A Punctured Bicycle …

A Punctured Bicycle …

It’s time to wheel ‘Les Bicyclettes de Belsize’ into the bike shed for the very last time. The notion of a band who weren’t a band didn’t really catch on. The idea seemed simple enough – a collection of songs in a vague 1960’s meets the 1980’s stylee with contributions from whomever happened to be around at the time, named after a small, inocuous British film designed to advertise the Raleigh bicycles of the late 60’s.

Les Bicyclettes de Belsize only lasted for 30 minutes (or half an hour if you please), and starred Mrs Peter Cook  (Judy Huxtable) and the ‘Cool Cavalier’ himself from an episode of ‘The Double Deckers’ – Anthony May.

Directed by Douglas Hickox, and played on cinemas as a supporting feature to Roy Boulting‘s controversial horror film Twisted Nerve. The two films also shared a soundtrack release, with each score occupying one side each of a 1969 Polydor Records album.

The movie tells the story of a young man bicycling around the Hampstead (NW3) area of London on a Raleigh RSW16. After crashing into a billboard he falls in love with fashion model Huxtable depicted on it.

There is almost no spoken dialogue, and the soundtrack to the film is heard virtually throughout. The title song of the film, written by Les Reed and Barry Mason, has been a hit for Mireille Mathieu and Engelbert Humperdinck (a top ten hit in the UK and a top 40 hit in the USA) amongst others, though the version in the film is sung by Johnny Worth (aka songwriter Les Vandyke).

And here is the major problem, in the Google-ised world of today. Search for my band and you get Englebert Humperdinck popping up, all hair, teeth and sideburns. Although amusing to begin with, this novelty soon became an annoyance. Furthermore, the ‘band’ never actually transpired – just some rare solo excursions on my behalf backed by my trusted mp3 player and acoustic guitar.

Not that much changes … the songs will still be written and recorded – it’s just the name will be consigned to the cycle rack of history, as the tyres go flat, the brakes seize up, the chain rusts and the bell remains silent.

See you on the desolate hillside …

Heavy Metal Corner …

Heavy Metal Corner …

Something struck me earlier on today – and no, it wasn’t a Bourbon biscuit – that was yesterday (welcome to working in education in 2016 friends!).

I was thinking about our 6th formers and how they isolate themselves, with their earphones and electronic music and video devices and how that then leads to cliques forming amongst themselves and their peers. It’s an issue that has been noted – factions are warring, not just with the teachers and members of staff but with each other. Small groups huddle around a single computer teminal or a mobile phone belonging to the natural group leaders. Other students are marginalised and as a result skulk away to the darkest crevices and recesses of the school building.

When I was in the 6th form (admittedly in an altogether less refined and certainly less technologically advanced era) we had a common room – a place of sanctity from adults and of sanctuary from the punishments of the day. The stereo (for it was such a thing) was dominated by what was given the moniker ‘Heavy Metal Corner.’ Three or four lads (for they were all lads) with unkempt, lank hair and no fixed fashion sense would monopolise the record deck, with it’s knitting needle-sized stylus and chips-frying-tonight spittle and crackle emitting from enormous, quadrilateral speakers screwed perilously into plasterboard walls above their greasy heads. From within the fabric of these honeycomb covered boxes came the strangest of sounds – ear-piercingly high vocal squeals and nut-clenchingly tight-trousered guitar squarks shattering our delicate, teenage eardrums.

Our 6th form was almost a mirror to ‘The Young Ones’ in a lot of respects: ‘Heavy Metal Corner’ being Vyvyan (Ade Edmondson’s character being a confusing mix of rock and punk and more than a fair share of bubonic acne. Representing ‘Neil’ the hippy were an assortment of characters who still wore flared trousers, grew their hair over their ears and called everyone ‘man’ in a long, slow, lazy delivery suggesting a regular intake of drugs (although I doubt whether tea and aspirins really counts as Class A).

One of these individuals strutted around for two years with the same gangling walk, his cowboy boots clip-clipping the school corridors and he swished his guitar case from side to side and regaled his audience in Art lessons with tales of being stopped by the police on a regular basis, purely for “looking a bit stoned and for carrying a guitar case.” The need to fit into the coterie of cool kids was so great, his collection of Roger Dean posters adorning the common room walls so extensive that no-one ever challenged the fact that he didn’t actually play the guitar. No-one ever saw what was in the case. My first exposure to style over substance.

If anything, I suppose I belonged to Rick Mayall’s ‘Rik’ character – desperately trying to be popular, absolutely failing with girls and with a questionable taste in music – my love being Al Stewart as opposed to Cliff Richard – but you get the idea. I had bad skin, bad hair and my clothes never fitted properly. I wrote awful poetry and I couldn’t play a musical instrument to any standard required to get girls to notice me.

But then again, at least I wasn’t in the ‘Mike The Cool Person’ ranks …

Needless to say, whatever clan, gang, group, niche or squad we belonged to, we all got along okay. No-one fought anyone else, no-one battled anyone else, no-one caused much grief for anyone else. We learned to live together as a group: albeit a group of disparate teenagers with different musical tastes and notions of what passed for appropriate trousers but as a unit nonetheless.

In my work today I don’t see this. It could be age has been kind or that simply today’s 6th formers are too wrapped up, not in their own worlds, not in the agenda that they have set for themselves, but in that which You Tube and Facebook and Twitter have created for them and for which they can only play a solitary role.

Biscuit, anyone?

If music be the food of love …

So I’ve just posted Chapter 6 from the spare toilet paper that was my first (and only) novel … ‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’. Looking back at this (which incidentally I wrote around 1999) I remember now that most of the descriptions of the fictional music lessons (and music teachers) were actually quite accurate and based on my real teachers (names changed, of course).

Music lessons were an utterly miserable affair, equipment wasn’t what it is these days and we were never allowed anywhere near the piano. I still can’t remember the names of those wooden bongy things we had, individual tubular blocks that you hit with a rubber mallet thingy …

Being a large, cumbersome school in the midst of the Sussex countryside in a town that was far less interesting than it thought itself meant sheer apathy when it came to teaching music, apart from (let’s call him) ‘Mr Robinson’. A short, goatee-bearded man with a penchant for garish shirts and trousers too flared he had a temper not seen this side of Basil Fawlty losing the plot after the moose falls on his head. Moreover, he looked a lot like ‘Mike’, the unfunny one from The Young Ones, which lead to a lot of spontaneous Rik Mayall impressions and derisory snorting.

Back in the day when it was somehow legal for teachers to throw small, hard, blunt objects at the heads of small, soft vulnerable objects such as children lessons often consisted of ‘Mr Robinson‘ herding three classes of disinteredted students into a suspicious-smelling room with wooden floors and plasterboard walls that bowed and bent if you leant too far into them. ‘Robinson‘ would then strut up and down the classroom like an American courtroom lawyer, prosecuting a hopeless case of mistaken identity; imagining to himself that he’d made the wittiest of remarks, wasted on an audience of bored senseless teenagers who were wondering where ‘Miss Fanciable’, the new drama teacher with the lime-green TR7 spent her Friday nights?

Robinson’s‘ teaching method was delightfully simple – put on Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite on the record player and then strut up and down, shouting things like ‘Crotchet‘, ‘Quaver‘, ‘Allegro‘ and ‘You boy! Chewing gum in the bin you despicable prat!

Robinson’s‘ aim with the board rubber was legendary; rumour had it he could take down a kangaroo from 300 yards and he certainly got plenty of practice aiming at the acre riddled foreheads of Sussex youth. Nowadays, this thug would be arrested – back then he was simply doing his job. I heard a rumour that he’d only recently retired, due to stress. Stress! The f*cker had no idea the worry and anxiety he’d caused to me and my classmates during those dark days.

I hated music lessons. I hated music. And it was all ‘Robinson’s’ fault.

Then one day, relief of a kind arrived with ‘Miss Fanciable‘ – covering his class. Here was our chance to appreciate music, to enjoy our lesson for a change, and whatsmore, ‘Miss Fanciable’ had promised to bring in her Beatles’ record.

Yellow Submarine …

Yellow ‘effin’ Submarine …

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 6

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 6

Your boyfriend looks like Adam Ant   –   All I learnt at school   –   Local radio

This is the sound of the suburbs

I stared intensely at Simon’s e-mail. Thoughts ricocheted around my brain, rebounding off the walls and pinging their way through my subconscious. I didn’t notice Millie emerging from the bathroom; draped in her pink bathrobe with a towel wrapped turban-style around her newly washed hair. I jumped when she spoke.

‘Well, anything?’ she asked impatiently, unravelling the towel and vigorously rubbing her hair dry.

‘Just the usual load of crap!’ I mumbled, slowly recovering from my semi-catatonic state. ‘Except …’

I paused, anxiously.

‘Yes?’ said Millie, flopping her wet towel over the radiator, keen to come and see for herself. Leaning on the back of my chair, her wide, charcoaled eyes searched the screen from over my shoulder. She glowed rosy pink, fresh from her wash, with a hint of geranium and rosewood shower gel emanating from her skin.

‘Um. There’s just this strange one here.’

I pointed at the screen. Millie focused on the message and began to read out loud.

The Last Post is celebrating its 500th birthday, blah blah,, it’s looking to find bands who have played there over the years, blah blah. Cheers, Simon.’

Her face froze.

‘Simon?’ she said, her lower lip trembling. ‘Simon Pieman? I thought he was still in New Zealand? Is he back?’

‘Looks like it,’ I said. ‘You obviously remember him, don’t you?’

‘How could I fail to remember,’ she said. ‘When someone doesn’t want you in a band you don’t tend to forget them.’

I nodded. Millie and Simon had never seen eye-to-eye. Their personalities didn’t so much as clash, more smash together with the velocity of a meteorite, hitting planet Earth a billion years ago.

‘Yeah, well, all that’s in the past,’ I said, desperately trying to sound nonchalant, even though my heart was racing and my forehead pounding. ‘Looks like Simon’s been trying to contact everyone again and wants to know if we’re up for doing something? Seems all the successful bands in the area might be up for it.’

‘What successful bands?’ she asked. ‘No-one any good has ever come out of Buckton Heath. Unless you count Rosie-Ann Redgrave who went to my primary school and ended up in that failed girl-band Barbarella?’

‘Well there was Ted Dennison,’ I suggested.

‘What, you mean Blind Lemon Ted and his Rocky Rhythm Mountain Jazz Trio,’ scorned Millie.

I laughed at her contemptuous tones and she slapped me playfully on the back.

‘Oi, pack it in!’ I yelled, rubbing my shoulder in mock hurt. “Look, they want to get Adrian Eves and his lot as well.’

‘Not that shite band who claimed to be big in Canada?’ she asked.

‘What were they called again?’ I quizzed. ‘Was it The Overcoats or something?’

‘No, The Anoraks. The only thing big about them was their shoulder pads and their stupid mullets. They were so out of date at the time they were almost in,’ she remarked, scathingly. ‘My brother used to see them, poncing about in the high street like they were something famous. Just ‘cos they made a record. But did anyone buy it? No!’

‘Your idiot brother did,’ I teased. ‘You told me he was always playing it when you were growing up. Signed as well, wasn’t it?’

Millie blushed.

‘Yeah, well, he always did have an odd taste in music,’ she said.

‘And an even odder taste in trousers,’ I remembered.

‘Not as odd as that stupid claim Adrian Eves made. Do you remember?’

‘No, what did he say?’

‘He said that Paul King had stolen his haircut!’

‘What? That bloke with the big hair and Doc Martens who was famous for about five minutes in 1984?’

‘Yep. Apparently Eves reckons he came up with the big hair look first and Paul King ripped him off. It seriously harshed his melon.’

‘Well, I can only imagine Paul King had at least one decent tune. What did Eves ever do?’

Paisley thought for a moment, grinned and then burst into ‘Tukka Boot Girl’, the band’s most memorable number, impersonating Adrian Eves rather silly baritone vocals.

‘…When I saw you at the sweet shop baby

I nearly fell off my bike

I tried to buy you some Golden Wonder

But I didn’t know what flavour you’d like…’

I joined her for the chorus.

‘…Cos I’m a New Romantic baby, a

And you’re my Tukka Boot girl,

I’ll be a pirate or highway stranger,

If I can live in your Tukka Boot world...’

We laughed at the ridiculous song and tried to recall other Anoraks’ masterpieces from all those years ago.

’Your Boyfriend Looks Like Adam Ant’’, was one, I said, ‘Oh, and then there was ‘The Only Living Boy On my Estate (With A Burgundy Cardigan)’, and ‘I Wanna Be Marco Pirroni’.’

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ answered Millie, thinking hard. ‘Legwarmer Blues’ was a classic though, wasn’t it? Something about oh baby you’ve left me but can I have my purple legwarmers back?’

The Anorak’s had been so proud when the song had been pressed as a limited edition, double A-side single with ‘Tukka Boot Girl’. On the day of release they’d all piled into the local record shop, ‘Backbeat Sounds’ to do a signing. But in true Spinal Tap form, no one turned up, which led to a fight between Adrian and his guitarist Spike, each blaming the other for the spectacular failure of the event.

‘Chopper Squad ‘77’ was definitely my brother’s favourite,’ Millie said. ‘Let’s think, how’d it go now? Er .. yeah … I know. ‘…We are the fastest kids, down our way – Me and Spud and George and Dave – Raced around and around the block – Til The Incredible Hulk comes on at five o’clock – ‘cos we’re the Chopper Squad – Seventy Seven – Yeah the Chopper Squad – Seventy Seven …’

We both collapsed in a heap of giggles. Eves’ record may have been shit but at least the songs brought a smile to the face of the listener. Something Coldplay might consider once in a while. I wiped my eyes and gave a sigh. Millie coughed and went to re-adjust her towel on the radiator. Once our giggling had subsided an awkward silence descended. Millie patted down her towel then turned and looked at me, pensively.

‘Do you think we should do it?’ I asked, tentatively. ‘The reunion gig?’

Millie frowned and stood legs akimbo, hands defiantly on hips.

‘No chance,’ she spat, give that one a big body swerve,’ she insisted, picking up her make-up bag and returning to the sanctity of the bedroom and closing the door behind her firmly. Millie’s actions spoke volumes – that was that, no arguments. I was left to deal with the unwelcome e-mail on my own.

Millie was right of course. I’d felt a buzz when I’d read Simon’s message. It sounded appealing; the idea of getting the old band back together, but so much had happened since our final gig, it would be impossible to go back now. In leaving Buckton Heath, we also left behind the grotty pub gigs, the shoddy equipment and the stupid arguments over who had to drive the bass player’s amp around, because the selfish git had gone and bought himself a two-seater sports car.

The local paper was just as bad. Every week we’d send in photos and press releases letting them know about the gigs, but every week we’d be let down. Instead, we’d read headlines like ‘Boy Crosses Road’ or ‘Brave Granny Eats Cat’ and then frantically race through the paper, for the entertainments section, only to find large, quarter-page adverts for chart acts performing in London or Brighton, when our little gig got a one-line mention, in the tiniest font-face. In the end we gave up with the local rag, vowing that come our imminent stardom, we would have nothing to do with them – even if they did come crawling back, with their notebooks and their Dictaphones. Millie and I were always going to outgrow Buckton Heath and move on, it was just a question of when.

With Simon’s e-mail now festering in the otherwise empty ‘Miscellaneous’ folder, I shut down the computer. The machine hummed and whirred and finally settled itself down to a mid-morning nap. I sipped my tea from the Scooby Doo mug Millie had given me as a birthday present and looked at the calendar again. There was a full moon due, and by sheer coincidence, it was also Waitangi Day in New Zealand. Intrigued by having the country brought into my conscience twice in the same day I reached over for my encyclopaedia and looked up Waitangi Day. ‘Commemorates the signing of a treaty in 1840 at Waitangi between the British Government and a group of Maori chiefs, which was subsequently signed by other Maori chiefs in various locations throughout the country’. I wondered if Simon was aware of what day it was?

I got one for you, Portobello Belle

I stared blankly at my vinyl copy of Altered Images ‘Bite’ which sat on top of my record deck. It had been a birthday present from Mum and Dad when I was a kid; the first ever album I could call my own. On the front cover, Clare Grogan, having shred her pink and blue ribbons and ra-ra skirts, was striking a sophisticated pose, just like Holly Golightly, in a sweeping black dress, long velvet gloves and a diamante bracelet. The more glamorous image had signified a change of direction for the previously happy-go-lucky pop stars.   Still, at a tender age, who was I to worry about their mature, studio-created sound, when I had Clare’s enchanting eyes to gaze into and some well-crafted pop songs to listen to. I played that record over and over again. Every evening after school and every weekend were spent discovering the magic etched into the grooves.

But unlike my Van Halen worshipping mates Paul Knight and Ian ‘Buncie’ Evans, I didn’t adopt air-guitar pubescent poses or scrutinise tab charts to learn the widdly solos on an old, battered six-string. Oh no. What appealed to me were the string arrangements. Those smooth synths and hazy chord lines always set the hairs on end on the back of my neck. I wasn’t interested in the macho strutting of leather clad, poodle-permed bands with umpteen guitar players, thrusting their groins in all directions. I sought out groups with moody keyboard players, looking like floppy fringed scientists, hunched over their instruments, sporadically aiming a single finger at a key or wobbling the modulator wheel.

I wanted to surround myself with computers and banks of keyboards, and stare through the wisps of my fringe, defiantly sucking in my cheekbones; just like Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes. I studied the boys from Birmingham whenever they appeared on telly – Simon Le Bon charging across the stage like Errol Flynn, in loose fitting shirt and baggy trousers, whilst swash buckling John Taylor dropped his shoulder, cocked his head and with a sly wink, sent several thousand girls to heaven and back. But Nick was different. He would busy himself in his laboratory – a spiky-haired boffin, engrossed in flashing lights and endless buttons to hit. That was what I wanted. All I needed was to grow my fringe and practice my cherry-red, lip-glossed pout in the mirror.

 All I Learnt At School, Was How To Bend Not Break The Rules

When I started secondary school I resolved to get as much music training as I could. Mum and Dad couldn’t afford private tuition, so I placed myself in the precarious hands of Miss Dooley, a twittering elderly spinster who’d been at the school longer than anyone else cared to remember and ran extra curricular classes for the musically inclined. For the first two years I gave up Tuesday and Thursday lunchtime games of football in the playground and dutifully bonged on glockenspiels, bashed drums, thwacked triangles and shook maracas, in the vague hope that I was learning something useful. The music room did have a solitary, upright piano, which was monopolised by Rowena Jonas, a scholarly pupil who took proper music lessons and could play Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ without any mistakes. With my repertoire still based around the work of Depeche Mode, the Human League and the theme tune to Coronation Street I had little chance of persuading Ms Jonas to swap the comfort and warmth of the leather piano stool for the less salubrious xylophone or zither. Still, I welcomed the attention Miss Dooley gave me, as she carefully drew diagrams of more complicated chord shapes with her increasingly shaky handwriting and showed me rudimentary finger exercises I could practise on the Casio at home.

All was going well until my third year, and the final summer term before the all important future exam subjects had to be chosen. I was determined to take Music, and was looking forward to cajoling Miss Dooley into some private lessons on the rare days when Rowena vacated the piano, as well as the regular classes. However, on the first day back I was stunned to learn that Miss Dooley had finally retired and had gone to live with her equally elderly girlfriend in Brighton.

A new teacher, Bill Robinson, joined us in the classroom. Rumours were rife that Robinson had either just been sacked from another school for indecent behaviour with a 6th form girl or that he had only recently been allowed back into the community by the mental health people. He left an indelible mark on me from the moment he strode confidently into the music room, slammed a large ruler down on his desk and then picked up and threw the board rubber at little Frankie Cole, who was messing about on the Marimba.

With a short, stocky stature, plump belly and a ruddy complexion, Robinson was the kind of character you could imagine being beaten to submission by a psychopathic wife at home. He exacted sweet revenge on his defenceless pupils, by marching up and down the classroom like an army drill sergeant, ruler in one hand, stub of chalk in the other, barking his orders to a terrified class. During one lesson, as he himself turning blue in the face with rage, he reduced a girl called Penny Constable to tears as she failed to appreciate the difference between a crotchet and a semi-quaver. On another occasion, he broke several bones in his hand when he smashed his fist hard down on the upright piano, because Bruce Callis, a skinny red-haired lad with irrepressible acne, dared to suggest that Beethoven wrote Greig’s ‘Peer Gynt Suite’.

In the simplest of terms, Robinson shattered my immediate dreams of pop superstardom. Music lessons suddenly became terrifying ordeals, endurance exercises in survival, both physical and mental. Having to participate in icy cross-country runs in a vest and pair of shorts suddenly seemed like seventh heaven compared to Robinson’s torturous classes. School became a drag and I had to find a way to satisfy my lust for all things musical elsewhere.

I was an unexceptional student at most subjects. History bored me rigid. To me, Jethro Tull was a progressive rock group, led by a mad flautist who hopped about on stage on one leg, not a farmer who invented a mechanical drilling machine. In Physics, Quantum Jump meant virtually nothing, save for a novelty hit ‘The Lone Ranger’ in the late 70’s. Even in my favourite English literature class I still thought of Uriah Heap as a 70’s heavy metal band as opposed to the two-faced clerk in Dickens’ David Copperfield. But my finest hour came in Music Appreciation class, when I was given a lunchtime detention for daring to suggest that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote ‘Clair’ and ‘Get Down’, and not ‘The Pirates of Penzance’.

I taught myself social history through the development of music and popular culture, from Jazz in the 20’s to the present day. I learned more about electronics through reading about the evolution of radio, record players and recording technology than in any Physics lesson.   I understood more about racial discourse and the changing political landscape through protest songs and Punk then any lesson in Politics or Sociology.

Radio, Video, Boogie With A Suitcase

I knelt down on the floor and scrambled around for the batteries to the radio. Millie poked her head around the bedroom door, saw me fumbling about, and laughed.

‘What’s up Jon?’ she joked. ‘Hit the radio again? What was it this time? Ronan Keating or Sting?’

‘Nah. Nick ‘the effing’’ Net and his stoopid websites.’

‘You shouldn’t get so stressed. It’s only crap local radio.’

‘I know. But these people really wind me up.’

‘You could always listen to a music station,’ she said.

‘Then I really would get annoyed,’ I grimaced. ‘Like I really want to hear some lilly-livered second-hand disco bollocks over and over and over again. What’s the matter with Radio One these days? They only got four records or what?’

‘Three last time I counted,’ Millie laughed.

I fumbled with the volume knob to catch the state of the tubes and buses. 11 o’clock; time for a different presenter, and the dreadfully cheesy hand-over from one disc jockey to another. Presenter Jonty Budd, in his best pseudo Tony Blackburn voice, cheerily announced:

So here’s Dave Terry, just popped into the studio to tell us what’s happening in his show, coming up after the news and travel.’

Well, thanks Jonty, and what a packed show we’ve got for the listeners today,’ exuded Dave. ‘I can’t believe just how packed the programme is gonna be, there’s so much going on.’

Radio shows were always ‘packed’, I thought. I’d love someone to tell me when one wasn’t.

First up, we’ve got Lesley Puckett, from our entertainments desk, giving us the low down on the latest Brad Pitt movie which premiered in Leicester Square last night. And then she’ll be giving us the inside gossip on Victoria Beckham’s new Rod Stewart style haircut, as well as scotching rumours that ‘Catty’ Carly is about to be killed off in EastEnders.’

Oh, did you see last night’s episode?” asked Jonty. “You know, that girl who plays Carly just can’t act. I’m sorry. But there it is. And in real life … a complete and utter dullard.’

Ooooh, the gossip and scandal!’ exclaimed Dave.

What else is on the show?’ queried Jonty.

Well, later on I’ll be ‘logging on’ to the internet with our gadgetmeister, Norton Randall, who’ll be discussing the pros and cons of the new Wibble X-Fone.’

I pictured Dave making those quotation mark signs that people do, emphasising the phrase “logging on” with his fingers, as if he’d just said something really clever to do with computers.

And if that isn’t enough to whet your appetite this lunchtime,’ continued Dave, ‘we’ll be giving away a signed copy of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s latest book, ‘Old Rope For Money’ in our big, fat, juicy tongue-twister competition. All that plus Frances Crosby reads your horoscopes, gardening guru Harvey Keaton answers your queries on when to start planting a crop of root vegetables, and Dr. Hetty Robbins takes us on a guided tour of Victorian lavatories, in our series, ‘ Toilets for Toffs’.’

All that and more, on the Dave Terry show,” proclaimed Jonty, “coming up, after this … ‘

(man’s voice) –‘I’m always falling over, hurting myself in DIY disasters or getting involved in car accidents, June. I just don’t know what to do.’

(woman’s voice) –‘Oh Norman, you used to be so careful, but these days you are as clumsy as a bull in a china shop. You need to try ‘Dial For An Ambulance’.’

(man’s voice) –‘Dial For An Ambulance? Sounds expensive.’

(woman’s voice) –‘No, not really. All you do is sign away your house, your car, the entire contents of your wife’s jewellery box and your children’s Post Office savings account and whenever you are involved in an horrific accident, Dial For An Ambulance will come to your rescue.’

(man’s voice) –‘Terrific. I’ll call straight away!’

(woman’s voice) –‘Yes, and it needn’t cost you an arm and a leg. ho ho ho.’

(man’s voice) –‘ho ho ho.’

(serious, professional voice-over actor’s voice) –‘Dial For An Ambulance are registered with an organisation whose name is too long to read out so I’ll use some initials instead. You won’t have heard of them anyway so it won’t matter. If you don’t keep up the exorbitant monthly premiums we will repossess your house and sell it to a large supermarket chain who will knock it down and build a car park on the site. Terms and conditions apply. See our website or national press for details.’

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 5

‘Paul King Stole My Haircut’ – Chapter 5

CHAPTER FIVE

Jon’s Kafka moment   –   Streetlife   –   Plastic fantastic   –   The e-mail

Wednesday morning, 10 a.m.

Pissed off again. I couldn’t put it any more succinctly than that. The magnolia walls of our diminutive Kentish Town flat had metamorphosised into my own personal prison bars, confining me to life within their slender boundaries. It was partly my own fault I suppose. I’d taken another day off, to make my illness more convincing. ‘I’ve lost so much weight and I feel really light-headed’, I told Neil, ‘And I’m in danger of fainting at any moment.’ I paused. ‘And you wouldn’t want that,’ I added,’ what with Heath and Safety.’

With my old college folders gathering dust in the corner of the room, I had keenly anticipated an existence beyond that of the computer screen and endless mugs of tea accompanied by dry, cold toast. On the calendar pinned high on the wall, David Bowie’s alternative eyes stared down at me, from Manchester Square somewhere in 1965. Bowie’s 60’s London was dry and sunny. Mine was cold and wet, as befitted early February. A few weeks more and I would be able to erase his awkward grin forever, and greet the chaotic pose of The Rolling Stones in all their monochrome glory. I’d already checked out March’s picture, wishing the days away. The so-called longhaired louts were sporting the kind of collar-length tresses and suits that wouldn’t be uncommon on the average bank manager these days.

The desk at which I sat was covered with the remnants of my university days. An old, cutout Pringles tube that once held the Original Ridges variety was stuffed full of pencils, pens, a broken ruler and a bottle of Tippex. On the surface of the desk lay a half eaten pack of throat sweets, a book of six first class stamps, a roll of Sellotape, two empty bottles of Carlsberg, some Vaseline hand cream and an orange stapler shaped like a baby crocodile, with staples for teeth. The shaky, white plastic-covered bookcase that had served me so well over the past few years, groaned under the weight of my CD collection and a lopsided array of books. Trusted favourites such as The Hutchinson Encyclopaedia and my Concise Oxford Dictionary, laid their weary heads against my Virgin Film Guide and the 1999 edition of The Music Week Directory. To help with aspects of my course I had invested in the likes of Jon Savage’s comprehensive account of Punk Rock, ‘England’s Dreaming’, as well as more superficial books on pop culture and the media. Scattered over the floor lay assorted backdated issues of Music Week, the N.M.E. and The Stage, together with my trusted rhyming dictionary, lying pages open with a rhyme for baloney; polony, abalone and provolone, (a type of soft cheese).

Millie had de-camped to the bathroom nearly an hour ago, and I dared not interrupt her treasured routine. I switched on my portable radio, balanced precariously on the edge of a coffee-coloured chest of drawers. It crackled and buzzed away, tuned to London’s Centrepoint FM, like an annoying wasp that wouldn’t go away. Presenter Roger Finn, all camp intonation and cheerful disposition, only caused to aggravate my bad mood further.

Ha ha. There you go. News that Dilbert Truncheon, the Liberal Democrat MP for Peckham, has been attacked by a gang of angry furniture salesmen up the Walworth Road, after his comment in the House of Commons suggesting that the grey-haired man in the DFS commercials was a gay icon. There. Thanks to our reporter there at the Elephant and Castle, Gina Tibbs. There. Now listeners, it’s time for ‘The Wednesday Web’ where we here at Centrepoint FM tour the information super-highway to let you, the listener, know what’s out there! And as you know, our guest expert comes in the shape and form of none-other than Nick ‘the Net’ Langton.’

‘Morning Roger.’

‘Good morning Nick. Now, tell me and the listeners what fascinating things you found while surfing the world wide web last week.’

‘Well Roger. On Friday I came across this fascinating site, dedicated to ordinary people with real names that sound a bit like those of the rich and famous.’

‘Intriguing,’ oozed Roger. ‘Tell me more. What’s the website address?’

‘’Type in www, dot, soundslikemyname, one word, dot, microsite, dot, com, forward slash, celebrities, have you got that Roger?’

‘Yes, yes, yes, dot, com, slash…’

Well, if you go to the photograph album section – click on the image of Kerry Katona – you’ll find pictures of people such as Whitby postman Terry Blair shaking hands with – guess who?’

‘That’ll be Tony Blair!’ cried Roger.

‘Correct. And click again.’

‘Click.’

‘Astounding! A bald carpet fitter from Slough named Bill Collins arm in arm with a startled Phil outside a London recording studio.’

I was unable to contain my excitement any further, as Nick ‘the Net’ moved onto a website for pre-pubescent girls, where you could build your own virtual boyband, write your own virtual boyband lament and wet your own virtual knickers. I thumped the radio hard and it crashed to the floor, spilling the batteries, just before Roger could acerbically doubt the sexuality of yet another soap star whose name, appearance and canon of work escaped me.

Streetlife, is the only life I know

I peered out of the grubby, tarnished window I was sat next to and looked out onto the busy street. Last night’s heavy rainfall had given this part of North London a watercolour finish, dripping and wet, as if waiting for the artist to finish off the work with a few dabs of tissue paper. Puddles on the road refracted the light and blurred the outlines of pedestrians, cars and buses, as each hurried on their way somewhere. I could hear the delighted screams of primary school children enjoying a games lesson in the playground, just a few yards opposite the flat, and tried to remember what it was like to be so carefree and naive.

A small, garishly green car which looked as if it was being held together by rust, sped past the window; hardcore drum and bass pumping out obscene decibels from absurdly large speakers on the rear parcel shelf. The owner of the corner convenience store stood arms folded and legs crossed, leaning against his doorway, puffing on a cigarette while surveying the scene.

A white delivery van took a wrong turn down a one-way street and shortly found his route blocked by a string of irate motorists travelling in the contrary direction. If I’d had a Polaroid camera, it couldn’t have taken a more representative snapshot of daily life.

My home-made clock on the wall, which I had proudly fashioned from an empty reel of half-inch recording tape and the working parts from an old kitchen clock, slowly ticked round to a quarter past ten. I had only been awake for just over an hour, but wearily decided to make my way along the short hallway into the kitchen for my third cup of tea of the morning. Tea – not so much the drink of the day, more something to do.

I wasn’t thirsty, but I had a rasping dry throat, as a result of inhaling some of Withnail’s incredibly parched grass the night before. When I’d taken a drag, he’d promised that it was ‘the finest Lebanese, man’, but I’d have been better off trying to suck up the dust and dirt from an old Hoover bag.

I paused by the portable on the wooden breakfast bar, conveniently positioned à la American TV shows where the housewife dutifully follows the routine of the celebrity chef or fitness guru. The television, like the radio, wasn’t just another form of companionship, but also acted as a constant distraction to the reality of the outside world.

During my student days I watched so much telly I could have entered Mastermind with the specialist knowledge of ‘Daytime TV Game Show Hosts’, or ‘currently available products designed to assist with going to the toilet, stopping going to the toilet, cleaning the toilet or what to do if you drop your dentures down the toilet’. I became an authority on the bodily function problems of menopausal women and could always be relied on to recommend sound advice on car insurance, low cost loans, cat food and the appropriate medication needed to prevent constipation and diarrhoea, particularly to attractive, thirty-something woman meeting important business clients at a plush restaurant in Knightsbridge.

When I couldn’t stomach another feature on the types of poo emitted by babies from the age of three weeks to two years I’d turn to the radio. Here, telephone numbers of phone-in shows, adverts for health insurance and on which aisle to find prune juice in the local supermarket were imprinted on my brain with indelible ink. I could impersonate football experts and reel off more clichés-to-the-minute than any third division manager who had just drawn Liverpool or Arsenal away in the third round of the FA Cup. I knew which soccer stars held the record for the most inappropriate use of the word ‘hopefully’, the most repetitive use of the phrases ‘basically’, ‘the boss’ and ‘we knew it would be a tough game’, as well as how many times an interviewee would answer the question – ‘Good afternoon Lee, and how are you?’ – with the reply – ‘Yeah.’

After I started work at Young, Waller and Gates I quickly realised that normal people didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Neil was oblivious to who Judy Finnegan was, let alone the fact that she was actually married to the clueless idiot with the hair who sat beside her. Likewise, no one ever stayed up late enough to discuss the merits of the classic kitchen sink, black and white John Schlesinger movie shown at three in the morning. It’s a good job Morrissey never went to work somewhere like Young, Waller and Gates, or The Smiths might have turned out to be Coldplay.

Frankly Mr Shankly

I knew that there wouldn’t be any programmes on of any substance at this time of day. Nonetheless, I still punched the small, red button on the base of the television and waited in suspended anticipation as the low hum and click-clicking of static gradually transformed themselves into pictures and sound. The garish, orange face, polar white teeth and lacquered hairpiece, incredulous in its fragility, dazzled with the intensity of the neon signs at Piccadilly Circus and beckoned me into the studio, once again, to find out just who will be today’s champion. Just who will be staying for two nights at a 2-star hotel in a road just off the Eiffel Tower in the middle of January?   Just who will be going home empty handed, only to be faced with the expense of a train journey to London from Bridlington and the cost of an overnight stay plus sailing extremely close to their charge card limit at BHS for the gaudy Hawaiian shirt and tie combination bought especially for today’s proceedings?

I didn’t care. Nor did I care for an episode of some desperate actors in foam rubber suits expending their energy in a day-glo set for the supposed amusement of children. I imagined them saying to each other in a strident and vociferous Alec Guinness voice: ‘Three years at RADA and if only I’d gone to that Casualty audition when I had the chance.’

I’m a Barbie girl, in my Barbie world

I punched hard at the set again. Into view came the production-line female newscaster, (short bob, double breasted suit, red butterfly lips), on Newsroom So What. The green, exotic pot plants backing onto a view of the Thames seemed to sigh in resignation as yet another up-and-coming girl group called Pink Sunshine answered their interview questions with monosyllabic yeses and nos, accompanied by a myriad of giggles.

Tell me Siobhan,’ asked the presenter, leaning her ample bosom towards the nearest Barbie doll, pen poised over a set of pre-prepared questions. ‘How do you react to the criticism that you are just another manufactured, pre-packaged group?’

‘Oh no, we’re not manufactured,’ smiled Barbie-doll #1. ‘Cos no one tells us what to wear. We choose all our own clothes, don’t we girls?’

‘Oh yeah!’ beamed Sindy-doll #2. ‘And we can play our instruments as well. It’s just the men in the studio prefer us not to actually do it on any of our records!’

A cold mist seemed to descend on the studio, as the ghosts of musicians and songwriters past shuddered and then turned over in their graves, not wishing to preside over the seemingly impending death of pop music. Like a incurable epidemic, all-singing, all-miming boy, girl and boy/girl groups had seized the UK pop music business by the throat over the past few years and were now slowly and painfully squeezing the last drops of life blood out of it.

What made it worse, was when any such act decided to call it a day, any celebrations would be short-lived as one by one, each member would say words more dreaded than the results of a testicular cancer scan or Grandad is coming to stay with us for a few weeks: ‘I’m embarking on a solo career.’ It was like trying to slay the multi-headed Hydra; no sooner had Heracles, in the shape of one record company boss, figuratively cut off one head, then two, or sometimes three more would appear, thereby actually making the situation worse.

With gritted teeth, as if secretly cursing the day this homologous monster set foot inside a recording studio, the presenter turned to face the autocue.

And now – as promised – singing ‘live’ – their brand new single – in your shops on Monday – go out and buy it – we’ll see you at the same time, same place tomorrow but for now – with their version of the Bay City Rollers’ 70’s classic ‘Shang A Lang’ – take it away – Pink Sunshine!’

I found my thoughts interrupted by the faltering mumbling of the kettle, now reaching boiling point. I made two cups, my tea strong with plenty of milk; with Millie’s I simply waved the teabag over the mug – she liked it weak. I had given up sugar in tea years ago, as well as in coffee and on cornflakes. I wrung out the final drops from the teabags between the teaspoon and my thumb, cursing the fact that I’d developed ‘smokers fingers; the skin having turned a sallow yellowy-brown through continuous teabag squeezing.

I knocked on the bathroom door and knelt down to place Millie’s tea on the floor outside. I yelled out, ‘TEA!’ She had her Undertones cd blaring away on full volume, Fergal Sharkey’s sandpaper vocals chronicling the joys of teenage masturbation.   I continued with my mug to my desk and sat myself down in the imitation leather office chair. We’d just signed up for an improved internet package and my computer was faithfully, if illegally, downloading MP3 files of classic 80’s tunes. The legend indicated that my download was 83% complete. I minimised the window and stared blankly at all the icons on the desktop, each fervently waiting to be clicked upon and opened.

-‘Pick me!’ they seemed to cry, as the cursor floated over each image as I idly rolled the mouse across the face of Pikachu, the Pokemon character whose likeness was etched onto my mouse mat.

There were hidden treasures behind each door – word processing, music compositional software, photographic manipulation packages, plus several shortcuts to the celebrated 80’s arcade games Space Invaders, Pac Man and Asteroids.   I spun the curser round and round, starting with a small circle and then spreading outwards, faster and faster, like a child waving a sparkler on Bonfire Night, frantically trying to write their name in a neon glow. The computer ‘pinged’, signalling the end of the download. I couldn’t be bothered to check the track straight away, but transferred the file into my desktop folder marked ‘MP3’. I rubbed my eyes and ran my fingers through my unwashed hair, which was still tangled and ratty from last night’s rain. Giving the impression of being the furthest thing removed from a pop star, I was wearing tracksuit trousers and last night’s tee-shirt, which had a curious-looking stain down the front; probably a combination of spring roll and egg fried rice.

Was it destiny? I don’t know yet.

‘Can you check the e-mail?’ cried Millie, from behind the bathroom door, most likely in a puff of potions and powder, pulling her mascara applying face she does – that of intense concentration.

I clicked half-heartedly on the tiny e-mail icon at the bottom of the screen. The modem gave its usual cackled response, like an Apollo astronaut transmitting an unearthly message to Houston from the surface of the Moon, or a commentator from the 1970 World Cup, relaying the action via a far distant satellite. I pressed ‘Send and Receive’ and waited.

Receiving list of messages from server

Receiving 1 of 8 new messages

2 of 8

3 of 8

One by one, each e-mail arrived on the screen, the last being greeted with a comedy wave file from Spinal Tap.

So long as there’s sex and drugs, you know, I can do without the Rock ’n’ Roll,’ decreed drummer Mick Shrimpton from his celluloid bath.

I scanned the new entries. www.whatsonoffer.com had a list of holiday destinations I couldn’t afford to visit. www.tieclip.co.uk was allegedly a wacky site full of fun with a joke-of-the-day download and a competition to win tickets for a weekend’s paintballing, whilst www.wine_in_the_buff.org offered twelve crates of Chardonnay delivered in time for the next day plus a free bottle of Brut Champagne for a lucky person, should they order by noon. I was about to hit delete, when I caught sight of an unfamiliar e-mail address: sthepieman99@ultrasheen.co.uk

Like Alice, I was curious. I clicked on the small yellow envelope.

Alright mate! Blimey, I can’t remember when I saw you last. Got your e-mail from your uni. What are you doing? And where are you living now? I’m back here in Buckton Heath, have been for a few months. Still teaching guitar and doing the odd bit of work. Anyway, the reason I’m mailing is you remember that pub in town where we used to play, The Last Post? Well, it’s celebrating its 500th birthday next month. They’re trying to find bands who have gigged there over the years, like Ted Dennison’s mob and Smokestack, that blues group we always took the piss out of. Oh, and it seems Adrian Eves played there in the 80s. Anyway, I’ve been trying to contact the old band and I need to know if you’re up for doing something? Go on mate, it’ll be a laugh. Give us a call, (I’m still on my old mobile number) or e-mail back. Cheers, Simon.’

I froze. I hated surprises and I hated reunions. A surprise reunion just cemented my hatred. More to the point, I hated the town. Buckton Heath: ‘the coastal town that they forgot to close down’ – except there isn’t even a beach. No pebbles and sand. Not even a promenade to sit and etch postcards. But growing up I could have sworn Morrissey was singing about my hometown. It’s situated in no-man’s land, halfway between London and Brighton if you travelled North/South, and between Gatwick and Tunbridge Wells if you went East/West. The Beatles could have re-formed and the Earth spun on its axis in the opposite direction, but in Buckton Heath, things would have continued as normal. People didn’t live there; they existed. Day by day, year by year. Come to think of it you might as well be dead because Buckton Heath is small-minded suburbia at its worst. If Rob Newman supposed that in a small town in South America sat the fountain at the centre of the world, from where life itself sprang, then my hometown must conversely be the plughole.

I often wondered what was the point of it all. Compared to London everything seems so petty. There is a tiny cinema which shows films weeks after general release and a theatre which attracts stars such as Ralph ‘Streets Of London’ McTell and ‘Richard ‘That’s Life’ Stilgoe to entertain. By day the shops are full of the elderly and the unemployed, buying newspapers and groceries, and by night, the young and the unattached crowd into the pubs and bars to drink themselves stupid on cheap lager and then spill out onto the streets and head straight for the nearest kebab. On the knowyourplace.com website, where they report truthfully on the state of small English towns, Buckton Heath was bestowed the epigram: ‘Thinks it’s more important than it actually is’.