Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Remember Chat Rooms....?

All of a sudden, in the late 1990s you just couldn’t ignore it. The BBC were referencing it. Rock stars were complaining and issuing law suits about it. The internet had arrived. So when my rich Aunty Molly died in ‘99, and left me £1000, I went out and bought a PC, hooked it up to the phone line, and waited for 3 hours until it connected. The future had arrived, albeit a bit clunky.

In these Pre-google times the only search engine then was MSN. So if you were on their site, you saw MSN Chat rooms. I took the bait and went for it. It wasn’t long before my then girlfriend was lost to me sitting in front of the glowing box at 3am chatting to troubled and lonely people in Anaheim and Argentina.

I started to make regular friends too. And not always of the platonic kind. There were (and still are) a million things you could do in a chat room that don’t involve any bodily contact, threat of STDs, and if it got (too) weird, you just hit ‘block’. I can’t honestly say I’m proud of this, but hey, I’m apparently what they call an Early Adopter, and I was feeling fruity.

Lots of other things were happening in my life, my hotel career was burgeoning and a move was in the offing. I behaved like a well-seasoned jackass and ended my then 6 year relationship without so much as an explanation one day, and then carried on chatting in this twilight netherworld. Back then it was still a very small world, a private pleasure that wasn’t shared openly with people. The chat rooms were definitely spoken of in hushed terms, and then seen as seedy. The general consensus wasn’t completely off the mark either. Then, as now, you got to know the oddballs very quickly, learned the lingo, and built up a block list that would fill a library shelf.

Eventually I got chatting to woman in Northern Ireland who seemed to just uncannily ‘get’ me and my then late 20-something issues. We chatted and chatted, it was very exciting, almost verboten. One of the things about online chatting of course, was that you could be told you were chatting to a tall dark raven-haired 22 year old art beauty, and art school student and fan of MC Escher, but it actually turned out to be cross-dressing Alan with a 42 inch waist from Droitwich. So we also exchanged pictures. Back then Bluetooth and pressing share on a smartphone was merely a glint in Steve Jobs eye, so we had to scan and email. But things went well that department too so we eventually (probably within a few weeks actually) exchanged phone numbers and spoke. I was incredibly nervous, even though we had shared loads of personal stuff in the chat rooms already. But we hit it off. We talked at 3am. We texted. Then we started telling friends how we had met. There was a lot of silences, and disapproving head movements. This of course made it all the more attractive, and added to the fact that it was someone from Belfast, who was also 15 years my senior, it was irresistible. There’s definitely something about the unknown that makes meeting and chatting to people online all the fun.

The flights were booked for late July in 2001. I jumped on a train with a bag and a pocket full of dreams. To coin a phrase.

As I came down the escalator at Belfast Int’l Airport I was terrified. My impressions were met. Almost. So I went with it. We chatted really well in the car, took a trip to Dublin. I came for 4 days, and ended up staying for 2 weeks. I fell in love with Belfast. From this I visited week after week, moving over to live with her in March 2002.
The MSN dream came to a rather unpleasant and bitter end on new years day 2007, with a difficult discussion and a realization I had (I cant & wont, speak for her, that’s not fair) been living something of a lie for a long time.

Perhaps it was never going to work, perhaps all that ‘real’ stuff we chatted about online when we first met was just the fulfilment of our individual fantasies, instead of reality. And as we know, the twain rarely meet. I don’t like the person I became, but that isn’t MSN’s fault. Whatever methods we use to meet people, we are still responsible for our own behaviour.
Online meeting now is commonplace, and a media staple, but still, I think it’s no less exciting, or possibly unsuccessful, or even dangerous. After all, those dating sites don’t match human beings, merely algorithms. I still used online chat rooms/sites after 2007 for a short period, but never with much success.

So on the upside, if it wasn’t for MSN, I wouldn’t have moved to Belfast, met my (now) beautiful wife in 2007 (face to face, in very romantic circumstances!), and had two beautiful daughters. So, a happy ending after all, then.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

What Is Free Speech?

The events of the last few days in Paris have shocked us all. The idea that cartoon satirists can be murdered in such a way for expressing their art, is repulsive to anyone in their right mind.

It has brought to the fore (again) the idea of 'what is free speech'?

It seem a very simple concept to me. Anyone is entitled to have an opinion, however misguided or abhorrent it may be. We cannot start trying to control people's thoughts. And free speech means we can express this, and anyone who disagrees has the right to argue back. With words, pictures, music. Hence the phrase "free speech".

When a group of people start arguing back at the tip of a sword, or gun or bomb however, that is wrong. And they deserve the full force of the law upon them. We should make no excuse for it, and not question it. If someone points a gun at you or your country, you don't, or shouldn't, just lie down and give in.

I think democracy is a wonderful but very complicated thing. The events in Paris, however, are not the price we pay for it. The price we pay for democracy are the extreme right wing political parties, the extreme left wing, the ones that scare us a bit, but don't go around enforcing their views with a gun.

At the moment, the world is obsessed with the idea of Islamic extremists. But we seem to forget that not much more than 100 years ago, Britain had at least a 3rd of the world at the tip of a Christian-fuelled sword. Christianity very recently, had a hold on the world in just as brutal a manner as a (comparatively small) amount of Islamic extremists would have it if they could.

For me, it is the way of the world. People are radicalised by whatever they see gives them power. If it wasn't Islam, or Christianity, it would be something else that radicalised the bored, the disaffected, those people in our world that feel forgotten but want a voice.

I don't think we can fix this. Merely live through it, and hopefully, learn from it. I don't really understand or know what I'm talking about. So I'll use the below.

Joe Sacco: On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Saturday, 1 November 2014

What is normal? And why don't I like it?

I have always been interested in the life and work of Vivian Stanshall. If you don't know anything about him, follow the link on his name. He was one of those guys from the 60s and beyond that a comparatively select few people have heard of. But everyone who has, was almost certainly affected or influenced by him in some way. One of life's one offs. A true renegade, an individual, he ploughed his own furrow, not to be 'hip', but just by being himself.

Of late, I have found myself in a place where I am becoming more myself, the person I want be (about friggin' time, I'm 42!), not the person that (I feel) is expected of me, or forced upon me. My wife Becca and I have had a truly horrendous 18 months, having lost our first daughter Maeve, aged 18 months, in April 2013. Life continues to be hard as nails, but is frequently softened by our beautiful 2nd daughter Rosa.

Maeve was born with a some challenges which I'm not going to go into, but as a result, you could perhaps have said that her life wasn't 'normal'. It didn't conform to platitudes and tick boxes. Becca and I have also always been people who do not give in to the well-walked paths (never have). a simple example of this would be that we have no telly (since 2008...gasp!!), and consequently no idea what or who is on Strictly or the X-factor (and we don't care).

I have recently re-established my Twitter addiction. I have talked to SO many fascinating people on this social media phenomenon. I have learned SO much, been called out on stupid things I've said. And made a couple of genuine friends too. Recently BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast a lengthy and amazing documentary about Vivian. This led me to chat briefly to its producer, Laura Baron on Twitter, and then to Rupert Stanshall, Vivian's son. Now, I'm not a celeb worshipper, and frankly cannot stand that kind of crap. But Rupert's twitter feed was amusing enough for me to follow him. Then he started selling some rather glorious Bonzos memorabilia on eBay. So in the course of buying a few pics, I got chatting with him about this n that, and a picture he put up of his Dad (left) struck me. "This is my normal Dad". Now its is simply none of my business, but my general impression is that Viv was an incredibly unconventional guy, but a perfectly loving Dad. But was seen as 'not normal' by so many people. And parents almost certainly kept their kids away from him, and therefore Rupert. Which is just, so much more abnormal.

I was briefly tweeting Rupert about this, and he said something which really stayed in my mind. Just an off the cuff remark, nothing earth shattering or heaven sent....(aren't most of the best things?)

"Best shut the door and keep the normals out".

I asked Rupert to write it out in his handwriting and post it with the pics I had bought. And yesterday this happened.

Rupert, and lots of you, probably think I'm off my crock. But it just speaks to me. My only other tattoo is of Maeve's hand print. So, I don't do a tattoo lightly. But the phrase is what we strive for. I think my interpretation is less about insulting 'normal' or 'regular' folk, more about guarding oneself against an attack of the 'normals'. i.e. You can have an attack of the jitters, right? So an attack of the normals, to me, just means, be yourself, stop following the well-trodden path. That's all. I love it.

Thanks Rupert for being so game. It didn't hurt that much. Thanks to Jenna and Helen at Skullduggery Tattoo in Belfast too, They're amazing.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

How long will the UK citizens wait, its looking like Berlin in '38..

Following a discussion with a Twitter friend. I feel moved to blog.

The idea of the UK has taken a battering over the last few months. The fact that it us viewed as an outdated, clinging to imperialism ideal.

This has lead to a lot of people actually having an opinion, instead of just trying to please everyone all of the time. This illustrates what has happened to politics since the end of the Thatcher years. Both parties moved further and further to the centre, cutting off anyone with defined views or opinions as crackpots and the like. But as we see the rise of UKIP, I think it's clear that politics are going to go back to their left and right side. And this will involve a move back to grass roots politics.

However, with this, comes a danger. In Germany in the 1930s, the country was on its knees, still recovering from WW1, an outdated imperialist leadership seen as removed from the populous. Sound familiar? Then along comes this hugely charismatic guy, who made good on his promises. To give Germany back to the Germans, to put nationals before non-nationals. Again, sound familiar?
The UK is on the brink of something, and it is creeping up on us. It's easy to say how obvious Hitler was, with a post-war, post holocaust hindsight. In the 30s, many in the west revered him, thought his policies were progressive.
Take a look at what is happening in British politics (and latterly, but no less so, Northern Irish politics). All it needs is someone with charisma, to give a voice to the 1000s of disenfranchised, and they'll vote with their ballot cards.
 And then, when a democratic mandate has been spoken, it'll be too late.
The biggest threat to our democracy isn't terrorism or even religious extremism. It's voter apathy. Don't like what you see, the way to complain is not to not bother voting. It's the opposite. Get out there and vote next year. Or soon we may find ourselves complicit in some scary stuff.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Nutter, filth monger, comedy icon. bloke.

I, like so many of my peers, worshipped at the alter of the Young Ones. We quoted it, we laughed at it, hell, before student grants ended (ask someone over 40), some of us even lived it.

So, when I moved to South Devon in 1993, to be a barman at a pub near Dartmouth, and live the country life, I appeared to be in sync with my heroes of comedy.
One night, Bob Speirs turned up and got very drunk with a couple of friends. And he was great fun.

Then a few weeks later, having purchased property in the area (we heard on the grapevine), Rik Mayall came to the pub. It was initially very exciting, but then as I stopped being a dick, I realised he was human like the rest of us, and my up-until-then-lifelong worship of celebrities came to an end. Which has continued to this day.

But anyway, back to the pub, so at about 9ish, the door swung open, and purely by coincidence (no, really) Ruby Wax walked in. After a huge theatrical embrace between them, I served drinks at an unforgettable night of laughs and insight.

Over the years up until Riks quad bike accident, we ended up on nodding-pass-the-time-of-day terms. I worked at a local petrol stationn, then a hotel in Dartmouth. And saw Rik frequently, he was ALWAYS nice to kids that shouted Rik, Bottom or B'Stard isms at him. And he never ever played the celeb card.

Last time I saw him, he was walking along a Devon lane past a farm, top off, sun belting down, not a care in the world. All the crap of celebrity far away. I was driving, so I slowed, said hi, as did he, and off he went.

What a comedy giant. What an icon. What a normal bloke.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

When Indie was real

I have just been Tweeting with 1p Album Club (follow them - they're great!) about Carter USM. I was, for the second time this year, reminded of the great Bloodsport For All single release gig / trashing / minor riot that was 17th Jan 1991 at HMV 363 Oxford Street. I was working at the HMV Trocadero store at the time, and was also a huge Carter USM fan. I trotted up to the cavernous store that day, and had to sign-in through the staff entrance. Back then, this HMV store was hallowed ground for any/all record store employees, and to get my 33% staff discount off my 7" single, I had to follow protocol. I remember queuing up to get the Bloodsport 7" signed (this is a link to the video - blink and you'll miss me), then after that, a lot of jumping around (ermm.. 'moshing'), and then amazement at the aftermath.

Back then, 'indie' music really was independent, but no less important. Carter's first LP came out on the tiny Big Cat records, the enormo-band that was Mudhoney (well they were to us in Surrey), were on Sub-pop, in fact to my memory to get a Mudhoney EP I had to travel to the Rough Trade shop in Kingston 'cos no-one else stocked it.
Even at this pre-Nevermind moment the biggest record shop on the planet had recognized the popularity of 'indie' music, then paid the price for inviting us anarchists into the place. 

There was Carter USM, PWEI, Neds Atomic Dustbin, Fugazi, Mudhoney, Lush, Snuff (my personal fave-at The Venue New Cross I moshed so hard I got punched and then threw up on some poor stray grebo lying on the floor), Leatherface, Mega City Four, Lard, Pixies (I have a pristine unused ticket for Kilburn National 89-damned train strikes & flakey 'friends') and so much more. The cool guys in the Warp Records t-shirts didn't cotton on until '92 when Trompe Le Monde came out and Nirvana had gone stratospheric, by which time almost all of those bands had signed to big labels and gone all  Blue Bell Knoll.

I remember being so surprised at the excitement the Stone Roses debut caused, they sounded like The Smiths to me, and they were old news by '89, and anyway, we had The Poppies! I didn't understand the reverence that the jangly crap of the first two Primal Scream Albums were held in, we had Jesus Jones!! Then, Screamadelica came out, and I'm Free by Soup Dragons, and Groovy Train by The Farm, all these big label bread-heads were doing was ripping off PWEI, Carter, Neds and the like!! The nerve.
But my Doc Marten'd, floppy hair'd, army trouser'd smelly jumper look had been cottoned onto too, by some bloke called Kur(d)t. After that, it was all over.

But once in a while i can listen to the poetry that is The Taking Of Peckham 123, and wonder at how such a tiny band, from Sarf London, could have written such amazing lyrics, to such malevolent music. Only a few years later did I realize what a debt they owed to Tom Waits Small Change, or Billy Bragg's Levi Stubbs Tears, or even Ray Davies etc. Now, we have the likes of Jake Bugg, claiming to be the new pretenders. And oh, how he pretends.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

"Its Whoop Of Gorillas....."

Last night we (well.. I..... Becca just sat and marveled at me mouthing along to all the words) had a Blackadder Goes Forth marathon. I was struck by how amazingly popular it was at the time (and still is), and how wordy it is, how generally intelligent and 'high brow' it is. Then I realised that TV like this now, would probably only make it to Channel 438+1 (v 3.56), if in fact it would be made at all, mainly because its audience would be a mere 7 million, not enough to fuel the advertisers pockets. There are moments, and only moments (I say this as a die-hard fan of all thing Adders Black) when the ensemble reach th heights of Python or Peter Cook. No, really.
I then discovered I had the documentary about the show made in 2008 (Blackadder Rides Again) so I dutifully stayed up until 1.00am watching it. It was quite interesting.
Rowan Atkinson for instance, said he suffers from a stutter, quite incredible considering the lines he delivers, and then Stephen Fry mentioned the Schoolmaster Sketch. Oh helloooo YouTube... One wonders whether underneath that searing, frightening exterior (above) was he absolutely petrified? It truly is 5 minutes of utter joy for us, however.
In an amusing side note - I tweeted a YouTube clip of the poo-poo monologue and @'d Stephen Fry. He tweeted back which was nice, but more weirdly, i am now being followed by an extra 50-60 strangers, as if touching the hem on my tweet maybe gets people closer to Mr Fry.... What an odd place Tweet-land is.
Watching the schoolmaster sketch from the Secret Policeman's Ball, I was reminded how back in about 1986, a school friend, Jon and I, mimed along to the below.
Jon was very priviledged, because we had it playing in the background on his huge 27" television (in his room!!) and then we video recorded (in 1986?!?) ourselves miming along. I would love to see it again. I think there was a viewing at my house in front of my mum and dad and sister. How cringeworthy.
Anyway, that was a nice trip along memory lane. Happy 30th Birthday Slackbladder.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Little Trains

I wouldnt normally share such private stuff (I can hear you all laughing), but this song just came on unexpectedly on my iTunes just a minute ago. I havent heard it in ages.
Expectedly i was reduced to a tearful blob. Its mine & Becca's song for reasons that you can figure on your own, around when I left HMV, which was really trying time for Becca.

I haven't been myself of late
I haven't slept for several days
But coming home I feel like I
Designed these buildings I walk by

You know you drive me up the wall
I need to see your face that's all
You little sod, I love your eyes
Be everything to me tonight
Be everything to me tonight

I never know what I want but I know when I'm low that I 
I need to be in the town where they know what I'm like and don't mind

The streets are full of Goths and Greeks
I haven't seen my mum for weeks
But coming home I feel like I
Designed these buildings I walk by

You know you drive me up the wall
I need to see your face that's all
You little sod, I love your eyes
Be everything to me tonight
Be everything to me tonight

Lyrics (c) Elbow (band)

(I'm driving Becca up the wall, I need to see her face, thats all - get the picture? It even mentions how i miss my mum) I know he's talking about Manchester, but who cares, music is there for our own interpretation.
And yes I am crying just writing this.
PS. The video is SO awesome.. model trains!!!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Its Only A Shop, isn't it.....?

So today I have found myself reading the news websites in disbelief. Reading them with tears streaming down my face. These tears seem and feel utterly preposterous. Its only a shop, isn't it...?

Well to many of us, no. HMV is (was?) a place that became a shop that became a brand that became a product that went out of business. But once upon a time, not that long ago, before ISP's and VoiP's, jpg's and mpeg's, on a Saturday afternoon, we went to HMV, in the hope that our lives would be changed. Frequently we went there not expecting anything other than for the girl behind the counter to look up and notice the shy, poorly dressed youth slinking about the shop with a Talking Heads LP under his arm. That she would rush over, all boobs and tattoos, and offer her hand in marriage screaming  "you like such cool music!!!".
I have no idea where my love affair with music started, my parents weren't hippies, they didn't go to Woodstock, They owned Abba Arrival, and an Elvis Best Of LP. Mum loved Tommy Steele, Dad loved Russ Conway and Mrs Mills.There was a copy of Rolled Gold on cassette however. And if there was an epiphany, it was hearing the guitar intro to Its All Over Now.
Once I was old enough, I bought my records from Woolworth's (another store now gone, ohh how i scorned people that cried when they closed....).
HMV was a step up, a cool shop, a shop staffed by aloof, grown-up know-alls. HMV wasn't in our town so it was untouchable, a treat. Our nearest one was Guildford. To my memory it was dark, crowded, dusty and defeaning. I spent hours in there. You could then, they didn't try and 'upsell' you a DVD you didn't want, with your purchase.

So what am I blethering on about? I don't know. But I suppose I'm trying to tell you all that HMV was NEVER just a shop, it was where you went looking for Iron Maiden, and came out with the Pixies. You went to a 'pa', a signing session, and saw the place get wrecked (ref: Carter USM '91). Met famous people, made lifelong friends, and met old friends you couldn't stand anymore trying to get some 'discount'.
I ALWAYS wanted to work for them, and in Oct 1990, I was standing in a friends house and got a phone call from the Assistant Manager of HMV Trocadero, saying i had been accepted as a Christmas temp. I jumped up and down like a right berk. Almost ALL HMV staff seemed to start that way. Off I went to work on my 'cool'.

I went full-time, and spent two extraordinary years at that place, discovering Miles Davis, The Who Live At Leeds, Shostakovitch, crummy happy hardcore dance music, realising that I loved U2 however hard i tried not to. I foisted my bands demo tape on shoppers, I tried to explain that this indie group Neds Atomic Dustbin were the future, I wore DMs, I had floppy hair. I sneered, I thought Massive Attack's Blue Lines was shit, and that You've Got The Love by The Source was a pile of dancey drivel. E(beneezer Goode) would fix that.
Ultraviolet (Light My Way) just came on the stereo here whilst I am typing, and it has transported me back 22 years, to a memory of standing behind the tills (tills with ashtrays!!!) to a sudden melee outside, and people running inside the shop in excitement, Bono was on the roof of Tower Records (or somewhere) filming. It turns out this was The Fly video. Another melee was because Roddy Frame walked past (!). Stuff like that happened all the time, HMV were the centre of things. Richard O'Brien used to come in all the time, and carefully talked down to us lowly sales assistants, with great gusto. Morrissey came in, but wasn't mobbed by American tourists (the only people who thought Kill Uncle 'rocked') No-one turned up to a p.a. by Craig McLachlan and Check 1-2. No I don't remember him either. We heard about Jane's Addiction doing a warm up gig in the Marquee so off one of us went for a 'special afternoon break', in the name of music, to get tickets. We heard of REM's secret gigs as Bingo Hand Job, not so lucky there. We got free EMF tickets, and still went!
I noticed on MTV one day this hairy angry AWESOME band getting loads of airplay, (this is 1991 folks when hardly anyone had Sky!!). I said to my manager "I just can't keep Nirvana's Nevermind in stock, what should i do?". "Rack it out on the front wall, Nick". The rest, is history, with Pearl Jam snapping at their heels. So you see, I started grunge too.

We had our own section in those days too, I ran Rock and pop cd M-S (a guy in corduroys called Marcus ran the tapes section). This meant I had Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones (but not the coveted Beatles section). We did our own buying too, we had great relationships with all of the record companies, this meant frequent free tickets, free promo stuff, free t-shirts. When the guy from Silver Sound came in his van it was like Christmas, a truck FULL of hard-to-get imports!!!! I was also the t shirt buyer for quite a while, and made a success of Red Dwarf, Simpson's and James t-shirts. I had an affair with a one of the girls from one of the t-shirt sellers, at least with her voice, then one day she said her pic made it into a published book, I excitedly turned to page 113, there she was, my dream girl, pale, thin goth-like. Affair over. HMV girls often got me in trouble, one of them moved to HMV Sutton, and rang me asking for some Led Zeppelin Remasters on CD (VERY scarce at the time) - I had it all piled up to be sent, then the manager noticed and put a stop to it.
"If you had sent those I would have fired you, Nick". He needn't have worried, 18 months later I left HMV in cloud of drugs, stupidity and general teenage angst anyway, having been shipped off to their London warehouse to get me out of the way. The dream was over. I blew it.
In 2002 I went back to HMV. Things were different. Computer to search for stuff, instead of just having it all in your head. Shop playlists, strict controls with buying.
It went downhill once Amazon got their teeth. HMV sat back and arrogantly puffed on its (probably) Lou Reed promo cigars and waited for these upstarts to f*** off. They didn't.
And here we are. HMV gone. 
from this.......
to this.
So - my thanks to the HMV of Brian McLaughlin, of a passion for music, the HMV that gave me my best (wo)man at my wedding, the HMV that had Bowie for tea. 
Most importantly thanks to staff past and present:-
(Troc) Martin, Jenny, Boyd, Chris, Simon, Jim, Marcus, Dermot, Chris, Scotty, Anna and anyone else who put up with me in 1990-192.
(Northern Ireland) Dave, Michael, Dave, Ian, Sara, Anna, Fiona, Sarah, Trevor, Stan, Zoe, Joan, Paul, Dave, Chris, Ciaron, Jacqui, Warren, Danny, Jackie, Una, Gav, Joe, Ben, Cathy, Rachael and many many more who put up with me 2002-2008.
I leave you with a lyric that stuck in my head from the day i heard it, on the shop floor of HMV Trocadero in 1991, blasting out of the shop stereo, (with the older members of staff shaking their heads at U2's descent into Bowie-Berlin plagiarism)

"You can throw it up
Or choke on it
And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming 'round
So don't let the bastards grind you down".