Idle Eye 189 : The Wicker Man

I was in Wickes on Croydon’s Purley Way the other day. Not somewhere I would normally frequent, but I needed a quality undercoat for exterior stone and wood, and the local options were beyond lamentable. Visiting one of these places is a bit like going to an airport departure lounge: the sheer scale intentionally dwarfs any notion you may have of thrift, as eight-wheeled juggernauts filled to capacity with power tools and decking thunder their way towards the checkouts.

I weaved through the aisles, keeping as low a profile as I could muster, but then I noticed a well-dressed man hovering uncomfortably in the distance. He turned, looked up and in a flash was standing next to me in front of the two pack epoxies. It was Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet:

Martin:  Sorry to bother you, but don’t I know you from somewhere?

Me:  I doubt it. I don’t come here very often.

Martin:  No, not from here. Aren’t you that bloke who…

Me:  Martin, keep your voice down! I’m trying to get this over with as quickly as I can.

Martin:  Sorry. What are you looking for?

Me:  Undercoat. For exterior stone and wood.

Martin:  You’re way off base, mate. You’ll be after the Home Decorating section, it’s on the other side of the building. If you go down the end …hang on, let me take you.

Me:  Thank you.

So Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet and I made our way across the absurdly complex labyrinth, stopping only for him to pick up a couple of shiny aprons from Kitchenware and a retractable chalk line set from Building and Joinery.

Martin:  You’re probably wondering why I’ve got two aprons, aren’t you?

Me:  To be honest, I’m not. But I reckon you share cooking duties with your partner, and that you’re probably a bit OCD.

Martin:  They’re both for me, actually.

Me:  Ah. Are you going to tell me or not?

Martin:  Take a wild guess. Look at the colour.

Me:  I really haven’t got time for this.

Martin:  Bright metal. Quite valuable. Think Ancient Egypt.

Me:  Gold?

Martin:  Bullseye!

Me:  So you’re about to buy two kitchen aprons that happen to be the same colour as your 1983 hit record? It’s a bit tenuous, Martin.

Martin:  So what? There’s still a few people about who’ll get it. And anyway, what’s so special about your stupid paint?

Me:  There’s nothing special about it at all. Except I didn’t have a hit back in the day called ‘Quality Undercoat for Exterior Stone and Wood’. And if I did, I probably wouldn’t be here now.

Martin:  What about the chalk line set?

Me:  Oh no…not True?

Martin:  Oh yes.

Me:  No one’s going to understand that reference. Even I’m struggling, and I work in the trade.

Martin:  Yeah, whatever. Have a nice day.

And with that, he was gone. Still trying to figure out how he knows me, mind.

Idle Eye 138 : The Windows to the Soul

When he put his mind to it, my father had a great smile. It was one of those magnificently craggy ones, as pioneered by WH Auden towards the end of his own years, which dug huge trenchlines into the soft tundra of his face and suggested, whether it were true or not, that he was kind and genuinely delighted to have you as company. Yorkshire Television was quick to pick up on this most saleable of assets, so in pretty much every publicity shot taken from the 1980s onwards, you can see him attempting to squash his nose hard into the well of his cheekbones, like some sort of demented human Corby trouser press, whilst simultaneously keeping his eyes open and looking sexy. And, unlikely though this may sound, for the most part he pulled it off.

As the firstborn of four, I have inherited (to a lesser extent) something similar. When it first appeared I was horrified, so desperate was I to preserve the illusion of perpetual youth, and those appalling fissures, snaking their way across my cheeks like levees towards the ocean, became impertinent reminders of my own mortality. Which I bitterly resented. But as the years rolled on, I kind of grew into them, accepted them, and now I shall ruthlessly exploit them for my own financial gain. Hear me out:

I’ve only ever had publicity shots done once. It was back in the day, when I was trying to look moody and angst-ridden for an art-rock band which I fronted. The fact that we never got picked up, and that the photographs fell into the dustbin of insignificance, was clearly down to the fact that I was not yet ready to face the full-frontal glare of fame and fortune. And possibly because a previous night’s drinking had made my eyes look like pissholes in the snow. But now I am older, wiser and sly as you like. So, what if I harness Dad’s old ruse for the back cover of this book that I’m doing? That, instead of going all Charles Bukowski on you, I could make you believe I’m enormous fun to hang out with? Simply by wrinkling up my face! It works across the board: The oldies will think they can trust me, and the young people will find me endearing. Sexy, even.

Now, I’ve been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, but I think the silver must have buckled. When I scrunch up one side (leaving the other unwrinkled and all come hither), it looks like I’m having a stroke. Yet if I go for both at once, the eyes are lost in a sea of unsightly crevices. And the eyes, as any fule kno, are the windows to the soul. I’ve even tried the direct approach, looking straight into camera with just a hint of crumpled world-weariness. But I just come across as a massive tool. And we can’t have that, can we?

Idle Eye 125 : The Sos Age

In days of old, when knights were bold
And Bowyers sausages stood the test
I’m glad to say that still today
That Bowyers sausages are the best

This curious little rhyme was drummed into my subconscious relentlessly by my late stepfather pretty much every weekend in the 1970s. Partially to whip up a kind of inter-family bonhomie, as we would chant the thing together in the car on the way to the shops, but mainly because he was the chairman of Bowyers sausages, cynically utilising a primitive form of subliminal advertising for his own ends. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t join in with gusto, but even then I could spot the flaws:

Thrust instantly into a medieval context, the reader is presented with a given that all knights back then were actually bold, as opposed to the more likely premise that they were shit-scared, metal-clad servants of whichever fanatical despot that happened to own the land upon which they lived. Next, there is the contextual leap we are expected to take, in which the Bowyers sausage is inexplicably time-travelled to the period in order to stand a test. Exactly what test is not made clear, probably for reasons of economy, but already we are none the wiser and hunting for clues. 

There are none, for the second half has no correlation whatsoever with the first. For starters, the introduction of the possessive noun only serves to confuse, and the whiplash suffered from being thrown back into the present weakens us so conclusively, we are unable to challenge the outlandish supposition that the Bowyers sausage knocks spots off the competition. Consequently we take it for granted, bereft of any insight as to who the narrator may or may not be. These four lines are, at once, a travesty of continuity, credibility and impartiality. I am eleven years old.

Obviously, I didn’t let on in the car. I knew how ruthlessly I was being exploited yet somehow I was complicit. How could I tell a man fifty years my senior that his grasp of language was at best rudimentary, particularly as I had not yet received my pocket money? So I let it lie. To the point where I taught the very same to the equally exploited workers of a slaughterhouse in which I worked over the summer of 1980. And they loved it too.

I kept shtum for ages when I became a vegetarian. It would have made a mockery of all the ideals we held so high as a family which were built on the foundations of the very thing I had so vehemently rejected. And besides, I wanted Bill Newton-Clare to meet his maker without doubt, which he almost certainly did. But not before leaving us another salient reminder of the mark he made when he was around:

Q:   What came before the Ice Age?
A:   The Sos Age

Idle Eye 123 : The Right Stuff

Someone called William rang me yesterday. Before he got through, I screened the number: Unfamiliar, but at least not one of those 08547 deals which you instantly know will come with a three second delay, over which you politely say “Hello” twice despite your better judgement, followed by an upbeat recorded message giving you just enough info on that accident you had to prevent you hanging up on the spot. Which you do anyway.

In short, William’s prefix looked legit so I took the call, thinking it might be confirmation of my bank details from a new Nigerian business partner. His opening gambit was along the lines of “How are you?” Now, as this particular question rarely arises, be it from my siblings, employer or accountant, I was already putty in his hands. Next came the introduction. Apparently he is my personal wine advisor and was making a courtesy call based on the preferences made with my online account which, you may be surprised to learn, comes in at less than £200 per annum. He accurately noted that I enjoy wines from New Zealand, bless, and proceeded to suggest a few others that may have escaped my radar. And despite all prior knowledge of the ruthlessness of marketing and cold-call grooming, I began to warm to him. And he’s from Norwich.

How we laughed at the vulgarity of your supermarket Shiraz. And how effortlessly he dropped in the buyer’s sweet spot, being that place on the quality curve when you are no longer paying off taxes, duty and whatnot. The one when you go “Hell, I’m worth £2.50” and buy a couple of blue labels, as opposed to the plebeian red. And, in case I was in any doubt whatsoever, he reminded me that I would be fully refunded if his recommendations fell at all short. Geezer! I wanted to French kiss him down the phone, or at least ask him out for a pizza. This man knew more about me than my teachers from the 1980s or, dare I say it, my parents. And in my loved-up state, I saw us enjoying a mutual glass of an astonishingly rare Pinot under a wide Andalusian sunset.

But then came the crash. I nipped round to my friend Nick’s house not long afterwards who just happens to be a marketing guru and I told him about my new love, William, and how it felt to be understood so completely. “It’s not what you think”, I protested. He gave me the skunk eye, then the lowdown on Cute Brands and Upselling. You know, the sort of thing that companies like Innocent use to get you on team. And in an instant, the wonderful man-love I had experienced but hours before evaporated like the morning mist. I felt cheated, violated, abused. I thought this was different. I thought this was special. I thought this was personal. So I bought some more wine. The right stuff.

Idle Eye 105 : The Ron Solution

As I struggled into the flat yesterday clutching two shopping bags filled to bursting with wine, real ale, rolling tobacco & Nitromors, I spotted a flyer in amongst the many destined for recycling which blazed ‘Has Your Body Become A Toxic Waste Dump?’ Now, I’m no great fan of the door drop school of marketing (too blunt an instrument and we need the trees), but I figured they had a point so I took it upstairs. And yes, I gave it a few precious moments of the limited time I have left on the planet, only to find out that it is, in fact, the latest ruse from our dear old chum L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, brains behind the crappest film ever made Battlefield Earth and purveyor of the grand-scale whopper. Who died in January 1986.

I have to admit, I do have a bit of a soft spot for L Ron. Back in 1983, I left a house party in Dorking, somewhat worse for wear and about two hours before the first train back to London, and what I saw at the end of the High Street as dawn broke must surely rank as one of the most ill-conceived book launch campaigns of all time. A monstrous purple metal beast lay in wait for its quarry, clutching a plethora of monochromatic handouts in which it declared itself as Terl, the Alien Psychlo. Quite who (or what) its target market was, given the time of day and stockbroker-belt location was anyone’s guess, but I did admire the balls of the thing and took home its offering. I later discovered it was pushing ‘the greatest sci-fi novel ever written’ by the man himself. He’d even composed a soundtrack to go with it (available separately) which I thought bold. Further research revealed that he had also declared war on Mexico, fired torpedoes at a magnetic ore deposit off the coast of Oregon believing it to be two Japanese submarines and spent several years in prison for fraud. Dude…

So how come he’s now back in Crystal Palace, attempting to cleanse my rotting carcass of self-imposed excess? What can there possibly be in it for him, what with him being dead and that (apparently from self-imposed excess)? And are the pollutants of yesteryear still rattling around inside me like it says in his new book Clear Body, Clear Mind (£8.99 online, no soundtrack)? I must say, I’m intrigued. Almost enough to go for the free toxic test, available at his Purification Centre which also happens to be the Church of Scientology HQ. The reviews are glowing:

“I’ve been living in a fairyland. Many thanks to L Ron for caring enough to invest his life in bettering mankind” G.S.

“Fifteen years of brain fog has dissipated in a few weeks” L.P.

And many more. Maybe this time he’s really stumbled upon something and death, as they say, becomes us all. I’ll let you know.

Idle Eye 104 : The Big Music

1986 – Still a stripling and finding my path. And despite making it onto the impossibly hip Psalter Lane Communication Arts course at Sheffield City Poly and waving a hand-held 16mm film camera about for months on end (making certain the subject matter was obscure and out of focus), I struggled. Struggled with the introspective claptrap we were expected to churn out in order to get the grades, struggled with being a rudderless imposter from Surrey in a melting pot of strident student politics, and struggled with the notion that my most cherished art form was considered ephemeral and insignificant unless it was waving a banner. In short, I was a bit lost.

Two years earlier, the Waterboys had released their second album, ’A Pagan Place’. By the time I had cottoned on to it they had already recorded and were touring their third, but this one struck me like a bolt from the blue. The title track, which closed the record, soared its way through the cloud layer with a cacophony of trumpets, guitars and a rasping, bruised vocal from Mike Scott, all of which layered themselves into a crescendo that almost made me feel like I was levitating, tears being the only physical release I could muster to bring myself back down to earth. And it happened every time, like turning on a tap. Where was art that could come anywhere near this, I wondered? Here there was no artifice, no pretence, nothing to prove. Just a direct line to the heart that made me want to burst, probably for the first time in my life. This was the Big Music.

Having access to cameras (and a seemingly carte blanche as to where I pointed them) allowed me to head out into the Yorkshire Moors and make a nascent home-grown promo for said song. It featured my then girlfriend Shirley in an earth-coloured dress, blowing into a recorder on top of a rock that looked a bit Celtic, rough-cut in amongst other stuff I thought rural, romantic and quasi-religious. A bit pants, in fact, but the sentiment was there. But then, in one of those rare moments when fate intervenes, I contacted Ensign Records in London and asked if I could film them at Leeds Polytechnic. And, for reasons which I am still unclear, I was granted unlimited access to make a live video. I shuddered with the profundity of it but made out I was a young professional finding my way, just grateful for the opportunity.

Surely, somewhere in the process there would be a bonding moment with the musicians that had shaped my present so completely? That perhaps they could see past the quivering kid sent to document their evening and recognise something beyond the fan? But this is where reality bites. They never did. Crippling shyness put paid to that, my fault not theirs. But I still have the mastered result and it’s great. Huge, in fact.

Idle Eye 81 : The Eye and the Erewash

Couple of things. Firstly, I must confess I lied to you back in Idle Eye 77 about getting the jellies re-zapped. I never did, at least not then. It was simply a narrative convenience to say so. However, after five months of headaches and grinding admin, I finally reached a compromise with the suits at Optical Express – I could have one eye enhanced. On the house, but just the one. Bugs sodding Bunny.

It was a Sophie’s choice, basically. Should I have gone for the one that could see into the future, all Michael J Fox but lacking the most rudimentary of motor skills, or the other one, stuck in the 1980’s with crap hair but bringing up the rearguard rather nicely, thank you. I opted for the former, the trade-off being that I wouldn’t have to wear senior glasses every time my phone rang.

Big mistake. When the stench of molten eyeball had finally subsided and I was able to take a good look around, it became apparent the roles had been reversed. The former limp biscuit was flexing its muscles like Charles Atlas, and last month’s King of the Hill had tumbled onto Skid Row. Woefully, my everyday reality had now become the equivalent of whatever Scandi cop show is currently doing the rounds, all shallow-focus and inner ennui. And I’m wearing the glasses as I type this.

In better news, it turns out that this ole blog has been embraced by the good folk of Derbyshire, presumably because last week I suggested it was somewhat remote and they have a honed lust for revenge. Now listen: Of course Derbyshire isn’t remote. I looked it up on Google Maps and it’s quite near Nottingham, which I have heard of. That Robin Hood once ran about there being terribly left-wing in a forest, and there’s also lots of pubs and lovely ladies. Apparently. One of which was the delightful Christine Free, who I met recently and has a slot on Erewash Sound, now broadcasting my Elsan extracts every Wednesday sometime between 10.30 and 11am. The humanist in me just wants to reach out and beg her to desist. It’s just not fair: These people have historically travelled many miles to avoid the appalling whimsy I subject you to every week, but she wouldn’t have it, bless her. So here we go:

“Welcome, Erewash, and thanks for listening. I’ll try my darndest to keep you all on board although honestly, the odds are poor – My own mother whacked me senseless with the bristly end of a hairbrush outside the Imperial War Museum for being spectacularly annoying in the 1970’s. Sorry. I’ll be mostly chucking out irrelevant drivel for the first few paragraphs, after which I will somehow manage to tie in my brother’s pub in London, thereby fulfilling my contractual obligation. It’s gonna be a white knuckle ride, so hold on tight! Now, here’s the weather…”