Saturday, 29 September 2018

Six Days On The Road

So, obviously, the builder turned up later that same day, when he was ready. He achieved more in one afternoon than I have in my life so far, I think. Other builders came and went, exactly when they wanted or were able to. It is remarkable how quickly they get things done once they actually get started. 

Whole walls disappear and new ones reappear in fractions of a day. Big ugly holes gape in the sides of buildings and are filled with something that looks so much better than what was there before that the whole structure seems to benefit. Builders take a long time to get started, get loads done with astonishing speed, then disappear for a matter of weeks until you think they might have forgotten you, before returning just in time to make you realise that just because they work quickly, it doesn’t mean that they won’t take even longer to get finished than they did to start.

And it should be finished very soon. And then I will realise that I have a hundred things to do that I could have been doing while wondering where the builders are. Meanwhile I’ve been off on a mission in my beloved Vanny, picking up about a thousand 78s that were once the playground of the shortlived Ivy House Gramophone Appreciation Society, meeting up with family and friends in Thanet, the home of Thanos, and exploring some very good record shops. In Camden Town there was a get-together of my former MVE colleagues after the funeral of a genuinely lovely bloke whom I would really like to have seen more in the twenty years since I left. These are the milestones that punctuate the journey all of us are making, I suppose, and serve as reminders that if there was anything we were meaning to do, we had better get on with it.

I returned home to a family that appeared to be pleased to see me. I’d been gone the best part of a week, at the far end of the country, and they had been plugging away at the day-to-day business of work and school. It was time, therefore, for me to start pricing some records. This is a much slower process than it was in the Twentieth Century, as the Internet is always nagging at one not to just use that combination of a little knowledge, a chunk of guesswork and an occasional phone call to the Soul Basement. In my determination not to value style over substance, I’ve had to think very hard about my pricing policy because I don’t want even one record to make me look like a chancer, or worse, a mug. But presentation is important too, and although I never liked plastic sleeves when my records lived on a shelf, they are essential now they’re moving into crates. There were surprisingly few records bearing the infamous unpeelable grid stickers of yore, but I’ve still gone through a tin of Ronson lighter fluid in the course of their careful removal. And I thought, Why didn’t I do this before? God – they look so much nicer.

It’s those same two interchangeable quantities again – time and money. The plastic sleeves for the starting stock in the shop cost me something over two hundred quid. And the removal of every MVE sticker takes at least a few minutes. On a nice old matt-finished papery seventies sleeve, it can be much, much longer. Record and Tape Exchange stickers and their descendants were designed to be unpeelable, to prevent dodgy punters from trying to swap them to get their records at a better price (which would only actually result in the record being lost in the file.) Leave them in place for the gum to ossify for, say, twenty to thirty years, and they can become very tricky to shift indeed. Attempt to peel them off without adequate resources and technique and you get a torn sleeve. As a result, there are millions of records out there sporting an ingenious grid for price reductions that is uniquely ugly and devoid of any rosy nostalgia. But you won’t find them for sale in BLUES NIGHT.

And it occurs to me that if this blog can achieve something useful for once in its life, maybe it could help, or at least motivate, you to remove these stickers from your records, exposing their natural beauty and liberating them from their memories of incarceration in dusty racks and repeated fingerings by daily regulars patiently waiting for the next round of reductions.

1. Soak the sticker in lighter fluid – the sort you once used in your Zippo. Really give it a proper dowsing, think Hendrix at Monterey. It will all evaporate eventually.

2. But you don’t want it to evaporate yet! It needs time to have its solvent way with the ancient adhesive. Cover the sticker with something firm and smooth made of plastic. A CD slipcase is perfect.

3. Leave it to soak for as long as you can bear. For me, this is about five minutes. I like to listen to the record and reflect on how seven quid was quite a lot of money in them days, or appreciate the evocative petrochemical aroma and think about how cool smoking used to be. Do not listen to anything with a drum solo, as this creates the illusion that a great deal more time has elapsed than what has in reality.

4. Peel the sticker slowly and carefully, hoping it doesn’t just give up its top layer (in which case go back to the start) or rip the sleeve anyway (in which case contact my lawyers.) If you have only stopped smoking in the new millennium, ask somebody with fingernails to do this for you. If the record in question is an eighties or nineties reissue as pictured, the sticker might all just come off in one go. But it’s more likely to leave bits and pieces behind that need to be soaked and scraped at all over again.

5. Even if it does all come off in one go, it’s fairly certain to leave behind an unpleasant greyish gummy residue that will still look really shit. I like to use even more solvent on this, rubbing it in with my abrasive fingertips, calloused to a perfect level of friction from decades of playing the guitar and never getting any better at it. Then, the spermy gloop of petrol and glue can all be removed with a few firm rubs of a softish cloth. Or if you don’t have one to hand, try the cuff of the hoodie you wore every day while living in a van, dreaming of a day when you can achieve something very worthwhile, just as you are making it look like you wipe your nose on your sleeve. 

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Act 3, Scene One: The Builder

(A small town in North Yorkshire. An ancient barn stands empty, waiting for its destiny to become clear. It is Springtime.)

ME: D’you think we can get the job done in time to open for the Summer months?

BUILDER: Oh, yes.


ME: I’d still like to be able to open some time in August. Will that be possible?

BUILDER: I would think so.

(Early August)

ME: Could you let me know when you will be able to start? I really want to be able to arrange some time away with my family while you are working on it.

BUILDER: It will definitely be in August.

(Late August)

BUILDER: This is the guy who is starting on the floor on Thursday. I won’t be here, I’m off on holiday with my family. I hope 8 o’clock isn’t too early for you?

ME: No, of course not.

(9.28 am, Thursday 30th August)

ME: (Alone, typing this.)

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Has Your Record Shop Opened Yet?

This was a strange question to be asked by my oldest friend. If he doesn't know, then who does? I thought. Um, maybe nobody knows. Maybe nobody even expects me to open a record shop after all. 

I haven’t had much to write about here, because a blog about waiting for a reply from a builder who clearly wants the job but isn’t in any hurry to get started really wouldn’t fire anybody’s imagination. So the long process of deciding where we are going to go and do this gets forgotten about, and now everything about this venture is low-profile and little-discussed. 

For a start, I left the vast majority of the folks I knew behind me in London. Although I’m loathe to judge people by my own terrible standards, one of the things I was looking to escape was London’s enormous gravity. How can I realistically expect people I knew in London to want to follow me two hundred and fifty miles out here to look at my records?

Before leaving London, I had a phone stolen and was made to give up its passcode at knifepoint. They also took my house keys and I got a little paranoid. I deleted all the content from the website I'd been tinkering with for eight or nine years, went as quiet on social media as I have been in all that time, binned all my old emails, lost my shit at the network for how unhelpful they were, and lost most of my contacts too. Very few of the people involved made any effort to be reinstated, but I can’t blame them as I’m sure I’d be the same.

This blog was intended to provide record shop updates to anybody who wanted them, but it has lived a quiet life, like a hermit crab. Occasionally some social media platform picks it out of the water for a while so a few people can look at it, but it spends most of its time scuttling around on the seabed, unnoticed by the other inhabitants of the salty blog ocean.

Before, during and after this transition, every conversation I have had about retail, business and the economy has revolved around how difficult it is to make enough money for one’s efforts to be considered worthwhile.

And yet the question is, has my record shop opened yet?

I've got to know this bloke in the town who plays the guitar like nobody I've ever heard. I’m determined that within a year you will be able to buy his début solo album from me on a pleasant-coloured compact audio cassette, perhaps presented in an oversized cardboard box with a bit of tissue paper and a hand-painted postcard of my bestest abstract art. He, for his part, doesn’t seem even faintly interested in this idea, and told me to stop stressing about opening my shop. He said that being ready for business within six months of arriving in North Yorkshire is the behaviour of a man in a terrible hurry.

The van went for its MoT in May. There was a little dog in the office. The lady owner said they were going to be away next week, so it would have to be the week after. I said this was fine. I went to see the man who had it up on the lifty thing two weeks later and he showed me rusty holes in the chassis that were big enough to fit your fist through. He guessed the last three or four tests had either missed or overlooked them. They’d need welding, he said, and a new piece across the front that just bolts on. It wouldn’t be cheap. I asked him if he would do it. He said he couldn’t do it next week, they were going to be away. I decided it wasn’t any of my business how often they went away.

So he passed it on to his friend down the road. I heard nothing for a week, so I went looking for it. It was parked shoulder-to-shoulder and nose-to-tail with a load of other vehicles, looking rather sad. “That’s my van. I don’t suppose you’ve had a chance to start on it yet? I’m not in a hurry or anything, just wanted to know where it was. And say hello.”

Two weeks later, I went again, and saw Vanny in the same spot.
I thought you said you weren't in a hurry?”

And all of a sudden, it was done. A brilliant job, at about a quarter of the price I had been expecting, in his own time. I’m hoping I’ll get the same from the builder, who doesn’t even reply to my questions about time-frame nowadays.

My guitarist friend said he had a bloke come round to look at some building work when he first arrived here. This guy spent the evening with him and his family, laughing, joking, telling old stories and drinking cups of tea. He said he'd be back in a few days to measure things up and they never saw him again. “That was twelve years ago.”

Friday, 22 June 2018

BLUES NIGHT's trip to London

So it seems that I brought upon this blog the evil Curse of the Promised Post. I did type out what I wanted to communicate to the universe about the various Italian restaurants we visited on the tour, but when it was finished I couldn’t bring myself to post it. Not because it was shit and boring (it was, but that has never stopped me before), but because the retrospective angle just made it seem really irrelevant.

The tour came to an end three months ago now, and the big question we were asking got its answer. Whether that was the right answer or not still isn’t quite clear. The blog isn’t about driving around in a weird little motorhome anymore, but about opening a weird little record shop. We’ve slowly but surely sorted this and that, dickered with builders and plasterers and painters, and the shop is going to be ready for business some time this summer. Mine ears have heard the glory of the compact audio cassette for the first time in decades, and I have enthusiastically embraced this extra element of my emerging empire.

Then I was invited back to London to play some records on an Internet radio station. So I got in Vanny, and drove the hundreds of miles to my destination, where I parked up and proceeded to get heroically drunk. The results can be heard here.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Blues Night on Tour by Numbers

0 parking tickets received. I consider this recognition of impressive commitment to toeing the line.

1 is the number of months we have now lived in Richmond, North Yorkshire. The sense of doom has passed (for me, at least – I don’t like to ask the others) but it still feels pretty weird, like we’re on the witness protection programme or something. I’m yet to lift an arm with a paintbrush or roller in it (M has managed rather better), but it is starting to feel like home. To me, at least. The boys both start back at school today and we’ll all be able to put the sorry debacle of Home Ed behind us. There was me thinking I was well qualified to home- (van-) educate my children, but it turned out I was the worst possible candidate for the role.

I’ve developed a morbid fear of education’s Nothing Is Ever Finished philosophy. Too many times when the boys were sat at the table in the van with their books in front of them I accepted their bare-minimum, path-of-least-resistance, typical-boy-approach to work. I think I just don’t want to still have to say, “Yes, but how can we improve on this?” Not to anybody, but certainly not to my own children. After all, I’ve just spent about a year telling them I was done with striving to meet the demands of a world that was offering me peanuts in return.

Admittedly, though, I’d probably have had even less success trying to inspire them with the sorts of things that light my fire. At the time of writing, neither of my sons could possibly imagine something that interests them less than a secondhand record shop. This is par for the parenting course. There have been many less formal, measurable gains made in their development and progress, and they both read more and played together more imaginatively in the last nine months than the rest of their lives combined. They’ve also learned a lot about what England is like, and it’s been mostly good news.

2 record store day exclusives purchased – this is two more than all previous years combined, as I’ve always thought it was just a gimmick. I’m still more or less of the same feeling, but the legendary Sound It Out records had organised themselves very effectively to minimise the hustling opportunism. Stockton was quite the experience after what I’d said about avoiding towns we expected not to like very much, but there were lots of kids enjoying themselves in the fountains, in addition to the great record shop and somewhere to drink really good beer.

Richmond, by way of a contrast, has neither, despite one of our visitors declaring it enormously middle-class. It does have a lot else going for it though. People have been very friendly, I really enjoy the best-kept secret thing about it (very few people from outside of this part of the country seem to realise that this great little town exists) and the opportunity to provide good beer and good records seems like it might be worth the effort.

I’ll know when M has reached the next level in her adjustment – when she recognises that the fact that the alleyways of Richmond do not smell of piss isn’t just ‘weird’ but is actually a good thing. Also, we saw the kind of litter that sets my lips trembling for the first time when my brother was in town. It was that sunny Saturday last week, and lots of young locals and sort-of-locals had been having a good time in the sunshine by the river. The boys were all muscly and the girls all had eyebrows the size of my beard. And not one of them, it seems, thought it might be appropriate to take their litter home with them. But a few grumbles on the Facebook group later, and all this trash miraculously disappeared. Next time there’s a community litter pick going on, I WANT A PIECE OF THE ACTION.

7 visitors we knew from our former lives have crossed our new threshold, four of whom have stayed the night. This has been a huge factor in helping us to settle, of course. We are eager for more, especially people who might be able to give us some feedback on our accommodation before we advertise it to the public. Applications can be submitted in the usual way.

8 Italian restaurants enjoyed. I think this might be better discussed in some detail. I’ll knock up another post later this week.

35 counties visited – or that’s how many we stayed overnight in. All of the others we just passed through, or perhaps stopped in briefly during the daytime. A favourite one of these was a stop for diesel and sandwiches in February, when it occurred to me that I was getting out of the van in Northamptonshire for the first time. Just to check, I asked the young woman behind the Subway salad selection what county we were in. She said she didn’t know.
60 percent of what we rub into our skin enters our bloodstream, according to a lady giving a facial at the food market in Abergavenny. I have no idea how accurate it is, but I walked past just in time to absorb this tidbit and it went straight to my brain. The next morning, it returned as I energetically fisted the U-bend of the public toilet I had just emptied Vanny’s toilet cassette into, in the process blocking it with a thick sludge thanks to our brief flirtation with inferior toilet chemicals.

The brand I would like to name and shame is the kinda-racist-sounding Crusader, which proved even less effective than the experiment with biological washing liquid M had insisted upon at the beginning. (I had soon brought this episode to a close when I figured out that I was always going to be the one actually emptying the fucking thing.) I never had even the tiniest problem with Thetford Blue and Pink liquids, and consider them the Technics 1210 Mk2 of making shit easier to pour.

132 / 71 my average blood pressure as measured over the last week. This is still not exactly Sir Mo Farah digits, but is a long way down on what I was told it was around the time I pressed the ejector seat button on my teaching career. I should imagine that most of the difference is about a very gradual slide down the fireman’s pole of stress levels, but I probably drink a bit less beer and eat less salt too. There remains room for improvement.

210 nights sleeping in the van. The boys missed a few, and M several more, when offered a proper level bed in a warm building instead, and who can blame them. I’ve added two more since moving - the sense of freedom that Vanny affords, being able to drive somewhere for a night out – (Norwich to see Crow Black Chicken last week, Harrogate the other night to see Mike Ross) is wonderful. I can go somewhere, parking in a different town just as I did on the tour, and not have to worry about getting home until I’ve sobered up the next morning. This would be a great way to live for a single person in their twenties with a bottomless purse and a rubber liver, but if I keep going for nights out I’m going to keep spending lots of money and drinking lots of beer, neither of which were part of my five-point plan moving forward.

9274 miles travelled in the World’s Best Compact Motorhome. I still hope to add more from our new base, but it seems that if I want a steady flow of content, I’m going to have to turn this into a blog about opening a record shop rather than living in a van. Most of the miles were clocked up going from one place to another, but a few have been added going back somewhere for another look, or more recently by ferrying 4000 records to their new home in the North. If Vanny had wings, and she could fly, I know where she would go. This many air miles could have taken us to Rio de Janeiro. But we would have had to stay there even if we didn’t like it, and adapted to their language, customs and punishing standards of pube management.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Git In There

We moved into our new home on Tuesday. It is brilliant. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it has the bonus of a building out the back for my business. Still, the whole family felt an inescapable sadness for our first few days here. That dark evil doubt creeps back out of the shadows at every opportunity, whispering foul ideas and pointing at shapeless fears as we step into the unknown. It might just be a form of loneliness.

We don’t belong here… we don’t know anybody here… what are we even going to do with ourselves here? Over and over again. Everything I wanted in moving away from the capital arrives on a great big sharing platter, and we are only hungry for crumby London leftovers. The friends - many of whom we have managed to see a few times over the months since we moved out, the pub we cared so much for, the boys’ schools – shit, even MY school – felt so very far away when we were lying awake that first night in a huge unfurnished room in Absolute Total Silence.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR is an adage designed to discourage folk from forcing change. It’s a small-c conservative manifesto. Don’t go looking to make things better - you’ll only make things worse. This feels so very likely to be true when the whole family is trying and failing to sleep in one bedroom, because there’s only one bed in the house anyway and you’re all bloody scared, suffering from post-viral moving cabin fever, unaccustomed to being alone. I wished for an end to my spiraling debt, a way out of a career I never wanted and a mortgage I never could afford. I wanted a chance to see a little more of the world. But that’s not enough. When I was done exploring, I wanted a bigger house in a prettier town nestled in dramatic landscape, and a chance to go back to doing what I was good at – selling black plastic. All of my wishes came true, and for the first three nights I lay there thinking WHAT THE HELL HAVE I DONE?

The key feature of this place that caught my eye was not the ancient barn that will make the coolest little nearly-secret record shop, or the courtyard for which I’d been yearning like life was a Seventeenth Century madrigal, but the archway that was just about big enough to fit a Hymer Swing motorhome through it. On the day we arrived in our new hometown, M driving E in the old Focus we’ve got back on the road pretty cheaply (to my delight – I can’t think of anything I’d be less interested to spend thousands of pounds on than a bloody car, even if I could still afford to), following H and I in Vanny up the long bit of the A1, the first thing I wanted to do once we’d got the keys is drive my van through my new archway. 

Of course, it didn’t fit. The camber of the pavement as it climbs the hill sees Vanny leaning a foot or more to her left, and it won't work. The same top corner where I mashed a light the morning after a very drunken trip to the football in Ipswich (don’t try to park too close to telegraph poles, motorhomers) was only saved far more serious injury by the van’s front wheels slipping on the smooth stone slabs beneath the arch. M, looking on, shook her head pityingly. The van was not, in fact, destined to take shelter beneath the building that had taken its place as our home.

For an hour or so, I was crushed. It was, on reflection, a bit of a stupid dream, to think I could keep the van in my life by tucking it neatly into the gap under the boys’ bedrooms. But it was my dream nevertheless, and I had real difficulty dealing with the idea that it wasn’t going to happen.

And then I realized that this was my opportunity to model how to take disappointments in your stride for my boys. H had sat in silence for the last half an hour of the van journey, and was clearly wondering how he had ended up heading to his doom in this town he knew nothing about. Then brave E was knocked back by the emptiness of his new bedroom, the naked nails in the wall and those dark marks around the things that were once there but are gone now.

If in some small way the evaporation of my Tracy Island fantasy helped the boys understand that we all have to make sacrifices or compromises or something like that, it still won’t stop me being pissed off about it. Even as I began to figure out how badly the van would have been in the way if it was parked behind that gate, I still just felt my misery had been compounded. Now I am in a big empty house in a town where I have no friends, and my van, from being the best thing in my life, is suddenly redundant. So I park her out on the cobbled street in front, a grubby white carbuncle on the smooth sweep of Georgian terrace. And there she has sat, save for a quick run to pick up some records, for ten days now. I suppose I shall have to sell her. And even as I type that, I’m realising that she would have sat around slowly getting old even if I had managed to fit it through the archway.

Am I admitting that the tour is over? Not yet. One of the things that made me keen on a move so far North was that I might use my new home as a base to explore my favourite parts of this island, and new parts too – I’ve banged on about Scotland again and again, and my guilt at not having made it over the border on this tour so far won’t let me sell Vanny just yet. 

Friday, 16 March 2018

With a Head Full of Snow... With a Head Full of Snow

“Dad, can you turn the heating on?”

“No, I mustn’t. I’ve just looked out of the window, and it snowed really heavily overnight.”

“Well, you should definitely turn the heater on then.”

“No, that's the thing. It says in big letters in the manual that if it snows, you should check that the little chimney up on the top of the van isn't buried, before you turn the heating on. Otherwise the carbon monoxide can't escape, and it comes back into the van, and then it kills us all.”

“Why don't we put it on, and then if we smell the poison gas, we just turn it off and get out of the van for fresh air?”

“That's quite a good idea, but you can't smell carbon monoxide. We wouldn’t notice it at all. What happens is you just fall asleep. And when you wake up, you’re dead.”

My sons don’t ask how it is possible to wake up dead. They knew I was a fucking idiot when we started out on this tour, and they know me much, much better now. I can see Big E looking at the carbon monoxide detector he remembers me buying about eight months ago, but he decides not to ask about it. This is probably to prevent me from seizing the opportunity to say more stupid shit. Little H speaks again instead. “Is that why Mummy is sleeping in the house?”

In fact, M is sleeping in the house because she is absolutely sick of sleeping in the van. I can sympathise, even if living in a van was her idea in the first place. It’s cold, it’s cramped, it’s on a slope, and it has me and our children in it.

I like to think I have been able to turn this lack of patience to my advantage. At Christmas she grudgingly got on board with the idea of buying a property that she had previously not been particularly enthusiastic about. But what we’d been told would be a quick and easy process has dragged on and on, new properties are beginning to appear on the market, and she is getting very restless, particularly when we go days at a time without hearing anything.

I’ve got si-lence on my ra-di-o, let the air-waves flo-ow…

This incremental lengthening of our limbo reminds me of Mrs Twit’s walking stick. It’s not a coin-sized disc of wood being glued onto the end each time, but another fortnight. It is also being used as a punishment, I think. Or it's a nasty trick to pay me back for suggesting to our solicitor that the housing market is all one big racket and there are loads of pigs with their heads in the trough that aren’t doing anything to earn their share of the swill.

Now I have a hefty pile of electronic paperwork to sift through with repeated references to how I really should consult a surveyor about this or that. Our feeling had been that it was abundantly clear the vendor had spent a fortune on the maintenance of the fabric of these buildings, and they’ve stood for a couple of centuries without falling down, so we don’t want to pay some bloke a grand to sniff around the place, looking at the same things we’ve seen already before printing out thirty pages of cut-and-paste that we will only ever look at once.

Maybe after we scoffed at the services of estate agents and mocked the findings of our buyers’ surveyor last year, our solicitor just wants us to know that there is one type of professional in all this pissing about that we actually can’t do without. And maybe, when you describe a solicitor as ‘fastidious,’ or ‘pernickety,’ you’re simply saying they’re good at their job. Maybe my tendency to use these eight syllables as a slur is one of the reasons I wasn’t very good at mine.

The house Mummy ‘has been sleeping in’ is the same one in which I grew up, at the quieter end of one of the duller villages in one of the less-exciting parts of Suffolk, the English county that your average person is least likely to know or care anything about. We’ve parked outside overnight several times on the tour, and stayed for longer periods at the beginning, around the middle, and now the end. In truth, we would all be sleeping in The Big House (as we invariably refer to the home of anybody we’ve visited) at the moment if my mother were not such an inveterate hoarder.

Living out the final stages of the tour in this way isn’t ideal, and we need to go on a few more little jaunts before we move into our new home and finally get to see if Vanny fits through the archway. I certainly hope the boys won’t forget the fun we’ve had in a hundred different places when the weather has been better.

We might even find that when they arrive in their new home, the place seems more exciting by comparison. A mile’s trudge through snow-covered fields and churchyard to a village stores that makes Ken’s Shop look like Selfridges certainly kept their adrenalin levels in check, but I was struck, once again, by just how beautiful everything was. I can only surmise that giving up your job in your forties and mooching around the country with zero goals and aspirations is a bit like brewing up some mushroom tea when you’re half that age.

Once we are settled into our new home and the shop is up and running, I must remember to close it for a few days every week to spend some quality time with my van.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Best New Album – Worst Live Band (Part 2 of 2)

Back in Cambridge, E has asked an excellent question – why are guitars seen as so ROCK and keyboards so geeky? If I had given a better answer I would have focused on elements of live performance – how the guitar can be worn, strapped to the performer as they prowl the stage like a gunslinger or pirate, or fall to their knees. Or lie on their side and run around in a little circle on the floor. I might have even talked about phalluses.

Unfortunately, I was still smarting from my Deep Purple Humiliation, which my whole family had arrived in Smugglers Records just in time to witness, and I took this as an opportunity to construct a defence. “That’s precisely it – they’re seen as geeky –” I looked over at the two bespectacled students banging the hell out of Rachmaninoff on the piano in the middle of the shopping centre – “but good keys in a band make all the difference. When I was a teenager, I thought that only guitars really mattered, and so when I heard everybody playing a piss-simple guitar riff really badly, and then found out Deep Purple’s line-up was built around a classically trained organist, I decided then and there that I wouldn’t like them. And I didn’t listen to them again until last week!” But E had walked deliberately away from me at 'When I was a teenager.' He didn’t actually want an answer; he just wanted to point out that it was unfair. And he was right. And my answer was terrible.

As were several of the bands we had seen the preceding weekend at Broadstairs Blues Bash. I spent three days trying to establish why so many Blues Bands appearing in naff pubs play Naff Pub Blues. To pose a question that sounds like one of their song titles, “Who Gave the Blues a Bad Name?”

It was a very well-organised festival, involving about twenty venues and sixty bands. There were some good performances, as you would expect, and some good pubs too, but they were both in the minority. The better examples were those that were reaching beyond the limitations of what ‘THE BLUES’ or ‘THE PUB’ has come to mean.

Bert Jansch, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Booker T and the MGs, Dr John, The Doors and many and varied others have entries in the really quite useful Virgin Encyclopedia of the Blues, because of the music’s key influence in each act’s sound, but the vast majority of Pub Blues Bands throughout my musical lifetime haven’t explored a tiny sharp sliver of this variety. It is more as if some of the less-interesting sixties album tracks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were crystallized as Blues Essence in the 1980s and cut into very thin slices for distribution to Every Blues Band in Britain.

The worst offenders in Broadstairs were built around this model, and were playing, appropriately, at the naffest pub in town. A virtuoso guitarist à la Clapton, loud wailing harp, a singer who could sing but sounded like she’d been given a Blues Brothers libretto to work from (that film is supposed to be a comedy, not a musical manifesto) and a rhythm section that might as well have been a backing track. All in all, much less than the sum of its admittedly capable parts. I won't tell you what their name was because that would be mean, and because their name was so shit. But here is a bit of advice for anybody starting a blues band - don't put BLUES in the name. It immediately makes you sound like Blues Hammer in Ghost World.

In spite of much of the music, Broadstairs last weekend was one of the nicest places we've been. The sun was shining and temperatures were mild and pleasant - strange as it seems writing that now. The beautiful weather meant we hardly needed the heating in the van, and it felt like we were doing this for pleasure once again. Morelli’s, the ice cream parlour that was old-fashioned when I was a kid (and hasn’t changed in the slightest since then) provided E and H with enormous sugary breakfasts on a late-rising Monday morning when their friends would be in school after half term. We didn’t investigate the contents of the beach hut that advertised ‘Egg fried raisins and turkey crab nipples.’

The Chapel, which was a bookshop for many years before also becoming a bar, is a fantastic venue, and the New-Orleans-inspired community band we saw down there really stood out among the acts in the festival for actually doing something different.

This got me thinking once again about the blues. What I understand by it, as opposed to what it has come to mean. The organizers of the festival heard the blues in this music, and rightly so. Professor Longhair, Lee Dorsey and Eddie Bo would all have recognized this music as blues. Alton Ellis and Laurel Aitken and Jackie Mittoo would have bought R&B 45s straight off the plane from
Louisiana, and in turn made a Jamaican blues that came to be known by half a dozen different names. Meanwhile, in the US, R&B combos were the house bands for labels recording a huge range of soul singers. This is LeRoi Jones’s Blues Continuum in motion, and this is what I think of when I think of the blues.

I once got into a slightly heated online discussion with a bloke who was the sort of person I was hoping to attract to a Blues Night, because I’d said something like ‘Not just the same old 12-Bar Blues’ on the flyer. He wanted to know what was wrong with 12-Bar Blues, and all I could manage was ‘Nothing at all. But I wouldn’t want to listen to it all night long. It would get boring.’ I came to the conclusion that it never works when you were trying to define something to say what it is not. Every child in England already knows this is true, from all those lessons writing Non-Chronological Reports.

There’s me moaning about musical manifestos and I might as well have just written the OUR PHILOSOPHY page for

Henry VIII did go to
Cambridge University, paying for this and founding that, but he was only continuing his father Henry VII’s work. And I doubt if he went to any lectures or learned anything from the experience. He had inherited the title Earl of Richmond in addition to the crown on his father’s death, as well as a number of palaces on the Thames, one of which was named Richmond.

Richmond upon Thames was at the heart of the British Blues Boom of the 1960s, which was just one strand of the blues spider-web, but seems to have become What We Think Of When We Talk About The Blues in this country. This, I think, is a shame.

Richmond, Indiana was the home of Gennett Records, where Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton cut sides thirty years earlier that were among the first recorded country blues, but nonetheless exhibited a remarkable variation of style and form.

Richmond, North Yorkshire, will soon, I hope, become a new home of the blues. A more positivist, inclusive blues that has evolved and grown and spread, strong and far and wide, into almost every sub-genre of popular music – or at least way beyond the foil-thin definition offered by the average record shop’s Blues section or the average pub’s Blues Band.

I think that OUR PHILOSOPHY webpage is going to need a bit more work.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Best New Album – Worst Live Band (Part 1 of 2)

"How old is Cambridge University anyway? Didn't Henry VIII start it or something?"
"Nah, I think it's even older than that. He probably just went there."
"Says here it was founded in 1209, by some
Oxford scholars who had to move after a fight with some of the townspeople."
"I bet they lost."
"Well, obviously."

M and I are out of our depth discussing the noble history of student-bashing in and around the world's oldest universities. I did get pushed down a flight of stairs and stamped on once, for looking a bit like Wolf off of Gladiators, but this was the same year PEL became UEL and hardly in the same category.

M has many happy teenage memories of
Cambridge, the city. I know it fairly well too, and no longer imagine the success of the shop to be dependent upon me getting students into Lightnin' Hopkins and even greater debt. Further, we both probably knew that we wouldn't have been able to afford Oxbridge.

Like with the albums that will be for sale, a long and illustrious history doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Better’ in 2018, anyway. Nevertheless, we are still rather taken aback by an ad for what looks like a crappy room in a crappy house, being available for rent at a hundred quid a week. That, as they say, is Almost London Prices.

We've just spent a lovely week in Leigh on Sea, which has some terrific houses (also at Almost London Prices), and some great records and beer for sale, which are both justifiably expensive, regardless of geography; I'm sure you would agree.
Cambridge has at least some of that too, in addition to the best part of a millennium's history as one of the world's great seats of learning.

This isn't what we are looking for, though. The city centre has nowhere to park a compact motorhome, and its suburbs are, as with the other endless residential Nowheresvilles surrounding most cities, mind-numbingly dull. This may be the perfect working environment in which to bring together quantum theory and thermodynamics, or to write a double album of tuneless non-songs full of weird noises with some cows on the front, but it leaves me cold. Which is exactly how I felt as we waited for the Park and Ride bus.

Deal, which we revisited in-between-the-two, is a place of real inspiration by comparison, and would be an excellent place to open a record shop with good beer if it were not a place that already had Smugglers Records in it.

When I visited early in the tour, I was kidding myself that it was not the time to be shopping for records, but more recently I've caved to my instincts, perhaps in anticipation of setting the shop up soon. Leigh's old records by Alex Moore, The Cure and the John Renbourn Group may appeal enough to make me part with cash (even when my hi-fi is still disconnected and spread to the four winds), but what I am really craving now is something new. I've always wanted my own little record shop, but it was when I started buying brand-new records again, just a few years ago, that it became an imperative.

The remarkable Fives sold me discs by Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett, or by the Wave Pictures, that were very good, but won't bother my thousand favourite albums. Yet every day I am anticipating that first listen of another Benji, or another Channel Orange.

And so it was that I was in Smugglers again, flicking through racks of titles I know well and others I know nothing about, but failing to fall for these sleeves because I was just listening to what it was that they were playing. It sounded so new and fresh and cool, perfectly recorded and produced, with lots of classic rock motifs. A tourniquet-tight little band of thrilling musicians with a really great singer.

Shit, I thought, ALL the hip young people must be into this band. I've probably heard of them already, because they are so good, but I have no idea who it is. It’s hard rock, sure, but (and I try so hard not to use this word because it is so frequently misappropriated by square teachers talking to children) it’s just so damn FUNKY. They're going to be MASSIVE.

I gave in. “Who’s playing?”

And he held up the sleeve of DEEP PURPLE IN ROCK.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

"What's the worst Brexit shithole you've been to?"

Asked an old teaching colleague over on the Twitter. I wasn't really able to answer, for a couple of reasons. We haven't been to any towns we have particularly disliked. Some city centres have been too busy or noisy or smelly but that wasn't what she was asking, and these city centres were probably the places most likely to have voted remain, as most of them have significant immigrant populations and large universities. We haven't exactly been looking at EU referendum vote maps to choose where to go either - I feel fairly safe in claiming that I haven't mentioned Brexit at any time previously in this blog.

Admittedly, we haven't been to any towns that we assumed we were going to dislike, either. Although we've been to every county in England, some of them we've done no more than stop to fill up the diesel. Great swathes of the Midlands and the North, to say nothing of the Home Counties, have gone unvisited, especially those towns with names that make them sound awful in the first place. I'm sure you know the ones I mean. Towns that were flattened in 1944 and never properly rebuilt, or where the historic architecture was neglected until it had to be pulled down, or where the one industry that supported all human life was killed off by Thatcher, or where there was never any money to build something nice in the first place. Towns where it's visible that the council just doesn't care, there is no work for anybody, and everybody is angry or bored and has turned to drugs or crime or using the one time in history that the state has asked their opinion on something to mash a self-destruct button with the palm of their non-vaping hand.

But I can't say that I've stopped to think about the politics of the people in any one town. If you were looking for a blog written by somebody who is well-informed on the subject, or has a lot to say about it, you probably won't be reading this one any more. I don't have much of an opinion on Brexit and I can't remember having a single conversation about it during our time on the road. Quite frankly, I couldn't give the tiniest shit which way individual people or towns voted - it's done now. Granted, it was a complete balls-up on every level and at every stage, but I reckon about half the other big decisions in the history of politics probably were too.

I did find myself musing on what my colleague could have meant by asking the question though, and came to this conclusion - she wants to hear about dreadful places where everybody is a bit racist and always blaming the Metropolitan Liberal Elite in London (as well as immigration) for how shitty their lives are, I would guess. Some middle-aged Londoners are desperate for most of the rest of the country to be as crap as is possible, as I suggested once or twice before - otherwise what are they getting in return for those extra decades before the mortgage is paid off? This doesn't sit well with the fact that among all the people I've worked with, nobody has been seen to do more to include everybody, to reach out and welcome in, than this particular colleague. She doesn't seek to divide and classify, but she does have a wicked sense of humour. 

And we all like to assign characters to people we don't know. My family are not immune to this of course, and are just as quick to say, "Here's where the racists live..." when we pass a house with a flagpole in the front garden as we are to say, "Look - it's the murderer's house!" when we pass one that doesn't appear to have been lived in for years.

But I really haven't been travelling the country judging people on appearances or looking for evidence of right-wing politics. Rather, when I saw neat block capitals printed on a wall in a car park in Ipswich declaring - NO POLISH - GO HOME - I had a mental image of my father, having spent fifteen minutes squeezing into one of The Spiral's strangely tapered spaces, looking down at the dusty, dried-out leather of his shoes, sighing, and returning to his car.

There's actually plenty of Polish in Ipswich. And Lithuanians, varnish, Albanians, linseed oil, Kurds and dubbin. It may not be a city, but last week it seemed as global as southeast London. Many of the shops were still open on a darkening Sunday evening, and there were lots of people around. Young E observed that the only ones he had heard speaking English had been some shouty teenagers who had nothing to say and nothing better to do. And he's grown up in Peckham, as a true citizen of Planet Earth, completely separated from the notions of Old Empire and WWII hangover that formed my worldview as an eleven-year-old.

Ipswich actually seemed rather pleasant. It has plenty of shops and pubs and places to eat, has some stunning countryside just down the river, and in Christchurch Park it really has one of the best urban outdoor spaces in the country. Some of the trees are incredible - like with those in Anthony Browne books, you can see loads of scary stuff hidden in the twists and lumps of the branches and trunks. Amidst these ancient sentinels, Yummy Mummies chase children on little scooters and bikes, all radiant beneath their winter woolly hats. If the town where I was born has gained this much innocent charm, our delondonisation process is complete, and Brexit is harmless.

How many times in our travels have we been having a perfectly reasonable and pleasant conversation with somebody and then they’ve decided it’s time to say something racist? Only once. This is pretty damn good going, I think, as I used to hear something virtually every day in South London twenty years ago, even if it was usually from one of a tribe of old men who are surely all dead by now. But while London has moved with the times, the rest of the country has at least been keeping up, I think.

A friendly woman in her thirties was talking about how much happier she was in her village in the South Downs than she had been in Suburban South London some years before. "You go there now and it's like Spot the White Person and I'm not racist." There was little aggravated intonation or emphasis in her delivery, and so she seemed genuine - the almost-complete absence of white people in Croydon can be better observed by a self-proclaimed non-racist person than by anybody else. This may be true, because I don't believe that I have ever told anybody that I am not a racist, and on each of the handful of occasions that I have visited Croydon, I've seen fucking hordes of white people milling about. Even she, though, has clearly been advised not to preface racist utterances with, "I'm not racist but..." and has taken to appending the disclaimer smoothly to the opposite end. It made her seem rather more gentle in her opinion - perhaps even to the point where she might begin to wonder why she bothers sharing it.

Meanwhile, the van has also been struggling to stay the pace with 2018. It's impossible to air it on any kind of basis, let alone daily, as when we are home the windows need to be closed to keep the warmth in, and when we are away the windows need to be closed to make sure that nobody else steals our precious family warmth. There is no escape for the moisture in the air, worst of all in the boys' bed over the cab. This is the most compact space with two humans in it who will insist on breathing all night long, the highest space where the hotter air eventually ends up, and the only space with three outside walls and ceiling, and could almost be a patented condensation-catcher. Prolonged periods of cold weather like this one, with all four of us in the van every day, expose the van lifestyle as Not Completely Sustainable. The moisture leads to mould and the boys' pillows end up sopping wet and smelling like granny's attic. We had to throw them away - yet more waste.

A few days earlier we had been visiting London - for a third time on the tour, this time to take some papers to the solicitor. On the day we came to leave, the van wouldn't start. This was no great surprise, as it had been sitting there charging 20000mAH power banks day after day, while I didn't even dare to start the engine in case it cost me a hundred quid. A new battery was only marginally more expensive than the London LEZ charge, of course, but we had to pay that in addition later that day. I wasn't exempted for wrecking my battery with good behaviour. This was the first time I'd noticed the TfL website encouraging me to sign up for an account. "But that's almost as if you WANT me to keep bringing my [supposedly] heavily-polluting vehicle [with an engine the same size as that of the average Saab] into London... and to keep paying you two hundred quid for the privilege!" I shouted at the Internet, which didn't hear me.

Vanny will still be our cheapest and easiest way of visiting London once we are settled in Yorkshire, however (which is one of a number of reasons why I get nervous as M makes louder and louder noises about selling her). We've broken free from the capital's economagnetic field, but we will want to go back pretty regularly. It has been a great place to live, in recent years at least. I have a vivid memory from 1991, standing on the roof of a multi-storey car park in Stratford E15, after a biophysical science tutor had shamefacedly accepted that he was absolutely desperate for students who could start his course the following month. The view was toxic industrial wasteland and housing that showed utter contempt for its occupants. "Look at this shithole," my friend and I said together.

Very few places have changed as radically as Stratford, but the whole world has been evolving with incredible momentum in the twenty five years since. All that time inside the M25 meant I hadn't spent enough time elsewhere to notice that it is changing for the better outside of London too, whether it's the food in Cornwall, or the decreasing likelihood of a country bumpkin complaining about the people in cities who aren't white.

There was a young woman who worked in our neighbourhood in London cleaning the streets - picking up litter with one of those claw things. I think she was probably from Eastern Europe somewhere - maybe she was Polish. She stood out, of course, because the majority of people doing her job are men. I never spoke to her, never asked if she got paid the same as the men did, for example. But I assume she's still doing it, because the streets around our old home are usually fairly tidy. The disgraceful mess at the sides of the country's A roads varies from county to county, which makes it obvious that some councils don't pay anybody to clear this shit up any more. 'Litter' just doesn't do it justice - the recent winds have seen to it that there are miles of road where every single tree and bush wears a bag, and whole, full bin-liners can be seen here and there, carefully placed by somebody who really wanted rid of them, but couldn't think where else to do it.

The scene is made even more grim by the roadkill. The veins and arteries of the nation are clogged not only with thin layers of plastic but with a variety of decaying corpses. I've finally seen more dead foxes than I ever saw live ones in London and I must have seen a hundred dead badgers too - I should organise myself to see one living happily, to exorcise their many ghosts. At one point, I can't remember where, I saw a huge stag lying in a ditch. Such a great beast, you'd think, must have made out a will - 'Leave Me To Rot By The Side Of The Road.'

What a strange way to end a blog post about beautiful England. About how it's getting better, and about how considerate and kind its people are. Mind you, it is just another thing on the web now, which has even more rubbish on it than the A14. Everywhere in this country is a nicer place than the internet.