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Melodic randomiser: The previous generation…

image Back in the mists of time, in the years BCD, (Before Compact Discs) man survived on a musical diet that consisted primarily of freshly pressed vinyl, supplemented by the temperamental, fragile, also-ran of audio formats, the cassette. The sonic equivalent of a fast food bargain bucket, to vinyl’s aural banquet.

Now of course, all your music is polished and shiny; the laser etched tracks of a CD will remain unchanged pretty much forever, with only minimal maintenance and care; mp3 downloads can be copied, backed-up and re-uploaded ad infinitum at the cost of a few pence and that’s only if you want to actually own a piece of music.
If all you want to do is listen, then there are internet radio stations and streaming services at every junction on the information superhighway.

Prior to the advent of CDs in 1985, when newly converted devotees of the gleaming silver disc started their campaign to piss off vinyl fans by going on about “dynamic range” and “bass response” being so much superior and Vinyl enthusiasts (including myself) would insist that CDs were “too tinny” and “don’t have that organic sound, man”, there was one thing that everyone agreed on.

Compared to vinyl, cassettes were crap.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea to scale down the huge reel-to-reel tape recorders of the past into an easy to use, portable format which allowed anyone to make home recordings was, in principal, a brilliant one, but a system which relied on running a flimsy magnetic tape across a metal pickup head by pinching it between rubber rollers whilst under tension was always going to be fraught with problems.

If it wasn’t the tape getting wrapped around the rollers, (resulting in hours spent with a pen knife, sticky tape and that all important staple of the cassette repair tool kit, a pencil) it was the spools getting over-tightened, resulting in “tape wobble”.
Then there was something old RCA cassettes were particularly known for, the magnetic coating wearing off the tape, leaving muffled “drop outs” in the music.
And who could forget that other old favourite; twists in the tape that meant you would suddenly find yourself listening to side two, backwards, half way through side one?

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Now, where did that screw go..?

But despite all that, we all bought them. Because they were cheap, because they were portable, but most of all because you could make compilations to share with your mates.
Like playlists, alright?
But in a box.

So you’d think that, what with cassettes being so prone to damage and deterioration, most of those old albums and mixtapes would be history by now, wouldn’t you?
But of course that isn’t the case at all.
There must be millions upon millions of little plastic boxes of music all over the world, because there’s something fundamentally wrong about throwing music away, so people (well, people like me anyway) keep their old LPs and cassettes, as though they’ll be passed down like family heirlooms.
Sadly, the future’s music fans won’t have much patience for a medium that requires five minutes of rewinding to allow them to play forty minutes of muffled, hissing noise and the nearest you’ll get to a cassette walkman these days is an ironically designed mp3 player, complete with rotating LCD spools.

With all that in mind, I’d like to introduce a new occasional feature, Melodic Randomiser 2: The Cassette Years., in which I will trawl the boxes of tapes that lurk in the dark recess under the stairs to find an eclectic selection of memorable musical morsels from my formative years.

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This is the first of several similar boxes, totalling maybe 400 tapes.
I’m sure a good few of these will be in less than perfect condition, others will be a bit worn out from repeated playings and one or two will be completely unplayable (kept, in the spirit of hope that cassette connoisseurs everywhere will understand, against the day that I get round to repairing them) but I know for a fact there are albums in there from the early ’70s that play better than CDs which were produced fifteen years later too, so I’m looking forward to spoolling back the years and taking you along for the ride.

I know this one’s in there somewhere…

Join me for the first trio of tapes in the next post.
Don’t touch that dial.

 

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The absence of Martin…

Should I feel bad?
Should I make a note in my diary to remind me?
Should I mark the anniversary in some way?

Death is a funny thing.
Not in a hahaha way, obviously.
But it’s one of those things that requires special treatment by the little people in our heads that are responsible for filtering our memories through the gauze of time, to enable us to experience the best bits of a person’s life without having to continually relive the gut-wrenching moment of loss when that life comes to an end.

In many ways, the unreal feeling of absence that comes with losing someone who has been integral to your life for so long becomes more unreal with the passage of time.
Initially, the shock, pain and sorrow that is part and parcel of loss seems like a comfort, almost as if the process of grieving is a defence in and of itself, a way of opening you up to any and all feelings you had for someone who is now gone.
This huge overload of emotion insulates you from the true horror of the situation, only letting you take in the full impact at a later date, when you’re better able to cope, more hardened to the terrible shape reality has taken.

The further you get from that awful point in time however, the less real it seems and, although you’ve known for years that they’ve gone and aren’t coming back, just occasionally something will generate a spark and that emotional tinderbox will suddenly burst into life, prompting a flood of nostalgia which can shock you all over again with the knowledge that you ran out of time years ago.

I got a message from my sister Kerry yesterday, saying it was 15 years since our father, Martin, died.
My first reaction was; “That can’t be right, it’s not as long as that”, but then I realised how long I’ve been living in Devon and that he became ill after I’d already been here nearly a year.
How time flies.

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Dad and Ann, my mother.

As I have said before, my relationship with Dad was not the smoothest of rides, which explains why I moved away from home at 16 and subsequently, maybe why he didn’t really get to know who I was (i.e. not a smaller version of him) until it was nearly too late.

I think my spell of living in a coach was probably the thing that shocked him the most, possibly making him finally grasp the fact that I’d never have the ambitious, career-driven executive attitude I’m guessing he wanted me to aspire to.
I remember very clearly, after I made a rare visit home, he gave me a lift back to the apple farm on which our camp was pitched and dropping me at the gate, looked at the collection of ramshackle tents, benders and dilapidated vehicles and then looked at me with an expression that said; “Oh for God’s sake, what are you doing living here?”
How could I possibly explain to him, a respectable businessman, that what I was doing was having the absolute best time of my life, a period that taught me so much independence, hard work, self-sufficiency, about being who you are, and not taking too much notice of what others have in mind for you.

Of course, looking back, I can appreciate exactly what it must have seemed like to him, especially given the reputation that “travellers” had back then. He probably thought I was on a fast train to Junkie City, stopping only briefly at Unemployment Junction before continuing through Pariah Town to the end of the inevitable line.
Although I can’t help feeling slightly pleased that he must have by then fervently wished he’d been more enthusiastic about my desire to follow a career in the theatre.
If ever there was a lesser of two evils, grease paint beats fingerprint ink every time.

Where I was fortunate though, was that I had my very own reality filter working in my favour, my loyal sister, Kerry.
All through these years she had been slowly chipping away at Dad’s image of me, trying to persuade him I wasn’t the hopeless case he feared I’d become and in the end it finally paid off.
We did become more tolerant of each other’s personalities (which were, when all was said and done, the same) and reached an understanding of sorts.

I still recall the slightly surreal evening when Dad and I went out for a drink together at my local, The Wheatsheaf in Crowborough, not long before I moved away.
It was the first, and only, time that he and I went for a friendly pint (that being the intent on his part I believe, “a friendly pint”) and the suggestion touched and amused me in equal parts, bearing in mind the locals were rather more – how shall I put this? – colourful than they are nowadays.

There just so happened to be a wake going on that night, for one of the more conspicuous consumers in the pub’s recent history, featuring the intake of Herculean quantities of (insert your chosen poison here) and culminating in a cataclysmically loud impromptu firework display just outside.
To be fair, Dad took it in his stride, presumably thinking this was an average night at The ‘Sheaf and restricting himself to the odd comment, on the lines of; “You have some very,…um, interesting friends” for which I silently gave him credit and liked him that little bit more, because he had finally given up on moulding me and appeared to be content that I’d been finding my own way all along.

The saddest thing?
Probably that for the last few days in that hospital room in London, (where he’d gone after the treacherous cells in his body had finally won their battle to lay low this energetic, ambitious, driven and tireless man, a man who had lost his wife to the same merciless killer and not only brought up Kerry and I, but taken on a second family too) we were closer than at any time I can remember since I was very young, and I think we both recognised it too.

Too late to make anything meaningful from the realisation by then of course (and who’s to say whether or not it’s just those little people in my head, straining my memories through their gauzy soft filters?) and I’m sure everyone has those feelings that they shouldn’t have left things to the last minute, but I’m glad that we could look each other in the eye and know we had made that final connection, it’s what gives me the ability to look back and think; “Blimey, has it really been that long?” with a melancholy that is not sadness but the affection of absence.

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With second wife, Sue, the year before he died.

So I don’t feel too guilty about not remembering the anniversary of his passing, just that we didn’t have enough time to further understand each other.
For good or for bad we were very alike, something for which I’m sometimes grateful, sometimes not so much, but if it wasn’t for Dad, I wouldn’t be me.

Thanks Martin.
We owe you, big time.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Blogging, Personal anecdote

 

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Sibling survivalry…

Before I continue with any more original material, I’d like to take the opportunity to repost the article I wrote recently for A World Of Pain, just in case anyone neglected to click across the link to it from Adam’s wonderful Fantastic Four post, (and I know from my stat counter that an considerable number of people didn’t visit his blog) including some extra photos from the family archive, plus one of Ho’s excellent, bespoke cartoons.

So, once again ladies and gentlemen, I give you;
Sibling survivalry…

There is a line in Baz Luhrmann’s Everyone’s Free To Wear Sunscreen that says;
“Be nice to your siblings, they’re the best link to your past and the most likely to stick with you in the future”

Well I couldn’t have put it better myself, and evidently neither could Mr Luhrmann, taking as he did the text of a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich for the vocal on his 1998 hit, a song which I seem to be referencing a lot recently.
Maybe it’s an age thing. Much as I try to ignore the arbitrary application of numeric value applied to our lives, (my personal tally has just passed its 48th solar orbit) there’s no getting away from it, we’re all getting older and Ms Schmich certainly does dispense some good advice.

But no matter how many turns round that big fiery ball we take, the one thing that has been constant in my life, right back to when I was still in my terrible twos, is my little sister, Kerry.
(If this was a strictly accurate history, I would of course refer to her throughout by the full name that she answered to at the time, the hated, hyphenated, Kerry-Jane, but I value my life too much so Kerry it will stay)

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Mum, Kerry and me.

So let’s get the other thing Kerry won’t like out of the way first, shall we?
When she was born, we lived in Colchester, which of course makes her an Essex Girl by birth.
I should (very hastily) point out that this was a quirk of history, geography, gynecology, call it what you will and she does not wear white stilettos and fake tan to go dancing round her handbag at weekends. As far as I know anyway.

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The Essex Years.

Besides, she has spent the vast majority of her life in leafy Sussex and the rough edges must have been thoroughly worn off by now.
But before we leave Essex – where we resided until I was just shy of six years old – let me tell you one of my earliest memories of Kerry, typical of older brothers everywhere I suspect, it’s one that is at her expense.

One day I was playing in the front garden when there was a loud thudding sound from indoors which terminated with the arrival of my two year old sister.

Cut to…

Scene: House interior, stairs.

Kerry clumsily trips at the top of the stairs, losing her as yet partially developed sense of balance and plummets downward, cunningly striking the wall at the corner of the staircase, enabling her a straight run down the main flight to the glazed panel next to the front door, which she apparently takes like a human bowling ball.

Scene: Exterior, garden.

The thudding noise rapidly increases in volume and intensity, until it abruptly stops (as, it turns out, Kerry’s knees hit the hallway floor) and my sister’s startled but otherwise undamaged head suddenly appears, via a perfectly circular hole it has smashed in the glass door panel, looking for all the world like a confused punter in a seaside photo diorama. The most memorable thing was, she didn’t even cry. Not a peep.

Now, I’m not consciously aware of any thought processes that may have been going on at the time, but it seems as though I must have taken this as an unspoken challenge to test my unfortunate sibling’s endurance and indestructibility.

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“I’m sure I can unscrew this…”

Over the next few years, after our family moved to Sussex, Kerry somehow managed to survive my increasingly bizarre (but involuntary, honest) attempts to maim her, such as the time I was pushing her on the garden swing and encouraging her to jump off on the upswing, a favourite stunt of mine at the time.

Kerry dutifully complied, unaware that I was giving the swing one last push behind her as she jumped.

Of course she didn’t have the sense to do a spectacular dismount manoeuvre, thereby clearing the danger zone, as I would have done. No, she chose to turn and grin proudly back at me like the girl she was…

Just in time to catch the wooden seat of the swing full in the face.

There was already a certain amount of bed-without-any-dinner in my dad’s expression, even as he marched down the garden to investigate Kerry’s blood-curdling scream.

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“Now, you see that ramp and those buses…?”

Or there was the time that, just as an experiment you understand, I persuaded Kerry to stand at the bottom of our metal climbing frame while I ascended to the top, dragging the large, red, evilly grinning sphere of a Spacehopper with me.

I was interested in finding out how high it would bounce off my sister’s head.

I duly dropped the heavy rubber ball from a height of about seven feet, hitting my target dead centre on top of the head, narrowly avoiding driving her straight into the ground like a fence post, but failing to avoid (to my continuing shame) being responsible for compressing her spine and giving her a lifetime of back problems, for which Kerry, I apologise once again.

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Kerry, me and THAT climbing frame.

The point is, I utterly failed to follow the – then unrecorded – advice from Messrs Luhrmann / Schmich and was anything but “nice to my sibling” for a considerable length of time, and yet, against all the odds she remains a source of friendship, comfort and advice that would leave an indescribable hole in my life were she not there.

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The Spacehopper Incident, by Ho.

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A lot of that sense of connection undoubtedly comes from the death of our mother when I was just nine or ten, taken by a brain tumour after a relatively short illness. (Her all-too-short period of remission marked by a final, happy, sun-drenched family holiday in France that will always be my abiding memory of her; Happy and content, with her newly short-cropped hair, the result of surgery, making her look young again, albeit for a painfully brief time)  The extra responsibility I was expected to shoulder, whether real or imagined, made me more protective of Kerry after that I think, to the extent that I even once got into trouble at school for dragging another kid across the playing field by his ankles because he’d punched Kerry in the playground.

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That final holiday.

It often didn’t help my rather volatile relationship with dad that Kerry was the model child to my black sheep either.

When we were at school, teachers who had taught me would say things like “Oh, you’re HIS sister are you?!” when they spotted Kerry’s surname on the register, and keep a surreptitious eye on her, in case she was another bad influence.

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While I was living in a coach, she was working in a bank.

When I was living in a flat that resembled The Young Ones In Commuter Land, she was getting married and buying a house.

In short; “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

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Me, dad and Kerry – Butter not melting in mouth, just out of sight.

Indeed, doing the exhaustive research on this post alone (amounting to a 45 minute phone call with Kerry prior to writing) I’ve found that she had more than one patient talk with him, trying to “explain” me to him, attempting to convince him that not wishing to be a carbon copy of him did not make me necessarily a bad person, just a different one.

Mind you, she also said he and I were “too alike for your own good” and told me that “moving out at 16 was the best move you ever made” so she’s pragmatic as well as sensitive. Not a bad mixture. For a girl.

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Kerry – Clearly not impressed.

And now we live nearly 300 miles apart, but when one of us gets round to picking up the phone we very rarely manage to get off the line within the hour, with conversations that end about nine times with the words “Oh, by the way, did I tell you…” and only conclude when her battery goes flat or my ear does.

So if you have a brother or sister who you don’t speak to as often as you should, make the effort, don’t wait for them to do it first, you know they’re just stubbornly waiting for you to do the same.

Mary Schmich was spot on, they are the best link to your future and, if you’re as lucky as me, they’ll be the ones who stick with you in the future too.

For Kerry and Ann.

 

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One of the fantastic four…

Once again I am collaborating with my friend and fellow blogger, Mr Adam Pain, this time on simultaneous posts for our respective blogs.
This time however, there’s a catch.

Previously, when it has occurred to me that something I’m working on may be on a subject that has also caught the ever-watchful eye of Mr Pain, I have enquired as to whether we might each take a different strand of the story and go in our own direction with it, coming at it from two different angles, so to speak.
We would then link our two posts, so that you, my lovely readers, could pop over to A World of Pain and get Adam’s take on the subject, and vice versa.
But this time Adam suggested we both write on the same subject, one that he would suggest, and post directly to each other’s blogs, thereby communicating with one another’s audience.

With me so far?
Good.

And so to the topic of this little challenge – Being a sibling.

I have submitted a piece that details the horrors of being my little sister, which you can read AT THIS LINK and which doesn’t even include the incident when she did an Exorcist / Mr Creosote impression (minus the spinning head, or the exploding) in the face of an unsuspecting dentist as she came round from being gassed. Aren’t I the considerate brother?

But for now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Adam Pain…

Being One Of The Fantastic Four

When I was a kid at school, the last day of every term was marked by a delicious slice of perceived childhood freedom. Firstly, it was invariably declared a mufti day – a term I suspect is both archaic and quintessentially British, now likely to have been christened something depressingly functional, like ‘wear your own clothes day’. This was treated as an opportunity for ten-year-old girls to dress as their thirteen-year-old future selves, whilst the lads turned up in the replica football shirts they’d press ganged their parents into being shafted over a barrel for that season.

But it was the second treat bestowed upon us that was the most tantalising to me. We were all allowed to bring a game in. It was probably just an excuse for our frazzled teachers to take their feet off the educational accelerator for a minute, put them up on the dashboard and catch up on a few Reader’s Digest articles, but we relished it nonetheless. Who wants algebra, when Claire’s got Buckaroo under her arm, or David’s struggled in with a full set of Subutteo in his backpack?

There was always one kid who brought a game in that cost more than the entire contents of my house, complete with a power supply like a Ukrainian sub station. Most kids would coo, gasp and fawn in it’s presence, but I was always inclined to take a step back and let the others get in on the action. Firstly, because I’ve always had a deep-seated fear that I will break anything with substantial value the minute I touch it (one of the reasons holding other people’s babies freaks me out) but, also, because I often felt a little sorry for the owner. Sorry, because really expensive toy usually spelt only child.

I have always regarded my siblings as being my most precious possessions, and am fiercely protective as a direct result. We fought, squabbled and sulked as all siblings do, but my childhood is liberally smothered in memories of the four of us howling with laughter whilst playing silly buggers. Cats dressed as Victorian prostitutes; underwhelming but enthusiastic gymnastic displays in the back garden; water fights that lasted for days; pranking our parents by moving all of the lounge furniture onto the front lawn – tv, lamps and rugs included. These stories represent just the tip of a joyous iceberg that often lured the whole motley crew of kids on the estate into choppy waters. Local parents sometimes regarded us an utterly feral bunch, but it was water off a duck’s bum. We were the awesome foursome, the quad squad, an entire world of Pain – with our own ecosystem, honour code and secret handshake. A few disgruntled old squares weren’t going to ruin our adventures.

The tempestuousness of our teens led to adult lives in far-flung places (although I’ve ended up settling about three minutes away from my childhood home) but geographical distance has never dulled the homing pigeon instinct in any of us. When Mum died, we spent two weeks together – just walking, sitting, thinking and playing – because it was the only way we knew how to cope. Licking each other’s wounds.

When Katy got sick with the cancer that had first taken bites out of her in her early twenties, it slowly became apparent that the fantastic four might be in some serious trouble. All of the pissing about in the world wasn’t going to get us out of this one, and the gravitas of the situation made me feel emotionally bloated. Like turning the contrast down on the telly, whilst boosting all the greys. Saying goodbye to Katy in the hospice was unbearably grim, mourning not only the loss of an enormous part of the team, but the team itself. We felt like The Beatles without John – a shotgun sized hole blasted into the fabric of the family.

That feeling never goes away. We all think about Katy at various points every day. Not because we are trapped in some morbid cycle of despair, but because she’s so intrinsic to our cultural and emotional make-up. You can’t escape it – to try would be as ludicrous as attempting to recall Spain in summer without summoning a vision of sunshine.

This week, on my birthday of all days, Dad was taken into hospital with crippling abdominal pains. The three of us adopted the brace position that’s become so horrendously familiar to us, only to sigh in relief on finding out it wasn’t anything too sinister. A hiatus hernia sounds hideous, but the relief at the diagnosis starting with an ‘h’ and not a ‘c’ was palpable for all of us.

The remaining members of the world of Pain remain, our wizened patriarch fit to fight on for the foreseeable future too. Shields down, weapons set to stun.

So – I’m not bothered I never got to take in the world’s best toy on the last day of term. My most treasured gifts were dotted around other classrooms, playing the dog eared versions of Guess Who, Operation or Mastermind we’d carried into school that morning – together.

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A Beacon in the darkness…

In a previous post I explored some of the less cheerful experiences I had at school, but as I spend more and more time perusing the new Facebook page set up to celebrate life and memories from my old home town of Crowborough, the more the fun times I spent in that sprawling comprehensive in the heart of Sussex come flooding back.

I began life at Beacon school a little late.
Not very late, only about five minutes I think, but that was enough for me to enter the (to me at least) enormous and bewildering campus when everyone else had already been sheparded away into classes or, in the case of first years like me, to the main hall for registration.

As I hurried around the corner of the concrete and glass edifice of the Tower Block I collided with what at first sight appeared to be a bamboo tweed giant, who looked down her nose at me from about eight feet up and said in an imperious voice; “Walk, don’t run. You should be in assembly, boy” and proceeded to give me directions.
I stammered my thanks and hurried away. Walking, not running.
I later discovered I had just met Miss Vokins, but as she and I had very little to do with each other for the following six years, we shall leave her there and enter my first year at Beacon.

When I finally caught up with my classmates I found I’d been allocated a tutor group that was located in a prefab behind the main hall, bordered on two sides by sports fields and well away from the gaze of all but the nosiest of teachers.
It was a science classroom.

Our tutor was of the young trendy type, with the boundless enthusiasm of the recent training college graduate, as yet untarnished by the cynicism produced by having to deal with the likes of us day in, day out.
His name was Mr Sharratt and he was very good entertainment indeed.

For a start, there was a good story about his time at training school which went something along the lines of;
Due to a previous injury to nerves in part of one hand, he had no feeling in a couple of fingers and had once inadvertently set fire to his own hand as he held a test tube over a flame without due care and attention while giving a chemistry lecture.
And he could be persuaded to do pretty much anything in science class.

Like the time we convinced him it was a good idea to see what the result would be when a lump of highly reactive sodium metal, roughly four times the recommended size, was dropped from some six inches above the surface of a glass tank full of water.
The result was that the lump sank to the bottom, stuck there like an angry, fizzing limpet for a few seconds and then, with a loud explosion of gas that threatened to crack the tank, shot to the surface and went careering back and forth across the surface of the water, almost reaching escape velocity and filling the whole room with possibly lethal fumes, causing the lab to be evacuated.

Or the time we did the “Custard powder bomb” experiment, whereby a lit candle is placed in a custard powder tin, the lid replaced and a small quantity of custard powder is puffed into the sealed tin via a pipe, the resultant combustion being just enough to blow the lid off.
However, if you get your teacher to really pack that pipe with custard powder, and you can also talk him into placing four candles in the tin, then what you have is a massive explosion that propels the lid off the tin so hard that it embeds itself in the ceiling.

And I’m sure you’ve all tried the water rocket experiment at some point, the one that demonstrates how water can’t be compressed (or something) and involves pumping air into a plastic washing-up liquid bottle half-full of water, ideally launching it a few feet along the lab bench into the sink.
Except when we did it, the top of the bottle had somehow become jammed in very hard indeed and by the time enough pressure had been accumulated to launch the bottle rocket, it shot the entire length of the room and smashed the toughened wired glass window of the fire exit.

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And scientific experiments weren’t restricted to the classroom either.
There was a bit of a fad for “recreational explosives” shall we say, the sort made from vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and a small plastic pop bottle, or small handfuls of potassium permanganate, smuggled out of chemistry lessons and mixed with gelatin in a meat paste jar.
(DON’T try this at home, kids)
Many a desk mysteriously had the bottom blown out of it by amateur chemists honing their demolition skills.
We really were rather ingenious, I’m sure our teachers would have been secretly proud that we’d been paying such close attention.
Although minor furniture damage paled into insignificance with the furore surrounding the theft from the chemical store of a whole bottle of the aforementioned highly reactive sodium.

The entire year, maybe even the whole school, were given a stern talking to in hastily arranged assemblies with mass detentions threatened if nobody owned up.
That was until the missing hazardous material was allegedly discovered in the attic of a school master’s house, where it had been hidden by his son in collusion with a co-conspirator.

Oops. Awkward.

It wasn’t until later on in my time at Beacon however, that the most notorious event of my time there occurred.
That was the scandalous, almost surreal experience of The Beacon Riots.

I have no idea now, if I’m perfectly honest, what kicked it all off, although I suspect it had something to do with several policemen chasing a couple of glue sniffing skinheads across the playground in the middle of a school day not long before, or the fact that there was an especially large contingent of that particular tribe at Beacon back then, with the added bonus that a teacher had been seen enthusiastically putting the boot in after the fleeing glue sniffer had been subdued beneath a heap of struggling coppers.

Whatever the cause, the result was a thrilling explosion of chaos and anarchy amongst the pupils, some of whom locked themselves in The Pens – fenced-in tennis courts bordering the playground – in solidarity with….something or other, and anyway, yeah, like, fuck the system.
Other rebel fighters laid siege to the sixth form block, the inhabitants of which retaliated with water bombs, intellectual abuse and Chaucer quotes (possibly).
But most exciting of all, whilst staff foot soldiers were attempting to enforce some sort of order on proceedings with loud-hailers and middle class self-importance, several high ranking officers – housemasters and above – were chased, yes chased by a small mob of the ringleaders into the main office, where they barricaded themselves for the duration of hostilities.

It seems amazing, now that I think back, that there wasn’t more of a backlash from that day of iconoclastic chaos, but from what I remember (and I’m open to correction from anyone else with a better memory) very few sanctions were imposed on the student body in general and only the instigators of the revolution were executed expelled or suspended.

My own particular contribution to the fight against the powers that be was more restricted to being a general smartass, something which regularly got me detention, visits to infuriated house masters’ offices, report cards that said things like, “will do very well if only he’d stop talking and listen for a change”, and uncannily well-aimed blackboard erasers flung my way.
Having said all that, some of the staff obviously saw something in me worth saving and the likes of the fabulous Jeff Lee, English and drama teacher extraordinaire and invaluable mentor during my teenage thespian days; Dick Kempson, another English teacher who also acted as our chaperone and driver when our briefly-famous theatre group performed at the Edinburgh Fringe; and Mr Watson, the French teacher responsible for me still being able to get by in basic conversations whenever I visit France (quite apart from being a bloody good shot with a blackboard rubber or piece of chalk), all of them made those days in class that much more bearable.

Funnily enough, one of the memories that most amuses me doesn’t involve classes, other pupils, or even any intention on my part to cause mischief, just an unfortunate accident of technology:
In the lazy summer limbo period between finishing studying and taking exams, we were allowed a certain amount of freedom to persue non-academic interests in and around the school (I spent some of this time producing a mini drama festival) and one of the duties I took on was helping out in the audio/visual control room, which amongst other things recorded and broadcast the educational TV programmes used in lessons.

There were four video recorders in the room, three that were used to transmit and one purely for recording. There was also a small library of movies on tape, including Nicholas Roeg’s ’70s psychedelic sci-fi masterpiece, The Man Who Fell To Earth.
One day when I had nothing better to do, I thought I’d watch David Bowie louche-ing it up as the titular alien, but the spare machine was recording a programme at the time so I elected to use one of the two currently unused broadcast machines instead. I mean, what harm could it possibly do, right?
I was still comfortably engrossed in the action when the phone loudly interrupted my viewing pleasure;
– Hello, A/V room.
{slightly panicky female voice} Hello! Um, I’m supposed to have booked a programme about dinosaurs, why are there naked people covered in slime on my television?
– I’m sorry, there must be a problem with the recording, I’ll sort it out immediately.
– I should think so too, honestly!

Needless to say, my job as budding TV producer ended there and then.

It is possibly rather self-indulgent of me to think anyone will be interested in reading the nostalgic reminiscences of a non-descript teenager’s days in a perfectly ordinary comprehensive school, but I’ve enjoyed reliving them and sometimes it’s good to write just for yourself for a change.

But if as a result of reading this, you find yourself revisiting memories of school with some affection for the days we were so keen to escape at the time, then I shall consider my job here done.

Wait for it.

Ok, you can go.

Walk, don’t run…

[This post is dedicated to all ex-pupils of Beacon, especially those in the Crowborough Memories Facebook group. Thank you for all the good times]

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2014 in Blogging, Films, Humour, Personal anecdote

 

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Nostalgia is our business, and business is good…

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was pretty seriously addicted to Facebook.
But, as with anything new, the novelty soon wears off and other things take over our attention.
With me it was mainly this, my blog, along with all the attendant administrative and promotional duties, following and reading other blogs (and if I’ve neglected your blog this week I apologise, but this post should go some way to explaining why that is) and commenting on them.

As I mentioned in this post, I went to a very large comprehensive school, Crowborough Beacon in East Sussex, between ’77 and ’83 and I didn’t exactly have the “best days of my life” for a sizeable chunk of my stay there.
At least that’s what my memories would have me believe.

The trouble with bad experiences is that they tend to block out the good times associated with that period in your life and, despite having perfectly good recall, it is always difficult to get a treacherous subconscious to bring all the good stuff back to the surface.

Before I took the plunge and opened a Facebook account about three years ago, I could probably count on one hand the number of people from my school days who I still regularly saw or had any meaningful contact with on a day-to-day basis. But nostalgia is a strangely powerful force and simply seeing the names of people (trapped in that time-bubble of memory as their teenage selves) who once played such a constant part in our lives, has a mysterious effect on the synaptic bargain bin to which we consign the things that we consider to be past their remember-by-date.

Whether it’s a best friend who we lost contact with when they moved away, a secret, unrequited crush on a teacher, (a more common occurrence amongst girls than boys apparently) or simply a name or face from a long-forgotten past, it seems as if our brains are primed to pounce on the slightest excuse to reboot the good old days.
And looking back, with all the clarity that 20/20 hindsight bestows upon us, they do actually appear to have been pretty good after all.

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Crowborough Beacon school, the old alma mater.

Last week I was idly scrolling through my Fb newsfeed during lunchbreak at work, when I received a notification saying I’d been added to a group page called Memories of Crowborough/Rotherfield.
Now, I’m not usually one for joining Facebook groups, they tend to be rather cliquey, self referential affairs that exclude whole sections of the online community they purport to encourage, but this one was a different thing altogether.

When I was at school, and in the years that followed, there was a larger than life, loud and frankly outrageous character called Barry Aldis, the type of bloke who you could hear holding court at the centre of a group of like-minded tearaways long before you encountered him in one of the many tribal strongholds of the school playground or saw him in a smokey corner of pub somewhere, someone who was not in my immediate circle of nerdy friends and yet always on my personal radar as a permanent fixture of Crowborough life.
I couldn’t honestly say we were friends back then, the vicissitudes of teenage allegiances being what they were meant that, as a weedy drama geek, I didn’t qualify as a member of the cool set, the tough guys, the skinheads or the heartthrob club, and Barry was a skinhead, making him off limits as a prospective mate.
But as we get older and the tribes that define us at school disperse, the peer pressures that made such friendships unlikely disappear and we are able to see others from a different perspective.

Having returned to visit friends and family in Sussex periodically after moving to Devon 16 years ago (and since we have chatted online), we have reconnected and when I met up with him at the funeral of a close mutual friend a while back, it was obvious that he had become a well thought of and respected member of our generation’s social group, not least because he runs popular disco nights in Crowborough and organised a very successful Beacon school reunion in 2009.

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Barry “Phat Baz” Aldis today, form an orderly queue ladies

I don’t personally know the administrator of the new group page, but suffice to say, Baz has already stamped his irascible personality on it and it is already becoming clear that the former pupils of our old seat of learning defer to him in matters relating to any future social gathering of the clans.
In the short time that it’s been running, over 1000 ex-Beaconites have subscribed to the page and one status update in particular summed up everyone’s response to it;

“Is there any truth in the rumour that ex Beacon pupils have become the least productive members of the workforce since this group was set up because they now spend their entire day checking for updates?”

Well I wouldn’t be at all surprised, because the pull of the past is very strong once you get sucked into the vortex of memories and it appears that there is much enthusiasm for another reunion.
In fact the hunger for nostalgia is such that, within two days of joining the group, I started to see posts promising “the world’s biggest school reunion”, involving somewhat ambitious plans to stage a full blown festival on the town green, to feature alumni from right across the school’s history and live music from all five decades since.
Fortunately it wasn’t long before Big Baz stepped in to point out the incredible logistical problems this would entail, (having organised the last get together, he is only too familiar with the stresses and strains such an undertaking would involve) let alone the expenses that would be incurred in having the event policed, the council licenses required, public liability insurance and all the other bureaucratic bullshit that modern life demands in these situations.

So, after sanity once again prevailed and it was generally accepted that collective over enthusiasm may have got the better of us, it has been decided that there shall be a reunion for anyone who attended Beacon between 1970 and 1989, provisionally located in the school itself, on September 6th.

I’m looking forward to it already.

Finally, on a more sombre note, I would like to register my sadness and disbelief that so many of our classmates and teachers have been taken from us in the intervening years.
Whether they were lost to illness, car and motorcycle accidents, or in a few tragic cases, foul play, it was truly shocking to watch as the memorial thread on the page grow longer and longer.
I may not have known them all personally, but as in any school, the connections you make with friends and acquaintances means you are familiar with a lot more people than you realise, until it’s too late.

It became clear, as we were all reconnecting with our mutual pasts, that everyone felt the same and it didn’t take long before a tentative plan to initiate some kind of memorial was hatched.
Be it an online roll of honour or a physical book of remembrance to be placed in the school itself, we shall remember them as part of, yes, some of the best days of our lives.

As a fitting tribute to all those who cannot join us to reminisce, we’ll play out with a tune Baz apparently picked to honour them at the last reunion. They will remain in our memories, Forever Young.

Alphaville – Forever Young ~Official Video:

 

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The best ’80s flashback in the world. Ever! – Volume two…

Hey there synth-pop pickers, welcome to the second sensational segment of retro reminiscences from that long ago land of Logic System and League Unlimited Orchestra, the 1980’s.

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   The Ultimate ’80s Synth-Pop Superstar.  (exclusive toon by Ho)

My taste in music is very eclectic and I have a huge number of albums by a wide variety of artists spread across many genres.
A dedicated vinyl junkie from an early age, I nevertheless finally succumbed to the tinny, soulless, glorified coaster format that is the CD in the mid nineties, surviving up until then on a diet of second hand record shops and increasingly badly made cassette tapes (a format unlikely to succeed in making a nostalgia-fueled comeback anytime soon) and now of course I have a whole pack of memory cards stuffed full of mp3 files.

My favoured method of buying music has always been to plunder second hand record shops, sale racks in local independent music stores and charity shops, looking for, well, nothing in particular.
But I’ll generally find something that I’ve never heard of (which is an important consideration; Why buy something you already know? Expand your musical horizons, there’s so much music out there you haven’t heard yet)
Whether it’s because I’ve heard an artist I liked on the same label, or I like the mix of instruments on an album, or some other indefinable something which grabs me, I’m very rarely wrong in thinking I’m going to enjoy the music I buy and I’ve discovered some fantastic things along the way.

(There is a fair sample of my vinyl and CD collection in the video I made, Klone, for which I also created the music.
If you’ve not seen it yet, you can WATCH IT HERE.)

Back in the ’80s though, things were a lot simpler.
We didn’t have dozens of sub-genres and ever-expanding categories of music types to puzzle over before we knew if were even looking in the right rack, we just had to look at the cover;
If it had men with leather trousers, open shirts, long hair and guitars (or dragons, half-naked women and flames) it was Rock.
If it had serious looking speccy nerds, trying their damndest to look surly whilst twiddling knobs on a tiny keyboard sprouting wires, (or geometric graphics/futuristic landscapes) it was synth-pop.

I’d buy 7″ and 12″ singles by bands I knew nothing about, purely on the strength of the sleeve, knowing full well that there would be some new bleepy noises and clattering electronic rhythms that I hadn’t heard before, never tiring of the range of sounds that could be achieved with this emergent new musical technology.

image

One of the most inventive bands from the period were a Swiss duo that featured national golfing star, poker player, industrialist and concept artist, Dieter Meier on vocals, with suave composer and musician Boris Blank on electronics, samples and pretty much everything else.

Yello are masters of peculiar noises, catchy melodies, strange vocal quirks and complex percussion patterns. Still producing their unique take on electro-pop today, they are one of the most prolific electronic groups of the last thirty years.

Sporting some of the most ludicrously styled hair in pop, A Flock of Seagulls were the indie band of synth-pop, using sweeping keyboard melodies combined with phasing guitar riffs to create some great tunes, some of which wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio today.

Here’s their greatest hits compilation, I bet you remember more hits than you realise…

Other bands I was listening to around the same time that I discovered Yello (something else my old mate Chris introduced me to) include this pioneering dance act, 400 Blows,..

…the darkly gothic electronica of Cabaret Voltaire,..

…and the oddly named Our Daughter’s Wedding

A big part of the attraction of the early synth-pop scene (or Cold Wave, to give it it’s cool genre title) was the number of earworm-heavy one (or two) hit wonders. The sort of things recently labelled “guilty pleasures”,  as if we shouldn’t really be enjoying perfectly crafted, cheerfully catchy pop music, except in an ironic, patronising way.

In tribute to these glorious anthems to school disco dance floors and Christmas office parties everywhere, here are a few of my completely un-ironic favourites.

Flash and the Pan

Propaganda

Freur
(One of these impeccably dressed gentlemen is Karl Hyde of rave-genius duo, Underworld)

Naked Lunch

Men Without Hats

And despite not qualifying, as it falls just outside the eighties in 1979, I’m including this too.
Because in any list of great pop music, you’ve got to have Pop Muzik.

M

One of the things that prompted all this eighties nostalgia was the discovery of a very fine internet radio station called Soma FM and their Underground ’80s channel.
If you want to check out some more sounds from a time when all the bleepy noises were new, YOU CAN LISTEN HERE.,

Now, where did I put my leg-warmers…?

 
5 Comments

Posted by on February 2, 2014 in Animation, Arts, Music, Personal anecdote

 

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Now that’s what I call an ’80s flashback – Volume one…

“If you remember the sixties, then you weren’t there” was a common saying when I was growing up and nonsensical as it may be grammatically speaking, it effectively conveys the mystique of a decade to those of us who actually weren’t there, but who were nevertheless born there, so to speak.

But nobody says things like that about the years I spent my childhood in, the ’70s.
We had prog rock, punk, disco and glam, but we also had strikes, the National Front, the IRA, the three day week and Thatcher, which can mean that despite much evidence to the contrary, the musically schizophrenic decade that gave us the Sex Pistols, Rush, Chic, Kraftwerk and David Bowie is sometimes seen as a bit drab, miserable and depressing, like a combined hangover/detox after ten years of psychedelia, free love and liberal drug laws, a kind of temporal anteroom in which we all waited for the gleaming technological paradise of the eighties to arrive in a flying car with a robot chauffeur.

So when the ’80s finally arrived, complete with strikes, the National Front, the IRA, riots, Thatcher and the Falklands war, it was music that we turned to once again for inspiration and escape.
And now we were living in the future we wanted something new and futuristic to act as an antidote to the emerging culture of unstoppable greed and consumerism, a sound that echoed the homemade ethos of punk but brought some order and technical precision into the equation.
A sound made possible by the increased availability of affordable electronic instruments, something that would lead to the first real musical revolution since the invention of the lead guitar.

Now you might think that to be an outrageous exaggeration, especially if you’re an old-school folkie who booed when Dylan went electric or someone who, when you hear the term “keyboard solo”, immediately thinks of Richard Clayderman, but electronics have been stealthily allowing innovative musicians to create new and interesting sounds as far back as the mid-sixties, when Dr Robert Moog produced the first practical analogue synthesizer.

      *****Here is an example for your listening pleasure.*****
(free music download, “Moogalicious by Dogsounds, click to save)

I was 14 as the eighties arrived, already obsessed with music and at that point, a metal and prog rock enthusiast, but also greedily absorbing the eclectic mix of genres and styles played by one of my musical heroes, the late, very great John Peel.
I still recall the covert thrill of listening to the late night radio show of this gruff yet affable, funny and comically disorganised bloke, playing anything from dub reggae and thrash metal to ambient electronica and hardcore German techno.

Hidden beneath the duvet, the earpiece of my radio-cassette player firmly in place, was the first place I heard this next song.
I remember thinking what a precise, clean sound it had (while my inner headbanger shouted at me for being a poncey new romantic) and I reckon I could say with some confidence that this was probably about the time I had to concede that I rather liked synth-pop…

…and I can also remember going into the tiny record shop in Crowborough – Revolver Records, now long defunct – to buy the debut OMD album, the first LP I’d bought that didn’t have at least three guitars on it, and discovering the other side of the strange world of synth-pop that wasn’t all radio friendly singles and twinkly keyboard flourishes.
To my pleasant surprise, I found that this shiny new type of music could be just as dark, deep and peculiar as any progressive rock epic concept album.
Pop music had just got credible.

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A selection of my ’80s vinyl, this afternoon.

I can certainly say that my old friend (then a new friend) Ho was a big part in getting me into the wider world of electronic music.
Ho, already a Gary Numan, Tangerine Dream and Can fan, played me albums I never would have heard among my long-haired, denim-clad mates. (with the possible exception of Tangerine Dream, the electronic band it was ok for prog fans to like)
He also introduced me to one of my all-time favourite bands, Kraftwerk.
Not only did I go out and buy the German electro-boffins’ sporadically-released ’80s output, (Computer World, Electric Café) after hearing their back catalogue, from the long haired, proggy, avant-garde jazz experimentation of the early seventies, through to the sublime period of the Radioactivity and Man Machine albums which brought them to the attention of a wider audience, I went out and bought almost everything they recorded.

Another artist that went on to inform my taste for the glacial sounding electronic music that came to be synonymous with the eighties and beyond was John Foxx, particularly his album Metamatic, which I and some friends who were similarly attracted to this new genre (especially when combined with various recreational stimulants) came to describe as “clinical music”.

There is admittedly a certain amount of rose tinted musical hindsight involved in these reminiscences, as for every Speak and Spell classic there was a Stock, Aitken and Waterman clone waiting in the wings, so the eighties detractors have plenty of ammunition to refute the musical importance of The Decade That Fashion Forgot.

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What with the endless power ballads, glossy U.S.stadium rock and cheesy manufactured chart pop fodder infesting the radio airwaves, the edgy, harsh tones of the new technology came as a breath of fresh air, albeit air fresh from dingy bedsits and basement studios where the new New Wave was starting to break.

As the new music began to gain credibility and appear alongside established artists on shows like Top of the Pops, the electronic bands started to develop a more polished sound and glamorous image, something that would help them take advantage of the increasing popularity of music videos.
Not always a good thing in my not-very-humble opinion, because a lot of what made these bands so different to start with was lost as they strove to be accepted into the mainstream.

Compare the two examples below, one from The Human League and the other from Gary Numan.
The earlier material of both is harder, more abrasive, while only a short time later the image makeover has smoothed off the bright corners and dulled the sharp edges.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a fan of both artists, both early and late material, as I am of all the music here, and they are both still going strong too.
The Human League released a brand new album, Credo, in 2011 and the former Gary Webb hasn’t stopped producing music since he began with Tubeway Army in the late seventies.

Interestingly, Phil Oakey and the Human League have stuck more or less to their high-gloss, late career peak musical style, while Numan has continued to evolve, including drum ‘n’ bass, industrial and techno into the mix over the years, without ever losing that certain something that makes it still very much Numanoid.

The Human League

…and today; It wasn’t broke so they didn’t fix it.

Gary Numan

…and today; The old darkness and edge are still very much in evidence, possibly a result of his recent association with Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails

I added “volume one” to the title of this post automatically because I knew that once I started on this subject it was likely to turn into a labour of love.
So I shan’t try and cram anything else in now, but you can be sure that as soon as I hit the “publish” button I will be resuming my search for echoes of that Golden Hour of the Future we lived in for a few short, groundbreaking years.

 
14 Comments

Posted by on February 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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