When I was a kid I used to collect clowns. It was one of those fascinations that was adopted from someone else. My cousin Emma, who I worshipped – a year and two days older than me, my hero and role model – had a big pierrot doll. Satin suit and a big painted on tear. Why on earth was this clown, this beautiful colourful man, as otherworldly as a fairy or an angel, so sad? Of course I didn’t know the history of clowns, or that Pierrot was a character from Commedia Dell’Arte, theatrical stock characters that encapsulated the trials and tribulations and aching messy comedy of being human. I just saw someone that lived for giving pleasure, who was tortured by a sadness he would not speak of. It seemed so unjust to my child’s mind.

Perhaps our regard for clowns is one of the earliest empathies we form as children – these strange creatures in make-up and costume – showmen for the world who want nothing but to raise a smile, while emitting to some degree, in many cases, their own deep inner sadness. Perhaps we pick up on some of the innate tendrils of loneliness, and though we have not experienced those things yet, somehow bookmark them as some of Life’s Big Things. Even the jolliest of clowns still carry around that potential for sadness. We know, at some point, alone, they take off their make-up, and are just the human underneath.

From that Pierrot onwards, I began collecting clowns. Porcelain ones from gift shops, dolls, stickers, whatever I could get my magpie hands on. I even had one that roller-skated along. I remember the smell of its plastic face, the brittleness of its bright curly hair, and the whirring of its mechanics as it stiffly crawled the floor.

Then I saw IT. A sucker for Stephen King books and all the horror films I could get sneak into sleepovers, I thrilled to be scared. But that film cured me of my hobby. The child-murdering paranormal freak who dwelled in drains was absolutely terrifying; a work of iconic genius from actor Tim Curry. So I no longer collected clowns. Perhaps I just grew out of them, or perhaps it’s because nothing sticks in your head quite like a homicidal children’s entertainer with fangs and drippy eyes, but from then on clowns were never the same.

This weekend I stumbled on a beautifully shot film about a clown and it reminded me of everything I used to feel about them as a kid. Most of us Southenders will know of Salvo – one of the regular characters about town, often seen in the high street, fashioning balloon shapes for passing children.

The film is by a Film student called Natalie Hazelden from Thundersley. She has known of Salvo for years and decided she wanted to make a film about him. The film she created lasts 7 minutes, had me crying for ten, watery eyed for another hour, and thoughtful for the rest of the day and beyond, and here I am now writing my column about it. What an art to capture someone’s life in seven minutes. It’s not my place to pass on the story. But it reminded me of the hidden pain of a clown. How too easily we choose not to see people while we’re in the bustle of our own lives, how seldom we consider the man behind the make-up.

It’s a valuable beautiful film. I hope you watch it. Next time I see Salvo I am going to go up to him and say hullo. I can’t believe I never have.



Keep the Momentum

So we’re still in a bit of a pickle, perhaps even more of a pickle than we feared for a bit, but hopefully it won’t be a pickle for long.

That seems to be the boiled down upshot of the election. The Tories tried to smear Corbyn with their hysterical “He’s mates with the IRA! Lock him up, he’ll bomb your Nan!” schtick mere days before the election and now, denied the terrifying landslide that was being hinted at and the majority they were hoping for, they are desperately dragging the DUP into bed for a lacklustre gang bang, where everyone gets stuck with the wet patch.

I can’t lie. I had to google them. The DUP. They sound like a lovely bunch don’t they. I’ve been keeping abreast of the articles pinging around about them and what it means for them to be a part of our government in however small a way. Insidious parliamentary polyfilla. The hypocrisy involved in their baffling hoik to co-power is galling, disgusting, and a bit hilarious (if you’re feeling more chipper). To have had past diplomatic dealings with the IRA is tantamount to witchcraft when it comes to a peace-loving Labour leader driven by working for the many not the few (how despotic of him), but when days later you need to be propped up by anti-abortion anti-same sex marriage parties with a shady past, it’s fine. Fine. Cue hysterical laughter and grab your Tena pads. It looks like we’re set for a period of needing our undies to be well-lined to deal with our array of reactions concerning our country and what the blazes is going to happen to it.

I would not normally write a political column. It’s not my place to do it here in a paper that should be unbiased and I doubt I could do it well, but in the confusion that abounds post election, were it not a big enough head-scratcher before, I feel I can’t write a column about cats or shoes. Not today.

I have differing views about the Frankenstein’s monsterfreakchild of the Tory-DUP bunk-up. Part of me thinks that the Conservatives allying with the DUP is tantamount to sanctioning their blinkered mediaeval creationist cruel and woeful approach to humans in a modern liberal world. To saying it’s ok. To saying they agree. And that it must be rallied against, now, because Fuck That Shit. And part of me thinks “let the cunts fucking hang themselves’. Shining a light on laughable, insidious, out-dated, self-serving cretins can only serve to start showing up their wrinkles and their pock-marks. Their bigotry, ineptitude, and lies. And there is no brighter light than power. We saw the power-lit panic-twitch behind the cold death stare of Theresa May in the days preceding the election and we all pictured the skids when she got home to take her cacky keks off.  Anyway. Perhaps – perhaps – the Tories aren’t likely to get away with half as much hell as before. Give the DUP their little taster of pseudo power for a bit. See what they do with it. And let’s see how far down they drag the Tories PR rating before we vote again. Being ultra optimistic, the election result might bear far more fruit for Labour supporters than an immediate win would have yielded. Thinking of the long game, if shit really hits the fan and the Tories, with the DUP acting as their sagging squirty-boil covered testicles, start bleeding colour until they are nothing more than Punch sketches of themselves, caricatures begging to be scrubbed out, then maybe the next General Election will really get interesting and Labour will get to instigate real lasting change. For the many, not the few.

I don’t know. But I know I don’t feel hopeless.

It’s massively inspiring that masses of people were rallied to vote when they ordinarily might not. It’s eye-wateringly brilliant that young people were whipped up enough by bold campaigns to think and to turn up and mark their cross. In a flawed first-past-the-post system, the voice of young people willing to be engaged had something of the sound of a cavalry charge to it. Labour supporters might have a temporary situation that does not reflect their hopes as they voted, but there is a feeling of higher engagement in the air, and the very real feeling that it might eventually bring change in its wake.

So, while there is activism to be kept up, while there are demos and dithering and about-turns from lots of quarters, (and of course goatskin parchment drying *eye roll*), while we still owe ourselves and others a responsibility of staying informed, staying conscious, of not just letting the flags flop while we get on with real life, we also have to be patient.

I am writing this in a town represented by two constantly re-elected Tories. Southend has remained a Tory stronghold, with votes for Conservatives going up a tad overall, but it’s certainly less safe a seat than before, with votes for Labour in Rochford and Southend East (following an impressive campaign from Ashley Dalton) going up significantly, presumably cleaning up the votes that have fallen away from UKIP (hoo-ruddy-ray) and Lib Dems. I’m greatly intrigued to see the next vote after – sorry to be callous – more old people have died and more young people have reached voting age and have had their sense and their social conscience appealed to.

I’m sure this leftie column will mostly be met with ire by the readership of the paper it is printed in. But it’s not a knock – it’s a camaraderie column, if you will. Labour supporters might not be feeling as savaged or as scared as we were before the election, but we are feeling a similar uncertainty as millions of others, both left and right leaning, who are waiting to see what happens next. And that’s why we have to stay focused, stay on it, and stay together. Don’t make Labour have to start from scratch again in their next campaign. Keep the momentum.


Love is Loud

A friend told me last week that he suspected his Nan had lived for thirty years in a gay relationship but had never spoken of her love for her partner. She raised a family living with the woman she loved, but no one was ever quite sure of their true relationship. It just wasn’t the done thing back then. Hearing that after she lost her life partner she regularly said she “missed her friend’ broke my heart, not only because I know missing people is an emptiness that is never quelled, but because not being able to speak about the love you feel is a prison. Love is an emotion you want to share; when you feel it your heart wants to shout, and so often we reduce it to a whisper or even silence. Real love is a diamond you want to hold up after years of grasping around in rocks. It is why people post pictures of their dogs or babies or new engagement rings. Love never wants to stay quiet. Love is loud.

The other evening I went to an event at Focal Point Gallery hosted by Southend artist Scottee that for me crystallised the importance of love being free and open and unashamed. Entitled “Is Southend homophobic?”, it was a platform for people to come and express their views in a queer safe-place.

The empty floor of the gallery space had been given over to a long table lined by chairs. A further row of chairs circled the table; people were to sit on the outside row and step in to the table when they wanted to contribute. It could so easily have been an intimidating set-up for those not used to speaking to many strangers at once, but under the masterful friendliness of Scottee, it took almost no time at all until the table was filled and people were talking openly. 

I stood by the wall sandwiched between the rainbow art of current exhibition Volker Eichelmann and listened. I didn’t want to take up a chair that might have been needed by someone else. For a few brief moments I was nervous that my head-cocked curiosity on the periphery was a patronising outsider’s stance. For what was I bringing to the table? I had not suffered coming out of a closet in a town that, like most, fears alternative ways of living and loving. I had not had to feel scared to fall in love with someone from my own sex or walk down a street holding the hand of the person I loved, or experienced derision, verbal hatred or violence for the choice my heart had made; which, where love is concerned, is really no choice at all.

While the adults spoke freely, a young boy of about maybe 12 got to his feet and joined the table. All eyes fell on him as we waited for him to speak. And then, when it was his turn, he did. He spoke of having come out at school and how his friends supported his decision. He spoke as though he felt part of something, a wider community he has not had the freedom to mingle in yet being still in possession of a parent-dictated bedtime. He spoke with a nascent wisdom of how many had struggled before him, and he was respectful to those who had helped make it acceptable for him to recognise who he is, so young; for him to be openly and articulately gay in his still-small world. I had to wipe my face dry about a hundred times in ten minutes, though I had no right to the tears. I did not want to be one of those liberal observers pleased at the chance to get their cheeks wet, but I just felt so overwhelmed because there was a young man sat at a table of adults, utterly equal and at home, seeming proof that times had changed and were still changing – and that he would live his life being brave; a bravery that had been fought for and hard won by his peers at the table. Bravery is a word we seem to over-use when people have the confidence to simply be themselves, to articulate how they feel without fear of being judged. If this boy felt fear he did not show it, and there, with the whole of the rainbow around him – lesbian, gay, bi, trans, camp, queer, straight, all the different shades in between – it was bright and it was beautiful. The evening concluded with dozens of people sharing chips from the chippy brought in big squishy white bags by the gallery staff, there amongst the art, discussing how everyone could keep in touch and keep talking. I left, heart brimming as trans queer punk group T-Bitch crackled in full-force in the foyer usually accustomed to a quieter crowd. 

How many of us present our true selves to the world outside our comfort zone? It takes bravery to live our lives as we wish; it takes long enough to discover ourselves, our sense of self a journey started at birth and seldom ever completed – and then it takes a certain defiance once we’ve realised who we are to express it outwardly. Sometimes it takes people decades of private wrangling; some people never get there. We are naturally predisposed to staying in some sort of closet of society’s or our own making, and flinging open the closet doors feels like a loudness few people embrace. To live openly is a gift; at first to ourselves, and then to the world, which is always richer when the closet doors are smashed. Our selves should be like the best galleries – not locked away portraits pointing inwards for a lifelong private view, but open exhibitions of the morphing vibrant fearless expression of the infinite possibilities in being human. Who are we, really? Let us be that.

Follow #queersos to join the community

Oh, Southend…

Good morning Southend,

Did you sleep well? I did. I woke up when you elbowed me in the head but it didn’t hurt. It’s fine. No, seriously, it’s fine.

So, Happy Valentine’s Day, my love. Let’s just lie here for a bit before the days gets all bonkers. Hang on, you’ve got a bit of sleep crud in your eye. Wait. Got it.

How long have we been together now? 31, 32 years? YOU GET LESS THAN THAT FOR MURDER. Seriously. You really do get less. Ah dear. We’ve had some right old times, haven’t we sausage? Do you remember when I got bored of everyone at the casino and went swimming in the sea fully clothed instead and lost my shoes? And you just rained on me the whole way home but it’s alright because I was drenched anyway. Never did find those shoes.

I just don’t think I’d feel at home anywhere else. I’m not saying there aren’t other places that would make me happy, I don’t believe in soul mates or that there’s just one town for everyone, we live in a big beautiful world, and I certainly wouldn’t kick Paris or New York out of bed, and, ok, if that filly Florence came calling I’d have to pinch myself hard to keep myself on the straight and narrow, but for now, and for a long time, you have been the one I choose to wake up with. I have chosen to stay with you. That must mean something, right? I know there was that time I got a bit mad at you and was going to move to Stoke Newington but I’m glad I didn’t. Likewise, Clapham. Lucky escape. I’ve known people who moved to Clapham and I’m not sure I feel the same way about them now.

I love your ways is what I’m saying, Southend. There’s no one I’d rather snuggle up to at night. You big bear. I even love your morning breath. Like wet sand blowing up from the beach. I don’t even mind you on bin day when you’re not at your best. I don’t mind all that. I love you for all that you are. Not just the sunsets and the seafood and the estuary skies and your ‘Let’s pretend we’re in Miami’ palm trees that I suspect might actually be dead. I love your gulls squawking and your sea mists and your changing light, but I also love your peeling walls and spilled chips and your fights. You’ve got spunk, Southend. I like it.

I love all your familiar places. I’ve nestled into your nooks, your pubs and bookshops, shoved my head in the crook of your arm for comfort. I’ve lain on your beaches and rolled in your sand and swum in your waters and walked your streets. I’ve got beautiful friends scattered along you. Your skin is like a constantly changing tattoo. I like to scooch up to you and look at the new pictures, see how you’ve changed, see how you’re reflecting us and our lives. I love finding secret parts of you I’ve never seen. Just when I think you’re all about change, seeking sleekness and self-improvement, I look up and see a faded Lending Library sign from the last century fading into old bricks but holding fast. Your wrinkles are endearing. I wouldn’t wish you smooth. You’re a complicated creature Southend but I love you for it. You’re grand and humble and peculiar and a bit oversensitive and grumpy but you always remember your sense of humour just in the nick of time.

Oh Southend. You’ve still got a bit of crud in your eye but I love you.

Looks like it might be a nice day. Spring is coming. You look really pretty in the spring.



Metal are launching Love Letter to my Hometown – a chance to tell Southend what you love about her in her 125th year. The work will be displayed at Village Green Festival on 8th July. If you’d like to contribute, words or art, pick up a postcard from Chalkwell Hall or email 


A Crossing Bell

I rang the bell. I had been about to pass it, having heard it rung, mostly by children, almost constantly for the past two days. Something called me back, to approach it. Maybe it’s because no one else was around and I saw my chance. I rang it. It sounded louder than when other people rang it. I felt naughty somehow. So I rang it again. It had a clarity, as though it had found exactly the right points around it to bounce from to make itself sound important; drew them in like coordinates of the perfect pitch then sent them pealing out to the clouds.

The bell is A Crossing Bell – an art installation at Tilbury Cruise Terminal by Professor of Sound & Landscape Angus Carlyle who has worked in residence at Metal, an arts organisation with a big heart in a big house in a pretty park where I am lucky to work. He is also a part of Estuary Festival. Passengers are invited to ring the bell while offering a prayer for a crossing – their crossing or someone else’s, a friend’s or a stranger’s; a prayer to ward off the bad or wish for the good. Angus’ hope is that the bell’s unamplified peals suggest other crossings, other times and other places. And they do.

I only remembered then as I rang it that right there, down to the deck to the waters between Tilbury and Gravesend, that my dad had been moored here in the 60s. I have the last diaries he wrote as a teen in the Merchant Navy. 1964. After months of sailing more exotic waters – Biscay, Suez, Arabian Sea, Muscat, Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Colombo, his list goes on – they drifted… into Southend-on-Sea. My hometown. A strange town that Dad could not have known then would be the place he’d later move to in his fifties to be near his daughters, and then soon after where he would take his life. He stayed four days in 1964 then sailed on to Tilbury, and one night – “went ashore to dance in Gravesend with lads. Got really pissed.” The next morning, he got up at 8.15, and “just read papers all morning.” Then the diaries come to an end, and as far as I know he never wrote any others. Or certainly none that he kept and passed on. Perhaps these were the only ones that he wasn’t ashamed of. The ones that only chronicle small details of ship life – no truths of his character or feelings at all that might be of use in the puzzle of a dead bi-polar man.

I had just been thinking the week before, as I walked past the road where he lived and died, that I felt pretty cool about him being dead, now. I felt tough. Over it. Cool. I walked past – as I do most days, I live a few roads away now – and felt ‘nothing’.

But I didn’t feel nothing when I rang the bell. It was like a brass hammer to the sky, cracking open the clouds to say hullo to my father, there on the very waters where he had written in his tiny blue scrawl. Maybe only meters away from where I stood, now, ringing it. Maybe if I could call to him back then – me on the deck, him rocking in his bunk – he could have heard me. Was his ship that close? If only time could allow me that experiment. Distance and time and death. Science. What huge impassable relentlessly factual things keep people apart.

Earlier that morning I had been up at 5am for a dawn performance by a vocal artist named Caroline Bergvall, who wove her mesmeric voice with that of a vocalist Peyee Chen and a backing track of collected sounds. Raga Dawn. My job was to capture it for other people, but towards the end I just lay down on the deck behind the audience, my spine falling between one of the broad gaps in the planks, the breeze surging up through the fibres of my jumper to my skin, and the sound of the heavy lapping water beneath my head. What do we think in these moments of reflection? Our thoughts trip on to one thing mostly. To how we feel, to people, to those we have lost. To love. To loss. To death. I often wonder if anyone can ever pass truly blithely through life without thoughts of death; whether it is a dialogue that can be completely avoided. Whether the ‘mentally ill’ can shut out awareness of it with a complete efficiency that we, the ‘more normal’, the ‘well’, cannot.

I suppose it comes as a not-too-great surprise that artists are drawn to water and to death. It tells not only stories, captures our thoughts, loves, and fears, but it also inspires a sort of peace that must be made before we ourselves go. A peace with ourselves. Estuary Festival is full of work by countless artists of dizzying various disciplines that observe a similar theme, but it is this piece – A Crossing Bell – that spoke to me, because it spoke for me.

I didn’t tell Angus during our multiple chats as he milled around in a nice blue jacket that I had rung his bell and been moved. I felt shy. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to keep it for myself. Between me & Dad & the river.

The bell did its job. A hullo was said. And a small patch of the Thames that was new to me became familiar, like Dad was with me for a while, strong and tangible as bronze, invisible yet potent as sound waves saying “I was here.”



Estuary Festival runs until the 2nd October in various places in Tilbury, Gravesend, and Southend. For more – go here.

For more on Angus Carlyle, go here. And the bell – here.

For Caroline Bergvall & Raga Dawn, go here.


The Beach Boys Are In Us

I don’t want to alarm anyone but The Beach Boys are in us. Like, right now. All the time.

Even if you hate them, you cannot fail to know them and know that their sound is Their Sound. No one sounds like The Beach Boys.

Few – and growing fewer – of their fans were around for the first wave of Beach Boys love. I wasn’t a teen growing up in the 60s. I was a 90s girl, and although I didn’t own one of their albums for years, their songs became part of me in that cultural osmosis that we can’t avoid even if we want to. Music finds its way in, like moisture.

One of the most evocative songs of my junior school days was Good Vibrations. I was in a play about the whales that got stuck under the ice in Alaska, aptly but not mathematically-correctly named ‘Whale’, singular. I remember nothing about the play other than: 1) it made me sad because the whales were not happy under the ice and eventually died and 2) we couldn’t get real whales. And – 3) – we used The Beach Boys. When you do a play about America and you are not American but you want the play to seem American and you want to create the illusion of America, what do you do? You use the Beach Boys. And I loved it. Loved them. So much. They made me sway and feel a youthful lightness in my heart I had no need of augmenting with carefree music because I was already young. They made me feel a better kind of young. They made me reach for harmonies. It made me try to figure out similar harmonies to completely inappropriate tracks. I was one of those annoying girls who soften the best songs with their adolescent goo tones because they can’t sing rock, and it was all The Beach Boys’ fault. Why didn’t all songs sound like this? I embarked upon finding the inner Beach Boys in all music –  even during my Rage Against The Machine phase. I truly believed that somewhere inside all of this noise was a lotus-like harmoniousness waiting to burst out. Which is balls-out bunkum. Some music is hard as fuck and that’s the point of it and Christ we need that too. But I didn’t know it then. Since that play, The Beach Boys have been a thing in my life. That joyous sway in the heart. The ‘other place’ness. The American teen dream and the waves and the sixties and the innocence and the surfing.

I DON’T EVEN SURF. BUT THE BEACH BOYS MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I CAN. Heck, I don’t even think The Beach Boys surfed. They rarely even dressed for the beach. Except Dennis, the tousled stud. Those preppy bumclench trousers would have lasered off their gonads if they’ve tried to do watersports in them. Maybe that’s how they got the high notes. So for a band that’s predominantly famous for songs about surfing, not being all that surfy but making other people feel surfy is quite a feat. No one else could pull such blaggardry off. It would be like Mumford & Sons banging on about cricket in three out of five songs or Adele writing an album called 3-1 about football results. The Mumfords don’t bat. Adele doesn’t do keepy-uppies. It would be ludicrous if her biggest hit was a belting ballad about Milwall. But The Beach Boys owned surf. They owned that spirit. And they instilled that spirit in millions of others across the world, some of whom have never seen an ocean or sat on sand. That is an epic achievement. *High fives The Beach Boys*

The Beach Boys also make you yearn for things you wouldn’t normally yearn for, like hickeys under the boardwalk, malt shakes (hooey), and public proposals when you are not of legal age. All that nonsense that sweeps around inside you like West Coast waves of imagination when you listen to them. Wouldn’t It Be Nice makes me want someone to get down on one knee and propose to me with a Hawaiian flower garland or a Cadillac tyre. I’d wear it, I actually would. Don’t Worry Baby makes me want to worry, like really demonstrably worry about everything, just so I can have someone sing that song to me. And I’m still really hacked off I’ve never had a friend called Rhonda. Even though Rhondas seem to take bloody ages to come to your aid when you need them.

And as with all songs you love with a fierceness, you get protective over them. When Richard Curtis used God Only Knows in Love Actually I almost kicked off. I hated him for it. “Don’t use that song, Richard – it’s not yours you schmaltzy twit. It’s mine. It’s everyone’s. But it’s not yours”, I bellowed in my head the first time I watched that atrocity, and again when I watched it, guiltily, for the thirtieth. And of course – that’s why Richard Curtis used it. Because God Only Knows with its ascending harmonies and its guileful magical repetitions evokes powerful emotions; emotions so powerful by a song so powerful the rest of the film somehow gets protected by some sort of by-product forcefield from its own shitness.

Despite all this, seeing Brian Wilson could so easily have been something I missed. I saw the tickets come on sale at my local theatre. I emitted a little ‘ooh’ at the delicious unlikeliness of Bri sticking even one Californian toe in Essex, then I cracked on and forgot to buy any. They sold out, fast. Luckily a friend had a spare and with that casual exchange I had a night I will never forget. Brian Wilson was coming to the Cliffs Pavilion. That means, essentially, The Beach Boys were coming to Southend. The West Coast, the Westest, further than Cornwall and then a few more thousand miles across another continent, was coming to our little oft-derided seaside town that I happen to love. That’s BIG.

I instantly wanted to go to the theatre and paint the dressing rooms. I’ve been in there. It’s alright for others, they can Flashwipe their own lavseat, I haven’t got time to look after everyone, but now Brian blinking Wilson was going to be shuffling around, humming like a total cutie, sitting on the same seats as mortals. I wanted to sneak in and steamclean everything, knock down some partition walls to give him more space. Make our beach better. He was going to judge our beach.  A BEACH BOY WAS GOING TO TAKE ONE LOOK AT OUR PEBBLES AND WONDER WHY ON EARTH WE DIDN’T GO TO THE EFFORT OF ENSURING THE REQUISITE PHASES OF GEOLOGICAL CRUMBLING TO MAKE IT NICE FOR HIM. Then I realised that Brian Wilson wouldn’t care about all that tosh. Because Brian Wilson is hard.

But Brian Wilson is not hard.

Seeing him sitting at the keys on the stage made me do a little heart vomit. He looked so…old and frail. He stopped the opening of one song because he had heartburn. A dude trotted on stage to give him some liquid medicine which I hoped was hard liquor or the elixir of life to give him a little pep, but I suspect it was just swanky Pepto Bismol. But he did it. I heard the whole of Pet Sounds, live, plus extras. And it was amazing. And I cried. It was The Beach Boys. Well, Brian & Al Jardine. The others are…busy. (Not dead. Busy. The Beach Boys do not die.)

I turned round in the middle of Wouldn’t It Be Nice to watch the thunderous crowd behind me, up on their feet, arms in the air, singing. There in the air was everyone’s lives pooled in an invisible collective – all our memories stored in these songs, our youths, the youths we never had but imagined, the better young people that live somewhere inside us, the surf and the sea and the young love and the promise of growing old with that person The Beach Boys tell you you will find, were all there as we grew 90 minutes older and younger together.

I had an awful thought in the middle of the almost eerie You Still believe In Me, that this might be the last gig Brian played. A horrible guilty longer-than-nice thought about him just lying down afterwards and never getting up again. In bloody Southend. Later, in the bar, friends said they’d thought the same. I either hang around with some of the most maudlin people ever, or there really was a quiver of something frail in that tender-boisterous wall of joyful air that night, and we all felt it.

I walked home holding a mug with his face on. Not because I don’t think mass-produced merch is the complete antithesis of the artist’s soul, but because that mug was the closest I’d ever get to hugging Brian Wilson.

Few people get to play. Fewer get to play to millions across the world be it through machines or live. Fewer are remembered for very long. Fewer still get a chance to play themselves out. Brian Wilson will play himself out, and leave us the songs, on loop, ascending in endless harmonious thirds around the world, forever. The Beach Boys are in us.


The Accidental Book: Distractions of a Touring Comedian – Interview with Al Murray

The life of a touring comedian is a uniquely pressured and privileged thing; to have tickets bearing your name bought by people who hand to you an evening of their lives, and ask you to fill it with laughter: Hwoo. I have worked and toured with comedians. I should have remembered that to ask them anything when they’re nearing the end of a tour is as likely to invoke a torrent of existential woe as it is a massive yawn. It is certainly naive to whimsically ask them what life is ‘all about’ as an opening gambit.

Al Murray, creator and purveyor of quality pub landlord alter-ego of the same name, gamely replied to my blithe tone, (no doubt as annoying as finding a skidmark in your hotel bed): “What’s what all about? I barely know what day it is any more – we’ve been touring since this time last year pretty much and I feel like I’m living in a great big rolling present with no end in sight. And what’s that all about?”

I thought of other comedians who – though they know they are lucky to be doing it at all – after a long stretch on the road, with homogenised hotels and the quiet inner-mania that comes with hundreds of people expecting you to be at your best every night, inevitably reach the stage when they just want to go home and sleep in their own bed.

I asked Al what helps.

“Good food. And the fact that the audiences are nice: it remains an ongoing daily surprise that people want to come and see me.”

Even after years of playing to packed houses, a state of refreshed disbelief characterises most working comedians. Beneath the skill and success is always the novice receiving his first laugh. (Unless you turn into a total nob. And lordy there’s a few of those about too.)

What does a comedian do at the end of a long tour, once ensconced in the comforts of home? Sleep? Scratch his balls? Al, it would seem, attempted slothdom but failed miserably.

“I’d given myself six weeks off at the start of last year, fully intending to do nothing at all after a year on the road, and a couple of days in I got bored, sat down and started writing some of the ideas that then turned into the book. I got about 35,000 words done, took it to a publisher who then – horror of horrors – wanted me to actually finish the damned thing. Writing is hard because unlike stand up you can’t tweak it night after night, you have to sign off on it and watch it go out into the world to haunt you. Or worse still be completely ignored.”

I doubted it would be ignored, but wondered if success in other realms was a blessing or a curse in a comedian’s literary sidestep.

“It opens doors, but also warps expectation of how a book might perform. But as this book is written from my point of view, not the Pub Landlord’s (like the last 3 books) it at least has the advantage of novelty.”

I pictured Al daintily tapping away at some high spec Apple product, and then – thinking of another writer in his family – imagined it, like a romantic wanker, all falling away into black and white – the screen replaced by quill and ink, as writers of yore would have been tasked to write their tomes. I nudged him to divulge.
“You mean the Thackeray thing: he’s my great great great grandfather. As a youngster all that did was guarantee that I wasn’t going to read his books, which is a shame as Vanity Fair is brilliant. But I never felt a weight of expectation or anything.”

Not many people can boast – nor lament in moments of reduced self-assurance – names of great note in their lineage. Al is neither abashed nor bolstered by it. Even with literary and military history peppering his family, and his own success, he almost swats it away. A reductive instinct perhaps further micro-evidenced by reducing his full name to Al, about as short and fuss-free a name as you can get without being called ‘Oi’. I asked him what’s in a name, if anything.

“I love the idea of nominative determinism – that your name somehow sets your fate. And there can’t be that many plumbers called Tarquin.”

I pondered. Nope. Never had my pipes tended by a Tarquin.

Knowing there must be some level of choice in a constant circuitous touring of the nation’s larger venues, I asked Al what made him keep coming back to Southend.

“The Cliffs is a rarity for doing stand up – it’s a big room where you can hold everyone’s attention. Southend crowds are no-nonsense and one night there was a bloke at the front whose name was Cliff. What else could you ask for?”

Al will be playing the Cliffs Pavilion with his new show The Only Way Is Epic on Saturday 29th & Sunday 30th June. His book – a memoir about his love of history – will be out in the autumn.