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.

(July)

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 d├ębut 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.