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Dear Valued Customer

With everyone’s commitment to great customer service these days it’s good to feel that the people who look after my money, energy supplies, telephone connection and all-round wellbeing have my best interests at heart.

I know this because I’m regularly told that my call is important to them (not quite important enough, though, to answer within the next 30 minutes), that they take my feedback seriously (and are far too polite to tell me exactly where to stick it), and that they are constantly trying to improve their service (but secretly like things just the way they are).

Generally I try to avoid dealing with the big corporations who control my happiness, and only do so when there is a problem I have to resolve – what they call an ‘issue’. This is because the amount of time and emotional energy I need to invest in dealing with my bank, utility companies and other monoliths far exceeds my available resources of either. I’ve pretty much resolved never to move house again because I know that if I do, BT will wreak such havoc for the next few weeks that I will either die in the process or never have the means to work again.

All of these companies are bad (and not ‘as in good’), but those whose business is based on the internet are worst. It’s as if they believed that simply being an internet facility was in itself good customer service, removing as it does those whimsical humans who get in the way of consumer satisfaction. I’m generally suspicious of companies who bury phone numbers, email and postal addresses in the deepest recesses of their website and who view these perfectly serviceable tools of communication as last resorts when their automated responses fail, and I assume they do this in order to minimise contact with their foul-smelling clientele.

Here we name and shame the guilty men. Come on down National Westminster Bank, EDF Energy, (the record label side, anyway), Virgin Trains, Royal Mail (especially the PO Box division, but actually all of it), and Ebay. I despise you all. And an honourable mention for Tiscali (even though they’re not one of mine) with whom I spent an entire weekend locked in conflict as I tried to sort out my mother’s phone and broadband connection after she had made the fatal mistake of relocating from the ancestral home.

I can detect the early physical signs of gearing up to contact any of these companies (or ‘bastards’ as they are known in the industry jargon) – feelings of anxiety, irritation and a tendency to procrastinate. It’s not the anticipation of confrontation that produces these symptoms – I’m a frequent and vigorous complainer – nor the actual dealing with the suppliers, although that’s bad enough. It’s finding out how to get hold of them and locate a single person with whom to have a sensible conversation.

I learned the rules of engagement in these encounters long ago. Don’t swear, however mildly, however severely provoked. That only results in an immediate and dramatic swerve in the conversation, away from your ‘issue’ and towards the kind of language the customer service adviser isn’t paid to listen to. The furthest I go, in moments of extreme emotion, is to describe their company as ‘the absolute pits of customer service’. ‘Pits’ doesn’t feature in the long list of words their salary won’t cover – possibly because it was legitimised by John McEnroe back in 1981 and we’ve all heard it so often since then that it’s become safely sanitised. But it still sounds strong. Advisers are very sensitive, too, about the word ‘you’. So any statement beginning ‘last time I called, you told me…’ will be countered by the assertion that they themselves didn’t tell you that. Which leads down another by-way, to explain that ‘you’ are a representative of your company, like the last one I spoke to, who was presumably giving the company line rather than a personal opinion. I know it’s not only you who works there. They were called Joe, or Sue, or Adam and, like all customer service advisers, were born without a surname.

My most recent run-in was with Ebay, and therefore also with Paypal. If you go to them with an ‘issue’, Ebay’s particular forte is to repeat your question back to you in the hope of convincing you that their understanding the problem is the same as solving it. Then repeat it again. And again.

For reasons known only to Ebay, I was no longer able to list anything in the global auction house. I’ve only ever sold with them, never bought, as, having spent the first half of my life accumulating the generically-named ‘stuff’, I am dedicating the second half to getting rid of it – books, records, memorabilia I will never realistically look at or listen to again.

My account was restricted, and I only found out when trying to offload some 1973 copy of Melody Maker that it had ‘exceeded the limit’. This was interesting, as I’d never been told it had a limit, nor what such a limit might mean. Was there only a certain number of Ladybird natural history books I was allowed to flog to eager Australians who had somehow missed out on this wonderful resource? To have my account liberated again, I would have to provide Ebay with my credit card details. Also very interesting, as they’ve never had them before. I’ve always paid my fees to Ebay directly from a linked Paypal account, and would very much like this entirely satisfactory arrangement to continue. Fair play to Ebay, they are completely upfront in telling me they want these numbers specifically so that they can take their money from the card, in contravention of my wishes.

So here I go. It’s online to grapple with Ebay’s alleged help facility. As with most of these services, any query must have its essence crammed into one of the standard formats they offer – these are the questions most people ask us; if you’re not like most people, then too bad.

Inevitably my particular problem isn’t offered, so I choose the nearest equivalent, and next day I get a reply. The first line of defence is to tell me that the issue must be with Paypal who, predictably, have erected the same impenetrable walls of obfuscation. After going three rounds with both Paypal and Ebay, both of whom deny any awareness of any problem, or possible reason for the same, I am eventually directed to Ebay’s ‘live chat’. This looks promising – the chance of a rational question and answer session which should, surely, deliver a way out of my online hell.

Live chat is a misnomer. (A word of warning to those who like that kind of thing – there’s no heavy panting or ecstatic moaning. Although probably plenty of other kinds of moaning by customers with other kinds of frustrations). It’s not a chat, it’s an online corrrespondence, and doesn’t feel any more ‘live’ than any email transaction. The live chatperson starts by thanking me, of course, for my query, apologising for keeping me waiting, and asking me initially to outline my problem. The apology is a fairly regular recurrence from then on, as I spend the next half hour chained to my computer with frequent updates as I slowly move up from 39th place in the queue. When my ‘representative’ has finally beaten 38 desperate customers into submission, it’s my turn. I’ve outlined my problem, and the ensuing chat goes something like this.

  • Ebay asks me to outline the problem (again).
  • I outine the problem (again).
  • Ebay affirms ‘so the problem is, Mr Jones, that your account is restricted, and you want to remove the restriction’.
  • Yes, that’s the problem I outlined, got it in one.
  • OK, we understand that your account is restricted, and you want to remove the restriction. And is your query specifically about this issue?
  • Yes, not just specifically, but also generally, vaguely, every way you can think of.
  • Thank you Mr Jones, if your problem is that your account is restricted and you want to remove the restriction, I will need to ask you some questions to see if we can resolve this situation.
  • Good, expected that, now we’re getting somewhere.
  • Several questions later, and it’s back to blaming Paypal.
  • No, no, no, they’ve said it’s nothing to do with my Paypal account, they’ve referred me back to you.
  • Mr Jones, I have to ask you to go to our Help page; when you receive our email response, click the link and one of my colleagues will be able to help you.

This fruitless chat has taken about 40 minutes. I endure this ritual twice more. The third time I do the outlining, waiting, reading apologies, repeat outlining, only to be told, 30 minutes later, that I have come to the wrong place entirely and need to follow this link to go through the process again. Right. Give up.

I suddenly notice that my last email from the Pal Of Pay concludes with the words ‘Kindly note: try this number’ followed by an apparently valid, relevant, genuine-looking 0845 phone number. Yes, that’s very kindly.

I ring the number and spend 20 minutes on hold. Eventually something stirs at the other end of the line. The voice is a strange synthesis of Professor Stephen Hawking’s cosmic tones and the kind of stateless mid-Atlantic drawl that international golfers and tennis players acquire, and sounds as if it’s coming from a chamber at or near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I reckon that the voice does, just about, represent a real person, and decide to persevere. It identifies itself, improbably, as Brian.

Like the live chat, Brian has been programmed to repeat my question and his answer until, weeping with frustration, I go off and find something hard to kick. I eventually tell Brian that he isn’t helping me at all and that I’d like to speak to his supervisor who, presumably sharing the underwater lock-up, takes me through the same elaborate dance of outlining, questions, apology, repetition. And then finally, amazingly, she helps me. My account was restricted because Paypal were late paying Ebay my last monthly fees (I later discover that the reason for this lies with my bank cancelling a direct debit to Paypal without telling me). I need to reset Paypal as my preferred payment method and the problem will be solved. This takes me a couple of minutes. Any of these advisers, chatters, Brians could have told me this, if they had only treated me as an individual rather than an issue.

One week on, after 35 minutes on the phone, 12 emails to Ebay and Paypal, and three sessions of live chat totalling about 90 minutes, my issue is resolved, and I can once more put my Robert De Niro videos up for auction for anyone who still has the means to play them.

Thank you for your interest. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

Under The Ground 5: Give Generously

It’s the purest form of fundraising you could imagine. No charity pen, no £2 to save some starving African village, no sponsorship forms, just a torn polystyrene cup and the (presumably) good cause is standing right in front of me making a case for his next cup of tea or a night in the hostel. Here’s the routine. Always: the over-apologetic intro. Sometimes: the pompous advice returned about getting a job. Occasionally: the child in tow. Rarely: an actual gift of money. Never: any individual talk or eye-contact with the audience. What could make it work better? Possibly nothing. In the absence of any evidence that we can make a difference, it’s a test of trust. But I’d lose the guitar. And the dog.

Clichy Of The Month

In his later years my father took to abusing the television screen when confronted by anything that especially provoked his ire. A man of strong and sometimes irrational loves and hates, he had taken a particular dislike to Dr David Owen, the suave and rather pompous former Foreign Secretary and leader of the short-lived Social Democratic Party. My father’s beef with Owen was that “you couldn’t trust him”, an accusation it was hard to verify in the absence of any clear behavioural evidence. (Having done his time as a politician, Owen was now generally seen on the box pontificating about other people’s work.) I heard this charge levelled with increasing vehemence every time the floppy-haired ex-medic’s talking head appearing on the TV set. Not a fan myself, I was nevertheless intrigued to learn what Owen had done to my father to inspire such intense antipathy. Eventually, backed into a corner and pressed on what was the giveaway sign of the unfortunate flaw in the doctor’s character, he puffed himself up to deliver the killer rationale, the ultimate justification for his slander. Laying down the trump card in his argument, he gestured to the screen and triumphantly announced, “Well…just look at his mouth”.

I could see his point. The gob in question was a thin lateral slot, almost devoid of lip content, and you might well choose not to entrust your car-keys – or indeed country – to its owner. Point made, argument won, my father reclined contentedly to enjoy the rest of the day’s news. I was left to reflect briefly on the faintly disturbing fact that he, a medical man himself, was still, in the early 1990s, espousing the barmy Elizabethan belief that you could divine a person’s character traits from their face.

As if to prove the maxim that we all turn into our father, I too have started shouting insults at my ancient television. Even when I’m on my own. Even in the absence of cats. Although not at David Owen, who is now well into actual and televisual retirement. The object of my abuse – unless Robert Peston’s face has popped up in front of me – is football. The whole paraphernalia of football, really, before, during and after actual games, apart from the few minutes of continuous play you see from time to time. (In the case of the BBC’s Economics Editor the obscenities reflect my astonishment that he is actually allowed and paid to talk on television, having clearly picked up the art of speech from a set of 1930s teach yourself Esperanto discs.)

Yes, everything about the beautiful game is an affront to my senses, especially its ugliness. Its essence has been distilled into a formalised sequence of visual clichés starting well before the magical hour of 3pm when, in anticipation of the maelstrom of cheating, play-acting, shirt-pulling and time-wasting to follow, we can enjoy the absurd hypocrisy of those choreographed hand-shaking line-ups. This is where players compete to look the most uninterested and show least ‘respect’ to the owners of the hands they fleetingly touch. In deference to the Premier League’s inflated sense of its own importance this sad simulacrum of some gentlemen’s code of honour precedes not only cup finals, but even the most routine sleepfest involving, say, Bolton and Wigan.

With the game now under way, appreciate the art of ‘shepherding the ball out of play’, where an opponent is wilfully obstructed by the dancing of some elaborate, jerky tango over the ball, and wonder at the fact that this tactic is never now penalised. And my sense of moral righteousness these days is outraged more by players ‘stealing yards’ at throw-ins than by the bonus any banker is paid. For God’s sake, man, it didn’t go out there, it went out back there!

But no, players really are sporting. Witness those sham uncontested drop balls and the round of applause the ritual always draws from the crowd, as if it’s just been devised and agreed by today’s participants as a token of fair play.

Match officials are never popular, and I actually don’t want to have to like them, so please spare me laughing referees and, in a particularly irritating subset of the genre, laughing referees running backwards with arms and legs exaggeratedly pumping. Completely unnecessary, and quite possibly a health and safety issue.

I can also happily live the rest of my life without any prepared goal celebrations at all but, paradoxically, equally despise players who ostentatiously refuse to celebrate a goal against their former club and look sulky instead. For goodness’ sake, it’s football, not real life. OK, I’ll make an honourable exception and allow one of these daft mimes to make it through my fortified gate of disapproval, as Hull’s re-enactment of their previous half-time bollocking against Manchester City was satirically witty and clever.

As full time approaches, players of the leading team will be encouraged by their manager to ‘run down time’ by taking the ball (via ‘the channels’) to one of the corner flags and standing there until someone kicks them. Failure to do this is ‘naïve’. And as the desperate minutes tick by, the required stance for worried fans is to clasp their hands together behind their heads to support their fretful visages.

If it’s a final we’re watching, the obligatory mode of celebration for teams who have won any competition, however pointless (Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, anyone?) is to squat behind a strip of sponsors-branded plywood and bounce up and down on their haunches. In the event of failure, fans must be shown staring into space, hands now positioned on top of their heads, presumably to stop them falling off. After a particularly crucial match, maybe involving relegation, skinheads, very large women and very small children are permitted to cry.

As you can imagine, my front room at Match Of The Day time is about as noisy as being at the match yourself, with quite as much atmosphere. Luckily my foul-mouthed vitriol and I escape ejection from the ground by virtue of being on home territory (first floor). I’ve nothing against the passage of time, and indeed offer it every encouragement. But I started watching football in the days of Hurst, Moore and Peters – come to think of it, in the presence of Hurst, Moore and Peters – and loved everything about it. Now it’s almost pure hatred. Ah well. See you next Saturday.

Sankey, Sankey, What’s The Time?

It’s not a good sign in a relationship when a row can be sparked off by the clock above the North Stand at Field Mill. When I say ‘relationship’ I don’t actually mean the full-on, heavy-duty thing. No, we’d been through the whole Relationship Cycle and were now in the winding-down phase, the other side of the emotional hill. We’d Got Together, we’d Been A Couple, had Split Up, Got Over It and were now Really Good Friends. The visit to Mansfield Town’s home match against Barnet was a symbol of our new-found maturity, a token of adulthood – the expedition mimicking the kind of things People Still In Relationships do, things like getting involved in some of your partner’s favourite activities.

I’ll call the other character ‘the Ex’. Not that I like to define someone’s existence purely in terms of the role they used to occupy in relation to me. But it’s marginally better than ‘The Artist Formerly Known As My Girlfriend’, shorter too – and after all she never possessed the brand-changing clout of Prince. Then of course there’s data protection to consider. So I’ll go with ‘the Ex’.

Things started promisingly when, in the pre-match warm-up, she expressed admiration for striker Lee Peacock’s legs. I wondered briefly whether, at another time, I might have considered my own legs to be in competition with Peacock’s, but Iet that thought drop where I had picked it up.

The North Stand in those days was crowned by a clock which, sadly, was its most impressive feature. Ostensibly a timekeeper, the clock was in reality an advertising vehicle promoting the merits of John Sankey, self-styled as ‘Mansfield’s leading estate agent’. For that small subset of the Stags fanbase with a love of words and language it was a source of pride and wonder. Not because of any beauty in its design or precision in its measurement of the hours, but for the slogan that adorned its edges. This alone conferred a sense of character and uniqueness on the stadium. Boldly justifying the business’ pre-eminence was the intriguing claim: More people use Sankey than for any other reason.

I marvelled at the idea that some copywriter might actually have been paid to coin this phrase – doubtless also trying to dignify it with the term ‘strapline’. More likely, though, it was the product of some impromptu across-the-desks brainstorming session at Sankey Towers, in response to a tight deadline and non-existent budget. Some youth might have shouted “What about this?” and reeled it off in a rare moment of inspiration. And someone else would have punched the air and whooped “Yes! Brilliant!” Or, more likely, muttered “Yeah, that’ll do”. Over the years I had many opportunities to stare at and ponder this gem of tortured reasoning, both before and during games when often, for various reasons, I was praying for the final whistle. The clock even appeared on Fantasy Football League on television, when David Baddiel allowed himself a considered “hmmmm” and several seconds of silence, before delivering the verdict: “that’s deep”. On the face of it perfectly plausible, the boast isn’t so much profound as literally meaningless. Or is it?

During a particularly tedious passage of play, when Lee Peacock’s legs, for all their charm, weren’t doing the job they were being paid to do, I pointed to the clock, and asked the Ex to consider its sheer existential daftness. More people use Sankey than for any other reason, my arse. She gazed at it for a couple of minutes, as if divining the very essence of time itself in tandem with the meaning of the catchphrase, before coming back with “what d’you mean?”

One detail I haven’t already revealed to the court is that the Ex was a linguistics student. Correction, your honour, a postgraduate linguistics student – a status that had unaccountably always put me on the back foot in the whole arena of verbal communication. In fact, any kind of communication.

I smiled a kind of ‘are you joking?’ smile and tried again. But no, apparently it did mean something. Cheerfully embarking down the route of logic, I proposed that you can’t talk about ‘any other reason’ without giving a reason in the first place. ‘Other’ implies some kind of existing reason, one that’s already been stated. So it might work if it read: ‘More people use Sankey because they’re shit-hot than for any other reason’. That would make logical (if not commercial) sense. Or substitute ‘shit-hot’ with ‘local’, ‘dirt cheap’, ‘long-established’ – you get my drift. Don’t you?

No. The thing is, I learned, that more people use Sankey because more people already use it. That’s the reason. The sentence contains within it its own consequence; it possesses an ingenious circular logic. The reason is there, implied mind you, but present nevertheless, and I merely needed to alter my angle of perception to grasp it too. I could just about see this argument, but only through a thick, soggy, grey sheet of conceptual gauze. I could even understand that the advertising concept might be some kind of ‘follow-the-herd’ viral marketing approach, where customers would base their choice solely on how countless others already rated John bloody Sankey. But then shouldn’t it be: ‘More people use Sankey because a lot of different people already use it than for any other reason’?

Inevitably, the conversation descended from here into the pit we thought we had long since escaped. Sentences beginning with “you always”, “yes, but you never”, and “this is just”. Statements ending with “if you say so” and “whatever you like”. Declarations simultaneously beginning and ending with “I give up”. Eventually I resorted to intellectual abuse and suggested that the Ex’s rationale would be described by her own linguistics professor, in the specialist terminology of that discipline, as ‘complete bollocks’. We watched the rest of the match in uncomfortable silence. I think it was 1-0, but I can’t remember who won. Not goodwill and tolerance, anyway.

I still don’t know if I’m right, or indeed if there is any ‘right’. I feel somehow that there must be, but have never received the judge’s ruling. I suppose I walked free on a technicality. I have tried this out on other people since the event, telling the story as impartially as I could, but they generally didn’t want to get involved – either in the logic bit, or the right-and-wrong bit. Probably felt that taking sides would somehow compromise their professional standing or credit rating.

Over the years I’ve nurtured a growing sense of resentment against Sankey for the havoc wreaked by his few ill-chosen words. But still he seems to be thriving, oblivious to the damage he inflicted on our fragile accord with his loathsome timepiece.

The clock is long gone; it disappeared when the North Stand was demolished and rebuilt, giving new hope to other ex-couples as they try to forge their own embryonic friendships at Field Mill.

I’ve haven’t had any contact with the Ex for over seven years. I left a voicemail message in summer 2005, but received no reply. And I didn’t even mention Sankey. Ah well. I can only conclude that more people don’t return calls than for any other reason.

Under The Ground 4: Behind The Scenes

I approach the top of the escalator and head for the ticket office to renew my Oyster card for another week. It’s been a bad day, and of course the ticket office is closed. Inevitably for half an hour, just long enough to make it not worth while waiting. So that’s another 15 minutes queuing tomorrow. I pollute the north London air with loud and vitriolic curses about London Underground Ltd and its staff. Suddenly, surprisingly, the Station Manager turns helpful. He takes me furtively into the ticket office, where the clerk is taking a break behind a pulled-down screen. It’s like being invited into the staff room at school, or backstage at a concert. An inner sanctum of peace, taking me back to the 50s with its wooden drawers, ancient filing trays, words like ‘dockets’ and ‘requisition forms’ all around. They serve me in private and swear me to secrecy. As if I’d tell.

Loved And Lost: Dolly Mixture

Your favourite music often fixes special occasions in the memory, and in time the two merge inseparably. When you especially love the music, and it’s connected to a really big event, you can never again think of one without the other. That’s how it is for me, anyway.

I saw Dolly Mixture many times in London in the early 1980s and bought the few records they released. As so often, I came across them supporting another much-loved band. I’d turned up the Venue in Victoria, London in January 1982, to see Orange Juice. Edwyn Collins was in a foul mood that night, but Dolly Mixture had already lit up the evening with an astonishing set, leaving me on a high that not even the grumpy Postcard janglers could bring down.

I was the token pop freak in the music faculty at King’s College, London University. By day learning about the avant-garde styles of Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen and equally abstruse medieval techniques of Dufay and Dunstable, after hours I was moonlighting as a part-time punk, taking in as much of the rich new music scene as I could. There was plenty, and I was a regular at places like the ICA, the Lyceum and Marquee, enjoying this novel vein of melodic, guitar-fuelled pop which had supplanted the increasingly dead-end punk and its angsty post-punk offspring.

The Venue was my place of choice, partly for the seemingly endless programme of amazing music I saw there, but mainly for its rather seedy ambience. Beyond the entrance hall there was a long, dark passage-way to the auditorium, exciting to walk down as you felt the growing anticipation of seeing a band you loved, and then this wonderful room – a big stage, a bowl-shaped dance floor, and at a higher level behind it tables and chairs.

Dolly Mixture were a fascinating thing. On the face of it a straightforward all-female power-pop trio of guitar, bass and drums, they had a repertoire of simply stunning songs. Reeling them out one after the other I’d alternately long for their sets not to end or wish for them to stop immediately, as they surely couldn’t get any better. The songs positively glistened. All three musicians sang, and their voices, in different ways, were sublime. Fresh, bright melodies, luscious chord sequences, tight, vivid harmonies, and a punky approach to belting out the music. Their ‘look’ was a combination of old-fashioned dresses apparently borrowed from a 1950s church fete and Doc Marten boots, the contrast neatly mirroring the music. Engaging and loveable on stage, they inspired a passionate live following including, sometimes, a devoted skinhead contingent.

The last time I saw them as a London resident was back at the Venue, on 30 March 1982. I was leaving for good the next day, and I’d taken along a friend I worked with in the University bar, to catch them just once more and hook him in as a fan. The band, this time headlining, were better even than two months earlier. Their set was like a greatest must-be-hits package – Never Let It Go, Angel Treads, Never Mind Sundays, a glorious cover of Love Affair’s Rainbow Valley, many many more. It was musical bliss to be there that night.

Between songs I turned to my friend and asked “What do you think, then?” Gazing wistfully at the bass player he simply replied “She is. Absolutely. Gorgeous”. Yes, and the music was pretty damn good as well.

Later that night I lay on the floor in Simon’s room in his hall of residence, the window open to the warm spring air, and we listened to The Teardrop Explodes’ Kilimanjaro and talked till we fell asleep. Down the road was the three-ton lorry I would drive to Stockton-On-Tees the next day to start a new job which would change the rest of my life. The exquisite sense of expectancy, knowing that something special would happen the next time the sun rose, is a feeling I can recall at the flick of a time-switch in my mind. And the music that accompanies it is Dolly Mixture’s.

They never made the step up to the next level of popularity and success, except in a brief cameo role as Captain Sensible’s backing singers. Maybe it was bad luck, maybe lack of management clout. Perhaps it was their laudable refusal, in a still male-run business, to allow blokes to write their songs and play their instruments – which, incredibly, was demanded of them as the price of a decent recording budget and a bigger label to release their records.

I often returned to London for odd days and weekends, and would always seek out Dolly Mixture until they split up in 1984. In the 17 years before moving back permanently I made do with the records and the memories. Everything And More would have worn out if I hadn’t copied it onto cassette. The Demonstration Tapes double album the band released under their own steam showcased their songs perfectly, unspoiled by being tarted up by any big-name producer. They sounded exactly as I remembered them live.

Then in 2010, nearly thirty years after I’d first caught the Dolly bug, things started happening again. There was a three-CD set bringing together their singles, the double album and other bits and pieces. Waiting for its release was a bit like the anticipation of that walk down into the hall at the Venue, now long since closed. And then one Sunday late afternoon this summer I found myself at the Roxy in Borough, south London, for a screening of Paul Kelly’s Take Three Girls.

It’s a beautiful film, ostensibly an affectionate documentary of a cult band, a story told with humour and great perception by the three members. Beneath the surface it is much more: a tale of friendship and how a group fought the odds, and overcame many of them. But most of all it’s a study in regret, of what time does to us, of unfulfilled dreams, and of accepting and getting on with life. I watched the film smiling throughout. I also felt a strange chill as my past came back to me so vividly – places I recognised, scenes I remembered, packed crowds bouncing up and down, the cubby-hole of a dressing room at the Rock Garden, that magical moment when your favourite band comes onto the stage. It was eerie, and for the 45 minutes the film lasted I was somewhere else entirely. For me, it was also somehow about the last thirty years of my life and how this music had remained special to me.

For their many fans Debsey Wykes, Hester Smith and Rachel Bor will most likely always mean just Dolly Mixture – perhaps Birdie too – as if that defined their lives. For the three of them – and this is a wild guess – that time is probably something that happened before other things took over – families, careers, other interests, other music, ‘real life’. Still enormously important, a marvellous memory, but gone for good.

Measured in money and chart positions Dolly Mixture didn’t make it. Nowhere near. But then again…a band still in their teens, playing most nights to people who adored their music, a handful of singles, their name often cited as an influence today, and an audience who would still go a long way to see them.

It’s the kind of failure most bands would give a lot to achieve. Remember This? I couldn’t forget it.

Dolly Mixture 3-CD set

Under The Ground 3: Personal Contact

He starts by washing his face, cradling an imaginary flannel in both hands and, given the circumstances, making do without water. Hmmm. Possibly some kind of simulated wake-up-and-rinse ritual. Next a quick right-handed check for stubble. This requires the pulling of a quizzical, thoughtful face, as if considering whether a supplementary shave might be called for, presumably in the carriage itself. The nail of his index finger is now pressed into service as a makeshift toothpick, and every crevice thoroughly searched for stray morsels which might later, or even now, yield a second breakfast. Much smoothing of eyebrows and rubbing of knuckles deep into corners of eyes. Teeth employed again to clean under the fingernails. Sly nosepick. And now the finale: a finger is inserted into his right ear and vigorously shaken up and down for a couple of minutes. What benefit, or indeed substance, this might produce is hard to estimate from my seat across the aisle. Grooming complete, he relaxes into a position that now suggests under-employment and invites appraisal. I do in fact want to congratulate him, and would offer to shake his hand. But I decide not to.


Clichy Of The Month

It’s football time again, the month when your mother ritually claims that the season seems to start earlier every year.

And welcome back Gael Clichy, the Arsenal full-back. Co-commentators – they’re the ones who have turned the art of Motson into a pub conversation with their inane streams of consciousness – often go a little too far in trying to be cosmopolitan, and render his name as Cliché. (Commentators – they’re the ones who do the meticulous research – don’t make this mistake.) Which means, conversely, that a clapped-out, hackneyed phrase or image must be a clichy. So here are a few clichys to kick off another season of hope and despair.

A manager joining a club is obliged by law to be photographed high up in a stand holding aloft the scarf of his new employer. The only manager granted exemption from this requirement is José Mourinho. This is purely on the grounds that it is impossible to pose with both hands in your pockets, smouldering, whilst simultaneously performing the scarf action. After this photocall the manager is absolved from ever wearing the scarf again. If, however, he is Roberto Mancini, he will fail to take it off at all, compounding this faux-pas by knotting his neckwear like a teenager’s school tie for maximum twat effect.

A different law applies to new players, but only very important ones. The big-money signing is legally bound to hold up a shirt bearing his name, to indicate to all and sundry that he is now playing for that club. In a variation of this theme, player and manager have special dispensation to share the shirt-stretching duties, each taking one shoulder of the garment and grinning.

The latest influx of players from foreign shores will bring a fair number whose names, like Cliché’s, are open to interpretation. Asked for the correct pronunciation (“So, Dirk Kuyt, is it Kite, Kout or Koit?”) the new player will invariably respond that it doesn’t matter. Which seems a whimsical approach to take to your own identity.

And finally, looking forward to the end of the season, where does everyone in football hope his team will be when spring arrives? At the top of the league? Of course not. Merely ‘there or thereabouts’ will be perfectly acceptable. But if, by January, the team is neither there nor thereabouts the important new player will issue a ‘rallying cry’ to his team-mates, and demand an infusion of expensive new talent to enable the club to ‘push on’. If this is not forthcoming he may make a ‘come and get me plea’ for other ‘big clubs’ to offer him alternative shirt-waving opportunities.

So, clichy time again. Why not vote for your favourite clichy and win a flight to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup?

Closer To The Stars

Supporting a small club has its consolations. You develop a sunny, positive outlook on life because, failure already achieved, there is everything to hope for. Demotion from the ‘real’ Football League is unthinkable and so can never happen. You’re closer to the action, too, and your involvement represents a bigger share of total fan commitment than, say, at Old Trafford. ‘Small’, by the way, means ‘unsuccessful’. Manchester United are not small.

I was introduced to Mansfield Town, as if to a soft drug, by a friend who lived, inconveniently enough, in Kent. He hooked me in (“Go on, trying it once can’t hurt, surely.”) by heading north and dragging me along to the penultimate home match in our 1992 promotion push. We won and went up, and I was intoxicated by the excitement, the exploits of cult hero Phil Stant, and the atmosphere of the wonderfully run-down, old-fashioned ground. A more sensible option would have been to choose one of the ‘big’ Sheffield clubs to support, but living in Worksop at least I shared a county with Mansfield, and travelling to Field Mill offered a scenic journey by bus or car through rural Nottinghamshire.

The next season I started surreptitiously slipping out on my own for the odd match, without telling my friend in distant Margate that I’d gone native. Within two years I’d moved onto the harder stuff and my football habit had escalated to a football problem. I was now going to every match, home and away, and seeking out confidential help groups where I could stand up and announce: “My name is William and I’m a Stags fan”. To which the circle would nod sincerely and intone in a dull unison: “Hello William”. I ended up joining the supporters club instead.

I once heard fandom described on Radio 4’s usually pointless Thought For The Day slot as ‘a harmless way to belong’. And it’s true – all fans crave closeness to their club. One Saturday afternoon, sitting in the West Stand, I was mistaken (from behind) for Stuart Watkiss, the Stags’ rugged centre back, by someone who actually worked at the club. That’s Stuart Watkiss, ex-Hereford, ex-Walsall. It was a proud moment.

The scenic journey to homes games became familiar, whilst travelling ‘away’ you develop a good sense of the geography of small northern towns – in particular learning to nose out the route from station to football ground instinctively, navigating a matrix of chip shops, pubs and programme sellers.

Longer distances usually involved the supporters club bus. A journey to, say, Plymouth, meant setting out from home around 5am and laying your head down early the next morning. The team would usually lay on a goalless draw, or worse, as a token thanks for the effort. During bad times the bus would be sparsely populated. One long haul, for example, attracted 13 people to the sporting equivalent of a consignment to Siberia. There would be no compensating camaraderie, either, as the party usually contained a high proportion of social misfits who, rather than huddling together for moral support, would spread themselves out for maximum privacy. The ‘meet’ was always at Field Mill, and often coincided with the players checking in and leaving on their own marginally more glamorous coach – logically enough, as supporters and team were both heading the same distance to the same place.

Timing could be unpredictable, and we would often arrive unfeasibly early in some far outpost of footballing (or any) culture with plentiful hanging-around time to fill. On such an expedition, to Colchester in fact, we were so far ahead of schedule that I was the first person into the Layer Road ground, perched alone behind a goal as I waited for something, anything at all, to happen.

And then, suddenly, it did, and involved Steve Harper, one of our better and therefore least popular players. I liked Harper, both for his Herculean work-rate and for his sharp looks and slinky hairstyle. He had been injured and was working his way back into the team. A good hour before kick-off he emerged from the tunnel to double the population of the stadium and started lapping the pitch. I assumed he was warming up to play that afternoon, which was good news. Surely he hadn’t travelled all the way to Essex to indulge in some bizarre fitness ritual which could easily have been acted out back home. As he approached the away end I prepared then launched my opening (and, as it turned out, closing) gambit: “Are you playing today, Steve?” The answer, honest, direct and shocking as he passed me, was brief: “No”. Digesting this disturbing fact I had maybe a few minutes to formulate a follow-up clarification question and advance the dialogue as Harper embarked on another lap. But I’d already invaded his conversational space and feared the response next time might be twice as long and half as polite. So the Steve Harper Incident was wrapped up there, short but possessing a certain minimal perfection.

There is something about being a footballer that turns perfectly ordinary lads into heroes, god-like creatures even. Milling about with players and club officials as they arrive, you notice interesting and impressive things, such as that striker Iyseden Christie wore glasses for driving. Though not, unfortunately, for striking. Finding myself close to Steve Slawson, a lanky youth who had been hired to replace the legendary Steve Wilkinson, I buttonholed him and let rip: “Are you playing today, Steve?” I realised immediately that this had become my default chat-up line – effective enough, but impractical equally with anyone not called Steve and on the other six days of the week. I recall the conversation in its brief, mundane entirety, perhaps flattering myself (and Slawson) in my belief that it could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett for its lack of purpose, repetition and faintly circular quality.

Me: Are you playing today, Steve?

Slawson: I don’t know.

Me (incredulously): You don’t know?

Slawson: Well, the manager hasn’t announced the team yet, but I hope I’m in it.

Me: Oh.

Unaccountably disappointed, I had nevertheless established the existential fact that Slawson either would or would not be playing that day, and hurried off to communicate this void of information to my fellow travellers. For those who care, Slawson’s dreams that day went unfulfilled.

My conversational nadir arrived with the Brian Kilcline Affair. The Viking lookalike had been imported to stiffen the defence and put the boot in where required. For all his other sterling qualities he was not blessed with great pace, and had been dropped several weeks earlier after a disagreement with the manager, who maintained that the defence (notably ‘Killer’ himself) was playing ‘too deep’. Minus Kilcline, the team went on a run of eight games without conceding a goal, rather undermining the centre-back’s counter-argument. At 2.50pm one Saturday I spotted Kilcline getting into his car. Almost by reflex I hailed him, inevitably, with: “Are you playing today, Brian?” As the words left my mouth I realised the ineptitude of the question, fatuous, amounting almost to sarcasm, and feared for my physical safety. Kilcline fixed me with a silent, angry stare for several seconds, as if to ask where I thought he might be heading in his car – home, or straight onto the football pitch. Then suddenly he ducked into the vehicle and was on his way out of both the ground and my life. There was my answer. Brian wasn’t playing today. At least I hadn’t called him Steve. After that I retreated into my shell and kept my own counsel. After all, I’d find out soon enough if Steve, Brian, or anyone else was playing that day.

In 2008 Mansfield Town were finally relegated from the ‘real’ Football League. It could happen, after all. So now, at last, in the world of non-league minnows, they are a big club. But not successful. Which rather subverts my earlier equation of size with achievement.

But there was one last conversation, where I was an observer rather than a participant. Steve Harper’s wife often used to bring the kids to watch their old man at work, from a vantage point near me in the West Stand. A brave choice of weekend leisure activity, given the amount of gratuitous abuse her husband received for his efforts, but probably character-forming for their brood. In a 4-0 win over Darlington he scored a hat-trick, impressive for a striker, but more so for a left wing-back, and even more so for Steve Harper. Good goals, too. Through the bustle and jostling to exit the ground at the end of the match I was pushed close to the Harper family. In the warm, pale, late afternoon light the mother leaned down, smiling, to one of the offspring and, in that special tone reserved for talking to children, asked: “Who scored three goals today?” The child, beaming proudly, looked up and said: “Daddy”. Now I bet that’s something you don’t hear too often at Old Trafford.

Under The Ground 2: Ladies And Gentlemen

It’s impossible to move more than a few metres without being announced at. The air is full of instructions and largely spurious information. The other day, walking between the Northern and Victoria lines at King’s Cross, there were no fewer than five items of fact to digest and remember. All delivered in that special lazy, slightly slimy drawl of London officialdom. “There is ay. Good service operating on thee. Piccadilly Line and. All stations aaah open”. Can’t I assume that to be the case unless you tell me otherwise? “To obtain the best price when using your Oyster card, always remember to touch in and out, especially when changing lines”. I thought I’d already got the best, or at least correct, price, and I have to touch in and out to get through the gates. And isn’t ‘especially’ included in ‘always’? Any random luggage I leave lying around “may be removed or destroyed”. Well will it or won’t it? I need to know. The other day too, assaulted by these voices, I turned into one of those mad shouters, and spent my short walk screaming “Shut up, shut up, shut up” into the air. But nobody listened.

Loved And Lost: Au Pairs

I saw the Au Pairs play only once, in London on 2 November 1980. I was at the Lyceum that night to see the Buzzcocks. After buying A Different Kind Of Tension, I’d been to the Rainbow the previous year, seen them supported by Joy Division (yes, that way round!) and been disappointed. The Buzzcocks were cold, uninterested and flat. At the Lyceum they topped an astonishing bill – in reverse order of appearance Au Pairs, The Things, Orange Juice and The Delmontes. I was seeing these last two for the first time and was impressed. I immediately bought The Delmontes’ two singles, and was sufficiently intrigued by Orange Juice to seek them out again.

The Au Pairs were a big independent name at the time. Politically committed, feminist, angry, right-on, they ticked all the boxes for the activist who worked alongside me in the bar at the University Of London Union and regularly dropped their name. A band it was approved OK to like, up there with Delta Five and the Gang Of Four, a staple of benefit gigs and leftish causes. I’d never heard them when I found myself packed into a heaving mass that night just off the Strand.

My subsequent relationship with the Au Pairs has been a perfect case of regret – a phenomenon I call ‘not paying enough attention at the time’. I should have become an instant fan and followed up on them, especially after being let down again that night by the Buzzcocks. But I didn’t, life went on, and I hitched up to Orange Juice in a big way. But something about the Au Pairs that night never went away, grew like a tumour, and is still lodged in my mind in 2010. I started to feel the need to rediscover what I’d missed, retrace the ground and bring alive the memory.

So what is left of the memory? I can’t remember a single song, only the sight, individual moments and the overall sound, and what I felt that night.

The sound was jagged, harsh, loud and urgent. Lesley Woods was awesome. Not awesome in its new currency of ‘nice’ or ‘OK’ or even ‘thank you’ but jaw-droppingly impressive, supremely confident, inspiring awe. Paul Foad was upright, sharp, cool, constantly mobile, Jane Munro static as she unleashed the great bass lines that underpinned the songs. Both guitarists were superb movers, sometimes doing a kind of jerky dance in tandem across the stage. And above it all that gorgeous voice, bluesy, punky, aching, angry. Together the band emitted a solidity, an intensity and integrity that said take it or leave it, and knew very well that you’d take it. I can see them in front of me now just as clearly as the day after the show.

There was a fight in the crowd. I don’t know why, maybe someone stood on someone else’s foot in the wrong way. As they left the stage Paul Foad paused, returned to the microphone and said “I hope that trouble sorts itself out”. Then they were gone. And that’s it.

Nearly thirty years on, something nagging me, I began my research into what I’d missed. There’s a fair bit on the internet but it’s very repetitive. It’s the classic sad story of things going bad. The jewel of what remains is a YouTube video of Come Again. What strikes me most – the Rottenesque sneer, the way Lesley Woods howls and snarls the song as it rises in intensity verse by verse; the magnificent moment in the intro when the bass comes in with that gigantic rumble, powering the music like an ocean current for the next three minutes; the fact that the song gets by on just two chords, and doesn’t need any more; the brilliant interchange between the singers at the end; and the understated humour.

Late last year, scrolling down a long list of comments on that YouTube video, I read this:

“My dear Ursula, sometimes it’s best to leave things as they are. What we achieved burnt us out as we put our all into this band and it took its toll (for rock ‘n’ roll). Please continue to get a vibe off the few recordings we did and I hope you have a fulfilling life. Many thanks and don’t sell out.”

These words are the saddest and most beautiful epitaph for a band’s career I have ever read. They were written by Pete Hammond, drummer with the Au Pairs, who split up in 1983. I don’t know whether they were dashed off in a few spare moments or lovingly crafted over hours, but they are a perfect summing-up of his band’s short life. They are the response to a query about whether the Au Pairs would reform, all those years later. Not only perfectly expressed, but absolutely the right call, Pete, even if a reunion were practically possible.

So why would trying to recreate such great moments be a mistake? Because the significance of the band was located in a particular time, because they were a unit doing 250 gigs a year, living in each other’s pockets. Because the Au Pairs were on a mission, and because you can’t just relight something that’s spluttered out and expect it to blaze again. Yes, Pete, sometimes it’s best to leave things as they are – to remember, to listen and watch what’s left. But there’s something in his words that says that the spirit and beliefs, the ethos of the band is still there, still being communicated in other ways. To quote a great song, That’s When It’s Worth It.

Au Pairs: Come Again video

This Is The Start

Welcome to my weblog.

I will be writing about music, the experience of travelling on the London Underground, customer service nightmares and anything else that drives me mad or makes me happy.

I will also occasionally write about my band and record label, and, I hope, interview people whose music means a lot to me.

That’s it. We’ll see how it goes.

Under The Ground 1: Serial Killer

He sat down opposite me at the end of the row, and took a small tin of vegetable salad from his thin plastic bag. Slowly and carefully, taking pains not to tear the labelling, he peeled off the price tag (69p) and stuck it onto the blue pole. Replacing the now unpriced tin in his bag, he pulled out an identical item. Slowly and carefully, taking pains not to tear the labelling, he peeled off the price tag (69p) and stuck it onto the blue pole. Then he did it again. By the fourth tin, I had exchanged sideways glances with the people sitting next to me and lengthways glances with the people sitting opposite me. Then he did it again. Slowly and carefully …  And again. By now the pole had acquired a neat bulge of sticky 69p price tags. I thought about damage to tube property and workload for the cleaner. His bag was clearly full of small tins of vegetable salad. I thought about his diet. His intestines. Glances had turned to smirks and bemused shakes of heads. Then I realised what disturbed me. I could see cupboards in his bare flat, filled with meticulous neatness with countless tins of vegetable salad. Minus price. The man was a serial killer.