was brief, as was the simultaneous liaison with Soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov, and chances are neither would have attracted any outside attention had not the police and press been drawn to an incident outside Ward’s plush Mews flat. Keeler’s jilted West Indian lover Johnny Edgecombe firing shots up at the window Keeler was hiding behind led to the exposure of the Profumo connection with Keeler and then Ivanov’s presence. In the wake of several spy scandals involving the likes of George Blake and John Vassall – not to mention the high-profile defection of Kim Philby – any Russian association with members of the aristocracy was bound to provoke jitters, and Labour naturally exploited the situation when MP George Wigg employed parliamentary privilege to accuse Profumo of having an affair with Keeler. The Secretary of State for War was forced to deny it in the Commons; it was this lie, and the resignation that followed the subsequent admission he’d lied, that condemned him in the eyes of his peers.

However, it was Stephen Ward who was really hung out to dry by the establishment, charged with living off immoral earnings – something Keeler always denied – and tried at the Old Bailey in the summer of 1963. Journalist, broadcaster and campaigner Ludovic Kennedy described the guilty sentence handed out to Ward as a blatant miscarriage of justice; but before Ward could be made an example of by the loathsome set who’d nominated him as a patsy, the abandoned osteopath had slipped into a coma courtesy of a deliberate overdose that resulted in his death three days later. Christine Keeler ended up inside for nine months on a charge of perjury relating to the overturned sentencing of Johnny Edgecombe’s love rival Lucky Gordon. John Profumo left politics and devoted the rest of his life to charitable works in the East End of London.

Between the public revelation of her affair with Profumo and the death of Ward, Christine Keeler was perhaps the most infamous young woman in the country. That her infamy should come at a moment when a changing of the social guard was already gathering speed via the breakthrough of The Beatles and the defiantly non-deferential satire boom in retrospect seems no coincidence. The iconic shot of her sat naked on a chair – perhaps the first of the Swinging decade’s such images – was memorably parodied on the cover of ‘Private Eye’ by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Keeler’s seat. Macmillan himself was gone by that autumn, citing ill-health, yet with his replacement being the Earl of Home, the Tories had clearly learnt nothing, assuming the default toff would save the day. He didn’t, and Harold Wilson led Labour back to power a year later after 13 years in opposition. The times they definitely were a-changing.

The exposure of the ruling class as decadent hypocrites trashed forever their self-appointed role as the nation’s moral guardians, whereas Christine Keeler’s overnight notoriety was a novel innovation for a girl born with a plastic spoon in her mouth. We’re used to working-class girls-made-good spread across our tabloid pages in the twenty-first century; that didn’t really happen before Keeler. Whether or not we can hold her responsible for the cast of ‘Geordie Shore’ isn’t perhaps a legacy she’d have wished to lay claim to, though she had to live the rest of her life in the shadow of something she did in her early 20s, both despising the fact yet ultimately dependent upon it for an income. But the timing of her arrival in 1963 was nevertheless as perfect as that of her exit in 2017.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510941083&sr=1-1

A WORLD WITHOUT SUMMER

The Year Without Summer – that’s what they called 1816. Pre-Industrial Europe was in the middle of recovering from the long, lingering impact of the Napoleonic Wars and was then hit by an agricultural disaster, one that was mirrored across parts of North America and China. In Ireland, failed crops sparked famine; in Germany, they sparked riots. Switzerland slid into a deep-freeze whilst India was plunged into an outbreak of cholera as the period known retrospectively as ‘The Little Ice Age’ climaxed in catastrophic fashion. Most of the blame was laid at the door of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies, a dormant volcano that had suddenly sprung into life after a thousand years with the largest observed eruption in recorded history. Lava continued to sport forth for more than eighteen months, dispersing ash into the atmosphere that caused severe climate change, reducing global temperatures and resulting in upwards of an estimated 10,000 deaths worldwide.

The distorted colours of the sulphuric skies that Tambora’s eruption caused are believed to have inspired the distinctive smudgy shades of JMW Turner’s paintings as well as creating the apocalyptic ambience that provoked 18-year-old Mary Shelley into penning ‘Frankenstein’ when holidaying with Percy Bysshe and Lord Byron on the gloomy fringes of Lake Geneva that non-summer. Whilst such a baleful location may have suited Gothic sensibilities, no doubt there were many who perceived the dramatic alteration in the climate as a sign of God’s displeasure with mankind. Mind you, God generally lets mankind get away with a hell of a lot before he can be arsed intervening.

200 years on from that remarkable climatic event, humble little me wrote a post called ‘Something in the Air’; take a look – it’s still there. In it, I commented on a pessimistic malaise that seemed to have settled upon the world, something that was manifested via a variety of dismal news stories, the impact of which was possibly exacerbated by the instant ping of social media. Coupled with very personal crises friends of mine were simultaneously undergoing at the time of writing, it felt as though the external and internal were bleeding into one overwhelming weight on the shoulders of numerous generations inhabiting the here and now. A year or so on from that particular post, it would be nice to come to the conclusion that this was a piece of reportage chronicling a moment of madness, a missive from the dark that preceded a dawn we happily reside in as 2017 careers towards its climax. Oops!

In a couple of days, this blog will have been in existence for two years. As a writer, I couldn’t have wished for more eventful times to have been documenting on a near-daily basis. Since the inaugural post on 6 December 2015, I’ve been able to comment upon the rise of Donald Trump and the Alt-Right as well as his loud opponents on the left and those in North Korea. When I began, we were barely six months into a Conservative Government released from the constricting shackles of Coalition, yet six months into the blog David Cameron had lost an ill-advised gamble (and his job) by leading the country into a chaotic state of uncertainty it has yet to recover from. One more indecisive General Election and one more ineffective Prime Minister later, Brexit remains the ultimate barometer of division as neither Remainer/Remoaner nor Brexiteer are happy with what Government is doing in their name. And this Whitehall farce seems set to run and run well into 2018.

Of course, it is the raison d’être of online news outlets to focus on the horrible with sensationalistic relish, just as it remains so for the traditional print and cathode-ray mediums that predate them, regardless of the ‘and finally’ solace at the end of the carnage. The public wants what the public gets, as Paul Weller said almost 40 years ago (I know; it’s scary); a YT video I produced in 2014 took that line as its title whilst a catalogue of contemporary images accompanied the theme tune from the distant childhood adventures of Teddy Edward.

One of these images was of a couple kissing, under which a caption announced ‘This is Rape’. Far be it from me to adopt the guise of a twenty-first century Nostradamus, but this particular statement is suddenly relevant courtesy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, whose latest Tweet is as good a reason as any why law-enforcers should steer clear of social media and concentrate on solving genuine bloody crimes. According to a now-deleted Tweet that has nevertheless been posthumously seized upon by the Daily Telegraph, kissing a lady under the mistletoe (something that apparently still occurs) is classified as ‘rape’ unless consent is first acquired. Say no more, twenty-seven-f**king-teen.

I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do. It’s insane, and I don’t know how we got here, let alone how we get out of it. I poke fun at it with a sardonic eye, but I’m well aware I’m just pissing in the wind, satirically fiddling as our rotten Rome burns. Over a year on from ‘Something in the Air’, the fog hasn’t cleared and people who matter to me – good people who don’t deserve the shit they’re having to deal with – are even worse off now than they were then. I try to be a tower of strength to them, but I often feel a bit of a hypocrite ‘cause I know deep down I’m as f**ked-up as they are. I could be bold and declare I start most days struggling to come up with a reason to keep buggering on and end most days unconvinced that I found one; but my ego likes to think I make a difference, so I stick around.

Simon le Bon was once ripped to shreds for carelessly describing Duran Duran as the band to dance to when the bomb drops, but part of me knows what he meant. We may be almost four decades on from a throwaway comment made in the heat of early 80s Cold War paranoia; but if this is the blog that people read before they take a leap into the unknown from Beachy Head, so be it. As long as I’m here, I’ll KBO and I’ll love a select few as I do so because they make life worth living. And I’ll still be here when you switch on tomorrow, for good or ill.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510941083&sr=1-1

US, THEM AND THE REST

One of the key – and, yes, (sorry) iconic – moments in one of my favourite movies, ‘Blow-Up’, comes when David Hemmings’ Swinging London photographer attends a druggy party with the hip set and he runs into one of his top models, played by an actual 60s top model, the exotic Veruschka. Under the impression she couldn’t make one of his shoots because she was otherwise engaged, Hemmings says ‘I thought you were supposed to be in Paris’, to which the stoned beauty replies ‘I am in Paris’.

Personally, I haven’t physically been in Paris for over 30 years, though I’ve regularly been there in a Veruschka sense; even stone-cold sober, I know where she’s coming from. I guess we’ve all imagined ourselves in surroundings we regard as more conducive to the people we feel we are. Combating inverted snobbery and the ‘know-your-place/don’t-get-ideas-above-your station’ default mindset intended to protect the little people from overreaching their origins is something anyone emanating from an estate will be familiar with; but visiting Paris in one’s head is often the only option. Others, of course, judge greatness by the amount of material goods they can call their own, believing ownership of such items somehow elevates them into a higher social strata because those who can match the goods to an equivalent bank-balance are who they aspire to be; get the goods and you can manufacture the impression of affluence. And making an impression is half the game today.

It’s been a staple diet of mainstream TV for well over a decade, whether in property porn shows, ‘Come Dine with Me’, the Essex/Chelsea un-reality programmes, or the ‘I-wanna-be-famous’ Cowell approach – presenting the viewers with an ideal it implies they can attain and make them better than their nearest neighbour. All feed into the same necessary fantasy generated by the National Lottery because knuckling down and putting the hours in can no longer guarantee an actual escape route, whether doing it academically or working your way up the corporate ladder. Today’s resignation of all four members of what is known as ‘The Social Mobility Commission’ is being cynically dismissed by some as political point scoring, bearing in mind one of the most prominent voices on the panel was ex-Labour Minister from the Blair era, Alan Milburn. But the Tory Peer Baroness Gillian Shephard has quit with him.

In his resignation letter to the PM, Milburn wrote ‘the Government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support’ to social mobility as it claims to do with education; he also addressed Theresa May directly when he wrote ‘I do not doubt your personal belief in social justice, but I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action.’ Milburn expanded his reasons behind quitting a post he has held for five years on ‘The Andrew Marr Show’, when he blamed the Government’s all-encompassing focus on Brexit as relegating other important and pressing issues to the bottom drawer. The Commission is intended to oversee the Government’s attempts at ‘freeing children from poverty and ensuring everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential’, though Milburn compared this to ‘pushing water uphill’.

The Government has responded to the decision of the Commission by saying Milburn’s tenure had reached its natural conclusion and that it would be getting fresh blood in. Even though Milburn claims Education Secretary Justine Greening wanted him to remain in the post, Greening herself toed the Government line re the ‘fresh blood’ remit and has stuck to the positive script despite the publication of a report by the Commission last week that pointed out ‘political alienation’ and ‘social resentment’ as well as the indisputable divisions the EU Referendum result exposed to a far wider audience than had acknowledged them before.

The oft-aired theory of London as an economic citadel separated from the rest of the country – particularly old industrial heartlands, isolated rural outposts and neglected coastal enclaves – also formed part of the Commission’s report. None of this will have come as a surprise to anyone outside of the capital (or at least its booming boroughs), but perhaps the Government will only listen when they’re told so by a committee they set-up; mind you, it doesn’t even sound like they’re listening to this one.

The report studied all of England’s 324 local authorities and upheld the postcode lottery syndrome, even if it proved to be far more widespread a division than a straightforward North-South split. West Somerset was down at the bottom of the league table, for example, and the likes of relatively wealthy Crawley and West Berkshire also performed poorly when it came to their most vulnerable sons and daughters, exhibiting a greater gap between their high and low earners. Wages, limited career prospects and the chances of anyone starting life from a lowly position being able recover from it were important factors in the report, and as a collective region, the East Midlands came out worst of all. Newark and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire were found to be the poorest performing local authorities, with anyone there from a disadvantaged background less likely to rise above it than anywhere else in the country.

Some of Alan Milburn’s recommendations in the review of ‘Left-Behind Britain’ sound like stating the bleedin’ obvious, but even if they were implemented we’re probably talking another generation before they’d show any impact, and who knows how much rarer social mobility will have become by then? Really, when one strips away familiar factors – including disproportionate levels of immigration in some areas that have further limited job and housing opportunities, not to mention savage cuts to social services – at the root of it all is the same thing that has always been at the root of this problem: class. The old saying ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ remains the mantra for getting on in this country. Not enough of us know the right people, and most of us never will.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510941083&sr=1-1

SHOP TILL YOU DROP

As I’ve stated on more than one previous occasion, online shopping has been a Godsend for me, liberating me from having to make the dreaded trip ‘into town’ – especially this particularly appalling time of year. Only this morning, dashing down the aisles of my local Sainsbury’s in search of something to invigorate my jaded appetite, I received my first exposure of 2017 to the soundtrack that pumps out the same old seasonal songs on the same old loop until any lingering nostalgic affection for the individual tracks in question is finally, belatedly, obliterated. Yes, even ‘Fairytale of New York’, perennially held-up as the ‘Cool’ Christmas song, is beginning to grate after 30 years and is now firmly settled alongside Noddy, Roy, Greg and Jona as an earworm only marginally less unwelcome than the Radio 1 ‘mix-tape’ my new neighbour plays at 4.30am every weekend to obscure the bottom-spanking sex sounds emanating from her flat door.

I rarely make the journey into the nearest city centre now; until I stopped smoking I was mainly making the journey solely to purchase cheap tobacco from a small shop I frequented for the best part of fifteen years – baccy that supplemented the 40 cigs a day I was addicted to. Since I switched to vaping, I’ve been spared the fortnightly trek, and now I have no reason whatsoever to set foot there. A recent conversation with a friend on the horrors of physical shopping made me realise that I literally have nothing to venture into such an arena for anymore. All the shops that lured me there for the majority of my adult life have gone.

Memories of childhood city centre shopping outings mostly consist of being reluctantly dragged around ‘mum stores’ such as M&S and C&A, sterile feminine emporiums with little or no appeal for a bored boy; appeasement came as a reward before the bus-stop, when the bookshelves of Boots or WH Smiths would provide momentary portals to more exciting alternatives.

Once free from the maternal jackboot, locations that would provoke exasperation in mothers were ports-of-call on adolescent wanderings around the same square-mile – second-hand record, book and magazine shops situated down seedy side-streets off the previously beaten path, emitting intoxicatingly musty odours and manned by grubby geezers or shady ladies with mouths as foul as the enticingly archaic stench produced from the piles of yellowing 70s NME, Sounds and Melody Maker issues or LPs from record collections offloaded in the wake of the thirty-something CD exodus that such shops specialised in. Emerging from these divinely dark caves, one’s fingers were as dirty as the neglected corners of the town they were hidden away in.

The mainstream choices weren’t really mum-friendly either – mainly Virgin and HMV, which were initially as deliciously ‘alternative’ as the aforementioned independent specialist shops in the first half of the 80s, at least. If there was a colour scheme, it was sex-shop black; even the staff looked like they should be in bands, albeit The Specimen or The Slits; one pink-haired vamp was a particular personal incentive for making Virgin a regular haunt of bunking-off sessions during the last desperate days of school – sessions that would sometimes inadvertently lead to encounters with other truant wastrels dressed in uncharacteristic ensembles that would never be permissible in the place we were supposed to be attending. Of course, I didn’t ‘chat-up’ the pink-haired vamp behind the counter; I didn’t know how. But I occasionally wonder what became of her.

The shop sold videos too! ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’ was on sale in there – and they’d never broadcast that on the telly. It’d cost you around £25 to see Sid Vicious strolling through Paris and offending the natives, mind; and you’d also have to wade through the VHS/Betamax debate in order to work out if your primitive family VCR would play the bloody thing. It was all academic, though; the tape was way out of your pocket-money league, so all you could do was study the packaging and wish YouTube into existence 20 years early.

By the time the HMV morphed into just another mall monstrosity aimed at game-boys, and Virgin briefly became known as ‘Zavvi’ – or the more common nickname, ‘Spazzi’ – there were other reasons to venture into the city centre, such as bookstore Borders. Books, CDs, a café, and another alluring female member of staff to moon over – that was a good enough reason to make it an essential stop-off point on a circuit that remained a fortnightly routine. And then came 2008. In a matter of months, the small list of shops that still made shopping bearable for me suddenly vanished. The disappearance of the traditional singles chart display in HMV and ‘Zavvi’ had already curtailed a 30-year habit that made 2007 the final year I bought a physical single, but now all the other stores that had constituted the map of my shopping ceremony had gone.

The news that Toys R Us are preparing to close a quarter of their 106 UK stores, leading to the loss of hundreds of jobs, is the latest casualty of online shopping’s ascendancy almost a decade on from the 2008 crash. Although it wasn’t a shop I frequented, the announcement marks the latest development in a seemingly ongoing saga in which the ease of purchasing goods via eBay or Amazon has supplanted the undesirable experience of mulling around stores with one’s ears polluted by archive Xmas ditties and one’s person constantly confronted by the fat, sweaty crush of other people. It’s one more sign of our changing times, but one I don’t necessarily mourn the loss of. I left it all behind a long time ago.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510941083&sr=1-1