Friday, 31 July 2015


It was Monday evening and I'd been struggling with a pain in my lower gut for most of the day. To be specific, pain should here be regarded as an overstatement, discomfort being the more accurate term. A month or so before, I'd experienced something which could be more securely identified as pain - and quite severe pain at that - in the same spot, and it was so bad that I'd ended up at the emergency medical clinic on Broadway. The doctor told me I had something called diverticulitis, prescribed codeine and antibiotics, and then sent me on my way. I stuck to the recommended diet, low fibre switching to high fibre after a few weeks. I took my medicine and everything seemed fine; and yet here I was again.

Diverticulitis results from tiny pockets developing in the wall of the lower intestine. Small items of food can become trapped in these pockets and go bad, leading to infection or worse. This was what I had, and the doctor warned me off eating anything containing small seeds. Sesame seeds seemed to be the worst. I had eaten beans on toast on Sunday evening in response to a craving, and couldn't understand why suddenly I felt unwell again after more or less a month without any trouble. One stipulation of the recommended initial low fibre diet had been the avoidance of the skin of certain vegetables, requiring for example that I peel my potatoes before boiling them. Baked beans had skins, I realised, so maybe it was that. In any case, the discomfort wasn't anything like so bad as it had been on the previous occasion, so I figured it would probably be okay. Maybe it was just good old honest indigestion.

At about eight in the evening we went back to the emergency medical clinic just in case. I would see a doctor, get another prescription for codeine and antibiotics, and everything would be fine. We sat in the waiting room for a while, my wife and myself, and then were ushered into a small room. A nurse asked me questions, took my blood pressure, and took me to have a CT scan, which was kind of unexpected. Even more unexpected was when we returned to the first room and she jabbed a massive hypodermic needle into the crook of my elbow, hooking me up to a drip of saline solution and morphine. This was something new. I was now attached to an IV buddy, a mobile stand with the bags of fluid, the tubes and so on, and I wasn't entirely sure why. This wasn't how it had happened last time.

'What do you think?'

'I don't know,' my wife told me.

The discomfort wasn't anything like so bad as it had been on the previous occasion, and yet the treatment I was receiving suggested something more serious. Furthermore, I had just discovered how much I hated hypodermic needles. I'd been inoculated plenty of times, and had of course received injections at the dentist. I imagined myself more or less without fear where needles were concerned. I now realised that this was because I'd never before been pierced by one of the big military issue fuckers tooled from sharpened lengths of steel pipe, just little pinpricks which can be ignored if you think about something else hard enough for a second or two. By way of compensation, the morphine was really beginning to kick in. I felt enveloped in psychic cotton wool, moderately euphoric, and with a renewed insight into the writing of William S. Burroughs.

'Man, this be some good shit right here,' I told Bess without any of the irony which would ordinarily have underlined such an observation. I knew the morphine and the drip meant there was a possibility of my being in serious trouble, but for the moment I didn't really mind too much.

We waited.

Eventually, as the my body metabolised the morphine - or however it works - I began to mind.

Another member of staff arrived, a woman whose name I forget played by Judith Furse who had given such a memorable performance as the evil Doctor Crow in Carry On Spying. Oddly, she was still in character. She asked me to describe my symptoms.

I began to describe my symptoms, and she started talking over me before I'd even reached the halfway point of the first sentence.

'You have diverticulitis, Mr. Burton,' she told me frostily. 'It's not just going to go away. You have it whether you like it or not, and you're going to have to take it seriously.'

I continued my statement regardless. I wasn't going to be interrupted, and certainly not by someone who had actually asked me to answer her question in the first place. Marian used to do that all the time, prompting you to speech and then speaking over you as part of some sort of passive-aggressive pissing contest. It was annoying, and I had learned to simply continue my monologue with greater force despite the interruption. Now I considered Doctor Crow's ominous warning.

You have it whether you like it or not, and you're going to have to take it seriously.

I thought back to the previous visit to the emergency medical clinic, that poor egg-headed physician stuttering his useless brainiac advice as Bess and I piled back into our hotrod.

'Whatever you say, Poindexter!' I had laughed, slamming a cassette of Link Wray's Rumble into the tape deck and spitting out a demonstrative mouthful of Wild Turkey. I turned to my wife. 'Hit the gas, baby. Let's go get us some sesame seeds and 'tater skins.'

But now I would have to take my diverticulitis seriously.

'Maybe if someone would actually tell me what the problem is,' I suggested pointedly. No-one had yet delivered anything resembling a verdict on why I should require a saline drip, morphine, or CT scan, much less whether anything had been revealed by the same.

Doctor Crow responded with further bewildering admonishments regarding the severity of my condition, whilst leaving said condition still entirely unquantified, and then she left the room. As the door was briefly opened I caught a snatch of conversation between two other members of staff, one of them being the man who had talked me through the CT scan. It sounded like something had popped, and I picked up the words trailing fat. My mind's eye formed a picture of a diverticule resembling a tiny burst balloon leaking blobs of liquefied bacon rind into the surrounding region of my abdomen.

Thankfully this wasn't what had happened, as the next nurse to arrive explained, but it was something which might happen in which case I would be in serious trouble. She began to discuss hospitals.

'I'm not going home tonight?' I still couldn't square this - whatever it was that was happening - with the fact of my not actually being in any serious amount of pain, as I had been on the previous occasion.

'You're fine at the moment,' she told me, 'but you should probably go into hospital as a precaution in case it gets any worse.'


I'd never been in hospital, not as a patient, and certainly not staying overnight. This was all very unexpected, and it was difficult to know what to think.

'The ambulance will be about forty minutes. Do you need to get anything from home?'

'Ambulance?' Bloody hell. I shared a look with my wife. 'Can't we just drive there.'

The nurse went back out to consult with Doctor Crow, then returned to tell us that it would be okay. She removed my drip, and I sat in the waiting room as my wife went home to pick up a few things - my diary, toothbrush, and something to read during my stay. As we left, Doctor Crow looked up from securing Kenneth Williams to a conveyor belt, bisected at halfway along its length by a huge circular saw. She smiled. 'You will be seeing Doctor Narvaez,' she told me. 'He is a great doctor. You will like him.'

'Okay,' I said, trying to work out whether she had failed to understand that we were enemies, or whether she understood it very well, and this new, friendlier tone was simply part of some strategy.

What a strange woman. How the hell did she know whether or not I was going to like the guy? How did she know that Narvaez and myself would not both perish, locked together in a fight to the death with lasers on the airless surface of some distant asteroid, our dying moments shared like dancers in some fatal ballet? Could she claim to see the future?

We drove to North East Methodist, and then spent ten minutes looking for signs of life. It was approaching midnight, and only the emergency admissions desk was still manned. After the traditional round of filling in yet more forms with the same information I had already submitted five or six times - the sort of thing you might imagine would have become unnecessary since the advent of information technology - I was dressed in one of those gowns which leaves one's arse exposed, and settled into a room. There were two beds in the room, but the other remained unoccupied during my stay, so I took the bed next to the window and was afforded a good view of the most spectacular storms to hit Texas since I moved here. A succession of different nurses came and went, asking more of the same questions, probing an agonising succession of major veins and arteries before eventually finding one in my hand which would be good for the drip.

Next day I was back on the clear liquid diet I'd been obliged to endure back in March. Bess brought her laptop in and worked at my bedside. I dozed, failed to enjoy a collection of Graham Greene short stories, and watched crap television - mostly peoples' court shows in which network appointed judges arbitrate disagreements between different groups of tattooed losers who either owe each other money or want their cars back; but I also found time to catch up with El Chavo, an eye-watering Mexican sitcom in which tiny argumentative children are played by adults in kinderwear with freckles drawn on their faces. The humour is based mainly on the premise of it being funny when people fall over or are hit in the face with a frying pan. It's like a more nightmarish version of the Benny Hill show, but all in screeching Spanish.

Eventually the fabled Doctor Narvaez turned up, and uncannily I found that I really did like him. I told him about my previous bout of diverticulitis, the low fibre diet and so on.

He pulled a face and waved a dismissive hand. 'I have my doubts as to whether any of that makes any difference,' he said. 'The jury is still out on much of this. It seems better just to remember what foods give you trouble, and then don't eat them.'

I recalled a recent indigestive flare-up immediately following the consumption of a burger bun from which I couldn't be bothered to scrape the sesame seeds. I decided that the Narvaez version rang more true than the previous advice I had been given.

Next day I was on solid but bland food, extended even to overcooked brisket and broccoli - a terrible choice for someone suffering from diverticulitis according to my earlier understanding. I ate with pleasure, having previously resigned myself to nothing but apple juice and broth for at least three days; and I experienced no ill effects.

The second evening came, and the head nurse returned to admonish me about my failure to follow her directive. She had showed me a pair of sleeves made of some material. These were to be fitted over my lower legs before I went to sleep in order to prevent blood clots.

'Blood clots!?'

'Yes, blood clots,' and she began to describe the clotting process as though I had never heard of such a thing.

'Wait. Am I at any serious risk of having blood clots form in my legs? Is this something associated with diverticulitis?'

She didn't seem to understand the question, only that I should do as told. She began to tell me about circulation.

'I'm forty-nine,' I said. 'I cycle fifteen miles a day. I think my circulation is probably okay, unless you know something that I don't.'

She didn't seem to understand this either.

I had spent the night either sweating or shivering because I found the bed uncomfortable and the air conditioning never seemed to be quite as I would have wanted. It was difficult to sleep as it was, even without nurses waking me up at 4.00AM so as to make sure I'd been sleeping properly, or to take a blood sample, or to ask whether I'd done a poo yet. I wasn't going to swathe my legs in something hot and uncomfortable as preventative to something which wasn't going to happen anyway.

Next evening, the same head nurse made an indulgent tutting noise. 'We've been a naughty boy,' she said, explaining that I would not be able to wriggle out of it for a second evening. No-one was dying of poor circulation on her watch.

I said nothing, but apparently projected a field of ambient hostility of such strength as to prevent her from further pushing the issue.

By Thursday I was deemed out of risk and well enough to return home. An orderly conveyed me to the exit in a wheelchair because patients aren't allowed to make the trip from bed to parking lot under their own steam.

'This is for legal reasons, right?'

He chuckled. 'Once you've made it outside, whatever happens to you out there is your problem.'

That seemed to be the end of it, barring a colonoscopy about a month later, the duration of which I spent under general anaesthetic. Nothing was found beyond a single small polyp - which I should probably have looked at in another five years - and that the offending diverticule is very small, and that my colon is otherwise so clean that you could probably eat your dinner off it.

So there you go.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Escape Velocity

I had been with Marian since September 2005, three years and four months. The honeymoon period had lasted about three weeks, until about half way through October 2005 beyond which point I spent a great deal of time telling myself that things would even out and get better if I could just hang in there and have patience. I was wrong. Nothing I did ever seemed to be good enough for Marian, and the central issue of any disagreement always became my problem, my poor attitude, my refusal to listen, my inability to respect Marian's innate right to be the forever injured party in any given situation, my stubborn refusal to attend expensive self-help workshops held in Leeds by an organisation of dubious qualification. It became exhausting, but I hung in there having decided that it was somehow better than being single.

Three years later I felt like killing myself in an absolutely literal rather than figurative sense. I could see nothing positive in my future. I was trapped both economically and emotionally, and all the fight had been passive-aggressived out of me. I was resigned to a future with Marian, one in which I would forever be in the wrong, and in which my performance as a purveyor of caringness, acceptitude and other qualities invented by snake-oil peddling authors of self-help literature would be under constant evaluation; and I would be found continually wanting. Each time I lay soaking in a hot bath after a tough morning at work, just before that day's roll call of ways in which I had been found wanting, I was aware of the possibility of my opening up a wrist and just letting it happen. I could see no other way out of this slow death. I no longer had the energy necessary to achieve escape velocity.

Nevertheless, the fight or flight response eventually kicked in, possibly brought on by the prospect of my third Christmas with Marian, another one spent listening to her explain how I had ruined everything, how she hadn't liked the presents I had bought her, and how this had once again exposed my essentially selfish nature. I began looking for a flat of my own. I had been living as a lodger in Marian's spare bedroom for nearly a year. I knew I would be most likely unable to afford even a medium-sized flat despite my working full time and bringing home a reasonably respectable wage, but it was get out or die, and almost anything would be better than the situation as it stood. I would get out and then, from my newly secured position of relative safety, I would tell her it was over and that it had been over for a long, long time. I would once again have a front door of my own which I would be able to close and lock with Marian on the other side.

'I'm moving out,' I told her. 'I'm looking for a flat. It's too cramped with us living on top of each other like this.'

She didn't see it that way. She worked a part time job, usually a few days a month, and had become reliant upon what I paid in rent as her principal means of income. This was a good deal for her, in addition to the satisfaction she clearly took from reminding me what a big favour she was doing me. As my stated intentions now represented a clear deviation from Marian's vision, they were essentially selfish and inconsiderate. She stopped talking to me, which was actually surprisingly pleasant. When I entered a room, she would leave. Terry at work proposed that I should stand at the entrance of whichever room she was in, and then walk backwards and forwards across the threshold, in and out, in and out, over and over, just to see what she would do.

I began to look at other flats. They were all tiny, horrible, and ridiculously expensive. I was returning from looking at one in Peckham, happening to arrive back at our front gate just as Marian returned from the shops. As we were no longer officially speaking to each other, she had taken to making her own shopping trips under protest. This replaced the existing system which had entailed her sending me out with a list of obscure and pretentious ingredients no-one had ever heard of, then blaming me for the failure of local shops to stock whatever it was which had been demanded by this week's ostentatious fad diet.

'Where have you been?'

'I've been to look at a flat,' I told her. 'It was horrible.'

'Good,' she exclaimed with undisguised pleasure, and we went inside to resume hostilities. The silence lasted until, I suppose, Marian realised I was sort of enjoying the admittedly somewhat icy calm, and so she changed tack.

'When are you moving out?' she demanded testily. 'I need to know. Either you're staying or you're going. You need to stop dragging your heels. It isn't fair on me.'

Now it couldn't come soon enough. She had allowed me to move in with her, albeit as a lodger, in good faith, and she had known all along that it was a mistake; and she had been right. I had let her down, as usual.

Against expectations, I had soon found a flat in Linwood Close, Camberwell, small but very clean and nice enough, and I was already moving stuff in there, one box at a time. It didn't really seem like there would be much point keeping Marian informed. The only reason she was even interested was for the sake of ammunition, whichever detail of the latest development could be weaponised as evidence of my continuing failure as a human being. It wasn't so much that Marian was unable to feel good about herself, as that she was unable to feel good about herself without pushing down on someone else so as to achieve the desired elevation. She needed the failings of others for the sake of contrast by which she was able to see herself as roughly functional.

I packed and moved as quickly as I could, keeping out of her way and then hiring a man with a van to take the great bulk of all my crap in one big hit. Marian had said she would be out that Saturday morning, but of course she wasn't, having failed to get out of bed on time followed by the customary change of plan. She complained as the man with the van smoked in her hallway, specifically she complained to me. I relayed the objection and my hired hand shrugged and put out his cigarette. We brought boxes down the stairs whilst Marian glowered and offered the occasional objection to the noise or the disruption to the ordinarily smooth running of her household. Eventually we carried the two large bookcases I had built myself down the stairs. Some paint was scraped from a banister, and Marian added sixty pounds to my final rent cheque to cover the cost of paint and general distress. As we carried the bookcase along the hall and out of the front door, I brushed against a woollen hat hung from the hall stand. I had asked if we could move the hall stand out of the way whilst carrying all my stuff out, but this would apparently have been too great a disruption, and so the precious woollen hat was knocked from its hook and fell to the floor.

'Are you going to pick that up, or were you just going to leave it?' Marian almost screamed, emerging from the front room.

My hands were full of bookcase, the transportation of which was of such difficulty that I wasn't even able to turn my head. I didn't bother to offer a reply.

'Jesus fucking Christ,' mumbled my driver. 'I can see why you're moving out.'

Later that day, I was in my own flat in Camberwell, a bus journey and a ten minute walk away from Marian. The silence was wonderful. The sense of freedom was incredible. I unpacked and began to settle in.

Three weeks had passed since I told her I was moving out. I had not yet told her that our relationship was over so far as I was concerned. I had not yet summoned the courage. Christmas had been and gone, and had been roughly as much fun as anticipated. I hadn't eaten for an entire three days prior to Santa's visit, not even a packet of crisps. I was dimly aware of this being unhealthy and possibly indicative of a serious degree of stress, but I got through it because I was at last on the home stretch. I told Marian that I had been so unhappy as to have not eaten for three days, and naturally she took it as further evidence of my basic psychological deficiencies resulting from my failure to take her advice, or even to listen to anything she ever said. New Year's Eve was coming up, and she was already thinking about which party we would go to, what I would wear and so on. We were apparently on talking terms again. I suppose she had grasped the falsehood of my moving out being ultimately for the best in terms of our relationship because she preferred it to the thought that I might wish to end that relationship. It had seemed politic to let her believe as much whilst I arranged to move out, because I had feared coming home to find she'd made a bonfire of all my stuff; but now that I was done, there no longer seemed much point in prolonging the agony.

'I can't live like this,' I said, 'flaming rows over nothing every single day.'

'All couples argue, Lawrence,' she told me as though it were self-evident. 'It's the sign of a healthy relationship.'

I smiled and told her it was over.

She ranted and raved and made numerous accusations, all of which could have been levelled at her with some justification.

'You're projecting,' I observed.

'Ooh projecting,' she parroted in a ludicrous attempt at sarcasm. 'Do you even know what it means?'

Marian had the shelf full of books with titles like Success Be My Rainbow, had attended expensive self-help workshops held in Leeds by an organisation of dubious qualification; and I had made a psychological observation without first seeking her permission. I was impinging on her territory. Only Marian understood such things. I myself was far too simple, which was why I never listened.

I laughed because it was funny. 'I know what it means, and that's what you're doing, because it's what you've always done, and what you will always do. Nothing is ever your fault, is it, Marian? Nothing is ever your responsibility.'

It felt good telling her that, and even better saying 'oh just fuck off,' in response to the subsequent stream of psychobabble drivel she unloaded in further illustration of my inherent uselessness.

We spoke on the telephone a week later, by which time I had become a much happier person. Her tone was light, conversational, as though no exchange of harsh words had occurred. She was working on Thursday afternoon and for most of the evening, and wanted to know would I be able to stop by and feed the cats for her. She had no other friends to whom she could turn for such favours, for reasons which are probably obvious.

'I live in Camberwell now,' I pointed out, in illustration of why this was quite a lot to ask. I was actually surprised she had asked me.

She began to rant and rave about how selfish I was, and how she was glad to at last be rid of me.

'I don't have to listen to this shit any more, Marian,' I said. 'If you want a favour from me, it's in your best interest to keep a civil tone, and use of the word please wouldn't hurt either.'

She immediately calmed, and even sounded a little shocked by my response; and I said yes because it was the cats, and they were the only thing about life at Marian's house I would ever be able to recall as a fond memory. So I cycled over one evening, still with my own front door key, and fed the cats.

It happened a couple of more times, and I didn't mind because it was the cats and I was at last in a position to say no without my failure to obey orders incurring some sort of character assassination. Then she came over on the pretext of using my PC to look up jobs on the internet. I wasn't entirely happy about this, but it seemed like it would be more awkward saying no than not. She twittered away happily, complimenting me on my new flat, acting as she had done when we first met, the happy little elf girl with the sparkly eyes. She fell asleep on my bed for two hours, having failed to find whatever it was that she had been looking for on the internet, and then I said, 'I'll walk you to the bus stop.'

As we walked, she talked and I realised that she understood our separation to be merely a hiatus, that we would be together again before too long. It was just something I had needed to get out of my system, me with my poor simple man brain. It was a mid-life crisis.

'I expect you'll find a new partner before I do,' she joked, or suggested with the inflection of a joke, now contradicting her previous assessment of our new relationship.

'I already have
,' I said, because I had.

We walked on along Grove Park, and I couldn't tell whether she had heard me or not. We crossed Camberwell Grove, and then went along Stories Road towards her bus stop.

'I'm sorry if I was a bit school ma'am-ish,' she told me, and put her arms around me as we reached the shelter on Dog Kennel Hill. School Ma'am-ish didn't really seem to cover those years of passive-aggressive bullying, but I didn't care enough to argue and I was more bothered by this apparent resumption of physical affections.

'Did you not hear me saying I'd met someone else?'

She leapt back as though subject to an electric shock. Evidently she hadn't heard. 'But what about us?'

'We are no longer in a relationship. I thought that was pretty clear.'

'We're just having time apart.'

'No. We aren't.' Despite everything, it was difficult to take pleasure from this awkwardly distended termination.

'I wish you would make sense.' She was getting angry as usual, telling me I had been playing a game, leading her on. 'How am I supposed to feel about that, Lawrence?'

'I don't know. It's up to you.'

She fell silent and furious for a moment, then, 'Who is she?'

'Someone I've met. We get on really well. She's American.'

'How old is she?'

I lied, adding five years to Bess's age, having recognised Marian's idiotic assumption that the only reason I could possibly have chosen someone over her was due to my being mid-life crisis man seeking the younger model.

The bus arrived and Marian climbed aboard, taking that last wonderful ride out of my life.

Five years later and I am only beginning to process some of this stuff, and I am constantly astonished at how generally wonderful my life has become in comparison to the crawling misery of the years with East Dulwich's most violently well-adjusted bachelorette. Sometimes I think back and feel sorry for her, forever lost to the misery of her own making and unable to understand why. Other times I am tempted to send her a postcard:

Very happily married four years and not one flaming row in all that time, so I guess it really was you all along!

I like to think I'm better than that, and generally I am. I cannot take pleasure in someone else being unhappy, no matter how big a twat they may be or how deserving, and so I write in order to make sense of it all, and in order to turn some of this shit into something which, if not quite gold, is at least no longer shit.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as they say.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Sausage, Egg and Chips

I am back in England, and specifically I am back in East Dulwich. It's a brief visit mainly for the purposes of catching up with old friends. I moved out of London in 2009, and haven't been back to England in the last two and a half years. Even more specifically it is Monday and I'm in the Dulwich Café on Lordship Lane, just next to the Lord Palmerston and I'm eating sausage, fried egg and chips in a fit of nostalgia, crossing another item from the list of things to eat whilst I'm back in the old country because it isn't quite the same as what you get in Texas. The Dulwich Café was my favourite café after Ken's place in Crystal Palace Road closed down. I would drop in every Saturday after work and read whatever rap magazine had hit the news-stand that week over a plate of sausage, egg, chips and beans. Today I've given the baked beans a miss because I'm jetlagged and am feeling a bit weird, but the rest tastes as good as ever.

I'm pretty sure the place used to be called Starburger, but Dulwich has changed since I've been away. The framed photos of boxers, James Dean, and various rat pack types have been replaced by tasteful aerial views of London, and the windows are now hand painted with images of healthy wholemeal rolls stuffed with rocket and falafel. Thankfully, inside it's still very much wipe-clean formica tables, ketchup, and actual working people, some of whom are still to be found in East Dulwich, still holding out against the encroachment of braying upwardly mobile tossers in red trousers.

I'd eaten sausage, egg and chips on Friday morning in another café, over in Bermondsey. The tables were Formica, each one of my fellow diners wore a high visibility tabard, and the radio blasted out that autotuned hybrid of grime and R&B which the English yoots dem seem so keen on these days innit. It was fucking beautiful.

Right now, eating my second plate of sausage, egg and chips of the trip, I realise I am sat at the table at which I last saw Nelly.

When I transferred to East Dulwich sorting office in 1993 or thereabouts, I was assigned to a walk in the corner of the building, working between Debbie and Graham, with Terry on the other side of Debbie, and Nelly at the back against the outer wall. These were the first people I came to know in the office because we were all huddled together as described for a couple of hours each morning. Graham was difficult to figure out, and seemed to spend most of his time chuckling at Ron's jokes - Ron being the postman working on the other side of him; but Debbie and Terry were funny, and I found it easy to get on with them, particularly once I began to pick up on the private jokes, most of which were based on imagined embarrassing or even pornographic situations encountered whilst delivering mail to easily offended members of the local clergy.

You probably had to be there.

Nelly, a Turkish woman with glasses and a severe haircut appeared initially less genial. She often seemed to take jokes the wrong way, or would attempt cracks of her own which didn't quite work. She was prone to angry or emotional outbursts, and struck me as somewhat intense.

'You know she's mad, yeah?' Debbie told me one day as Nelly went off to collect her registered items.


'She's been in a mental home and everything. She's all right though. She's on some medication or summink.'

By this point I'd already accrued a couple of psychiatrically unorthodox friends, so I knew the form, and Nelly suddenly made a lot more sense.

'She's a lesbian too.'

'What? Really?'

Debbie nodded, and I squared this new information against Nelly's appearance, which made few concessions to conventional femininity. Strangely, I found I was impressed. Royal Mail could be a pretty tough place to work at times. You kept yourself to yourself, revealing nothing which could be weaponised against you as part of the ongoing war against all which might be deemed either a bit soft or a bit too fancy for its own good. Generally I didn't have much to say about the three years I'd spent at art college, so this open declaration of sexuality struck me as very brave. In Nelly's case, maybe it hadn't actually been an open declaration of sexuality so much as something which just got around, and which she had no interest in denying, but still it suggested a certain strength of character.

Gradually I got to know her better, at least enough to realise that she actually did have a sense of humour, but found little reason to engage it at work. On Saturday the 24th of September 1994, I wrote the following short autobiographical story, attempting to capture an incident which had occurred at the sorting office:

Nelly was swearing. The air was blue with fuck, shit, wank and others. She was often tense as a result of doing too much overtime. Still, not my fault, or anyone else's for that matter. Today she was swearing because she'd been doing too much overtime and because of her car. Some other road user had scratched past taking paint off the door. Was it Wednesday? Thursday? Well, today was Saturday and she was swearing a lot.

'What's wrong, Nelly dearest?' enquired the ever polite Terry Nevitt from beneath his bald patch.

'Fuck off!' she exploded without bothering to turn around. 'Don't call me fucking Nelly. Me name's Onel for the last bleeding time.'

She continued to sort mail into the Northcross Road frame, swearing quietly as she did so. Fuck. Shit. Wank. Each profanity was neatly punctuated by the dull thud of a gas bill striking home.

5, Archdale Road.



7, Archdale Road.



9, Archdale Road.



'Is it tea break yet?'

Onel spins around to glare at Debbie. 'If she asks is it fucking tea once more I'll... I'll fucking knock her out!'

'I didn't fucking say a word!' Debbie turns to me. 'Lawrence, did I say anything?'

'No,' I answer. 'It was Jen.'

Jenny mumbles something in fluent northern. We continue to sort in silence broken only by the steady drumming of letters going into frames.

Now Onel has gone outside. She rushes back in, muttering testily and then leaves again. Debbie tells me she's gone to the police station. She's seen a car in Pellat Road that may well have done the dirty deed. The dented bumper matches her scratch. She's very fond of that Mini is Nelly.


We're in the van - me, Ben, and Graham. Ben drives. We turn out of the bay, down Pellat Road passing Onel. She's stood by her car talking to a policeman.

'So what was all that about?' I ask.

'Nelly had a scratch on the door about the size of Graham's cock,' answers Ben indicating with his thumb and index finger the size in question. Very small.

Graham laughs and splutters in his usual undignified manner. He's holding his hands apart, his arms at as full a stretch as the confined space of the van will allow. He's trying to indicate something very large but nobody believes him and we don't understand what he's saying through the raucous farting guffaws that shower his spit onto the dashboard.

Her name was Onel and we became friends, partially because she was essentially a driven and fairly lonely individual reliant upon medication in order to keep her brain running along in a straight line, and partially because in the working environment of Royal Mail, you tend to value those of your colleagues whose brains work at all, those who are able to talk about something other than fucking football.

We went out for walks together on the occasional afternoon after work, just to the local park or whatever. Sometimes I invited her over for tea and would cook something or other, and sometimes she would return the compliment and cook for me. We were lonely people in a huge city with similar problems, and Nelly being a lesbian somehow made things easier for both of us, there being no awkwardly compatible interests to be avoided for the sake of decorum. One evening we went over to Juanita's house in Forest Hill, just for a drink and the purpose of generally talking shit. I only vaguely knew Juanita as a short, apparently surly woman from Catford sorting office, my previous place of employment, although we hadn't really had much to do with each other; but it was better than staying at home, and I was curious to hear how things had been going at Catford since I left.

It turned out that Juanita was also a lesbian, and this was how she and Nelly knew each other - specifically common interests in a predominantly male environment rather than anything more squelchy resulting from the sort of unlikely scenarios imagined by readers of Loaded and its like. The three of us drank tea, and talked about people we knew, who had been sacked and why, and watched television for a little while. The BBC crime drama Silent Witness came on, bringing with it the actress Amanda Burton in the role of Professor Sam Ryan.

'Fuck me,' Juanita growled happily. 'What I could do with that!'

Nelly chortled. 'Fuckin' fit, ain't she!'

I don't know why, but it had never occurred to me that lesbians might be just as prone to lurid drooling as heterosexual men, and there was something oddly comforting in the discovery. I realised that I understood Nelly better than I had thought.

More troubling, and even more troubling than her occasionally manic episodes, was her Christianity and tendency to introduce Jesus into the conversation more or less without warning. I could never work out whether faith really helped her get through the tough times, or whether in some ways it made them worse, keeping her distracted from whatever course of action might be more helpful given the sometimes precarious balance of her sanity.

One day she described the automotive accident she had narrowly avoided at the weekend. She was cut and bruised, and we were all trying to work out what the hell had happened. She had, she told us, woken up sat in her car in the wrong lane of the motorway. She had passed out. She had been about to crash into the metal barrier of the central reservation when Jesus had physically lifted her beloved mini up into the air, and set it down on the other side.

'You're really sure it was Jesus?' I asked.

'Of course it was.' She thought about it for a moment. 'If it weren't Jesus, then what was I doing on the other side of the motorway when I woke up. Explain that!'

I could think of a number of explanations, but I hadn't been there, and it seemed better to let her have this one, not least because she seemed to be in one of those manic phases usually foreshadowing a month off sick and then a few more assigned to the night shift up at Mandela Way pending psychiatric evaluation confirming her being fit enough to resume regular duties at the sorting office.

One evening as we sat watching television at her house, following her having served an excellent roast dinner. She told me a little of her upbringing in response to my enquiries about her family, with whom she had little contact. They had been of an unfortunately traditional disposition from somewhere in rural Turkey, where sons were an endless source of pride, and the birth of a daughter was announced with shame. Nelly's father had beaten her regularly with a belt, then left her locked inside a small cupboard for six hours at a time. I immediately understood why she had psychological issues.

Eventually those psychological issues got the better of her, and she became effectively full time up at Mandela Way on one of the duties set aside for the lame and the sick simply because the union would go apeshit if they were to be sacked. We ran into each other around Dulwich from time to time, and she seemed much the same as ever, doing her best to stay positive under miserable circumstances.

Finally our paths crossed in Starburger one afternoon. She was with an older, somewhat haggard looking woman who seemed to grin a lot, either a girlfriend or another lost soul.

'I've got cancer,' Nelly stated as though announcing she had just bought a new car. I suppose by that point one shitty deal was much the same as another.

Six months to a year later, she was dead. We had been friends, perhaps not great friends, but friends nevertheless; and for all that she was hopelessly neurotic, bonkers, and occasionally annoying, it seemed like a terrible loss even to those at work who had never particularly liked her. She lived; she received one shitty break after another, and then she was gone. It was a terrible waste.

I finished my sausage, egg, and chips, and thought about Nelly for a while as I drank my tea; but there was nothing positive that could be taken from the memory, nor any clear lesson to be learned.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Songs About Sandwiches

I knew Carl well enough to laugh at his jokes, and for him to occasionally laugh at mine, but we weren't close. I didn't know Chris at all. He was just Carl's friend from outside the art college, out there in the real world. They knew each other from school, and Chris would turn up at college parties, his yachting-casual attire presenting an almost surreal contrast with the Oxfam gothic favoured by almost everyone else, this being 1985. He would grin like the silent Marx brother and point at the ceiling and then at the centre of the dance floor - college refectory by day - making moves straight out of Saturday Night Fever regardless of what was playing. Der Mussolini by DAF or Heaven 17, it was all the same to Chris, so it seemed. Whatever you might have said of the man, he knew how to have fun.

They were both in a band called To The Max, Chris playing a tiny synthesiser and Carl singing, with Adam and Martin on drums and guitar respectively - or at least that's how I remember it. To The Max played at college parties. They reminded me a little of the Stooges, maybe with some Clash thrown in. They scored well on energy, but were often a bit of a racket, and now it seemed that they had broken up and this was why Carl and Chris were at my place - Hollytree House, the cottage in the village of Otham in which I rented a room for about a tenner a week.

I still didn't really understand.

'You play guitar,' Carl suggested. 'I've seen you!'

Despite playing guitar, I hadn't really considered the option of being in a band. Most of the music I produced at the time came from me playing all of the instruments, or at least hitting all of the objects from which I derived sound. I had seen To The Max play live and not once considered what it would be like to be involved with that sort of thing. Carl and Chris on the other hand very much enjoyed being in a band and wished to continue, and so they had thought of me. They knew I had a guitar, but had never heard me play. Carl reasoned that even if I was only able to make a noise with one string occasionally held down to produce a second note, thus forming a tune, it might still be worth doing. After all, the Cramps did well enough with a fairly basic sound.

My musical abilities actually went a little further than tunes plucked out on one string, if admittedly not much further; but I could manage just enough of a bar chord to chug out something roughly equidistant between the New York Dolls and the Ramones, so on Saturday the 9th of November, 1985 we formally agreed that we were a band. We called ourselves Total Big, a dubiously translated phrase apparently seen on the packaging of a toy robot of Japanese manufacture promising the consumer that, amongst the toy robot's numerous admirable qualities, he is total big.

On Sunday the 17th of November, 1985 we set up what instruments we could muster in the garage of Chris's dad's house in Sittingbourne and made a racket for the best part of the afternoon. It was cold, and I think I was a little bewildered by Chris's dad's extensive collection of Lledo die-cast toy cars ranging along the shelves of the garage, all still in their boxes; and it was noisy, but it was fun. Afterwards we sat listening to the tape of what was essentially just improvisation, picking out two or three segments which sounded good enough to have been deliberate. These became Rock Sandwich and I Write the Songs, later changed to He Writes the Songs when Carl went through our growing body of work changing personal pronouns so as to reduce the quota of seemingly egotistical first person narratives. He wrote the songs, but these weren't the songs that made the whole world sing, it should probably be pointed out, more in the line of free-form mating calls occasionally appropriating whatever lyric was at hand and seemed to fit the occasion.

Never mind the whole world, we barely made a half-empty college canteen sing on Wednesday the 27th of November, our first live performance offered as part of an all-night occupation of the building mounted in protest against cuts to education funding. Jude Hibbert back-combed my hair for the occasion, and we played Rock Sandwich, He Writes the Songs, and Ouch! which wasn't exactly a new number so much as thirty seconds of the maximum volume of noise we could muster through banging, screaming, and shredding an open chord all at the same time, the sort of thing for which Skullflower accrued much droning acclaim a few years later.

A couple of people submitted bewildered applause, which mainly served to emphasise how many had either failed to applaud or who had even left the room, but Carl, Chris, and myself had enjoyed it, and that was the main thing. It had worked, more or less. My guitar sounded good and crunchy, distorted through Carl's small but formidable Roland Cube amplifier. Despite the songs comprising just rudimentary riffs blasted out over and over, I'd still managed to forget how to play some of it, but had apparently appeared unflustered by my own rock and roll incompetence. Chris had played the drums as ever like he was nailing down the floorboards, as Martin de Sey later described it; and Carl was solidly entertaining, as always.

Carl represented a not-particularly-secret weapon in our line up in so much that even if we sounded terrible, people tended not to notice because they would usually be watching Carl and wondering what the hell he was going to do next. It wasn't really just that he jumped about a bit so much as that he performed every act possible on stage given whatever props were available, and barring those acts which were either illegal or at least required a permit. Regrettably my musicianship was of such rudimentary standard as to require me to keep my own fingers under constant observation whilst playing, so I experienced most of Carl's acrobatics as anecdotes related after the event by members of the audience. On one occasion I briefly looked up to see him stood on two chairs, one per foot, holding the backs of each chair with his hands and walking around the room as though on stilts. On another occasion, we played in a pub in Worthing as support to Soul, the group for which Charlie Adlard was then drummer. I stole upwards glances on four separate occasions during the gig, achieving four brief impressions of the event at roughly ten minute intervals - Carl singing to a full room whilst upside down on the pool table, then singing to fewer people whilst hanging from the back of the door like an Orang-outang, then a microphone lead trailing up behind the drawn curtain of a small window into which Carl had presumably squeezed himself, and finally Carl singing on all fours with his head inside the bass drum. The room was empty by this point, excepting bar staff and members of the band we were supporting.

'Wow! We cleared the room,' I observed as the last song died away in our ears.

'Fuck 'em!' said Karl with a K, the singer in Charlie's group. 'That was amazing!'

I wasn't always convinced of this. I liked playing the stuff we did, but I was never sure I would have listened to it had I not actually been responsible for its creation. I enjoyed the freedom of playing without obligation to acknowledge whatever some bass player or second guitarist might be doing, but on some level it also felt kind of like cheating, or maybe too easy. I yearned to be in some group of portentous vessels of glacial doom, the sort of thing eschewing any on-stage smiling and definitely no bum jokes, and which would result in strangers congratulating me on my profound solemnity and a long line of knockery girls patiently waiting for access to the contents of my trousers. I muttered words to this effect on a few occasions, and Carl would quite rightly point out that I was the one with the guitar, and it wasn't like anyone was telling me what to play, which was true.

We continued to rehearse, or at least to get together and make stuff up, and to go over those arbitrary combinations of riffs which had begun to sound like songs; or sometimes we'd just piss off to the seaside in Chris's car and eat ice creams instead. Fun was the point, and it remained so, and by Thursday the 6th of March, 1986 we played a second gig, once again at the art college, but this time with an expanded half-hour set including Are You My Mother?, He Believes, Armchair Maniac, the inevitable cover of Louie Louie and probably some others. The event carried a glam rock theme and my diary of the time notes:

People danced! People even cheered! We were followed by the Hubcap Diamond Star Halo Band who mimed to cover versions. We were not as popular but we were at least musically and ideologically superior.

Our third performance was on Saturday the 12th of April, 1986 at a student house in Woodville Road, Maidstone. I have a feeling I may have worn a lady's dress for the occasion, a fetching floor-length Prussian blue number picked up in a charity shop because that's rock 'n' roll. We played at a couple of parties after this, it being easy to do because everything could be fitted into the boot of Chris's car, and we took about five minutes to set up and sound check. Chris's kit was pretty minimal, and then there was just the guitar, an amplifier, and a microphone. We managed to play at a party in Bearsted from the staircase, Chris banging away on the upper landing, myself halfway down much like Kermit's nephew, and Carl doing his thing at the foot of the stairs. I'm fairly sure we also played at a few parties uninvited just by turning up and getting on with it, much to the bewilderment of whoever was living there. Carl was keen on the idea that we might inspire a mixture of awe, surprise and horror, sort of like finding your mum in a readers' wives magazine, he explained.

Even without a pensive bass player, or brooding synth effects, or the sort of mournful dirges guaranteed to get the chicks beating a path to my bedroom door, it was fun to be part of Total Big, and I grew to enjoy it more and more - as I noted in my diary apparently with some surprise on a few occasions. This was doubtless because the three of us enjoyed hanging out together anyway, regardless of all being in the same band. If we weren't rehearsing, or at least making a noise, we would watch Black Adder or old monster movies at Chris's dad's house, or make stupid films or videos to accompany our songs, mostly sped up affairs in which we all jumped up and down pulling faces as soon as the camera was rolling. The Tube on Channel 4 ran a competition, asking aspiring rock bands to send in their own videos, and so we availed ourselves of the thousands of pounds of state of the art video effects and equipment to which I had access as part of my degree course and made a video for the song Armchair Maniac - which if technically advanced, nevertheless still managed to communicate that quality of having been made by chimpanzees. We didn't win, but never mind.

On Tuesday the 9th of December, 1986 my diary records:

Total Big played at the all night work-in event staged in protest against proposed cuts to arts education funding at Maidstone College of Art. Carl, Chris and myself were joined by Mark Smith on saxophone and our set comprised He Believes, Are You My Mother (Or Just A Hole In The Ground?), Rock Sandwich, Louie Sister Joe, You're Okay, Keep Your Dreams A'Burning, Do The Frug, and All Day And All Of The Night.

Mark Smith was a first year time-based media student and saxophone player who had pretty much told us he was joining the band, having seen us play at some party or other. His enthusiastic honking matched our music well, but his forceful introduction came in peculiar contrast to a stage performance during which he continued to drift ever further from his microphone until he was stood hooting and honking away more or less inaudibly on the other side of the refectory, at a greater distance from the rest of the band than most of the audience.

Soon after this, Chris found a job, but it was in Dover on the south coast and so he bought a house down there and moved. It was more than forty miles away, which no longer strikes me as a significant distance, but was at the time enough to preclude the possibility of regular weekend rehearsals.

Carl and I resolved to continue in some form, although it took us a while to work out quite what that was going to be. We had a rehearsal with a first year time based media student succinctly named Mac on drums. It sounded great, so Carl and I thought. Mac was a serious little guy with a permanent five o'clock shadow and a massive drum kit. He was technically very accomplished and probably would have been more at home in some stadium rock outfit. Whether Mac felt the same was unclear beyond that he didn't feel at home in Total Big, and the next few rehearsals were open invitations extended to whoever the hell felt like showing up.

I had a couple of guitars, and three keyboards of varying musicality including both Casio VL Tone and Casio SK1, an early cheap polyphonic sampler. The next few rehearsals or jam sessions or whatever you could call them were chaotic, just groups of people crammed into my bedroom making a noise, all playing something different, songs defined only by the gaps during which no-one was playing. At one point we vaguely decided we would be called the Flaps, possibly due to one number having been distinguished by someone speaking the word flaps into my sampler, then playing it back to apparently hilarious effect because it was, you know, rude and stuff. Then Gareth Roberts, who had turned up for most of these exercises in free jazz, suggested Spinning Pygmies as a name, which at least seemed to relate to the noise we were making in some obscure way, but it was clear that it wasn't really going anywhere.

'We've got two whole songs now,' Gareth notes happily on one of the recordings.

'Yes,' I reply, 'but they're both the same one.'

The tapes sound like what happens when you give a room full of children musical instruments and shout go!, and yet we were actually trying to squeeze out something resembling songs, or at least not specifically resembling industrial noise. The chaos was such that I can no longer even recall who turned up to those sessions aside from Carl, myself, Gareth, and Paul Fallon, although I think the record was seven people on one particularly noisy weekend.

Following the December performance with Mark Smith, I became too lazy to maintain a regular diary, and the next pertinent entry dates from Friday the 19th of June, 1987 reading:

The Dovers play at a party at 5, Terrace Road, Maidstone. Also showing are film and video works by Peter Jones, Gareth Roberts, and Mark Orphan.

We had settled on the Dovers in reference to that being where our former drummer now lived. It seemed a straightforward, direct sort of name, mercifully lacking the wheezing novelty of Spinning Pygmies and the rest. Carl had picked up a small hand held Boss DR220E drum machine from somewhere, and so we became a duo.

In the mean time I still had a burning need to appear on stage in a long coat with my cheeks sucked-in whilst top-heavy female audience members screamed and threw their underwear at me. Somehow the Dovers still wasn't getting me there, and the only interest I had drawn at our 5, Terrace Road performance was from an intense young man with piercing eyes who followed me around after the gig attempting to engage me in conversation about William Blake, and his advances were weird and not entirely welcome. I therefore said yes when asked to join Envy, a Medway group serving as vehicle for the important songs of Paul Mercer, a former fellow student who really knew how to work a frown. I stood at the back playing a Roland SH09 keyboard, pressing the start button on the drum machine, and occasionally hitting an old car door rescued from the side of the road with a baseball bat in an unconvincing but undoubtedly topical dalliance with metal percussion, which was all the rage at the time.

I suspect Carl may have been a little pissed off by this development, and eventually so were the members of Envy, even including myself - just as soon as we realised that the one part of the equation which didn't really work was me. Envy replaced me with a proper drummer, and Carl and I thankfully went back to being full-time Dovers, and full-time gigging Dovers now that I had moved to the Medway towns, having finished college, and found myself on the periphery of a fairly lively music scene. In my brief absence, or at least my brief period of reduced dependability, Carl had been mucking about with a neighbour, a guitarist called Alan Mason; and so as we once again cohered we became a trio comprising singer, two guitars, and a drum machine. We had a few rehearsals and played live a couple of times, but my memory of this period is patchy. I recall that Alan was somewhat more accomplished than myself, and seemed to be playing all sorts of weird chords of his own invention. Additionally he worked out what I was to play when we performed what were effectively his songs, which somewhat threw me as I was more accustomed and much happier to work out my own accompaniment, such as it was; but I guess we achieved some sort of chemistry, as we began to perform fairly regularly in Chatham, mostly at the Sunset Strip, a venue in the basement of a burger joint run by Mr. and Mrs. Amin, parents of Rajun who had been the guitarist in Envy. We supported Sexton Ming's Mind Readers, Johnny Gash, Infinity Corporation, Envy, the Uninvited Guests, Near-Death Experience, Rocking Richard & Whistling Vic Templar, and All Flags Burn. Alan brought a new lease of life to the group, and also a fez for each of us back from his excursion to Morocco, and we wore these on stage but only once in my case because I have a massive head and it kept falling off. Sadly, due to most of our gigs being in Chatham, and Alan being committed to working unorthodox hours in London, he was reduced to an occasional presence as we began to play live with more frequency. It sort of worked due to our being pretty much the opposite of a thirteen-piece orchestra in organisational terms, and on Wednesday the 27th of January, 1988 we played the Sunset Strip backed by Chris from Total Big on drums and Martin, formerly of To The Max playing a second guitar. Occasionally we would invite members of the audience to join in, so we had guest vocals from Glenn Wallis of Konstruktivists and Andy Fraser more recently of Unlucky Fried Kitten, to name but two.

Somehow we even began to acquire fans, or at least people who turned up to a succession of gigs and usually looked like they were enjoying it. Judith Mullarkey writing for her music column in the Chatham Standard also seemed to appreciate us, so that was something.

'Who's your favourite band?,' Carl would call out unto the back-combed crowd crammed into the sweaty basement of the Sunset Strip.

'The Dovers!' Sarah and Lynne screamed back in response as everyone else talked amongst themselves and wondered what time Johnny Gash were coming on. I'm pretty sure it was Lynne who won the Tiffany album when Carl offered it as a prize for whoever could applaud the loudest halfway through our set one evening. It was ludicrous, but at least somewhat less ludicrous then setting one's innermost anxieties to a tune and expecting to be congratulated for it; and the possibility now existed of there being people who enjoyed watching the Dovers more than I enjoyed being one, which actually felt quite good.

Then on Saturday the 16th of April 1988, Envy had to pull out of a performance at Chatham Town Hall, apparently part of some broader arts event. They asked us to take their place for some reason, and so suddenly we were on a proper stage and getting paid fifty quid to play our yappy novelty songs. Friends of Jeremy, Planet Mushroom, and ourselves were all to play as support to a group called the Claim. Planet Mushroom included various school kids we vaguely knew from hanging out at Gruts café on the High Street. They played vaguely psychedelic garagey music and were fucking great. They were almost worth seeing just for sheer enthusiasm alone. The Claim had records out and a following, and were thus a big deal. They seemed to regard their support bands as amateurs, which we were, and therefore saw no reason to allow us any time to sound check. They were a proper band, and they apparently found it insulting that their self-important constipated power pop should be prefixed by schoolkids and then a man singing about sandwiches. As we ended our set, I took the microphone and told everyone that Johnny Gash were playing at Churchills next door, adding 'I don't know about you lot, but that's where we're all going, so hopefully we'll see you there.'

We had been busy in 1988, but in 1989 I moved to Coventry and the Dovers went into suspended animation for a little while, re-emerging at the end of 1990 when I moved back down south, to London, and Carl acquired a four-track portastudio. We ceased playing live, mainly through having lost touch with anyone who might hook us up, but we started to record our songs, and even to compose new material of a less blunt disposition, the sort of thing which probably wouldn't have worked so well in a live setting. These songs revealed the more subtle aspects of Carl's voice, which actually proved surprisingly emotive and versatile once released from its obligation to foghorn out rock mating calls expressed as songs about sandwiches. Our work drew closer to the sort of thing I would listen to through choice even were I not somewhere on the recording, but for some reason it never really occurred to us to do anything with this music, or if it did and I've forgotten, we never got around to it.

However, Carl still longed to perform live, that being the area in which he excelled, and which he seemed to enjoy the most; and then bewilderingly, at some point in 1992, we were offered a gig, at some sort of community centre in Amersham. It was something to do with Carl's girlfriend - her sister was a member of one of the bands we were supporting or something along those lines. I don't recall much about these bands other than that they seemed like they might have one or two Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts amongst their number, and they didn't seem to like us much presumably for the same reasons that the Claim hadn't liked us.

I was excited to be playing again, but after all the new music we had recorded - none of which would really lend itself to live performance by just two people - I didn't want to go back to what we had done before, having developed a fear of turning into a variant on Carter the Unlistenable Sex Machine, or anything which could be confused with the same. Carl and I worked out an entirely new set based on drum machine, vocals, and my keyboard through a distortion pedal. It sounded great in rehearsal, sort of like Suicide fronted by Bugs Bunny, and it might have sounded great live but for the fact that I drank so as to overcome my nerves, and inadvertently also overcame my memory of everything I was expected to play live on stage before a paying audience. I did the best I could, blasting out a vaguely tuneful drone whilst Carl did his thing, but it wasn't going down well, and the band we were supporting stood to one side of the stage, apparently hating us even more than the crowd and dooming us to invisibility within great sarcastic clouds of dry ice. There was so much of it that I could barely see my keyboard, although moving to one side I experienced just enough visibility to appreciate the sight of Carl retaliating, still singing whilst jumping up and down on the main band's carefully arranged and sound-checked array of effects pedals, reducing them to chip and transistor pizzas.

We finished, and before the dry ice could clear to reveal our destruction, we were in the van and driving hastily back to London. The sense of relief was incredible, and I was just happy that it was over. We didn't even talk about the gig, and I'm not sure we have ever discussed it to this day. It was horrible, and particularly because I'd had such high hopes of having at last escaped from my own chugging guitar riffs. I'd pushed the whole thing just a little bit closer to that band I'd always wanted to be in, and realised it had been a fucking terrible idea all along; and regrettably, that somehow became the end of the Dovers.

Carl and I recorded together again, and we remained bestest friends regardless, but musically it was over, and for no good or clear reason I can really remember. Carl sang in other groups, at least one with Alan Mason on guitar, and I saw them live on a couple of occasions. As with the Dovers, I'm not sure I would have played the records had there been any, but live they were fucking fantastic, and left me wondering if Total Big or the Dovers had ever been that good from the perspective of someone stood in the audience. I will never know, but I suppose the main thing was that it was fun, and as such it always did more or less what it had promised on the tin.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The Gauntlet of Solitude

Exclusively presenting a sneak preview of the first of the Retired Colonel novels, a series of professional adventures of a man from the telly when you were little and everything was nicer and less confusing.

'Dash it all, Sanders,' said Retired Colonel bristling his moustache. 'Take a blinking look out the flipping window, man, and tell me when was the last time you saw a brontosaurus at Piccadilly Circus.'

Corporal Sanders looked out of the window as bidden. 'Gosh, sir! I thought we were done with the clean up ops.'

Retired Colonel's brow furrowed darkly. Pensively. Like he was thinking dark thoughts. Serious thoughts. Thoughts about what was at stake. 'Dash it all, man! I am you're commanding officer!'

It seemed like only yesterday that a mysterious traveller in time and space had made all of the dinosaurs go back in time to when dinosaurs were alive, and the Lieutenant had been in on it too. Dash it all! He had been working for them. That traitor. But it was not all over. They had thought it was all over but it wasn't. Retired Colonel's mysterious advisor had scratched his big nose and said he needed to take a beautiful blue jewel back to a planet in space where there were giant spiders on the planet. Their were humans too but the giant spider's were in control, and he really had to take it back.

That was when Johnson went missing.

Yes, missing!

Who could of guessed that he had been eaten by a triceratops!

'Dash it all!' bristled Retired Colonel.

'On my way, sir!' said Sanders, and he said sir really loud.

'Good man,' beamed Retired Colonel, snapping his heels together and bristling his moustache. 'Jolly good show.'

Sanders ran out of the room then.

Meanwhile the dinosaur's were going down Oxford Street. Oxford Street was deserted because the soldiers had acted quickly thanks to the timely decisions of Retired Colonel and they had put up a big sign, one at either end of the street. They put one up by the Virgin Megastore which that week had records by Steeleye Span and the Drifters in the window. The other sign was right up the other end where theres all those shops selling womens knickers and that. The sign said:

There was a triceratops, tyrannosaurus - the mightiest of the dinosaurs - and a pterodactyl was flying overhead snapping its beak with a mighty kklak! They had been left behind. Everyone thought it was over but it wasn't. There was still dinosaurs!

'Dash it all! Retired Colonel winced with inner pain, recalling the great and noble sacrifices he had made for his country. He was a man of honour. Courage. The Queen gave him some medals once. These dinosaurs reminded him of Jonty. Jonty was Retired Colonel's son, but they had never got on. Sometimes Jonty wanted to play with toys and he seemed a bit old for that, and Retired Colonel had been pissed off. He felt bad about it now.

'If only I could talk to my son and explain,' he cried out like a mighty hero for whom the battle may be fought both on the battlefield and within the mind. 'If only!'

But he could not talk to his son. Jonty had fallen into the sea one day when he was playing and they had never seen him again.

'Why!' Retired Colonel cried manly tears. Warrior tears. Tears like an Indian Brave looking at an eagle at sunset and thinking about his people. 'If only I could talk to you. I am so sorry, my dear, dear child!'

But there was no-one there. There was only the dinosaurs. The mighty reptiles of the Jurassic age!

'Mummy, I want to see the dinosaurs!' a little boy cried with excitement. He had a red hat on his head. His mum was keen to just buy the Steeleye Span album, the one with that song All Around My Hat on it, and then she could get the 176 bus back to Penge and make tea for all of them. Her husband worked in a factory making stuff and he would be hungry for his sausage, egg, and chips.

'Oh no,' she said looking at the sign, a bit annoyed at this inconvenience. 'It looks like I will have to wait another day before I buy my album, Tommy.'

Tommy said nothing. He was not there. Tommy had gone. Tommy was the name of her little boy with the hat on. He ran past the sign all excited to see dinosaurs.

The mighty tyrannosaurus roared, hot flecks of spittle dripping from its mighty jaws as it leaned down to gobble Tommy.

'Oh no!' Tommy shouted.

Suddenly there was a crack of gunfire. A single shot. the tyrannosaurus fell back.

'Not on my watch!' barked Retired Colonel, sunlight shining off his moustache. 'I have lost one boy,' - his voice went quiet and he sort of looked down a bit because he was thinking about when Jonty fell into the sea - 'I shall not lose another!'

'You have beaten the dinosaurs, Retired Colonel!' Sanders shouted, saluting and saying sir! 'You have fought them and won!'

Retired Colonel smiled to himself. He had been fighting the dinosaurs, but in a way he had also been fighting the pain inside himself.

It was a good day.