Axis Powers Blog

It’s been very quiet on the playing front this last couple of weeks. No bad thing though, it’s given the inner nerd a chance to run riot in the shed, or home workshop, and as a result of which there has been something of a leap forward in the Seaplanes Of The Axis Powers diorama. If I’ve understood correctly from my book “Understanding Basic Jung”, and its invaluable companion volume, “Understanding “Understanding Basic Jung””, Jung maintains that events spread out through life and are linked like concentric ripples on a pond, and so there are no such things as coincidences. How this bears on recent shed activity is as follows; for the last six months or so I have been working on a colossal model of a colossal Nazi flying boat called the Blohm & Voss 238. Designed as a post-war transatlantic airliner to take victorious Germans shopping in Manhattan, the BV 238 was to boast, amongst other things, a promenade deck and cocktail bar. Here’s a contemporary artists’ impression of Gretchen and Hans enjoying a WKD as they float majestically over the Azores-


In reality, the Germans managed to build only one, and it lived on a lake in Hamburg. A couple of weeks before the end of the war a squadron of RAF fighters found it, having been tipped off by the secret service that it was being readied for a very long flight to South America, and had been kitted out to cater for “three high profile families”. Not wanting the Hitlers to make a last-minute dash for it and set up a tobacconist’s in Buenos Aries, or whatever, our chaps shot at it until it sank. Apparently it was so massive that one of its wings lay protruding from the lake in a kind of ironic sub-aqua Nazi salute. Local children played on the wreck until 1948, when a local dealer came and sold it off for scrap. Look out for dark green paint on cheap hotel cutlery in the Hamburg area, folks. Despite it being a huge transport organ for the cause of evil, I am fascinated by this beast. Even though the BV 238 is quite clearly on the side of the baddies, it has that dark elegance which only Nazi gear possesses. Please don’t get confused here- I’m not saying that I find anything elegant about the revolting brutalism of Nazism itself, but I know I am not alone in finding the gear fascinating, in the same way that little boys will want to dress up as Darth Vader instead of Luke Skywalker. A highly polished baddie has a hypnotic charm, a bit like a rattlesnake, and the Nazis were well aware of this when they got Hugo Boss to design all their uniforms. Back to the flying boat, and here’s a shot of it taking off on a test flight from its home in Schalsee, near Hamburg. I often make sotto voce aeroplane noises whilst contemplating this picture, especially if Her Indoors is, well, outdoors. Try it yourself-lean in and go nnnneeeeeoooowwww. Feels nice, doesn’t it? As it has six engines, you may want to experiment with another five people, all leaning in and going nnnneeeeeoooowwww. I reckon that the effect could be quite liberating.


My miniature BV 238 has been taking shape since roughly February. At a scale of six foot to the inch, its 197-foot wingspan comes out at a little under three feet, which, unless I dig up evidence of something larger, will have to be the centre piece of the diorama. Currently, it is the centre piece of the home exhibition suite, or kitchen. Realising that I had a quiet period in the diary, I thought that I’d have a bit of a push and try and get it finished, as although its huge size has an appeal, I was beginning to tire of knocking all my jars of paint etc. etc .over with one wing whilst working on the other. To paraphrase the great aero modelling guru Mike McEvoy, I resolved that the next time I have something that large in my lap, I won’t be building it, I’ll be changing its nappy. It was whilst contemplating Mike, Nappies and fleeing Nazi dynasties in the shed that Jung and his concentric event theory struck, and there in my inbox was an email from Mike not only inviting me to the Farnborough model show, but asking if I had anything interesting I’d like to bring. Normally, I can’t do model shows, as they are held at weekends, when as a rule I am engaged in driving to The North in order to operate a woodwind instrument. However, the present absence of paid work displayed on the kitchen wall chart meant that I could go! To add to the excitement, as I would shortly be equipped with a newly-finished colossal model of a colossal Nazi flying boat, I asked if I could bring it with me. He seemed very happy with this and said he would sort out an extra table or two from the organisers on which to put it.

I am a closet model maker. The only people who see the fruits of my labours are me, Her Indoors and anyone else who happens to stray into the Shed during one of our series of Open Events At The Gables, or piss-ups. True, I posted some pictures of them “floating” on the £12.99 Argos paddling pool in this Plog a few months ago, but that was it. I’ve certainly never stood in front of real people in a public place and subjected myself and my models to their opinions and views, so you can see that when Her indoors and I loaded the Blohm & Voss onto the back seat of the Volvo in its Custom Packing Unit, or fruit box, I found myself getting a severe attack of the jitters. This was especially odd, as I spend my working life standing up in front of people doing all kinds of stupid stuff without batting an eyelid. Even a bad attack of the wrong trousers in Southend last week formed a hazard rather than a crisis-it never occurred to me that standing on stage in front of 800 folks with a pair of trousers on which wouldn’t even go on above the hips was anything more than an amusing nuisance- the overriding consideration was to get the job done and get home. I think with the music I have largely learnt to separate who I am from what I do- with the model show, it was quite the reverse. My Blohm & Voss was my baby, and I would be as partisan as any proud parent.

A model show is a fascinating thing. This particular one was taking place in two halls of a secondary school. Mainly populated by chaps, it is an arena of unbridled nerddom. There’s people displaying models, people selling them, people looking at them and everybody’s talking about nothing but. Her Indoors was a little surprised to see such a high concentration of man amassed in a public space without thought of appealing to the opposite sex. A nice lambswool v-neck is about as dressy as a modeller gets, you know. This is what makes it such a dirty treat- when out in the general public, with its general attitudes, any allusions to making Airfix planes have to be dressed up with a bit of self ridicule or gentle apology. Not so at the Model Show- whatever the nerdy colours are, you’re wearing them on your sleeve loud and proud! I had a chat with a bloke for FIFTEEN MINUTES about why the floats on the Blohm & Voss were red. We even discussed the shade of red, and it felt great! No one was judging me for my affliction, we were all in it together. If somebody wants to start a Nerd Pride movement, I’ll join up for one. It was like a day off! I found my fellow modellers a supportive and friendly bunch too- if you could stay awake while I did it, I could give you a litany of model making sins which comprise the bodged construction of my aeroplane, but the good bespectacled chaps who were there were full of nothing but praise. I was glad to see too that I wasn’t the only one there who had to have one pair of bins for reading, and then another pair of special Model Show specs for close up examination of minute details.

Late on in the afternoon, Mike introduced me to a mate of his called Dick Ward. Dick is one of the brightest lights in the modelling firmament, as it was he who has designed all the transfers for most model kits since about 1970. As an eight-year-old my glue-encrusted fingers were slapping his stickers all over Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Corsairs, and they have been ever since. He only retired a couple of years ago. I was introduced, and went to Jelly. It was like meeting Dizzy Gillespie, and try as I might I couldn’t bring myself to ask him a question which was in any way incisive or coherent. To continue my analogy from the other week of the inside of my skull as the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, at this point it was awash with tribbles. Wisely, I shut up and listened to him talking to Mike, who by the eternal accident of birth have both got to see in flying metal all those things which live as small lumps of dormant plastic in my shed. Anyway, here it is- my Blohm & Voss 238-


Bag and Trouser Blog

Poor long-term wardrobe management has dominated this week’s proceedings, along with the tail end of the hay fever. Sunday saw a trip to Southend, to wave my arms around in the Palace Theatre there directing the orchestra for the Golden Glottis of Great Wakering himself, Kevin Fitzsimmons. All was going well, no traffic to speak of on the way down; a nice helpful theatre staff, all the chaps turned up on time and the short bandcall went off without a hitch. All the way through this I had a sneaking suspicion that something was going to go hideously wrong, but I dismissed these preternatural twinges as irrational and, spurning the inevitable pre-gig curry packed myself off to the chippy for a traditional English seaside tea, in the traditional English seaside horizontal high-velocity pissing rain. Should you ever find yourself down in that neck of the woods, by the way, I can heartily recommend the Dolphin Fish Bar- hand cut chips like little individual shards of high art were on offer, and the establishment boasted two floors of sit down dining, both of which were rammed solid. We therefore elected to go back to the theatre, and enjoy the nosh in the palatial luxury of the Artists’ Meditation and Relaxation suite, or dressing room number three.

A quarter of an hour before curtain up, it was time to don the white tux, and I made my way down to the wings. I always get changed for a theatre gig in the wings, because it saves carrying yet another bag up a rickety staircase, leaving it at the venue in my haste to get home at the end, and then having to drive back the following Tuesday to get it. In fact, I have long opined that as a child someone saw fit to blight me with the dreaded Curse of the Million Bags, in which in any given situation I have luggage which exceeds my capacity to carry it by a factor of at least four. Despite being issued by The Maker with the usual amount of limbs, I continually end up in lifting and carrying situations better suited to an octopus, or on a really bad day, a giant me-sized millipede. It seems that whether I’m going out to operate saxophones, or just off to the petrol station to buy a pint of milk, I will end up with two bags in each hand, and one over each shoulder, which usually detach themselves from said shoulders and slither in a grating manner down to the wrists just as a revolving door needs to be negotiated. I am now something of a master at the delicate art of walking sideways along corridors whilst toting three times my bodyweight in rucksacks because my baggage has rendered me too broad in the beam for conventional locomotion.
Kev’s gig on Sunday was no exception. The Southend Palace is a beautiful old Victorian theatre, and as a consequence has beautiful old Victorian car parking facilities, or to put it another way, absolutely no car access. You have to park down the nearby streets, and given the driving horizontal rain mentioned earlier, I reckoned that with my years of training under The Curse, I could do it all in one go. Carrying as I was all the bandstands, lights, clarinet and my evening wear sideways along the narrow pavements of the residential streets of Southend I took on the appearance of a hideous mix of rag-and-bone cart, giant anthropomorphic hermit crab, and in the aforementioned rain with the wind lashing at my shirt, Heathcliffe.

It’s easy to understand therefore, that when so much different stuff has to be packed, Thunderbird-2-like, into the Volvo to undertake a mission, situations can arise due to, shall we say, administrative error. One of these was about to bite me quite literally on the bum. Remember, folks, that it is now Gig minus fifteen minutes. I am walking around in the wings getting changed, and take the black dress trousers of the hanger. As I was looking down into them whilst stepping in, it struck me that all did not look well in terms if the circumference of the waistband. Even before I’d got them over my knees I’d realised what had gone wrong- in my haste to fill the Volvo with all the stuff I needed in time to set off for work without missing any of the Archers Omnibus, I’d been a bit hasty at the wardrobe, and packed the Trousers That Time Forgot.

I can’t imagine that I’m the only person in the world who hangs on to old clothes which belong to a nicer, thinner version of self from somewhere in the distant past, in the hope that there’s a nicer, thinner version of self waiting up the path in the future who will be glad of a £12.99 pair of black strides from Man At Halfords. I’m a hoarder anyway, but this is vanity hoarding. Vanity is a sin, and bearing down on me like that big stone ball in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones was the retribution. For reasons I cannot explain, over the years these trousers had, er, shrunk. To the tune of five or six inches. I could pull them up over my legs, but the fly was spread out so far that any thought of even bodging something with safety pins or gaffer tape was right out of the question. Catching sight of this in a full length mirror nearby, I was struck by how much my trousers and I resembled a bri-nylon python engaged in the activity of swallowing an elk. Twelve minutes to go now, and I was staring at the possibility of standing up in front of eight hundred fee-paying punters with no trousers. The classic anxiety dream. It occurred to me also that if I did that, I would be perfectly entitled to ride on the top deck of a bus in my Speedos, and it then occurred to me that my brain’s defence mechanism of piling on the irrelevance in the face of despair needed to be reined in.

I’d come to work in my brown pinstripe suit, and so I checked out how the brown trousers looked as part of a white Tux ensemble. As the pinstripes were broad, I could have passed them off as some sort of sepia morning suit bottoms, and was working on a jive story to tell the public along the lines of “I’m wearing these brown morning trousers as a mark of respect to the Day of the Ocelot, a little-known fertility celebration in Tierra Del Fuego”. Luckily, Nigel my lead alto sax man had just come in to get changed himself, and he pointed out that my white tux was double breasted. If the black pants could stay up, then the tux would cover up the affected area. He was right- pulling the trousers, with pliers I might add, up my legs as high as they would go, there was no risk of them budging an inch. My tux was cut low enough, and we were all systems go, as long as no-one noticed that my dress trousers were of such drainpipe like proportions that it looked for all the world that my own legs had gone missing and the management had rented me in a pair previously owned by Max Wall.

As the gig wore on, I felt the resemblance to Max Wall becoming more acute. These were always a cheap and nasty trouser, with all the porousness of cling film. In addition, although there was no danger of them falling down, they were maintaining their altitude by simple constriction across my bum and gentleman’s area. Anybody who’s played Rugby will know about the feeling when the chap behind you in the scrum’s hand comes up between your legs to get a good grip on your waistband. It was a bit like that, only with the added sensation that the chap behind was a bit too keen and pressing on rather too hard. With a large cat. Whilst the goodly BHS tux was keeping all this unpleaseant imbroglio a visual secret in itself, I was becoming aware that the Max Wall effect was beginning to infiltrate the way I walked, and given some of the temperatures being attained down there in my own bri-nylon encased, stage light and friction powered underpant kiln, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I got the bulging eyes and the start of the trademark hair loss too.

Conducting a band can be quite physical- in the intro to World On A String, the pressure nearly burst a seam when I brought the trombones in at bar 9. After that, I really had to watch my movements and tone it all down. I spent the bulk of the second half conducting with my right index finger only, in a curious contrast to the huge controlled detonations coming out of the brass section in front of me. In the end, it was all over. Back in my position in the wings, I removed the trousers (with a wallpaper scraper) and had a good old stride about in the cotton boxers to allow a much needed cool breeze over the trossacks. Then it was time to pack everything down and stagger sideways back to the Volvo.

Ironically, after an evening of narrowly averting flashing the concert going public of Southend On Sea, the only person to get flashed that whole evening was me. By a bloody camera on the A127.


Blog of Study

If we take it that a week begins at 0.00 on Sunday Morning, then this week got off to a flying start. Buoyed by a successful gig in nearby Radlett last Saturday, Her Indoors, Richard Pite and Nick Dawson have retired to The Gables for an after show reception, or drink-up, the salient features of which were Her Indoors’ home-made Chicken Soup and, as it turned out, cheap supermarket vodka from Budgen’s. The vodka was unusually popular that evening- having run out of grown up mixers like tonic, your amateur barman here cunningly substituted mango juice. It was that or oxtail soup, and as things turned out, Vodka and Mango, or, as we called it a Sri Lankan Sunrise, became a bit of a hit.

Should you choose to follow the pioneering work of the Head Barman at El Bar Armadillo, or me in the kitchen, then watch out for the Sri Lankan Sunrise. Mango Juice is a very robust mixer, and the taste of the vodka only begins to cut through if the mix is around 90% in the vodka’s favour. Consequently, although it tastes as benign as Audrey Hepburn’s smile, it has a kick like a recently startled mule. A mule which works in an Amyl Nitrate processing works. Given this, you can imagine that by around 02.15 on Sunday morning we’d fallen out of the tree off finely balanced intellectual discourse, hitting every branch of the ten deadly sins of drunken tittle tattle on the way down and were now firmly embedded in the marshy ground of inarticulacy, taking it in turns to lunge at the computer to put on our favourites from the world of Spotify. The clear winner here was Ernie Wise singing “That Riviera Touch” and now freed from the need to speak altogether, we spent a good three-quarters of an hour twisting the night away to repeated renditions of same, but with the volume slightly higher each time. It must be great fun living at The Gables plus one, from time to time.

Recently, I have come to the end of a long-term project. All my Duke Ellington music is stored in the home archive, or shed. The vast bulk of this was prepared in the distant era before computers wrote out all our music for us, and so is hand-written would be irreplaceable in the event of fire, theft or trombones. In January, I decided that this wouldn’t do, and so I embarked on a campaign to scan the lot, one piece per day. Two weeks ago, I finished loading in all the bass parts from the Second Sacred Concert, and the job was complete. Finding myself with an empty hour on my hands every morning, I’ve started to do something I’ve not really concentrated on since my teens, which is to practice my instruments. It might sound odd, with what I do for a living and all, that I have no regular practice routine, but for the last twenty years or so I have relied on the fact that I have had pretty much daily playing to keep the wheels turning. Added to this is the fact that most of my waking hours are spent on the phone reassuring brides-to-be that our version of Dancing Queen is pretty much the same as the original, or drawing floor plans for a guitar and bass duo because the client is worried about how this may impinge on the flower arranging. If it’s not that, then I am on the phone trying to get hold of a piano player for the trip to Leeds on Sunday week or something of that ilk. Running a band wouldn’t half be easier if I didn’t have any musicians or members of the public to deal with, I can tell you.

So you see, once it gets to around 5.30, I either have to get into the Volvo and drive myself off somewhere to work, or my head is so fried from matters musical that it’s about as much as I can muster to pour myself into the armchair in the home cinema, or living room, for the Simpsons at 6pm. I’ve not had the mental capacity for practice, but now with this extra hour in the day which I’ve found in the absence of operating the Ellingtonian scanner a flavour of the old teenage regime has been restored.

There are other reasons for getting back to study too. Despite my fresh=as=a=daisy youthful images available on the interweb, the fact is that I’m no spring chicken anymore, and what used to be automatically available on the younger model now has to be worked for. In playing terms, the younger models of today generally are considerably faster and better equipped that when I was at that stage. The stakes are higher these days so if I want to continue working, I find myself with a two pronged assault on the shrinking territory of the things that I can do. Therefore, the re-introduction of the daily hour of practice could not have come for me at a more fitting time.

It’s also rather relaxing. I spend a good half an hour on my scales, and a further half an hour on the acquisition of new pieces. By the end of the hour, the meditative quality of the activity has worked its calming effect, and I often feel better equipped to deal with the day’s brides and floor plans. Don’t let’s forget the survival aspect though-I remember that when I was learning, I only had to play something twice and there it was, conveniently stored in the brain. Having had my bum kicked quite hard in public recently during a terrible memory lapse in a rendition of “Confirmation”, I resolved to put this on the syllabus. I can play it from memory now, but it’s taken two weeks to get the creaking grey matter to absorb it. Back in the day, when I was in Itchy Fingers, we all played the 90-minute set without a scrap of manuscript in sight. I suppose it’s all part of the delicious process of aging. I wonder what’s going to fall off next.

As I said, part of the new regime is a return to scales, and this involves the use of some flashy ones in flashy patterns. Served up as part of a jazz solo, these can add quite a lot of zip to a performance, and so it was with some excitement that I drove to my gig as the soloist at the Tamworth Jazz Club on Monday. A long enough drive from the Gables to serve as a good period for reflection, I used the time to prepare my newly-acquired flashy patterns in the mental arsenal of things to play during a jazz solo. I was really quite excited. The gig began, I went to the part of the brain where all the new stuff was, and all I could see was static and haze! Bugger! The good people of Tamworth were therefore subjected to all my old, normal stuff, but I was aware that the fingers were playing it a bit easier than normal.

At a big music industry get together on Wednesday, I happened to bump into Tom Cawley, pianist extraordinaire and purveyor of jazz training at the Royal Academy of Music. Still worried that I’d missed the boat with my own brain and was doomed to be stuck in my own world of 1987, I mentioned the Tamworth incident. Tom said that you have to do at least six month’s worth of fiddling around at home before the new stuff starts emerging on the field of battle, and he’s one of the best we’ve got. There’s hope for me yet.


Blog of Achingly Trendy Party


In 1977, my young adolescent mind was shaken quite vigorously by the spectacle erupting on a weekly basis from Thames TV of the fringe theatre-esque series Rock Follies. Aside from introducing the nation to the singing of Julie Covington, Rock Follies provided the occasional glimpse of Breast Nudity, the appalling sinfulness of which would result in my dad sending me, my sister and often my mum off to bed, leaving him to contemplate this new decline in British moral fabric all on his own. The series sought to tell its tale of the ups and downs of camp-rock 70’s showbiz on sets so cheap and flimsy that the design department at Crossroads were left slack-jawed in disbelief. As well as Ms. Covington’s voice and the various bosoms, as a nation we were introduced to the concept of the Achingly Trendy Party. As a family in our living room in leafy Purley, we too were introduced, but on a more intermittent basis on the whim of the censor.

All this left a bit of a lasting impression. Funnily enough, the thing which lasted most deeply in the brain was the Achingly Trendy Party, perhaps because every so often, I get a call to attend one in order to operate a musical instrument for financial gain. I’d say that the hallmarks of an Achingly Trendy Party, as with most things Achingly Trendy are that mild discomfort, inconvenience and tedium are repackaged as incandescent fun and sold on for rather too much money to an inexplicably enthusiastic clientele. After a fairly uneventful week, enlivened mainly by bouts of hay fever related sneezing, I found myself at just such an Achingly Trendy do this last Friday. If I liken the inside of my skull to the Bridge of the USS Enterprise, I’ll own up that the Achingly Trendy Party warning light by Mr. Spock’s console had been flashing for most of last week. One of the reasons was that I’d been told that I’d need to wear an all white suit, requiring the dusting off of the school cricket whites and a purchase of a pair of white espadrilles at Poundland, another was the fact that I couldn’t be told the timings or the venue, and the third was the use of that most dreaded term- “Jazz Flash Mob”. Back on the bridge, Sulu had fixed up the forward shields, and Scotty had set the engines to half impulse, so we were proceeding with caution.

Wisely, the client came up with an address and a start time just as I was having my mid-morning Horlicks and anchovies on toast at the Gables on Friday morning. The exclusive and secret venue, after a quick blimp at Google Earth turned out to be an old wharf just east of the Docklands. This now stank of aching trendiness, and I wasn’t disappointed when I parked the Volvo at the appointed place, which for all the world looked like a kidnap scene from Minder with boarded up warehouses and high Victorian brick walls. Feeling a bit vulnerable stepping out into a dark cobbled street, dressed as I was as an utter twit in my motley collection of white togs, a genial but clearly trained-to-kill security chap asked me if I was going to the White Party. Given the togs and the saxophone I’d have thought that that would have been a bit of a given, but you can never tell. Perhaps there was an utter twits party in the next warehouse along.

Following the directions to the end of the wharf and turning right by the big yellow crane – it hove into view – right out in the open air, which by that time was veering towards the arctic, was the Achingly Trendy Party I’d anticipated. I’d say there were around four hundred beautiful bright young things there all dressed entirely in white, and all sat at long bench tables eating packed lunches, albeit in white cardboard packaging. The weather in London this week has revealed a decidedly autumnal snap, and even during the early stages of the evening, a chilly wind was introducing an unexpected flavour of Fun In The Urals to the proceedings. In order to stave off the cold, the beautiful young Eloi were putting away a healthy amount of Champagne – perhaps if drunk in sufficient quantity it has the warming effect of a nice cup of Ty-Phoo. It was proper Achingly Trendy, and as such was in a venue (In this case a few hundred square feet of concrete next to the Thames) which was never designed for revelry, and consequently there was no provision at all for the purveyors of said revelry to go and lurk before our part in The Most Amazing Night Ever was due to be played. There was a bandstand though, and I noticed that just behind it was a white plastic garden chair, partially shielded from the elements by a section of the P.A. rig. It was a way off from the nice comfy room with big sofas and a kettle in which I had had in my mind’s eye whilst being stuck in the gridlocked traffic like Shackleton’s ship in the pack ice on the way, but I reckoned that sitting down in the Antarctic fun would probably be more enjoyable than standing up in it. That will be my bandroom, I thought and so I made a beeline for it.
In my personal pre-performance relaxation and reflection facility, or chair, I was a sat next to the chap doing the sound, who informed me that we’d go on to do our spot after the Pole Dancer. Now, there’s a sign of the times. Like Urban Graffiti, Pole Dancing’s standing in the social order has changed markedly over the last fifteen years or so. As it seems that they are here to stay, both have been re-packaged as art and, like the Achingly Trendy Party itself, sold on at a healthy profit. Shortly, a very thin woman in white underwear and two chaps in combat fatigues were erecting a portable pole dancing rig on the ground just in front of the stage. Consisting of a round base made from interlocking segments and, well, a pole, it had the look of camping equipment to it. Within seconds, the woman, her knickers and her bra were up the pole and put on a display of revolving, descending, and revolving with descending. The demographic of the audience was interesting- mainly female. Maybe the chaps in the audience were wisely staying away from the revolving and descending knickers and bra for fear of a subsequent evening of “You Were Looking At That Girl” tension from their loved ones, but I got the impression that the ladies watching were really rather keen on the whole thing. Noisily egging her on, they were. As soon as she had completed the contracted amounts of revolutions and descents, the a gaggle of hooting and squealing women made a bee line for the pole and soon were posing on it themselves, whilst iPhone images taken by their colleagues were being eagerly uploaded to Twitbook. It seems that nice girls these days want to be burlesque artists. Perhaps it is our post-Twitbook culture in which everyone feels laid bare to everyone else, and that from this a sort of league table of who’s best can be drawn up. The near-naked activity of clinging to a pole whilst revolving and descending combines elements of sport and exhibitionism in equal measure, and thus forms as good a framework as any for the necessary self-grading forced upon the easily led by social media. I shall buy a copy of Marie-Claire, and after a period of study, get back to you on this one.

During all the hooting and Twitbooking, I had a chance to speak with the dancing lady, who turned out to be a nice posh girl called Jacqui. My suspicions about pole dancing having shifted as an art form from the seedy to the mainstream were confirmed by her disarming attitude to the work she did. I initiated the chat with a remark about the cold to which she replied “Oh, this one’s not so bad, I got to keep my bra on”. Given that the bra in question looked as if it had been made from a small segment of knee bandage, I personally wasn’t convinced as to its thermal properties, but she seemed quite happy with it all. The big thing though was when I asked her who made her portable pole and stage for her, which had by now been dismantled by the two roadies and packed into a very reasonably sized small canvas bag. Expecting something along the lines of “My Uncle Ron has got a mate who’s a panel beater” etc etc, I was flabbergasted when she explained to me that these things are easily available on line, and that there pole dancing accessories all over the net. She was right. Upon my return to The Gables, I got online and in about thirty seconds had found exactly her piece of kit. Here it is-


This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Platinum Stage, available for £516 from Apparently it can support a dancer of up to 114 kg, which is quite a few kg bulkier than your jaded scribe here. The site boasts a number of other pole dancing essentials, such as special hi-grip stilettos and pole oil. It’s gone so mainstream that it won’t be long now before Pole Dancing’s practiced by the WI, just before the singing of Jerusalem, you mark my words. I tell you something else- if my Dad was prime minister, most of Britain would have been sent to bed by now.

Back to the gig. A cock-up in the booking process had occurred. We were booked to play quiet jazz standards, with a line up of sax, double bass, guitar and lady singer. As the hooting throngs of pole dancing wannabes dissipated, the Chap In Charge came bounding up to us and said that we really needed to Rock The Joint, Fill The Floor From The Word Go, and Really Hit Them Hard. We had no drums. Apparently, the venue (or area of windswept concrete) management won’t allow drum kits on the grounds of noise. They seem to have not minded the sounding of a gramophone record for the lady dancer with a drum track on cranked up louder than any drummer I know can whack a set of tubs, but that’s by the by. No drums for us, no electric bass and no keyboards too, giving us the dance-floor filling hitting power of a small sponge. We were booked to play bossa novas, and now we had to somehow magic full-on party functioneering out of somewhere. As they say in The little World Of Don Camillo, miracles can occur if really need them to. Nervously, we started up with as raunchy a version of “Route 66” as we could muster, and within seconds, the dance floor was packed. Of course! This was an Achingly Trendy do! No-one is allowed to not explode with pleasure however cold it gets, or luckily, in our case, however under-equipped the band is. Great demonstrations of bacchanalian ecstasy exploded before our eyes- people on peoples’ shoulders, people pogoing, and screaming with enthusiasm at the ends of the numbers. It was as if the cast of a film about the workings of St Peter’s office had all turned up to Glastonbury. Pissed. Realising we might get out of this alive we managed to eke out the feasible list of get-out-of-jail-free party wildcards available on the instruments we had to hand. Very long versions of “Valerie” and “I Will Survive” were the result, and before we knew it, our hour was done, and I was back in the heated seat of the Volvo speeding back to the Gables.

One last point- on the way there, I had to call in at the Beeb to be interviewed for a show on Radio 4. The topic of this show is to be the nature, forms and uses of silence, and I was there to illustrate how silence can work in different ways as part of music, and particularly in the big band. Given that this is the week where the same Beeb has axed its own big band and big band show, there’s a bit of an irony there. If the BBC has axed its big band, there is an implication that Big Band music is not seen as culturally relevant in this country. Please send the Beeb an email asking for the band to be re-instated. I don’t mind that pole dancing has become mainstream, but is it too much to ask that the existing mainstream can be left where it is?


Blog of Coliani

August 30 2013

I did a gig last night. As you may know, I like to keep the descriptions of my musical activities to a bare minimum, framing as they do the more interesting parts of the day such as inevitable curries, car-related discomfort and the Seaplanes of the Axis Powers diorama. I also have an absolute aversion to the stuff one finds strewn about the interweb like guano in a bat cave which reads along the lines of “Just done a killing set with Nimny-Noo down at the Gigfornomoney Arms. Really smashed it! Rocks my world, I’m so great, sun currently shining from my backside, great times, lovin’ my life etc”. Therefore I find myself in the unusual position of wanting to extol the virtues of a performance of which not only was I a participant, and but which also formed the main focus of interest for yesterday.

JohnColianiThe job in question was to be part of a quartet at the Shepperton Jazz club, featuring the New York pianist John Coliani, pictured above. You’ll notice that his hands are not in contact with the piano here. This is what might be referred to as “Safety Mode”, for from the very first note of the evening to the very last (a distance of some eighteen trillion individual pitches) there was absolute electricity in the air. A good rule of entertainment is that if the entertainer is clearly in command of something which not everybody can do, then the result will be an entire audience held in thrall. Given that the only person on the planet who can do what Coliani does is Coliani, then the effect is predictably devastating. It is as if somebody had taken a time-lapse film of virtuoso piano playing, and then speeded it up to observe the results.

I honestly don’t think I’ve heard a piano subjected to a ride like that in my life. I’ve worked with John before, but it’s been up at Boisdale in Belgravia, where the management provide an electric keyboard. I knew John was fast, but to hear him unleashed on a the Shepperton Jazz Club Yamaha baby grand where the sound is created by strings rattling round in the air, rather than air rattling round in a small speaker was to have an experience of an altogether different dimension, in the same way that you wouldn’t quite get the gist of Pavarotti if all you had of him was a snatch of Nessun Dorma left on an ansaphone message. John can play the piano faster than anyone, for longer than anyone. So much so, that you get the feeling that the design parameters of the piano themselves were being pushed rather too far – had Yamaha had an inkling of his work, I rather feel that they’d have put a computer and some servo motors in there somewhere just to help the poor old piano keep up. I’m sure that on more than one occasion I could just about hear Scotty down in engineering shouting “The crystals cannae hold, Cap’n- she’s gonna blow any second”.

John can also play slower, louder or quieter than anyone too. A piano is an instrument with a colossal dynamic range. Tickle it and it will purr, thump it, it shouts. Most pianists I know shy off of really laying into a piano, as after all, it can’t hit you back. I think that John takes the view that there’s no point having really quiet sounds if there are no really loud ones, and what makes the interest is the contrast. Sharp contrast makes big drama, big drama makes entertainment, and entertainment with that much craft invariably adds up to art. At speed, the detail is as sharp as when the tempo is easy. The repertoire is stunning, and seemingly all available at the flick of a switch, or at least the touch of a key- during our slow rhumba version of Love For Sale, the piano solo morphed into a kaleidoscopic journey through Rhapsody In Blue and West Side Story. In “A Smo-o-o-th One”, Fats Waller met and shook hands with McCoy Tyner. It was terrifying and wonderful at all times.

The English host team consisted of me, Dave Chamberlain on bass and Richard Pite on drums. Most of the time, the chaps wisely provided JC with a steady pulse on which to build his shimmering and sometimes irregular edifices of harmony. Chamberlain scored a notable goal though, successfully managing to insert the theme from Batman into his solo on “The Continental” For my part, I tried to react as best as I could to the piano. Usually, the pianist will lay down an accompaniement which states the harmony, and bounces along with the rhythm. With John, you’re very much a part of a duet, which most of the time he will lead. It’s much more communicative, and you have to stay on your toes. He can imply the riffs of the entire Count Basie Band, and as soon as you’re used to that he’s changed and is feeding you angular stabs like the brass section of Tito Puente. John clearly listens to a huge amount of big band music, and as with virtually anything else can boil the essence of that knowledge into a succinct pianistic jus. As the gig wore on, I realised that jousting was not the thing. He had his brain and a piano with all those keys, most of which he can play simultaneously. I have my brain and a clarinet, which can only do one note at a time, and that’s if the brain is all lined up ok. Realising that it would be a bit like trying to fight off a tiger tank with a tennis raquet and a snowball, I found that the way to make the best music was to react, and try and play in the holes. The performance then became about John’s huge ability to produce symphonic arrangements of things on the spot, and it led us all into previously undiscovered corners.

After we’d done, and I was lying in the corner feebly, I found that John was an Airfix nerd. His own anorak is for the Italian airforce of the second world war. Thank God for that. He’s normal after all. Just for fun, here’s a picture of John with a chair up his nose.



Blog of £2.99 Specs

19 August 2013

Now this may come as a surprise to you, given the wonderful images of me available on this site and others dotted around the internet, but the outward appearance of total physical perfection implied therein is something of a facade. Yes, there is a flaw in my otherwise untrammelled beauty, which lies in the fact that for close-up reading work, I have to wear bins. Bins have come to me later on in life, and I have found that like wristwatches, they don’t want to stay around me too long. Whereas I can normally render a watch inoperative in under two weeks, either by somehow eroding through the strap, or simply stopping the action altogether with my involuntary anti-wristwatch mind-ray force field, with glasses it’s easier. I lose them, or better still, tread on them. In a way, I was quite pleased when I found out that I would need to wear specs- it brought on a frissance of excitement that I hadn’t felt since I was about seven, when as all seven year olds do, I could get rid of an afternoon with my exotic Australian chum Dave trying on dad’s clothes. You know- jackets like tents, trousers which go on forever, shoes we could canoe in, and that most coveted moniker of the grown-up- big proper glasses. Therefore, when at the age of 43 I finally made the journey to the opticians, I was content in the fact that I too had finally grown up.

In a matter of weeks I had either lost or destroyed the first few hundred quid’s worth of designer eyewear. If I allowed this to continue, it became clear to me that I would soon have an account at Specsavers which would, to all intents and purposes, resemble the national debt of Ghana. I made a policy decision- it was to be a maximum spend of £2.99 from the chemist’s counter in ASDA from now on. Good robust plastic specs, and lots of them.

Wind forward now to last Saturday’s gig. It is Britain, it is August. It is therefore the season for standing in a marquees at weddings belting out “I Will Survive” and “Valerie” for the very drunk, whilst sideways rain which could awaken the Kraken herself lashes in from outside. At this particular do, we were at least blessed by the fact that we had nice people to play to. Sometimes the ceremonious rendition of “Time Of My Life” is accompanied only by a solitary knee sliding toddler in a kilt and a glowering bride’s mother. This sort of thing can make the sideways rain look strangely welcoming. In common with many marquee wedding jobs, it was held in the back garden of a private house, which usually means that we get billeted in the living room while we wait, like coiled string, to go on. Last Saturday, the Ministry of Horizontal Rain really had the big guns out, so after we’d got all the electrical stuff into the tent and out of the rain, we were shown into a very comfortable living room and given very comfortable plates of Spag Bog. With the rain driving down on the window panes, the telly on, and the big comfy sofas, my body clock assumed that in view of the fact that I’d spent three and a half hours at the wheel of the Volvo, and then done quite a bit of what would amount in the normal world to light removals, that my day’s work had been done, and promptly sent me off to sleep. It was wrong, though, my day’s work was just beginning, and I soon found myself wrestling with the PA system in the corner of the marquee trying to get it all ready for the first dance, while parts of the cranium were still fast asleep, and so my brain felt as though bits of it were made from that unheady mix of ground up hob-nob, sand, and blu-tack. Because of the rain, it was close enough in there to be the equal of a national humidity emergency in Bangkok. Within seconds, everybody’s nooks and crannies had gone completely for a Burton. Big Dave Jones on bass was so sweaty that he had taken on the appearance of a wax effigy of himself which had been dunked in aspic. God alone knows what I looked like. Had there been a nook and cranny inspection by the authorities, we’d have been cordoned off and I’d be writing this to you from the quarantine block at Porton Down.

Eventually, the gear was up, and the merriment commenced. They were a great crowd, and the dance floor was heaving. I always think that a wedding job in a marquee has elements of the battle of Rorke’s Drift to it-the band is rarely on a stage, which puts us at white-of-the-eye level with our adoring public. As there is no physical barrier in these instances between Us and Them, and so part of the job if you’re up on the front line like me is to stop the punters from banging into the PA, music stands, Her Indoors, the drums, etc, etc. In a beat classic such as “Don’t Stop Me Now”, where vigorous group gyration is the norm the gentle restraining motions to keep our beloved public at a safe distance can take on the appearance of brutal hand-to-hand combat. To give you an idea, here’s a picture taken by Barney Dickenson in the trombone section of me trying to keep the mob away from the saxes at a do in London’s Glittering West End. I spent the whole of that night fending the buggers off, and didn’t play a note all evening! I feel that the grainy quality of the image lends a sense of emotional urgency too.


Unlike the scene in the picture, last Saturday’s do was a small affair, and for reasons of space and budget, the serried ranks of brass players had been honed down to, well, just me. There was no one to protect me, and so inevitably, as the dancing on the floor reached a particular high spike in its already kinetic curve during Her Indoors’ version of “Young Hearts Run Free” a big burly chap in a kilt banged into my music stand. I was taking a breath at the time, so my tenor was out of my mouth. Chap, kilt and stand banged into the bell of the sax, causing the pointy top end of it to smack me right in the eye. This is where the story ties up-had I not had my robust plastic ASDA £2.99 mens’ readers on, the thin end of my hooter would have probably gone right into my eye socket, I’d have been knocked out on the floor with shock, and maybe even blinded in the left mince, and all before you could say “King Lear”. Worse still, there would have been a chance that I could have missed the tenor solo on “I Feel Good”, thus depriving the gyrating masses of the majesty of my creative magma in full flow. As it was, oddly, my myopia and cheap ASDA specs saved my eyeball!

It was boiling hot in that tent. Outside the tent it was cold and rainy. Later on that night in the air-conditioned calm of the Volvo, the sniffles started, which was smashing because on the Sunday evening I was down to be Benny Goodman at the Mill At Sonning. On the Goodman gig, we re-enact the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, but with the added extra dimension this Sunday of how it may have sounded if Goodman was in the early stages of man-flu. I managed to keep it mostly together, but, to quote Alan Barnes, the hands felt as if I was wearing rubber gloves full of custard, and there was only one bad attack of the sneezes, luckily during Bunny Thompson’s dark and moody quiet piano solo towards the end.

It’s a great acoustic in there, though- dry as desert sand, which is just right for an acoustic band show of period jazz. From Monday to Saturday, the Sonning Mill is a working theatre, specialising mainly in Farce, and the Sunday concerts they put on there have to work on the sets for the shows. As it’s normally a production of “Whoops! Where’s My Trousers?” the set normally resembles that seen in an episode of Terry and June, but this time there was obviously something a little more contemporary going on as the set was a modern minimalist hotel room. Richard Pite observed that it looked more like a waiting room at a vasectomy clinic. I will find out how he knows this and report back. All I will say is that sometimes the elements of life can combine to make the overall experience utterly surreal. I was simultaneously experiencing room 69 in the Swindon Premier Inn, trying to play really quite difficult things on the clarinet with a headache, snot, and nice middle-class people sitting raked up in front of me in rows tapping their feet. Unlike the denouement in Standard School Essay number three, I haven’t as yet woken up to find my mum there with a cup of tea telling me it was all a dream. It must have happened. I’ve got a cold, therefore I am.

Not much work on the Seaplanes of The Axis Powers recently, what with Benny Goodman, Monaco and man-flu. However the researching it on the internet has trawled up this rather fabulous image. What are these Germans up to? If anybody knows, please write in. An Airfix Messeschmitt for the winner.



Blog from Monaco

13 August 2013

I am currently sat in a delicious bubble of smugness. I need to watch this, mind, as I have often noted in past Plogs that smugness often immediately precedes a great cosmic kick in the nuts from above. In this instance, the smugness is generated by the fact that I am sat in a nice air conditioned room at the Sporting Club here on our unexpected return visit to Monte-Carlo which has been allocated to me by the management so that I can relax and reflect before going out onstage to conduct the Orchestra through the selection of Rat Pack classics which make up the show. Yes, for the first time ever, I have been allocated a proper nobby conductor’s suite in a proper nobby venue. I have a separate lav and shower, towels, a bowl of fruit, a fridge and a sofa. All for me. There is even a sign on the door with my name on.

In the time it has taken to tap out that last block of text, bang on time, the bubble of tranquil smugness has been burst by Scott Garland and his long-suffering tenor sax down the corridor commencing the ritual nightly warm-up. This will go on for the next two hours, and while Scott’s dedication to his art is admirable, and as a sax player myself I can understand the care and enthusiasm which goes into every tiny technical crenellation emanating from room 6, it has made the inside of the building about as tranquil as a sawmill. A sawmill, in fact, which as its staple diet is only allowed timber comprising mainly of knots. Mmm. Soothing. I fear that any second now young George Hogg, demon ace of the trumpet, and his chum Callum Au, chief mandarin of all things trombone, are about to commence practicing their horn section stuff. They’ve been working on this for a while now, and whilst being astonishing, it is, as Thomas Beecham may have remarked, extremely bloody loud. Aha! It has started- the perfect countermelody to Scott’s solo tone poem to the Canadian timber industry. I’ll try and get on with the writing, but if the tone of your jaded scribe begins to resemble that of Guy Gibson coming in low through the flak, you’ll understand why.

It has been a good trip though. The last show is tonight, and then off in the early morning back to The Gables via Nice Airport. Somewhere along the line a balls-up has occurred in that, most unusually, we have been spared the customary ordeal by Easy Jet, or Jet as Trading Standards should really insist it be called. It’s high season, and the short notice nature of this booking meant that tickets were a bit scarce. We’ve ended up with British Airways and their seats which were clearly designed by someone who possessed legs, arms and a head, as opposed to the Easy Jet ones which I reckon were designed by someone who was just a torso. The last-minute nature of the booking has also meant that the spread of gigs is a trifle unusual- there was one last Thursday, one last night (Monday) and one tonight. In its turn this allowed Her Indoors and I to get the further windfall of a weekend in the Riviera on the cheapo. Whilst the lads in the band had to go home to honour their previous commitments, we stayed out. I didn’t have anything in the book anyway, and all that she had to cancel was a spot of trumpet playing at a do in a marquee in Nantwich. Again, because rooms in Monaco this week were nigh on impossible to get hold of, we have been billeted out of town in a charming Riviera town called Carnoles. Pronounced Carnal Les, Carnoles is a small town in a bay inhabited mainly by retired French people. It boasts a good mile of stunning pebbled beach, amazing clear sea and one Indian restaurant.

Just for the record, the inevitable curry occurred earlier on today. Indian Moods of Carnoles did exceptionally well, with everything being hand prepared to order from the grinding of the spices upwards. The samosas were close to poetry.It’s air-conditioned, and clearly signed from the main promenade at the front. Mango Lhassi was a great hit, and the Lamb Jhalfrezi is also highly recommended. After last week’s good times in the Brick Lane of Monaco, I can say that an unexpected plus on a Riviera holiday is the high standard of the Indian grub. It’s just right for lunch on a really hot day too. I guess that the good Indian chefs who designed it all those centuries ago had exactly that in mind, but it’s a point often overlooked when entering the Taj Mahal in Watford in the pelting rain after a night next door on the bingo.
As well as the curry, the other main attraction of the Riviera is its railway. Memorise this map-


As you can easily see, a great deal of the nicest places on the planet are linked by this railway line, which in itself is one of the nicest things on the planet given that it runs more or less right along the coastline. I don’t want to sound incautious here, but I’d put this railway up there with the Met Line north of Moor Park, I really would. On Saturday, Her Indoors and I set off for a bit of intrepid continental rail travel from our station at Carnal Les to the resort at Juan-les-pins. It was baking hot, and even before I’d got on the train I’d managed to sweat right through the first of Satuday’s three shirts. Just look at the heat here- I can feel my nooks and crannies going just at the mere sight of it!


Some of the sweat was nervous, mind, as we had to contend with a French Railways ticket vending machine. For ten shame-and horror drenched moments, we were the idiot foreigners who cause the huge tutting queue to form as we attempted to operate the machine which even an enfant a quatre ans would have had no trouble with. Eventually a very nice French Gentleman called Frederick came to our rescue and operated the machine for us. We were saved! Then the huge comfy double-decker air-conditioned train came along. What a ride! We soon got used to the rhythm of the Riviera rail trip- Stunning beach in a bay, pretty town centre, stunning beach in the rest of the bay, small tunnel, repeat. This was the which we had upon getting out at Juan-Les-Pins-


What a splendid town! Because of the topography of the whole area, we soon realised that all the towns were laid out in a pretty similar way. This consist of around three blocks of shops and bars in front of the station until you hit the sea, and on the other side of the tracks a steep slope up into the mountains behind where the villas and medieval churches are put. Once you’ve seen a couple, you can understand the rest. And it’s all beautiful.
Buoyed by our success on the Saturday, on the Sunday we went after bigger game. I noticed that if we went the other way along the line from Carnal Les, we could reach Alassio in Italy. Alassio is an absolute stunner, and although roughly adhering to the mountain-churches and villas-railway-three blocks of shops and the sea formula, I remembered from a previous family holiday in 1974 that it was a town full of goodies! Oddly, my memory was correct. The station itself is a masterpiece of cod-roman art deco architecture left over from the times when Mussolini rebuilt the Italian railway. It leads out onto a beautiful town square, and then down to the sea. We were peckish. We decided that as were in Italy now, it would be fitting to have a nice bowl of spag bog. Unexpectedly, Spag Bog was impossible to find, and in fact places doing hot meals were a bit few and far between. If Olympic standard ice cream and pastry is your thing, you would have an easy ride there, but as proper explorers we did not waver from our search. That is, until it looked like we were going to miss the last train home, so we settled for a very nice family run restaurant on the front. Mum was the waitress, Dad was the chef and the teenage daughter was in charge of complimentary olives, and those great icons of 1970’s continental holiday chic, breadsticks. I settled for spaghetti with oil and garlic, thus earning half a point, and Her Indoors reverted to form and had something made mainly from melted cheese. Upon our return to the station, we discovered the true jewel in the Alassio crown- the station bar.

You can just tell when you have entered into an arena of the seriously hip, and the station bar at Alassio was a seriously hip version of one of those. Run by a couple of Italian lads in vests and tattoos, it was packed with, it would appear, locals who all seemed to know each other. British pub themers take note here- this was a bar with no trendy iconography on its walls- in fact the only thing adorning the walls was paint, no music, no special offers. What it did have was great looking snacks, booze of all descriptions, newspapers and ice cream. It and its little garden out the side were packed with all sorts, with all ages shape styles and hairdos sat around enjoying the evening air. What made this all the more shattering was that when we got to the Italy-France interchange at Ventimiglia, where you have to change trains, there was a bar there doing the same job. It must be an Italian thing. Proper grown up facilities for people who can behave like proper grown-ups. Loads of drink to all hours, but no trouble. While we were waiting for our French train, Her Indoors and I had a beer outside. This was at about 11pm by now, and we noted sadly that there is, to our knowledge, nowhere in a town centre in England which would feel that unthreatening at that hour with a beer tap at such close quarters. We liked the Riviera. We’ll be going back before long.

So to sum up, here’s the Plog short guide to Riviera holidays. The whole Riviera is brilliant. If you need a curry, you’ll want the French side, but you can save a few bob if you stick with Italy. Proving that it is all brilliant, I will conclude with the view from the window of the lav in my hotel room.


PS- Scott has gone onto the tantric meditation part of his warm-up. Tranquility is restored! I can get an hours shut-eye before the show now. Lovely.


Blog of Monaco

4 August 2013

There’s been a rather long gap since the last installment. Apologies for this. I have been, in the words of the great Sir Les Patterson, busier than a one-armed taxi driver with crabs. This week I had to get on an aeroplane with my orchestra, go to Monaco and put on a series of concerts of Rat Pack classics and then fly home. I haven’t had a spare second to get cracking on the seaplanes of the Axis Powers diorama, and if anything, the avionic appetite was somewhat dulled by the fact that in order to get out there and back there were two episodes involving Easy Jet, or Jet as they should now be known in the light of their new group ticketing scheme. Walk up to the check in desk with your passport like before? Oh goodness no! If it gets much more complicated it will involve Polaroids of your nooks and crannies countersigned by a magistrate before you can even walk up to the check-in desk. However, I carp at the procedure, not the staff. They couldn’t have been more helpful when young Shane Hampsheir, singing star extraordinaire, misplaced his boarding pass. Shane is a magnificent shedder of personal documents, and can often be found on his hands and knees like an anxiety-ridden truffle hog at an airport near you looking for his passport, but he reasonably declined my kind offer to affix it to his nooks and crannies with a staple gun for safe keeping once they’d printed him another one.

As rigorous as the rehearsal and concert schedule was, it wasn’t all work work work though. We actually managed to get out for an inevitable curry at one point, and very good it was too. Should you find yourself in Monte Carlo with the urge for some proper food, there are three Indian restaurants and an Indian supermarket in the Rue De Republique, which despite only being eight or nine blocks back from the front is actually in France. I had a rather splendid chicken phal and a delicious onion naan, and reports from the other restaurants in what must be the Monegasque equivalent of Brick Lane were equally favourable. It is important to note, while we’re here, that Her Indoors’ onion bhaji didn’t turn up. Unlike many of the establishments over there, the curry houses are reasonably priced. We had one casualty in the band who had a bottle of beer from his minibar. It must have been happy hour, because he was only charged thirty-seven quid.

One of the things which let us know we were in France is that the Monte Carlo Parish Council, or whatever it is called, keeps the streets spotless, and France is, well, French. By spotless, I mean that every morning at around 5 a.m. council trucks mounting an unparalleled quantity of street cleaning apparatus slowly move around town washing it. Crawling along the streets like a curious fusion of Robocop, Dustcart and Electric Toothbrush and exuding pressurized disinfectant and water at a rate which would make even a catholic primary school envious, buildings, streets, pavements, bollards, famous hairpin bend etc etc, were all rendered squeaky clean and lemon fresh before you could say “Dodgy Offshore Banking”. The clean streets were a boon during the after-work trips to the Guinness bar by the big fly-over. Fusing the two ideal qualities in a pub in Monaco, which are late opening and beer at under one million pounds a pint, it understandably got pretty full in there after hours. Thanks to the squeaky clean streets, it was both comfortable and hygienic to sit on the pavement with the feet in the gutter. I’ve drunk Guiness in the gutter in Monte Carlo. It was noticeably less unhealthy than most boozers in the west end. We had nice digs too. I took this picture the other morning whilst enjoying a fry-up by the pool. Smashing, it was- E&G

I reckon that Monte Carlo might be the only functional communist state on the planet. There, everybody has everything they want. Parked outside our venue on the day of rehearsal was an enormous convertible Lamberati 560Z or something. It says something for the crime rate there that the owner of this £300k luxury item felt secure enough to leave it parked with the lid off and the key placed on the dashboard. You don’t see much of a police presence there either, so I conclude that for that to happen, a state has to exist in which no-one is interested in nicking anything, let alone something which could so effortlessly propel itself and its thief across the nearby Italian border. It leads one to the conclusion that Marx was onto something, but that he’d underestimated basic human greed. It’s not enough for the proletariat to own the factories and farms, they’ll need a Ferrari and a Sea View flat too before everyone feels equal. However, we all know that Monaco can only exist because it is one tiny blip on the surface of the globe supported by the vast plethora of Croydons and Swindons everywhere else. Her Indoors came up with a good theory, that if we liken all the stuff in the world to a giant duvet which we all have to get under, for a place like Monaco to exist, everyone else on the planet has to have one leg out in the cold. Move over Keynes!

On our return, I was looking forward to a bit of time down in the Shed for some long-overdue seaplane construction, and a couple of quite nights up The Swan with Her Indoors and our chum Billy. God forbid, maybe even some clarinet practice for an album idea I’m toying with. As usual, once plans are made, they will have to be put on hold as on our last night out in Monte, we were informed that the management liked the show so much that they’d like us back. Hooray! We said. When? Next year sometime? “Non! Next week”, they replied. They would pay off the show they’d booked and have us back for further fun. On Thursday, then, it’s back down to Gatwick to get the red-eye to Nice, help find Shane’s passport in the bins at Starbucks and get back in the Guinness gutter. I’m sure the Spanish air-sea rescue Dornier 24 I’m building can wait for its stickers for another week. This has started to sound like whingeing. It isn’t. It’s great to go and do nice work in a really pretty place, and then be able to come home and pay the tax bill with the earnings. It is as if briefly, just briefly, I’ve had my leg back under the duvet.


Betjeman Type Blog

26 July 2013

Picking straight up after I left off on Monday, after checking out of the leisure spa, or B&B, in which I’d spent the small hours of the morning contemplating the rude end of the Preiser catalogue whilst experimenting with Strong Continental Lager, the Volvo and I set sail for Cardiff, via my old chum Parky’s brass and woodwind shop in Taunton. It sounds like a bit of a detour from Bristol, but when viewed from the Home Counties idyll that is The Gables, Taunton is practically on the way to Cardiff, and I had a few hours to spare. It’s been a while since I’d seen Parky, so it was good to have a catch-up. As well as the shop, Parky has quite a substantial business manufacturing instruments and then selling them to other retailers around the planet. Tubas are very big in Peru, apparently this season. He’d also just closed a deal involving six hundred Clarinets in G going to Turkey. That last sentence will bore most of you, I know, but to the clarinettists out there it would have amounted to the very invention of pornography itself. Clarinets in G? Six Hundred? Laid end to end they’d stretch all the way from Parky’s woodwind practice room to Istanbul.

As well as enjoying a Nescafe with Parky, I had it in mind to visit Gary The Repair Man, who can bring life to a flagging hooter. My own clarinet had been on the blink for a while, and recently had stepped up its campaign for a bit of TLC by raising the game from the occasional squeak to simply not going at all. On stage at Ronnie’s the other week it packed up completely, but rather than thrash it with a small branch torn off a nearby tree a la Basil Fawlty and the non-functioning Mini, I took the lenient approach that enough was enough and as I was shortly to go that way down the M4 that the old Boosey & Hawkes could go and see Dr. Gary. However, Clarinet turned out to be poorlier than I thought, and I was instructed to make myself comfortable. Having emitted as much woodwind geek musk as I could before I bored myself to the extent of doing permanent damage, I wandered into the Brass department where I came across this-


Yes, it’s a trumpet with two bells. A small valve controls which one the air goes through, and if a mute is placed in one of them, amusing duettish effects can be achieved. Mainly though, it looks weird. What a great present for Her Indoors! This year’s must-have romantic gesture gift! Everybody knows that nothing says “I Love You” more than a novelty brass instrument. To add to the romance, Parky offered me a price I couldn’t really refuse. Buoyed by the heady, if unusual blend of passion, thrift and a serviceable clarinet, at around two o’clock the Volvo and I left Taunton and made our way to the St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

I’d been booked to be the guest there with the Capital City Big Band, so was already feeling quite smug as I neared the stage door. The smugometer’s needle flew off the dial when I saw this-look- a poster with me on it!


Now then- I’ve warned about the perils of smugness on the Plog before, but do I learn? Exactly on cue, the great levelling celestial kick in the crown jewels arrived as I stepped out of the Volvo at the Stage Door (Where I was allowed to park- well done Cardiff!) and was ushered inside by a friendly doorman, up some stairs and out onto the main stage of the beautiful concert hall. I stopped to take in the beauty of the stage and the design of the vaulted ceiling. I was really outsmugging here, all wrapped up in the euphoria of feeling that I’d made it! Me! The star soloist in here! This fabulous space, built specially for me to play jazz in it! Me! Me! Mememememememememe!
The hammer blow fell at about the point when I was snapped out of my solipsistic reverie by the voice of the doorman saying “Follow me up ‘ere- you’re the event in the foyer”. Aha. Reality returns. And then the fitting kicking of a smug git when he’s down with “No point putting jazz on in this bloody great room- we have a job filling the bloody foyer”.

The Foyer was lovely though, and the lads in the band couldn’t have been more helpful, or patient with me as I proceeded to royally cock up my big cadenza during the bandcall. It’s a funny old thing, being a visiting soloist. In that context, your job is to be the featured thing about a gig, but in order to do the job you have to accept that the public expects you to play in a way that the band regulars won’t. Higher, louder, faster, slower, lower, quieter, and more soulfully are all expected of you, but it’s tricky to balance this with your own appraisal of the fact that you’ve got the same skills as the chaps behind you, and that you desperately don’t want them to think that you’re a poncy show-off from bloody London. Given that being a poncy show-off from bloody London is part of the reason you got booked, you can understand the tricky emotional balancing act this represents. Anonymity usually helps to keep the facade of seriousness going- if they don’t really know me, then they might not spot the fact that my playing has got more holes in it than a cheap colander, which is now broken and has bigger holes around the holes. This last bastion was then neatly denied me when I noticed Tom Harris sat in the saxes.

Through the seventies and eighties, Tom was the resident tenor player at the Talk Of The Town, and knows pretty much everything about playing a sax for money. When I was a young shaver in the John Simons Rhumba Showband on the QE2, Tom played tenor sax, and I was thrown in at the deep end next to him on the alto. He taught me virtually everything I know about the delicate art of doing gigs, coping with the business and operating a saxophone under pressure. That was in 1988, and I’ve not seen him until last Monday. To this day I often find myself repeating his teachings when I am stood up in front of a training band, and to this day I am consequently amazed that the basic truths he imparted still appear to be absent from any college syllabus you could name. Faced with the task of being the visiting nob in such august company, I experienced the uneasiness which I’d imagine you’d experience being caught at a branch of Spearmint Rhino by your old P.E. teacher. Predictably, he was still the bigger man, and immediately offered me a pint of lager, and calmed me down. There was then a good old chat about old times. What a splendid bloke. By the time I was to play, he’d made me feel all right about myself. Again.

It’s been sunny here at The Gables this week. The Gables are situated very near to the north western tip of the Metropolitan line, on the stretch coined “Metroland” by John Betjeman. He really loved the intriguing mix of rolling countryside, engineering, civic infrastructure and Arts and Crafts architecture which abound in this neck of the woods. Here’s a segment of a poem he wrote in praise of Middlesex which consists of a series of vignettes of suburban life. Ruislip Gardens Tube is on the Met line, just like The Gables. You get the picture-

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.

One of the things that Her Indoors and I had promised ourselves when we had the correct blend of weather and disposable quality time was to get on at Moor Park tube and spend an afternoon in Metroland to see what all the fuss was about. I think my favourite feature of the whole thing is the amount of detailed thought that’s gone into this bit of the system. Years ago, whoever designed the platforms thought it would be a particularly good idea if the distance between platform and train door was organised so as to virtually disappear. Look at this- it’s a shot of the floor of our nice new air-conditioned train (itself a marvel of public infrastructure) and the platform at Chalfont & Latimer. That thin diagonal black stripe running down the middle of the picture is the gap. All 20mm of it. Although the photo doesn’t show it, the heights of the two things are absolutely dead-on too. Trains and stations are huge buggers. This is engineering even the Germans would be proud of-


Moor Park station is a wonderful thing. It sits in the middle of the Moor Park housing estate on a huge earth bank. Given that Moor Park is comprised of huge 1920’s houses in vast leafy gardens, to have the Met line running through the middle of all this gives an odd juxtaposition of the recreational and the industrial. It’s kind of like a benign Berlin Wall, with a West Berlin on each side. Look- here’s the earth bank. This is in the middle of all the houses and has very much an other-worldly feel


The station itself has the distinction of being the only privately-owned station on the network. This explains why it is spotless, old fashioned, and never, ever smells of wee. Charmingly set into the earth bank, it is an attractive 1950’s portal into the great infrastructure. In one go from here, you can go to Amersham, Aldgate or anywhere in between.

And here comes the train- all new and shiny, that rarest of things, a brilliant use of taxpayers’ money. Air conditioned too- great for nook and cranny sufferers like me. Just look at the distance between train and platform. It brings a tear of pride every time I see it.

At this point, the camera conked out, so the rest of the photo essay will have to wait. Suffice it to say that Metroland on this bright sunny day really lived up to expectations. The stations are in the main, very beautiful examples of Victorian architecture, with water towers for the steam engines still in evidence. One of the things the tube is not noted for is the view from its window, and fair enough. Metroland is the exception which proves the rule. Past Rickmansworth, the Chilterns start to arrive, and as the train thundered over hill and dale, it was all I could do to stop myself from breaking out into a rousing version of Coronation Scot. In point of fact, it was Her Indoors that stopped me, with one of her Hard Stares. A splendid lunch at the Italian in Chalfont and Latimer ensued, and then out to Chesham, with its beautiful signal box and ladies’ lavs.

It’s proper Thomas The Tank Engine stuff up there, as the line goes to a single track and chugs through a cutting in a forest. Unbelievable. And all for three quid on the oyster. Good old London Transport.


On The Road Blog

22 July 2013

It’s Monday morning, and I find myself in a small room above a charming boozer in the Cotswolds beavering away at the Mobile Command Centre, or laptop. Although it sounds on the face of it that I may have run away from the hurly-burly of life at The Gables on a big weepy middle-class “Who Am I?” in search of inner peace, balance of the soul and scones to a quaint rural retreat, the actual reason for this is simply the price of diesel. Last night I was with Mr. Holland at his concert at the Westonbirt Arboretum, up the road from Elaine Delmar services, tonight I am in Cardiff. It would have meant 48 hours doing lengths of the M4, so I got on and in return for secret codes on my plastic rectangle, sorted out some digs.

The morning has displayed all the hallmarks of life on the road. I have successfully deciphered the control unit of another en-suite shower, this time without managing to either scald one side of my body or subject it to a freezing torrent sufficient to put myself into stasis for the rest of the day. In this case, the shower unit is encased in a nice plastic booth thingy, so I have been excused the mildly unpleasant sensation of the hotel shower curtain sticking itself to the side of the bum whilst wrestling with the earlier mentioned plumbing related codebreaking. Mildly unpleasant in itself, the sensation of self-imposed self adhesive thin gauge vinyl gets rather more unpleasant when you as the victim then realise that you cannot be the only person whose gluteous maximus, or bum, has had this treatment. Suddenly we are into the terrifying universe of unintentionally rubbing bums by proxy with hundreds of strangers. Although I’m sure that there are those who happily part with cash for the privilege, for your jaded scribe it’s a thought best left alone.

I have also abided by the life-on-the-road-code by having a breakfast which was far too large, simply because I could. Back at The Gables, where the Healthy Way reigns supreme, breakfast is always a modest bowl of porridge, preceded by ten minutes of stretches and light exercise. I’m not being poncy here for once, it really is. This all goes out of the window altogether on the road, where the rickety descent from bedroom to dining room is left until absolutely the last possible moment, in this case 09.29.29, with the good intention of having an orange juice and maybe a small plate of kippers. Can anyone refuse a full English? Especially round here, where everything is locally sourced from neighbourhood farms? Certainly not me. That sausage was poetry, I can tell you.

The descent from bedroom to dining room this morning was made all the more rickety by the solo consumption of quite a collection of Stella Artois in the room after work last night. Jools is an old school rock-and-roller, and so old-school rock-and-roll rules apply to the backstage area at the gig. This includes a large fridge stuffed to the gunnels with Stella, Guinness and Red Bull, and in an amusing Bowl Of Blue Smarties sort of way, two bottles of Fentiman’s Ginger Beer. As everybody shot back off home as soon as the gig finished, most of the fridge lay intact, so I helped myself to a small selection and scuttled off back here.

Once back here, as any red-blooded male alone in a hotel room at night with time on his hands would, I then started thinking of the Seaplanes of The Axis Powers Diorama. In particular I started contemplating the people who were going to be positioned around, cheerily playing cards at a small table under the cool shade of the Blohm & Voss 238, backing the re-fuelling lorry up to the Heinkel etc etc. Solitude and free beer are great friends of the Google binge, and I stumbled across the website of a German firm by the name of Preiser. It would appear that I am not the first chap to have wanted to make a Seaplanes of The Axis Powers diorama, as they have a full range of things seemingly made with me in mind, from mechanics loading boxes to the Luftwaffe Parade band and standard bearers. You can even get a set of miniature off-duty Germans playing cards to go under the wing of the Bv 238. However, the main comedy of the matter is in the figures they make for other kinds of dioramas. Quite what you would need a set of Seven Assorted Threatening People for I can only wonder, but I must say that I am curiously drawn to the Lady dancer In Tall Hat. Before I go, next time we will have trips to Metroland and Cardiff. Betjeman and Dylan Thomas, loosely. I’ll say good-bye now, and leave you in the good hands of the Preiser catalogue. Have a look- you won’t be disappointed. It may even stir the dioramicist inside you! Preiser catalogue