…It Had Bells On

This week marks the end of an era in this particular part of South East London. For Friday brings the last ever Pull The Other One, the best Nunhead-based comedy night you’ve probably never been to.

Yeah yeah yeah…Comedy nights come and go, don’t they? Well, Pull The Other One was unlike anything you’ve ever witnesssed or experienced. You think a comedy night is three blokes + compere + mildly amusing satirical observations? PTOO bore the same relation to that sort of affair as The Beatles to a skiffle band. ‘Anarchic cabaret’ is the glib phrase they used themselves in their promotional material. It’s close, but it doesn’t fully do justice to the sheer breadth this cavalcade of silliness spanned over the years.

PTOO specialised in character comedy. You’d rarely come across out and out gag merchants. Instead its bread and butter was the bizarre, the ridiculous and the plain daft. I have seen women having onstage nervous breakdowns, eating lettuces, men with the testicles out, men pretending to be frogs, Phil Kay singing his entire set. You name it, it’s happened. Much of its appeal lay in its whole ‘anything could occur in the next two and a half hours’ feel.

Its originators, the ringmasters of this circus of the surreal were Martin and Vivienne Soan. When I first started coming around 2011, Vivienne would be the compere, while Martin loitered at the back and attempted to cue the music for each act. (Indeed Martin’s inability to provide the right music at the right time for the right act has long been a much-loved feature in itself.)

Part of its success was also the intimate setting – upstairs at the Nun’s Head, a cramped room, capacity about 60 with a tiny orange-lit stage, decorated with the kitsch porcelain animals Martin wheels in especially for every PTOO. It was like you were in someone’s front room. And that perhaps was its key – you felt part of a family. There (literally) wasn’t distance between the crowd and the performers. You willed and hoped them to be good, and more often than not they are. If not, so what? They’d be something equally daft and outrageous on after the break.  PTOO has always been mercifully free of the ‘I’ve paid my £10 so you better make me laugh’ mentality that affects other comedy clubs.

If you’ve been you’ll know. If you haven’t, ask for the stories. I hope the Soans reconsider and this is merely a Sinatra-esque ‘retirement’ (I find it hard to believe Martin will be able to give it up completely) but for the moment we have to take them at their word. Farewell Pull The Other One. You made me laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh, until I cried, until it was painful and for that I thank and salute you Martin and Vivienne.

The last Pull The Other One is on Friday 29th June at the Old Nun’s Head, Nunhead and is, unsurprisingly, SOLD OUT. 


My Second Favourite World Cup Song

I recently interviewed 4AD’s design icon Vaughan Oliver for the wonderful magazine Long Live Vinyl (www.longlivevinyl.net) and perhaps the conjunction of that with current events made me think of this: my second favourite World Cup-related single. The Young brothers (who are both sadly no longer with us) apparently presented it to both ITV and BBC to soundtrack their coverage of the 1986 tournament and, daftly, both turned them down.

Wish I’d now got around to asking him about the sleeve, surely the only one ever to feature Jimmy Hill….

This Year’s World Cup Post

The World Cup starts tomorrow. The last one, perhaps, that one can enjoy unreservedly.  (I don’t really want about 2022 and everything that that phrase entails yet. Do you know anyone who feels that awarding the World Cup to Qatar was a good decision? Thought not.) In our house the wallchart has gone up, we’ve done a sweepstake – I’ve got Belgium – and the England bunting goes up tomorrow. Even my other half is looking forward to it.

Is it tempting fate to say that I feel cautiously optimistic about England’s chances? I feel that even writing those words down is tantamount to tempting fate. Surely though it can’t get any worse than four years ago? They can’t put on a performance as dismal as Iceland in 2016, can they?

At present expectations are so low that even getting through to the next round and knocking a few goals past….well, anyone even Panama, would constitute ‘success’.

Gone are the days when motorists would stick St George flags on their vehicles, when every Tom, Dick and Harry was clamouring to make a World Cup record. The whole thing now seems to be regarded with a shrug at best, even outright cynicism. Oh yeah, they’ll probably lose on penalties. Again! 

I kinda miss the days of delusionary optimism (roughly between 1982-2010), when people actually thought we might have a chance of winning the damn thing.

Oh well, for what it’s worth my prediction is that we’ll get through the first phase but lose to Colombia in the next round. I’d like Spain to win, but I’ve got a feeling it might be Brazil once more.

Graham Taylor 1944 – 2017

I’ve never been one for heroes. I could probably count mine on one hand: Paul Weller, Luther Blissett and Graham Taylor.

Graham Taylor may not mean much to most of you, but as I explained to my other half on Thursday to a Watford fan this is our Bowie moment. He was that important. He was our Shankly/ Revie/Busby and his death feels like losing a family member.

You might scoff at this but Graham Taylor not only taught me (and countless other Watford fans) how to dream but, crucially, how to realise dreams. When I first was becoming aware of football in the mid 70s my local football team were a joke, a lower divisions side who had never achieved anything and never would amount to anything. They were rubbish.

Graham Taylor changed all that.

Around the time he first became manager in 1977 I remember reading that his goal was to get us into the First Division. ‘Really?’ was the silent response of a disbelieving 8 year old. Not yet cynical, I still doubted whether this would be possible. A team like Watford would always be in the lower divisions, wouldn’t they?

What happened next was extraordinary. The years between 1977 and 1984 were like the unfolding of a wonderful gripping thriller. First Promotion to the Third in 1978. The following season another promotion.  Next consolidation, before in 1981 in Taylor announced “it’s time we were moving on”. And we did. Promotion to the First and along the way Cup shocks virtually every season. Man United, Wolves, West Ham were all beaten by the Horns. From being a joke Watford became a club and a town to be proud of. Next we stormed the First Division and finished second to Liverpool. Following that a respectable run in the UEFA Cup and then an FA Cup Final in 1984.

How was this done? By meticulous attention to detail, by superb man-management, by the selection of the right players and backroom staff that also shared his dream and a lot of hard work. If you have the inclination I’d implore you to seek out Lionel Birnie’s Enjoy The Game, the best book I’ve read about Taylor and those extraordinary times.

From being a joke Watford became a club and a town to be proud of. And that transformation has been permanent. Everywhere I have been in the world whenever I have mentioned the words ‘Watford’ in response to the usual question ‘who do you support? or ‘where do you come from?’ the words ‘Elton John’ or ‘Graham Taylor’ are usually heard next.

The other stuff – the family stand, the fast attacking football, the long balls, the bond between the club and the community, and the much-commented upon ‘decency’ of the man has been well documented. I can only add that in my experience the latter was certainly true. My own personal GT story was the correspondence he entered into with my uncle between 1984-86.  We had both gone to a home game in September 1984 against Aston Villa. Villa played the offside trap and my uncle bemoaned this then-familiar sight and dashed off a letter to GT asking why the FA couldn’t change the rules. Taylor wrote a two sided letter back and over the next 18 months a correspondence developed between these two deep thinkers of the game. The fact that this very busy man had taken the time to engage with and take seriously the ideas of ordinary fan impressed me at the time and still seems extraordinary. Would Jose Mourinho do this today?

Of course, the golden years didn’t last. (They never do.) In the week I left school in May 1987 it was announced that Taylor was leaving to take over at Aston Villa. Things wouldn’t be the same again. And for ten years Watford returned to being ‘just’ another club. Then in 1996, after the England/’turnip’ years that rendered him unemployable by just about any other club, Taylor returned to Vicarage Road and performed a similar miracle by taking the club up from Second Division to Premiership in successive seasons.

The incredible happened, not once but twice. This is what Graham Taylor taught me – dream, work hard, prepare well, take yourself seriously and astonishing things can happen. In my home town they did, on a regular basis, between 1977 and 87. I’ll never forget him and what he accomplished.

‘Death Is A Girl’ – Mini Mansions

I’m a believer in the theory that great records will always always find their place in the sun, eventually. All it takes is for them to hit you at that vital moment, on the precise day when you are most ripe for them and then they all make sense.

How did I miss this when it was released two years ago? Maybe I was put off by Mini Mansions’ name (I’ve an aversion to any group who literally belittle themselves – Little Mix, Little Flames etc) or their Queens Of The Stone Age connections? In all probability, I was simply looking away, didn’t hear it when it was played on 6Music that one time. Anyway, I chanced across it online during a stint of researching new bands last week and on a cold early November morning when the world is teetering on the edge, peering into the precipice of a Trump presidency its queasy tone, shifting chord changes and White Album-esque air of dimly-lit foreboding sounded deliciously apposite.

And ooh it’s so very very catchy. Hell, I’ve even had to ration myself listening to it these past few days.  Every play reveals new wonders – the heavenly choirs in the second verse, the sharp handbrake turn out of the first chorus, the way the song builds slowly, moving through its gears with grace and perfect poise. It’s a masterclass in how to arrange a pop song using all the old 20th Century tricks and yet it still sounds utterly contemporary.

So apologies Mini Mansions for missing this in 2014. Death Is A Girl was utter pop-noir brilliance on toast back then, but it’s even better now.

A Midsummer’s Nightmare

Normally I don’t have any problems getting to sleep, but as you know this has not been a normal week. Last Saturday morning I woke up at 2am from a dream to remember that a real life nightmare has come true. And then I couldn’t get back to sleep worrying about the future of our country, what has happened and what will happen.

I thought about how I would never forget this day and the manner in which I had heard the news. I had stumbled downstairs at 7.30, butterflies in my stomach, to be greeted by my partner who was weeping. I span round, barely unable to take it in. I made my stepson’s breakfast, then mine, before I sat down to watch the TV, spooning cornflakes into my mouth in disbelief. “Well, now we’re just a little island on our own,” the 9 year old boy said, grasping the basic gist of this enormous news. We saw Cameron’s speech before I got him off to school.

I was in shock and then following on from that I felt (in no particular order) anger, frustration, sadness, hurt and deep shame at being English. So much so that I emailed a couple of my friends who are EU nationals that work over here, apologising for what ‘we’ have done. They haven’t replied yet.

Can’t get back to sleep. I look at the clock. 3am. I started thinking about my own personal journey, how playing football in Germany and Belgium and Poland and meeting people from different countries banished my own inner Little Englander. I think ‘God, how I’d love to pay for these Leavers to go over abroad and experience the same things I did and realise that ‘the other’ is nothing to be scared of.’ Meeting and socialising with people from different countries and cultures is joy that enriches all of us.

And then my thoughts turn darker. What will happen when the 52% discover in time they have been massively conned, that their lives aren’t getting better, that there are still foreign accents on the streets? It will be the poor and the powerless who will suffer most. I know we’re into ‘false consciousness’ territory now but let us not forget the millions of ordinary people who voted for the Nazis in the 1920s.

I don’t use the analogy with the Weimar Republic lightly. When we say the word ‘fascism’ we immediately think of jackboots and concentration camps. But the road to the gas chamber is marked out by increments. During this campaign the genteel acceptable faces of hate have been the likes of Farage and Gove, the barrage of anti-migrant headlines in the Mail, Sun and Express; their words of spite advance battalions presaging the daubings on Polish centres and calls to ‘send them back’. I shudder inwardly. This is England 2016. What is happening to us?  

3.40am. Cameron drifts into my restless semi-conscious musings. How must he be feeling? Just as Blair will go to the grave with Iraq on his heart Cameron will know that this will be his epitaph – the man who broke the UK, the man who mixed up short term tactics for long term strategy, gambled his country’s future and lost. The slick PR man’s mask slipped as he gave his resignation speech and his voice wobbled. He knows he’s messed up, about as huge as it is possible to mess something up. Right now, he must be the most hated man in Europe.

I turn again to my clock. 4:10am. I long to talk to an older relative, someone with perspective who has been through something more frightening than this: The Second World War, 1940, the last time fascism was lapping at our shores. But my mother died in 2003, my uncle in 2013. And then I realised I am the older generation now.

And whatever people were saying it wasn’t a division between young and old, or even between rich and poor. I’m in my mid 40s, I’m certainly not rich and I voted remain. The main difference I feel (with exceptions, of course) was between the educated and uneducated, between those who cherish the great possibilities that flow when people of different cultures and nationalities come together and those who want to close down possibility, want to build walls and hide behind them

Eventually some time around 5.30 I drift back to sleep. I wake up on the Saturday morning not wanting to be English any more, not wanting to share a flag with the misinformed, the easily-led, the small-minded, the xenophobes, bigots and fools who thought they were somehow ‘taking back control’ (what a facile slogan). Is this lashing out? Please don’t judge me harshly. I’m grieving. Grieving for my country, for my dreams of a fairer, kinder, more open-hearted society, for the brotherhood of nations, of all mankind. Yeah, I know – all that hippy stuff. Maybe these feelings will fade but right now I’m devastated.

One week later, I still am. I may be for some time. 

Britain At The Edge: A Plea From The Heart

The tension has now become almost unbearable.

I can’t quite believe that this is all coming to pass. Historians will look back at this moment and scratch their heads. What possessed England to press the self destruct button in this way? For that is what Brexit amounts to. Quite apart from the fact that in simple economic terms it is clearly barmy. There is also the fact that the Brexiteers are almost certainly signing the death warrant for their own country – the UK. For if Scotland votes Remain a second independence referendum up north is a nailed-on certainty. Scotland will go, no doubt about it. Wales too, in time. And then what will be left? Little England. But then I suppose that is what these Little Englanders want. Perfect isolation, safely tucked away from scary foreign accents.

I don’t want that for my country. I want an outward facing, inclusive nation that is at ease with itself, that is unafraid of the world, of the future, that doesn’t want to hide underneath the bedclothes and pretend that it’s still 1952.

I don’t want the country to be controlled by a bunch of ‘even-more right wing than the present lot’  toffs who are quite cynically using ordinary people’s anxieties against them*, who have blatantly and deliberately stirred up a mean-spirited xenophobia that has already led to an MP being murdered. Ultimately these people want Britain to be an enlarged version of Guernsey, a tax haven where the rich lord it over the poor, without any of the restrictions the EU provides on working hours, workers’ rights and environmental legislation.

So I look at the polls and I shudder at what lies in store on the other side of June 23. I think about the little ways it will affect life on this island. I think of the way my stepson’s opportunities will be curtailed – he may want to study another language and work in another EU country. I also think of the social group that myself and my partner have been a part of for a year or two.

This is a friendly bunch of people based around Brockley. We meet up occasionally for pub quizzes, meals and various social events. One of the wonderful things about it is its cosmopolitan nature. There is a Spanish woman, an Aussie, a Canadian and her Rumanian partner, an Irish guy and his Japanese girlfriend. Its international make up means that as well as a lot of fun, it’s a richer experience for all of us. What makes me sad is that in 20 years time a group like ours might be a relic of the past, as England pulls up the drawbridge and withdraws.

But what do you do? When an individual is so fixated on self destruction, be it through drugs, alcohol or internalised violence it is very hard to dissuade them. Like a toddler, sometimes they just have to smash up their toys to realise that it is not the best course of action. Perhaps England needs to get this tantrum out of its system before it can finally grow up, realise that it’s not special and that it isn’t 1952 any more.

And that no man, or country, is ever truly an island. I implore anyone reading this to vote against xenophobia, against racism, and for hope and for Remain.

* During the last week or so this song – from an equally dark moment in British history, summer 1981 – has been replaying in my head over and over. “And as I was standing by the edge/ I could see the faces of those who led pissing themselves laughing.”


When Someone Great Has Gone..

It’s been two days now.

I first heard at 8am on Monday morning. My girlfriend phoned me from her car and just blurted it out – ‘Bowie’s dead!’ Like most people I was shocked – ‘but he only released a new album on Friday!’ was my instant reaction.  I thought that he had a few years left in him, maybe a couple more records, who knows? The rest of the day was spent feeling numb, fumbling through, accomplishing my tasks as best I could with this news at the forefront of my mind.

It’s not a tragedy. He was 69, for God’s sake! He had cancer. Many of my friends, many of your friends will die of cancer before that age and won’t have achieved a fraction of the things or lived the life that Bowie did. I never met him. I only saw him play live once, at Glastonbury in 2000.  So why did I feel (like so many others on Monday) on the verge of tears all day? Why do I feel a sense of profound loss?

It’s not just the music. Nor what he represented or inspired in me. I think part of the collective grief over his passing is the fact that it reminds us how an entire era, a way of life is gradually slipping away from us.  Bowie was one of the handful of artists that changed popular culture forever. He is a transformational figure in the same way that Elvis and The Beatles were. And there aren’t too many of them left. Dylan will be afforded the same reverence when he goes, McCartney, Jagger and Richards too. But they’re all elderly. Madonna is (arguably) the last to have changed music as profoundly and even she is 57. At some point soon in the next few decades all these icons will have departed this life.

Rock n’ roll is perhaps at the same stage today as cinema was in the 1970s. From my childhood I remember many of the stars of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood appear in their dotage on Parkinson. They sat down, told their stories and then one by one their deaths were announced on the evening news. Films were still made, people still went to the cinema, but the romance that had cohered around the medium went with them. Music increasingly feels the same way. Over the last couple of days I’ve heard a few people ask forlornly ‘where are the Bowies of today?’  But there will never be another figure that has the impact of a Bowie, a Dylan or a Madonna. They shaped the terrain, opened up the space that today’s artists perform, that all of us live in. It’s highly unlikely that any of today’s Division One stars will be venerated the same way when it’s their turn to go. The difference between (to pick a name at random) Ed Sheeran and Bowie is akin to that between Ray Mears and Magellan. Quite simply, you can’t circumnavigate the globe for the first time twice.

The heroic age of popular music is almost over and soon all we will have left are stories and battered old CDs to pass on to our children. That’s why I’m sad.

Cuckoo Lander – Mother Nature

I’ll ‘fess up, I’ve found it a struggle coming up with ten tracks I’ve liked this year. 2015 hasn’t  exactly been blessed with a great abundance of new ideas and vital fresh faces. There has been little that’s touched my soul or even piqued my interest.

Occasionally though you’ll glimpse a flicker in the embers. Take this young lady – Cuckoo Lander. Is that her real name? Look at her hair – just brilliant! She comes across as different. And interesting. I’m intrigued. There’s not a great deal of information out there about her, though apparently she’s a mate of Charli XCX. Crucially though, in terms of her style and presentation this single of hers lies firmly outside the tighty-constricted boundaries of 2015 pop. I want to hear more. Hopefully in 2016, we will.

Two years ago…

…this blog predicted that the yes campaign were ‘highly likely’ to win the 2014 Scottish referendum and I take no pleasure in saying that it looks as if that prediction will come true tomorrow. For me, it’s very sad and leaves the future of left wing politics in the rump UK looking very bleak indeed.

What’s most infuriating is that the huge national discussion that we need to have about Britishness, what it means, how it should be defined, about the need to truly decentralise power in these islands is only happening in the dying days of the campaign, and, laughably, only when yes vote has moved from being a possibility to a distinct possibility. If Westminster was truly serious (and had thought strategically) about this then instead of a panic measure a national conversation should have started two years ago, in the heady atmosphere of post-Olympic inclusivity.

Now, it’s all too little, too late. A huge huge opportunity has been missed. Instead a squadron of chickens are coming home to roost for all the constituent parts of this (dis) United Kingdom. Fascinating times ahead, though.