Well, can't keep it to myself, I'm so excited because I'm going to a very special gig next week. Not only is it far, far too long since I've seen any live band, it's also one I really ought to have seen decades ago. But now, thanks to some lovely serendipitous circumstances, it's not too late, and from the sound of things they've also really got their act together again in recent months.
If the title of the post wasn't enough of a clue, here's another...
...a great early live performance of a favourite song
Over the years I’ve had long drinks, long hair, long weekends, long waits and Long Ryders records but one thing I’ve sadly never had,
nor am I ever likely to have, is
That’s why it surprised me the other day when I tried on
some new jeans I’d bought mail order, 'Regular' in length, which is normally plenty, to then
find they barely reach my ankles. I
think it’s a thing now - having trousers a bit on the short side. I mean I reckon they're making them shorter deliberately to suit a fashion trend as, if anything, I'm shrinking too. I once heard that 'sock porn' is a thing as well, where
you expose the naughtiest glimpse of sock – a flash, if you like - as a tantalising interface between shoe cuff and trouser hem.
But showing just the right amount of sock is an art,
apparently. Your socks should be cheekily revealed when you walk and sit down, but not when you’re standing. I know.
Who makes this stuff up?!
Some while back I used to join up with a couple of friends a
few times a year to go to gigs. The problem
was that we all lived miles apart so we had this convoluted way of meeting
up. I’d drive down from Suffolk to Pete’s
house 50 miles away, then he’d take us to South Mimms motorway services to meet
Tim who’d driven down there from Northants.
Then Tim would chauffeur us into London to the gig.
So, getting there was fine.
And having a couple of decent gig buddies for company was absolutely great. The part of the evening that really got to me
was that third leg of the journey back at the end of our night out, the one where I had to drive that last bit home, alone through the early hours along mostly deserted country lanes.
Weary and frequently cold but not wanting to put the heater
on in the rattling old Polo in case it sent me to sleep, that drive always
seemed twice as long as it had been outbound.
The landmarks by which I calibrated my journey all started to blend into
one. But worse was the effect of my tired
and over-active imagination. I had to fight with the more ridiculous
fantastical fears that lurked in the back of my mind but which, in these dark
and lonely conditions, gathered their own energy and jostled for space right up
at the front, doing the stupidest things like turning lightning-struck
trees into petrified witches, the shadows of road signs into gallows and
kerbside shrubs into eerie, hunched over figures. I can't tell you how many times I wondered why someone would be crouching motionless by the verge in the middle of nowhere at 1.30 in the morning. ...
I never came across that lunatic axe murderer or the ghost of a headless horseman (of course I’d have told you by now if I had, it’d have been far more interesting) nor had an experience like Morrissey did on Saddleworth Moor. but by the time I arrived home it felt like it had taken
all my strength to stay focused on the road and the radio and the promise of a
warm bed at my destination, without thinking I’d witnessed something terrifying along
Country lanes and empty fields are indeed beautiful on a sweet Summer
afternoon but why is it that after midnight they transform into something far
John Atkinson Grimshaw - the master of a spooky moonlit scene
I've just caught up with an excellent TV programme which, for reasons I can't really articulate, made me strangely tearful at times. I was moved - moved by the nuances, moved by one or two things I felt in common, moved by the honesty, moved by the love of nature, by attitudes towards mental health and why we should value our individuality. Just moved. The programme was Chris Packham: Asperger's and Me.
You may already know from things I've mentioned before here that I feel great affinity and admiration for Chris Packham. It's for many reasons - his deep love of nature is at the fore, but also his sense of outsiderness, his admission of social anxiety, and of course his musical and sartorial tastes.
I think a lot of us have a sort of autistic streak to one degree or another. Not enough to affect our ability to function normally but perhaps enough to make some aspects of life trickier than we envisage it being for our peers. Maybe just the merest hint of it, maybe not even something noticeable to anyone else, but the horrible feeling you get deep inside when you don't want to go to that party, or that wedding, or that work do, or whatever it is where everyone expects things to be a certain way and that way just isn't you. When you feel in the minority - or maybe completely alone - for whatever reason, be it your interests, or your level of enthusiasm for something, or your lack of enthusiasm for something else. Where you don't feel you can fit in, because everyone else seems to do so with ease and so you must be the odd one out. When you have to adapt the way you express yourself, when you tone down your inner voice that wants to rave about its weird passions that nobody else seems to get. I think here, in this corner, it's a safe place. But in the wider world it's sometimes hard to navigate. Sometimes you have to fake normality. Is that some kind of autism, being a bit unusual? I don't know. But I know that a lot of what Chris spoke about in his programme was absolutely relatable.
I'm pretty sure my dad would be diagnosed as having Asperger's if he were to undergo analysis. An incredibly brainy, mathematical, logical man, he has no idea how to behave socially, how to dress or present himself conventionally, how to even be a 'true' father to my sister and me. He's awkward, disconnected. I see him in myself at times and I have to work at it. I forgive him his inability to communicate normally with his own offspring. It's just the way he is, and it doesn't make him bad.
My mum - very sociable and gregarious - was affected by mental health issues (clinical depression) and what with my dad... well, perhaps that's why I was precocious and difficult for a few years, maybe it's in that odd combination of genes! I was happy to spend hours, days, on my own in my bedroom drawing, writing, reading. My head was nearly always in a book - or making books of my own. Or crouching outside on the step watching ants, studying woodlice, feeding lettuce to snails. Hating new clothes, hating change. Refusing to eat the baked beans that fell off the toast. Keeping a collection of butterfly cocoons in a plastic box. Having to get back to my bedroom before the toilet flush stopped making a noise for fear of something bad happening if I didn't. Daydreaming far too much. It all kind of broke when I became a teenager. And then punk spoke to me, music and style and gigs and kindred spirits gave me an outlet. It's okay to be a bit weird - embrace it. You can be creative with clothes! You can be creative, full stop.
Punk spoke to Chris Packham as a teenager too - it's easy to see why.
I really recommend watching it, if not already. Here's the iPlayer link:
“More parsnips than I
know what to do with!” laughed the man as he showed off his basket of home-grown
vegetables. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except….
… “It’s all so twee!”
I found myself saying.
Honestly, I think I said
it out loud on my own in the room. The reason being the man with his too many parsnips was in a TV advert for over
50slife insurance and that meant it was aimed at....(braces self)....me. And maybe you too, either you now or the
person you’ll be in just a few years’ time.
I should add, it wasn't really the parsnips. It was everything. It was these advertisers' convenient vision of the over-50s – all pelmets and trugs and an oh-so-gentle sense of humour. All tweed, velcro and lacy doilies. I felt so patronised! I can’t bear being patronised and, oh god, I know it’s only going to get worse. Fuck it.
I’ve nothing against growing parsnips, just so you
know. You’re very welcome to show me your
parsnips or any other homegrown root vegetables for that matter. In a trug.
And I know all ads for any demographic are horribly generalised and broad, whether you're a teenager or a woman or a cat-lover or whatever, but it
seems that the stereotypes for ‘older’ people simply haven’t been adjusted in decades. They're more like a vision from the '50s than a vision of our 50s. It’s as if once you pass 49 you instantly become
some sort of sub-species, inoffensive and chintzy and dressed only in beige.
These are not people
like my peers and me - people who still go to gigs, or who like wearing pointy shoes,
or who still have their old Joy Division albums in a dusty box in a room with an Andy Warhol poster on the wall, etc. Insert your own version here.
(Note to advertiser: those parsnips can be inserted elsewhere.)
There, under a large
pot I moved this morning, was a beautiful, tiny newt.
The woodlouse on the far upper right gives
some idea of scale
That’s why I leave this place a little wild. Sometimes part of me feels a bit ashamed of
my garden, because I know it doesn’t conform, it's not beautiful or tidy or planned, but then I have to remind myself: it really doesn’t matter what
anyone else thinks.
I leave this little outdoor space pretty much to its own
devices, with the minimum of maintenance, and I know that it looks like I can’t be bothered. But I just don’t want to bother all the wonderful
things in it that are doing very well without me. I don’t want to bother – as in trouble, or
disturb - the perfect cycle of nature, the happy micro-world within its
For me the rewards are all I could ever wish for. Like that beautiful newt, an unexpected find,
the first I’ve ever seen here. And like
the hedgehogs that visit every night.
The things they leave behind – nearly always in the same place – are the
next morning’s confirmation of their fruitful foraging and, I know it sounds
bizarre to get a buzz from seeing hedgehog shit, but I really do get pleasure from that proof. Like this one, so conveniently left for me directly on a leaf!
(I promise I won't make a habit of
sharing my animal droppings)
It’s true, I spend a good ten minutes every
morning searching for and then burying numerous little hedgehog turds.
Last year, the evidence of one sleeping under piles of twigs
and cuttings beneath the hedge was the sound of it
snoring. Actually, a bit more than
snoring; it was also emitting a noise that I can only describe as being like a
Smurf with a smoker’s cough. A hedgehog
with a cough isn’t a good sign, meaning it may have lung-worm, but this
one seemed to be doing okay. Then one
day in late Summer I heard something else – some squeaking and snuffling and… a kind of
suckling sound. Hearing this every day for a week or so, it dawned on me that she
may have had babies…
One of last year's hoglets
I can’t tell you how ridiculously happy it makes me to think a hedgehog
chose to give birth and wean her young here.
Unplanned flowers and herbs proliferate too. Lemon balm and feverfew grow of their own
accord, wherever they like, along with pink and purple toadflax. Forget-me-nots grow in the cracks in the ancient
paving. Strong-smelling calamint blooms long into the Autumn, self-seeding on the path, where I
leave it to brush against my ankles amid honeybees and butterflies. Nettles are great in so many ways - I leave a good patch of nettles, and at this time of year so many of their leaves have been neatly folded up by caterpillars, sealing themselves inside with silk threads. A bramble bush compensates for its outrageously sharp thorns with its long season of luscious blackberries. Vast mats of clover creep over the old
concrete patio, plumptious woodpigeons peck at its leaves, bumble bees are drawn drunkenly to
its heady scented flowers. Ivy shelters gorgeous, huge garden snails and secretive wolf spiders. Buddleia and honeysuckle do their own thing,the
knock-on effect of their nectar’s attractiveness to small insects bringing in low-flying bats and swallows
at dusk to scoop them up.
Dandelions in Spring are as pretty and bright as any
cultivated plant, so why not leave them? Goldfinches which, like great spotted
woodpeckers, look far too exotic to be British birds, cling to their long stalks bending slowly under their minimal weight, and pull at the flowers
methodically, filling their beaks with the delicate seed heads, then depart with a tinkling chirrup, as if to say “Thanks!”
There are bank voles, woodmice, shrews. A stoat appeared one day, as did a slinky little
weasel looking for prey. Grasshoppers and crickets....a frog under the shed... exotic-looking beetles with bodies that
shimmer like jewels prompt me to read up about their species, get educated. Somewhere below the surface a mole has been digging, I'm stupidly excited at the thought of this mysterious underground visitor. There's no neat lawn to disrupt, so it doesn't matter. Blackbirds and
dunnock chicks hatch in their nests, secure in the overgrown hedges where the sparrows roost en masse at night, treating us to a late afternoon chorus of quite unbelievable
volume. What are they chatting about?!
Everything’s a mess and everything’s alive. I wouldn't want it any other way.
Sorry it’s been a good few weeks since I’ve posted anything; no particular
reason, just one of those phases when I’m not “feeling it” when it comes to
writing - another temporary block perhaps. And life, of course, puts other things in
front of us, not that any of mine have been very interesting lately.
Today was a little out of the ordinary, though!
I expected to be spending it drawing dragons for a new book, and if that
sounds like a lovely way to spend time, I can confirm that indeed it is. I love drawing and I love dragons. I didn’t expect instead for Mr SDS to come
home very early with blood all over his face.
Apart from numerous cuts and a swelling under his eye which
looks like someone’s slashed it open and stuck an avocado stone under it, he’s
okay - nothing got broken and he didn’t pass out after he smacked the gravel full
pelt when he tripped and fell directly onto his cheek. My dragons
went on the backburner (probably quite appropriately) and I took Mr SDS to
A&E. His face was a bloody mess.
The NHS is wonderful.
I can't bear the thought that we could ever lose it; I’d happily pay more in NI,
tax or whatever was needed to help keep it. And of all the things that could warrant a trip to A&E, something
everyone surely dreads, it really wasn’t so bad.
Waiting in there for three and a half hours wasn’t so bad either,
if you can find your own amusement. It
seems we were in stellar company, for among
the names being called out there was a Tony Curtis, a James Dean and an Alesha Dixon. What are the chances? Of course none of them looked like their
namesakes but I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to be
in some kind of surreal Celebrity A&E Waiting Room.
“I’ll have to mention this in a blog post,” I
said. And so....... !
I’ve just been granted exclusive permission to publish a
photo of someone whose name has appeared here several times over the years...
Here he is in 1981. A bloke in creepers and a 'We Are All Prostitutes' T-shirt sitting on a folding chair by a river may not be as extreme as teenage goths grimacing on the
beach in those ‘Embarrassing Family Photos’ websites, but still I love the way it looks a little out of place. I snapped him squinting in the Summer sun as the morning light bounced off his fluorescent pink socks, androgynous
post-punk hair blowing in the breeze against a pastoral backdrop in the middle of nowhere. (The middle of Northamptonshire, as it happens.)
That’s how it was, though, wasn’t it? Holidays, weddings, funerals, etc. were
difficult when it came to dressing ‘appropriately’. We wanted to wear what we always wore and (of
course) what we wanted to be seen in. Which
was at least appropriate to who we were and what we were into, as deck shoes and shorts had never been in our wardrobes.
A slightly better view of that T-shirt
The Pop Group: We Are All Prostitutes
I took that photo the first time we went away
together. We didn’t have much money, still
lived at home with respective parents, but for a nominal donation we were able to borrow a little narrowboat for a couple
of days from my mum's friend. It
was moored at a campsite in a place we’d never heard of called Thrapston.
The saffron yellow, bone-rattling, ex-Post Office Viva van
got us there somehow. Mr SDS had only just passed his driving test and I couldn't drive at all; I
tried to read the map the right way up while he did his best not to show his inner
panic. We made it unscathed through
Bedford anyway, which was quite a triumph.
Smells make memories, don’t they? And if I ever smell that disctinctive whiff
of paraffin now I find myself right back on that boat, sitting
on the foam-cushioned bench seats (which disappointingly only converted into
single beds with several feet between them) eating Heinz Sandwich Spread on Crackerbreads. Weird, but I really remember that detail. Sandwich Spread may have the
colour, taste and consistency of sick, yet in 1981 eating food not bought by our parents in unfamiliar waterborne surroundings with my boyfriend was so exciting that I managed to keep it down.
More exciting, though, was just listening to the radio there. We heard a lot of chart singles such as Kim Wilde 'Water On Glass', The Specials 'Ghost Town' and Tenpole Tudor 'Wunderbar'... they are the sound of that place to me still, the sonic equivalent to the smell of paraffin.
Let me take you back to a 1981 Top Of The Pops for a moment as a reminder:
I really liked Kim's boyish image
Then we listened to Richard Skinner’s evening
show which usually featured a band in session. That night will
forever be associated with Soft Cell:
Soft Cell in session, Summer 1981
I remember thinking the last song 'Youth' was really something.
'Don't hide the photos
Or turn off the lights
I'm quite sure we've both seen
(People used to think Mr SDS looked a bit like Marc Almond; he was
once offered a freebie jar of Dippity-Do hair gel by an older stall holder
at Camden Market on the strength of it.)
It was when we wanted to go to bed that the spiders appeared. Dozens of them. Every
corner, every crevice, the low lamplight casting monstrous 8-legged shadows against the wooden panels. Big fat juicy
ones and long-legged spindly ones, stripey ones, ones with bodies that looked
like baked beans and hairy varieties too.
It seemed to take forever to carefully
flick each one out the window with a Queen's Silver Jubilee themed tea towel. Thanks to that I conquered my fear of spiders, so much so that long-time readers will know I now actively love them. But that doesn’t mean I
ever want to sleep with them.
You must've heard the apocryphal tale that goes round schools about the couple who
get lost on a nighttime drive in the wilderness? – where the boyfriend gets out
to seek help and later the lone girlfriend hears banging on the car roof, which
to her horror turns out to be his decapitated head in the hands of an axe murderer. It came to mind when I was awoken in the early hours that first morning by the mysterious, repetitive knocking on the narrowboat
roof. It sounded very close, very
persistent. Luckily Mr SDS’ head was
still intact on the starboard bunk.
What was that noise?
We’ll never know.
Later we wandered out of the campsite and into a time-warp: a grocery
store in town, where a plump, rosy-cheeked lady sold us a
bottle of Dandelion & Burdock. She was so friendly; I like to think she approved of Siouxsie’s lifesize face staring out from Mr SDS’ chest and my sleeveless Lurex top sparkling in the dusty rays of sunlight.
Strolling back to our moorings, every wooden gate we passed – and there were quite a few - came with a
bony old man in a tweed cap attached to it.
Maybe it was the same man, skipping ahead unseen behind the hedges while we dawdled, just
to mess with our townie minds.
It's funny how I remember all these odd snippets. I can never see a man leaning on a gate now without thinking of everything I've described above.
Did we untie the mooring lines when we got back, fire up the boat's engine
and go chugging up the Grand Union Canal with our new-found freedom? Course not! There'd have been no turning back.