Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Brake Failure

When the brakes failed at seventy miles an hour in rush hour on the M25 I didn’t panic, I calmly said the word 'no' as if in response to an incorrectly answered question. I used the gears to slow the car down and worked my way over to the inside lane, and then to the hard shoulder. I almost made it to a standstill but I ran out of road where the hard shoulder gave way to an exit. I had no choice but to take the exit, and ended up driving into the delightless Surrey town of Caterham.

I'm sure someone's going to put me right here - tell me how convenient Caterham is - just twenty minutes from all the top West End shows, the galleries, the museums - you're a mere thirty-seven minutes from the O2 Arena and there's a flower basket hanging off every lamp post - we've even got a Waitrose. But there’s a drabness and desperation to the place it’s as though most of the population are fully aware that they wouldn’t live anywhere near this place if it weren’t for its proximity to gainful employment in Central London. 

I pulled up alongside a row of terraced houses on the main road heading in to Caterham. I’d actually done a tour of the town - I found that by pumping the brakes I could bring them back to some semblence of functionality - apart from one heart-stopping moment when my foot hit the floor and the traffic ahead started getting alarmingly close because I’d forgotten to pump, the car seemed to be back to normal. I didn’t mean to do a tour of the town but I figured I needed to find somewhere safe to park for a couple of hours, somewhere accessible to an AA man in a tow truck. 

I saw the sign for Waitrose and naively assumed that a supermarket of that size and noteriety would have a car park (ok, I’ll admit it, I’ve been Americanised). It didn’t, so I followed signs for town centre parking and found myself driving into a multi-storey. A multi-storey car park isn’t much fun when you’re not sure of your braking power. I didn’t want to park in there because it turned out to be attached to a Morrison’s supermarket and it closed when the supermarket closed. I didn’t know how long I was likely to be there, I was facing an uncertain future.

I ended up facing the other way on the road I’d come in on, in a line of small parked cars outside a line of small terraced houses. Next to me, just the width of a Fiat Punto door away, traffic hurtled by. I studied the houses. I wondered who lived in them. I was acutely aware that even though I wasn’t in a resident parking space I was probably taking someone’s assumed space, and when they came home from work they’d have to park up the hill in a side street and unpleasantness might ensue. Parking wars. But parking wars assume a sense of community, or community spirit, and I don’t think there is any in this place. People move in, the renters, the buyers, they exist for a while, then they move out and exist somewhere else. If they were ever noticed they’re soon forgotten.

A very pregnant woman in a business suit walked past my car. She was talking on a phone. She put the key in the door of a house further up and let herself in. The neatly trimmed hedge gave this house an owner-occupied air. The one next door, the one I was parked outside looked rented - the flowerpot by the door containing a long dead plant, the discarded engine treatment oil container - they give some sort of clue. There’s a pride, or even a sense of duty that goes along with home ownership. The curtains of this one, the rented one, are drawn even though it’s only five thirty in the afternoon. Perhaps the occupant is a shift worker, maybe they’ve gone away on holiday, or left in the morning before it got light. Or the place is empty, waiting to be re-rented, to play host to some fresh misery. 

These places would have been built for workmen and their families in the nineteenth century. Front room or parlour for best, dining room, small kitchen. Upstairs two bedrooms and a box room off the back. Outhouse in the back yard. Front garden for flowers, back garden for vegetables. Humble places, all a workman needed. There have been a few upgrades but has anything really changed?

We generate a lot more rubbish these days. The front gardens once so charming are filled with colour-coded wheelie bins - a brown one for garden waste, blue for recycling, black for rubbish. There was even a small green one for food waste. When I was a kid we had a round galvanised dustbin which was emptied once a week even if it wasn’t full. Newspapers were used to light the fire, bottles were refundable, food scraps were thrown into the stove that heated the house and provided hot water. There was never much cardboard becuse we never bought anything. I’m not saying it was better - our lives were austere, the house was cold, I was forever hungry and I felt guilty for eating. But there was less trash, rubbish, garbage or detritus.

I wondered what the woman up the street, the pregnant woman, was doing. I imagined  she’d put her feet up - have to take it easy at that stage in a pregnancy. Perhaps they’d knocked the front room and the dining room through into one airy living space and extended the kitchen. There’s a lot you can do with a long galley kitchen ending in French doors opening onto a small patio, and a small patio would be all that remains of the back garden since the extension. She’s sitting on a white bar stool at the breakfast counter drinking herbal tea, dealing with a few emails. She’s divorced. She’s going it alone. She’s happily married to another solicitor - they’re both solicitors, and when the baby arrives there’ll be changes. By the time the time the child goes to school they’ll have relocated to Lewes.

Will the AA ever arrive?

There’s an app, an AA app, but it doesn’t work on my phone because I’m old so my phone is four years old which means it’s obsolete even though it’s a perfectly good phone and I see no reason to replace it. The AA was keeping me abreast of developments with regard to my breakdown case via regular texts which let me know every twenty minutes or so that due to the high volume of breakdowns in my area - hey, I’m your man on the ground here, I can very well understand how there could be a high volume of breakdowns around here - my recovery is going to be delayed by another ten or fifteen minutes (sad face emoticon).

The ten or fifteen minute delays were adding up, I had time to kill which is why I’d been making a detailed study of the houses and speculating on the occupants. I walked down the road to Waitrose in search of food and drink. As I was paying two young women popped their heads around the corner of the perspex screen meant to protect the cashier from the general public:

‘Do you sell party balloons?’ 

The woman was inches from my face. 

‘Back the fuck off’ said the nice if slightly odd older gentleman. 

I should become a psychopath. Perhaps I already am one.

I went in Nero’s. I think I went in there because it was open and everything else seemed to be closing. I ordered a cup of tea which came in a large mug and tasted vaguely of paprika. A long, skinny, suntanned man in a polo shirt was explaining the (apparently much misunderstood) Russian position in Ukraine to a short, rotund older man who was hanging on his every word and bemoaning the passing of Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t want to get involved, I didn’t feel anger or indignation, just mild irritation. I wished they’d shut the fuck up.

On my way back up the hill, I looked through the windows of a a ground floor flat in a brand new block. Great Opportunity! Hurry! Hurry! Last Few Remaining! The kitchen / living room / dining area looked out onto an eye-level flower bed strewn with weeds and litter, and beyond it the road, filled with angry, hurtling traffic. They’ll struggle to sell this one, but then again there’s always someone who’s desperate.

The AA van pulled up and a cheerful young man jumped out.

I couldn't help it: ‘You’ve got to get me out of this dump’ I said.

He laughed and told me he came from round here. I started to apologise but he said there was no need, he completely understood. I told him what had happened and he gave the car a thorough inspection. He couldn’t find anything wrong with it - he even asked me if I was sure I hadn’t mistakenly put my foot on the clutch instead of the brake. I tried not to be insulted - perhaps it was payback for calling his hometown a dump.

I got him to drive the car. We took it for a spin around deserted residential streets. He performed several violent emergency stops, wrangling and wrestling the steering wheel in an attempt to trick the brakes into another malfunction, but to no avail, the car behaved perfectly. In the end he told me he didn’t think it was going to happen again and advised me to either wait three hours for a tow truck or, if I was comfortable with it, to drive slowly home testing the brakes at regular intervals.

‘So what you’re saying is there’s a choice - I can either die of boredom here in Caterham or I can go out in a blaze of glory somewhere on the M25 - which will of course be your fault almost entirely.’

For a moment he looked quite shocked. 

’That’s a bit harsh’ he said and we both laughed. 

I drove home. The brakes were absolutely fine. I took it to the local garage, they couldn’t find anything wrong either.

I had a strange and spooky idea about this: I'd been down in Shoreham-by-Sea adressing the problem of a storage space which has been full of my late mother’s effects since before the pandemic and has been costing me a fortune. She had a lot of Ercol and G-Plan furniture of which she was very proud. When I was emptying the house I couldn’t quite bring myself to donate it all, so it went into a large and costly storage unit while we look around for buyers. The sale of the furniture would easily offset the cost of the storage unit, of course it would… And then the pandemic came along. The other day I drove down to Shoreham, called a man and van number, and in a mere forty minutes the furniture was being lovingly dusted down ready for sale at the local Emmaus and I was heading back to Norfolk. 

I sort of wondered if the brake failure was my mother expressing her displeasure at the disposal of her furniture. She was never mechanically minded so it’d be like her to go too far and nearly kill me on the M25. It’s a fanciful idea, I know. She’s probably off in some ever-blossoming orchard out in the celestial heavens, dancing eternity away with my dad, and never a cross word. She doesn’t need the furniture, she’d be pleased to see it helping people who need a fresh start.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Up The Bunting

I had a run-in with a gun person who attempted to explain to me how it all works:

Someone points a gun at you, he’s the bad guy, I’m pointing a gun at him, I’m the good guy - see how it works?

I didn’t see how it worked then and I still don’t. I offended him deeply when I suggested that if he shot someone in a scenario such as this, then far from being the big hero he’d probably shit his pants. He was very upset, I think I touched a nerve.

That was five or more years ago. Things have only got worse.

After every school shooting some moron always says that this just wouldn’t have happened if everyone was armed, and sure enough after this latest atrocity they said exactly that. I find the idea of a teacher of young children packing a gun deeply disturbing, and at the least, highly inappropriate. To me the inference here is that it would be okay for a child to see their teacher gunning someone down in their defence.

I don’t think any of this is at all okay.

Twitter and Instagram were suddenly beset with photos of bloated, blow-waved, beefcake couples reclining on trashy kingsize beds, surrounded by their obscenely impressive collections of firearms. Apparently they need automatic weapons to ward off feral hogs who can, and will, invade your home any minute now. I’ve never encountered a feral hog myself, but I’ve seen plenty of people around the neighborhood giving what I imagine is a more than passable imitation of one.

Guns, guns, guns - who woulda thunk it? - seems they’re America’s national obsession.

I’m pleased to spend time in Britain where the national obsession is football. I have no interest in football myself - it’s just not my thing - but I love the passion it invokes. And if I’m honest I’d love to attend a football match in a big stadium. My football prejudice stems from being ordered to go outside and play it in the rain and cold when I didn’t even know what it was. I was eight years old and I’d never heard of football so it came as a shock.

A gentle shock compared with the realisation that so many Americans have been quietly spending their hard earned pay on building a home arsenal.

We’re heading home for Catskill, New York tomorrow. I’m sorry to be leaving but happy to miss the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Seventy years on the throne - my my - are you going to be much longer in there Ma’am?

I don’t understand seventy - it seems to me they’ve got marriage and sovereignty rather conveniently confused. Seventy years of marriage would be a platinum jubilee but jubilees of the Queen’s reign have been celebrated so far in twenty five year increments. We - that is they - celebrated twenty five years, the silver jubilee, in 1977, then the golden jubilee twenty five years later in 2002, so shouldn’t the next one be twenty five years on from that in 2027?

I would have thought seventy five years would be a more celebration-worthy length of time, but let’s face it, she’s not likely to last another five years, and we need something to celebrate after all this pandemic nonsense etc etc…

My daughter put it very well the other day: why do we have to celebrate her? Couldn’t she celebrate us for a change? And who’s going to pay for it all. It’s more than the cost of a bit of bunting, and I’m pretty sure it’s not coming out of the royal coffers.

I had an idea that would be bound to win popular support and increase the waning popularity of the British monarchy - how about if the Queen donated an amount equivalent to the income tax she would have paid if the Royal Family had paid income tax from the beginning of her reign? 

She could donate it to a fund to help people who are suffering hardship due to the current economic crisis.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Quincy, Recording, A Wedding Anniversary & A Run In With The Law

I keep writing stuff and not posting any of it - the world lurches from crisis to crisis and what I write quickly becomes irrelevant, inappropriate at at the very least just plain glib. I won’t write stuff about what’s wrong with the human race, and tell everyone how to put the planet to rights because it’s really not my place to do so, and most of the people who read what I occasionally write would probably agree with me on everything I’d have to say, so there’s really very little point.

And there are the others, the ones who disagree. I get so jangled by internet confrontations. I used to be stronger than I am now, but since having Covid and a heart attack in quick succession, and dealing with this thing called Long Covid, I’m not tough enough to take up the fight. Though I handled it coolly, a Facebook dust up with the daughter of a friend who told me my post was a fucking disgrace and I shouldn’t be in a creative industry left me depleted for the better part of a week. 

It was a joke concerning Eric Clapton in the wake of his anti-vaccine proclamations. I said that after careful consideration I was banning him from attending any of the shows on my US tour last October. It gave rise to a lot of anti-Clapton vitriol. I didn’t join in but as far as this person was concerned I was to blame and had relinquished any right to be in a creative industry.


Whatever the word in means in this context, and whatever industry it is that I’m supposed to be in that might be at all creative. 

The tremors, the palpitations, the extreme anxiety and upset that this sort of thing incurs just aren’t worth it. So from that point of view I’ve decided to be a human cabbage. 

I’ve been recording , and I’ve been recording, and I’ve been recording. I just finished mixing a song I recorded together with Amy for a forthcoming compilation album, a tribute to Badfinger. I’m never sure about these kinds of projects but I can never resist an invitation to participate. I had to work hard at it because I wasn’t sure the song had much going for it.

We started out with a random bass synthesiser loop, Amy played the Wurlitzer electric piano while I played an electric guitar with a load of delay and reverb on it.  We strummed a couple of acoustic guitars together around one mic and then overdubbed a couple more. We recorded a track of brushed cymbals and started on the vocals.

We sang in harmony - I sang it, then Amy sang with my vocal, then I replaced my vocal. The lyrics meant nothing to either of us. The track sounded great but the vocals were prosaic and lacklustre. At various points I wanted to give up on it but we kept going. I sent my vocal out through a Boss vocoder pedal and into my wonderful Moog Opus which Amy played. The result was other worldly and decidedly creepy. We put some oscillator noises on it and a casual bass guitar here and there and it suddenly came together. 

I wish I could do that with some of my own tracks. I spent bits of yesterday wrangling a track into shape in between celebrating out fourteenth wedding anniversary. It was a great day. In the morning we somehow got onto the subject of Quincy, played by Jack Klugman. I can’t imagine how we got there but Amy asked me if I’d ever watched the show. 

I was a huge fan, possibly for a lot of the wrong reasons, but I’ll readily admit to it. I watched it for the outfits - you never knew what he was going to be wearing next: loud checkered sports jackets with huge lapels; chunky V necked pullovers; windcheaters with elaborate collars and complicated arrangements of buttons or press studs. Every scene was a fashion shocker. Re-runs of Quincy were required late night viewing through the nineteen eighties.

We watched most of an episode involving the illegal dumping of toxic waste, featuring Quincy in a succession of golfing jackets and a big suede affair with sheepskin collar and cuffs, and patch pockets. Amy said she can see where I get my fashion sense. I hadn’t realised how much Quincy had rubbed off on me. I’d like to think that if he really existed we could be friends, maybe go thrift store shopping together.

It felt very decadent to be watching Quincy at ten o’clock in the morning, but it was our wedding anniversary after all.

Later on we decided to go for dinner and chose a restaurant down in Rhinebeck that looked suitably upscale and disgustingly expensive. We set off in my old Mercury Cougar talking enthusiastically about the writing of books, the making of records, and, of course, our rediscovered hero, Quincy. Amy usually keeps a check on my speed but she was having a night off. It was a country road that I’ve driven on many times. The speed limit changes every couple of miles. The Cougar was running perfectly and we were bowling along when I saw red and blue lights in the rearview mirror. I slowed down and prepared to pull in so he could pass me. Only he didn’t, he pulled in behind.

‘Have you any idea why I stopped you sir?’

‘I think it might be because I was going a little too fast…’

‘You were doing seventy-seven miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone.’

‘Oh wow! The car really is running well tonight…’

He asked where we were going and we told him. Amy took the opportunity to mention that it was our wedding anniversary. He asked how long we’d been married. I stuttered a bit over the answer to that, as you do, but I think it gave me a bit of guys together credibility

All this time we’d been trying to find the registration but for some reason it wasn’t in the car. I was having visions of celebrating our anniversary alone in a jail cell. He took my licence and headed off for his patrol car. He came back a couple of minutes later, handed back the licence with a smile, wished us a happy wedding anniversary, and told me to watch my speed.

I thought how different this encounter might have been had we been young and black instead of old, white, and heading for the stodgy town of Rhinebeck.

I don't usually drive so fast in thirty-five mile an hour zones but this one wasn’t exactly populated and I didn't see the sign. I’m usually more mindful. I don’t drive through neighbourhoods at breakneck speed.

Dinner was no great shakes but we enjoyed it anyway. There were an inordinate amount of waiting staff including a young man who kept coming around with a bottle of tap water. He topped us up and said Enjoy. He did this three times. The main or most prevalent waitress put me in mind of a shark with a ponytail. Vicious in her determination to do the absolute minimum.

It made us happy to be up here in Catskill. We’re lucky.

We came home and watched the last episode of the Warhol Diaries. Amy promised she wouldn’t cry but I think she did anyway. It was a happy sad ending.

I lay exhausted on the sofa. Amy googled Jack Klugman and we listened to him talking about the beginnings of Quincy. No one thought it would last more than four episodes, least of all Jack Klugman. But his cynicism turned to belief and it endured for eight seasons between 1977 and 1983.

Amy wondered why Quincy was such a success. 

The answer came to me in a flash from somewhere in the mists between awake and sleeping: those moist and soulful eyes, almost unable to bear the latest injustice, this week’s wrong which must be put right. Quincy is a good guy, the kindest, most tenacious, and fair-minded man that never existed. He lives on a boat with a vast collection of sports jackets and windcheaters. He’s a latter day male version of a fairy godmother. The world needs someone like Quincy. How could he not prevail?