D is for all the D’s that didn’t make it

Thursday 20th September

Deacon Blue, Sandy Denny, Dexys, Dire Straits, Thomas Dolby, The Doors, Donovan, Nick Drake and Dusty amongst others.  Deacon Blue – another great 80’s band emerged from Scotland with a bunch of excellent songs and an edgy sound – best album by far was Fellow Hoodlums.  After that they seemed to fade from view.  Sandy Denny started in Fairport Convention, and before that the Strawbs and for a while a solo artist.  She had the most beautiful voice, clear and emotional and strong and gentle all on the same track.  She died from complications after a long history of drug abuse, another of rock’s victims – but she has recently had a renaissance and posthumously is probably more famous than when she was alive.  Dexys Midnight Runners burst on the scene in 1979 with Gino and had a number one with Come on Eileen.  The band was really a vehicle for Kevin Rowland’s voice and musical muse, which has wavered over the years with long gaps while he tried to get a band together or a record contract.  Dire Straits – another 80’s band who had a string of great singles and albums, the best of which was ‘Brothers in Arms’  – the lead guitarist and singer Mark Knopfler went solo and is still making very competent music.  Thomas Dolby had a couple of exciting singles and a handful of brilliant albums before he just seemed to stop making music altogether – a pity as he had a beautiful voice, and was obviously a genius.  The Doors were once almost as famous as the Beatles, before their lead singer Jim Morrison became another famous rock casualty in the early seventies, but he left behind some lovely music like ‘Riders on the storm’.  Donovan, was, well just Donovan – a very English elfish singer songwriter who emerged about the same time as and was rapidly eclipsed by Dylan – some sweet songs though like ‘Sunshine Superman’ and ‘Try and catch the wind.’   Nick Drake, another singer sadly no longer with us.  He made just three sad and haunting delicate albums which have sold consistently after his death but were completely ignored when he made them. He died in 1974, a suspected suicide.  And Dusty, possibly the greatest English vocal talent of the sixties and early seventies, she had a string of hit singles but never seemed comfortable with fame itself.  She drifted in and out of fashion before dying in 1996 of cancer – it hardly made an item on the news.

So, sadly, so many of my favourite D’s are either no longer with us or have stopped making music altogether.  I could also include , and who could forget Ian Dury, irreplaceable wit and great lyricist who is also sadly gone.  But they all pale into insignificance beside the greatest D of all – Bob Dylan.

Large people, small seats

Wednesday 19th September

It sometimes happens in the theatre; you are eagerly awaiting the performance and in your seat early browsing the expensive programme.  The house lights start to dim, and then you realise that someone is arriving late and you will have to stand up so that they can squeeze past you.  It is a large person, in fact it is a very large person.  Usually a man, well over six foot and almost as broad.  You brace yourself against your upturned seat and breathe in.  The monster of a man slides past, and then to your horror, he stops and your heart sinks as you realise that the seat next to you is vacant and he will be sitting there, right next to you.  The sheer physical bulk stops you from relaxing, besides they insist on sitting with their legs apart (maybe that is the only way they can sit) and so invading some of your space.  To avoid contact you sit as far away from them as possible, squeezing yourself into the other half of your seat.  And suddenly a pleasant experience turns into a nightmare; no possibility of moving or changing your position, no use of the arm rest (you cannot even see the arm rest anymore), and this overwhelming presence by your side to distract you.

The same thing happens on flights if you are unlucky, and on buses and the tube.  And there is no easy solution – people come in different sizes, and the makers of seats cannot really be expected to cope with this anomaly.  And maybe these large people are just as annoyed that the seat they are allotted is so small that they are overflowing into other’s space.  I have even found myself physically wedged into a tube seat, one where there are no real arm rests – just a slightly raised plastic divider, by two large people, one either side and you hardly dare breathe out for fear you will all be locked together forever, and you are just hoping that one of them has to get off before your stop as there is no way you can release yourself unaided.  So, seat designers, think about it – just how do you deal with large people and small seats.

Cycling is the new jogging

Tuesday 18th September

I was never really bitten by the jogging bug – everyone I knew was out there running and running into problems too.  In the end I too succumbed after a lot of nagging by friends, but though I quite enjoyed it, the freedom, that mild exhilaration and sense of achievement at running a couple of miles, one by one though my friends gave up citing ankle and knee problems, and so too my sporadic jogging came to an end.  You still see quite a few out in the early morning panting round the park, but the real sport that is taking off now is cycling.  It has been slowly growing over the last few years, but I think the Olympic successes in Beijing and now of course in London have been driving this new form of ‘jogging.’

And it doesn’t come cheap; a good bike leaves little change from a thousand pounds, and all that shiny Lycra gear, gloves, helmets, even special cycling trainers and socks and wrist bands that are so trendy must cost a tidy sum.  And in a funny way I think that that is a large part of the attraction.  There has never been anything to stop anyone getting their rusty old Raleigh out of the shed – ‘pump the tyres up and a dab of Wd40 on the chain, slip your trouser clips on and away you go.’  But by buying all the gear, and the more expensive the better of course, you are joining an exclusive club of fellow devotees who spend their weekends racing along in packs, stopping at roadside diners to admire each other’s Nike and Adidas outfits or 32 gear paraphernalia, or ultra thin radial tyres and  special lightweight backpacks.  It must all be terribly good fun.  And I am almost jealous of them until I see a fellow sixty year old, whose varicose veins are protruding from his lycra leggings, and is panting furiously as he tries to keep up with the pack, that I realise that I am just happy to watch them all speeding past into a bright new future.

Grey is the new white

Monday 17th September

For a short while it was black, but now it is grey, and a funny silvery dense grey at that, not even a wispy pale grey, or that grey that you cannot quite discern from blue.  In the trade they have always been known as ‘white goods’, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers and now dishwashers, but if you happen to be wandering around an electrical store over half of them are this muddy non-colour of grey.  Of course unless you are buying new ‘white goods’ you are hardly likely to be browsing through them anyway.  Almost nobody nowadays buys a new fridge or washing machine or whatever unless they are moving house, or the old one has just broken down.   But I can remember when they were desirable items, when they weren’t absolute essentials that everyone had anyway.  They even used to be advertised on the telly back in the sixties.  We had a fridge and a twin tub long before most of our neighbours.  My mother was always an excellent saver, thrift was elevated to a high science in our household.  I can even remember my mother showing her twin tub off to admiring neighbours (elegantly swinging the mangle rollers from the sink over to the tub) – something you would never dream of today.  I suppose things have shifted upwards and you might just invite the neighbours round to look at or even to sit in your hot-tub, though I certainly would neither have one, nor having bought one actually admit to it, and ask others to join me for a winters evening dip, but there is no shaming the young.

Recently our washing machine broke, it was about time having just passed its warranty date.  Without question we hot-footed it to Curry’s for a replacement, and guess what – the only one they had in store and that we could take away was a grey one.  How infuriating that the models you see, and think are reasonable value, having discounted all the extra’s you don’t need which seem to double the price – these models are always out of stock, or are in a central warehouse and can be delivered in two weeks time.   We didn’t really mind as we keep our machine in the cupboard under the stairs, and no-one ever sees it.  But if you really cared about these things would you then have to change your fridge and dishwasher and tumble-dryer for grey ones to match.

September always was the best month

Sunday 16th September

Even as a child when September inevitably meant the end of the long holiday and back to school, September was something to look forward to.  After that brief week or so of absolute freedom, those six weeks would begin to pall, and the thought of school, or meeting your school-friends, would begin to seem attractive again.  Maybe humans cannot actually stomach too much of a good thing, we are much happier when time is limited and we have to make the best of it in the time remaining.  The prospect of never-ending rest and relaxation may seem attractive until it actually happens and then you will be crying out for a bit of hardship.  And August is not the best month of the summer, by far.  May and June have a freshness about them, with the ever-lengthening evenings and promise of more good weather to come, and July starts off okay, but too often is a harbinger of August rain.  August is the second wettest month, after January, and seldom fails to pour down.

And then just as you think the summer is drawing to a close along comes September, and usually brighter sunnier days, without that oppressive heat of mid-summer.  So, enjoy this splendid month while it lasts, and October too, never as bad as you think it will be, before November mists and cold envelop us as we hunker down for winter again.

‘Between the Lines’ an unintended gift from Alison

Saturday 15th September

Alison was one of those who got away.   She left me, but I am not sure I would ever have left her; I was absolutely besotted with her and wrote far too much torrid poetry about her for years after she left. Long story – but she did a Shirley Valentine on me, and way before the film too.  1984 I think, on Crete she stayed behind with a Greek restaurant owner after our short romantic holiday there.  But as well as a broken heart she left me with a couple of cassette tapes.  One was Janis Ian – Between the Lines.  I had never even heard of Janis Ian, though she had been around since the early sixties.  This early seventies album I think led to a revival of interest in her, and she is still going strong and making music.

But the reason for the success of Between the Lines and why it is so adored by her fans is that it is such a confessional open and honest record.   Her voice sounds so wounded on these delicate songs of desolation and rejection that it just tugs at the heart strings.  We have all been there, ‘At Seventeen’ that nervous wallflower, the ugly ones who never get asked to dance.  I love all the songs, especially ‘In the Winter’ ‘Tea and Sympathy’ and ‘Lovers Lullaby’.  I played the tape to death for years and now it hardly plays, so I have just re-ordered it on CD and cannot wait to open that annoying cellophane wrapper and slip it into the CD player, and waltz round the room and envelop myself once again in my memories of Alison, Crete and my misery when she left.

For I find that those miserable memories are always the ones that mean the most.  To have known utter desolation, and to have recovered; ah, that is living.

That first sip of Latte

Friday 14th September

I am afraid that instant coffee just doesn’t do it.  And as for those sachets of so-called Latte and Cappucino they sell nowadays, ‘just add hot water and stir’, yes, I have done that and now exactly what do I do with the gelatinous mess of baking powder, dried milk and some hint of coffee.  No, surely you don’t expect me to actually drink it do you?  I have in the past invested in a coffee machine and am sorely tempted to do so again.  However unless it is plumbed in, and very expensive you cannot achieve the pressure to properly steam heat the milk.  And then you have to clean  and de-scale it regularly.  I quite like the idea of those Nespresso machines, but I fear the milk steaming bits won’t really work.  And anyway do I really want my Latte to be that easy.  It tastes great after the morning rush-hour journey, strap-hanging and squeezed, a moment of sanity arrives in the shape of your first Latte of the day.  And this is my reward for getting up every day and slogging it to work.  And at my age too; I should really receive a medal.

But oh, when that Latte arrives and though it is almost too hot to drink you tentatively put your lips to the china (or corrugated cardboard) cup and take that first sip.  Heaven.  As the milky froth dissolves you are left with the slightly sharp hit of coffee breaking through all that softness.  I used to be addicted to sugar and have worked my way down from two to one to a half a spoon of sugar.  Then for a while I would sprinkle some vanilla flavoured icing sugar on the froth, but now I have at last achieved perfection and cut sugar out completely.  I now enjoy the pure unadulterated taste of coffee, and if I ever do stop working the thing I will miss most will be that first sip of Latte in the mornings.  Maybe then I will have to fork out a few hundred for a decent coffee machine at home.  At least I will have the time to clean it.

Misleading signs on the Underground

Thursday 13th September

There are misleading signs on the Underground and there are mis-directions. I know I took at least a couple of years to understand the complexity of the Underground, and though I like to think myself an expert I am sure there a few bits of it, like the Western reaches of the District Line that are still a mystery to me.  I can clearly remember wandering round and round Baker Street station in the mid-seventies completely lost as the signs were so misleading.  Sometimes this is by accident, arrows that appear to point to the end of the platform but are meant to indicate an exit partly hidden to the left.  Also the ever-improving platforms have so many signs and indicators hanging that signs are obscured and only hove into view if you walk down the platform.  These are all forgivable, and in a way add to the very nature of the tube; a secret language that Londoners know and visitors are perplexed by.

However we are now being subjected not just to misleading, but mis-directing signs.  During the Olympics quite a few stations became one-way entry or exit, supposedly for crowd control but one suspects an element of sadism was afoot.  But before the Olympics became an excuse there were still deliberate examples of sending people the wrong way.  At Kings Cross, one of the most complicated stations the indicator signs for different lines have had stickers placed over the arrows, pointing you in completely the wrong direction.  If you follow them you end up walking for ages down tunnels which bring you out a very short distance from where you started.  There is a perfectly good short link between the Victoria line and the Northern and Piccadilly, however this is now completely unsigned.  Only those who remember it still use it, and one has to ask why?  Why deliberately send people walking down endless corridors when a perfectly good short link exists.  Madness?  Sadism, or Stupidity?  You decide.

Come back John Lewis – I miss you

Wednesday 12th September

But John Lewis hasn’t gone anywhere I hear you shout.  Oh yes it has.  It has gone downmarket, down the dinosaur way, down the trash bin that is Selfridges and Debenhams.  It started with those central escalators and open Atrium, then they carved out half the basement for the Food Hall, and now the shop is completely ruined as the Cosmetics and Beauty section had trebled in size and relegated gifts and stationery to the basement, and reduced it to about a quarter of its former size.  I know that stores must change to meet changing demand, but honestly who buys this shit.  The perfumes and lotions and potions and so-called Beauty treatments.  Oh, of course I forgot, young women buy it, spending an ever disproportionate amount of their wages on trying to look beautiful.  And for what end?  So that guys will look at them and want to shag them, so they will get married and pregnant, and have kids and not be able to ever afford that rubbish again.

I know I am an old curmudgeon, but the very reason I used to shop at John Lewis was its unchanging-ness.  The fact that when you wanted a birthday card you knew exactly which door to go into and on autopilot could avoid everything else and rely on an excellent selection, and quick service.  Now like all the other stores you have to hunt for and then give up and ask an assistant and then queue up at the very few tills.  I did complain, the response. ‘I know, we get loads of complaints every day, all our old customers hate it.’

But that won’t stop those marketers and PR people who design these shops to look just like every other store everywhere else.  But in my book, they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so come back John Lewis – I miss you

NBC Paralympic Coverage – a disgrace

Tuesday 11th September

The yanks just don’t get it, do they? Do you not feel it strange that the country which epitomises sporting excellence, and was second only to China in the Olympics, was way down the list n the Paralympics.  And maybe that is partly because of their wretchedly poor TV coverage.   NBC, which had the American franchise showed absolutely no live coverage of the games at all, and only four, yes that’s right four, hour long highlight programmes of the Paralympics. (No doubt heavily interspersed with Ads)

At times I was frustrated  by Channel Four’s coverage; the perpetual advert breaks, the monotony of just two main presenters, and like most others though I love Clare Balding, her effusiveness after each and every race was a bit much to take.  I am sure the BBC would have done it better, but at least it was live and on the whole time.  I have always thought there should be one channel, on BBC undoubtedly, that should simply cover live events on a continual basis.  A sort of rolling 24 hour breaking news.

But four hours out of eleven days of incredible competition and athletic achievement is just pathetic and the Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves.  The bosses at NBC probably thought that no-one would want to watch a bunch of cripples running around, when Hollywood is so full of perfect bodies. What even we in Britain have just realised is that even those maimed bodies are perfect too.  Everyone is normal, and extraordinary at the same time.  And as the rest of the world moves on to a different and more inclusive and caring agenda, led yet again by Europe, America is still stuck head in the sand ignoring the brave new world.