Replacement Service Blog

Righto, brace yourselves, this is going to get ranty.
Metaphorically I have donned the smoking jacket and cap, and am in the big Chesterfield armchair by the open fire here in the morning room at The Gables, I have a large shot of Port in the right hand, and the left is poised ready to thump away at the antimacassar to pound out the cadences of the poorly structured railings against modern life as they emanate from within the tattered spleen. In actuality, I am in the shed, and the only pounding going on is on the remote keypad of the Gabletron 3000 PC. However, spleenwise, I’m about as I explained, so here we go-

Above is a nice shot of a bus breezily making its way along a swift and uncluttered highway. An idyll of the Public Transport infrastructure, if ever there was. With this in mind, last Sunday I had a decision to make. The Sisters had organised a Sunday lunch with our mum at the Bide-A-Wee maximum security rest home down in Tunbridge Wells, where she currently resides. I love my folks, so this is pain and pleasure all in one homogenous slab, since the enduringly disturbing sight of my dear old Ma unable to speak in a wheelchair sat in a dining room full of the dear old Ma’s of others, in varying degrees of similarity, can be a tough pill to swallow. Especially when you have to conduct all the, er, jollity against the unique background nursing home aroma that is equal parts baking, carpet cleaner and Dettol. However, Ma has been poorly for long enough for me to know what to expect here. The decision, therefore, was whether to get there by operating The Volvo around the M25, hoping that the Archers Omnibus would counteract the usual hideousness around the M4 corridor, or whether to go on Public Transport, and lazily switch the brain off to the reassuring Clickety-Bonk of modern electric train travel whilst casually absorbing myself in this month’s issue of Airfix and Anorak monthly. As I had a late gig to do later on, I thought I’d go for the latter option, so as to save some important mental energy for the hurly-burly of standing in the usual torrent of my own creative magma at the job that night.

All went swimmingly from East St. Gables Park tube on the Met line down to Charing Cross. The sun was having a go at shining, there was a most absorbing article on offer about building better helicopters, and I can honestly say that under the spring blue sky, out of the train window Neasden has never looked lovelier. The rot began to set in at Charing Cross, though, and quickly. Upon emerging from the escalator onto the concourse, I was surprised to see that all the travel display screens were blank, and that worse still, Burger King was shut, denying me of the all important injection of Onion Rings at the mid-point of the journey. There were staff about, however, who informed me that the whole station was shut due to engineering works and that all services were going from nearby Cannon Street. At this point, the Gods Of Travel decided to deliver a further small blow to the Gentleman’s Area of their penitent pilgrim. Because I’d not allowed any slack time on the journey plan, my hubris was to be rewarded with lateness, glowering sisters, a cold roast dinner and egg on face. Back on the tube, and twenty minutes or so later I emerged from a different escalator onto a different concourse only to be advised that I’d been put on a bum steer and that I’d have to go over to London Bridge. It goes without saying that the sun had stopped shining, and that portentiously, horrid sideways drizzle had moved in. I’d not have been overly surprised that on finding out I’d have to wait a further forty minutes for the train to Tunbridge wells, a Greek chorus would have sprang out of one of the ex-waiting rooms which are now all boutique coffee shops flogging off caffeinated hot froth in quantities of a pint at a time singing “Eprepe na eixes parei to amaxi palio blaka”, which as we all know translates as “You should have taken the car, you silly arse”. I finally got to see Mum about forty minutes before it was time to start the journey home, so a short congealed roast dinner, which like Barbara Windsor, was probably all right in its day, and a peck on the cheek later I was being driven up to Sevenoaks station by Mum’s pal Tweedy Jan. We all thought that by avoiding the chaos of Sunday on the Tonbridge branch line, my journey home would be swift and comfy, especially as I’d clearly paid off whatever karmic overdraft it was that I’d run up on the journey down. I can even remember, over lunch, saying to the Sisters that as a small mercy, at least I’d not been subjected to a Replacement Bus Service.

Oh dear. As Tweedy Jan’s Vauxhall Nova cheerily departed the station concourse, I was once again treated to the return of the Acropolis tabernacle choir, a big sign (but not where you can see it from the outside) saying No Trains Today, and then, the three most terrifying words in all of public transport, the dreaded and aforementioned, “Replacement Bus Service”

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a Replacement Bus Service would replace the scheduled train with, well, a bus. You’d be wrong. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that because of the Passenger Charter, or whatever it’s called, that the rail company, whatever it’s called, would be bending over backwards to make amends for selling you a ticket for rail travel and then shutting the railway. You’d think at least you wouldn’t have to stand around in the hail for forty-five minutes with a load of discombobulated fellow “Customers” (urggggg) wandering around like a cast re-union party for the extras of Mad Max. You’d even think that given the fact that the bus in question was parked in the car park in front of you that you’d be allowed to go and sit in it to wait the thirty five minutes before it rattled off to Orpington rather than have fresh air and fun with the hail. You’d be wrong on all of these. Let’s transpose these coefficients to my line of work, just for a minute. I’ve taken a gig on, for me and, say, a ten-piece band. Just as the dance is about to start I announce to the audience that due to a manpower logistics issue, there will be no music today and that a replacement ping-pong service has been provided to provide entertainment. Not only would I never work again, but they’d have my head on a stick faster than you could say “Complaints can be made online”. Here however, we all stood, silently in the hail, being British. It says something that Hornby, dedicated to absolute accuracy in the noble field of model railways, have come out with this-

Clearly, the diehard enthusiast can spend Sundays in the attic, playroom or even on the kitchen table not running any trains at all, but watching the buses sit motionless in the station car park. Just like the Real Thing.
By the time I’d got onto the London train at Orpington, there was a real chance that I’d be late for my own gig, which Ironically was in Watford, only 2 and a half miles from the front door. So now there was a frissance of worry injected into the mix. It’s possible that this whole day was arranged by the gods of gigging to ensure that I’d spent the statutory seven hours travelling before I have to operate woodwind instruments, as is proscribed in The Great Order Of Things. However, I was now sat down on a real proper working train, and so out came the magazine, and at last, a bit of proper public transport r&r studying ways to enhance my small but beautiful collection of model helicopters back in the shed.
Once again, it was not to be. Now I know that we all have to breed, but, well, you know. Screaming kid in the seat in front, running, jumping and shouting toddler grating away in the aisle at my side. To heighten the glee, Tabatha From Uni got on at Petts Wood, and spent the entire journey into Victoria alternately screaming OMG or stringing sentences together consisting mainly of the word “like” into a small plastic rectangle she was holding near her ear. By now the patience was getting rather frayed and it is with great relief that the rest of the journey, on the great art installation known as London’s Underground went off without a hitch. I even made my gig on time, and had a curry with the chaps in the break, so it all came right in the end.

On the Friday before the Sunday Of Doom, a reunion had been arranged for anyone who had been in the Croydon Youth Orchestra in the early 1980’s. For me, this had been my first experience of playing music as a social phenomenon, and was probably one of the larger factors in me turning my back on going for pilot training in the Air Force, with its back-breaking physical regime, and considering a life in music, with all its perks as I saw them then, such as no back-breaking physical regime for a start. If there was ever an advert for the value of free music education, it’s possible that our little gathering could have been it. Only three or four of us have gone on to extract cash from the stave, but the fact of all that free tuition meant that for at least a couple of decades hundreds of people passed through a system which gave us all something to aspire to and be in. It gave us a social life away from drugs and violence, even though you could argue a case that a life of drugs and violence on the mean streets of Sanderstead in 1981 may have been unlikely anyway.

Music education is good for all sorts of stuff. Because of the nature of performance, it teaches the mind to focus on the present, and because of the absurd complexity of some of the instruments, it teaches the mind patience. Our conductor, Mr Kendall (He never, never, ever, had a first name) turned up to see us. He made the point that had he not had free French horn lessons in 1965, he’d never have made it out of Hull, and after a while taught all of us lot. Although the return on the direct spend can be hard for the bean counters to see, music education is worth its weight in gold, or at least brass. There are chaps I know who freely admit that they could have turned out as right bad ‘uns had they not been given trumpets, trombones, and strangely for one of them, a cello to work their energy out on. Less bad ‘uns means less crime and vandalism. Has anyone ever weighed up the cost of a cornet and a year’s tuition against replacing broken glass in bus shelters, or how much cheaper it would be to have a shit-hot kids’ brass band in the town hall instead of all the drug and knife-wound treatment at casualty? Just ranting.
On a more prosaic note, there were people there I’ve not seen for thirty years. Apart from a spot of baldness and a profusion of specs, they were all pretty much the same as they were back in the day. At the current rate, I’ll see them again when I’m 80. Mr. Kendall will be 103. Life goes faster than you think. This is the first Plog which I’ve not written all by myself. One sentence was written by my dear harp-playing chum Maria-Christina Popadopolou. Can you guess which one it is?


Blog Of Waving Arms Around

Once again, the deep tedium that is the Real World has conspired to keep your jaded scribe here away from the Gabletron 3000 to record for posterity the torrid comings and goings of life in Definitely Not Watford. Another large music writing job has swept like aerosol loft insulation through all the cavities in the diary, gumming up all the spare moments with “I should really be getting on with the woodwind parts for Little White Bull” related guilt. There has also been a quite unseemly amount of operating woodwind instruments, and at assorted far distant parts of the country- this in turn has led to huge quantities of the daily time pie chart being consumed at the helm of the Volvo, enjoying stirring views of contraflows the length and breadth of the nation. Not much time, then, for sitting in the oak-lined study, or shed.

It would be a waste of this time however, to fritter it all away on explaining how little time I’ve had, so on with the tale of the bizarre week just gone. Much has occurred, in-between faux orchestral woodwind for 1960’s classics and operating the Volvo. Last Tuesday morning, I found myself on the Met line hurtling towards London’s Glittering West End in order to conduct an orchestra for an evening of Irving Berlin songs at the Royal Festival Hall. I did this last year, and it was something of a white knuckle ride. So much so, that my attempted reading of this month’s copy of Airfix Modelworld on the tube in was hampered by the memory of having a nervous sweat on of such magnitude that condensation had formed on the insides of my glasses and drips of re-formed sweat were running down the cheeks. The trepidation was heightened when I got out at Waterloo. If you follow the signs to the Festival Hall from the station, you end up walking through a big railway arch, through which only the hall itself can be seen, standing gaunt and grey against the sky like a giant discarded washing machine box. I stopped briefly, as it occurred to me that I was going to have to drive that thing that evening, with a small stick. The turns, the crew, the producer, the string section, the Great and Good of Stanmore who’d turned up to listen to it were all there for a show which was incumbent on me to not mess up.
They’d given me the conductor’s room to lurk in behind the stage. I like these, when I get them. I had a sofa, a piano, a big “That’s Entertainment” mirror with lights all around, a bowl of fruit and selection of soft drinks, my own lav and shower, and most importantly, a door which I could lock the buggers out with. My body and I, in a rare instance of working together, I released a great deal of pent up tension by, er, trying out the washroom facilities, after which we both felt appreciably better. Unlike last year, the whole thing went like a Swiss watch. In fact, it went exactly like my £4.99 ASDA alarm clock which I’d borrowed from the Master Suite at The Gables and had in the corner of my music stand, to make sure that I didn’t dink into overtime and become the main focus of hate for the promoter in asking for more money, and the main hate sponge for the orchestra for keeping them out of the pub. Luckily, it all came flooding back from last year, and the show went off great. I’ve done a bit of proper conducting since this time last year, and I’ve become used to it. Because you can’t keep your eye of the ball for a nanosecond, the concentration required clears the brain of everything else. Afterwards, I feel like a new chap. To get all hello flowers hello trees for a second, I suppose it’s the same as meditation. Towards the end of the show, the orchestra was playing the Broadway-ed-up versions of Irving’s finest with quite a deal of aggression. Being stuck right in the middle at the front, I had the best seat in the house, except I was driving all this heavenly racket, and it felt magnificent. Briefly, just briefly, I felt how the lads at school who were good at games must have felt most of the time.

There was another Good Moment on Friday. I do a small amount of private tuition from the music wing, or kitchen, here at the Gables. On Friday morning, I had The Cabbie in. As you’d guess, he drives a London Cab for a living and plays a bit of tenor sax for fun. As he has a proper job, and enjoys his music, he’s got more gear than the sax section at the BBC put together. I’m not sure if he even wants to play in public, he just loves saxophones and saxophone music, which is a refreshing point of view if, like us over here in our funny little puddle of existence of playing music for money which exists next to the raging torrent of real life, saxophones and saxophone music can often be just the tools involved in heaping together the tattered scraps which make up the monthly Mortgage Jenga. It serves to remind what the real social function of music is, which is to spread enjoyment and provoke thought, rather than to be the strange rushed interlude along with bolting a meal down in the middle of an eight hour stint in the Volvo. The Cabbie has now leant enough music to need to know how to play off-beat rhythms. Without going into detail, off-beat rhythms are a bugger to learn, as it is the first time on the learning curve where the beat has to be imagined rather than played. As a nipper, I can remember having the job of the devil with this, and it was months of toil before the penny dropped. The Great Victory of Friday Morning was opening the door for The Cabbie and getting him to understand fully the nature of the imagined beat, and have him play at sight some fairly complex rhythms. He was delighted, and I was smug. Opening doors for people is the big buzz available in teaching.

The Volvo and attitudes to music became the dominant themes of the rest of the weekend, too. On Friday night, it took me to Bury St. Edmunds for an evening of waving my arms around in front of a band for Kevin Fitzsimmons. Worringly, the Curse Of St. Kev, which is a regular feature of these pages and usually involves some sort of clothing failure for me, didn’t strike. I’ve got another one this Friday, and I fear that I’ll get a double dose and have fully exploding trousers, or similar. After I’d finished there, I had to drive overnight to Taunton, as I was on there to wave a stick around for the Advanced Symphonic Wind Band day which started at 10 am.
The journey could have been easier. For a start, the gritters had been out, and as I got onto the A14 out of Bury, the Volvo had been covered in so much sand that it now resembled a convex golf bunker. Stopping for essential overnight supplies, or Ginsters and Coke, at the garage, I managed to scrape some of the sand away and then smeared some more off with the freezing cold water in the bucket by the pump and the shards of blue paper towel I’d managed to extract from the ever-reluctant dispenser. Then it was all kinds of poor-visibility fun on the wonder that is Britain’s motorway network at night, with all the lights ecologically turned off, no cat’s eyes, and the poor buggers in the oncoming lane with their full beam on to cope with the ecological pitch blackness. I was alternately blinded, or just plain blind. By 2.30 a.m I’d decided that enough was enough and pulled in at a motorway services on the M5 to try and rent a room. Have you ever tried to find your way to a motel in a services with all the lights off? It’s difficult- twice I found myself on the slip road out without clapping eyes on one, and on the third, some seventy miles down the road from the first attempt, there was some life in the main services, so I stopped and asked directions. Apparently, it was over the footbridge on the other side. It was now 3.20 am, it’s freezing and I’m wandering over a windy footbridge with three heavy shoulder bags, none of which were even remotely interested in my shoulders, but oddly and mutually fascinated with the crooks of my elbows, and lorries roaring away below. To pay me back for my early morning teaching-related smugness the Gods had dealt me the second most bleak experience of my life, and I felt like I was in a scene from a Hungarian art house film. The most bleak experience of my life came ten minutes later walking back over the bridge after not locating the motel and getting back into the relatively comfortable world of the giant sand and Volvo pasty. Eventually, the Days Inn at Gordano services saved the tiny scraps of what was left of the day, and rented me a rather comfy bed for a princely £35, at 3.55am.

The Advanced Symphonic Wind Band day went off pretty well, and I only made an arse of myself by dropping the stick once. I also managed to avoid saying bugger, fart, tits, poo and willy, so I am viewing the day as something of a success. Once again, the beautiful clean world that music lives in in the hands of the committed enthusiastic amateur came to light. We were scheduled to finish at 4. By 3.35, we’d played all the stuff and rehearsed it so it was sounding nice and together. I asked the assembled company if they wanted to finish there, knowing that the jaded hoary pros with whom I normally work would be in the pub before I’d put the baton down. Not this lot- they wanted the full portion, right up to the wire. It’s as refreshing as it’s confusing.

Saturday night was spent in an unusual bit of diary convergence, 17 miles south of Taunton playing for a wedding in a big posh house. Normally, if I have an Advanced Symphonic Wind Band day in Taunton, the big posh house would be on Newcastle or somewhere, so I must have racked up a bit of karmic favour somewhere. They’d also laid on rooms in the local Travelodge, which was good news, as Sunday was to once again star the Volvo in the leading role as it was the day for the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in Southport, with me as Biggles and George Hogg, who needed a lift up as Algy the Navigator.

? On the way to Southport, I encountered some of the best food in the world. This is up there with the Curry at Gant’s Hill, or the Liver And Bacon in the caff in South Oxhey, so you know I’m not messing about. Just before you get to Southport from the M6, you will go through the hamlet of Lathom, near Ormskirk. There there is a boozer called The Ship, which has a truly magnificent restaurant. Here’s a picture of Lunch-

What you can see here is George Hogg’s mixed grill, and behind it is a dish called Rags To Riches, which consisted of a home-made steak and kidney pudding atop a rump steak, covered in thick savoury gravy and served with chips, mushrooms and onions. It’s Wednesday now, and I’m still thinking about it. Definitely about as much clean fun as you can ever have, visit the website here- Shipatlathom
Thence to Southport, and a roaring gig with the Jazz At The Philharmonic show, which was an absolute ball, aided by the fact that the show was in a great big crumbly seaside hotel, in which we were staying in great big comfy crumbly rooms. Driving a grillion miles to go to work and then being able to forget about the car always puts a chap in a good frame of mind, as did the bar with its supply of great big crumbly Guinness. The gig was almost indecent in its energy- Nick Dawson, normally the king of pianistic restraint, was bouncing around on his stool and grinning as if simultaneously told to say cheese whilst attempting to land a helicopter in a tornado. The crowd went a little uneasy on me when I explained that in order to enjoy Ryan and George during the trumpet battle, we all had to put aside the black roll neck and stroked chin and shamelessly worship on the altar of higher louder and faster, but, like all good orgies, it was fine once it got going. In the interval, there was a raffle-

I have a thing about accompanying raffles.