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.’
‘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.’
‘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: email@example.com
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’.