Hello everyone. There are sad things to relate this week, not least the terribly sudden death of the actress Elisabeth Sladen, famous for playing the redoubtable Sarah Jane Smith both on Doctor Who and in her own spin off series. The announcement of her passing from a cancer she had kept secret from all but her closest associates and family came as a genuine shock to me. Having seen her in the role since my earliest memories of television, I felt like I grew up with Sarah Jane Smith. I was lucky enough to meet Elisabeth Sladen a few years ago and she made me feel like an old friend within minutes. She was a lovely lady. Her loss comes merely two months after Nicholas Courtney, as well-known and loved by Doctor Who fans for his portrayal of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart for many years in the show in the early Seventies. I was also privileged to meet him the same day I met Ms Sladen and a charming man he turned out, unsurprisingly, to be. To write any more on them, but not make it the subject of the entire blog, is to do them a disservice and so I’ll stop here — suffice to say that the world has become a sadder and less fun place in their absence. A piece of them will never die when their performances shine so brightly, so likeably, every time I watch one of my Who DVDs.
Elsewhere, and nowhere near as upsettingly may I add, my stupid cold is hanging around with wearisome persistence, like that guy whom you suspect fancies your girlfriend and clicks ‘Like’ a lot on her Facebook postings. Er, anyway, this unimaginative ailment and its constant background radiation level is finding little outward sport from me as I continue to carry out my daily tasks, but there’s no doubting the cast it slyly slants on my synapses. I do get so impatient with colds. On the plus side, my phlegm is no longer a pea-green colour, but neither is it healthy, instead now resembling the more pastelly shade of apple white (not-quite) that we used to have as the grouting between the avocado tiles in the bathroom of my childhood home, circa 1984. It’s about the same consistency too, I’d wager.
Today’s blog is constructed not only of phlegm, but also some bile and is consequently not a pleasant one, touching as it does on things that annoy me. That said, writing is always a pleasurable waffle and the change in the weather into something I can confidently describe as ‘Springtime’ has fired enthusiasm, even if it be in the old vitriol-fuelled cylinders. It’s a heady blend you get from the prospect of a few days off, black coffee, a decent cooked brekie and later, a delightful picnic and laze on the lawn with the missus and music from Peter Warlock, Percy Grainger, Benjamin Britten, Béla Bartók and Michael Praetorius. We’re nothing if not civilised sometimes — it’s not Pink Floyd or Hawkwind every day, y’know. Lately I’ve been getting into Van der Graaf Generator, a band of early Seventies origin whose sound, while couched in an ostensibly unremarkable Seventies rock syntax of drums, guitars, sax, Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes piano, manages to be like nothing I can think of from around the same time. Definitely a blog for another time, not to mention how I was put onto these boys, whom I’m pleased to add are still together and touring as I type this.
Anyway, let’s begin with a friend of mine recounting the advice of one of her previous employers from her time working behind the bar in a well-known Soho private members’ club for writers, journalists and actors— resting or otherwise. The landlord of this salubrious drinking den, Mr D, whom I too have enjoyed meeting on several occasions, had but one rule to say to new faces in the place: “Don’t be boring.”
Mr D’s definition of boring was straightforward: don’t be messy. It’s both a cliché and a truth that the majority of people associated with the theatre profession, or journalism, like what we could call ‘a bit of drink’ and may indulge in a touch of the old rumbustiosity, but that’s the difference between ‘drunks’ and ‘drunkenness’. Mr D insisted that everyone handle what they took on. Outright rambunctiousness, violence, vomiting, paralysis and so on were not tolerated.
The worst crime was breaking glass. “My staff have to clear it up off the floor after you,” he’d say with even, genial authority, “and that’s boring.”
Several weeks ago I had the misfortune of coming across the definition of Mr D’s boredom in considerable proportion while awaiting a train to take me to Norwich at Liverpool Street station some time before midday on a Saturday. I am normally fond of this mainline London terminus as for me it is a gateway to places that I tend to go to solely for fun and larks: East Anglia, with my splendid friends who live in the Fine City; the salt-sprayed, wild bluster of Lowestoft, birthplace of Benjamin Britten; Aldeburgh, the charming town where Britten lived, died and is buried; the dated delights of Cromer and the pure, joyous seaboard civilisation of Southwold. Plus Adnam’s Bitter everywhere you go. Splendid! Liverpool Street itself is a modern, airy, high-ceiling’d steel and glass construction grafted onto the expansive, vast Victorian brickwork of the old station. It is populated with enough shops and eateries to enable anyone to pass a reasonable amount of time patiently before their train arrives. Crucially, there’s a pub on the side, called Hamilton Hall, decked out and too-brightly lit in a bland 19th Century style with fixtures that might actually be original, if you’re wondering. Still, a pub nonetheless and one with a good range of ales. No, the venue was not the reason for my disquiet this particular day.
The first thing I noticed once inside the concourse was the noise. Not in volume, more a feeling that vibrated the very air molecules. I could certainly perceive this over the sound of the Groundhogs’ Thank Christ For The Bomb rattling enjoyably away at me from my wee iPod Shuffle, if my detail holds up. Chanting. I find it a weird sensation to hear massed voices raised in unison anywhere outside of a stadium, auditorium, school hall or church and my initial reaction was that there was some kind of protest demonstration happening outside. After about 30 seconds I could make out a song that nailed it: ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles‘ — they were West Ham supporters. There was a bloody football match on.
Now, before I go any further I wonder how many of you have ever heard someone ask “why do men have nipples?” I have had to suffer this question on a number of occasions in my life, getting thrown about carelessly in pubs, across desks in offices and so on. The question, silly, not me. It’s quite an old chestnut, usually offered up as an example of something that doesn’t make sense in the world — and this annoys and puzzles me. One thing it does throw up is the question of collective intelligence, of mutual understanding. It’s as if there’s a race memory stored in the collective unconscious instructing everyone not to find out the answer for themselves. If you have ever wondered yourself and remain none the wiser, then shame on you. We live in an age where access to the information is available as never before — and for those of you wondering, I can assure you there is a satisfactory answer. I shan’t tell you myself since, now I’ve roundly hectored you, you really ought to look it up for yourself. You will find it simple and reasonably obvious. I’ll give you a clue: it will almost certainly contain the word ‘vestigial.’ Now — away with you.
The West Ham supporters: I am using the term ‘supporters’ with neither Jeremy Paxman's scepticism nor Zainab Badawi's arched eyebrow. These people were not outright hooligans to my eyes — I want to be clear on that. What we had was some 200-300 men — almost exclusively men — in the depressingly identical prerequisite uniform of dark bomber jackets, jeans and short haircuts. I would place the average age as anywhere between late 30s and early 50s. They were being herded from the Hamilton Hall pub on the far side of the station, down an escalator and then escorted — absolutely the best word for what I saw — along the length of the concourse to a specific platform by a loose cordon of police officers, essentially ensuring the Hammerfans didn’t break ranks and mingle with the rest of the humans milling about at random. ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ continued to be sung lustily throughout. I am not up on usual practices in getting large sums of football fans to an away game, but it appeared to me that a special train had been laid on for them, or a regular service had several carriages set specially aside. The gang traversed the ticket hall and filed through the barriers, all the while gently kept on track by the coppers. It was at this point that I decided, not to put too fine a point on it, to have a pre-journey slash and headed to the adjoining pub to avail myself of the toilets within.
Imagine this large open-plan pub, too-brightly lit in its bland 19th Century style with fixtures that might actually be original (if you’re wondering), then fling the image out and redecorate in a style best described as Ralph Steadman’s Jackson Pollock tribute. Jagged shards of broken glass strewn across the floor. Pint glasses discarded in the centre of the floor — only some of them intact. Vast, soggy puddles in the carpets so wet that they must have been from whole pints of spilt lager — or worse. I wove haphazardly through the detritus of the now empty establishment in a zig-zag fashion to get to a door that usually requires a straight line. Inside the gents — chaos. Lakes of piss, discarded bottles of Beck’s and inexplicable trails of toilet paper forming lines of papier-pis-maché like trenches marked on a map of the Somme. Oh, and shit on the floor too. I’ve never measured the diameter of a toilet bowl, but it must be something like ten times the size of the average human rectal aperture. Not a hard target for the old bronze eye to bullseye, wouldn’t you say?
Oh, and it still wasn’t quite midday at this point. How very boring indeed.
As I said, these people were not hooligans. They were fans. I don’t doubt they were of good nature as they got in their pre-pre-match-drinky-drinkies, but what good can I say of a bunch of chaps who find raising a pint to their mouths, drinking the contents without spilling and lowering the glass squarely onto the table a challenge at eleven-thirty on a Saturday morning? Never mind the rest. Is this what the gang mentality does to people? What then went through their minds as they were led down the escalators across the hall, through the barriers and onto their train, police escort at every step? They were too busy singing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’ Temple Grandin has spent years devising abbatoir corridors that don’t work as effectively. I just hope the Hammers won that day for the sake of toilet cubicles in the surrounding area.
I used to like football as a child, but then I grew up. I shan’t discuss which players I rated or what team I supported back in the Seventies and early Eighties. Maybe that’s a blog for another time, but it’s not important now. It all bores me intensely these days. Or rather, I have since grown up sufficiently to recognise that it’s not football per se that irks me: all sporting activities are of course worthy, agreeable and often honourable ways to spend one’s time. Sportspeople and athletes themselves tend on the whole to just get on with it and their modest dedication to their field is laudable but I disliked — still dislike — the certain, pernicious element that always attaches itself to sports activity with monotonous regularity: essentially, anyone who takes it overly seriously and to the exclusion of everything else. With football, I find these drones especially rabid and dull. It’s always the armchair critics that ruin things the most. Just too many children like that at my school, with their terribly tiresome and borrowed pronouncements on ‘the game,’ proving themselves unremarkable in the rest of their day, growing up and behaving no better. Just too many adults like them in the world, twisting their loyalty to somewhere near where they live as an excuse to smash things, piss in random places and chant like a howler monkey. The love I had for football was destroyed singlehandedly by its proponents. I know why these people get annoyed when you say, “Oh, it’s only a game...” — because deep down, they’re afraid to acknowledge that maybe that is all it is. If one person has had their head kicked in for wearing a Man Utd shirt in a Man City pub, that’s too many. This is not my definition of supporting a local business.
Moreover, were I to go out dressed as a ninja, a Jedi Knight or, oh I dunno, Captain Jack Sparrow, I’d be laughed at and quite rightly so; however, it’s not only socially acceptable, but almost compulsory in certain pathetic circles to stretch a shirt of one’s chosen football team colours over your beer gut and shout like an embarrassing cretin in front of Sky Sports down the local boozer. What excuse do those contemptible morons have? I am reminded of spoilt children who stubbornly refuse to leave the house unless they are dressed in pyjamas depicting their favourite tv character. Were I some Government conspiracy theorist, I’d posit that this whole footballing caper is only funded as sumptuously as it is simply to keep you all in line.
This is not a testosterone-fuelled preserve. It almost goes without saying (except I will) that some people divide the world, culturally speaking, into those who understand the offside rule in football and those who don’t. A recent incident, one that made the national news and brought the age-old issue of sexism in sport and sports commentary into focus, offered women a chance to demonstrate that they comprehend it as well as any man; a virtual badge of honour and acceptance. I find the perpetuation of this idea mind-numbingly dull of course, but unfortunately it’s the need, the tacit feminine collusion in all this that I find particularly, nauseatingly, sexist and degrading. I really, really, really don’t want to believe that as football becomes increasingly overexposed in the media, the rise of female fandom is simply a result of a desire to show the world that they ‘understand’ something that had been the province until now of the men in their life. Nor should men be so boorish and exclusive. We should all be more interesting than that. Do me a favour, boys and girls: next time someone brings up the offside rule in tedious conversation, point out that plenty of people, of both sexes, do not know the offside rule, and with good reason: it’s really not important to know — the players themselves clearly aren’t aware of it most of the times when it arises or they wouldn’t need that nice referee chap to point it out to them. Also, if you’re really concerned, just look it up: good old Wikipedia, again, should yield a satisfactory explanation using words of two syllables or less. Just like men’s nipples. Oh and remember, it will never be a sport free of sexism while women’s football languishes in relative obscurity with minimal coverage and pitiful financing. Sport For All, ran the campaign in the 1980s. Still waiting.
I sound disgustingly bitter and snobbish about all this — well, I am. My opinion on this matter is clearly driven for the most part by a certain resentment at the world borne of years of tolerating specific, vacuous and overweening enthusiasts whom, boringly, feel it necessary to foist their unwanted and unvalued views upon me. I am aware that I am making generalisations and there are many fine people, friends included, whose enthusiasm is engaging and bereft of the mouth-breathing ovine mentality I find so inherently detestable. I will probably make precious few allies along my way with this attitude. Well, I won’t worry about it if you won’t; it probably doesn’t matter.
I’m not being down on footie bores exclusively — they’re just the best example I know. If it makes things fairer, the analogy holds true for many things. If you don’t like gambling, Las Vegas loses its lustre pretty quickly once the novelty of transposition wears off. Talk about any subject single-mindedly for too long and you lose your audience — look at Uri Geller. It is a social truism that while the world needs experts — self-styled or otherwise — they tend to outstay their welcome once their knowledge has been disseminated to those who need to hear it. True wisdom comes not from merely knowing facts but in making connections between them. If everyone was a specialist, to completely misquote the baddie in The Incredibles, then no one would be.
It’s my turn to be quiet now. Thank you for your time. Have a happy Easter, if you celebrate it.
Currently listening to:
H To He Who Am The Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976)
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (Van der Graaf (sans Generator!), 1977)
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)
Wasting Light (Foo Fighters, 2011)
Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye Of Chris Morris (Lucian Randall, 2010)
Pirates Of The Caribbean. All three current movies in the series, with rapidly diminishing returns (Gore Verbinski, 2003-2008)
Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (Peter Weir, 2005)
Robin Hood. Not as good as it could have been. But not all bad either. (Ridley Scott, 2010)