I had a random memory yesterday. Quite often as a kid my dad would take me on long walks around central London on Sunday afternoons. Invariably my mum would stay at home and do the housework (partly because she preferred to and partly, she later told me, because she thought it was a good opportunity for father/son bonding). On one of these occasions my dad and I were at Waterloo station on the way home and popped into WH Smith, one of my favourite shops, as you could get both books and stationery there, and Kenny Everett‘s new memoir The Custard Stops at Hatfield was on display. Everyone loved Kenny back then, he was massively popular, and I thought it was a hilarious title, although I never actually read it and could only guess at why the “custard” ended at an unremarkable new town 20 miles north of London. Later we got home. “We saw The Custard Stops at Hatfield!” I chirruped to my mum in the way that children do, a) with no sense of priority (we might have spent the day at the Tower of London or the Science Museum BUT I SAW A FUNNY BOOK) and b) fully expecting the targeted grown-up to be completely familiar with the topic at hand. She knew of Everett of course but hadn’t heard of the book. Puzzled, she repeated the sentence back, thinking I’d said that my dad and I had been through Hatfield and saw “custard stops”. What could these have been? Squidgy yellow train stations? Surreal art installations? Some unique local phenomena of flora or fauna? Why, indeed, were we even in, or passing through, Hatfield? Where even WAS Hatfield? None of us was sure but it seemed rather a long way from East Molesey. Finally my dad laughed and explained “It’s a book.” Yet, the questions remain 35 years later. I suppose I’ll just have to finally go and read the thing to find out (dirty job etc), but in the meantime, for all I know Everett did mean “stops” as in the noun, and at very least the title is a kind of crash blossom. But every so often I think of this incident and my mum’s expression trying to fathom what I was talking about, and the kid in me still hopes there are things called custard stops, whatever they may be, in small towns outside London.
Keith Chegwin brightened the dull Saturday mornings of my youth, of which there were many in the early 80s. I often spent Saturday morning alone in the flat above the shop my parents ran, with the gas fire up full, eating jam tarts and watching Swap-Shop on our rented TV. I sometimes felt alone, but the live format of the show and Cheggers’s’s indefatigable, almost unfeasible chirpiness helped things along. It was sad that he struggled with alcoholism later in life, but many people do, and I understand he recovered. I was jealous when he married Maggie Philbin. He always seemed to retain his sense of humour regardless of his situation. He was way cheesy but nobody cared. Unlike many others, I don’t even resent his nude game show episode, though I can’t say I’ve ever made a point of watching it. Some Tory MP stood up in the Commons and described the show as the most disgusting thing on TV. Why, because it had some naked people and one of them was a middle-aged, slightly overweight bloke? Good for him, if you ask me. A few years ago he was thrown in Twitter prison by the humorless for supposedly plagiarising jokes. He tweeted a gag once and I replied, “I refuse to laugh at that unless it’s original.” He sent me a direct message simply saying “LOL”.
In my way home from Christmas shoppping, I stopped to look in the window of a new local barber shop at an advert for a “man mask”, featuring a photo of a bearded 20-something guy having a mud-pack. I’d barely begun attempting to process this latest example of hipster insanity when a bloke of about the same age in some sort of stylised apron get-up darted out of the shop and accosted me with the most practised sales spiel I’ve heard in a long time. “Walk in anytime, no appointment needed” wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but hey, we need all the reassurance we can get these days. More tantalising was the promise of a loyalty card and hot or cold drinks while you wait, which just makes absolute sense to me. Upon my request, he claimed that not only do they do styles, but “you give us a photo of the haircut, we put your face into it”. I think he probably meant this metaphorically, but I’m so old and out of touch that what do I know? Photoshop does incredible things these days, I’m told, including turning a frown into a smile (no joke actually), so who am I to say they can’t just cut and paste Morrissey’s Smiths-era quiff onto my own real-life fizzog? As he pressed a £5 off voucher for a £24 haircut into my still-querulous palm, I glanced up and even his colleague was stifling a titter at the guy’s brazenness. But, you gotta hand it to him. I normally pay about £12 for a haircut at the place I’ve been going to since (excepting my Midlands hiatus) 1988, but I fear I may have to try these guys if only for the sheer enthusiasm, sadly lacking at my current establishment: it’s as much as you can do to get them to grunt a “sorry” as they relieve you of your eyebrows, or even a “thank you” when, regardless, you tip them, in true British fashion. So, will it be a scissorial sensation or a follicular folly? I shall investigate and report back.
Sam Shepard, who died the other day, was best known for being one of America’s great playwrights, and not a half bad film actor. To be fair the only work of his I’m really familiar with (judging from his obituary, I have a hell of a lot of catching up to do) is his screenplay for the great Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas – a beautifully understated short screen story about identity, separation, fathers and sons, and America. I first saw it back in the 80s late at night on Channel 4, not long after it came out, and as a young guitarist was mostly attracted by Ry Cooder’s evocative, sparse score. Anyway, when I saw he’d died, the only other thing I knew for sure about Sam Shepard was that he collaborated with Bob Dylan (another musical hero of mine) a couple of times. The first was on Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76, for which he had a credit on the ensuing surreal movie Renaldo and Clara and about which he wrote The Rolling Thunder Logbook, which I used to have but stupidly gave away in one of my house moves. The second collaboration was when they wrote a fantastic song together, the 11-minute 1986 epic Brownsville Girl, and this – to finally get to the point – is what first came into my mind when I heard about Shepard’s passing. The song is up there with any of Dylan’s best – it’s a weird, fragmented short story, it’s funny, heartbreaking and full of imagery. It’s supposedly about a Gregory Peck western (but is a tad more meta than that – “I still remember the day you came to me on a painted desert … I can’t remember why I was in that film or which part I was supposed to play”), and listening to it is like watching a film, or more specifically like sitting up late one night when you’re alone and a movie you’ve never heard of comes on Channel 4 and you’re transported by it to places you hadn’t expected. (I don’t even know if that happens anymore incidentally, what with the general decline in quality of network TV and films, and the culture now of proactively subscribing to channels and shows rather than idly surfing and stumbling across things.) If you’ve never heard it, whatever you think of Dylan or westerns, have a listen below. His delivery and the arrangement – very 80s in style, with lots of reverb, big sax breaks and ethereal backing singers, who break character to make knowing interventions in the main lyric – are an essential part of what makes the song great, but if you really can’t stand Dylan’s voice or feel 11 minutes is too long then you can
get a life and read another blog read the lyrics for a feel of the story. (Oddly, Dylan’s own site that I link to there doesn’t credit Shepard.) Or indeed you can read along to the lyrics while you listen to the song. Dylan half-speaks the words, so they are pretty clear, but when I first heard it in the late 80s there was no internet or published version of the lyrics, so I had to stop-start the tape of the song that a friend gave me and transcribe it as best I could; being British, I had no idea what a “swap meet” was so for years I thought it was “swamp meet”. By the way, if it turns out you love the song, I probably wouldn’t recommend buying the whole original album Knocked Out Loaded, as it was (in keeping with Dylan’s legendary inconsistency) not one of his best. But then maybe why not? It’s Dylan. Enjoy, and RIP Sam.
Readers of my blog will know I’ve not exactly ever been a fan of Tony Blair’s spin doctor, but when it comes to mental health we’re all in the same boat, dealing with it. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually blogged about mental health, so for some readers I’m coming out here as a lifelong sufferer of anxiety. I deal with it (or don’t) in various ways but one way in the past year or so has been through therapy, first CBT on the NHS and then private psychotherapy. I may post more about some of that sometime but this clip I saw on Twitter this morning moved me very much and I wanted to take a break from my usual rather sarcastic, cynical style to share this widely. This short conversation between Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar highlights not only (and quite scarily) how it’s possible to be in some cases very high-functioning while still having a serious problem, but also how partners of people with mental health issues can blame themselves and/or react inappropriately because they don’t know how to deal with it. This can cause many problems in relationships – I think I’ve probably messed up at least two because of it. I tend to shut down completely when I have anxiety, and if you factor into that the stigma around MH issues the problem can just internalise endlessly, making talking counterintuitive – yet talking is often exactly what’s needed. So even if you don’t have these problems yourself but are in a relationship with someone who does, or think you may be, give this a watch.
— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) March 30, 2017
I was the 48 per cent
to your 52
You voted to leave me
I, to remain with you
I thought the deal we had
was great, the perfect match
But you wanted to renegotiate,
start again, from scratch
I showed you scientific evidence
that my heart would break
You said ‘We’ve had enough of experts
It’ll be just a little ache’
I asked you why you did it
You looked at me quite shifty
You said ‘You were too high-maintenance
You triggered my Article 50’
All I wanted from our love
was the deepest unity
You say that all you want from life
is to know you’re free
I asked the Leader of the Opposition
to validate my pride
I thought he would defend me
but he took your side
Now I parade outside your house
a protest march of one
with my tatty placard calling for
a second referendum
I know I’ve lost, the tide has turned
I’m doing all I can
But I lost the vote, then I lost you
I am yesterday’s man
It was all my fault, my campaign was poor
I took your vote for granted
I never thought you’d really put me
on the single market
I should probably just be grateful
for being part of you this long
Nothing lasts forever
Guess I’ll be moving on.
(c) Thoughtcat 2017
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to any real break-up is entirely coincidental. Happy Valentine’s Day.
THE SPEAKER: Order, order. Jeremy Corbyn.
A LABOUR FRONTBENCHER: Hooray!
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister please take this question about the dire state of something that really matters to ordinary people and completely ignore it in favour of making an embarrassing joke that makes her look nastier than Cruella de Vil and causes the members opposite to laugh hysterically and press their tongues firmly against her buttocks in a transparent display of ingratiation?
THERESA MAY: My Right Honorable Friend has a beard! Look at it! It’s like this really silly beard! Just like Fidel Castro, that other well-known communist!
TORY MEMBERS: [collapse in hysterics]
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister confirm that Brexit does, in fact, mean Fuxit?
THERESA MAY: My friend opposite has a beard! [winks knowingly at the clean-shaven David Davis]
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister confirm that this country is turning into a right shithole under the Conservative government?
THE SPEAKER: Ordure, ordure.
THERESA MAY: My Right Honorable Friend can run down this magnificent country of ours as much as he likes, but he has – wait for it – a fucking beard!
TORY MEMBERS: [die laughing]
JEREMY CORBYN: Has the Prime Minister seen “I, Daniel Blake”?
THERESA MAY: No, does he have a beard?
TORY MEMBERS: [start bombing the food banks]
JEREMY CORBYN: Will the Prime Minister stop talking about my beard please and answer my questions?
THERESA MAY: [puts on Jeremy Corbyn Fake Beard bought earlier from Poundland]
TORY MEMBERS: [all put on fake Corbyn beards and laugh themselves sick]
JEREMY CORBYN: What does it take to have any questions actually answered or any legitimate concerns taken seriously around here?
THERESA MAY: [lighting Cuban cigar off £50 note] Oh fucking cheer up you beardy twat.
TORY MEMBERS: [orgasm]
LABOUR FRONTBENCHER: Nice one, Jezza.
LABOUR BACKBENCHERS: Corbyn out!
MSM PAPERS: Corbyn is a beardy twat – it’s official!
I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom and when I came back to bed I checked my phone to see the time: sometime after 3am. I took a sip of water and scrolled idly through my notifications. In the middle of them was one from the Guardian. The text started with the words “Leonard Cohen” and I knew even before I read on that it was bad news. The word “bard” and his age 82 stood out and I knew they were saying he’d died before I finished reading the headline. I stopped there, the glass frozen at my lips, and thought just one word, the word that begins with the letter F which you say to yourself when things don’t seem to be able to get any worse.
I put the phone down and got back into bed. I knew this was not going to be an ordinary day for me but there was nothing I could do at three in the morning. I felt ineffectual, useless, resigned and angry, the same as I have done at receiving other bad news in recent days, weeks, months.
I fell asleep and immediately dreamt about him. He was with his family somewhere and I was with some other people, fans maybe or reporters. Something impactful had happened to him, there was some undefined but implicitly negative news, and in my concern I followed him up a path leading to a building, maybe his house. He was right in front of me, close enough that I could touch him. He turned round to me and waved me away, saying something like “You can go now” or “Please leave”. I said, “No problem, I just wanted to check you were okay.” He disappeared round the side of the house and I turned and went away.
It’s not a very heartwarming image or gesture – I guess we’d like to think we’re special to these special people, that if you actually met Leonard Cohen, even in a dream, he would invite you in and accommodate you and be your friend. In real life he was a very accommodating man, extremely gracious to interviewers, giving great answers, asking if they needed more time, if they had enough for their editors, offering them food and drink and even cooking for them sometimes. But in this dream, if I felt shunned, I like to think it wasn’t because he was acting ungraciously or because he didn’t want me there but because he was going away to a place I shouldn’t be going. He was going to his death, about which he was as serious as everything else in his life, and he had to go there alone, and it was in fact the utmost graciousness for him to turn me away and to tell me in effect to go back to my life.
Only a few weeks ago a friend had posted on Facebook about an interview with Leonard in which he talked about being “ready to die”. The friend was lamenting and worrying about the implications, but my response was lighthearted. I commented that he had lived to a grand old age and had lived an incredible life of constant world travel, concerts and writing, and would leave a unique and amazing legacy of work. I left it at that even when a few days later I received his new album You Want It Darker in the post. The title was grim, portentous; did I really want to listen to it? Despite being a huge fan between the ages of 15 and 35, my interest had waned in the past few years. I hadn’t actually listed to many of his records very recently, and wasn’t that enamoured of his last couple of albums. Of course I bought them all though and of course I wanted to listen to this one. It just looked very dark. And indeed it was about as dark an album as I’d ever heard, even from him. I couldn’t actually listen to the end. I’ve not listened to it since and still not heard all the tracks. In the meantime, a video of Leonard giving a press conference to promote the album surfaced on the web in which he regretted saying he was “ready to die” and had in fact “decided to live forever”. That cheered me up, and I developed this idea that he still had plenty of life left in him.
When I woke up at 7am a few hours after reading the news on my phone, I looked at the Guardian article properly, all the live updates as tributes came in, and also at Twitter where people were waking up and gradually finding out. Quite quickly I felt a terrible sense of loss and sadness and grief, my eyes watering. I hauled myself out of bed and put on a pot of coffee, which isn’t something I do every day, but I felt there was going to be a need for it. I got out my laptop, went on Twitter and the Guardian and scrolled through. After a few minutes I could barely type or even see the screen for tears. It felt almost ridiculous. I’d never felt this way about the death of anyone “famous”. Thankfully I work at home. I had no idea how I would have handled it if I’d had to commute into an office.
I was first introduced to Leonard Cohen at the tender age of 15 by my psychiatrist, who had been a fan all his life. I was suffering from anxiety and missing school, and it was the best treatment he could have given me. I used to look forward to our sessions – by definition his availability was limited, but by introducing me to such a great writer and singer he basically showed me a way to a permanent soothing companion. Leonard Cohen knew how I felt, and he would always be there.
My psychiatrist lent me Cohen’s first Greatest Hits album and his first novel The Favourite Game. The novel doesn’t get talked about much and Cohen came to refer to it as an indulgence, which I would agree with now, but a lot of it is as good (or definitive) as anything he ever wrote, lyrically fictionalising his youth growing up in Montreal. As a lonely teenager I could relate to it completely, and for many years it remained one of my favourite books. The album had Suzanne and Famous Blue Raincoat on it, among other classics – even the cover was wonderful, Cohen reflected in a mirror looking mournful in an immaculate dark suit. A friend at the time said I was mad to listen to it because it would make me feel suicidal, but it had the opposite effect; the friend was one of those people who, at that time, had never actually listened to the records, although when he eventually did, he became a fan too. The music and songs were lyrical, beautiful, deeply spiritual, like hymns or prayers. I wasn’t religious, but the songs were religious without being preachy.
I saw Leonard in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993 and apart from being a great, long gig I remember him at one point turning on its head the notion that the world was too awful to bring children into: laughing about his daughter Lorca’s decision to pierce her tongue, he cried “Let the next generation work it out! We’ve done our best, it’s their turn now.” He also sang “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born” in Dance Me to the End of Love and years later I had that lyric read out at my wedding. The philosophy of these lines helped me feel better about having children. I saw him again at the O2 in 2008, another magnificent show which he introduced by saying, “Last time I was on a stage in London I was 60 years old – just a kid with a crazy dream.” Both concerts went on for three hours or more – he knew how to give value for money, and he’s still the only artist I’ve ever seen who said “I apologise in advance for the financial and logistical inconvenience you’ve had to undergo to get here. It’s an honour to play for you tonight.” Twenty thousand people instantly forgot they’d paid £70 a ticket, travelled for hours and arranged babysitters, and he had us, as they say, in the palm of his hand.
I went to two international fan conventions, on the island of Hydra in Greece where he used to live, and in New York. Hydra was an especially magical occasion and at the open mic I accompanied a fabulous Italian singer on guitar on Chelsea Hotel No. 2, the song telling the story of his doomed affair with Janis Joplin; it was one of the honours of my life to play that in front of an audience with such a great singer.
I nearly met Leonard Cohen once in London in 2007 when, just prior to his return to world touring, he shared a stage with his partner and collaborator Anjani in an industry showcase for her album Blue Alert. I’d heard on the internet that it was going on and somehow blagged my way in at the door. It was a tiny club in the West End and the room was packed with record company types. Leonard was 72 then, had on a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white. He looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But he had presence in spades in his own low-key way. Anjani sang her jazzy set with her snazzy little band and then Leonard joined her and they duetted on some new songs. It was mesmerising. I pinched myself at the same time as checking over my shoulder in case someone worked out I didn’t belong there and chucked me out. The showcase ended and I started chatting with someone and suddenly I was aware there was a queue of people waiting to speak to him. I ran over to the end of the line, trying to think of something to say: “I love you, man” was true but trite; “Your work has touched me more deeply than that of any other singer/songwriter I’ve ever known” was truer but sounded weighty and pretentious – how was a man supposed to reply to a comment like that? The queue crawled on and with just two people ahead of me, his security whisked him away. If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a grim laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had 20 years to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling and embarrassing myself.
- On nearly meeting Leonard Cohen (original blog post 9/4/2007)
I’m a fan of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and The Smiths, but Leonard Cohen was without doubt the most important singer/songwriter in my life. His words were profound. Nobody used words like he did. He once said in a documentary “You have to sit in the very bonfire of your distress until you’re burnt away and it’s ashes, and it’s gone.” He sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” In his last interview he said “It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate the willingness to serve.” Nobody else ever said things like that. His songs were like prayers for people who didn’t need to be religious. He made you think you could be religious in a way that transcended organised religion and its questionable leaders. He kept me company on dark and lonely days and nights and he articulated the dark as well as the light. His songs, no matter how dark – well, except for the unbearable You Want It Darker – created a sort of protective roof of invulnerable beauty over me: Waiting for the Miracle, Master Song, Avalanche, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Everybody Knows, Dance Me To the End of Love, as well as his own brand of soaring romance in Ain’t No Cure For Love, Memories, So Long, Marianne and Hallelujah. As a man he exemplified dignity and thoughtfulness. As a writer he made this sort-of writer feel writing was a possible thing to do, if you just stuck at it long enough. There was nothing casual or trivial about him. It seems fitting to me that this deeply spiritual and dignified man checked out of this world the same week that the most undignified president of the USA we’ve ever seen was voted into office.
I will miss Leonard Cohen terribly, but at least we will always have the records, the books, and that voice.
For those of you who think of Twitter as a seething mass of hate and misery (which to be fair it mostly is), here’s a gem of an exception. Antique typewriter enthusiast goes on holiday to Barcelona and takes a day trip out to Figueras to see the Salvador Dali museum (been there! wonderful building and a magical location). Instead though he takes a detour and stumbles on an obscure museum he’s never heard of which is full of… antique typewriters. He’s taken loads of photos of these beautiful and sometimes bizarre machines. The whole thread starts here – you don’t have to be on Twitter to read it. The best way of reading through it is to click the links saying “Show more” and ignore the links saying “View other replies”. I only say this because it opens up dozens more comments and makes the story impossible to follow, not because the comments aren’t lovely, because they are. The whole thing is a bit of an oasis amid all the political horror flying about at the moment and the world needs more of it. A sample from the thread follows.
Okay, more photos.
Check out the most beautiful Shift key ever. pic.twitter.com/b45ReIVQvX
— Marcin Wichary (@mwichary) October 27, 2016
As a Remain campaigner in the EU Referendum I’ve been appalled at the Leave campaign. Remain hasn’t exactly done itself proud either, with questionable, daily warnings from Cameron and Osborne about the economic terrors that’ll befall us if we quit the EU, but Leave has basically sounded like a stuck record of an Enoch Powell speech. It’s been a depressing few weeks of listening to these people say we need to “reclaim our sovereignty” and “get our country back”, as if we’ve been living under some sort of occupation these past 40 years. I want us to remain in the EU because I support the free movement of people, think free trade within the largest economic bloc in the world is a good idea, like the fact that women are entitled to maternity leave and because I don’t want to be left stranded on a horrible, nasty, right-wing little island run by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. There is lots of fear propaganda around but the evidence and reasoning for remaining from people like Professor Michael Dougan, Lisa Maxwell and Ben Goldacre is hugely compelling.
On Tuesday evening a hashtag game took over Twitter, #ThingsThatAreWellBrexit. “Well” is working-class slang and some of the tweets were a tad snobbish, but most were pointing out the hypocrisy and a misplaced desire to return to some sort of 1950s/1970s/prehistoric version of the UK which applies just as much to the middle classes. This litany of cliches and the rhythm of the hashtag inspired me to gather a few together along with some of my own into a lyric inspired by Ian Dury (Reasons to be Cheerful for form and “character” songs like Billericay Dickie for content) – although I guess it’s got a bit of John Cooper-Clarke in there as well. I then recited and uploaded it to YouTube, with annotations. (I did in fact originally want to record it as a parody song, but I lack the right musical equipment and there was no sign on YouTube of one of those free backing tracks you sometimes find… I’d be up for it if anyone can assist with either.) Here’s the result, with the full poem text below, with selected bits linked.
Things that are well-Brexit, one, two, three
Black and White Minstrels, living in Spain
No-one I know’s going to vote Remain
Never complaining, queuing in the rain
Being sent to Coventry on a French train
Brexit, we’ve got to, it’d be rude not to
What the hell’s Europe ever done for me?
The miners, the shipyards, the steelworks, the dockyards,
Tories EU wot done for our industry
Pound shop wages for all but the bankers
Taking back control of my hard-earned dole
Bongo-Bongo, bingo hall, hashtag “banter”
Eating egg and chips on the Costa del Sol
Elf and safety spoilsports, regulated fishing ports
Red tape nightmare and Project Fear
MPs on the fiddle, nipping down to Lidl
Cos the very British Sainsbury’s is just too dear
Living in the fifties, being rather thrifty
Three hundred and fifty million a week
Straighten our bananas, microchip our Weimaraners
Bloody Brussels bean-counters are a bloody cheek
School of Hard Knocks, University of Life
Good old Boris Johnson will protect our rights
House of Lords aristocracy, casual hypocrisy
Greeks don’t know the meaning of democracy
Pooftas, Chinkys, Pakis, Page 3
It’s my right to be non-PC
Hammersmith Palais, cheeky trip to Calais
What’s the point in voting for your M.E.P.
Tattoo “Keep Calm” on your arm, turn on the English charm
Bring back the birch, never did me any harm
Hard-hats for acrobats, can’t fly your England flags
Coming back from Benidorm with duty-free fags
God save our German queen, ordering the duck terrine
Reclaim our marmalade back from Seville
Punch and Judy Finnegan, never seen an immigrant
but we’re being overrun and it’s making me ill
Please vote Remain on 23rd June…
(c) Thoughtcat 2016