I'm not a grumpy old man, just an out of synch hippy

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


You’ll have to turn that thing up, young man, I can’t hear you

Heigh ho, it’s spring, the season of Festivals, which these days are as ubiquitous as iphones or blades of grass. I won’t be able to avoid the local Deptford Festival of Dropped Red Bull Cans, or the East Peckham Armoured Dog Show (the animals are so well trained they can run up and bite a chunk off your calf at the sound of a single slurp from their owner’s can of Super T), or the dusk-to-dawn Hip Hop Neighbour’s Massive Sound Thump.

I’ve just been to somewhere more congenial, the Chipping Norton Literary Festival. I took my wife along. She reads literature but wisely steers clear of producing it, to the extent of letting me write the shopping lists. She undertook a tour of the very pleasant shops and castle mound while I stayed indoors for the writing workshops. You’ll have to take my word for it, but they were very good.

What this is all about, though, is the B&B. In every guest house we’ve stayed in over the years, which by now I’d need the legs of a medium sized millipede to count, there’s been a sign of interesting eccentricity. This may have taken the form of an out-and-proud display, such as the clay toads which covered our hostess’s lawn in Walton-on-the-Naze, or of modest incongruity, such as the dainty pile of linen doylies laid out next to the greasy spoon-type chipped mugs offered as the tea-making facility in a weird Whitby semi.

There was the small family house in Broadstairs with a note on the board notifying guests of the coming Employee of the Year award. We didn’t stay long enough for the result, which I guess was “This year it’s Dad”. And I’m still trying to forget the middle aged gay hosts in Ambleside who dished up the breakfast sausages topless. I mean the couple, though the sausages weren’t exactly modest, either.

But the lovely family who let us use their room in Chipping seemed entirely normal and kind. Everything, the room, the decor, the tea tray, was politely sane. This wasn’t spoiling the weekend, but it was nevertheless a cause of disappointment. In short, it wasn’t very British.

Then, on Sunday morning, I found it at last. The keyring to the room was a small black plastic  cylinder.  As a diversion from folding my shirts, I fiddled with it to find that you could unscrew it. Inside was a pair of ear plugs.

What was their purpose? Chipping Norton isn’t under an RAF flightpath. If it suffers from midnight earthquakes, they’re very modest. The pub poetry reading the night before could have been drowned out by the rustle of a couple of crisp packets.

Maybe our host was planning to subject us to a particularly irridescent swearing session. Or maybe the plugs were in fact tea sweeteners served up a clever postmodern way. Or a present, like the sweets which French Hotels lay out on the pillow.  I gave up speculating and left the thing in the hall.

I wish I hadn’t. Back home the Massive Sound Thump was in full spate. Does anyone know where you can get hold of one of these black plastic tubular key rings?


Thursday, 19 April 2012


I can measure my own waist, thank you

I went to an acting audition today. It was for a commercial for some finance company or other. I had to be an old-fashioned bookseller who makes a knowing aside to the camera. My knowing asides to camera are legendary and litter the floors of editing suites the world over.

The receptionist was a young American who I guess would describe herself as “direct”. The word I’d use would be “arsy”. The receptionist takes your details as you go in and is normally as sweet as a banana muffin. Not this one. She handed me a thin sliver of black plastic and grunted “It’s a tablet. Know how to use it, don’t ya?”  “Yes” I replied, “Just give me the other one and a glass of water and I’ll knock it straight back.”

OK, that was on the train back home, to myself and in my head.  What I actually said was “I’ll try”. I’d only used a tablet once before and spent ten minutes clumsily planting my sticky thumbprints on the screen before taking it back to her. “Come on” she growled, “Your email should read “@”, not “at”. Didn’t ya know that?” “I couldn’t find the @ thing. Sorry” She tutted and nudged the screen down and now I could see it.

“And ya haven’t put ya height down.” “It only did centimetres. I can give you it in feet and inches”. She gave me a look a snake would reserve for a rat it had just decided was too gristly to eat. I could almost see the thought bubble over her head: “You stuffed shirt old dinosaur Limey.” What she said was “Oh come on. We live in a metric system.”

For the next two hours doubts tumbled round in my head faster than underpants in a spin dryer. Maybe she was right. You buy a chicken fillet and it’s in kilos. A bottle of wine’s measured in cl. I thought, perhaps I’m living thirty years out of date in some kind of delusional universe, like the Japanese soldier discovered stranded on a Pacific Island who thought the war was still going on. Maybe no one uses cash anymore and everyone’s humouring me when I flash a fiver. Maybe, to most people, I talk in some kind of antique Shakespeare-speak which they find so hysterically funny that they let me carry on doing it and giggle behind my back. When I buy a belt the assistants let me ask for 33” rather than bla bla bla centimetres, and then huddle in a snigger.

As you see, I’m prone to paranoia at times.

When I got back to Deptford I needed a drink and popped into  my local pub. “A pint” I said. The word slipped out. No one laughed. They gave me a pint. A pint. Not 565 millilitres. It tasted lovely. Ordering a second one, in a fit of euphoria I yelled out “I’m 33” and I’m proud!”

At that point everybody did snigger.


Thursday, 12 April 2012


Wake up and smell the Sanotogen

At work today, talking to Norma. I'll tell you more about Norma and my work some other time. Right now they're extraneous to the story. No disrepect intended. Norma said she was going to Winchester for the weekend. "Winchester, " I said, "There's this great tearoom. We were there in December. It's 17th century. You've really got to go." I'd have carried on gushing, but just then my teenage self slouched into my mental vision, wearing his granny specs, his bushy hair and his bandana. He's been doing a lot of that lately.

"Tearooms," sneered MTS, "God, you've got so straight." He looked at my thinning hair and my Blue Harbour shirt and muttered "and you're so old."

I've been doing a lot of things in the last few years that would upset MTS. I try to keep them from him but don't always succeed. Like flowers. There's a lovely display of croci in the churchyard in Greenwich every February. I tell my wife all about them. She smiles, she's more tolerant than MTS, to whom flowers are beyond the pale. Totally uncool, man.

Other things I like now. Frank Sinatra. "Old, boring, not rock n roll. He sings with strings" complains MTS, "I'm really disappointed in you. Your taste in music has got utterly unhip."

And there's Antiques Roadshow. I love to see those Regency sideboards or Clarice Clift saucers and the joy on the face of the punters when they're told they're worth £63.00. I can't help it. It's what's happened to Sunday evenings when you're over 60. "Bleuchh." spits MTS. "It must be Fiona Bruce.You want to shag her, you sad old sack." "It's quite a nice thought" I reply, "But she's unavailable. And so am I" "Huh" he snorts, "You've really been taken over by bourgeois morality."

There's one thing we agree on. Whenever I see a rapper-type kid with back-to-front basball cap and baggy bum-revealing bottoms, we both think "You look pathetic". Except MTS would say so. I wonder how he ever survived long enough to become me.

Back to Norma. I stop myself mid-track. "Hang on" I say. "It wasn't Winchester. The tearoom was in Kendal. We were there in November." Four weeks and three hundred miles out. What's happened to my memory? Maybe MTS is right. I'm so old.


Sunday, 8 April 2012

I asked for a coffee, not a therapy session

It's our wedding anniversary this weekend (the 26th since you asked) and we went for a meal. Nice place, Davy's in Greenwich if you want to know. Nice food, nice atmosphere, nice young waiter. Everything was going really well.
And then he called us "You guys". 
I'm not a guy. A guy is someone who wears a baseball cap and a heavy metal band T shirt, or maybe cargo pants with no socks. I'm neither.
My wife isn't a guy either.
I never try to give out bad vibes but maybe the way I involuntarily extinquished the candle with my spat-out Manzanilla told the waiter something and he started calling me "Sir". I don't like "Sir" either, but at least it doesn't make me feel I have to clap him on the back and offer to buy him a beer.
After that we had a lovely meal.
Everywhere you go these days people who are not your mates talk to you as if you were bosom buddies. Last month I had a meal with Bob, one of my oldest friends. We've known each other since 1966. I think he's earned the title of "Mate." The waitress, who'd clearly entered the Bubbliest Babe on Bankside competition, called us "guys". I let it pass. Emboldened, she brought in the mains with a whooping "Here you are, boys!".
"She's beginning to piss me off" I told Bob. "Hey, Tony - chill!" he replied. So now it's not only the people who bring you food, drink, postage stamps and coffee who talk to you like a teenager, it's your best friend.
Everywhere you go, it's "How you doing?" from the boy who plonks a muffin on a cardboard plate for you, or "What are your plans for the day?" from the girl who plops your toothpaste in a bag. Look, you people, I know you're only following corporate instructions, and I agree you're underpaid, overworked, and trampled on, but this is a business transaction, not a speed-dating session. A smile and a nod will do the trick.
Actually now you ask, my haemorrhoids are playing up, I've had terrible wind all day, I've been fired, I'm getting divorced and I'm about to take my revenge on humanity by spraying this whole shop with dum-dum bullets. Do you still want to know how I'm doing?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Whatever happened to doo-be-dooh?

We went to hear Ian Shaw the other night, in a well-known London club. Ian's a great singer who tackles the 20th Century songbook (Joni Mitchell, Fran Landesmann,James Taylor) in a jazz style which is exciting and moving. But enough of him, I'm not his sodding agent.

However, the other acts in the club's brochure made me realise why I don't go to more music gigs. Or rather, their blurb does. Take one band on the programme, whom I'll call Bla Bla Bla. They're described as "a fermentation of  shape-shifting improvisations, stories of minimalism and intoxication. Picture Cecil Taylor and Samuel Beckett out on a night of romance and in quest of a good bar fight." Well, no I can't. And I don't want to. If I could picture Samuel Beckett swinging a broken glass at the barman, I'd never be able to see "Waiting for Godot" again. This kind of prose is pretentious drivel and gives no idea of what the music actually sounds like. Well, perhaps it does - they're all playing out of their Blas.

Another band is described as "a phenomenon of austere beauty, a barely audible noise that occurs when human breath causes  multiple collisions  among the ice micro-crystals in the air." So they're asking me to cough up £15 for something I can't hear - and which makes me feel as if I'm freezing to death.

The words I dread are "sonic landscape" and "ambient". If they're used to introduce a band I head for the pub and throw a couple of pints of ESB down my neck. That's proper ambience. The "A" word means it's going to sound like yawning whales. Synthesisers will be featured. The music will sound gloopy, sleepy, wheezy, droopy, tack, whiney and crappy. That's right - the Seven Barfs.

There are some terrific young musicians around who are worthy of Coltane, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus. We went to hear a great band called Polar Bear a while back. I could describe them in three monosyllables: Jazz meets Punk. They made me feel twenty years younger. They played proper instruments. They didn't use synthesisers. Unfortunately their support act did. They were ambient all right. They made me feel twenty years older.

If I'm glad about one aspect of getting old, it's that I know what my tastes are. And they're good. Anyway, they're my tastes. I never again have to be in the same room as a band of young semi-competents playing the musical equivalent of Cremola Foam and tell myself I should keep listening as I'm supposed to think they're good. They're what the bar next door was invented for.

But it's the blurbs wot do me in. If I read more of them, they'll start taking me over. So, as I sign off, using a verbal landscape of suggestive anglo-saxon improvisations mingled in an intoxicating fusion of ambient tonalities reminiscent of the final double Jamiesons I drank last night.....