Friday, July 23, 2010

Short Story: The Siberian Cottage

A short story by me, written for a tutorial.

The stone walls in the kitchen are unclad, and Josef has just cooked, so they sparkle with condensation. The stone floor is unbearably cold. At least in the bedroom there is a rug, so his feet don’t freeze when he gets out of bed. The cottage is small, sparse and underused. There is no memorabilia, no sentimental novelties; no personal effects. The solitary kitchen cupboard contains root vegetables, vodka, milk, cheese and some canned fish. He doesn’t need a fridge. Josef has neither the facility to get a wider range of produce, nor the inclination.
Josef is walking to the bedroom to get a blanket. He bends his withered, time-ravaged body to pick up an envelope that has been pushed under the front door. It is un-addressed. He carefully opens the envelope, and pulls out a piece of card, which bears the typewritten legend Я наблюдаю [I’m Watching].

Josef is sitting, shivering, at the kitchen table. A big slab of oak, in its heyday it seated eight comfortably. Josef doesn’t know this. He purchased this cottage unaware of its history, only aware of its geography. He’d taken the train from Moscow to Arkhangelsk in January 1992, bought a car, and drove east. A tip-off in a village led him to this cottage: he’d have never found it otherwise. Not only were there no estate agents, but the house wasn’t on anything that Josef recognised as a road. It is barely a track today, just six kilometres of icy rocks and grit. It certainly isn’t a special cottage: it’s barely distinguishable from any of the cottages that are sporadically scattered upon the barren Siberian tundra.

For the last seventeen years, the only person to have sat at the kitchen table has been Josef. It’s either sit in here or in the bedroom, and due to the old stove leaking heat, this is the warmer of the two rooms. The third room in the cottage is beyond repair, certainly for a man of Josef’s age and capabilities. Rot, mould, damp, broken windows, plants, insects, and the occasional bird inhabit the third room. Josef has done his best to seal it off from the rest of the house. He knows that opening the door to that room would be akin to Chernobyl or the Ice Age occurring within the cottage. He doesn’t know that the previous inhabitants of the house, all ten of them, died in that room, from tuberculosis, pneumonia and grief.

He can feel the cold wetness of the walls on his face, and thinks he can see things in the window that aren’t there. He closes the curtains in the kitchen, unlocks the front door, takes the bottle of vodka, and fills the mug in front of him. His hands are shaking as he puts the bottle back down. He drinks the vodka, and coughs. He knows why they are watching him. He has tried to make this self-imposed exile into both a respite and a punishment. But there is only so much self-flagellation a man can put himself through. He can’t run, can’t hide anymore: he doesn’t want to, deserve to, not after all the things he has done. He pours more vodka, and drinks to his fate.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Poem: The Upset Mariner...

The Upset Mariner Who Took Post-Relationship Advice From Rogers and / or Hammerstein (whichever of them wrote the lyrics)

In the old South Pacific,
They said a shampoo would fix it,
But that’s just some rime in a song;
‘Cos even prolonged amnesia,
Sustained in Micronesia,
Couldn’t cleanse me of all you’ve done wrong.

You said ‘I love you’,
On a beach in Tuvalu,
And you said that you’d never leave me;
But you ruined the party,
When, in Kiribati,
You confessed to sleeping with a girl from Fiji.

When I told you it was over,
In Western Samoa,
You got on the first plane out of there;
And now I’ve tried every shampoo,
From Bali to Nauru,
But I can’t get you out of my hair

Saturday, July 17, 2010


This blog is a tribute to the best thing I've seen today. Bearing in mind I went to Plantasia and saw some monkeys and iguanas and pirahanas and snakes, that says a lot. I also went to Toys'r'Us and saw Star Wars toys too, and yet this wins. My kid spent most of his time wandering around with a turtle back-pack / reins, but still this is a bit better (maybe not, actually).

There is an artist called Alex Varanese. He has reinvented 2010 technology - the MP3 player, Laptop, mobile phone and portable games console - and resold them to a 1977 audience. As a massive fan of the Taschen collections of adverts, POP! art and 1977 in general, I can't get enough of the LCD displays and the wood panelling which encases each item.

Obviously (sadly) they aren't physical products, only seventies-styled redesigns and advertisements. But as someone who loves a bit of retro teak styling, I really wish they were actual purchasable consumer goods. Because of course, stuff made back then always lasted longer.


Friday, July 16, 2010

The Girl From HMV

hmv, The Quadrant shopping centre, 9am, Monday morning: the optimal time for record-buying. All the new releases, all in a row, on the right shelves, in the right boxes, in plastic bags with my name on them behind the till. Limited editions in limited supplies, virgin vinyl waiting to be played, polythene begging to be unwrapped: teenage dreams and middle-aged regret aching to be caressed, absorbed, purchased, and heard. CD1 slips into digipak2 and there’s a coloured seven-inch and a 12-inch with entirely different b-sides. There’s always a re-mastered classic or a re-release with extra tracks or some back-catalogue gem that I absolutely need to buy. This is the most important part of my week.


Flick-Flick-Inspect/Discard-Flick-Flick-BUY! I’ve got the art down beautifully, I know my timing, I know precisely how long I need to assess the sleeve of a record before I can look at the next one. It’s like Panini football stickers when I was a kid, got-got-got-NEED, whether it’s a Babes in Toyland LP or a head-and-shoulder shot of a mulletted centre-half. Heaven forbid it should be my Holy Grail: One Man Clapping on CD or ‘Suicide Alley’ on 7” or one of the shiny foil stickers with the Man United badge on it. It’s past collecting now, past an avid or keen interest. It’s an obsession, an addiction, a need to own. If I go to hmv and don’t buy anything, or at the very least place a special order to be collected in 2-4 weeks, then that’s inconceivable. That’s the opposite of commerce, of purchase power, laissez-faire economics, the opposite of me. That would be a failure.


Luckily it’s impossible. There’s always a picture disc 7” or a new release CD single going for 99p. It’s like a slot-machine gambler pumping coins into the change machine. You win every time.


This one time I take my girlfriend to town, so she can get her train back to where she lives. We’ve done nothing all weekend apart from watch some telly and argue. I’m claiming poverty, because I’m skint, and she’s nouveau riche. We get off the unibus, into hmv (it’s on the way to the station, and it’s Monday morning) and I just want to look and see if they’ve got the new Kenickie album, and no, I’m not going to buy it, because yes, I really do have no money, but I just want to see the price and the track-listing and your train isn’t for another half-an-hour... So I drag her in, new releases Kenickie At The Club and I pick up a copy and I want it so bad. And she doesn’t buy it for me, despite her new-found wealth and her previous dependence on my bank account for the previous year of gig-going and night-clubbing and record-buying that masqueraded as a relationship. I put it back on the shelf, and I put her on her train and I go back to hmv and buy it with the last £13.99 of my overdraft and I get the bus home and I’m happy. We break up soon after.


Falling for the girl behind the till at hmv is a bad thing. She was always so happy to see me. She spoke to me. She didn’t judge my purchases. Cultivating this fantasy is worse. What started off as a cute naive crush on a record shop girl became a relationship of convenience. Imagine, not only would I be going out with a cute girl, but I’d be taking advantage of her staff discount. She must get at least 25%. It was meant to be.


My bank manager was always asking to see me, writing me letters, phoning me up. He’d always ask about my finances and my overdraft. I’d tell him I get £25 a week for DJing. I don’t tell him I spend £150 a week on records. He might take my visa electron card away.


Like a power-ballad or a Euro-dance-craze smash, I find myself constantly milling around the upper echelons of the singles chart. Not that I really care about the Spice Girls single (I’ve already got it), but the top 10 is right by the till. I can time my purchases so that she serves me, rather than any other member of staff. If this fails, there’s always a handy box of 7” singles on the checkout desk to serve as a time-killer.


I read: NME, Melody Maker, Smash Hits!, Q, Vox, Select, Time Out, Big Issue Cymru, Record Collector. I write about music for the Swansea student newspaper. I get free records. But they are all promos and do not have exclusive b-sides or sleeve notes or sometimes sleeves.


I write her a song, called ‘The Girl From hmv’. The assistant manager of hmv Swansea really likes it. It goes to number 1 on the indie download chart thing, although this is before anyone really had the internet, myself included. I don’t know if she’s heard it. I don’t know if she knows it’s about her. And I don’t care, because it’s not really about her anymore. It’s about the soulless neon industrial vapid product-shifting enterprise that hmv probably always was, but now certainly is. Where they’ll happily sell you anything and everything, just as long as you buy something. There’s no condescending looks from older staff members when you buy the latest flash-in-the-pan nonsense. No knowledgeable chats about Northern Soul or lost punk vinyl or lo-fi synth-pop. Just DVDs and computer games, hipster books-of-youthful-rebellion-of-the-movie-of-the-novel-of-the-week, oh, and some CDs. That’s what happens when you move to a bigger outlet in the mall. Change. DVDs and computer games and change.


I buy my records online now. Real records, not MP3s or iTunes. You can’t put an MP3 on a bespoke shelving unit, you can’t store a WMA in a cupboard, you can’t touch and smell an AAC file. and amazon and eBay, direct from the band or straight from the label. No girls behind tills to impress, no buying for the sake of buying (except occasionally to save on postage), no back catalogue impulse buys, no buying for the strange band name or the pretty artwork. No buying because the guy who works there just knows that you’ll love it and really thinks that you should buy it.


My friend, Keith TOTP, tells me that there are no record shops in Camden, where he lives. Camden Town, home of Britpop and MTV and nightlife and gigs, has no record shops. There may as well be none in Swansea too. This makes me sad. Richer, but sadder.

Short Story: Physician...

A piece of micro-fiction, about a nurse, by me.

I’m tired, too tired. Can’t remember the last time I slept. Maybe tonight. Take some Diazepam, should knock me out good and proper. Don’t care about tomorrow. Just hope I sleep and sleep. That’s all days off are for – running repairs for my failing immune system, for my arthritic knees, for my weak back, for my bloodshot eyes and my despondent mind and my broken heart.

I’m just patching myself up, and throwing myself down into the stresses of work. Twelve hour shifts working with the sick, patching them up, and throwing them back out. Back into a world where they can go and wreck themselves further, getting their fix of heroin, their stomach full of alcohol, and not taking their medication, and then come back to my ward for another quick, temporary fix. Cold turkey, stomach pumps, IV drips, counselling, sedation. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s making me sick.

It’d be OK if, when walking down the high street on a blessed day off, I wasn’t confronted by the absolute futility of it all. It’s hard enough to be awake and to set aside my agoraphobia to go out and spend what’s left of my wages. In my Lorazepam-induced haze of calm, I’m walking through town and I watch the only vestiges of job satisfaction I have fade away. I see my former patients, clients: the junkies curled up in doorways; the winos drinking cans of Super T at half-past nine; the schizophrenics having episodes in the shopping centre; the severely depressed walking face down to the floor. I’ve bandaged them up before, I’ll sticking-plaster them again. But I’ve no time to really fix them, properly. I’ve no time to fix myself.

Prozac, Zoloft, Seroxat, Wellbutrin, Lustral, long walks, St. John’s Wort, keep fit, meeting new people and seeing the family, stroking the cat, doing good deeds, buying new clothes and eating too much. Done them all. Nothing works. All I feel is an aching heart, sore joints, and a head, empty and numb. I want to help, I live to help, but I just can’t help. Anyone. Anymore. I sleep.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Football: Mexico '86

I measure my life by World Cups. These are the bits I can remember.

The heartbroken eight-year-old me, sat in the living room watching Diego Maradona (height: 5’ 5”) fist the ball past the agility-free and rather lackadaisical Peter Shilton (height: 6’1”).

Watching Maradona jink and stumble his way through England’s defence - blissfully unaware of the danger that the little fella would cause some thirty-yards up the pitch. He scored right-footed, which leads some people (me) to suggest it was a Terry Butcher own-goal, but even still, what a goal.

It wasn’t all over, there were still eleven people on the pitch wearing white shirts and sky-blue shorts. John Barnes came on for one of them, and crossed from the left to find Gary Lineker. 2-1! He did the same thing again, moments later, but Lineker couldn’t put it away.

Heart truly shattered, I went to bed, no doubt clutching my wad of ‘swaps’ – Panini Mexico ’86 stickers I already had duplicates of stuck wonkily into my album – that went with me everywhere. Not forgetting to turn off the radio, which had been playing the match commentary quietly - but just loud enough so that my little sister wouldn’t know that I’d been allowed to stay up late watching telly.

This was the first year I was aware of video recorders. A boy in my class at primary school, Wayne, his grandparents had a video recorder, and they had taped the first Scotland game for him. ‘Don’t tell me the score’ he probably pleaded with us. It was obvious though, Scotland lost, to Denmark, who were amazing and beat everyone. Well, until they had to play Spain and got trashed. Denmark had this amazing kit too, but I suggest you read about the amazing Danes of '86 here.

Bryan Robson was my favourite player then. Captain Marvel, they called him, skipper of both club and country. Got crocked in the second game, a tired affair with Morocco. Ray Wilkins, who had left the Manchester United midfield for foreign climes before I started watching football, got sent off. The third group game, against Poland, wow. This lad who’d scored a veritable shed-load of goals for Everton, Gary Lineker, up he pops to bag a hat-trick. Brilliant. Little chap called Beardsley tees them up for him, and we’re through!

Scotland meanwhile, oh deary me. I get out the bath and run downstairs. I've missed the first minute of their crucial World Cup decider against Uruguay. Oh blimey, a Uruguayan’s been sent off. That’s good news, 88 minutes to break down this defence. And Scotland have got Souness, and he’s a right hard bastard. We know this, me and my friends, because on one of our World Cup wallcharts, there’s this picture of Souness with a skinned knee, like ours were. And he hadn’t gone crying to his mum or nothing, he played on.

Souness wasn’t even on the bench. Neither was McAvennie, one of the top scorers in English football that season. They’d already lost to Denmark and Germany, and their shocking inability to break down the dirtiest team I’d ever seen meant they were on their merry way home.

Northern Ireland, if memory serves me right, they got a full plate of cold revenge from the Spanish side that they beat at the previous tournament. Brazil then smacked home a few goals past Pat Jennings to stick them on a plane home to what would presumably become George Best International Airport.

There was an amazing goal, me and my friends at school, we’d never seen anything like it before (we were 8, dammit). Manuel Negrete of Mexico. It was in the first knock-out round. Here is the video that I’ve just managed to find. Words fail me.

England beat Paraguay at this stage, I remember loving Paraguay’s kit. Red and white striped shirts, blue shorts, white socks. No-one wore those colours in English football, and I just loved how it worked. Obviously Atletico Madrid wear this kit, but we barely had English football on TV, let alone Spanish matches...

Then along came Argentina. The Hand of God and the boot of Butcher. Ho-hum.

France losing to Brazil on penalties, that was harsh too. Taffarel, the Brazilian ‘keeper, committed an atrocious foul on a French attacker, it was nearly up there with the GBH the German goalie had committed on France’s Battison only four years previous. And for Michel Platini, the best player in the world, for him to miss a penalty in the shoot-out, devastating.

And after all that, the Argentina won, beating West Germany. It’s always a little more rewarding to know that the team who bested you, were unbeatable. A recognition of deservedness. God lifted up that trophy high above Mexico City, and a voice called out, ‘Jamie, it’s time for bed’. I was only eight: it was probably past my bedtime and I had school in the morning.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Short Story: Believe

Believe, or, Words to a Prime Ministerial candidate about to engage in live televised debate with his rivals.

A micro-dialogue by me.

"No, it’s not that simple. The thing you have to remember is that it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. It only matters that you have conviction in what you’re saying, what you’re arguing. The accuracy of facts, the veracity of your statements, facts can be created and manipulated, quotes reassigned and invented after the event. Just go out there and say it like every word is the truth. Go out there and say it like every word that that smug bastard is saying is poison, say it like every word that Sloane Square Oxbridge Trust Fund cunt is saying is a personal affront, not just to you but to the audience in the studio, and the people at home. Because if you believe in what you say, even if it’s misattributed or misquoted, or just plain made-up, if you convince that audience of your belief, then you are selling honesty, integrity: by virtue, you are an honest man, with integrity. And then you win the election – ‘cos everyone thinks the honest politician is a gift from god, a messiah, a shoe-in, regardless of his policy. Look at Christianity, Judaism, all the made-up religions. They all say the same thing, be nice, believe in God, don’t lift a finger on the Holy Day, givvus yer fooking money – yet they are all at war with each other, purely because of the misappropriated faith and belief of their followers, the faith and belief in a description of god from 2000-odd years ago that they think is the right one. If we can garner a tenth of that belief in you, We don’t need policy, consultation, consensus, compromise – just your face on the billboards. Believe what you think you know. Believe."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Short Story: A Cup of Coffee

A 300 word piece of micro-fiction. By me.

He filled the kettle, watched as it boiled, made a coffee. He didn’t actually watch it, his life wasn’t quite that desperately dull. He did notice the blue light, the bubbles behind the translucent plastic getting more excited, but he didn’t watch it boil. While it was boiling, he spooned two spoonfuls of coffee and three of sugar into his mug. He opened the cupboard door, the cupboard with the savoury staples, the pasta, the rice. He closed it quickly, after realising there was nothing he could instantly consume.

Neither had he filled the kettle, not completely, anyway. His mother had drummed into him that he should only boil the amount of water that he needed. The kettle manufacturer stated that there was a two-cup minimum (500ml). He contemplated measuring the cost of extra electricity of boiling 250ml of extra water each time he used the kettle, and comparing it with the cost of a replacement kettle, but he had no idea how many under-filled boils it would take to damage the kettle irrevocably, maths was never his strong-point, and his life wasn’t that desperately dull, so he just boiled somewhere between one and two cups at a time.

But the two-cup rule; the large tins of beans and tomatoes and tuna that were always better value than the smaller ones, which meant that he had to overeat or refrigerate, then forget, and then throw away the remains; the comfort of having someone to talk to, to hold, to touch: the lack of someone to share his days and nights with did make his life considerably duller, and emotionally poorer. Whether it made his life financially poorer, (single person council tax deductions aside), he didn’t know, as he had yet to replace his kettle, and maths was never his strong-point.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Was A Teenage Manics Fan: Part 1

Part 1 of a lot of parts of a story, a real story, not made-up, where I try to make some sense of being a fan of the Manic Street Preachers. If you've not heard of the Manic Street Preachers, I really don't know what to say at this juncture.

From Despair to Where?

I was talking about music with my (only/best) friend’s older sister. I was a massive James fan (more of that later on this blog, no doubt). I’d just started reading the NME – I was a latecomer, I was sixteen. It was fireworks night. She said this band, the Manic Street Preachers, they were worth checking out. She liked Suede, I figured she had some taste. I also had a bit of a crush on her too, but that’s neither here or there. Honest.

I went to Beckenham Library, typed the album name into the computer (or maybe I looked it up in some kind of ring-binder, which seems slightly more plausible?) and they had Gold Against The Soul in a different library in the borough. The next night, I got the bus to West Wickham Library, checked out the tape, probably paying 32p for the privilege, and listened to it. All the way home, and for about the next year, pretty much constantly. I’d say I listened to the Manics about 50% of the time, and that’s being generous to the rest of the records in my collection. I got the CD for Christmas, having taped the copy from the library (proof that home-taping had fuck-all to do with killing music, that was all Coldplay and James Blunt’s fault).

Gold Against The Soul, I guess, offers a very different ‘way-in’ to the Manics than the metal/hard-rockism of Generation Terrorists or utter bleakness of The Holy Bible, and completely unrelated to the Brit-pop-rock of the later albums. This was radio-friendly(ish) FM rock, big riffs (‘Sleepflower’), power chords (‘From Despair To Where’) and the oddly baggy-esque and danceable ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)’. Even the punchline ‘We don’t want your fucking love’ was radio-edited out for the single version of ‘Roses In The Hospital’.

This was all on the back of their most successful single to date: a cover version of ‘Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless), a charity release in association with the NME. Backed by a cover of this Bryan Adams song by the Fatima Mansions, it hit number 7 in the UK hit parade. I should imagine it’s the first song of theirs that I was aware of, I didn’t remember the name of the band, but I knew the song. I guess any chart success bred an amount of familiarity and credibility in those days.

Certainly that’s the way the Manics saw it too – and probably why they dislike it so much. It was an attempt at commerciality, to appease Colombia Records, to establish themselves as a serious rock act, to take on this grunge music thing that was spilling across the Atlantic. But to those of us young and impressionable enough, it was like giving away candy-floss laced with crack. For every cranked-up multi-layered Les Paul driven guitar solo, there was the universal sense of being alone and adrift – ‘From Despair To Where’ with its delicate opening, ‘I write this alone on my bed... The place is quiet and so alone/ Pretend there’s something worth waiting for’. These lyrics got me, they got me.

Let me explain. I was 13 when I got Gold Mother by James. I couldn’t relate to 'Come Home' (‘after 30 years... I’ve become the kind of man I’ve always hated’ - I was 13!) but as a undiagnosed depressed teenager, to hear the other hit single, to hear someone sing ‘Those who feel the breath of sadness /Sit down next to me’ gave me such warmth and comfort and the knowledge that maybe there was something wrong with me, and also that I wasn’t alone. And to see so many people on the Come Home Live video singing along so passionately to every word, it helped me understand that even though I didn’t have friends, that I would find people who thought like me, ran at the mouth like me, felt like me. There’s another song on Gold Mother, ‘You Can’t Tell how Much Suffering (On A Face That’s Always Smiling)' – that was me. I was the class sarcastic funnyman, the fat-kid with the sharp tongue, getting in sly digs as a defence mechanism. I fucking hated school.

Three years after ‘Sit Down’, to hear the pleading urgency of ‘From Despair...’. To hear the everlasting sadness, the futility and empathy of ‘La Tristesse...’. It made me feel like I belonged, that this was my club, my band. While the rock was catchy, the beats heavy and rebellious, and the hooks all tightly in place, the lyrics, the lyrics were the clincher. The lyrics grabbed my heart, my mind, where no other band ever could.

And it’s a great teenage album, too. Because despite being a lonely depressive, I was sixteen, and you know, a bit rebellious. Although, any acts of rebellion were mainly reserved for chopsing=off to/at teachers. So the sneering sarcastic and spiteful ‘Yourself’ and ‘Nostalgic Pushead’ (favourite lyric: ‘My cheeks blood-red as my favourite port /But hey, cocaine keeps cholesterol at bay’); the fairly fucking needless swearing on ‘Roses...’; the wonderful frankness of ‘Symphony Of Tourette’ (I mean, what teenager isn’t intrigued by Tourette’s?) and the politically astute title-track all ticked boxes and fired synapses* and pressed buttons and flicked switches in my head.

And a class-mate of mine, Michael, he read Kerrrrranggg! and due to the Manics’ crossover appeal, from Smash Hits! to RAW! (did all music mags have exclamation marks, or am I imagining it?), we were able to find some common ground, and we went to see the Manics together, Brixton Academy, January 28th 1994**. My first gig. Awh... and that, dear reader, is another story.

To be continued, stay beautiful etc...


* I know nothing about science. Do synapses fire? Do electrons and protrons go round an atom? I don’t know, don’t care, and never will. My dad is a scientist. My wife is a scientist. I am not. Let it go. I have.

** I didn’t have to look this up. I couldn’t tell you about anything to do with what happened yesterday, or how to use the washing machine, but that date just flew straight out of my head. Verify it if you want to. Where, I dunnoh, but feel free to try...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Edjewcayshon, Edjucatoin, Education

A long, long time ago, I went to University. It was a disaster. Fresh with A’s in English and General Studies A-Level, and D’s in Politics and History, I went to Swansea University to read... you got it, Politics. Only when I got there, they had changed the course. So instead of pure Politics, you had to choose additional subjects in the first year. Unperturbed, I elected to take two History modules and one in American Studies. At this point I can see you shaking your head, thinking to yourself: why Jamie, why did you not change to do an English degree? I know, right?

So yeah, that was a huge mistake. I thought I knew it all, based on the first few lectures in each subject. Because, actually, I did. I’d taken Politics and History at GCSE and A-Level, I knew the basics. At no point did I think it would get harder. Well, I probably did, but by that point a self-assured apathy had already set in. Along with all the other standard problems faced by a teenager with depression and a naïve take on life-skills, living in a strange new city with new people and all that. I couldn’t control my depression, my inability to sleep at night, my inability to get out of bed before the afternoon. I couldn’t manage my time, my (ie. my parents' & Student Loan Company’s) money, to turn up to lectures. I was homesick.

I lasted nearly two years, and then because of being ill I started to re-sit my second year. But trapped in a vicious circle of needing a student loan to pay my course fees, not being able to get a student loan without registering for the new year, and not being able to register without being able to make the payment, I fell out. I dropped out. I was advised to go. I got right the fuck out...

So anyway, knowing that I’d always regret it otherwise, about three years ago I enrolled in the Open University, to read for a BA in Literature (finally picking the right course). And it’s great. The first year was the compulsory course An Introduction To The Humanities (no longer available) – a little bit of literature, art, music, history, theatre, architecture, history of science, all bases covered. The OU has a policy that you’re not allowed to name your tutors, a policy that I will keep. However my first tutor turned out to be a record producer that I had always wanted to work with, and I did, just not in the way I’d hoped for when I was still playing in bands. The final project, on the counter-culture movement of the ‘Long Sixties’ was so enjoyable.

After the first year, it’s a free-for all, you just have to pick courses in the English department which count towards your degree. I next took An Introduction To Literature (the only other mandatory course) – which covers authors such as Shakespeare, Aphra Benn, Austen, Dickens, Mary Shelley, Byron, Ibsen, Turgenev and so many more. I have never felt so exhilarated by the books studied on this course, even though I had read many of them before. I guess reading them in context with other comparative works (Literature and Gender, The Realist Novel, The Romantics) gave fresh perspectives on familiar writing.

And now I’m waiting patiently for two things – the mark from my Creative Writing course that I have recently finished (ETA I hope sometime in August), and the start of my Advanced Creative Writing course in September/ October-ish time. That’s kinda why I’ve started this blog really, one of the reasons anyway. Keep the old typing fingers and ickle grey cells ticking over. And if I write something I like, then it’ll go up, like the short story below that I wrote on Friday.

So yeah, I’m more than happy at the Open University, with its online discussion forums/ tutorials and CD/ DVD lectures. I don’t have to meet with or talk to anyone if I don’t want to, which I was in no state of mind to do so when I started. But the confidence it’s given me is unreal. Let me explain about that first paragraph. My English A-Level had a coursework component, in which I got virtually full-marks. Neither the Politics or the History courses did, which meant it was all down to the exam. I’m shit at exams. Dreadful. My memory isn’t amazing, I get what I now know are panic attacks (I had no idea what they were then), and I get stressed. Very stressed. I have been known to just walk out and get the bus home.

So despite being really actually quite good at Politics and History, I was doomed to fail, and exams at Uni were just as bad due to my now self-fulfilling exam-phobia. But now, thanks to the study advice from my second tutor, a wonderful poet living in mid-Wales somewhere, I took an exam, and passed. Hell, I did better than pass – I got a 2:1. And because of that I felt able to go to the physical tutorials on the Creative Writing course, and will go to the tutorials on my next courses as well.

I know a lot of these things I have achieved are because I’ve matured, I’m on the right medication, and most importantly I have an incredibly supportive wife, but I’m still not sure whether I would have been able to achieve what I have within the claustrophobic walls of a ‘brick’ university. So thank you Harold Wilson, Jennie Lee and to a lesser extent, Michael Young (as he is also responsible for giving us Toby Young...) – thank you for setting up a wonderfully supportive, accessible, and truly Open University.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Short Story: Stephanie Says

A 300 word piece of micro-fiction. By me.

Stephanie says I should get some sleep. Stephanie says a lot of things. On this occasion, for once, Stephanie is right. I can feel my eyes straining, I’m running on the stale stench of dried alcohol and perspired adrenaline. But as ever with Stephanie’s bold statements and personal judgements, the timing could be better. Like when she told Mischa she should just chill-out and have a fucking laugh once in a while, the day after Mischa’s boyfriend dumped her.

We’re stuck at the train station, we’ve missed the last train home until tomorrow morning. People freeze on railway station platforms. I would sleep but for the shivering, for the cauterizing cold, the night-frost tearing and pinching at my muscles. The more I think about it, the more my teeth chatter and my jaw starts to ache. The bench we’re sitting on is turning to ice. People freeze to death on benches. People spontaneously combust on benches all the time, Stephanie says.

There’s no buses until morning; and the cost of a cab to home is way beyond the realms of our purses. Fuck, the price of a burger and chips each is out of our icy grasps, let alone a room in a Travelodge or whatever. Warmth is in Stephanie’s front garden, our coats and jeans tucked up safe in a plastic bag, hidden in a hedge – it’s our ploy to avoid her mother and that scalding, scathing, sneering I’m not having you leaving the house looking like prostitutes speech she gives as we try to escape out of the front door.

Do they let you in a Travelodge at three in the morning, anyway? Stephanie asks. Not with two-pound-fifty-seven, half-a-bottle of orange Fanta, 12 B&H and a Boots Advantage card. Still, at least it’s not a school night.

Songs I Love: #1 More Than A Woman

Aaliyah - More Than A Woman

Try and forget the fact that R Kelly produced 14 year-old Aaliyah’s debut album, the not-at-all controversially titled Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, and may have had a relationship / dodgy marriage with her when she was 15. Try and respect the fact that she died tragically in an air-crash at the age of 22.

Before she died, she recorded the sexiest, most sensual, most sensuous song of the noughties: 'More Than A Woman'. The melody is soft and curvy, the verse joins with the chorus which joins with the verse again. There’s this beautiful pause in the chorus, "More than a woman/More than a lover/[pause] More than another" which for some higher and heavenly reason is the most breathlessly anticipatory thing I have ever heard. The lyrics, especially for an R’n’B song, are beautifully poignant, honest and sweet, "We share pillows", "there’s no separating". This song makes me fuzzy inside. And sad. Beautifully sad.

According to Wikipedia, this was the first ever posthumous UK number 1 by a female artist. According to me, it’s the best UK number 1 by any artist.


This article was originally published as part of Sweeping The Nation's 'Noughties by Nature' series - an in-no-way definitive list of the best song in the period 2000-2009.

Bands I Love: #1 The Indelicates

Have you heard of The Indelicates? They are a band. They are very ever-so good. Well I think so, and so do some other people too.

If you have heard of them, follow the link at the bottom of this paragraph. If you haven’t, read on. If you have heard of them and then decide to read on, then please be aware that *some* of this article may not quite be 100% factually correct. But never let that get in the way of a good story, right?

That link in full:

They released an album (their second) this year on their own label – Corporate Records. But unlike most other self-funded indie start-ups, this label has balls. And a highly effective multi-media content distribution system, whatever one of those is.

Eschewing the modern trend of making people pay a prescribed amount of monetary tokenism to purchase the album, The Indelicates’ Songs For Swinging Lovers is available on CD and as a pay-what-the-hell-you-like download. You can pay nothing, which is great if you’ve never heard of them and would like a listen, or if like me, you’ve paid for it but need to download it again on your other computer. And as any marketer knows, you get the punters in with a free download, and then they buy the tee-shirt, the gig tickets, the Ltd. Edition seven inch, the poetry book, and the branded Christmas Fudge. As Catch would say: ‘Bingo!

Anyways, where was I? Yeah, The Indelicates, that’s right. They’re a two-piece with lots of other band members. Formed in Brighton in 2005, they are fronted by the not-married-but-are-a-couple-who-share-the-same-assumed-name-but-don’t-read-anything-into-that Simon Indelicate and Julia Indelicate – or Jumon or Silia in the ghastly modern-day parlance. The insolent debonair Simon Indelicate grew tired of the Bacchanalian debauchery and rock’n’roll excess (and loose-knit cardigans) of the poetry scene, and hitched his wagon on the sedate, laid back and well-dressed world of... erm... Rock’n’Roll.

Julia was a sometime polka-dot wearing escapee from the once-kinda-cool-yet-now-nothing-but-a-sub-Sugababes-catastrophe that has become the frankly embarrassingly god-awful P*p*tt*s. She had met Simon at one of those slammin’ poetry rhyme-off style events, like in the film 8 Mile, but more British and presumably more polysyllabic and with less mum-cussing. They hit it off, got it on, and formed a band (they formed a band) – although it is lost from the annuls of history in which order these events took place. Maybe they formed a band, then got it on, then realised they actually had a lot in common. Or maybe theirs is a story to be told by Mills and/or Boon at a later date. Maybe I should just twitter them up and ask, but that would be a bit too much like genuine research.

They released a record. Not ‘New Art For The People’, a song which opens with a fella having spilt his seed, Onan style, all up in some wayward coke-whore's hair. This, categorically, is not how Simon and Julia met. They said so in an interview, and I believe near-enough everything I that remember that I think that I've read, especially when I can't find the proof.

They released a record – a rather fine debut single, on Sad Gnome Records, ‘We Hate The Kids’, an attitude shared by most free-thinking people. Certainly Sad Gnome agreed, stumping up the cashmoney to release an Indelicatastic EP with the self-deprecating and not all self-aggrandizing title The Last Significant Statement To Be Made In Rock And Roll. This was quite rather very good too. And a bit of a lie.

The next significant statement to be made in Rock’n’Roll was the news that the Indellytwins had in fact got a record deal. In exchange for some magic beans, a flagon of cider, a promise of some studio-time and the all-important creative control, they signed to Weekender Records. They released three singles with Weekender‘Julia, We don’t live in the Sixties’, which not only is a magnificent title but is also factually correct; ‘Sixteen’, which is ace and whistle-y and nicks a line from Don Juan, which is way better than nicking a line from Kate Moss; and ‘America’, which as the title suggest is a love letter to the United States at a time when everyone was hating on our Trans-Atlantic bastard-cousins . In amongst all of that came the quite stunning debut album, American Demo, a record that in terms of lyrical content and musical style is pretty much like most mix-tapes I used to make. Albeit, a mix-tape without the hip-hop tracks I’d stick on to enlighten indie-kids’ minds.

At some point in this timeframe, they wrote and performed and released as a bonus track the song which anyone who is writing about The Indelicates is contractually obliged to write about – Waiting for that fella from that band, what were they called? The Libertines? Yeah, that’s right, Waiting for the fella from the Libertines who is always in the tabloids and in court to die’. Obviously, they didn’t mean it, man, not in that way. It’s not like they had poisoned Pete Doherty (for it is he) slowly, adding a little bit of some dastardly chemical to his soup/ syringes/ alcopops on a daily basis, and were waiting for him to die as a result of their actions. No, they meant it like: this is what the tabloids want, a celebrity death, a celebrity drug death – PICTURES OF HIS DYING MOMENTS ON PAGES 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,&9 IN YOUR SUPER SOARAWAY SUN. Like when Nicky Wire proclaimed he hoped Michael Stipe went the same way as Freddy Mercury – they are voicing the cynical mercenary tabloid opinion that the tabloids themselves are too embarrassed ever to voice themselves.

So, American Demo, an album laced with cynicism and bile and genuine love and misguided affection (‘Unity Mitford’). Beautiful piano solos and arena guitar solos? Hells yeah (‘Stars’). It really is a wonderful, uplifting record, and even the programming of the songs works: the instrumental opening, the big set-piece ending – ‘Thank you and goodnight’. It’s like those albums that you always dreamed of writing when you were a wide-eyed nascent dreamer indie/rock kid, but didn’t have the musical ability, the lyrics, the wherewithal, the drive to make it happen. Well fuck you, ‘cos the Indelicates do. And have done so.

Always aware of the visual possibilities of their music (S-indelicate wrote a musical based on The Book Of Job, you know, out of the bible. It’s called ‘The Book of Job, a musical’) the Indelicates have played with some wonderful imagery. From the pistol-blowjob from the front-cover of their debut single, to the white line of American Demo (as in, which side are you on?) they’ve devoted considerable effort to match the music with the art. Their videos are equally stunning affairs, directed in-house by guitarist Al Clayton and his film-making partner Stuart Laws. From the political rally and news broadcast of ‘Julia...’, the old-peoples home of ‘Sixteen to the recent hoe-down tap-dance extravaganza of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and the Taxi Driver homage of ‘Flesh, The Indelicates have never shied away from the controversial or ridiculous, the shocking or the beautiful (‘New Art...’).

Anyway, there was a recession, an economic meltdown notable for the collapse of a bunch of banks and financial institutions, and the scaling back of Weekender Records. The Indelicates celebrated their freedom from the chains of record company oppression by self-recording and releasing the genius Recession Song and Indelicates recession wear ‘value’ rock tee-shirts. Fuck aye.

Then along came Corporate Records, and Songs For Swinging Lovers, recorded in East Berlin, for that authentic socialism-forced-into-capitalism. The result? A slow-burning album of real wit and understanding, intellect and beauty. And now? Well, I refer the honourable reader to the link at the top. The third album, by Britains best-kept secret band, The Indelicates, a David Koresh themed concept album called David Koresh Superstar (sadly not Waco-a-go-go, which I suggested). Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Intellect. Genius.

And here's a sneak preview...