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 135 : The Thing About Charlie

Have a look at the mast drawing above. That’s me, that is. Drunk, scribbling unrecognisable nonsense as per, wide-eyed & tousled, inappropriately attired for a man of my age and surrounded by semi-mythical beasts which may or may not represent the muses I wrestle with on a weekly basis. All contained in one simple statement with the site name teetering on the verge of collapse above me. How very apposite. When I briefed Dan back in 2011, I knew I wanted a sketch rather than a designed header with slick typography, because the best ones condense all the relevant information into a single visual hit. No frills, no waste, and therein lies the power.

I bring this up for two reasons: Firstly, and primarily, because current news events that cannot have escaped anyone’s attention have brought it into sharp focus. And whilst I won’t be drawn into spouting cause and effect rhetoric (this is not the place), it does demonstrate just how incisive the pen can be. Satire, by its very nature, apes and distorts its targets to drive the point home, which is why it sits so (un)comfortably with the cartoonist. Perhaps photography is too ‘real’ to get under the skin in quite the same way. Charlie Hebdo knows this all too well, hence their medium of choice. It’s quick, brutal and it takes no prisoners.

On the exact same day of the attacks in Paris, I was with six artists (amongst others) in a wine bar in central London, revitalising an idea that has been in limbo for a year or two now. It was also my birthday, and fuelled by copious quantities of Hungarian Pinot Noir (the kind that strengthens the resolve the more of it you have), I dared to ask for contributions towards an illustrated book of this here blog. And, no doubt for the same reasons, they were granted. In less than a week, the number of pledges has swelled to sixteen and they’re still coming in, brilliant, disparate and from all over the planet. I am simultaneously humbled and terrified.

As outlined in the first paragraph, in my head I’ve always seen the book as illustrated. Anyone who has ever read the bilge I come up with every week will interpret it differently, and what better way to represent that than a bunch of artists doing their thing. I pray the fact that I am the common glue does not put them off any. My default setting when things start going well is to run for the hills and hide until it’s all over, but not this time, not this time. With an apolitical nod to Charlie, this time I’ll commit. If you believe in something strongly enough, show some balls. And show them I shall.

I will, of course, let you know as and when things start to happen. But, in the meantime, there’s stacks to moan about and I’ve lost a bloody week now. Thanks for that.

Idle Eye 131 : The Herald Angel Sings

I’ve had the same car now for eleven years. It was a replacement for an identical one which had the tits ripped off of it, on a roundabout in West Dulwich by a woman who didn’t look right when she should have done, putting me in plaster for five months. Over which time I was compensated, lost my job, split up with my fiancée and oversaw the untimely death of seven out of thirteen gerbils who had made their way into my inner circle, euphemism fans. But the new car was astonishing. I could never have afforded her initially, it was only the accident money that made it possible, so I made a small promise to myself on the day I took her down from Fife, Scotland to her new home in South London:

‘Come what may, I will look after you, keep you going and perhaps if I do, there may be a ghost of a chance that we’ll be together until one of us snuffs it.’

It was a marriage of sorts. And yet, curiously, I am not a car person. I couldn’t give a monkeys about what goes on underneath the bonnet, and even less about performance, reliability and safety. All I care about is that she is a lovely thing that gives me pleasure each and every time I sit in the driver’s seat and if, for whatever reason, she gives me gyp, I just learn to put up with it or try to fix it. As many of my close friends will testify as they have towed me home in the small hours or watched, incredulously, as one of her wheels overtook me on the M40.

Over the years, I’ve had all the dull jobs addressed: New gearbox, new clutch unit, something or another to do with diffs (whatever they are), the pointless points (enjoyed that one), carbs and sparks and trunnions and God knows what else. Which you have to do or the bloody thing doesn’t work. But none of this stuff is visible: Kind of like paying an arm and a leg to get the drains sorted outside your house, when actually all you want is a cooker that says more about you than money ever can. The cosmetics play second fiddle to those hardcore kids in the playground built like pit bulls that always seem to get first dibs.

But not this time. I’ve been watching an arc of rust creeping across the bonnet for the last two years, and the hood frame above me decomposing and freezing me to bits on every journey. And those classic Old English White wheels that now look like they’re just home from the Somme. So I’m getting them all done. In one hit. And when they are, I shall renew my vow of 2003 and look forward to our next swathe of time together on the open road. Because in my humble opinion, a car is for life. Not just for Christmas.

Idle Eye 127 : (Don’t Fear) The Reaper

The trouble with hitting your middle years, apart from the incessant failings of the body’s risible infrastructure, is the creeping awareness of one’s own mortality. No-one tells you precisely when that middle point is either. It would be terrific if, at the exact median of your time on Earth, they gave you a ticker-tape parade with a brass band and silver watch and street bunting or something. With a desperately shy homecoming queen landing you a big kiss and an iced cake with ‘NOT LONG NOW’ piped onto the top. But they don’t, largely because they’re terrified of being sued for getting it wrong. These are litigious times.

And yet, as we march relentlessly towards the final curtain, the signs are all around us: That unexpected Alzheimers mailshot, being offered a seat on public transport (despite not being saturated in wee), feeling at ease in a Wetherspoons, caring about socks and the longevity of footwear, enjoying a butterscotch. All these incremental details are nature’s way of letting us know we’re on the slide, and that we had better start making the most of what we have left. It isn’t pretty, but what is when you don’t know where you are on the scale? Should we start making arrangements? Making that list of inappropriate tunes to be played out on the day of our memorial? Or should we just leave it to chance? It’s a lottery, make no mistake.

I’m working in a church right now, filled with saints and sacraments, effigies of the martyred Christ and his attendants, and endless reminders of the transience of existence. Just to give myself a breather, I take my sandwiches to Brompton Cemetery, alone and surrounded by the gravestones of those who, like me, used to take a lunch break somewhere before the reaper claimed them. The difference being that I’m the only one around who can clock it for now, until it’s my turn to be posthumously observed by some beardy berk with an artisan bloomer stuffed to the gunnels with halloumi and alfalfa sprouts. Even the stone carvers who meticulously chiselled out their client names & places of departure into marble or alabaster are no longer with us. You can’t fight it: It’s the inevitable cycle of life and death, and we’re all on board.

So what’s the point here? Perhaps, like Sally Bowles’s ex-flatmate Elsie in the movie Cabaret, it is to live every day as if it were your last (there is very little in that film that will not inform your every move at a cataclysmic level). Do something brave: Go see Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? Who knows, it might be life changing. Eat something weird. Fly off to somewhere you’ve never heard of and stay there a few days. Walk to work. Chat to strangers. Do yourselves a favour just for once. Because the halfway mark may be long since gone. And you don’t get a second chance.

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 121 : The Song of a Sceptic

A little while back, I wrote a short piece about food on another blog platform when I was attempting to find my voice. It was deliberately confrontational and probably a touch derivative, the main thrust being that food is, in essence, merely petrol to keep us all alive in order to do far greater things than the act of eating itself. This would have been apposite if written in the 1970s (or indeed earlier), when the greater irony may well have been appreciated by frequenters of those appalling trattorias, nascent curry houses and stick-in-the-mud bastions of public school cuisine. But it wasn’t.

Over the last twenty years or so, we have morphed into a nation of foodies. Suddenly, every man and his dog has developed a palate that subtle, it would leave Abigail and her guests floundering like jetsam at one of her soirées. We demand choice and quality as standard (despite having come through the worst recession since WW2) and, more than ever, we require affirmation that our opinions are justified. Why so?

Because our newly-found appreciation of all things gastronomic is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes. We food snobs, like wine snobs, know deep down that our honed interest in the ephemeral is pretty low down on the pecking order of things that actually matter. Consequently, in much the same way that our current government operates, we surround ourselves with like-minded sycophants who will be the first to forgive us for thinking that it does. So when the bill payer clicks his/her fingers at a chain restaurant minion and they come running, no-one from either camp dares question the validity of the challenge. Money talks, deafeningly when there isn’t much around, and putting an opinionated Herbert to rights is probably not worth losing your job for.

But it is a wafer-thin confidence, to be annihilated absolutely in the not too distant future by global events, the seething aficionados of packaged goods, and common sense. I predict a time when all celebrity chefs are dragged by the hair from their culinary idylls, thrown into the stocks and pelted to death with every last leaf of kale, lollo rosso and organically-farmed, locally-sourced cucumber that inevitably ended its days in the recycling bin. When coffee houses, like televisions in the 1950s, only offer black and white as an option, and if anyone with a manicured moustache demands anything with more than one syllable, they too will be executed on-site in the manner of Charles I and their remains fed to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s pigs. And when the beasts of Smithfield, at the point of their bloody departure from this world to the restaurants of St John Street, are given the option to turn the tables, they do so on the sole condition that they feast exclusively on their perpetrators.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the future.

Idle Eye 119 : The Things He Left Behind

In November 1922, Howard Carter & Lord Caernavon peered into the newly discovered tomb of Tutankhamun for the first time in over 3000 years, inside which were treasures beyond their wildest dreams. An incredible collection of objects were piled high in every chamber, patiently waiting for their passage to the afterlife where the owner would be judged on the quality of his offerings. Sadly, this was not the case when Chris’s House Clearance turned up at my dad’s gaff in Wales last week:

Chris:  Can you see anything?

Helper:  Yeah, loads. There’s about 80 teddies, some Xena Warrior Princess videos, a packet of Fisherman’s Friend, quite a lot of cardboard and a vibrating bed.

Chris:  A vibrating bed?

Helper:  Yep. And it’s got a remote. One for Sue Ryder, I reckon. Dirty sod.

He wasn’t far wrong. We all get assessed by the things we leave behind, and poor old dad didn’t do himself any favours in this department. And whilst I feel duty-bound to protect the modesty of my late father, it must be said that we, as a family, drew some not inconsiderable hilarity from the tale of the aforementioned bed. Apparently he bought it from a door-to-door salesman, on the understanding that it had massaging pads that would take care of his aching muscles as he lay recumbent. And for a few extra pounds, he could also purchase an attachment that opened the curtains at roughly the same speed that the head zone would raise itself up to a 90 degree position, affording the end user a magnificent view of the Welsh countryside as he made the transition from Nod to the new day. Which, of course, he did.

And yet it is some of the less significant items that remain the most poignant. The electronic alcohol sensor tucked discretely inside his medical bag, the WW1 ‘Magnapole’ compass that must have belonged to his grandfather (with his initials crudely scratched onto the face), the letter he wrote to his own father declaring gratitude and love despite their fiery differences, the half-eaten bag of Sports Mixture that came back from the hospital with his belongings. All these minuscule moments that say more about the man than what the lawyers cooly refer to as ‘chattels’, as if a life only has meaning by its monetary value.

I let Chris fill his boot(s). There was nothing at all left that really mattered, that I felt strongly enough to hang onto, that wouldn’t be served better by a new owner. But I did spend half a day sifting through photographs and selecting what I figured was an accurate, if edited, representation of a career spent largely under the public gaze. And a couple that weren’t. Ones in which we were actually touching when I was a child, something that didn’t happen much afterwards. And the big stuff I left for him. He’ll probably need it out there.

Idle Eye 118 : The Beginning of the End

A black moth shot out of my underpants as I was getting dressed this morning. Not in itself an event of seismic import, but a salient reminder of the passing of thrusting alpha-manhood nonetheless. It must have been rather ancient, as presumably younger moths would frequent the undergarments of more potent individuals, those who would favour Abercrombie & Fitch and the like over the Heath Robinson-esque monstrosities I squeeze myself into every day. And this ageing lepidoptera, exhausted from a lifetime of headbutting lightbulbs, would have given thanks to whatever God it believed in for this sedentary resting place, secure in the knowledge that it would remain undisturbed until its final day came. But sadly, it was not to be.

The symbolism of the moment was not lost on me: The moth, as any fule kno, is a portent of death. That, and that you don’t do dry-cleaning enough. I was understandably perturbed (the very thought of having to waste a Saturday morning bagging up laundry was too appalling to contemplate), but dealt with the issue in a manner fitting to anyone of a certain age familiar with micro-managing problems on a day-to-day basis: I forgot about it. But there is only so much evasion one can muster before the full weight of the inevitable crushes down hard upon the souls of the very simple: That moth was telling me something, and that something I really didn’t want to know.

I leapt onto Facebook for some light relief, as is my wont in times of distress. And up there at the top of my feed was one of those irritating Suggested Posts, this one from from the London Psychiatry Centre, suggesting I should do their wretched quiz to see if I was a one-in-four social pariah who drinks more than they recommend. Of course I was (the alternatives were patently absurd), and next thing I knew I was getting a personal pledge from Dr Christos Kouimtsidis to help me on my journey towards a healthier lifestyle.

Now, I have never met Dr Kouimtsidis and, to be perfectly honest, am unlikely to anytime soon. So it is doubtful I will get the opportunity to explain to him (through whichever slurred words he can understand), that the reason I am right up there on his critical list is because a moth has been residing in my pants for God knows how long, that my days left on Earth are clearly numbered and, this being the case, that perhaps I might choose to spend them cradling a bottle of something half decent rather than being bored witless in a Harley Street waiting room. At prices that would secure the former by the pallet load. Death, in whichever wondrous shape and form it has in mind for me, will bloody well come when I so choose, Dr K. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m off to the laundrette.

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 72 : The Next One

Being the offspring of a much-loved actor brings with it its own unique yet contradictory set of rules: You kind of choose the ones which seem to be most appropriate as you go. One minute you’re getting a guilty kick from all the reflected glory, the next you’re on the receiving end of astonishingly articulate and targeted cruelty. But don’t worry, it’s not real. He didn’t mean it. But somewhere along the line you have to second-guess which one is authentic and accept, for good or for bad, that that is the man. Then you try to love him: Not always as easy as it sounds.

You see, the problem with the profession is that in order to be good at it, you have to learn all the little tricks that allow you to successfully transform the nucleus of self into the embryonic form that lies within the script. And when you get better at it, these boundaries get blurred. Indeed, it is widely considered to be at the top echelons of achievement if you can pull this off. Which is fine within these confines, less so when the cameras have stopped rolling and the adulation on tap goes home for the night. Perhaps then, you introduce a little of the artifice into the domestic environment to keep the high going. And if it feels good, you introduce a little more. And slowly, very slowly, you begin to lose the very fabric that constitutes your true original.

For many actors, the above is a conscious choice: The Frankencharacters they create are often preferable to the reality deep within. But somewhere in there, they know what they’re doing and if they’re honest, they don’t much like themselves for it. The ennui this throws up needs an outlet, usually in the form of loved ones inside their immediate orbit as they will inevitably be the most forgiving. However, as any other child or spouse of someone in this process will tell you, it is the glimpse of authenticity we crave, however fleeting. Something concrete. Something honest. Otherwise who (or what) do we mourn when they go?

On Tuesday, we sent my Dad off to the Next One. First, in solemnity, at Mortlake Crematorium, and afterwards with a glass at the Idle Hour which Nibs closed for the wake. And it occurred to me, as I tried to keep a handle on contradictory emotions and maintain the kind of decorum expected of a firstborn, that I may have been doing exactly the same. That I was playing the role (rather well, in fact), instead of actually feeling it. And there was a moment in the garden when I looked around at the assorted guests and realised that the sum of those present did indeed make up the whole of the man: Everyone there represented a small strand, as did I, and that’s exactly how he chose to leave it. But a part of me will always yearn for the core. Even now.