Tribute: For Those Who Continue To Rock (I Salute You)

I confess: watching boys strip off their school uniforms and run around topless isn’t usually the way I spend a Friday night. Somewhere past 15 it just stopped feeling de rigeur. In fact it seems like a decidedly dodgy thing to reprise now I’m 32; people get a bit upset about stuff like that nowadays.

And yet, just last week, this is what I found myself doing. Watching a boy stripping off his school uniform and running around like a loony while I giggled behind my hand like an idiot.

It was Friday night. I found myself, against all my usual discretion, at an AC/DC tribute night. I felt like I’d stepped back in time. I hadn’t been to a gig at that venue since I was a teen – wearing clunky boots, too much eyeliner, and chugging beer like it was Ribena – and here I was half a life later…wearing, er, clunky boots, too much eyeliner, and chugging beer like it was Ribena. Progress. Excellent.

I looked around me. Lots of people seemed to be wearing stuff they might have worn in the 90s too. Some of them looked like they might even be wearing their stuff from the 70s, (and I suspected they’d never stopped). There we stood – some suspended in a time which had never died, and some retrieving time like a pair of favourite old jeans found at the back of the wardrobe. The room smelt like these places usually do – stale carpet, sleepy beer, and the electro-plastic smell of equipment a bit too warm and sparky to pass the next safety test. And men. It stank of men. I think I even caught a whiff of Brute, which span me back to all those clumsy teen kisses that got planted on me like wet socks flung at a laundry basket.

I don’t know much about AC/DC. I know it’s the law for every person with two testicles to wear one of their T-shirts for at least a year of their lives. I know it reminds me of the knobs on the little generator thingy in physics experiments at school. I know there are guitars involved. I did not know an overgrown schoolboy ran around sticking his tongue out like he’d had too many E numbers. Were we supposed to chuck sherbet at him or something? Oh no. That’s just him, being all Rock.

Familiar songs were played. I bobbed dutifully like they were old favourites when really I was thinking “Ohhhhh! THIS is AC/DC!” I chugged Ribena-beer, and beamed up at my happy boyfriend, lost in his own light of a thousand remembered air-guitar solos. “You cute little rock dweeb”, I thought as I patted his bum. I turned and watched everyone else.

These people were lost. Like, properly lost. There was a man in his 50s down the front on his own, diving about in a school uniform. There was a lady in full leather who looked 20 from the back but 60 from the front, power-prodding the air like she’d just won Rock Bingo. There was a man in a wheelchair gliding around the floor as smoothly as a pinball in an old groove. They were lost – and loving it. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They had paid twelve quid to watch some unknown men pretending to be better-known men.

Why were they here? They could be at home, whacking up the real AC/DC really loud. They could watch old gigs of the real AC/DC on Youtube. They could even catch the real AC/DC in their current line-up, somewhere in the world, and hear those old songs curve a quarter-mile around a stadium, feel the composite power of science and magic making the sound whoosh around thousands of thrashing bodies. Why were they here, while a man named Dougal gyrated in velour on the bar with his tiny boy-nipples? Is this really what it is to pay tribute?

It would be patronising to suppose I could tell what they were all feeling and why. I would no doubt get it wrong. But I saw it as a good thing – that furore of the familiar – standing there in memory of my Doctor Martens and a haze of Brute. We were a clan for the night, like humans are supposed to be. It was, if anything, a tribute to nature, not just the knee-socked gods of rock. It was who we all are: alone, but together, seeking abandonment to something ineffable, higher than the every day job of being us. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a stadium of people the size of pin-pricks, or down your local with a man in velour – it’s all real if it feels real.

And they did ruddy rock.



The Small Tattoo of Flocking Birds

From time to time in any job it sometimes becomes necessary to employ the use of thought. In some strange spheres thought is even demanded on a regular basis. I would imagine day-dreaming during brain surgery is seriously discouraged – and doodling in the middle of a tattoo isn’t likely to earn you a tip – a spontaneously etched smoking chihuahua in the middle of an ‘I Love Mum’ garland would in fact probably lose you the tip of your phallus when Bob ‘Knifey’ McGinty comes to and realises what you’ve done. Yes, every now and then us dysfunctional dreamers are advised to concentrate.

I did a ‘job’ last week that I felt completely unnatural doing. I got paid to abandon thought and care, and to act like a bit of a nob. It was surprisingly hard. As a performer, the one thing I have always shied away from is improv. It scares the willies out of me – perhaps because my heart lies in writing and I like to hide behind these considered curlicues of thought. Writing is quite cowardly really. None of you can see me as I write this, stretched out on my bed in mis-matched pyjamas, naked in my musings and insecurities, with a spot on my cheek the size of Basildon. I can think, and type, and ever-importantly, I can delete. I panic when asked to do stuff on the spot; to just go with it and “feel the moment”. I can’t bear the thought of being rubbish at it, at not creating something ‘good’.

Last week I did a show called The Phill Jupitus Experiment – which was essentially a bespoke improv show designed by a wonderful comedian named Deborah Frances-White to mess with Phill’s head, who rocked up at the theatre not having a clue what was about to happen. The phwoarsome Russell Tovey and I were the goons employed to play scenes around whatever was thrown at us. Russell is a proper actor who’s been in loads of excellent stuff, and Phill has been the master of making things up in front of people for as long as he’s had a nose. He’s as comfortable on a strange stage as he is in his own armchair, and is master of the absurd as much as he is master of his dog. I tried not to waste time muddling over my own thoughts; “What the frick am I doing here?” being the most insistent. I looked at the small tattoo of flocking birds on my wrist and remembered that it was there to remind me to be brave. So I had a beer and put some lipstick on.

One of the only rules of improvisation is ‘accept and build’ – meaning you never say no, you never block another performer’s idea, you go with it and support each other. And see what trail of lunacy you end up on. Day-dreaming and doodling with the mind become valuable skills. My life-wench and improvisor extraordinaire Sarah Mayhew has often briefed me in the bullet-points of the art. I have watched her many times make something out of nothing on stage; that girl could turn a clanking oil-rig into a candle-lit Strauss ball. And here I was, woefully under-qualified, up on stage with two dudes at the top of their game. Holy Eff.

The show was fantastic. Phill was led from scene to scene by nothing more than a voice from the darkness, and people followed him like sheep with lanterns tied to their tails. There were funny scenes, and poignant scenes, and all of them born out of tiny sparks of the brain, spontaneous frissons of ideas bouncing between everyone. I had nothing to type on. It was writing on the spot, and there was no delete button. “Accept and build.”

There is something excruciatingly honest about staring out at an audience of hundreds of people, and – while cranking the illusory mechanics of character and craft – also holding a metaphorical placard bearing the truth: “I have no idea what I’m doing.” People respond to its vulnerability. Aside from wanting to be entertained and possibly moved, they also like knowing that you, like most people, haven’t got a clue what will come next.

Is Improv, then, the most honest, and thus liberating, art form? Life is an unplanned show, with unexpected scenes, and voices from the darkness, and the denouements aren’t neat. There is no Artistic Director making it all come together.

Perhaps there is only one clear rule. We just have to get up and see what happens. But the ‘getting up and being brave’ bit is the most important, because you can never be sure what beautiful scenes will come next.


Love & Light

Not much wakes me up. I slept through the Great Storm of ’87, the Tsunami of 2004 (admittedly, the reason was probably that I was in England), and most of my lectures at Uni 1998-2001– particularly those of a hunchbacked spittler nicknamed Gladrags who tried to tell me my poetry would show such promise if only I stayed conscious. But something made me lurch from sleep this week, so I knew it must be important. I was tipsily lolling on a late night C2C back from a gig in the big smoke, and enjoying the background mumbling of the tracks and the chatter. I remember nothing of my friends’ conversation other than the mention of Belton Hills being raped for the sake of 16 beds. “WHAT?” They’d done the impossible. I was awake.

They reiterated that the proposed building on the site of the glorious fields near Hadleigh Castle was for a mere sixteen beds in a new Fair Havens hospice development, and for (a much more lucrative) conference centre. We all raged about it, then went home.

I’ve felt angry and sick about it ever since. Why build on this site, when there are so many other places? Why scrub out that patch of green that fills everyone’s hearts as their trains trundle in and out of the town, as they walk their dogs, as they play with their kids? Why encroach on that vast spread of ‘untouchable’ history which surrounds the castle ruins, which gives a sense of preserved calm and escape before you hit the built-up reality? Why take away something which can never be got back –so a select few families can comfort themselves that their relatives’ passings are somehow nicer because they are doing it in a former field? Why eradicate nature and beauty for a conference centre so that good-hearted workers of the hospice can be rewarded for their work by sitting in their meetings and staring out at the estuary – awkwardly ignoring the fact they have made a whole town that bit unhappier?

Some might say this is harsh response. It is harsh. Dying people deserve somewhere nice to do it – of course they do. But if everyone who has ever watched someone in their final stages of their lives was honest, they would say the environs outside the particular room they are dying in are pretty irrelevant. The administrations of death are pragmatic – they are not things of beauty. Once you get to the stage of needing hospice care, you are beyond demanding the silence of rolling hills and an unlimited view of the changing tides. The kindnesses you need are not big – like fields and skies. They are small – like a kind voice and a held hand.

A dear family friend of ours – Karen Eaton, one of the sweetest ladies I have ever known – spent her final weeks in Fair Havens hospice along Chalkwell Avenue. She complained of a stomach upset at ours one Christmas, and within a year she had been taken by a relentless bowel cancer. Her room at Fair Havens was all that it should have been. Roomy enough, nicely decorated, well-equipped; respectful of her condition and fate. I sat and watched my mum hold the hand of our friend who was barely recognisable as the person she once was, as she lay in silence, eyes closed, occasionally being fed water through a straw. Karen didn’t need an illustrious address to give her death dignity, she didn’t need views of fields and sky; she was beyond that, heavily drugged, and the curtains were shut. She needed solid regular care of her needs, and to know loved ones were simply ‘there’. She needed to not be in pain, and to not feel alone. Whatever else went through her mind is personal to her – but I would be willing to wager it was nothing to do with the fancy Chalkwell house she was in, or the proximity to the sea. These are merely things that look good in a brochure for possible clients – they are never important factors when it comes to those awful final days.

Karen’s favourite saying was ‘Love and Light’. She signed off her cards this way; she lived her life by its inspiration, and in the end, she needed only that. Love, and the light which came from whichever spiritual discourse she had with herself; the light of hope of what would come after the pain.

Fair Havens should know – should be better. And they should care for this town’s comforts in life as they do so well for those in death. Those fields – those views, those comforts to thousands – can never be got back from the claws of the diggers.

Decorate other rooms. Have a board room in some other functional place.
Stay away from Belton Hills.


Lovely Karen

Pennies From A Gin Bottle

It is 10:46 on the day of my column deadline. I am writing this while eating toasted tea-cakes in bed. I feel like some kind of bohemian slattern bashing her confessions into a gilt typewriter with a wonky ‘S’ key while a naked man grunts beside her. But in this case, the man is a dog, and the typewriter is an iPad.

That’s right mofos. I bought myself an iPad, and I am in love. (I would insert exploding heart emoticons here if I thought they’d get loyally reproduced by the print staff.)

I feel a bit swish. Tip tap. Tip tap. I know there are fancier technological purchases a girl could make, but they’re not as cute. I have been putting off buying one of these bad boys because I felt it was a luxury when I already have a laptop – but when my laptop started to whir and delay displaying the words I had just typed like my thoughts were being reviewed by some sort of logic council, I thought to myself “The only practical thing to do is buy something pretty. That is what a hard-working girl needs to operate efficiently in a modern world.”

It is 11:08 on the day of my column deadline. I just paused in writing my column so I could perform the important task of assigning the features editor ‘VIP email status’ and a noise which makes me feel professional and productive when he emails me to see where my column is. It’s quite time consuming, having this much means of efficiency. I’m not getting much done. I might need another tea-cake…

I finally gave in and bought this beaut when I found a cheque I had forgotten to pay in. I figured it was like bonus money, so not naughty at all. I don’t know why it should feel like such a luxurious purchase when I spend most of my waking hours typing; why feel guilty spending my money on a thing which is totally functional?

The answer is I have never been comfortable spending money on big things. I hardly ever spend more than ten pounds on an item of clothing because it feels like a silly waste. Sometimes I wish I was the kind of girl who could stand swooning in a shop window at a pair of sky-high Jimmy Choos then go in and proudly blow £300 on a credit card… but if I did that I would probably die. If not out of buyer’s remorse then certainly because I’d tumble to my death in the heels. I am a clumsy oaf who should not seek to raise herself above 5’7″.

I suppose I am so uncomfortable with big spends because we never had much money when I was a kid. My mum pretty much raised us on her own and for many years she had that awfully common single-parent’s frustration of not being able to quite afford to earn her own money while raising her children. I paid for my school lunches with tickets, and milk and bread was bought by counting out coins from a huge Gilbey’s gin bottle. Finding a fifty pee in there felt dead fancy. I thought all families did this.

I went to a funeral of an old man named Charlie Jones with my mum a few years ago, and during a hymn she casually turned to me and said that when we were little he used to go to the butchers and bring us back huge bags of meat because he knew we didn’t have much. I didn’t quite know what to do with that. I just thought he was a nice old man we saw occasionally; one of the motley peripheral characters that made up our strange patchwork family. I felt like I should get up and sing some epic gospel number about braising steak to thank him. But I didn’t.

So I’ll never buy designer heels and this iPad only made it back from Currys to my bed because I found a forgotten cheque in an old broken bag with some stale gum and a lipstick I will never wear because it makes me look like  a dead prostitute. I’m glad I feel swish typing on it. I’m glad I don’t feel like expensive things are an entitlement in an age where under-10s feel like Dickensian waifs if they’re not at least on a waiting list for the new iPhone. I’m glad I know what it’s like to count twenty pees out of a gin bottle and that a man named Charlie Jones was kind to my mum. It makes things feel a lot more special, and makes me even more determined to try and make a living from tapping away on this pretty pretty thing.

It’s 12:26, and I’m going to toast all that with another tea-cake.

Autumn: Nice Again

It has officially turned ‘autumnal’. Instead of the benevolent month’s grace we usually get in September – that last blazing jig of summer – we’ve had a sudden unceremonious chilling. It’s been a bit rude to be honest. Like a host chucking us out straight after dessert and lobbing the brie down the road after us; EAT YOUR CHEESE ON THE KERB, YOU LOSERS; I’M GOING TO BED. Why, the other day I was non-ironically wearing leg-warmers, and not because I wanted to feel like I was enrolling in a Manhattan dance class with a perm – but because I have been cheated of my usual bravado. It’s ruddy cold! I don’t normally give into unnecessary woollens until at least December, and even then I only allow myself a hat perhaps twice (and then it’s only in January when Christmas has abandoned us and it all gets mega grim and a hat feels sort of jaunty). Woollens make me feel claustrophobic. I once had half a panic attack in a loose angora polo-neck, which was a mistake in the first place – us big-shouldered girls have to beware of thick-knits in case we look like rowers on steroids. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’m old and need tea-cosies for my eyeballs. Perhaps there’ll be a relevant Paul McKenna book out by then to help me: I CAN MAKE YOU LESS AFRAID OF WEARING SEASONAL-APPROPRIATE GARMENTS. (Guilty confession alert – I used to have a dirty crush on Paul McKenna. Until he started looking like an international fraudster/clumsy dentist.)
So. It’s getting pretty cold. And being British we talk about it constantly. And we can’t quite stop ourselves, even though we know it makes us a little bit dull. It is probably the oldest conversation in the world “Getting a bit cold isn’t it?”, “Yes. It is rather ‘nippy’. In fact I could cut hieroglyphs with mine. BOOM.”  I suppose weather is our primal means of time management. It’s nature’s calendar. We had it before sun-dials and cuckoo clocks. Before Romans divvied up the year like time accountants, or pagans named things after feasts which got out of hand, or Christians made us all revolve around a dead dude’s diary. “Day 89, 33 The Year of Me. In a cave somewhere. Bit achey. Wonder when Dad will let me out.”
Sometimes autumn makes people sad. There’s not many people who don’t say they get a little down at some point as the year draws to a close and it grows dim and grim outside. We’ve even been given another label to cling to: Seasonal Affective Disorder. The quasi-medical condition for wishing it was ‘nice again’, which always makes me feel a bit bad for wind and rain; going about their business (as equally important as the sun), and bearing the brunt of a discontent more naturally constant than we’d like to admit.
I felt it myself the other day. That clutch of vague panic in my throat as I heard the dry patter of leaves on the pavement behind me. I felt sad, because the season’s symbols remind me of sad things. My Dad died nine years ago today. I remember the day, not only because it was a pretty big day dead-dad-wise, but also because I discovered the cheat’s way of doing toad-in-the-hole (grilled sausages and Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire puds – 10 minutes, job done. You’re welcome.)
It’s always been hard since then; the 8th of October is frozen in autumn like a fly in amber. I didn’t get to eat that toad-in-the-hole in the end. That’s pretty sad. No one likes a wasted sausage. But this year, I felt a new ‘old’ thing as I crunched through the leaves.
I remembered the feeling of breaking in new winter shoes for school; hopping through piles of golden brown leaves in stiff black leather boats, a size too big. When my calendar was still unmarked by life. I’ve not remembered that feeling for ages; the ‘going back to school’ excitement; the exhilarating rush of having a pencil case full to bursting with new things from WHSmith. I feel a bit…’happy’ it’s autumn – about the colourful decay, the burnt night smells, the tinkling bells of Christmas in the distance. It feels ‘nice again’. It’s taken nine years.
It feels right to move on. To not feel sad. Autumn shouldn’t drag me back in time, but take me forward. The leaves which whirl by and crumble underfoot are never the same leaves, the chill in our cheeks is never brought by the same cold shard of air. It all moves on. It’s just particles, dancing. Nature’s calendar tells us where we are, reminds us of where we’ve been – but more vitally, encourages us to move on. Soon there will be bright shiny new leaves; fresh days for us all.
Happy Autumn.

Oxytocin: This Silly Old Love Lark

Ok. Strap in. I’m about to get all ‘wikipedia’ on your derrieres.

Oxytocin. (Clears throat academically). Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that is best-known for its roles in sexual reproduction, in particular during and after childbirth…(blah blah, other stuff, blah)…Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin’s role in various behaviours including orgasm (giggle), social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviours…For this reason it is sometimes referred to as the Love Hormone. Oxytocin in a peptide of nine amino acids…blah… Its systematic name is cysteine-tyrosine-isoleucine-glycine-amine-bibbedy-bobbedy-boo-boo….

Basically, I googled this mischievous peptide because I’d read that it was the hormone of love, and I wanted to do my research on the little tinker because I wanted to understand why I’ve been being such a wally lately. How can we understand ourselves in love, if we don’t understand the science that controls love? We’re like puppets whose strings are on the inside. Oxytocin. Apparently if you don’t have enough of it, you’re likely to be a psychopath or a narcissist. But if you have enough of it, you are likely to be the comparable weirdo that love turns you into. Our bodies being governed by these hormones is like the country being run by Danny Dyer. Bloody chaos.

I was particularly twonkish when my boy recently went on tour for two weeks. It made my brain go a bit…stoopid. I missed him, big time. I zoned out talking to people while making internal bland observations: “You don’t have a beard. Matt has a beard.” I stood outside a newly-opened café imagining what it might look like when we’re inside it. I was idiotically candid with his parents: “Why does love feel like it’s going to burst out of your throat like an alien?” (the fact they took it for whimsical rhetoric is a huge relief.) I framed some of the wrapping paper he’d used for a book he’d bought me. I wanted to bake him pies even though he wasn’t here to eat the pies. I wanted to knit him gloves but I don’t know how to knit. It was revolting.

Then, when he got back, I stuck my nose in his chest hair and wouldn’t come out until I started to feel a bit like I needed some oxygen. I needed his smell – his pheromones, his science, presumably. I breathed him in, which is not unlike what stalkers do to their victim’s hair in scary films. IS LIFE NOT STRANGE ENOUGH WITHOUT OUR OWN HORMONES TURNING US INTO FREAKS?

I suppose I’m just not used to feeling this sense of abandon to lunacy. I have loved before, of course, but I’ve always been a bit distanced from it, like it’s a cat that might bite. I haven’t trusted it. I haven’t abandoned myself to it. Probably because I’ve wasted time with some complete and utter wrong’uns.

And yet, in addition to that gut-wrenching heart-pumping feeling of near-madness, there is also that feeling of it just being ‘right’. Of feeling dangerously comfortable, and like you’ve found the home you’ve been searching for. That is new to me in this silly old love lark. It’s amazing, but bloomin scary.

A few years ago, I was briefly married and I shouldn’t have been – and it’s bothered me ever since that I could have gone through with such a big thing without knowing that it was not right; without some instinct bristling and telling me that I did not have the right feelings. Perhaps I ignored signs. It’s scary to think you can get something so big so wrong. I like to think now that’s because I had to get it wrong in order to recognise now what it is to get it right. Mistakes are often our most valuable lessons. After all, biscuits only came about because of burnt cake. A cake got burnt, and now we have biscuits. That’s pretty brilliant.

Perhaps if we understood our bodies better – if we knew what makes our neurons whir and our cells surge, why our hormones whisper mischievous things to us – we would know how to listen to them, we could trust them and make better instinctive choices. Perhaps our lives would even be a little bit easier. After all, we can’t read Russian if we haven’t learned Russian first. Surely the same logic applies to something as intricate as our bodies?

My little research session comforted me that all the stuff that had been making me want to puke into my own cranium just to stifle the nauseating impulses of love, is actually just normal. Learning the science behind it reassured me that it’s natural to be a bit bonkers in love, that you should go with it, trust it – because it may well be the body’s signal that is it right. Even if being right means being a little bit mad, that’s ok. Know what I amino?