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Welcome (back)

My blog has been going since July 2010, with a mix of pieces about music, following a lower-division football team (Mansfield Town), travelling on London Underground, and one (so far) customer service nightmare. A few years ago I moved to Turin and the blog went a bit quiet. I’ve now reactivated it, as I’ve got some new things to write about, including following a Serie A football team (Torino) and travelling on the Turin Underground.

If you’ve been reading, thank you, especially if you’ve commented either on or off the blog. And if you’ve been waiting for some new pieces, sorry about the slight delay.

So that’s the plan, and it will keep going for as long as I’m enjoying it!

Only In Italia

Having lived in Italy for nearly ten years, I must be pretty happy with my lot. I enjoy a good standard of living and a pleasant climate, and I meet a lot of nice and interesting people. The only downside is the question of how a nation with such copious layers of bureaucracy can be so utterly inefficient. But a moment’s thought later, the answer is obvious. Simply reverse those two statements and insert a ‘because’ between them, and there’s your answer. In a country where you need a health card, a tax code, an ID card and proof of residence if you so much as want to fart, Italians are incredulous when I tell them that UK citizens don’t have identity cards. They wouldn’t accept them. But how can you prove that you exist? is the usual response. I generally turn the question round and ask them if they think I exist. The answer is almost always ‘yes’. Having persuaded them that my bizarre claim isn’t some kind of ironic English joke, I then induce a state of total shock by saying that when I lived in England, I usually went out without carrying any form of identification at all (being white anyway, I probably wouldn’t be stopped by the police and asked to show my credentials) – the only exception being if I was going abroad, in which case a passport was always useful.

It’s difficult to hate something in its absence, but my biggest bugbear here is Italian customer service. Good customer service in these parts isn’t about satisfying, or even serving a customer, it’s rated by how successfully the reams of paperwork have been completed. This issue is the direct descendent of the bureaucracy nonsense I’ve just described. This is how it works in practice.

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to apply for a Covid vaccination, being in one of the priority groups. I completed a form on a website and a few weeks later received an appointment for Friday 9 April at Juventus Stadium (as it’s euphemistically called) to receive my dose. (I refuse to use any monosyllabic word beginning with ‘j’.) The time of the injection was to be 12.18pm. I was immediately suspicious. 12.18pm doesn’t exist here. The nearest equivalent on the Italian clockface is ‘When do you fancy?’ or, more precisely, ‘some time next week’. But no, it was true, because the day before the appointment I received a reminder to come at exactly this hour. So, armed with all the proof of my existence I could muster, a printout of the reminder email and my ancient Italian mobile with the same in text message form, I took a very expensive taxi ride to the ‘stadium’, arriving at 11.48am. Of course, things were running late. Apparently there were ‘problems’. But finally I was ushered in through the gate and ticked off the checklist, to be shown to a waiting room, which was some kind of elaborate tent in the Juventus car-park. Waiting room is the right name, as I languished there for nearly two hours, before being summoned, not by name, but by the now long-departed hour of 12.18. Luckily I was the only person called 12.18.

So far, so smooth. But here things started to go wrong. I wasn’t on the list. Digging out of my bag all the documents I had carefully chosen as evidence, and waving my invitation in the form of two different media, I stood my ground. Bad news. According to this (second) list I didn’t exist after all, at least not in terms of getting vaccinated. My usual approach in this kind of situation is to ask a couple of questions very calmly and reasonably. And then get angry. Neither part of this strategy worked. Apology? Are you crazy? Explanation? You’re joking. Just the classic Italian body language of excuses – the shrugged shoulders, the little puffs of air, the rapid hand movements, all of which translate into ‘not my fault, guv. What’s more, no idea whose fault it is’. At these times I wistfully imagine I’m in New York, or even in parts of London, and some concerned individual soothingly saying ‘I’m really sorry, Sir, this is unacceptable. Give me a moment and I’ll make a call and fix a new appointment for you. Please take a seat.’ Not here. Here it’s ‘they sent out a cancellation yesterday, two hours after your confirmation, but they didn’t tell us what to say to people who turned up’. Naturally it’s the poor staff who are the victims here, not the customers. To be fair, there was some guff about me no longer being a priority since some governmental change of mind yesterday, but that’s it. Of course, there was no cancellation on my phone or in my inbox. What do I need to do now? Search me, mate.

So there we are. Some 20 euros taxi fare lighter and half a day’s work lost, I am still unvaccinated and possibly constitute a grave peril to the ageing Italian population. But I’m going to console myself with a posthumous challenge to Rene Descartes about whether, in the absence of an Italian ID card, he truly existed. And whether he ever got vaccinated.

So, Why Torino?

Torino logoGood question. Long story. Short answer.

Having signed up for what I thought would be just a year in the ‘real’ Italian capital, I had a checklist of must-do activities and must-visit places. It turns out that I underestimated my stay sevenfold (so far), and many of these tasks are still staring accusingly at me from the list.

They included taking in an Italian football match, apparently perversely since I’d always found continental football indescribably boring. Can’t see the attraction of Barcelona, to be honest – all that short passing and fussy movement, usually going nowhere. In fact the very term ‘European football’ fills me with a sense of existential weariness, born of dreary UEFA television nights in the 70s and 80s where some Belgian gang takes on a bunch of Austrian no-hopers, invariably in the murky light of a half-empty stadium, backed by an unrelenting accompaniment of claxons and fireworks, and both sides gain a valuable point by virtue of failing to score. The audience is hemmed in by high fencing.

But going to a Serie A (or even Serie B) game would be more a cultural than a sporting experience. I would be an honorary footballing anthropologist, observing some of the different ‘behaviours’ of Italian crowds compared with English.

A bit of background here. Ten years of supporting Mansfield Town home and away before giving up on them had left me with a rather peevish sense that I’d paid my debt to society, and now deserved some solid success. Making the play-offs of League Two (otherwise known as the fourth division) didn’t count as solid or any other type of success. So for English purposes I switched my affections to Manchester United and, while not getting as emotionally involved as with the Stags, generally wanted them to win and was annoyed when they didn’t.

Here in Turin the options are clearer – it’s Juventus or Torino. OK, some people support the odd Milan team or Napoli, but these are eccentrics in a city divided into two. It should have been an obvious choice, but after my decade as a Stagsman I was instinctively inclined to the underdog. There were practical reasons too. Torino’s Stadio Olimpico is just a few minutes from the city centre, it’s easier to get to, no problem buying a ticket, and cheaper too, especially since they were in Serie B when I arrived.

There was a history, too. I hadn’t done any research at the time, but later learned that the ‘Grande Torino’ team of the late 1940s – reputedly the best in the world – won Serie A five times in a row, provided ten elevenths of the Italian national team and was tragically wiped out in an air crash just outside the city, a disaster that still resonates with the population of Turin today.

Getting a ticket was a bit different from turning up at Field Mill on a Saturday afternoon with ten minutes to spare, waving £8 at the turnstile-keeper and taking your pick of seats. Italian bureaucracy (more of this another time) involves providing just about every personal detail you possess, passport, address, the lot. And then displaying it all again on the day if you took the precaution of buying your ticket in advance. As it happened, I needn’t have bothered with the advance purchase bit. When I arrived about half an hour before kick-off, the stadium was more or less attractively empty.

The ground is a step up from Field Mill, definitely, but is blighted by that oval seating arrangement which, like the old Stamford Bridge of the 60s, places the most dedicated fans at opposite ends farthest away from the action, separated from the pitch by a decommissioned race-track. Something to do with the Olympics, I think.

When I made the decision to go to this game, I didn’t even know Torino’s position in the league. I found a Serie A table, but they weren’t there. Must be some mistake. But no, a visit to the club’s website clearly showed them sitting comfortably at the top of Serie B. In a way, this was a relief, as I was more likely to see a victory and, this being April, something was probably at stake.

I knew none of the players but enjoyed the announcement of the squad at ten to three. The away team (on this occasion the not-very-mighty Gubbio) are given a surly, rapid, surname-only introduction. By contrast, when it’s time to announce Il Toro, the announcer suddenly brightens up (actually, make that ‘goes crazy’) announcing players’ first names only for the crowd to yell the rest. The biggest cheers came for our number six Angelo Ogbonna (a rare Serie B Italian international) and local hero, number nine Rolando Bianchi. The accompanying pictures were helpful, with ancient coach Giampiero Ventura looking like a cross between my old Mansfield gaffer Andy King and a bloodhound. (Try to ignore the genealogical implications of that union.) I was intrigued to see what Juan Ignacio Surraco and Cristian Pasquato could do, and felt that the name Francesco Benussi carried a bit more of a ring to it than his erstwhile Mansfield counterpart between the posts Kevin Pilkington. Anyway, let the action begin.

Ogbonna was immediately impressive as centre-back, reminding me, with his effortless style, poise on the ball and plentiful time, of Bobby Moore – the way he always looked up and around, instead of down, and the stylish ease with which he dispatched the ball. Bianchi had been short of goals recently and missed a sitter right in front of me but, willed on by the crowd, bagged a brace (football cliché alert – that’s two goals). Surraco and Pasquato answered my question by both scoring, the remaining two goals in a 6-0 drubbing (clicheville again) coming from Mirko Antenucci.

I congratulated myself on my wise investment of 15 euros, and decided to go again. Slight problem. Without yet realising it, I was hooked. ‘Again’ was Reggina. 1-0 to us. You see, now it’s ‘us’. And again. 2-1 against Crotone. And again. 3-1 versus Padova. Yet again. We trounced (ouch!) Sassuolo 3-0. Which brings us to the final game of the season. And for the first time I couldn’t buy that easy-to-get, dead-cheap, oh-so-convenient ticket. The game was sold out, and I had to watch in a pub. 2-0 against Modena and we’re up. I didn’t even know about the parade through the city so didn’t turn up. Determined never to miss out again I decided to invest in a season ticket for our return to Serie A. Should be simple. In Italy? Well, that’s another story.

So that’s why. Actually it was quite a long answer, wasn’t it?

Loved And Lost: Gilbert O’Sullivan

Sometimes I try to recapture a feeling I had years ago. My mood, my attitude, my outlook – what it was like to be me back then. It’s difficult to do, and impossible to describe in words. But often, if I can reconnect to a song or piece of music I associate with that time, then the music acts as a bridge and takes me back to a particular place or situation, and I get a glimpse, for a fleeting moment, of that feeling. In the absence of my own tardis, music is the best form of time travel I know.

In 1980 I was a postgraduate music student at SOAS, London University. In order to pay the course fees, without the luxury of a grant, I was working as a kitchen porter in my college for four hours a day and as a barman at the University Of London Union most evenings. In theory this was fine, but it left me very little time to be a postgraduate music student at SOAS, which was, after all, the object of the exercise.

By spring 1981 I had risen to the dizzy heights of Senior Evening Barman, largely by virtue of being able to serve five people at once, form a notional queue from the heaving mass of bodies in front of me (“It’s you, then you, then you, then you, then you.”) and sprint down to the cellar and change a barrel only fractionally more slowly than the speed of light. I could also deflect some of the aggro of disaffected drinkers away from my colleagues, in part because, as a skinhead, I looked like a thug. I still treasure this frankly negative appraisal of my character from a frustrated customer: “I think you are a very rude man”. Spot on.

ULU back then was host to an amazing programme of top indie rock and pop groups. On Friday and Saturday nights the bar would be crammed wall to wall from early evening until late closing, and you’d finish the evening soaking wet, exhausted but still feeling hyperactive, then get home around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. For all-nighters, double the wet, exhaustion and hyperactivity, and change the hour to breakfast time.

The prized shift was Sunday afternoons, when trade would be quiet, the atmosphere relaxed, and you’d have a chance to wind down and chat to colleagues, many of whom were also friends, without a mass of punters hurling insults at you.

On one such Sunday in early spring 1981 the warm afternoon sun was streaming through the windows of the bar and I happened to catch the strains of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s What’s In A Kiss? ringing out of the PA from the jukebox in the next room. And now I can remember the exquisite feeling of that day, and of those days. One of endless possibility, curiosity about where life would take me, a hint of insecurity about soon having to get a real job and stop pretending to be a postgraduate student, and a sense that almost everything was ahead, and very little behind. The sound of that song stood out from everything I was hearing, out of time and place for 1981 – not funky, not post-punky, not jazzy, it was clear, bright, almost translucent, a delicious mix of melancholy and optimism. It matched both my own mood and the light flooding into the room, and I went straight over to the jukebox to play it again. And again.

By 1981 Gilbert O’Sullivan had been out of the picture for a few years, embroiled in the inevitable legal wrangles that followed musical success back in those days. So my first reaction was: “I know that voice. Ah yes, him. Whatever happened to him?” At that time, everyone seemed to be coming back. As well as O’Sullivan, John Lennon’s glorious song Woman had recently been in the charts and was still on that same jukebox, and my favourite band Strawbs were touring again after a long break.

Factcheck for any popkids who were born too late: Gilbert O’Sullivan back in the early 1970s was massive in the UK, in America and in many other places around the world – a pop superstar. A string of number one and Top Ten hits had made him the biggest solo artist of his day.

Like Elton John he had started the decade as a serious, ‘alternative’, credible singer-songwriter, in the same niche as, say, John Sebastian, James Taylor, Nick Drake and Jonathan Kelly – this was the indie scene of those days. In an era when the regulation clobber of rock musicians was a woolly sweater, an Afghan coat, shaggy hair and a beard, O’Sullivan had adopted a unique and striking look – that of a 19th century street urchin, with pudding-bowl haircut, cap, baggy trousers, braces and hobnail boots, a rascal straight out of Oliver. Some have described that image as limiting his appeal and distracting attention from the music, but for me it’s a brilliant creation, anticipating the individuality of punk: be different, be yourself, use whatever comes to hand – rags, pins, second-hand clothes, anything. It’s the classic attitude of an ex-art student – you yourself are the work of art as much as your music.

Chart hits and a change of image soon altered my perception, and I remember being mildly irritated by O’Sullivan for having kept my own favourite ‘serious’ bands off the top chart positions for weeks on end. Top Of The Pops back then was like Division 1 in football, and we all passionately followed bands and supported football teams – in my case, sadly, my home town team Chester (Division 4). My friends and I had now rather snobbishly decided that Gilbert O’Sullivan had become a middle-of-the-road balladeer, making songs for teeny-boppers and their mums and dads. (My own father suffered a similar fate. A lover of Abba’s music, he was affectionately ridiculed by at least one of his children for his bland taste, only proving himself posthumously to be an arbiter of the cool and classic when the Swedish popsters came back into fashion in the late 1990s.)

To quote What’s In A Kiss?, it was ‘really rather stupid of me’ to deny how much I actually loved and admired Gilbert O’Sullivan’s songs, since I could still sing along with them nearly forty years later. Alone Again (Naturally), Nothing Rhymed, Clair and Get Down were locked into my memory as all-time pop classics, and I could predict every twist and turn of the lyrics and music.

So thirty-seven years later, just a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit What’s In A Kiss? – go back to that Sunday afternoon in the ULU bar and try to work out why this song had remained lodged in my brain and in my heart, off and on, for so long. At the start O’Sullivan sets up a basic three-chord sequence that runs through most of the song. It’s a simple and beautiful concept clothed in the most gorgeous of melodies. Three verses, a couple of middle eights and an instrumental, and you’re out in less than three minutes.

His voice is unmistakeable. It has the purity of a choirboy, but with a slightly hard and plaintive edge. There are echoes of both Lennon and McCartney, of Morrissey (years in advance), and a nasal quality reminiscent of Bob Dylan. He’s always totally in tune, thankfully almost completely vibrato-less, and has a way of phrasing that pulls the words this way and that across the beat, so that you feel he’s talking as much as singing.

Intrigued by what I’ve missed since 1981, and further back to those prehistoric early 70s, I’ve watched numerous documentaries, interviews and concerts. What have I learned? First, what an astonishing performer. Seeing him bound on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall and burst into the upbeat, latinesque Matrimony, jumping on top of the piano and witnessing the joy and love of the audience, you just wish you were there, every time.

Watching him play live, as I happily had the chance to do recently, he’s always completely ‘in’ the song – never going through the motions or putting on a show. What you get is the complete sincerity of the person who wrote it and still believes in it. And this goes back a long, long way. On the 1978 BBC2 programme Sight And Sound you’ll find O’Sullivan delivering a blistering set which mixes the big hits with some less commercial offerings from his new album Southpaw, backed by a ready-made, fully-functioning working band called Wilder which he’d chosen in place of the standard session-men support fodder.

He writes and sings in an unusually conversational, colloquial way. In a song like We Will, he’ll stretch the lyrics across the beat, cram in crowds of words between the beats, pause and then catch up as the words cascade down – it’s not so very different from rapping, albeit from a very different musical perspective.

Then there are those enormously long verses. In Alone Again (Naturally) they seem endless, allowing the writer to construct a narrative and pack in a whole stack of information. Many of his best songs don’t have conventional, blockbuster choruses either, but just use a short and simple phrase as the recurring hook, often the title of the song itself, like Alone Again. It’s always enough.

The voice, incredibly, is unchanged after all these years. O’Sullivan is modest about his vocal ability, but he’s fully able to turn on the rock in a song like Stick In The Mud, or croon a beautiful ballad, while in the outro to The Niceness Of It All and in Bear With Me he’s a wonderfully authentic soul singer. George Benson wanted to cover the latter song, and you can’t imagine George doing it any better. The RTE programme Out On His Own shows O’Sullivan wowing audiences in Tel Aviv and London, talking about the headstart his mother’s sacrifices gave him in his musical career, and in particular about his focus on the present and the future rather than the past. Many people don’t realise that he’s continued writing for the last forty years, working eight hours a day to craft an incredible repertoire of work, including songs which easily match those 70s classics – songs like Miss My Love Today, For What It’s Worth, Where Peaceful Waters Flow, At The Very Mention Of Your Name, All They Wanted To Say, No Way, The Whole World Over and many, many more.

Viewing this wealth of material I’ve found him a thoroughly likeable character; bitter and cynical, yes, about his level of recognition today, justifiably arrogant about his work and his worth, but decent, honest, articulate and humorous in a quirky way. Someone you’d rather have on your side than against you.

I bought my first record in 1962. This means that I’ve been a music fan for over 55 years, and I would unhesitatingly describe Gilbert O’Sullivan as the greatest singer-songwriter in English popular music. If that sounds like an extravagant claim, let’s examine Exhibit A in the evidence for the defence – the song We Will. Paul Gambaccini has described Nothing Rhymed as one of the greatest songs of all time. I would put We Will up there in the same bracket. It’s an astonishing piece of work, all the more so for a writer in his early 20s – the bitterest-sweetest tale of achieving consolation through the mundanity of family life and old friendships. Referencing bedtime rituals, cereal for breakfast, visits to grateful aunts and uncles and playing football with old mates, I read the song as a kaleidoscopic journey from childhood to old age, three crystal-clear snapshots in just three verses. It features those sinuous, long and endlessly weaving lines which enable the singer to build an argument, add little interpolations and hesitations and throw in casual asides, the “then again”s and “on the other hand”s of everyday conversation, as they climb and climb to a climax and then fall away in quiet resignation. The two-word chorus, the song’s title, is delivered by a children’s choir and quietly echoed by the singer. It’s sublime.

The journalist and musician Bob Stanley, writing in The Guardian, describes finding the song by chance and being ‘knocked sideways’ by it, listening to it every night before bed to survive a bad time – which is easy to imagine, as it’s simply a song about being human and trying to get through life intact. There couldn’t be any greater compliment.

Exhibits B to Z are on YouTube, Facebook, and all those other places ‘out there’. It’s admittedly not the most scientific research base, but in the hundreds, thousands of comments about Gilbert O’Sullivan’s videos and concerts the most frequently recurring word is ‘genius’. You’ll find countless heartfelt testaments to how much his music means to people, and I hope Ed Heider won’t mind me lifting his post from YouTube: “Gilbert, you changed my life to a better feeling about all of its aspects, your songs, sound and music made me start every morning as a new person born again”. If, as a songwriter, you can look back at your career and tell your grandchildren that you changed people’s lives, that’s pretty much ‘job done’, I think. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

When my band’s profile was higher, I often used to be interviewed by fanzines, bloggers, indie magazines and even, once, by one of the ‘real’ music papers. A frequent question was whether there was any song I wish I’d written. I always replied that I was very happy with most of the songs I’d created myself, and refused to be drawn into this strange form of compositional envy, harmless though the question was. It didn’t matter to me whether I’d written a great song or if any other person had done the job – only that someone had written it. So no. With What’s In A Kiss?, We Will and so many others, anyone would be proud to have their name on those timeless, universal songs. They’re not mine, and I don’t care. I’m just happy and grateful that they exist, and that the writer was Raymond O’Sullivan.

Blog Image 2

We Will

What’s In A Kiss?

Gilbert O’Sullivan website

I Think It’s All Over

I’ve often wondered what it means to follow a football club. Of course, I know what it means to me – a bit more of a commitment than some frippery like a career, or marriage, say. No, it’s the actual qualification as a fan that puzzles me – are you one because you say you’re one, or is there some litmus-like test which identifies you as such: dip me in the solution, I turn yellow so I’m a Stag.

I once worked with someone who everyone knew was a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday supporter (his life at that point amounting to slightly short of forty years). We were aware of this because he’d discuss the game on a Monday morning, talk knowledgeably about the players, say things like “What we really need right now is a right-sided midfielder”…but not actually go to any matches. Pressure of work, often at weekends, other priorities. I, however, who’d started supporting Mansfield Town on moving to Nottinghamshire, and was an ever-present, home and away, for several seasons, was somehow not quite the real thing, but a Johnny-come-lately fairweather friend. He was a true supporter, blue and white through and through, whereas I was some kind of mercenary rent-a-fan who at any moment might transfer his affections to Barnet, or Manchester United.

Then there were all those Labour men who wore their adherence to their team like some kind of badge of ordinary blokedom. Everyone had to support someone as proof of normality. Thus we needed to know that Alistair Campbell was a passionate Burnley fan, as if it somehow made him any less of a bastard. Gordon Brown was big on Raith Rovers, scoring points on local allegiance whilst marginally addressing the utter weirdness factor. I’d really rather they’d all hated the game than each having some adoptive football club grafted onto their dysfunctional personalities.

Andy King once said a wise thing at a meet-the-manager-and-ask-him-awkward-questions evening at Mansfield. Addressing some prickly poser about the long-term direction of the club he said: “You lot, you’re the club. Me, the chairman, the players, we’re just passing through.” It’s true, but even players build up an affinity for a club if they’re there for more than a couple of seasons. And when they finally move on they “always look for x’s result first” where x is the club they’ve recently quit for a better deal. It’s a cliché that fickle fans have adopted too.

In a way I envied my friend with his no-commitment, free-as-the-wind approach. He never had to worry about everything going sour. His supporterdom was all in his head (he would say genes), a virtual equivalent of his birth certificate, rather than being measured in hours, (hundreds of) pounds, freezing temperatures and (thousand of) miles.

The last time I saw Mansfield Town play was at Brentford in August 2008, our final season in the Football League. On relegation to the Conference, the better players were sold off, and by the end of our first non-league season I only recognised the name of one player, Nathan Arnold (‘Nay-Nay’ as I’d learned his nickname was). I’d read about some of the others – players who’d dropped down from the ‘real’ league to play for a club who tried to match their lack of ambition, old hands desperately reviving their careers and giving it one last shot, and promising youngsters on their way up. By the time Dave Holdsworth departed as manager, he had seen some 60 new players into and out of the club, like the keeper of some wildly-spinning revolving door of transfers and loan deals. I’d look at the team list in the Sunday papers and think “And who the hell are you?”

Like the sentimental (or dishonest) ex-player, I still look for their result first – well, after looking at the Premiership scores which I already know from the previous night’s Match Of The Day. But when someone asks me who we’re playing on Saturday, I usually couldn’t say. Some Cambridgeshire village in the Blue Square something-or-other league. Hufton? Hickston? Never been there, anyway.

Am I still a fan? I don’t really know. I don’t think I support anyone else, anyway. And if anyone asked who my team was I’d still say proudly ‘Mansfield Town’. But does that make me any better than Alistair bloody Campbell? Probably not.

Obscene And Heard

One of the things about supporting a small club in a lower division (OK, the bottom division) is that you spend a lot of time standing on terraces in small grounds. And one of the advantages of this is that you can actually hear a lot of the specialised language spoken by the practitioners of the beautiful game. Or, at this level, the OK-looking in a good light and after a few drinks game.

Before the new ground was (nearly) built at Field Mill I’d perch against a barrier near the halfway line for maximum exposure to the advice, instructions and expletives of manager Andy King. This was always entertaining as King enjoyed good rapport and plenty of banter with the home fans, and not only concerning his rapidly disappearing thatch.

Old Trafford may be awesome, but with Alex Ferguson about five miles away from most seats you can barely see his back, let alone hear what he is grunting through his chewing gun. 2,500 people, on the other hand, can’t make a lot of noise, and often, especially during moments of the greatest ennui, they can actually go very quiet.

So when Cardiff were trying to find a way past slow-moving, granite-hewn, one-man wall of defence Brian Kilcline, you’d expect them to vent their frustration in verbal form. You might hope for something as cultured as a piece of Match Of The Day-style analysis from someone called Alan – maybe ‘right, lads, pull him out of position and we’ll exploit the space between Kilcline and the other centre back, and flood forward into the yawning gap that opens up’. (Cue on-screen graphic of a shaded square shape.) Instead, at one of those moments when the whole ground simultaneously decided to go silent, we heard the echoing yell ring out “Get fucking Kilcline”. A much simpler methodology, drawing an ironic cheer from the crowd, who knew that Cardiff had got the wind up. I don’t think they ever did manage to ‘get’ the aptly nicknamed Killer.

Adrian (‘Ady’) Boothroyd was an intelligent right back and a soon-to-be bright, embryonic manager, and it was fascinating back in those mid-90s days to see him still trying to perfect his craft. One Saturday afternoon warm-up before a meaningless end-of-season game I saw Kingy out on the pitch in his tracksuit drilling Boothroyd in a new way of imparting spin to the ball, kicking over it to increase the pace but reduce the flight. Boothroyd practised it over and over again, and I was amazed not only at King’s skill (and coaching ability) but also at the player’s willingness to learn something from the older man. King’s regular instruction to Ady during matches as he fired in crosses on his characteristic overlaps was “whip it”. So regular, in fact, that the crowd often told him before King got a chance. So here was Boothroyd, in his late twenties, learning another way to whip it.

I’ve always wished that TV football programmes would supply a lip-reader to let us viewers know what the players are saying to each other and to the referee. I know there’s a lot of ‘get tight’ and ‘second ball’, and I’m sure this means something important. Sometimes it’s easy to guess the words, but for those that don’t begin with ‘f’, it usually isn’t. At Field Mill, however, you got the full aural effect – no audio-description needed. I know that conversation with the referee often centres on his eyesight, ancestry, body mass index, hair coverage, moral standing or colour. But amazingly, I discovered at Field Mill that players don’t always curse the official. I once heard the erudite Boothroyd deliver the most considered, polite and quasi-legal challenge to a referee’s decision: “Surely not!”

Boothroyd, as a right back, would spend half the match as the closest recipient of his manager’s usually unintelligible instructions. I know that players often pretend not to hear what’s being screamed (or see what’s being mimed) by ex-playing managers frustrated by their latter-day impotence on the touchline. Often these are third-party directives to give team-mates some vital piece of news or information. Boothroyd’s default response was “I’ve told him” before running off. There’s no answer to that, as Kingy discovered.

Whilst verbal communication between team-mates is to be encouraged, it has the disadvantage that its audience includes the opposition. The number of substitutes a team can name has risen in line with inflation from one to two, to three including a goalkeeper, to any old three, to three out of five, and now three out of pretty much anyone who lives in the EU. In the days of ‘any old three’, you’d think most teams would either include a substitute goalie, or at least have in mind someone who would go between the sticks (or what Alan Hansen calls ‘the goals’) in an emergency. Not Mansfield Town, not Kingy. When Stags’ keeper was carried off in some no-hope Auto Windscreeen Shield tie, we expected a fairly swift donning of the green jersey by one of the subs or even onfield players. But no. Cue lengthy debate about who it should be, and careful appraisal of the merits of several candidates for the position before they were for various reasons discarded from the selection process.

By some mystical rite akin to puffs of smoke rising from the Vatican, the gloves were destined for the frozen hands of midfield linchpin John Doolan, the one player you wouldn’t have wanted stuck in the wrong 18 yard box. But Scouser Doolan had already blown any suitability for the task facing him by loudly broadcasting, in tones of rising panic: “But I’ve never been in goal in me life”. Oh. A bit like the “I can’t swim” confession in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. The West Terrace was instantly filled with dread, and the opposition bench, sited just in front of them, with a fresh sense of endless possibilities and a hatful of goals.

Tactical instructions, like words of encouragement or abuse, can often be overheard and thus, as David Coleman used to say, ‘telegraphed’ to the opposition. Phil Stant had been a cult hero at Mansfield, largely for his 26 goals in the 1991/1992 promotion season, but also for giving every semblance of madness, and not just through his various entertaining hairstyles. His exploits and personality had earned him the nickname, probably unwelcome to most people, of Psycho. Returning to Field Mill as a Bury player, he inevitably destroyed his former club in a 5-1 win and annoyingly received a standing ovation from the home crowd as he left the pitch early. (I don’t mind sportsmanship, but that’s taking it too far.)

But at the pause for a throw-in, while an injured player was being attended to, you could hear him plot the next goal from a position near the halfway line. Then, as if watching an educational video, you could follow him and his team-mates execute those precise instructions and admire one of Stant’s four goals that afternoon. “Give it Jonno”, Stant enjoined several times (believed to be a reference to Bury player Lenny Johnrose), before outlining what Jonno should do with the ball when it had been thrown to him. (This mainly involved passing it to Stant himself and being on hand if he needed to dispose of it). Whatever the details, it worked a treat, and Psycho, displaying latent coaching potential here, himself went on to manage, albeit at Lincoln.

But my favourite piece of Stags verbiage occurred not on the pitch, but in the dressing room. No, I never got in there. Never really fancied a communal bath in muddy water myself. Characters would arrive at Field Mill and, like O’Neill Donaldson, stay briefly but remain in the memory for much longer. Cyrille L’Helgoualch was a Frenchman, and God knows how he landed at Mansfield Town. But he briefly illuminated the club with some stunning performances and one great long-distance goal against Rochdale. Before the ground was rebuilt, you’d pass the frosted windows of the home dressing room in the West Stand on your way out of the ground, and even see players’ suits hung up on pegs through the glass. Cyrille’s English wasn’t great, and probably neither was his knowledge of dodgy early 70s novelty singles. So one spring afternoon it was somehow touching, and perhaps a little bemusing to him, to hear the strains of Nice One Cyril coming loud and clear through the open dressing room windows. Yes, it had been a nice one. Just one request, if it’s not too late: let’s have another one.

Under The Ground 16: Bag Lady

OK, I feel bad about this. There’s a woman travels on the Victoria Line, probably other lines too. The evidence of my eyes and nose is that she has ‘accommodation issues’ and ‘personal hygiene issues’, probably related. She spends time sleeping on the tube. Today there are severe delays, and the platform is heaving. I get down to the end where the front of the train will stop and hope for the best. I’ll be lucky to get a standing space, let alone a seat. The train arrives. God be praised! The carriage that lines up in front of me is virtually empty. I get on and sit down, spread out my paper and relax. Not for long. The stench is overpowering, and it’s clear why this carriage has been virtually evacuated. Oblivious, and draped across two seats, the lady sleeps on, occupying far more space than she strictly needs. Next stop I get out and squeeze into the next carriage, pressed up against the aftershave and rancorous perfume of the working population of Finsbury Park. The artificial smell is foul, but at least purchased.

Songbook: Jonathan Kelly – Making It Lonely

I became aware of Jonathan Kelly’s latter pair of albums relatively late. Waiting On you, made with his band Jonathan Kelly’s Outside, and the valedictory Two Days In Winter, came out in 1974 and 1975 respectively, when Kelly’s career in the music business was on the slide. The main factors in his decline seem to have been a lethal mix of drugs, disillusionment, bad management, diminishing commercial success and, ultimately, the lack of a record company that would release any more of his music.

A friend who, like me, appreciates Jonathan Kelly’s music, knew the two records and told me cheerfully that they “weren’t very good”. Intrigued, I bought them in their new format as a double-pack of CDs, played them and disagreed. I’ve listened many times since and now love them as much as the two ‘solo’ Kelly albums ‘Twice Around The Houses’ and ‘Wait Till They Change The Backdrop’. Waiting On You, in particular, with its light funk and beautiful, soulful singing is, despite its imperfections, a great record, with memorable, heartfelt songs I’ve grown to know very well.

One of the delights of a Jonathan Kelly record comes even before you hear a sound. Scanning the track listing you see some great, tantalising titles. Who is Rabbit Face? What were Yesterday’s Promises? Where, if anywhere, is Sensation Street? And how does one make it lonely?

After Waiting On You’s undistinguished opening track, Making It Lonely emerges quietly from Kelly’s plain voice/piano introduction. It’s a stunning first verse, with a gorgeous, unpredictable, descending chain of chords and a bold, arresting opening line: “I’ve grown so dependent on you”. You’re hooked in immediately by this naked expression of the insecurity of being in love, and by Kelly’s warm, vulnerable voice – that gentle vibrato on “I spend all day waiting at the window” is pure McCartney.

The chorus explains the title, as the singer accepts, even revels in, the loneliness his love has caused –­ “Making it lonely for myself, no I don’t need nobody else”. The song’s finest moment, though, is wordless. It’s the chilling middle eight, where a glorious key change is accompanied by a truly sublime, simple guitar solo.

Lyrically very evocative of its time (1974, when women in pop were ‘baby’ or ‘girl’), the whole song brings to mind Carole King’s Tapestry, in its predominance of the piano, the subject matter, and the sheer quality of songwriting. Yes, that good. There might be a few bits of performance that wouldn’t have got past the quality control department of, say, Steely Dan (Messrs Fagen and Becker wouldn’t have accepted the bass guitar and piano left hand being so far out of synch, for instance), but even these faults have a certain period charm.

The first time I heard Making It Lonely I played it continuously for several hours, and only moved on because I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. Its wonderful Sunday afternoon melancholy was addictive, and now I often play it late at night, either on the CD player or on my guitar. But singing along I can never match Kelly’s individual phrasing, however well I think I know the song.

The mystery of Jonathan Kelly’s Outside is how he could attract musicians of such quality (Chaz Jankel, a future  Blockhead and Snowy White, later of Thin Lizzy, were in his band) and fail to achieve commercial success. Maybe, knowing the strange practices of the music business and fickleness of the record-buying public, not such a mystery after all. And in many ways Jonathan Kelly didn’t give himself the best chance. You can absolutely sympathise with his career choice, though. Longing to play in a band, and deliver the kind of dancy, jazzy-funky soul music of his musical heroes, people like Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Herbie Hancock, the more he strove to achieve his artistic aims the further he left behind the folk audience who wanted to hear the old songs, acoustically delivered.

I’m left wondering how Warner Brothers, according to an interview on Jonathan Kelly’s website, reckoned his voice wasn’t up to it when they were considering him for their label. If he ever gives lessons in not singing very well, I’ll be first in the queue.

Top photograph by Richard Derwent

Jonathan Kelly website

Under The Ground 15: Feeling Groovy

Waking up in some outpost of north London with the sun streaming through your window on a burning July day, getting up quickly, radio on, out of the house, the short walk to the station, rippling trees, warm air, people smiling, the feeling that today something’s really going to happen. Down the stairs into the cool basement of the earth, and onto a train that’s not yet sweating with the crowd. Fifteen minutes later, I’m being carried back up to the ground, blinking into the sunlight as part of the mass, looking around at the vivid summer wonder of the streets and parks of central London with the privileged eyes of a tourist. It’s going to be a beautiful day.

Under The Ground 14: John Cole

It should be that you see lots of famous people on the tube. There are plenty of people who travel by tube, and surely enough of them are famous. But you don’t. Because famous people can afford to travel more slowly. I’ve seen Jeremy Bowen, Evan Davies (on an escalator, holding court to some bored acolyte), and best of all, John Cole. John Cole was my hero, and used to be Political Editor for the BBC. You’d see him standing outside the Houses of Parliament in his special herringbone overcoat, holding forth in his Ulsterman brogue about the issues of the day. And now he’s sitting opposite me, in a sparsely populated carriage, reading a book about politics. How appropriate. Do I talk to him or respect his privacy? Would he like to know about my admiration for his work? Would he appreciate my impression of him? “This is Jaaan Coooole, reporrrting from Westminstorrr. Now baaack to you in the studio Petorrrr.” Before I can decide he gets off.

Songbook: The Chameleons – Childhood­

Like many others I fell for The Chameleons in the early 1980s – quite by chance, but that’s the subject of another story. Along with those many I followed them with a passion, even sleeping outside one cold spring night in Leeds when there was no late bus back to Teesside after their show.

By the time their third album, Strange Times, came out The Chameleons had built up a huge, devoted live following, had signed to Geffen and looked set for world domination on the scale of U2 or Echo And The Bunnymen. It never happened, and they probably never wanted it to happen. Like many bands on the verge, they were actually on the brink, and personality conflicts, the death of someone very close to them, and possibly a general feeling that they’d run their course led to their split a year later.

The rough-hewn emotion, even desperation, that runs through The Chameleons’ music and knowledge of the time that it was made (the early 1980s) gives their music a darkness and an intensity no-one has matched before or since. It felt, and was, real, different from the fabricated gloom which served as the currency of many bands of that era.

The characteristics of their sound are easy to pin down: two inventive guitarists whose complementary lines weave in and out of each other, giving the music a suppleness and fluidity to match its rhythmic power; the monumental, muscular drumming of John Lever; the bounce of the bass guitar, and the gruff, passionate voice of its player, singer Mark Burgess. How four apparently ordinary blokes from Middleton, Manchester, conjured up such a sound, such beauty and majesty from their hands and voices, is a happy musical mystery.

I don’t hear a weak song in the three albums from The Chameleons’ original, pre-split, incarnation. I love them all, and the one that means most to me is Childhood, from Strange Times. It’s a song I can never listen to in isolation –­ I have to hear the whole album, and Childhood comes near the end. Of all The Chameleons’ albums Strange Times is the bleakest ­– the sound of a man, or maybe a band, on the edge of collapse, its monochrome grimness almost oppressive. There are moments of light and love along the way, but the album’s magnificence is in its sense of doom and struggle. And then Childhood comes, its joyous sound like a shaft of sun streaming through a stained glass window. By the time it arrives I’m emotionally exhausted, which is why investing the best part of an hour in waiting for a single song always feels like a very reasonable deal.

The hazy, shimmering opening, with its swirl of characteristically Chameleon guitar, and Burgess’ yelps and wordless singing usher in the band, with that wonderful sprung rhythm they had patented. Lyrically Childhood is unusual for The Chameleons. Their normal subject matter was a kind of generalised, human-condition-related angst, but Childhood deals with the everyday, citing local places (“My life is a Milbury’s home on Hereford Way”), mortgages, weekend routines like cleaning the car, and the importance of keeping that connection with your past (even in the bleakest, strangest of strange times “you have to hang on to your childhood”) –­ whilst still moving on (“open your eyes or stay as you are”).

Two great verses and a middle eight, and then a glorious epiphany of an ending, this huge belt of chorus after chorus after chorus taking the song to its finish.

It’s a wholly unsentimental song about the past –  reflection, affection, but no nostalgia. And then, balance restored after the album’s long emotional journey, one more track –­ the heartbreaking, valedictory instrumental I’ll Remember. And you do.

The Chameleons website

Japan And Back

Some time in late summer 1988 I received a sales statement from our record distributors. My band’s first album, Let’s Get Away From It All, had come out a few weeks earlier, and I was dreading a similar fate to the debut single which had stalled on 29 copies for nearly two years.

I opened the envelope and stared at its contents for several minutes. We’d sold nearly 1,000 copies in the first couple of months. How? We hadn’t advertised it, so who in the UK even knew about it? Which part of the country had developed a sudden and urgent taste for the music of Friends? The answers were quickly revealed as ‘no-one’ and ‘none’.

In a fit of curiosity I phoned Red Rhino and spoke to one of the sales team. I asked where all these records had gone, and wouldn’t we now need to press some more? ‘Mostly Japan’, he replied casually, and yes, we should, as quickly as possible.

Since then Japan has been the place where our music has been most popular, the place from where we’ve received the most – and most enthusiastic – fanmail (now mainly email), where two other labels have licensed seven of our records, and where we’ve never managed to play. Until now.

With the exception of a solo concert I played in Tokyo in 1995, our efforts to get ourselves transported to Japan for a few modest dates had proved fruitless. Late last year I was contacted by Tetsuya Nakatani, owner of one of the labels, Vinyl Japan, who have released our records there, asking whether we’d like to play three concerts with The Monochrome Set as an acoustic three-piece. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we agreed to go instead as an electric four-piece, and headed out to Tokyo in early April.

Apart from the concerts, the soundchecks, and the time hanging around the venues, the trip is a bit of a blur. But I made sure the musical part of it was etched on my mind as if it was going to be the last, and best, thing we ever did. I hope it’s not the last, but it was certainly the greatest experience of the band’s, and my, career. Even of my life.

Preparing and practising for the shows, my aim had been to deliver a set which made the same impression on the audience as concerts by Jonathan Kelly, The Chameleons, Steely Dan and a handful of others had made on me over the last 40 years. Something you look forward to as a fan, which fulfils all your hopes, and leaves you with a feeling on the night and in your mind afterwards that lasts for years.

For an experienced, tried and tested band who had been there before, maybe three shows in reasonable sized clubs wouldn’t be a big deal. For us they were a huge deal. Twice in the concerts I was suddenly hit by the enormity of what we were doing, and what it meant to be there, especially after a major earthquake, and was overcome by the emotion of it. Coming on to the stage in the dark at Shimokitazawa Garden, Tokyo, and seeing this packed sea of eager faces briefly choked me up in the first few lines of On A Day Like This. The culmination of 25 years’ waiting and hoping and preparing was suddenly too much. Singing while you’re crying might sound like a great idea in theory but actually just results in lousy singing, so I had to wrench back control of my voice and feelings. And introducing the last song at Muse Hall, Osaka, in our final night, again I cracked up, and only got through the slow introduction to You’ll Never See That Summertime Again thanks to the generous pauses built into the arrangement. Then the band came in, the song let rip and it was a joyous end to the tour.

We’d prepared an hour-long set, a mixture of old and new, with two songs from the new album The Zen House, and the balance of the set inclined towards the most familiar and popular records. We linked several of the songs to avoid too many mid-set pauses and chat, with intros to the next song emerging from the end of the previous one. It was a thrill to hear the ripple of familiarity as the start of old favourites like Far And Away emerged, and catching the eye of people in the audience singing the words with me.

So how was it for us? It’s impossible to judge from the stage, but I can safely say that it felt as though the three concerts were the best the band has played, and the best performances I’ve delivered. It’s been rare in our live career to be standing in front of a crowd that large and that enthusiastic, many of whom are there because they have known your music for years. After the first concert the promoter came up to me in the dressing room and said “William, come and meet your fans”. I’d been expecting to meet up with a couple of people I’ve got to know by email, but he meant something different. A queue of fans was lined up, armed with records and CDs, usually in immaculate condition, felt-tip pens and their names written on the back of their hands. Again, maybe routine for a bigger band than us, but for me moving, novel, flattering, and a rare chance to meet some of the people who have kept us going over the years.

The best advice I ever received about being in a band was ‘don’t split up’. Of course that’s exactly what bands should do when they feel their time’s up. But the advice came from someone who knew me, and knew that my music would keep coming as long as I had an outlet for it. I’m thankful for that advice, although I suspect we’d never have split up anyway. So what’s kept it going for 25 years, without knowing that a chance email would appear one day saying ‘how about Japan?’ A mixture of stubbornness, perversity, megalomania, faith in the music, quality control, a desire to connect with an audience, and the knowledge that there are people out there, an audience, to whom the music means something, even a great deal. And I’m more than ever convinced that most of those people live in Japan.

Friends’ new album

Late Night Early Morning

Two down, three to go. By now well and truly warmed up, we came back from Berlin a couple of weeks ago after playing the Popfest and started preparing for Japan.

The warming up bit happened at the Half Moon, Putney, where the only heat was generated on stage as we played to two men and a dog, minus dog, minus also one of the men in the interests of gender equality, plus a woman and plus one of the other bands on the bill that evening. A small but perfectly formed audience, then. Our bass player, Edwin, however, was anything but warmed up, as he only just managed to stay awake and on his feet after a particularly virulent bout of what should be politely described as gastric trouble.

Berlin, on the other hand, was something else entirely. Right from being met at the airport we were beautifully looked after by our hosts Uwe, Olaf and Anja, and had plenty of spare time to explore the city before playing some time after midnight.

We made friends with fellow bands The Pooh Sticks (some fellow Welshmen for me to banter with) and the multitudinous Cola Jet Set (“they’re from Barcelona”), even randomly bumping into the latter troupe miles away the following morning and discovering more bizarre coincidences such as their familiarity with the streets of Walthamstow where we live. It is, indeed, a funny old world.

Our hour-long set, complete with acoustic interlude, seemed to go down well (although it’s always impossible to tell truly from the stage), and my use of exclusively German to introduce the songs didn’t appear to perplex anyone in the audience. Getting to bed at five in the morning is something I can only handle now if I’m getting up late the following afternoon, which wasn’t the case by several hours. But that’s pop ‘n’ roll.

And then it’s the comedown. Back to London, back to work, back onto the bike after the taxis and planes, and back into the routine.

Usually there’s nothing on the live horizon to look forward to, but this is the closest we’ve ever come to a ‘proper’ tour and the prospect of three more shows means that the feeling of wanting to do it again as soon as it’s over can be prolonged by another couple of weeks.

One more rehearsal to keep the set fresh in our minds and hands, and we should be ready to go. We’re off to Tokyo on Wednesday. In the words of the song, This Is The Start.

Under The Ground 13: Life Sketches

The couple opposite are exchanging amused glances about the person next to me, and possibly about me too, as I do my crossword. With their smug trustafarian look and coolly superior lifestyle they have clearly identified a target for ridicule. The man is darting quick looks at my neighbour as he starts sketching him. The woman is smiling appreciatively at his artwork. Soon he has finished his drawing, and they grin their satisfaction at the presumably satirical masterpiece. Now they turn their attention at me, in my suit. I look up when I see what they are doing but fail to catch their eye. Am I annoyed because they have failed to ask my permission or because they see me as a subject of humour? When they have finished I plan my revenge. I stop doing my crossword – difficult anyway – find a blank piece of newsprint, look over the top of my paper periodically and pretend to sketch them. Eventually the movement of my head attracts the woman’s attention. I smirk when our eyes meet and she blushes. She knows. I’ve won.

Funny Old World – The Tour

Strange thing. Like waiting for London buses, you hang around for years trying to get some dates abroad (especially in Japan and Germany) and then four of them come along at once.

For that reason I’m calling this the ‘It’s A Funny Old’ World Tour as it takes in five concerts in three countries and happened in a fairly random way. The Half Moon, Putney (Tuesday 15 March) is a great old venue with a history of epic nights, Berlin Popfest (Saturday 19 March) is one of a clutch of international indiepop highlights dotted throughout the year, and the three Japan dates with The Monochrome Set (from Saturday 10 to Tuesday 12 April in Tokyo and Osaka) are the first time I’ll have been there since 1995, when I played a solo show (with a Japanese percussionist) at Club 251, Shimokitazawa.

We’ve been in contact with Tetsuya Nakatani of Vinyl Japan for nearly 20 years, as his shop has been a good customer of our record company, and he licensed two of our records for release on his label about ten years ago. And Uwe of Firestation Records in Berlin has been a great supporter too, has included some of our songs on his Sound Of Leamington Spa compilations, and probably got sick of me asking if we could ever play in Germany.

Thanks to our bass player Edwin, and the place where he teaches, we’ve got a rehearsal room (well, hall really) where we can actually hear what we are playing and where it’s a pleasure to practise. And it’s fun reworking the set for what I think of as our Beatles line-up of two guitars, bass and drums. Actually not much reworking is needed as we’ve generally used keyboards in the past mainly for texture rather than substance, and Richard, our guitarist, can easily handle the female backing vocals with his fine falsetto. So it feels like a tight, fit unit, which I hope will deliver a good, punchy set. 

The challenge has been narrowing down some 150 songs to about 15, and choosing a selection that people will know or want to hear for the first time, not forgetting our own personal favourites, of which I have many! 

We’re preparing an hour-long set for Germany and Japan and 45 minutes for London, and have chosen songs from all the way back to our first album right up to the next one, which should be out in time for the Japan concerts.

We’ve got a few more rehearsals before we hit the stage, and I’ll keep in touch with how it’s going. So long as it’s going well!

Ground Level 2: On The Road Again

Streets of London, I’m back! Nearly thirty years after last shaking a fist at a taxi driver, I’m on the road again as a serious cyclist – ‘serious’ meaning regular and frequent, not just with a frown on my face.

What prompted this return to the saddle was an inadvertent crime. I’d dashed onto a train at my local station, in my hurry omitting to touch my Oyster card against one of those bleepy things and getting landed with a hefty fine by the long arm of the overground law.

Feeling unreasonably aggrieved, and devoting my 15 minute journey to sulking about the waste of desperately needed cash, I mused that there must be cheaper ways of getting to central London than shelling out £20 to a couple of heavies in National Express uniforms (or even parting with the actual fare of £2.40). Staring morosely out of the train window, I suddenly realised that there were, and that one of them was standing forlornly in my hallway, with two flat tyres and no lights.

I was already working on a rebudgeting exercise with the dual objectives of cutting my expenditure and reversing the headlong-downward trend in my income, and quickly calculated a saving of around £1,200 a year, a very handy supplement to the only other bullet point in my strategy so far, the giving up of Mars bars.

As the train trundled towards Liverpool Street, my usual destination for gym or work, I noticed that it had followed main roads almost all the way, so the next day I plotted my cycle journey by actually walking the route. It took two hours. Knock off at least half that for a pair of wheels and I’m quids (and even hours) in, and probably a bit less sweaty than after walking the walk.

A couple of days later, after three decades’ worth of essential repairs and maintenance, I’m freewhelling through Upper Clapton, my ancient brakes squealing like a flock of geese, celebrating my reunion with the brotherhood and sistership of the cycle.

So what’s changed? In many ways, not much. Thirty years of roadworks have made no appreciable difference to the surfaces I’m trying to glide over. Nor has the passage of time done much for the consideration of bus drivers or the eyesight of white van men.

On the plus side, there are far more cycle lanes, and those marked spaces just before the traffic lights are very welcome, as you join the phalanx of cyclists getting a head start on the herd of cars that lurch forward when the lights change. And there are many more of us around now than then, so I often actually feel part of a majority, both numerical and moral. Yes, someone in authority has been very considerate towards cyclists in my time off the roads.

I’ve found a tame bike shop, where the staff treat me as neither a nuisance nor an idiot. And the memories come flooding back. I recall the sheer delight of discovering how to cycle with no hands as I was wheeling down Kennington Road one bright spring afternoon in the late 1970s. The joy of finding a hidden sidestreet that shaves a few seconds off the journey. The fun of trying to time the run-up to the lights so as to avoid stopping and planting my feet on the ground.

But I’ve resolved not to romanticise, fetishise or idolise cycling, not to be one of those self-righteous types who believe the laws of the road only apply to people on four wheels, who view red as the new green, and who see the pavement as a convenient extension of the cycling lane. And I won’t be one of those shiny cyclists on skinny bikes who do a lot of standing up. I’m going to be a purely functional cyclist, using my creaking machine to get me from A to B (and Z if possible) and save me a fortune. The possibilities of observation and reflection may be fewer than on the Underground, but the scope for vitriol is almost unlimited. I’m already yelling “how many lanes do you need, then?” with worrying frequency.

Under The Ground 12: Follow The Sign

I hear it approaching and run onto the platform, dodging and weaving through the tide of humanity disgorged here. Several signs obscure the only one which tells me anything useful – whether this train goes all the way to Walthamstow or only as far as Seven Sisters. I decide not to risk it, and to wait until I can read the sign, unhelpfully situated halfway down the platform. I miss the train, which sets off happily on its way to Walthamstow. Damn. The now visible sign tells me that the next two trains go to Seven Sisters. Fair enough. But then so do the next three. By now feeling victimised, I approach one of those London Underground people who do the inaudible platform announcements and wave table tennis bats at trains. Why aren’t any of the trains going to Walthamstow? “You need to watch the sign”. Awestruck by this diamond of elliptical logic and feeling I’m missing something obvious, I explain that this is exactly what I’m doing and try again. Same answer. Is it worth positing that answers to ‘why’ usually begin with ‘because’ or ‘I don’t know’? It isn’t. His manner tells me he is either (a) faking an extreme case of clinical depression, (b) actually suffering from same or (c) congenitally rude. A Walthamstow train pulls in. “Here’s your train” he says, his voice a half-and-half concoction of sarcasm and triumph. “Thank you” I reply, for my part trying to suggest that he’s made this happen. But actually I already knew. Because I’d watched the sign.

The Golden Winter

Football can play strange tricks with the memory. Not to mention the emotions, digestion, everyday equilibrium and spiritual well-being.

It lends itself to nostalgia just as easily as cricket or, as I get older, any other realm of human activity. If all my years so far have been formative, probably the most formative of the lot were my teens, which I spent in a growing state of resentment crossed with existential grouchiness in comfortable Chester. Much of that ill-will was based on the city’s very comfort, my anti-establishment ardour craving something a little more proletarian to match my misjudged self-image. The rest was founded on disappointment that it wasn’t London, which we left in late 1967 when my father got his ideal job.

My brother, my friends and I hitched ourselves to Chester’s fourth division football team (a poor substitute for the West Ham I’d left behind) and we became regulars at the old Sealand Road ground, now inevitably demolished.

And I recall a magical age of spring afternoons standing at the Kop end, squinting into the sun and marvelling at the skills of a legendary team: Terry Carling in goal, Edwards and Birks at full-back, hard-man stopper Barry Ashworth (‘Sir Barry Ash’ to the Sealand End), Graham Turner (later a very intelligent manager), Eric Brodie, two real wingers in Billy Dearden and Andy Provan, a Bobby Charlton-like baldie (Derek Draper) providing midfield inspiration, and lethal strikers in Eddie Loyden (or Gary Talbot) and the elfin Alan Tarbuck.

Great days, fondly remembered. Why then, do I also remember, and not at all fondly, trudging home once a fortnight vowing never to return after yet another mind-numbing 0-0 draw? But that’s nostalgia for you. It fixes the memory like a computer repair programme, so you’d never know it had been any different.

Fast-forward nearly thirty years and I’m a regular at Field Mill, alternating visits from my Worksop home to Mansfield with expeditions to the furthest reaches of small-town England, often for equally sterile goalless borefests. Rochdale, Carlisle, Plymouth, Southend, come on down…or, preferably, come on up, to Nottinghamshire, and save me the journey.

On balance I’ve enjoyed my time as a Stagsman. Ups and downs certainly, but one brief period in my relationship with the Yellows really was a golden age. It lasted from just before Christmas 1994 until early new year 1995, a matter of a couple of weeks at the most.

In charge of Stags at the time was Andy King (“he’s got no hair but we don’t care”), a maverick, a ‘character’, an enthusiast and, occasionally, a footballing inspiration. It was his first full season running a club and he’d assembled a team which, like those Chester gods of the late 60s, I can still reel off and see in my mind’s eye. Darren Ward, a brilliant young goalkeeper, Ady Boothroyd, later an up-and-coming manager, Ian Baraclough (ditto), Paul Holland the team’s engine, Lee Howarth and Mark Peters as solid centre backs, Simon (‘Fantasy’) Ireland, Steve Parkin, Kevin Noteman, and up front the brilliant and much-maligned Steve (‘Wilko’) Wilkinson and Stewart (‘Turbo’ because he could run quickly) Hadley. And, waiting in the wings for most of the season after being injured in a friendly, the magnificent Iffy Onuora.

And were they so great, or was I now still driving (instead of walking) home cursing the wasted time? No. They were. I’m not much given to quoting Spandau Ballet, but I know this much is true.

We started the festive period by hammering local rivals Chesterfield 4-2 on a bright, crisp Sunday morning. I was able to go to the Christmas meal with the theatre company I worked for boasting our talents rather than making excuses for supporting a bottom-division side. (Three goals for Wilko, by the way.) I spent the holidays in Kent and my combined Christmas and birthday present was a long-distance lift back to Field Mill to catch the game against Hereford. The weather was foul, with cold wind and lashing rain, and I took the pre-match precaution of planning the last leg of my journey home. There was, I was told, a ‘skeleton’ bus service from the town centre, which would mean leaving the match a few minutes early. The alternative was taxis at ‘silly’ prices. I decided on a sensible bus and left my luggage at the club shop.

Boxing Day was the start of what Glenn Hoddle, had he been aware of Mansfield Town’s existence, would have called the ‘O’Neill Donaldson Situation’. I, and the crowd of around 2,400, noticed someone warming up who we’d never seen before. Unaware that Kingy had just signed him on loan from Doncaster reserves, we knew nothing about O’Neill Donaldson, and I only learned his name when someone near me demanded to know of John (‘Doobie’) Doolan who the hell was he. We took his reply (“O’Neill”) to refer to a surname. Donaldson, although unknown and so far partially nameless, was instantly recognisable as possessing effortless class, and his name soon became official when several letters from it illuminated the malfunctioning scoreboard. He scored two goals on his Stags debut, but most memorable of all was a freak free-kick from Ian Baraclough. Planting the ball a few yards inside his own half, Baraclough aimed long and the ball sailed in for the most glorious goal I’ve ever seen at Field Mill. Reports refer to it being ‘swept in’ by the strong gust of wind, but believe me, it had plenty of momentum from Baraclough’s boot alone, and needed no intervention from the weather. 6-1, as I left to retrieve my luggage and head for the bus. Walking away from the ground I heard a seventh goal acclaimed and felt broadly satisfied with life.

In the ghostly town centre the skeleton bus service turned out not only to have no flesh but neither any bones whatsoever. It was, in fact, devoid even of a skeleton. I approached one of the ‘silly’ taxis drivers hovering like vultures for mugs like me, heard £50 mentioned and turned away to walk home. Mansfield to Worksop is about 15 miles, and with two suitcases, a strong wind, driving rain and a main road to negotiate (plus, apparently, a killer on the loose, a fairly regular Mansfield occurrence), this was going to be interesting. Staggering along the soggy, grassy stretch that boarded the A60, and half-heartedly gesturing at the few passing cars, I got home at nearly midnight, aching all over, frozen to my own (actual) skeleton, and feeling a world-weary sadness. By now I was broadly dissatisfied with life and looked forward only to tomorrow’s trip to Scarborough and dining out on the long walk experience for the rest of my life.

On 27 December I felt as I’ve only subsequently felt the day after running my first marathon. My limbs were like lead. Someone else’s lead, for that matter, and not my own. I caught the train to Scarborough, where the weather was no improvement on the Field Mill Boxing Day storm. On a North Yorkshire mudbath we won 5-2, with Donaldson adding another two goals and instantly acquiring hero status. So far that’s 4-2, 7-1 and 5-2. Far from believing that it couldn’t last, I could never see it ending. Kingy’s boys were playing glorious, flowing football and, for the sake of a classic football cliché, scoring goals for fun.

So could it last? Barack Obama would have said yes it could. And he would have been briefly right. Next up were Barnet, the following Saturday, easily despatched 3-0 at home with, inevitably, another two goals for O’Neill Donaldson. The spell was only broken when, being early January, the third round of the FA Cup dropped in at Field Mill. Graham Taylor’s powerful Wolves team recovered from being two goals down to win the match, but still Donaldson managed his seventh goal in five games.

The end was near, and Kingy, realising that other football managers read the papers and word gets round, knew that Donaldson, as a loan signing, still belonged to Doncaster and wouldn’t be grubbing around the fourth division (or whatever it was called by then) for much longer. And that Doncaster, if they had any sense, would soon be a bit less generous in what they were lending out to their rivals. We knew the game was up when he started belittling O’Neill’s contribution in the papers and playing down his form. So, Andy King, seven goals in five matches – not quite good enough? Donaldson went to Sheffield Wednesday, where I hope he earned the money he deserved, and spent the next few years in their, rather than Doncaster’s, reserves. I just can’t help feeling…

The Golden Winter became the Silver Spring. There were great moments then too, when Onuora finally recovered from his broken foot and put in some storming performances which combined the delicacy of a ballet dancer with the brawn of a bulldozer. That team scored 100 goals for the season before losing to Chesterfield (yes, them!) in the promotion play-offs. In the second leg two Stags were sent off and we went down 5-2 in extra time as I, and many others, wept not just for the defeat that night, but for what we knew would follow. Ady Boothroyd threw his shirt into the crowd, and they were gone. The team was broken up, the best talent sold off, and it was back to square one next August. Well, that’s football, Brian.

Any regrets? Any what?

Under The Ground 11: Knuckle Duster

He sits opposite me and looks around bored. He cradles one fat hand in the other and finds the knuckle of his index finger. Loud crack. I wince, jerk involuntarily and suck air into my mouth in sympathetic pain. Then the next one. He stares vaguely into the space beyond my head with an uninvolved, unconcerned look and starts working across the row at the base of his fingers. I quickly calculate another six cracks, eight if the thumbs are pressed into service, and a further eighteen if the remaining joints on both hands get involved. There’s always the possibility of the toes too. Is no-one else affronted by this attack on my senses? Do I have the right to complain? If I do, will he stick a knife between my ribs? Can I mobilise the population of this carriage into armed resistance? Silence. Relief. Then he starts again. It’s my stop.

Songbook: Hudson Ford – Floating In The Wind

For many Strawbs fans the definitive line-up of the band’s many incarnations was the 1970-1973 version, with main songwriter Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and young whizz-kid keyboard player Rick Wakeman, latterly replaced by Blue Weaver. Richard Hudson, the drummer, was a writer and multi-instrumentalist, bringing congas and sitar to the embryonic Strawbs mix. John Ford was the band’s Mr Cool, with dark glasses, a football star’s hairstyle, a very individual bass guitar sound and a repertoire of good moves on stage. The latter two were already a tried and tested songwriting partnership, formed during an earlier stint with the wonderful (and awful) Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera.

I’d enjoyed Ford’s Lennon-like vocals on the Strawbs songs Thirty Days and Heavy Disguise and Hudson’s more abstruse, mystical offerings like Canon Dale. Frustrated by their meagre allocation of a couple of tracks per album, the pair had built up a stockpile of potential hits and, after their success with the wholly uncharacteristic Strawbs single Part Of The Union, reckoned the time was right to break away and go it alone.

In the early 70s, and in my mid teens, I wasn’t used to groups splitting up and regenerating themselves organically, and didn’t know what to make of this ruction. What was Strawbs if it wasn’t those very five people? Pop itself was still fairly new, and the modern fad for groups reforming post-retirement hadn’t had time to catch on. So what initially appeared as a tragedy for Strawbs fans soon surprisingly came to seem like an excellent deal – two great groups for the price of one.

Whilst Strawbs proceeded to mine a deeper seam of rock, Hudson Ford went pop. Within a few weeks their decision was vindicated as they appeared on Top Of The Pops with Pick Up The Pieces, a quirky song which reached number eight in the charts thanks to an insidiously catchy slide guitar riff, a bouncy beat and an affectingly camp vocal, very much in vogue at the time – this was the age of early Bowie, Bolan, Steve Harley and Bryan Ferry, and the current fashion for plummy vibrato vocalising was a distant speck on the horizon.

Hudson Ford enjoyed several years of success before turning themselves, somewhat less credibly, into The Monks. They recorded a catalogue of fine songs, of which my favourite, from the 1974 album Free Spirit, was Floating In The Wind, a gorgeous piece of acoustic, hippyesque whimsy with a real ‘atmosphere’ and, even now, the ability to affect my mood for the rest of any given day.

It’s a beautiful production in every way – the playing, the arrangement, the wistful, world-weary lyrics and the wonderful feeling of easy nostalgia which pervades the song. Ford’s lazy, relaxed vocal is spot-on, perfect. The way he sings ‘wind’ is pure Beatle. Put the record on and it takes a few bars to get the feel of the basic rhythm, with the beat subdivided into threes. But once you’ve picked it up, the song actually swings in a gentle kind of way.

The lyrics deal in a generalised, dissatisfied world-view, with some turns of phrase very much of their time (“They took my mind and put it in a tin…”), and some classically 70s instrumental sounds. Among the song’s delights are a blissful, elegiac keyboard line which snakes across the main beat, threes against twos, and some lovely decorative electric guitar playing, mixed back with plenty of reverb. And there’s a joyful, triumphant-sounding final section as the song stomps towards its fade-out.

I once bumped into John Ford after a (reformed) Strawbs show in Milton Keynes, and told him I thought Floating In The Wind was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. Typical musician, he said “yeah, yeah” and went on to bemoan some detail he wasn’t happy with, either the middle eight or ending (I can’t remember) which, all these years later, “could have been better”. Modesty, I’m sure, and it’s probably hard to deal with extreme praise right out of the blue. It’s equally difficult to explain to someone why their song has such an effect: so much is due to catching a particular mood at the time, and my own particular mood at that time too. The first chords bring back the mood and the time instantly. For me it’s a song about years cherished, years lost, and, chaotic though it seemed in the actual moment, a simpler age. I’m grateful to Hudson Ford for putting that into words and onto record.

Hudson Ford on Strawbs website 

Under The Ground 10: The Shape Of Things

There are few more aesthetically pleasing objects than the London Underground brand. The simply perfect, and perfectly simple logo, created in an age when logos didn’t really exist. The beautiful typeface on all the station names and Underground signs. The wonderful topographical map, which invites me on a speculative journey every time I look at it – the only drawback of all the extra mobility offered by the ever-growing array of new lines is that they spoil the delicious nostalgia of the original diagram. The station names, evocative of wartime conditions or Swinging London – pick an era of your choice. The thing is, such a triumph of branding should be followed up by a brilliant customer experience. It’s not. Somehow this doesn’t matter. I love the look, I tolerate the actuality. Please don’t let them change it. You see, I used to like those BBC balloons as well …

Loved And Lost: Whirlpool Guest House

I wrote this piece as the introduction to the booklet for Whirlpool Guest House’s Rough Digs CD, a compilation of their single, album and four previously unreleased songs. Most of the world hasn’t yet bought the CD, and I thought their music merited a wider audience. True, most of the world also doesn’t yet read this blog, but add the two together and we’re getting somewhere.

Stockton-on-Tees in the mid to late 1980s was a hotbed of musical activity. Walk down the high street – allegedly the country’s widest – and within a couple of minutes you’d bump into several of the mainstays of the local band ‘scene’ – personnel who would often crop up in each other’s line-ups when not starring in their own. Every week the town’s Dovecot Arts Centre unveiled the newest, uppest-and-comingest indie phenomenon as well as showcasing the cream of the local talent, of which there was plenty. If you liked – or especially played – music, it was the place to be.

On these sturdy foundations Whirlpool Guest House was built. Formed in disillusion by singer/songwriter Carl Green, it was a last-gasp attempt to break free from the shackles of futile touring – of playing the same set over and over in sparsely populated pubs and clubs, chasing ever-diminishing returns and ever-receding record deals (and indeed hairlines). Green had had some success with power-pop combo Carl Green and the Scene who had morphed into Rules of Croquet, but frustration had set in, and he hit on the novel idea of making music for fun again: a band that needn’t even exist in live form.

Roping in ex-Scene and Croquet cohort Andrew Davis on bass and Davis’ wife Sallyann, who had discovered an unexpected talent for ethereal vocals and spicy harmonies, the band set to work. Soon they had an embryonic single and album ready. One of the bonuses of recording at Graeme Robinson’s GDR Studios, Darlington, was that you got a top drummer, GDR himself, thrown in as part of the package. Robinson’s massive drum sound, mixed well to the fore, gave the band a harder edge and fuller feel than their modest line-up suggested.

Whirlpool Guest House was to be a minimal, anti-music-business set-up, whose live performances would be home-made Super 8 films projected to tapes of their songs and interspersed with zany introductions and wacky comments. Singer Green handled projection duties rather than fronting the band, and the rest of the group were on hand to sign autographs. In the late 80s this was hardly the classic template for promoting your music, but nearly 20 years later Green was able to bring his original vision to fruition with cartoon band The Close-Ups, created specifically for an internet age.

When not directing Whirlpool Guest House, Green was earning a crust as a print distributor, photographer, poster designer and mobile disco proprietor – a veritable jack-of-all-trades, a career choice celebrated in the song of that name, and in others. The songs don’t mess about and come straight from the heart – a risky strategy which sometimes reveals naivety and an occasional awkwardness, whilst more often hitting the emotional bullseye. A mix of the heartfelt and the quirky, the subject matter bypasses the standard boy-fails-to-meet-girl fare of fey indiepopdom, covering instead a diverse range of topics from hairdressing to random violence, ageing to abandoned infants. Much of the scenery will be recognisable to anyone who knows Cleveland, north east England.

The 1987 single The Changing Face, 1989 album Pictures On The Pavement and four unreleased songs are all that Whirlpool Guest House left behind, although as Shandy Wildtyme the same people, now playing live too, released an album, Luminous, in 1995. The last four songs on Rough Digs were always meant to make a CD single, but somehow it never quite happened. Then the band’s lifespan was up, and Green quit to form Gaberdine and latterly The Close-Ups.

We released this album to make Whirlpool Guest House’s music available to an audience who missed it first time round – usually by virtue of being unborn at the time. And also for those who did get it on vinyl but whose turntables have long since stopped spinning. Great songs, a cherished place, memorable days – Rough Digs is the record of a special time for the people who made the music, and for many who enjoyed it. For me it’s also the testament of an artistic collaboration and personal friendship which has lasted, on and off, for 25 years.

Welcome to the Guest House…and enjoy your stay.

PS Thanks to Graeme Robinson for finding the tapes, and to John Spence for getting the bastards to play.

Whirlpool Guest House/Shandy Wildtyme discography

Under The Ground 9: Water Everywhere

Call me old-fashioned, but I like things like they used to be. As a small boy travelling on the tube in the sixties, I recall that unannounced stops of indeterminate length between stations would be unusual. Now they are the norm and travellers don’t even glance up from their papers to look confused. They take it as read. An explanation is the exception today. I also have no recollection of people arming themselves with bottles of water for journeys of perhaps a couple of stops on entirely temperate days, where no excursion into desert terrain was involved. Today there are even notices positively advising the carrying of potable water, and not only during high summer. Back then people didn’t die of dehydration on the tube. Or at least you never heard about it.

The Other Woman

Maintaining a long-distance relationship can be a challenge. Or, as we used to say in the days before the language of positive thinking, a pain in the arse. You start with the finest intentions. We’ll take turns to visit on alternate weekends. Actually, make that long weekends, as I can get away on Friday late afternoon, maybe catch the very early train back on Monday morning and still make it in time for work. Time being so precious, we’ll maximise every moment and make much more of it than we do right now. Think about it, that’s (part of) four days each week that we’ll be together – better than now – so it’s a potential upgrade in both quantity and quality. Of course, neither of you minds the other hanging around with exciting new people and doing the kind of things you do as a couple, as we’re both mature and it’s NO THREAT. And there’s always the phone and email, of course.

And that’s fine – for a while. After that while, it’s less fine. Work’s really heavy this week – actually for the next couple of weeks – and I really don’t think I can get away for the weekend. Can we miss the next two, in fact? The next two turns into the next few, and before you know it, “I’ve actually been spending quite a lot of time with x” (where x = some loser who’s previously been casually dropped into the conversation in a wholly innocent way, but has now moved up from being NO THREAT to a REAL AND PRESENT DANGER). “And we get on really well together.” Then it’s “I think we could both do with some time apart and see how we feel about things.” Then it’s the showdown, the long goodbye (actually, can we make this quick?), the mature parting of the ways. Followed by the recriminations. The other person just “didn’t work hard enough at it”.

In the late 1990s I left Nottinghamshire after nearly a decade there, and moved back to live in London for the first time in 17 years. It was a big change, exciting but a wrench, mainly because it meant severing my ties with Mansfield Town.

But hang on. It’s only a couple of hours up the M1 for Saturday home games, and when you think about it, most of the away games are in the southern half of the country this season. London’s a doddle – there’s Barnet, Brentford and Leyton Orient to look forward to and, not much further afield, Gillingham, Wycombe, Cambridge. So away travel will actually become easier. OK, Torquay’s a trek, but easier from London than from Notts. Yes, I’ll have to forgo the odd midweek home match, but I can always take a day’s holiday if it’s a really crucial one. All things told, I’ll probably only miss about ten games a season. And there’s always the phone and email, of course.

That’s how it started off. And yes, it was indeed fine. Then, on a monochrome, London autumn Saturday, as grey as the 1950s, I had one of those across-the-crowded-room-at-a-party moments. Stags were playing at Leyton Orient, and climbing the steps up to the away-end terracing I anticipated, as a connoisseur of lower-division football grounds, being confronted by the usual ramshackle melange of construction works, hoardings and embryonic flats or car parks. As I reached the modest summit I stopped, looked, and let out the footballing equivalent of ‘phwooar’. Probably ‘phwooar’ itself, actually. The ground was gorgeous. Four perfect, un-redeveloped sides, two facing stands, two matching terraces, surrounded by a grid of closely-packed houses. My mind quickly got to work populating the empty space with crowds of post-war men in cloth caps, clutching their twopenny programmes, wearing rosettes and waving rattles. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, unlike Field Mill, which seemed to be in a permanent state of almost being rebuilt. I could move in here, quite easily.

When I thought about it, Leyton Orient and I went back a long way. We had friends in common. First there was Mr Grew. As a pupil at Barrow Hill Junior Mixed School in north west London, I had been aware that little clubs theoretically had fans, because I could see the attendance figures in the sports pages of the Sunday papers. But these weren’t necessarily real people. My friends and I didn’t know anyone who failed to support a proper club. We followed Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal. I was West Ham back then, in the days of Moore, Hurst and Peters. But Mr Grew, a teacher, claimed to support Leyton Orient, an attachment he always admitted with an embarrassed smile, a shrug and an over-acted confessional whisper. Mr Grew’s other distinguishing feature was that he sported extremely baggy trousers with turn-ups. By the mid-1960s it was 30 years since these had been fashionable and another 30 before they were to become so again. So the O’s did have supporters, albeit people who had missed their sartorial moment by two equidistant thirds of a century. Teachers generally didn’t  have first names in those days but I think his might secretly have been Peter.

(In support of my thesis, my own class teacher, Mr Perkins, who had taught me, by then, most of what I usefully know now, was a Spurs man. He coached the school team and advocated the ‘push-and-run’ methodology of Arthur Rowe’s 1950s sides which were still fresh in his memory. Ambitious really, when his squad of ten-year-olds were more interested in keep-and-shoot. I once heard someone call him Bill.)

And then, of course, several players had turned out for both clubs during my time as a Stagsman. There was the bug-eyed crazyman Stuart Hicks, always eager to place his head in zones of maximum danger. There was Wayne Corden, dubbed, in one of those many football nicknames that don’t quite work, Cordinho, for his quasi-Brazilian ability at set pieces. Well, his quasi-ex-Port Vale ability, anyway. Not forgetting Mark Peters, who always seemed about to suffer, or to be recovering from, a broken leg or two. And there was Iyseden Christie, a representative of that footballing genre known as mavericks. Maverick status is usually conferred on big drinkers who won’t be told what to do on a football pitch, but Christie always struck me as a quiet, thoughtful man, who was blessed with unusual skill and trickery and an equally special ability to fall over. I believe he inspired the same kind of devotion amongst O’s fans as he did in his Stags days.

Thinking about it further, Leyton’s just down the road from my new home – with a following wind, 15 minutes on the 93 bus. We’re even in the same borough. Exploring the streets around the ground, I had noticed a sign in an estate agent’s window proudly boasting that their business was ‘protecting Leyton from the fear of unsold property’. That sounded like a fairly serious phobia for anyone in E10 to have developed, and I was thankful not to be suffering the same terror in neighbouring Walthamstow. Still, it was reassuring to know that some right-minded citizen, in however small a way, was fulfilling those supervisory duties and giving a whole community peace of mind and a good night’s sleep. Phew!

So, Leyton Orient. You and me, eh? It needn’t mean anything. I wouldn’t actually care about them. No-one need know. Just a casual fling which would keep me busy on a Saturday afternoon. Harmless, surely. And tempting. So tempting, in fact, that I started searching for reasons not to get involved, and save myself from a lifetime of guilt and regret. I found a few. For a start, could I live with that matchday announcer?

Leyton Orient’s PA wordsmith was surely in the top five most irritating practitioners of his craft. Not unusually, the name of the scorer of an away-team goal would be muttered under the breath like a curse. But a home goal was greeted by a routine which actually relieved the announcer of doing anything more than pushing a button. The recorded message that was broadcast to the ground, to the surrounding streets and for miles beyond was ‘Gooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllll!’ Only much, much longer. Lasting what seemed to be several minutes, its enunciation might outlive even the restart by the away team. Initially provoking a wry smile, the ‘goal’ word pushed tolerance very quickly towards annoyance and finally to fury amongst the travelling support who would eventually turn, illogically, to the nearest loudspeaker and swear volubly at it. Fuck off indeed.

I had a hunch that the same employee was responsible for the selection of the ‘It’s A Knockout’ theme for the teams to run out to – a bit like some underachieving indie band choosing an irritatingly quirky retro TV tune with which to take the stage. I remember the programme well from the 1960s, mainly because watching it was the first time I recall experiencing embarrassment on someone else’s behalf (the programme-makers, not the plucky participants).

And I had to admit that when I looked again at my new love interest’s clothes there was something not quite right – red and white checks, like some kind of yuppie chess board, presumably to imply equal footballing status with the Croatian national team (or whoever it was whose shirt they’d copied) and to lend a cosmopolitan touch to the club in keeping with the vibrant cultural mix ‘on the street’.

But what really did it for me was an incident outside the ground a season or two later, an Alan Partridge moment born straight out of Spinal Tap, if that’s not too much of a genealogical stretch of the imagination. I was waiting for a friend, an O’s supporter, who in the end never turned up (he later flannelled that Chelsea had an equal hold on his affections anyway). It was a couple of minutes before 3 o’clock and I was about to cut my losses, write off my alleged mate and take my seat in the stand when a limousine pulled up outside a wide-open gate leading, via a tunnel, straight onto the pitch. Out stepped a short, scruffy, grey-haired man who shuffled down the dingy passageway to the half-way line, waved in desultory fashion and was greeted by a lukewarm round of applause. He (for it could have been no-one else) was announced (yes, by that man) as George Best. Even if they’d paid for nothing else, Leyton Orient had clearly laid on a posh car to allow the thirsty Irishman to raise his hand for a few seconds and then take his seat in the not particularly VIP area. Astonishing. Gratifyingly, the club, and especially the announcer, must surely have been crapping themselves silly that George Best would do a ‘George Best’ and join my friend in the ranks of the no-shows, having presumably been advertised as a matchday attraction. I justified my now rapidly-cooling ardour by rationalising that this was no way to manage a celebrity appearance, let alone a football club.

Taking an uncharacteristically logical approach to my complicated love tangle, I decided it was time to draw up an emotional balance sheet. When the accountants packed up and moved out I was relieved to see that Mansfield Town, by doing nothing much at all, emerged on the assets side, while Leyton Orient, offenders against several behavioural norms, were listed as a clear liability. That was that, then.

Next time I went back to Brisbane Road the away end I’d admired a few years before was gone for redevelopment. It was no longer there. Flats, apparently.

So, Mansfield Town. You and me, eh? My dalliance was never actually consummated, or more truthfully should I say I withdrew at the last moment? Either way, I didn’t inhale. Yes, there’s always the phone. And I must get round to sending that email. Wonder if they’ll have me back.

Under The Ground 8: Missing Person

I wasn’t actually there. Half an hour early, one station away, I suppose I could have claimed some kind of spurious proximity to the bomb and manufactured an over-dramatic ‘lucky escape’ boast. But I’ve been travelling over the ground for a couple of weeks now, so I was even one whole mode of transport removed from danger. I checked on the people I care about and watched it all on TV. The next day my thoughts turned inward. Someone I love who doesn’t know it. Someone I miss who I never told. Someone whose pride and mine stopped us talking years ago. Someone I tolerate but would rather not. What if? What if them as well? This should change everything. Can I make it different? I don’t know. I will try.

Ground Level 1: Danger – Cyclist At Work

I used to love cycling. As a student, and after, in London from 1977 to 1982 I cycled everywhere. It was a moneysaver, a sightseeing opportunity, and a spiritual liberator. After a few bad experiences I stripped my bike of anything inessential to make it unworthy of theft. It finally consisted of a frame, two wheels and a chain and, usually, me.

Of several epic journeys, my greatest pride was a marathon from Greenwich to Twickenham to see my friend Brian Willoughby play his guitar in a pub. The landlord was sufficiently impressed with my dedication to let me in free. The band, possibly displaying an underdeveloped sense of self-esteem, were simply incredulous that anyone would pedal that far to see them perform. In truth, I’d only gone to see Brian, whom I liked and admired, and who later sold me the beautiful Gibson guitar he played that night.

When the time came to look for work, my embryonic CV, in the absence of any real jobs to quote, placed its emphasis on education, work experience and ‘other interests’. This final section signed off with the nicely pretentious bullet point ‘exploring London by bicycle’, a line which survived my editorial knife for much longer than it should. When I left London my bike owed me nothing and I gave it away.

Where I had gone, a bicycle was uncalled for. But later, in the early 1990s, living in rural Nottinghamshire, I bought a new machine and substituted ‘exploring London’ with ‘discovering the countryside’ (although not on my rather more substantial CV). Around 1995 I suddenly noticed a changing trend in cycle custodianship. Where once people had parked their bike against a wall or chained it to a lamppost, now the fashion was to lay it out on the pavement, usually directly outside the shop the owner was visiting (or burgling). To me this seemed to invite passers-by, especially myself, to walk over, rather than round, the bike, but I took it to be a new sign of ‘coolness’, along with needlessly spacious trousers and a tendency to call people ‘man’.

Returning to London in 1999 I considered cycling again but ruled it out on grounds of sweat, danger, middle age and frustration. Now the new trend was cycling on the pavement. Not just randomly, occasionally, but as the general choice of thoroughfare, newly commandeered for two wheels. I resented sharing valuable pavement space with cyclists and started to challenge them, formulating reproaches that combined vigorous insult with expressions of disapproval at their dual qualities of selfishness and cowardice. Given the time constraints in which to deliver my choice observations, I would keep my sentences short, usually limiting them to two words, an adjective and a noun. Not actually sentences at all, then. Again, because brevity was essential, the noun usually consisted of a single syllable.

Walking down Clater Street, east London one day, a cyclist missed taking off the entire left side of my body by a mere couple of inches. Avoiding the temptation to exaggerate for effect, I conservatively estimate his speed at 20 mph (your honour) as I swerved out of his path. Even more annoyingly, he was singing as he flashed past. I turned and shouted the rudest from my repertoire of insults. Facing forwards again I noticed that a police car had silently pulled up alongside me, its window winding down and the long arm of the law beckoning me over.

Guessing that one or both occupants had seen the incident, and that it was fresh in their memory, I anticipated, if not congratulation, then at least an enquiry as to my wellbeing after such a narrow escape. On the contrary, the speaking policeman’s first comment was a reprimand on my vocabulary in a public place. His second was to advise me not to try to take the law into my own hands. Hands which were now a whole street away from those of the rapidly disappearing cyclist.

I countered that, rather than upbraiding me on my language, he might be doing something about the phenomenon of pavement cycling, a pastime which might seriously damage someone less nimble than myself. Nodding sagely, Bad Cop assured me that they were ‘onto it’, but that I should watch my behaviour ‘on the street’. I might be committing a public order offence. Reckoning it unwise to engage in further healthy debate with the law, I used open-mouthed silence to convey my doubt that sitting pointing the wrong way in a stationary car represented any genuine attempt to curb this burgeoning crimewave. But when I asked politely why I should desist from offering helpful advice to errant cyclists, the answer was clear and graphic. They might stop and knife me – ‘or something’.

Ah. So there we are. As Good Cop might have reported: to sum up, m’lud, my colleague proceeded in an orderly manner to advise accused confrontational pedestrian to avoid risking a stabbing by having it out with public pests and lawbreakers. Or something.

I could rant like a vox pop about the police wasting their time with the likes of me instead of catching real criminals. I even briefly considered vowing to clean up the streets, finding the nearest mirror and asking it: “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” (Answers to questions 1, 2, 3 and 5: Yes. Answer to question 4: Obviously, no-one. Answer to question 6: You, exclusively.)

But really I’m thankful still to be at liberty, grateful to Good and Bad Cop that there’s no place on the streets for dangerous vigilantes and that there is someone like them around to protect people like me from people like myself.

Under The Ground 7: Signs Of The Times

They put up signs at the top of the escalators to tell me how they’re doing. This one is dated today, 5.30 this morning. It is now 6.37am. Anything worth knowing is written in type so small that a calculation is involved, to balance the time invested in trying to read it against the value the message will deliver. The notice alerts me to an inconsistency: how is a ‘good service’ different from a ‘normal service’? Both are offered on the same sign. Very suspicious. Have I caught out London Underground Ltd here? Are they admitting that a ‘normal’ service is not ‘good’ and would this thesis stand up in a court of law? Either way, I have won a small but definite victory.

Loved And Lost: Jonathan Kelly

As a teenager growing up in Chester in the early 1970s, you identified yourself by the bands you followed along with the football team you supported. The albums you carried under your arm to school or pulled out of plastic carrier bags to show off or exchange in the yard at break time said as much about you as the length of your hair or width of your flares. There were clans dedicated to the unspeakably pretentious (Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis), to the teenyboppingly trivial (Slade, T Rex, Osmonds even) and to the interesting left-field ‘alternatives’ – people like the Incredible String Band, King Crimson and Strawbs. My own circle of friends were big Strawbs fans, and had followed their progress all the way from acoustic trio to full-on rock group. By 1971 they had released four albums, and records like From The Witchwood and Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios were rarely off our turntables.

The new LP would be the one to push them finally into the big league, leading eventually to chart positions and Top Of The Pops. The tour to promote Grave New World brought Strawbs to Manchester, and five of us set out by train early on the evening of Saturday 12 February 1972 to see them at the Free Trade Hall. Expecting to miss the last train back, someone’s mother or father would collect us after the show.

We arrived early for the headliners, but slightly late for the first support act. On stage was a man in a black polo neck sweater, with a shaggy mane of black hair and a beard. He looked like a star and sounded amazing, the chords that rang out of his acoustic guitar conjuring up a whole rhythm section. Hurrying to my seat so as not to miss any more, I flipped through the tour programme and learned that this was Jonathan Kelly, singer-songwriter, and that he too had just got a new album out.

The standard format for song introductions back then was incomprehensible mumbling (thisisasongabout…mmmggghnnnggghbwaaahhh…hopeyoulikeit) punctuated by copious bouts of guitar tuning – a downbeat style straight from the Bob Harris School of Public Presentation. Jonathan Kelly was the antidote to this approach. His between-songs patter was rattled through breathlessly at breakneck speed, with plenty of laughter and a surreal line in humour, all delivered in a warm, intimate Irish voice. I wondered what fuelled his astonishing energy, and reckoned it was simply adrenalin, the thrill of being there on stage, playing his music to a new audience and earning their devotion.

Singer-songwriters back then were ideal, low-maintenance support material for bigger acts – no shifting around bulky equipment or setting up second drum kits; just a quick one-two-check and you’re away. (The other support that night, a mime artist, made even fewer demands of the PA system.) That tour must have been a godsend to Jonathan Kelly – to be playing in proper concert halls and theatres to big audiences, all predisposed to like his music, and to be winning them over night after night. Like me, thousands of others became instant fans, and went from concert hall to bed to record shop the next day. I called in at Migrant Mouse, the local independent in Northgate Street on the way home from school the following Monday and bought Twice Around The Houses for about £2.

I’d somehow expected that the album would just be Jonathan Kelly and his guitar. After all, the songs had sounded just perfect played that way and I couldn’t imagine them needing any more. But the record featured some top musicians, the cream of the London session mafia back then. Names like Peter Wood, Tim Renwick or Rick Kemp might not mean a lot today, but these were the people you got in to add class to your record, enhance the music and colour in the spaces.

It’s a wonderful album, to this day one of my favourite few records, one I will never sell or give away, and I still get a thrill putting it on and settling down to listen. People I’ve been close to have pulled the record off the shelf, said “wow, who’s this?” and then, 45 minutes later wanted to play it over again, and again, and again.

Twice Around The Houses is a collection of ten songs covering everything you could wish to hear about. Songs of brotherhood and community (We Are The People and We’re All Right Till Then); of romantic yearning (Madeleine); of love and loss (Leave Them Go and the achingly, unbearably beautiful I Used To Know You); cautionary tales like the folkish, allegorical Ballad Of Cursed Anna and its contemporary counterpart Hyde Park Angels; songs of home (Sligo Fair and Rainy Town, surely a paean to the singer’s origins in Drogheda); the Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness of The Train Song; and finally a lullaby of exhausted contentment, Rock You To Sleep. Songs of everything, really. It’s an album where practically every track is a standout, if that’s possible – with wonderfully crafted, articulate lyrics, beautiful chord sequences, and memorable, uplifting melodies.

All these songs are favourites, but most of all I love Sligo Fair, the tale of a girl who longs to escape her humdrum rural life and hitch a ride to the big city with the travelling fair people. Just three verses and the picture is painted and the simple story told, with this closing image:

      Way above the northern coast the seagulls circle high

      As to the west the sinking sun spills gold across the sky

      And homeward wend the Friesian herd to the ending of their day

      And Sligo Fair is just a week away

I could quote line after magnificent line of Jonathan Kelly’s lyrics. But the best service I could do him – and you – is to mention the two-CD set of his pair of solo albums for RCA, where you’ll find the words surrounded by his gorgeous music.

The cover of Twice Around The Houses is one of those simple, evocative 70s classics that you don’t see so often in these days of antiseptic graphic design. It’s a photograph of the singer, probably in London, possibly in the rush-hour, at dusk, as he waits to cross a road. Wrapped up, with a scarf round his neck and the old-style Guardian sticking out of a coat pocket, his eyes focused on something miles away, it’s the picture of one man in a crowd of millions trying to get by and stay ahead in London – like the character in Rock You To Sleep.

A year later came Wait Till They Change The Backdrop. The follow-up saw Jonathan Kelly stretching his musical muscle, with longer songs, more complex arrangements, greater variety of texture (even, amazingly, a steel band on I Wish I Could and some Queen-like vocal harmonies on the title track) and a slightly darker mood overall. The album is a reminder that Jonathan Kelly was never really a folkie, more a musician whose natural milieu happened to be the folk club circuit – an acoustic rocker with a great pop sense, as the two albums he released with his own band as Jonathan Kelly’s Outside demonstrated later. There’s another memorable photo, this time a tableau of 21 people involved in the record – presumably, in those pre-photoshop days, all together in the same place at the same time. It’s a wonderful portrait of a kind of hippy extended family, with young and old, black and white, male and female, all manner of hairstyles – and at the centre a now clean-shaven Jonathan Kelly, looking proudly straight into the camera, surrounded by this huge cast of characters who have lent their talent to his music.

For the few years at the height of his musical career many people loved Jonathan Kelly, just as my friends and I had done that night in Manchester. I’ve only recently discovered the Benjamin Franklin quote: ‘If you would be loved, love and be lovable’. Jonathan Kelly was lovable in abundance, and audiences adored him as their own. There are stories of him going to a pub for a quiet drink and being reluctantly thrust onto the stage with a guitar and captivating an unsuspecting audience for the next hour. As well as the delightful character introducing the songs, there was that marvellous voice, sometimes vulnerable and tender, always sounding very close to the listener, but equally able to let rip and belt it out like a fully paid-up rock ‘n’ roller. In the booklet accompanying the CD set, Dave Stringer, who used to manage his folk club work, writes: “It was always a special pleasure to drive Jonathan to a new venue, where many of the crowd would not have seen him before. To feel the awe of the audience, to be lifted up with them, to share in their sheer pleasure, to be overwhelmed by the response at the end. To my knowledge, the magic never failed, no matter what the make-up or size of the audience”.

Then, some time in the mid 1970s, Jonathan Kelly disappeared off the face of the music scene. There were rumours that he’d become a recluse, even that he’d died. My own interests in music had moved on, but I still listened to his records just as keenly as ever, along with the punk and new wave I’d discovered. I often thought of him, wondered what he was doing, hoped he was OK, and would have loved the chance just to say to him ‘what happened to you?’

What happened was that he had dropped out of music altogether. From the engaging idealist, the Workers Revolutionary Party activist who used to sign autographs ‘Peace and love, Jonathan Kelly’, he had become a heavy drug user and a man who was rapidly leaving behind the people who cared about him. Finally he had grown disillusioned that his music couldn’t make the difference he wanted, couldn’t change the world any more than his politics had done, and thoroughly disillusioned with himself. In an interview many years later he describes the man he had somehow turned into, a person he no longer liked very much – arrogant, hypocritical, and self-indulgent. It’s a scathing and brutally honest appraisal, delivered entirely without the self-pity we expect in the age of the teary celebrity confessional.

But he had survived, was alive and well and had found another faith. Far away from that London rush-hour he had started a new life, a family and his own small business and was an active Jehovah’s Witness, giving his time to help people deal with their own problems. In the early 2000s a dedicated fan tracked him down, created a website about his life and work, and cajoled the first performances from him for nearly 30 years. Even after all this time there was a devoted following, people who, like me, remembered and loved his music, and relished the chance to experience it again.

The second career was short-lived, as he reckoned that the allure of music, the buzz of performing and recording again, would diminish his focus on the religious work, with his congregation, that mattered most to him. From a selfish point of view I was disappointed to be missing out on this ‘comeback’, having caught so little of him first time round. But Jonathan Kelly owes me nothing. I’ve taken all I wanted from his music over the years, and every day still I think of one or other of his songs…so whatever you choose, Jonathan, is absolutely fine by me.

Songwriters are often asked where their ideas come from – do they have to work hard for them, are they based on personal experience or imagination, which comes first, the music or the words? On the website dedicated to his work, there is this quote from Jonathan Kelly:

“I’ve got music in my mind everywhere I go. Songs come to visit and if I’m quick and copy them down before they leave, then I can play them to someone else. Many times they just come and stay a while and then slip out the back door never to be heard of again. It don’t worry me, it was just nice to have them around for a while.”

It’s the best description of artistic inspiration I’ve ever read – modest, even humble, easy to understand, and devoid of the mystique and pretension with which writers sometimes clothe their work.

Jonathan Kelly is one of a handful of people whose music means most to me. Great, great songs, which are in my mind, too, wherever I go, and keep on playing years after I first heard them. Music which shares my melancholy when I’m feeling low, lifts my spirits when I need a hand up, and smiles back at me when the sun’s shining. I’ve never met Jonathan Kelly, and only enjoyed his company for the length of that short set back in 1972. But I’m thankful that, just like the musical ideas that visit him, he dropped in on my life nearly 40 years ago and stayed long enough to share his songs with me before moving on somewhere else. Wherever he is, whatever he is doing, I’m sure he’s still illuminating people’s lives, and I hope that he too has found love and peace.

      Leave the sailor to the seaway, leave the shepherd to the fold

      Leave your loved one to her chosen and leave them go

      Leave them go

 

Photographs by Richard Derwent

Jonathan Kelly website

Under The Ground 6: Parallel Lines

They must have just come from some David Cassidy convention or fan club meeting. Festooned with memorabilia of the acned 70s heartthrob, several fortyish women are reliving some happy memories, and not just of this afternoon. Sitting opposite, but otherwise miles away, I’m replaying an unhappy conversation, exchange, encounter I’ve just finished. I smile involuntarily at something I said, while my radar picks up a nostalgic paean to tight trousers with wide flares from across the carriage. They think I’m listening. “He knows what I mean. Look, he knows. You know, don’t you?” My sadness, and the comfort of my daydream, hold me back from joining in their harmless banter. But now they’ve got me. I’m complicit, I’m hooked in. I spend the distance to the next stop lashing my features into a parade of forced smiles, shrugs, snorts and puffs of artificial laughter. Nothing against Cassidy. I just thought the tube was my refuge.

Dear Valued Customer

With everyone’s commitment to great customer service these days it’s good to feel that the people who look after my money, energy supplies, telephone connection and all-round wellbeing have my best interests at heart.

I know this because I’m regularly told that my call is important to them (not quite important enough, though, to answer within the next 30 minutes), that they take my feedback seriously (and are far too polite to tell me exactly where to stick it), and that they are constantly trying to improve their service (but secretly like things just the way they are).

Generally I try to avoid dealing with the big corporations who control my happiness, and only do so when there is a problem I have to resolve – what they call an ‘issue’. This is because the amount of time and emotional energy I need to invest in dealing with my bank, utility companies and other monoliths far exceeds my available resources of either. I’ve pretty much resolved never to move house again because I know that if I do, BT will wreak such havoc for the next few weeks that I will either die in the process or never have the means to work again.

All of these companies are bad (and not ‘as in good’), but those whose business is based on the internet are worst. It’s as if they believed that simply being an internet facility was in itself good customer service, removing as it does those whimsical humans who get in the way of consumer satisfaction. I’m generally suspicious of companies who bury phone numbers, email and postal addresses in the deepest recesses of their website and who view these perfectly serviceable tools of communication as last resorts when their automated responses fail, and I assume they do this in order to minimise contact with their foul-smelling clientele.

Here we name and shame the guilty men. Come on down National Westminster Bank, EDF Energy, last.fm (the record label side, anyway), Virgin Trains, Royal Mail (especially the PO Box division, but actually all of it), and Ebay. I despise you all. And an honourable mention for Tiscali (even though they’re not one of mine) with whom I spent an entire weekend locked in conflict as I tried to sort out my mother’s phone and broadband connection after she had made the fatal mistake of relocating from the ancestral home.

I can detect the early physical signs of gearing up to contact any of these companies (or ‘bastards’ as they are known in the industry jargon) – feelings of anxiety, irritation and a tendency to procrastinate. It’s not the anticipation of confrontation that produces these symptoms – I’m a frequent and vigorous complainer – nor the actual dealing with the suppliers, although that’s bad enough. It’s finding out how to get hold of them and locate a single person with whom to have a sensible conversation.

I learned the rules of engagement in these encounters long ago. Don’t swear, however mildly, however severely provoked. That only results in an immediate and dramatic swerve in the conversation, away from your ‘issue’ and towards the kind of language the customer service adviser isn’t paid to listen to. The furthest I go, in moments of extreme emotion, is to describe their company as ‘the absolute pits of customer service’. ‘Pits’ doesn’t feature in the long list of words their salary won’t cover – possibly because it was legitimised by John McEnroe back in 1981 and we’ve all heard it so often since then that it’s become safely sanitised. But it still sounds strong. Advisers are very sensitive, too, about the word ‘you’. So any statement beginning ‘last time I called, you told me…’ will be countered by the assertion that they themselves didn’t tell you that. Which leads down another by-way, to explain that ‘you’ are a representative of your company, like the last one I spoke to, who was presumably giving the company line rather than a personal opinion. I know it’s not only you who works there. They were called Joe, or Sue, or Adam and, like all customer service advisers, were born without a surname.

My most recent run-in was with Ebay, and therefore also with Paypal. If you go to them with an ‘issue’, Ebay’s particular forte is to repeat your question back to you in the hope of convincing you that their understanding the problem is the same as solving it. Then repeat it again. And again.

For reasons known only to Ebay, I was no longer able to list anything in the global auction house. I’ve only ever sold with them, never bought, as, having spent the first half of my life accumulating the generically-named ‘stuff’, I am dedicating the second half to getting rid of it – books, records, memorabilia I will never realistically look at or listen to again.

My account was restricted, and I only found out when trying to offload some 1973 copy of Melody Maker that it had ‘exceeded the limit’. This was interesting, as I’d never been told it had a limit, nor what such a limit might mean. Was there only a certain number of Ladybird natural history books I was allowed to flog to eager Australians who had somehow missed out on this wonderful resource? To have my account liberated again, I would have to provide Ebay with my credit card details. Also very interesting, as they’ve never had them before. I’ve always paid my fees to Ebay directly from a linked Paypal account, and would very much like this entirely satisfactory arrangement to continue. Fair play to Ebay, they are completely upfront in telling me they want these numbers specifically so that they can take their money from the card, in contravention of my wishes.

So here I go. It’s online to grapple with Ebay’s alleged help facility. As with most of these services, any query must have its essence crammed into one of the standard formats they offer – these are the questions most people ask us; if you’re not like most people, then too bad.

Inevitably my particular problem isn’t offered, so I choose the nearest equivalent, and next day I get a reply. The first line of defence is to tell me that the issue must be with Paypal who, predictably, have erected the same impenetrable walls of obfuscation. After going three rounds with both Paypal and Ebay, both of whom deny any awareness of any problem, or possible reason for the same, I am eventually directed to Ebay’s ‘live chat’. This looks promising – the chance of a rational question and answer session which should, surely, deliver a way out of my online hell.

Live chat is a misnomer. (A word of warning to those who like that kind of thing – there’s no heavy panting or ecstatic moaning. Although probably plenty of other kinds of moaning by customers with other kinds of frustrations). It’s not a chat, it’s an online corrrespondence, and doesn’t feel any more ‘live’ than any email transaction. The live chatperson starts by thanking me, of course, for my query, apologising for keeping me waiting, and asking me initially to outline my problem. The apology is a fairly regular recurrence from then on, as I spend the next half hour chained to my computer with frequent updates as I slowly move up from 39th place in the queue. When my ‘representative’ has finally beaten 38 desperate customers into submission, it’s my turn. I’ve outlined my problem, and the ensuing chat goes something like this.

  • Ebay asks me to outline the problem (again).
  • I outine the problem (again).
  • Ebay affirms ‘so the problem is, Mr Jones, that your account is restricted, and you want to remove the restriction’.
  • Yes, that’s the problem I outlined, got it in one.
  • OK, we understand that your account is restricted, and you want to remove the restriction. And is your query specifically about this issue?
  • Yes, not just specifically, but also generally, vaguely, every way you can think of.
  • Thank you Mr Jones, if your problem is that your account is restricted and you want to remove the restriction, I will need to ask you some questions to see if we can resolve this situation.
  • Good, expected that, now we’re getting somewhere.
  • Several questions later, and it’s back to blaming Paypal.
  • No, no, no, they’ve said it’s nothing to do with my Paypal account, they’ve referred me back to you.
  • Mr Jones, I have to ask you to go to our Help page; when you receive our email response, click the link and one of my colleagues will be able to help you.

This fruitless chat has taken about 40 minutes. I endure this ritual twice more. The third time I do the outlining, waiting, reading apologies, repeat outlining, only to be told, 30 minutes later, that I have come to the wrong place entirely and need to follow this link to go through the process again. Right. Give up.

I suddenly notice that my last email from the Pal Of Pay concludes with the words ‘Kindly note: try this number’ followed by an apparently valid, relevant, genuine-looking 0845 phone number. Yes, that’s very kindly.

I ring the number and spend 20 minutes on hold. Eventually something stirs at the other end of the line. The voice is a strange synthesis of Professor Stephen Hawking’s cosmic tones and the kind of stateless mid-Atlantic drawl that international golfers and tennis players acquire, and sounds as if it’s coming from a chamber at or near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I reckon that the voice does, just about, represent a real person, and decide to persevere. It identifies itself, improbably, as Brian.

Like the live chat, Brian has been programmed to repeat my question and his answer until, weeping with frustration, I go off and find something hard to kick. I eventually tell Brian that he isn’t helping me at all and that I’d like to speak to his supervisor who, presumably sharing the underwater lock-up, takes me through the same elaborate dance of outlining, questions, apology, repetition. And then finally, amazingly, she helps me. My account was restricted because Paypal were late paying Ebay my last monthly fees (I later discover that the reason for this lies with my bank cancelling a direct debit to Paypal without telling me). I need to reset Paypal as my preferred payment method and the problem will be solved. This takes me a couple of minutes. Any of these advisers, chatters, Brians could have told me this, if they had only treated me as an individual rather than an issue.

One week on, after 35 minutes on the phone, 12 emails to Ebay and Paypal, and three sessions of live chat totalling about 90 minutes, my issue is resolved, and I can once more put my Robert De Niro videos up for auction for anyone who still has the means to play them.

Thank you for your interest. Is there anything else I can help you with today?