Blog of Letters of the Week and Science Fiction

The newsdesk here at the gables has been buzzing with feedback all week with comments about the last instalment. It seems that the selective nature of gravity and the universal nature of hotel food have not just been noticed by me. Taking the latter first, a Ms. Walsingham of Berkhamsted wrote in to further add to the mystery of the complete absence of flavour when food is generated by a kitchen built in an hotel rather than a restaurant. Her point-and I’m sure most of us have experience of this- concerns the goo which comes inside a round of hotel sandwiches. This goo can be pink, beige or grey depending upon whether it has been sold as prawn, tuna or chicken sandwich filling, but like most things on the hotel catering menu, has that wonderful exotic taste of bugger all. I reckon it might be council fire regs or something. Maybe too much flavour in one place can become flammable. Maybe one day we’ll find that the Great Fire of London was started by a build up of seasoning in Pudding Lane top critical mass. We know from his diaries that Pepys buried his cheese in his garden when he thought his property was at risk. Perhaps they knew something then which has been lost to most of us in the mists of time, but the secret scroll of knowledge was saved from the flames by the proprietor of the local Comfort Inn, put into a casket and now lies buried under The Monument. It could even be that the film, The Towering Inferno was made as a warning sign to the global hotel trade to not mess about with the spicy foods becoming popular globally in the early 1970’s. The fire starts in the Restaurant, as far as I recall. This would explain why even such promising items as a room service Diavolo Pizza, which on the menu boasts such buzzwords as “Hot! Hot!” and “Only For The Brave!” comes with such a tiny element of essence of chilli that only fractional distillation could prove its existence. Should, by its own peculiar flavour related pyrotechnic physics, the hotel then be razed to the ground by fire, and should the forensic department of Messrs. Snitch and Grabber, Insurers discover that spice had been used in the kitchen to a level higher that one part in eighteen trillion, then there would be the predictable letter to the manager opening with the word “Regrettably”.

While we’re on peculiar physics, there has been quite an influx of gravity-related observations. Mr. Brill of Addington noted that a paint pot on top of a stepladder is way more likely to fall off and deposit its contents all over the one bit of carpet which hadn’t been protected with a dustsheet if he leaves the room. Many have noted that gravity’s aim and timing improves exponentially if there are small children about. My mate Dean was here in the middle of the week, staying in the West Wing between a couple of gigs. He was having a shower, and somehow Gravity managed to coax a stream of water through the bit at the back of the shower screen where the hinges are, and then round a corner and onto the floor, to land in an area about three inches square. Where his trousers and pants were. I myself have had a trouser-related gravity trauma in the week, showing the amazing ability of Madame G. to time her assaults. On Friday, I had to go into town for a meeting. As I had observed the rule, calibrated in minutes that O=g+(gx1.3) where O is the time I need to leave The Gables, and g is the calculated time for getting up, and gx1.3 is the factor by which this estimate was incorrect, I had had to pull on the suit and set off in the Volvo for the station car park at Moor Park to continue the journey in the relaxed charm of the Met Line. The result of this hurried pulling on of the suit was to omit the belt, but as the suit felt that it fitted, I didn’t worry overly. I don’t know if this happens to you, but if I start off from home a bit late, all manner of minor things go wrong, gradually forming into a large bolus of lateness from which often there is no return. If I leave on time, it’s plain sailing. Back in the choppy waters of last Friday, though, I arrived at the station Car Park at Moor Park to find it full of workmen, apparently shoring up the embankment over which the tracks run to make sure that it all doesn’t slide away and into the Costcutter opposite the station. Never mind, I thought, and carried on in the Volvo to the next stop down, Northwood, which boasts a very large car park. By now, I was quite sweaty and flustered, which I’m sure is a device placed in our species to illustrate to the gods clearly which of the Pilgrims are running late and therefore can be good subjects for further divine mischief. Glowing like a beacon, I pulled up in Northwood Station , getting as close to the pay and display machine as the situation allowed. These machines now take credit cards, so equipped with wallet, I ran to the machine, only to find the card slot closed with a metal plaque, and a note sellotaped onto the screen saying “Sorry no cards”. The day’s parking was £4.10. Running back to the Volvo, I had a rummage through the glove compartment and found- £4.10! Running back to the machine, there followed five attempts at getting the money in, and now to add to the fun, I could hear the mobile, still in the Volvo, ringing and ringing. I then noticed another small sign on the machine, saying “Sorry, this machine does not accept the new 5 and 10 pence coins”. It only struck me later that a fee ending in 10p was an unusual choice for machines which couldn’t accept 10p coins. Pay by phone was now my only option. Another 8 minutes of time had been squandered on this machine’s apology notes, and by now, I was very sweaty and flustered. Blotchy, in fact. Running back to the Volvo, I retrieved the phone which stopped ringing the instant I picked it off the seat. The caller was the chap I was supposed to meet. Now a dilemma- do I ring him, or the pay to park people. Running back to the machine, I reasoned that I was probably better off parking and dealing with him in a bit. As I lifted the phone to make the call to the parking company, the phone rang again in my hand. Maximum stress had been reached, Madame G chose her moment, and down fell my unbelted suit trousers in the middle of the car park. At least there was a bit of fresh air around the trossacks to make up for it.

Last Sunday, Her Indoors and I were relaxing in the Home Cinema, or living room, here at The Gables and ITV had put Star Wars III on. I like Star Wars, so Her Indoors indulged me and we sat down to watch it. As a chap, I am used to earning a curled lip by not noticing a new hairdo/clothe/necklace/etc , but here the boot was refreshingly on the other foot when I was asked if we were watching Star Wars or Star Trek. I did baulk a bit when she asked me what the difference was. Basically, for the layman or woman, Star Trek is middle class Americans with latex foreheads, and Star Wars is loads of robots and lighty-up swords that go fzzzzzzzzmmmmzzzzzmmmmmzzzzz.
Star Wars had a huge impact on my early adolescence. For my 13th birthday treat my Mum took me and my chum Richard to see it at the Purley Astoria. As an indirect result of that night out, I became a musician. I bumped into Richard’s dad on the train a few years ago, and it turns out that Richard moved to the States and has made a good living in the explosive and demolition business. Maybe it had a huge impact on him too. As a rule, I’ve never really gone in for mass-culture fads, but Star Wars shook me to my core. It was the first time anyone had ever seen sci-fi that looked completely real, and not like the stiff made out of yoghurt pots, rubber gloves and fablon on Dr. Who. Philosophy played a part too. Alec Guiness dispensing proto-Buddhism in his descriptions of The Force was particularly appealing, especially when he gets onto the bit about stretching out with your feelings. Stretching out with feelings and using The Force enables our hero Luke to drop the laser equivalent of a hand grenade down a small hole in the Death Star whilst flying a small space fighter at trillions of miles per hour and thus save the universe. As a developing young lad with piss poor co-ordination, I can remember trying to stretch out with my feelings and use the force a few days later at cricket practice. The prompt arrival of a cricket ball straight on the knuckles indicated that clearly I wasn’t to be a Jedi Knight for a while. I was also very taken with the soundtrack, especially the jazzy thing played by the chaps in the fly costumes in the bar sequence. Reading up later that the instrumentation for this was three saxes and Caribbean steel pans, I asked if I could have steel pan lessons at school. The old chap at school who taught percussion looked into it for me, but drew a blank, so as second best, I went for sax lessons. With that, my parents’ dreams of an Olympic-standard sportsman/high-powered Q.C. were dashed like the myriad specks of laser light that once were the Death Star.

Two more Star Wars films were produced until 1983, so the whole thing neatly spanned my years at secondary school, and set me up for life. Of course we all wanted more, as the three films hinted at a whole universe’s worth of backstory. Luckily for us, producer George Lucas had a particularly nasty divorce in the early 1990’s and needed some dough. As the only chap in the world with the capability to magic squillions of dollars out of thin air by telling stories about proto-buddhism, robots and lighty-up swords that go fzzzzzzzzmmmmzzzzzmmmmmzzzzz, Lucas promised us a prequel trilogy outlining the tragic tale of the story’s principal baddie, Darth Vader, from innocent boyhood to terminal tumble to the Dark Side. Sunday’s televisual feast was the last in this trilogy, dealing with the final tumble. Although spectacular visually, the narrative thrust of the script has all the verve and flair of a year 9 drama project, with clankingly awkward lines delivered by a cast, for whom the only option seems to be stretching out with their feelings in order to feel the fee. Lucas even blows the pivotal scene, for which we’ve all sat through two and three quarters’ films’ worth of this stuff to see- the horribly mutilated Darth Vader, nearly killed in a lighty-up swordfight that went fzzzzzzzzmmmmzzzzzmmmmmzzzzz with Ewan MacGregor from Trainspotting but on the rather more inviting environment of a planet consisting entirely of lava (it was once a hotel planet which put on a curry night)- being rebuilt into the iconic masked baddie who has loomed over all of us since 1977. In the film Robocop, there’s a similar scene where our copper is having all his bionic bits added by doctors, saying things like “Of course, he’ll never be able to eat real food again” and “With that mechanical heart of his, he’ll not sleep in a way we would understand”. Surely to God this is what we all wanted when it was time to make Darth out of all the spare bits. It’s not as if they were short of a robot or two in that neck of the woods. To be fair, we do see the evil-looking German-Soldier-In-A-Gas-Mask hat going on over the horribly (but not too horribly, it’s a kids’ film) burnt face, and we do get to hear the first drawing of the scuba breath, but I do feel that in a trilogy concerned with the lapse of an innocent soul to a world of mechanised semi-organic evil, we could have done with about thirty five minutes more science and less faffing around with epic battles on remote planets.

The next day, there was a Ray Bradbury short story on the radio called “The Sound Of Thunder”. Half an hour long, it was the very opposite of the Star Wars prequel trilogy- at half an hour long, we got to know , and in one case, dislike, the characters, we had a good old dollop of bogus sci-fi physics, and a rip-roaring alternative timeline good story to boot. But Star Wars is my friend- as duff as that film was, I sat through it all again, willing it to be good, in the same way as you’d be internally egging your best mate Dave, now drunk at a party, to not throw up on that girl he’s chatting up. Disney have bought the franchise now, and are releasing another one next year, called Steamboat Darth or something. Disney are good at films, so hopefully we’ll get a decent story or two. I notice that they’ve got the chap on board who directed the last two Star Trek films- perhaps we’ll have middle class Americans with latex foreheads and loads of robots and lighty-up swords that go fzzzzzzzzmmmmzzzzzmmmmmzzzzz all together for the first time.


Blog of Putting It Off

It’s been a while since the last riveting instalment, I know, but what I thought was a case of writer’s block (and its sister condition, getting off the arse and doing anything at all block) has actually turned out to be a case of low-level viral infection. In addition to the huge amounts of bugger all achieved over the last few weeks, I had been getting aware of mysterious pains in my neck and under my chin, so, like all blokes, after the statutory three weeks’ or so of putting it off, I slothfully took myself and my hurty neck off to the quack’s, where I was told that the source of the pain was a nice pair of swollen glands, and that once the bit of goo extracted from the glottis on an elongated ear bud which for all the world looked as if it belonged in a Dali painting has been sent off for analysis, we’ll know for sure the full extent of my lergy. The funny thing is, during the statutory three weeks’ or so of putting it off, there was a concomitant three weeks’ worth of nodding off last thing at night imagining the worst, and so discovering that I was not a victim of bubonic plague, tonsillitis and/or malaria came as a considerable relief. So much so, that upon being deemed to have a minor infection which could be staved off by gargling brine I virtually skipped out of the surgery like Fotherington-Thomas singing songs to the flowers, trees and sky, and started to catch up with all the tasks accrued in the intervening period of bugger all.

Mind you, it’s not been all fervid inactivity here at The Gables. As I was finishing the last missive, I was girding up the loins to spend a forty-eight hour stretch looking after Her Indoors on the road in my capacity as the Dennis Thatcher of British jazz. The first leg of this took us up to Southport, where H.I. was due to give a Sunday lunchtime recital of syncopated classics as the guest artiste with the local big band. It was an early start, so we were to check into the hotel the night before and enjoy the sights that Southport had to offer. Aside from the topography of the town, which must be fairly unique for a seaside resort in that the glorious regency front doesn’t actually overlook the sea, the sights were many and varied. They ranged from a nice old-fashioned pier with an amusement arcade and hall of mirrors, to a charming family teaching their children by example to spit and swear in public.
Disappointingly, and probably in some way due to the possibility of the unique charm of some of the resort’s visitors, the sit-down chippy tea we’d hoped for wasn’t going to materialise as all the chippies in town seemed to shut up shop at around 6.30.
Jung would have it that all events are linked, and proof came with our visit to Southport. As a chap treads his way down life’s stony highway, he can formulate theories of existence drawn up from his experience. Two of mine are-

  1. Gravity is alive, and is also a bit of a bugger
  2. There’s something funny about Hotel Food

Incidents have occurred over the last couple of weeks which seem to have confirmed both of my suspicions. Taking gravity first, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it for years. Newton missed a trick when the apple fell on his head, I think, because if my reading of the facts is correct, he only observed that the apple fell. He didn’t consider that the bloody thing fell on him. At the exact moment he was under the tree, in exactly the right place. Gravity, it seems, is only mostly constant, generally when it can’t be naughty. Physics would have it that it is a straight force of attraction between objects which increases in proportion to their size. The largest nearest object to us is of course our planet, which is why things fall on top of it. It is why we can have swimming pools and lying down. Whilst this is true, it is, in my view, not the whole truth. Consider the simple act of hoovering. In order to hoover the Televisual Leisure Suite, or Front Room, here at The Gables, I will often put the occasional tables, Her Indoors’ furry owl slippers, the TV Times, my half eaten Chicken Phal from last night etc. etc. temporarily on the sofa, in order to get a good old go at the rug. It is now clearly marked to Gravity, or Madame G as I call her, that the purpose of this exercise is to not have the recently repositioned items on the floor. This new status quo will last, generally until I am no longer looking, or have become distracted by the phone, an itchy nose or Her Indoors mellifluously addressing me from up the stair. As soon as I look away, there is what gravity experts refer to as the Inevitable Cascade. Inevitable cascades of all forms, be they the simple hovering trauma illustrated here or the rumble and crash from the cupboard under the stairs, display some evidence of conscious input. Generally occurring twenty seconds after you get settled into the armchair or bed, an Inevitable Cascade will often display ingenuity and attention to detail. We are all familiar with the buttered toast thing, but any opportunity for irritating minor destruction will be seized upon. Taking the Hoover and Sofa incident, for example, it came as no surprise that the now partially upended chicken Phal now proudly boasted my fountain pen, cap off, as one of its ingredients. Anything that can ooze will, but only if it can ooze over or into something porous and valuable. Madame G is adept at keeping up with technology too. A few years ago, I was busily toiling away at the desk, and because I had lots of clutter about I had a large flat mobile phone sat flat across the top of a small round mug of tea. If you tried to fit the phone into the cup, you’d have a job since it was only just big enough, and you’d have to get the phone straight in, in a perpendicular manner. Predictably, the phone rang, and the buzzy thing inside it wobbled it just enough for Bloody Gravity to get hold of it and suck it down so it was completely immersed, writing off both the phone, and as I recall, some of the tea. This is beginning to sound like whining, so I’ll get to the proof.
So far, we have ascertained that gravity will have a go at any teetering pile of things at the moment of maximum irritation. Anything put on top of anything else will slide off at the crucial moment. So what does she do when we have a teetering pile of things which we’d like to fall over? It was Her Indoors who spotted this, at the penny shovers in the arcade on Southport Pier. There we have an exhibition class pile of tuppences, not only teetering and wobbling, but also being moved on hydraulic arms. If I so much as have eight or nine coins on the kitchen table, one of them will be on the floor within fifteen seconds. Madame G. just can’t keep her fingers off. All the laws say that an Inevitable Cascade should be happening any second, but what happens? Bugger All. And that’s if you’re lucky. Gravity is alive and naughty. The defence rests.

Hotel food now. After the great gravity revelation on the pier, Her Indoors and I made our way back to the hotel, where we thought we’d try the restaurant, which was advertising itself as Fine Dining, and smelling enticingly of chip fat. Delicious as it was, the menu was somewhat eclectic. H.I. plumped for a main course of Tandoori Chicken on a tagine of wilted greens, with peas and roast potatoes. I had a barbecued pork chop (bacon joint) on couscous with new potatoes and steamed veg. I must say here that the lad in the kitchen could certainly cook- it all tasted lovely and the tandoori chicken, although patently not done in a Tandoori was a masterpiece in tenderness. Where this is all leading is, given that a hotel restaurant must presumably be decked out with the same kit as a regular one, and governed by the same council regs, why is hotel food so weird? Anyone who has done as many weddings in hotels as your jaded scribe here will be very familiar with mass produced chicken in white wine sauce, and will know all too well the explosion of oral ecstasy when something that tastes of anything other than humidity rumbles across the taste buds. Funnily enough, Her Indoors and I found ourselves in a swanky spa hotel the other week, and as the restaurant looked dead posh, and we had the run of it for free, we gave it a go. Lovely service, great menu, and all the grub looked amazing. Unfortunately, like the mass produced wedding grub, our bespoke boutique dinners ended up tasting of, as far as I could tell, and with the exception of the bits of my rare steak which were still raw and hadn’t been exposed to the taste-annulling sorcery, sand. On the other hand, I am currently sitting writing this in room 37 of the Ibis in an industrial estate in Coventry, waiting to get a taxi to the Jools Holland gig. I’ve just had their room service green thai chicken curry. Even though the bits of chicken had the texture of the inside of an old tennis ball, it tasted more of curry than anything else, so perhaps more research is necessary.

Another quick food story before I go. I was with Jools last night too, in Skeggy. Mr. Holland is a generous employer, and often when we’re out for a night he arranges for a take-away to be in the bandroom at the end of the show. Last night it was Pizzas. Tour manager Steve told us that when he got up to the pizza place, he was having a spot of bother understanding the menu consisting as it did of unusual choices which you might find, say, in an hotel in Southport, and so the lady serving informed him that their best-selling line was Doner Kebab pizza. Steve asked if she could do anything more Italian, to which she replied “Chicken Kiev Pizza”. If it wasn’t true, you’d not believe it.


Blog of Sessions

Students of global geography will of course be aware that the Former Colony of Barbados, like the eastern seaboard of the Former Colony of the United States, runs five hours behind us here in Blighty. Modern travel in a passenger aeroplane will bring on a phenomenon known as jet-lag, the side effects of which are pretty much known to all, and need no further explanation here. Most sources say that jet-lag can last up to a couple of days, so I guess that I have been specially blessed with some hideous form of Super Jet Lag DeLuxe. From the moment I stepped out onto the tarmac at Gatwick the Monday before last, I have been knackered. Gloopily spreading its gloomy way through the whole weeks proceedings in the same way that the Lib-Dem conference stuffs up an otherwise good week’s telly, my jet lag has made the last ten days or so feel like I have been wading uphill through treacle in an hideous French art house film about life in zero gravity shot in slow motion. It got so bad this afternoon that I even found myself nodding off in front of the Bank Holiday airing of Carry On Up The Khyber. I appreciate that I shouldn’t be immune from the laws of physics, but with all the stuff I’ve got on with researching Japanese seaplanes from the thirties, hoovering, attempting to play complicated modern jazz on the clarinet and sampling local Indian cuisine, there aren’t enough hours in the day as it is. I reckon the cosmic jet-lag apportioning thingy has gone out of whack, and somewhere there is someone bounding about, full of the joys of spring for whom I seem to have picked up the international fatigue bill.

Still, it could be worse. There have been no one-nighters in Carlisle, or horrendous early starts. In fact, I often find that work goes in phases, and this last two weeks I have been earning a crust as a session musician. This is quite a rarity for me. One of the endearing traits of our business is that you tend to get pigeonholed, and so what can start off as a jolly wheeze can sometimes end up as a bit of a straightjacket. In my case, the jolly wheeze involves standing in front of bands and shouting, with occasional bursts of operating woodwind instruments. Over the years, the woodwind aspect of this tends to be overlooked in favour of the shouting. Don’t get me wrong, the shouting has a crucial role in a live performance, as it serves to keep audience and musicians alike from drifting off to sleep, and therefore leads the show to be deemed by all to be a success. Shouting can also pay pretty well, and serves a secondary but equally crucial role in keeping the wheels of the Volvo turning. However, in dark moments, especially those dark moments which occur when the diary has consisted solely of a streak of shouting work, I can end up feeling that all I can do is shout. Therefore, a little run of recording work where all the shouting is done by others and all I have to do is twiddle is most welcome both as a change and as a bit of reassurance.

Session number one was the day after I got back. This was a good old fashioned big band thingy, assembled by Callum Au, who, if I had a Ministry Of Plong to organise, would get the triple job of being Head of Department of Trombone, Medium Swing and Eating. All three were strongly in evidence that day, as the recording went from 10 am-6pm, punctuated with a rather splendid inevitable curry for lunch at Bombay Spice in Paddington Street, off the Marylebone High Road, and then all off to the Gold Mine in Queensway for tea. A really nice thing about studio work is that you often knock off at the same time as most of the rest of Britain. Briefly, just briefly, you can kid yourself that you have a proper job. The music was good too. With old-school sounding tunes and a splash of contemporary zeitgeist in the arranging, it was all done by a dashing young man from the Golden City of Croydon by the name of Anthony Strong. Anthony, who has talent to burn, might sell enough copies for the record company to recover its costs and burp him out a small fee. It can’t hurt him that he sounds vocally a bit like Jamie Cullum, pianistically a bit like Oscar Peterson and looks a bit like Prince Harry either.

Session number two was on Monday, and was the stuff of dreams. It was the full rock and roll do. I had to report to the private home studio of a very heavy duty producer down in the wilds of Somerset to overdub clarinets and flutes onto an indie-jazz-folk project. We now live in an era where musicians are so easily replaceable by electronics, that virtually every time we go to work the budget imposes upon us a frenzied feast of clock-watching and bean-counting. Whatever the job is, money is often stretched so thin that we have to get in at the last minute, get whatever the job is as right as we can on the budget and then try and get back in the car as quickly as possible to enjoy the drive home. Not so last Monday. There I was, in a beautiful studio on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere, playing microscopically different versions of the same two bar phrase until the producer, the engineer and the bearded young chap who was the songwriter felt I had given them what they were after. All very organic, slow and every aspect looked after. Over the magnificent and very organic lunch laid on by Mrs. Producer in the adjacent farmhouse, I got chatting to Mr. Producer, who has in the fairly recent past worked with Paul McCartney. Apparently, Sir Paul still plays the same two bass guitars he had when he hit the big time with that beat combo he got going in the early 1960’s. With the eBay value of those equalling thrice third world debt, it is no suprise that they have their own minder when they go out of the house. Emailing the invoice afterwards to Capitol Records in the Former Colony was exciting too. Being a huge multinational corporation, they even got my travel paid at the government rate of 40p per mile, just like a normal person. I managed to belt up the A303 back to the Gables that evening just in time for the vile and giant twenty foot warm swimming cap of Jet Lag to come and subsume me.

Session number three found your jaded scribe standing in for one of the regulars in Jools Holland’s band on Thursday. It’s always lovely to see those chaps, and when it’s a recording session at his place, JH always gets the local caff round to put out a magnificent spread of sandwiches. Jools’ man is one of the few who understands that a good cheese and pickle sandwich must never, on pain of a lingering and painful death, be made with grated cheese, and if at all possible using very fresh white bloomer. By the time I’d arrived, the thought of this had been playing on my mind most of the way around the M25. I was in a near-erotic frenzy of Branston-based lust. Disaster! A new caterer had been engaged! She’d made some egg and anchovy doorsteps though. All was well. The job of the day was to provide some backing for an album track over which a celebrity girl vocalist from the nineties was going to place some vocals. She turned up two and a half hours late, pushing the session into overtime. Rude cow.

Easter will see me in my role as the Dennis Thatcher of Jazz, looking after Her Indoors as she does a lunchtime guest spot at a big band gig in sunny Southport, selling the CD’s and home-made jams and chutneys, and then retiring to the family seat in Wigan for the traditional Chinese nosh-up. Next week we have a Very Significant Birthday here at The Gables. Don’t miss the next thrilling instalment, folks!


Blog of International Travels

The Thursday before last, just after tea-time, I was floating around like a forgotten Elastoplast in the council pool in my orgy-sized Jacuzzi in my suite in an Andorran hotel. When you operate a saxophone for a living, the perks can be strange. So can the un-perks, if that’s the right word. In order to get to the tranquil bliss of the aforementioned aquatic leisure facility, I’d had to get up at 4.30am, drive from the Gables to Gatport Airwick, down the mandatory 6am super sizzler and two pints of Strongbow in the departure lounge, fly to Barcelona and then get on a coach for three hours. Whilst something of an adventure, it was hardly relaxing.

The reason for this roller coaster of alternate high tranquility and grinding discomfort was a concert in the Congress Centre there with the BBC Big Band. Her Indoors had been booked as the main turn, and by co-incidence, much later on in the day, I’d been asked to go and operate a baritone sax in support. In our line of business, we refer to such an engagement as a Commando Raid, since we are flown straight in to the job, are then required to play the concert, and then flown straight out again. So you can see it’s a bit like The Guns of Navarone, only more brutal and with cheaper flights. As with all foreign trips, by the time you get back to the home airport, it seems to have gone on for months on end, and any memory of Life Before The Trip is but a dim glow. In the dim romantic glow of the passenger lift in the multi storey back at Gatwick, Her Indoors remarked that we’d been away for a grand total of twenty-seven hours! Andorra lies on the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees- right here-

Just like Monaco, it is a small independent principality, or tax haven, and just like Monaco it seems to have been substantially re-developed in the early 1960’s with early 1960’s concrete architecture. Just like Monaco, because of the tax situation most people who live there are gazillionaires, the 1960’s concrete architecture is maintained in spangling pristine condition, very much in completely the opposite fashion to, say, Croydon, which means that just like Monaco, it looks a bit like a set from Thunderbirds. Often on one of these trips, the actual concert part of the activity is so eclipsed by the sheer fatigue of getting there and back that one forgets altogether about the actual point of the journey. On this occasion, the gig itself went very well. We were there to play an Ellington programme, so there was little to go awry. Consisting mainly of Ellington’s original scores, the concert also included some arrangements of Ellington material by other writers. After a version of Rockin’ In Rhythm to open proceedings which, with its rock-steady beat and incredible high note trumpet antics from young Louis Dowdeswell, raised the level of excitement in the room to a nearly unclean level, we played them an arrangement of Take The A Train by the German arranger Jorg Keller, which took an expanded and contemporary look at the old classic. Maybe a shade too expanded and contemporary for the good concert going folk of Andorra, as, in his conversation with conductor Jay Craig afterwards, the Mayor said something along the lines of “Wonderful concert- simply wonderful. Congratulations to all. You did have us worried with that second one, though.”

After the gig, there was a brief opportunity for a beer back at the hotel, before it was time to climb the wooden hill to blanket fair, or given the colossal size of the bed up in room 402, which had clearly been designed for a similar amount of folk as had the Jacuzzi/dry dock thing in the bathroom, blanket amusement park, to enjoy a nice nourishing, rejuvenating three hours’ sleep before climbing back on the coach and enjoying further slumber on nice comfy coach seats, as the sun rose over the Pyrenees right in our faces to help us to nod off. This all sounds like carping, which it isn’t intended to be- the gig was great. I am a saxophone operator, and I got to operate it on a lovely stage with some great players, and on some of the best music ever written for band. The sunrise to which I have just alluded, although hardly the friend of rest, was of breathtaking beauty, which is why I started off this whole rant by making the point that the perks of this job are many, varied and strange.

Further perks have ensued this week. I am currently sitting here tapping this into the Mobile Command Centre Information Portal, or Laptop looking at this-

A few days after the Andorra Caper, Her Indoors, The Volvo and I found ourselves back at Gatport in order to enjoy another early morning Cider and Super Sizzler special, and then to get on a great big aeroplane to fly out to Barbados. Unlike the Commando Raid of the week before, the deal was that we’d do our gig on the first day, and then enjoy a further four days off by the sea. A completely splendid plan in anyone’s book. On the flight over, I watched that new film “The Wolf Of Wall Street”, and whilst I found it to be a thumping good story, and at three hours long, a good use of a large chunk of the journey, I was quite surprised that Mr. Branson and his pals at Virgin HQ has left all the many and varied naughty bits in. Especially given the fact that you are sort of on display in the sleepy public arena that is a long-haul flight with your viewing choice. Sitting as I was on the aisle seat of the big central block you get on huge intercontinental aeroplanes, I became concerned that the two nuns one row back across the aisle might notice I was feasting on a rich portion of high-priced Hollywood smut, but as I couldn’t hear the rattling of rosaries, I reckon that they either didn’t mind, or didn’t notice. Deciding to clean up my act anyway, once the film had reached its inevitable grubby denouement, I spent the rest of the flight becoming addicted to a video game called Bejewelled, in which hours would pass while I played a kind of psychedelic naughts and crosses. Proper opium for the mind. By the time we touched down in Bridgetown, I had been exposed to high-level rudery and then subjected to three hours of cyber-hypnosis. And I loved it. I had turned into Winston Smith at the end of 1984. If you’ve never been out this way before, few things can prepare you for the sensory overload that is stepping off a plane and out into the Caribbean air. The warmth burrows straight in, and all those little muscular aches and twinges which our climate loves to foster just evaporate. Grantley Adams airport is also partially open plan, with great swathes of Caribbean flora to break up the concrete. Driving across the island reveals a topography which is comprised mainly of rolling hills and thick woods. From a distance, it looks rather like Cornwall, until you look a bit closer and spot that the vegetation is mainly palms and huge great leaves which would not look out of place hanging out of the mouth of a Stegosaurus. Once again, the travel element has nearly made me forget about the gig. We played to a mixed audience, with a lot of Americans present. I’ve never really had an American audience before, and it was immediately apparent that they really were clued up on their jazz. Nodding sagely when the differences between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins were being discussed in one of the links, It felt like more of an English university audience than one of the general public. As a result, I didn’t have to do quite the usual amount of jumping up and down and shouting as normal to try and sustain their attention, and as a result of that I ended the evening merely very sweaty, instead of, as I had feared in the tropical heat sporting a jacket and tie, absolutely drenched. Perks here were quite a lot of free Banks’ Beer, and best of all, a talking parrot backstage. It’s incredible what you can find if you look.

Since then, there have been a few other luxury perks, the most startling one being the effect of enough sleep. I can think and walk around now without feeling as if parts or all of me has been made from recently chewed bubblegum. Night falls quickly here in the tropics- at around 6.30 the sun retires behind the horizon in a blaze of oranges, blues and greens, and then it’s night time, which is thick velvet black. Home tomorrow though, taking off here at around tea-time, and landing back at Gatport with the time difference just in time to plough round the M25 in the rush hour. Smashing.


Adventures of El Presidente Blog

Just like those of a South American tinpot dictator, my birthday celebrations seem to have gone on for most of the last week, and are showing only now the first signs of slowing down. So immersed am I with my new found role of El Plongusto, martial leader of all I survey (or the shed) I have, in my darker moments, found myself surfing eBay for ceremonial military uniforms, rows of bogus medals, eye patches, and stick-on Gringo moustaches. In darker moments still, I have been tempted to paint the words “Border Control” at the end of the drive here at The Gables and issue a UDI for the Peoples Republic of Gableria whilst busily setting to on the inkjet printing my own currency. With pictures of me on. Declaring independence would also get me out of the need for planning permission for the 200-foot statue of me and Her Indoors I’d now like to put up in the back garden- you know the sort of thing, me as the heroic worker, sleeves rolled up, hammer in one hand, scythe in the other, and her Indoors looking defiantly into the middle distance, all plaits and breadbaskets. If the council wanted it taken down, I could take it as a threat of war and have them up in front of the U.N. I do have my own air force, mind, if things get a bit nasty. I know it’s only in miniature and can’t fly, but I’m pretty sure it could have some value as a PR threat, once the Ministry Of Propaganda, or Her Indoors and Photoshop, get their hands on it. Getting back to the money thing, the People’s Republic of Gableria unit of currency should be the Plongeiro. As I intoned earlier, most of the notes would bear pictures of me, getting up to the normal range of banknote art high jinks such as staring up inscrutably from a map of the New World, or standing boldly on the prow of Cotes’ galleon, or looking on proudly as the new hydro-electric plant is built in the lee of the mighty Plongusto dam etc etc. Only the highest denomination note (the fifty trillion Plongeiro) would differ, as it would carry an heroic image of Her Indoors as a mighty Wigan Valkyrie, riding on the rising sun’s rays, silver shield of honour in one hand, and golden pie of wisdom in the other.

Yes, apart from one hour-long bout of physical jerks with the Flymo on Friday afternoon, El Cumpleaños Glorioso President has had a splendid week separated from most of reality. Looking at it another, and more statistically likely way, it could be argued that most of reality has enjoyed a splendid week separated from me. The main reason for this is that one of my birthday presents from God was a complete lack of paid work, which has led to essentially to a week-long festival of Airfix down in the shed. It is highly possible that exposure to all those solvents may have done something to my brain, as I don’t normally have bouts of contemplating how my own currency system should work, but I have had a smashing time! The birthday itself was conducted at the rather splendid museum of Naval Aviation in sunny Yeovilton, down in what was until very recently, really rainy Somerset. Somerset is now merely quite soggy, and has the feeling of a paperback which has been dropped in the bath and is now spending its first night on the towel rail. Naval Aviation’s good in any weather, though, as it has to be. Part of the birthday celebration customs for El Presidente is to be allowed to take Her Indoors to an aeroplane museum and bore her rigid. This year, we did slightly better, in that down at Yeovilton they have a huge section of the museum into which has been built the working innards of an aircraft carrier, specifically the Ark Royal, and specifically in 1976. It was both interactive and slightly old-fashioned and clanky- just what we like!

You are guided around the innards by a rather super-looking Chief Petty Officer, who, by popping up on various strategically placed TV monitors at strategically timed intervals leads you to believe that he is supervising your tour from an ops room deep in the bowels of the ship. To get the most out of these things, it is necessary to put the bar of necessary suspended belief quite low, as there is only so much drama shop dummies dressed in uniform, disembodied recorded voices and flashing lights can generate. It’s a trick anyone can master by watching enough Emmerdale though, and the rewards are great if you stick with it. At one stage, we were ushered into a reconstruction of the ships communications room, where a pair of mannequins were poised in fervent activity over a gigantic pale grey box-like machine festooned in flashing lights. This turned out to be the very hub of the Ark’s state-of-the-art communications suite circa 1976, the teleprinter. With less than a grillionth of the brainpower of last year’s x-box, this mighty paper issuing, juddering, clattering behemoth would have received the instruction from Jim Callaghan to load up the planes and nuke the Russkies. Terrifying.

Less terrifying was the simulation of the carrier deck itself, sort of a mini-Imax with extra effects such as a vibrating floor. I blame Health and sodding Safety for this. After a quick briefing from the nice old chap that we would be in an enclosed space and would be subjected to loud noises as the jets took off, strobe lighting and a strong wind during the helicopter simulation and several other things which induced such a state of fear in Her Indoors that it took all my powers of brave manly persuasion to convince that it would all be all right. To tell the truth, after the grave tones of the H&S announcement, I was having a mild twinge of the collywobbles myself, but as El Plongeiro, I of course mustn’t be seen to flinch in the face of mere fear by my doting populace! In addition, I’ve never really been a fan of Adventure Park rides much, as I always consider that the actual purpose of fear is to make you run away like stink, and was never intended by the Maker as a form of entertainment to be queued up for for hours on Bank Holidays. Within seconds, it appeared that the collywobbles were unjustified. Huge jet planes were launched very quietly into the great Blue Yonder. The world’s gentlest helicopter hovered benignly above us emitting small puffs of downward air and gently twinkled its rotor lights. Mild juddering emanated from the steel deck. In all, it was rather soothing. Sodding Health and Safety. Museum is thoroughly recommended though, whether you like planes or not. Just try and look at the Japanese Kamikaze rocket bomb they’ve got in there and not come over all cold.

One of the reasons for the Western nature of the Birthday celebrations, instead of the usual expedition up the hill to the Swan to find out just how much Guinness can be encased by the body, and then round the corner to the India Garden to attempt to float a Chicken Vindaloo around on the newly formed gastric lake, was that on the day after, there was a little job to do in Weston-Super-Mare, just up the road, more or less. Therefore, I’d booked a night’s stay in a rather splendid spa hotel just south of Bristol. Splendid it was too, as the evening followed a predictable but rewarding schedule of Steam Room, Spa, Cider, Steak, Soufflé, Sherry and snoring. Sunday followed, with a further visit to the spa, and then setting off for the short drive to Weston, which was basking in the spring sunshine, for the first time in the season. It was ram-jam packed, and we felt sorry for all those Ice-cream parlour owners who’d not come back to town from the winter residence in Lanzarote to open up. There were queues for 99s everywhere! It could have been a scene straight out of one of those documentaries you see about Eric and Ern doing summer seasons in Blackpool before they hit the big time, only with more tattoos in the women. Seeking a slightly quieter time with less tattoos Her Indoors and I made for the Edwardian tea-room at the end of the pier, which turned out to be a little cavern of many and diverse charms. A curious mixture of 1990’s industrial catering furniture and Edwardian curtains, the tea rooms boasted a fairly unique anachronistic approach Mind you, the sea would have looked exactly the same, back then, so that was something. However, in terms of the tea itself, it passed with flying colours- the staff were nice to us and the scones were baked on premises by the chef .They even had a piano in there, but alas no pianist, so a score of 50% there, but then again, 50% represents a handsome pass at GCSE these days, I suppose. The job in question was to do one of Kevin Fitzsimmons’ Sinatra shows, the prospect of which will always have me slightly on edge after the harrowing incident of the Southend Trouser Trauma. I can only really relax on one of those after unpacking the suit bag in the dressing room as soon as I arrive at the venue. I then have to fight off the urge to try my trousers on just to make sure lest I fall foul of the dark grapnels of OCD. Back in the normal world, the sunshine had brought seaside fever on amongst the chaps after the soundcheck that the inevitable curry was eschewed in favour of a sit down chippy. Cod and Chips on the Front in a melamine and neon palace unreconstructed from 1963 before a Sunday night concert at the Gaiety. We’ve never had it so good.

Seriously, folks, that museum is a cracker. Why not have a look?


Blog Of Ages

If there has been a defining factor around the week’s activities, then I’d say it would be the various ways in which the jamboree fun bag that is the aging process makes itself felt. Really, there have been three main thrusts to this. The first one occurred last Friday. You see, something unusual is going on in the august offices of the Jazz Club of Mr. R.Scott (deceased), and to cut a long story short, I have been put in charge of a new band there. The unusual bit is that the club is very keen to see this new project to succeed, so a very reasonable budget has been made available for rehearsal time. For me and the chaps in the band, this opens up the tantalising prospect of paid daytime work, with no need to get in the car as soon as the bandcall is over to drive through the Friday rush hour to operate an instrument somewhere in The North. No! Instead, we decided to celebrate our new found temporary night of normality with a good old chaps’ eating excursion. The natural and proper course of events after six hours’ work in Ronnie’s would, as regular reader(s) of this column will know, would be to nip down Lisle Street for the ceremonial standard menu at Mr. Kong’s, to emerge a couple of hours later all fizzy with MSG and sake. Trombonist Callum Au, being of Chinese descent, and a very trusted member of the team when it comes to grub, really played with fire and suggested that we should all go to a place called The Gold Mine over in Queensway. After a short stunned silence from the group, he went on to explain that when his relatives come to stay from China and Singapore, they’re so keen to get there that a stop is made on the way into town from Heathrow. In particular, the roast duck was of near legendary status, and we’d need to get down there before about seven pm before it all ran out.

Wind forward an hour or so, and there were the chums sat round a lazy susan, groaning with goodies. It was fabulous. Reasurringly packed to the gunnels with London’s Chinese population, The Gold Mine did not disappoint on any level. It might sound a bit weird, but it was the smoothest Chinese food I’ve ever had. You’ll understand what I mean when you go. As Callum says, get there before 7pm, and as well as the duck make sure you order the char siu pork served on a bed of pork belly. All delicate and amazing, and a very different design ethos to Mr Kong’s. So now we have two best Chinese places in town. I’m looking forward to the Kong’s- Gold Mine face-off pub crawl thingy. Watch this space.

What all this has to do with the aging process is that we were out of the Gold Mine by 7.45, and in the boozer opposite by 7.47. The first inkling that I was getting a bit long in the tooth for this was that I temporarily turned into my Mum when the barman asked me for forty-one quid for a round of six drinks. Somewhere in my head, I am sure that a pint of lager is logged in at costing 83p, and I know that things have gone up since 1982, but I must say that forty-one quid came as a bit of a shock. However, we stuck with it, and as is the way with nights in the boozer, it was quarter to nine for ages and then all of a sudden it was half past eleven. By this time, I had began to feel a bit sorry for Nadim. Nadim was playing tenor sax with us, and had come out for the jolly, but being a Baha’i, he doesn’t drink. As the rest of us had become shouty, incoherent and tedious on the outside, whilst the lager was making us feel amusing, informed and incisive on the inside, I can’t imagine he had all that much fun with his Ferrari of a brain being subjected to the intellectual equivalent of a dump truck demolition derby. Still, he stayed to the end. His choice. Maybe he was viewing it as some kind of project. A short while later, I was being shovelled into the Volvo by Her Indoors at Moor Park tube and whisked back off to The Gables. And then, the glorious impenetrable blackness of beer sleep.

Mother nature is a great lender, but hell’s bells does she charge interest. The trip to the Gold Mine and the pub had fuelled a wonderful state of vigour and glee in your scribe, and so the next morning whilst administering a saxophone lesson to young Ben from Radlett, I was experiencing the exact diametric opposite of vigour, and especially glee. Ben was trying his best, but each note felt like a breeze block being dropped on my head from a great height. I waited all day to for the fog to lift, and for someone to remove the invisible G-clamp from the skull, but to no avail. Knowing that I had a very heavy Sunday, I gave in and wrote the rest of the day off and retired to the relative comfort of the dressing gown and my Dambusters DVD. It’s official, I’m old.

While Friday was the day of Food and Drink, Sunday was the day of Toil. I had to report for duty at Ronnie’s at 11.30 am to take Big Band In A Day. Big Band In A Day is the outreach thing they have there, in which young developing musicians can come for a day’s instruction at the club in the ways of the Big Band, receive a free plate of chicken and chips, and then do a short set at around 7pm to all the adoring mums and dads. They also get a certificate for the back of the door of the downstairs lav. Even though I had a reasonably functioning nervous system, and a mouth than no longer felt that it had been lined with the sheet of newspaper from the bottom of the cage of a McCaw, it was still like a symphonic version of Ben, but with drums and amplifiers thrown in, and for four hours on the trot. I firmly believe that in order to get such an ensemble to bond together, the energy has to come straight from the director, who in this case was me. Therefore, it represents a challenge in that one is playing a gigantic version of Just A Minute, with no hesitation, repetition or deviation for 240 minutes with as much vocal volume as can be sustained.

I also insist that the students try and play at a realistic volume for a big band. This is normally way way louder than anything they have come across before, and the way to get them to come in loud confident and tight is to shout, rather than speak, the count-in. As I try my best to make them all come in exactly together, which is normally way way more together than anything they have come across before, this results in a lot of false starts, and therefore a lot of shouting. So you can see that by the end of their rehearsals at 4pm, I’m knackered. No hammock time for me though, because 4-6.30 was spent rehearsing the evening’s show, and then at 7 we presented the youth big band. And then it was our show. When I got back to The Gables at gone midnight, I’d had it. I’m not sure if I’d completely recovered from Gold Mine Friday anyway, but when I woke up on Monday I could hardly move. Dressing Gown and Dambusters DVD all day for me. It’s official, I’m old, and the rule would now seem to be that if a day consists of anything more strenuous than sitting down and drinking tea, I’ll need a clear day off afterwards.

A huge victory occurred for the team on Thursday. Her Indoors is a woman of admirable social conscience, and so she’d got a huge fundraising event for the cancer research lab at the local hospital together in the Watersmeet Theatre in Rickmansworth. Loads of folk had donated their services, so we were able to field a show involving the Ronnie Scotts’ Jazz Orchestra, Her Indoors, Ray Gelato, Matt Ford and Clare Teal. And all for free. The do was a huge success- the theatre management told us that we could have filled the room twice, there had been so much interest. The crowd was responsive, and the band and all the turns did a great job. Interestingly, the dynamic in the band was incredibly positive. Because everybody had chosen to be there for no fee, everybody mucked in. I’ve rarely seen a better atmosphere at a rehearsal or backstage- with the dough taken out of the picture entirely, no-one could feel hard done by. It was an amazing thing. The medics from the unit were amazed too, and took all the boys and girls in the band out for an inevitable curry afterwards. The venue was the Rasal in Rickmansworth- should you ever be up that way, give the tandoori lamb chops a go- and a vast amount of beer and nosh ensued. It’s amazing what you can get on the National Health.

Knowing my limits as an official old person, I positioned myself in the dressing gown with the Dambusters DVD lined up first thing on Friday morning, and let events take their course. It’s Saturday morning now, and I’m nearly back to feeling as good as I did just before Gold Mine Friday kicked off.

It is official- I am old. I got up early to write this, as at twenty past nine this morning I will become 49 years old. It is currently twenty to, which makes me a mere whippersnapper at 48.9999. For my birthday treat, Her Indoors is allowing me to take her to the Fleet Air Arm museum down in Yeovilton, where she will endure me for about three hours at my most demandingly tedious. She’s a great sport- she’ll pretend to be interested as I bang on about such riveting topics as the different marks of Fairey Firefly, or even, now I think of it, riveting. I’ve dangled a carrot though, with a stay in a spa hotel down that way for tonight, and then it’s on to Weston Super Mare tomorrow for a date with the fabulous Kevin Fitzsimmons. Watch out for pictures of inevitable chippy teas soon!


Blog Of Rine And Woses

Were I to draw up a pie chart of the week’s activities, the big lime green segment taking up most of the circumference would be labelled “Shouting At Computers”. It has been internet hell, folks. The first inklings of this came, as they always do, with an angry bride’s mum on the telephone asking why I’d not responded to her email request about the Shakin’ Stevens medley for the first dance at the upcoming nuptials of her daughter Kelley. As such emails normally leave me with a small degree of mental scarring, I knew for a fact that a response had been lovingly crafted and sent off immediately, and that when, eight minutes later, a second and more turbulent call from the same lady about the same subject erupted down the iPhone and spilt into the home office, or shed, like a burst water main, nary seconds after I’d hit the resend button, I knew that something was up.

I don’t really understand computers, and especially the internet. I have some vague notion that there is a load of electric spaghetti linking the world up, but, like electric spaghetti would be, I find it impossible to unravel, and there is something about its very nature that scares me off. I have a very low tolerance for absorbing unfamiliar jargon, you see. As mastery of unfamiliar jargon (or UJ) is a core skill in the digital era, I find myself firmly at the back of an increasingly elongating pack. It was this same lack of UJ skills, by the way, which led to my disastrous demise in 1984 as an employee of the Nat West bank in an unseemly incident involving a charming picture of a lady and a horse, and some nuns. I’m saving that story for a quiet week, mind.

What I do know though is that I’ve only been able to transmit data on an occasional and intermittent basis without knowing which bits have gone out. Even though the computer clearly saw itself as a kind of digital Norman Collier, at least I still had the emails on the phone, which permitted that most masculine of activities- the necessary prevarication and apathy over important issues to continue. I finally decided that Something Had To Be Done when I’d sent last week’s Plog off to Phil the Web Man last Friday, written Kate Adie-like on location on a BBC sofa in the marble-lined offices of Friday Night Is Music Night. Phil works like lightning- it normally goes all up on the web within an hour or two of me sending it in, but when it got to Sunday and nothing had changed, the final straw had come- the iPhone had thrown its chips in with the computer and had ceased transmitting as well. Bloody secondary picketing! Eventually, Phil got the unwilling machinery to once more grind to a start, and I was able to extract last week’s Plog from the phone. Let’s travel in time folks, back to last Friday, and see what was occurring…..

February 21 2014
I really really hate my body. Not in a teenage angsty self-harming immersed in Morrisey sort of way, but in the rather more direct manner brought on as reasonable reactions to the unending symphony of inconvenience and discomfort which it foists upon me on a daily basis. Last week saw the end of the four month toil on the big Irving Berlin project, and as much as I enjoyed it, I was looking forward to some really hardcore quiet time in the home arts studio, or shed, really getting cracking on some serious axis powers seaplane action.

Unfortunately, the body had other ideas. Despite my having fed it during the tour on luxury nosh in Indian restaurants the length and breadth of the nation, and keeping the fluid levels maintained well above the factory limits as set out in the manual in a magnificent selection of Britain’s watering holes, it began a slow campaign of hate against me, starting with aches and pains in my left shoulder last Friday, which largely kept on with a constant low-level shimmer of hurt to the occasional and sudden Aurora Borealis of searing agony that was so hideous I could swear I could actually hear it. Proof positive that my body, the sod, was doing this on purpose came on Monday when it changed its mind and replaced shoulder fun with giddiness, nausea and fatigue. But absolutely no shoulder pain. I managed to get through an evening with the big band at the London University of Motivational Musical Direction, or shouting thinly disguised as education but by this time the body had really got the hump.

Once the Volvo and I had got it back to a The Gables, there ensued a considerable Upping of the Ante. I’d gone to bed as soon as I got back home, trying to head of the brewing assault of fatigue at the pass. Just after lights out, the enemy attacked and I just managed to get it to the Thunderbox before the battle got going in earnest. I was exhausted anyway, and the main thing I can remember from going eleven rounds with myself in my own personal Rumble in The Jungle was feeling really annoyed that the next day was meant to be a quiet day in the shed, and one I’d looked forward to for months. At best it looked as though I was now going to have to spend it in bed, and that would only happen if I could dispense with, er, the need to be in a tiled room.

Miserable sodding Tuesday came and went, eased in part by Her indoors administering Broth and Grapes to the needy of Hertfordshire, and as if the clouds had lifted to reveal a blue and sunny sky, the vile body had decided that it was bored of hurting itself and I awoke for the first time in months without being either tired or with some bit or another emitting pain of some kind. Hello Flowers, Hello Trees!

Whilst on the tour and driving down the M4, the innuendo fans amongst you will be delighted to know that our car got trapped behind a lorry proudly emblazoned with the trade name of the midland’s premier baked produce purveyor, Bumble Hole Foods.

Some frantic in-car googling revealed that Bumble Hole is a small village up that way. Quite how it has managed to stay out of the UK league of Carry On Place Names is beyond me- let it be placed proudly in the pantheon of Cockermouth, Upper Dicker and Twatt. You can’t help feeling that somewhere in a drawer in the Bumble Hole parish council offices there is a brown envelope full of wrought iron B’s, L’s and E’s to repair the inevitable daily defacing of the eponymous “Welcome to..” sign. I do hope it’s twinned with somewhere like Urps-Am-Gurgl. Is anyone who is reading this a resident? Please get in touch.

In other news this week, there was an amusing gig at Ronnie’s on Wednesday when the target For Tonight was to attempt to warm up Al Jarreau’s audience of 1980’s hipsters, some still sporting the original hair, with my clarinet and the universally loved gift of Bebop. Although I did no better than you might expect, I did no worse either, and I believe that the trio and I were able to cow them into a grudging semblance of acceptance before the great man came on.

Right now, it’s Friday, it’s five o’clock, and in 1973 it would have been Crackerjack. As it’s 41 years on, I’m in the green room at the BBC waiting to play The Pink Panther with the BBC concert orchestra. Thanks to the Beeb, every so often, I get to let a hooter off over a real live string section, and, as an extra added bonus, they send me money. This time I’ve got to stand out the front and do it, miles away from the bass and drums. Let’s hope I don’t fall off the beat and make an absolute arse of myself- I like it here.
CUE- wobbly harp music, and Plog going into soft focus-

Well, here we are, back in Wednesday afternoon. A couple of days after the evening of Pinkness at the Beeb, in which, you’ll be pleased to know, I didn’t fall off the beat and made no more of an arse of myself than normal, I was subject to ‘Dark Sight Of The Year’. I know we’re only half-way through February, but this is going to take some topping.

I was booked to play in a big band doing 45 minutes of cocktail music at a 60th birthday bash thrown by a Russian Gazillionaire. I’ve done these before, and it would be fair to say that restraint is a rarely a feature. A large conference venue in central London had been completely rebuilt internally to resemble the palace of Catherine the Great. I reckon the entire global output of white roses for the next tax year was in there. One of our lads mused that our whole band was cheaper than one of the table decorations. I reckon he was right- the Russian Gazillionaire and his mates certainly didn’t seem to notice that we were there, even when going at full tilt. Non-celebrity music is the new disposable commodity, you know.

However, in itself, there’s nothing particularly dark about any of this. It’s just rude rich folk getting drunk. The darkness occurred as I was being walked by one of the clipboard-wielding girls (Why are they always called Kirsty or Beth, by the way?) from the front door to our changing room. On the way was a thirty strong troupe of dancing lads in vests and tracky bottoms going through some street dance moves. Just behind them, I noticed a load of rubber heads on sticks. It looked a bit like Traitor’s Gate. Drawing closer, I noticed that it was multiple repetitions of the same head. Rather beautifully and obviously expensively done too. Kirsty-Beth confirmed my worst fears- all these dancers were going to be made to look like the birthday boy! A 60-year old Russian Gazillionaire in a Cloned Buzby Berkeley Rap Flash Mob. At his own do! Worse still, it was the birthday boy’s idea. I reckon even Narcissus himself would have baulked at that one. I wonder what he does when he’s being nasty.

It’s my birthday in a couple of weeks. I’m going to make photocopies of my face, put them on bits of elastic and ask all my mates at the Swan to put them on. Maybe even jig about a bit together. That’ll make me feel nice.


Blog Of Orchestral Maneuvers

It’s been a couple of weeks for really seeing how the other half live. I am currently sitting in the guest conductor’s suite at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Normally, I’d only get in a room like this if we were on a job and it’s where the production company had decided to put the curly Tesco’s sandwiches. In this case, I am in the Guest Conductor’s suite, which by the way is like a very posh flat, only with more pianos, because I am the Guest Conductor, and I get it all to myself. In this calm atmosphere, I can see how it would be extremely easy to fall into the trap of taking myself way way too seriously. I have my own sofa, TV, shower and bog, and a little printed sign on the door with my name on it, so I must therefore be better than everyone else. Beware the inner Diva! Being a modern complex, the Bridgewater Hall is full of well appointed backstage facilities- each soloist has a room like mine, and there are two dedicated warm-up rooms. Not only this, but no-one’s had to come in through the kitchens! Next door is the Resident Conductor’s suite, which I’d assume is the same as this, only with more washing and back numbers of “Conductor Monthly”. I mention this because “Guest Conductor” pretty much describes how I’ve felt about my employment over the last ten days. In fact “Gatecrashing Conductor” might be a little nearer the mark as I feel that I’ve had an incursion into a world in which the 14-year old lad who wanted to play Glenn Miller tunes in the school band had never intended to stray.

It’s been the Irving Berlin tour, folks. All up and down and around Britain surfing on a tsunami of inevitable curry and interrupted sleep playing the load of music which I’ve been tirelessly channelling from the raw artistic ether, or, churning out in the Shed since last October. Since Saturday, it’s really been a proper tour, with a bus and hotels and everything. It will all stop tomorrow, and I have a very real fear that I won’t know what to do with myself now that the Big Job is done. Once I’m back in The Gables, the only thing which will remain will be an enjoyable morning on the Barclays Bank website doing the payroll, and then the huge part of my brain which has been occupied with All Things Irving will be all empty and a bit strange, like a Sainsbury’s car park at 6pm on Christmas eve when all the frantic shoppers have finally driven off home, leaving the baleful solitary trolley to stand alone in the drizzle.
In the course of this batch of work, I experienced fear of an intensity comparable with that of standing in the queue at Downsway Infants in 1971 waiting for my measles jabs. Two weeks ago last Tuesday, we had the first performance of this work in the Festival Hall, and the powers that be had hired in a 33 piece string section to really launch things. This was therefore a really proper orchestra in a really proper venue. I’m used to getting through an evening queening around in front of a big band and considering myself to have done a good job if I’ve managed to get the bulk of the tempos right and not at any point said “Bum” or something down the microphone. Although on this job I had no announcing to do, and so I was immune from the threat of accidental rudery, I now had to direct every beat of the whole show, to a load of violinists who I didn’t know. There was absolutely no room for flannel. By ten minutes into the bandcall, I was sweating so hard that water was dripping from the insides of my glasses. By forty minutes into the bandcall, the sweating had abated a bit and I’d found that as long as I just concentrated on the score in front of me, I could just about get through it. A sort of tunnel vision had developed where it was just me and the score, and with that came a kind of tunnel hearing, which consisted of just the singers and the drums. As long as I waved my stick around in such a way so that Little Ed on drums played at the same speed as the turns were singing, we’d all survive.

The first half went fairly well. The Festival Hall was full of around 1400 of Stanmore’s finest, and the stick waving had gone efficiently well enough to keep Little Ed rhythmically attached to the turns. Knowing that any attack of smuggery would lead in some way or another to disaster, I fought the urge in the interval to say out loud that things were going well. I lost, and predictably halfway through a bloody great medley in the second half, I was so caught up in how beautiful the strings sounded that I dropped concentration on the Little Ed/Turns thing and within a matter of nanoseconds I’d waved the stick in such a way that the entire orchestra was confused and an outbreak of terminal disrhythmia was taking hold. As I was whirling in my personal hell, trying to regain control of the beat, I was saved by my lead violinist Charles who brought the string section in and saved the day. I’d very nearly left a famous West End lady singer on stage at the Festival Hall with no cue chord and no orchestra. I’m told one day I’ll be able to stop screaming in my sleep.

There’s nothing like a near-death experience to galvanise the will to live, and since then I’ve found it much easier to channel the concentration down the drums and voice audio-visual tunnel. I know I cannot take my eye of the ball at any point, and that a nourishing pint of pre-show Thruxton’s Old Flangehandler is right out of the question, but I think I’ve found a way to relax under the tension. It’s curious, but I actually find the act of waving a stick around under these circumstances brings on a nice state of relaxation post-gig. I really have to focus right on the moment, and it is quite unlike any other bandleading situation I have experienced, when a chap has to focus on the Bride, her Mum, what time the lad’s food is going to happen, whether the bridge of Dream A Little Dream is going to be in A or A-Flat, and virtually everything else apart from the now. With this, the now is everything and that concentration of mental energy brings a state of peace. Either that or it’s last night’s hangover wearing off. Touring can get a bit beery, you know. Especially when the canny hotel barman stays open all night.

However, I’m sure that arty-farty confessionals are not what you lot want to know about. What you want is buzzing showbiz gossip. Well, how about this for starters- Saturday night’s gig was at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s premier concert venues. I was sharing a large dressing room with the two boy singers, Matt Ford and Tom Langham. The concert had gone extremely well, and we’d received a standing ovation. Bouyed by all this glittering showbiz energy, I found Matt and Tom in there after the show having a discussion about coat hangers, and which were the best ones to nick off the clothes rail. As all good chaps, they settled on the one with the wooden frame and revolving metal hook. If that’s not rock and roll, I don’t know what is.

Manchester today, and tomorrow’s Birmingham, so that must be Tuesday. Another benefit of this production is that it’s all over and done with by 9.45, which has led to some quite protracted outbursts of beer. Tonight’s will be augmented by a trip to the local Jazz club, and maybe me and some of the chaps will join in the Jam session they’re having. After that, it’s off to Chinatown for a good old creaking Lazy Susan and sake in the small hours. I’ll let you know how we got on when the headache abates, probably on Friday.


The Plight Of Pitey Blog

It’s Sunday morning, and I find myself here in the home office, or kitchen having been woken up at an ungodly hour by my own body, the filthy traitor that it is, with some heavy prompting to mount a dawn attack on the thunderbox. Who says romance is dead? Now I’m up, I may as well start on this week’s Plog.

It has been a week largely dominated by Richard Pite, who as well as being Europe’s #1 exponent of swing drumming, has donned the sheepskin overcoat, cigar and gold plated money clip and is now trying his hand at concert promotion. Later on today, the promotion in question will grind to a start in the grandiose surroundings of the Cadogan Hall down near Sloane Square, where he is taking the risk on the Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall show that I do. It is not the first time that Pitey has risked all on concerts at the Cadogan- in previous years, there have been wonderful presentations of all kinds of jazz there, most of which have attracted an audience of tens, resulting in the repeated loss of the Pitey shirt and, I would imagine, some stern looks from Mrs. P. As Mrs. P has a stern look which can bore through lead sheeting three feet thick, you will understand that the stakes in a Pitey Concert Promotion run very high indeed. In fact, if we let the loss of money on a given concert in thousands of pounds equal x, and the kilotons of energy emitted by one of Mrs. P’s hard stares equal k, we can see that x times k will equal w, where w is the point at which Pitey retires to the study to reach for the loaded Webley in the top drawer of the Bureau. Clearly, the point was reached in about 2011 where xk=around 6w, one of the many miracles of Richard Pite is that he is still here.

Happily, this time last year, the worm turned, and we played this very concert to a packed house. Concert promotion is a funny old bugger, in that if the house is full, the promoter can make trillions quickly. Within hours, w was less than xk by a significant factor, and so Pitey has had the gumption restored to continue his concert series, of which there are a further four this year.
A couple of weeks ago, it looked like tickets were going a bit slowly. Rightly fearing both x and k, Pitey hired a young chap called Rupert, who is something of a PR wizard. In my experience of PR wizards, all that usually happens is that International Stardom is guaranteed, they take a grand off you and then bugger off to an office in Soho, from where a maximum of three emails are sent out before a permanent state of being In A Meeting is declared to preclude against any further contact. Not so Rupert. In order to get ticket sales up, he organised a series of appearances on BBC radio chat shows for us which have resulted, effectively in a week of wheeling a trolley full of instruments around Broadcasting House to set up in one small studio after another playing the hits of the Benny Goodman trio. Cerys Matthews one minute, BBC Pig-Farmers Service the next, there we were cropping up on the airwaves with our trolley of goodies for flash-mob style period jazz recitals and erudite comment. Rupert’s plan did the trick. After a couple of days of this, we had oversold the concert. Extra seats have had to be put out, and xk=150w. At least.

During the preparation for our appearance on the Radio 3 magazine show “In Tune”, I got a brief glimpse of how it must feel to be a proper musician with a career. By this I mean a musician who can just play one kind of music and be known for it, rather than the kind of weird Star Trek like existence occupied by me and everyone I know where all of a sudden we find ourselves beamed into a hostile musical environment and the job is simply to survive! A musician with a career is one who has somehow managed to slip through the huge outer wall of public indifference into the inner area of public acceptance, and can therefore dictate the terms and conditions of their creative output. And, curiously, charge more for it. One of the hallmarks of this divide in our business relates to rehearsal time. Over on our patch, we are lucky to get a chat through before being shoved out on a stage. In the UK, incidentally, we have made a bit of a rod for our own backs with this. As this has been the status quo for many years, our musicians are known internationally for being extremely quick sight readers, and fabulous ear players. Because we can make a show with little rehearsal, rehearsal budgets don’t really exist. I have a concert to put together at the Festival Hall on Tuesday. The full orchestra has three hours on the afternoon to get it together. Your Career Musician, however, seems to be able to bend physics in such a way that rehearsal and preparation time is unlimited. You read interviews in the colour supplements of great artists spending months in preparation for one concert. How? When? Don’t these people get stuck in bad traffic going to Tesco’s like the rest of us? How do they manage to avoid the five hour journeys up and down the M6 to work? There must be a trick that I’m missing.

As I said though, we did get a brief glimpse of this strange alien landscape in the performance studio at Radio 3. It is a beautiful little room, with perfect acoustics and a fabulous grand piano. Clearly built for grand art, wheeling our trolley of drums in made me feel a bit like a bag lady who has strayed into the Vatican. We did the mike and line check, and then we were told we had forty minutes until we were on air. Forty minutes, you say? Not unpack here, play now and bugger orf? After a bit of thinking, we did what career musicians would do. We rehearsed our set. We had a new number to play, and so we played it over and over again. When we came to play it live on air, it felt comfortable and we could shape the performance as we’d have liked. Normally it feels like trying to land a Boeing with two engines shut down and a wing on fire. Curiously, as a direct result of that broadcast, we were approached by an arts festival to repeat the show as their jazz event. Proper nobby stuff that. Mind you, they’re not paying for a rehearsal!

Back in the real world, it’s been a diverse week. I’ve had to impersonate Benny Goodman twice, get a Crusaders set together in an afternoon and perform it that evening with, once again, the polymath that is Pitey and play backup to Her Indoors at one of her gigs. At home, there’s been precious little time on the seaplanes of the access powers diorama, as I’ve been doing my books, and re-orchestrating a load of old arrangements for the all new Ronnie Scott’s Soul Jazz Orchestra. As a brief diversion, Her Indoors and I settled down in the viewing terrace of the Home Cinema, or sofa, to watch that film “Quartet”, which is about a vast Downton-esque retirement home for musicians. Clearly whoever wrote it has no idea about musicians, how they think or their ability to earn. A retirement home? Paid for by who, exactly? Most musicians I know of retirement age keep on working, either because they have to, or in a lot of cases because they feel that they haven’t finished with music. It’s interesting to note that the old piano player in the film is a gentleman called Jack Honeyborn. He’s eighty six, and still does wine bars and jazz gigs to just about keep a roof over his head. Harrumph.


Blog Of Becoming A Pop Star

In the words of the great Arkwright, it’s been a fer-funny old week. Busy, but definitely fer-funny. As a teenage nipper, I was seduced away from the Great Master Plan of a career in the airforce (with attendant high levels of parental delight) mainly by albums of Benny Goodman and his band playing live to delighted screaming audiences of thousands of teenagers at a time taken from radio broadcasts in the late 1930’s, to the extent that I fancied myself as the bringer of an original swing revival, and replacing the likes of Haircut 100 and Duran Duran at the top of the hit parade with Jimmie Lunceford and Harry James (with attendant high levels of parental despair). In my mind, I was going to achieve this with my chums from the School Band, and, as long as we put the hours of practice in, we’d be on our way. You will of course know from pop culture history that one of the defining features of the early 1980’s hit parade is a complete absence of the Whitgift School Dance Orchestra, and so you can see that apart a few incursions into the showbiz universe at local PTA dances for the great and good of South Croydon and Purley Oaks, all the stuff like the planned concert series at the Hollywood Bowl and the resultant triple album, playing live to delighted screaming audiences of thousands of teenagers, was to remain a pipe-dream.

What I did glean from those experiences, however was to prove valuable experience for survival in the music trade in later years- I quickly got to recognise the look of abject despair on the dancers’ faces when it came to the point, usually three minutes into the gig, that we were going to play them jazz all night. I can now pick up from a distance of three hundred feet, even in a crowded and hideously humid marquee the international gesture of “The Band’s Too Loud”, which essentially is the same as the sign language action for compressing towels into a drawer which is too shallow. I’ve even learnt not to wince when I get the angry, but incomprehensible request from the floor- “Can’t you play something a bit more in-beat?”, or best of all, “Can You Play The Girl From Ipanaema?”. In itself, not an unreasonable request, but to put it in context, in order to listen to the chap speaking, I had to stop playing my sax. I was playing The Girl From Ipanaema .

What all this has to do with it being a fer-funny old week is essentially that although I’ve been out of The Gables all week, leaving at 9am from the beautifully sculpted relaxing 1960’s loveliness that is Moor Park tube to thresh around in the broiling hubbub of London’s Glittering West End, only to return at dead of night all knackered and sweaty with a long-expired iPhone battery, It’s been to do a variety of things which the spotty (and no less sweaty) 15-year old who started this whole grisly process off would never have even considered as part of the game plan. I was going to become the best clarinet player in the world, and therefore be a pop star. Simple. What’s actually happened is that although I might be one of the six best clarinet players in my postal district, the art of survival in these turgid times requires a chap to be versatile. Oddly, having said all that, the week started last Sunday afternoon with something which resounded heavily with the original plan in terms of direction at least. It was a recreation of the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 with an stellar band in the Hawth Theatre in Crawley. It differed wildly from the original in terms of scale- instead of the delighted screaming audience of thousands of teenagers so prominent on the original recording, we drew 192 local pensioners. Nice attentive lively pensioners, mind, but still 192, in an 850 seater room. I know this, because we were getting door money and I counted them while they were sitting there. Twice.

So it was with my bankrupt promoter’s hat on that I wrestled the music stands into the boot of the Volvo on my own in the driving rain in the theatre car park, and set off for my Sunday Evening appointment at the Beeb in London to speak on the Clare Teal show on Radio 2, about, of all things, the Carnegie Hall Concert by Benny Goodman upon which I’d just lost a shirt, or at the very least have had to abandon all imminent plans for the motorisation of the dockside railway in the Seaplanes Of The Axis Powers diorama. Apart from my moth like urge to bask in the flame of media exposure, the Beeb had also promised me a free trip to Pizza Express, so who was I to say no? I enjoyed the interview- I managed to croak out some facts without saying “Er” too much, and very successfully managed not to say Bum, Willy, Poo or Jimmy Saville. So feeling a little happier with my day, I returned to The Gables with my Modern Media Celebrity hat on. Better.

Monday came and I found myself in a Mews studio in Holborn with the turns for the upcoming Irving Berlin show rehearsing all the stuff, with the redoubtable Bunny Thompson on Piano. A master musician, Bunny is the all time number one theatre rehearsal pianist. Whereas a normal piece of piano music is written for the usual format of two hands with five fingers on each, a stage rehearsal piano score has all the orchestral stuff condensed onto two lines, with up to four extra lines of music on top for the turns. To get round that you’d need to be Edward Scissorhandsand have a rudimentary knowledge of time travel to come back and fill in the missing bits. Bunny is able to condense all this at sight and re-create the sound of the orchestration, sometimes with one hand if the page turns get a bit heavy. And all on the same money. Remarkable. I was sat next to him waving a stick about, practising for Tuesday week when I have to wave the stick around in anger in the Festival Hall with a sea of violinists in front of me, and all of Stanmore listening behind in the stalls. If I wave the stick wrong, the chain will come off and it will be the worst nightmare in the world. Right up there with being on the bus in just a t-shirt. I was glad of the practice.

Monday evening, and I was up at the Royal College of music, this time with my Modern Educator’s hat on, directing their big band. Mainly shouting, this work, and it must be said that the technical standard in that place is unbelievable. I don’t think anyone’s played anything out of tune in that building since the flu epidemic of 1919, and then Basil Hermitage-Scruggs, the culprit, had a doctor’s note.

Tuesday was an odd Groundhog Day repeat of Monday, and Wednesday was the actual concert at the RCM for which Monday and Tuesday were the rehearsals. 96 gainful hours of employment, on the supposition that I knew what I was talking about, without having to play a note. A Fer-funny old week indeed.

I spent Thursday largely asleep, and yesterday there was a chippy tea and Coronation Street. The chippy excelled himself to an extent that I feel compelled to publish his work to the world. Here, ladies and gentlemen is half a plaice, two saveloys, chips, mushy peas and a wally. Look at that oil and vinegar glistening! Phwoarrr! On the plate at 7.30, it was all over bar the shouting by 7.35