Saturday, 18 June 2011

Adventures in insurance: the Lloyd’s year, 1990-1991. Part four (of five): it gets better.

…in which our hero starts drinking, makes music, makes friends. Does a big poo first.
My continued gratitude to you for reading this. I can’t lie — it’s going to get a bit messy very shortly. Consider yourself warned. 
January 1991. I had spent three joyless months in my job at a Lloyd’s brokerage and my first week back at the office after the Christmas holiday found me wandering around in a fuzzy, muzzy haze. A dastardly ‘flu-type sickness had cast a melancholy pall over the Twelve Days, although by January — much like the economy, then as now — it was in recession. Nonetheless, its thin, pale green tendrils had dug deep and had left me more removed from reality than usual — which under the circumstances was great, absolutely fine by me. I sat upright in my swivel chair, tried to keep my head from gimballing with giddiness and regarded Richard ‘Col’ Collander, my work mentor sat opposite, with eyes that didn’t blink often enough. I felt decidedly ropy. 
“Did you have a nice holiday, Paul?” he asked. I replied mildly that it was ok, thank you.
“Well, you’re back here now,” he concluded, with familiar, smiling negativity. Well, whaddya know, I certainly was. Happy New Fucking Year. Same as ever it was — meaning, of course, with each passing day it was worse than it had ever been. 
Something had been building up inside of me over the past few weeks, especially during the days spent in contemplation — and viral incubation — over the festive season. I had spent three months trying to get people to like me and had met with a uniformly humourless stone wall. The job was dull and I was spectacularly awful at it. I did not rate myself all that highly. In short, I had been ground down. 
On a more immediate, more base level, that wasn’t all that was building up inside me, though. 
Later the same week, I had what I can only describe as an eventful trip to the toilet. There’s a wonderful expression I first heard said by Clint Eastwood in his final outing as Harry Callaghan in The Dead Pool, in which he bemoans his lot as ‘flopped lower than whale shit.’ Well, I had compromised my fragile — nay, virginal — teenaged system just before Christmas with my first ever alcoholically-induced vomiting bout (full details here, bodily fluid fans) and a stinking cold over the holidays had kept the rancid pot belly simmering, as it were. Those green tendrils were turning to a distinct brown by the hour. You know where this is leading. I don’t care, I’m going to describe this. No, really. 
Jesus, what an absolute mess! It was as if someone had filled a balloon with chocolate mousse and then poked it with a pin inside the porcelain — spattered and splattered it was, up the cistern, speckling the back of my white shirt with brown and pebble-dashing the rim of the bowl. The sheer hopelessness of the situation hit me within seconds and I felt that cold fear clench my chest. How the hell was I going to clear it up? What about my clothes? What would I tell the others if they asked? Then, amidst the fetid feculence, flopped lower than ever before in my very own shit, I started laughing. A lot. Really, really loudly. I can confidently state that I never laughed so hard or so loud in the previous six months of my life as I did that afternoon in the tiny toilet cubicle on the ground floor of my office building. That bizarre survival mechanism had kicked in with a distinct snap. Fuck it. Fuck it all. Fuck them all. I spent a good, semi-solid 40 minutes patiently tidying up my magnificent muck, sniggering all the while, then cleaned and composed myself, put my jacket on and went back to my seat in the office as though nothing had happened. I was dying for someone to wonder where I was, why I’d been gone so long and — hope of all hopes — ask from where the hell that bloody stench was emanating. I was fully, totally prepared to tell them exactly where. It was a measure of my reduced circumstances that the highlight of my career in insurance so far was an explosive attack of virally exacerbated diarrhoea. Back in the office, no one had noticed my absence. Oh well. Seems I’d have to be a little more blatant in future.
All these shit-nanigans coincided with what could be dubiously described as ‘interesting times’ in the world, but I was clearly too wrapped in my own situation. My Diary picks up 1991 on the 14th January and the entry concludes:
Tomorrow 5am is the deadline for Saddam Hussein to pull out of Kuwait. With no real chance of this happening between then and now it seems that we will be at war with Iraq tomorrow.
Vomit, then shit — and now a rare display of phlegm. The following days of entries dissolve shamefully into the briefest Boy’s Own account of the first Gulf War — a veritable I-Spy Book list of military hardware and tactics: Scud missiles, Patriots, Tornadoes, talk of ‘designated targets’ and the Geneva Convention. I didn’t have a bloody clue about any of it and precious little concern too, it seems.
I increasingly found all sorts of reasons to keep myself out of work on the feeblest of premises — and in this regard I had some assistance. In early February of 1991, it snowed in vast quantities: one of the heaviest, deepest and most sustained falls I have ever known in my tiny part of the world — as records still hold to this day. It started on a Sunday lunchtime as I recall and by Monday morning the situation was looking bleak and still bleaker by the minute. My Diary again details this titanic struggle to get into work:
Bus at 8.30 [am], Sidcup [station] by 9.55 — turned away, went back up to School, walked home — home by 10.45 — 4 hrs in all. 
No, I can’t work out the maths on that now, either. It’s worth mentioning that I still maintained good relations with various people from my old school and they were happy to welcome this particular snow-sodden alumnus back into the building for a defrosting cup of tea, half an hour of catch-up chit-chat with ex-teachers and remaining friends, plus free use of the telephone to let my workmates know that I wouldn’t be coming in. Remember, 1990: no mobiles! The other thing I remember that day was the black felt wide-brimmed hat I wore. I had picked it up in a Goth shop on Oxford Street several weeks ago and it made me look like a cross between an obese Doc Holliday and a rabbi. It caught the snow beautifully in the brim and elicited some tart comment from my old Physics master, Mr Aspin, on my way out of the premises. I didn’t mind because I had always regarded him as a total dickhead, and I muttered something to that effect on my exit. Oh, I’ll talk about him some time soon. The dickhead. 
The snow kept me housebound for three days and in that time I played and replayed a magnificent CD set of music I had borrowed from Bromley Library: The Pilgrimage To Santiago, a collection of tangy, Moorish-influenced Spanish music from the 13th Century, performed with considerable zesty gusto by Philip Pickett and his astonishing New London Consort. It remains one of my favourite albums to this day. Amidst the warmly devotional secular songs, the hotly devout chants, those hazy, trance-like cantigas and some fiery, heads-down Hispanic dance grooves I can still discern the crisp, white snowy chill soundtrack that accompanied three blissful days off under circumstances joyfully out of my control — and better still, beyond the power of my contemptible superiors. I’m serious about the dance grooves. It’s a brilliant record. It mattered not that my enforced stay at home incurred an overdue fine from the Library.
The IRA renewed a bombing campaign of London a week later, initially starting with an audacious attempt to launch a mortar on 10 Downing Street itself. My friend Tony worked at the Ministry of Defence and over a bottle of Beck’s one lunchtime gleefully told me his first-hand account of the events as they unfolded from outside his office window. Again, my Diary sketches out these attacks with either phlegmatic brevity or frankly chilling callousness, as you choose: 
Feb 18th 4.00pm

Didn’t go to work today — there has been two bombings — Paddington & Victoria — 1 person dead — no trains running — went to Bromley instead & bought two more Deep Purple CDs.
As someone who was caught up, albeit distantly, peripherally, in the ensuing chaos of the horrendous suicide bomb attacks that blighted London on the 7th July 2005, and as someone who silently and thankfully checked-off his colleagues as they came into the workplace unscathed on that terrible, bleak day, I read back this 19-year-old child’s attitude to this grim phenomenon now with a degree of admiration. Although I’d clearly ascribe my sang-froid primarily to the blinkered, self-absorbed worldview of the young, I still believe this the best attitude to handle these events. Never let the bastards win. Never let it get to you and never let it show if it did get to you — it’s what the monsters want. No more on this subject.
Deep Purple were but one of the many bands who had bubbled up to the forefront of my consciousness and that of my best friend Chris. Over the preceding months we had decided, through a series of trial and error tests, that the kind of shit we were into was hard, heavy and fast wherever possible. Drawing up a shopping list of the must-have albums was relatively easy. A swift glance through some old copies of Q magazine — I had started to buy it upon working in the City as it seemed like a grown-up thing to do — listed the big names to check out. Led Zeppelin we knew already, providing marvellous background soundtrack to many a school experience for some years. Ditto Pink Floyd. Adding to the colour cards, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath were the next logical bands to seek out. We had no idea what albums to buy, but from our adolescent love of Jethro Tull and David Bowie we knew that the prospective purchaser’s rule of thumb for Seventies rock bands was simple: pick an album from 1973. Either side of 1973 was more than likely awesome, but by 1975, most of those groups had gone off the boil, if not earlier. Try it! It’s not infallible, but this system will get you really far in some directions. 
Alternatively, you could do what I did on one occasion in early 1991 and choose albums by their covers. A trip to Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, a smallish financial outlay and a few leaps of faith saw me walk out of the shop with three excellent albums: Iron Maiden’s Powerslave (1984), Deep Purple’s In Rock (1970) and Black Sabbath’s Greatest Hits. In Rock’s cover parodies the Mount Rushmore heads of the Presidents, rendering instead the five band members as monolithic faces carved in the side of the cliff face. It was unsubtle, but cheerfully so. It felt right. It almost smelled right on looking at it. The Sabbath album had a blow-up detail from a Flemish artist of the 14th Century — either Bosch or Breughel, I forget which — depicting unchaste ‘souls’ being chased and roasted in a fiery industrial vision of Hell. This one positively stank of the right kind of stuff all the way to high heaven for me. Powerslave had a typically detailed, intricate cover, by long-term Maiden artist Derek Riggs, depicting an ancient Egyptian complex. Some pictures say a thousand words; this one, brilliantly, said just two: ‘Heavy Metal‘ — and that was all you needed to know. Besides, we already knew Maiden could deliver the kind of chunky thrills we sought; they had a recent hit single in the charts: ‘Bring Your Daughter… To The Slaughter.‘ It may not have been their finest hour and was possibly the weakest song on the accompanying album, No Prayer For The Dying, but their mere presence in the tepid, mediocre Pop Charts was validation that we were onto something good with all this noisy racket.
So, were they any good, these albums? Too bloody right they were. Through a blend of educated guesswork, aesthetic value judgement and our working graph theory on musical quality [x] over 1973 band albums [y], we’d hit a seam of rock’s golden nuggets — at the time they were, as people tend to say a lot these days, game-changing. In Rock is possibly the rawest and most consistent blast of grooves from Deep Purple’s entire discography — at once both a blueprint and an archetype; Powerslave is a solid and totally thoroughbred Maiden album, representative of its kind. The Sabbath compilation covered the early Seventies, their best period — period: a time when Ozzy Osbourne rightly dominated the band, with his tremulous years as everyone’s favourite Rock Uncle decades improbably ahead. We listened to these treasures again and again over the first quarter of 1991. It set us up for what was to come in the final quarter — but more on that later.
Music started to dominate my life outside of work in more personal ways. I launched into prolific composition like never before. Some of the earliest examples of what I would consider to be finished, thought-through pieces were written either side of Christmas 1990. It proved to be an escape and a release from everything else getting tense around me, but I think my secret life spent recording music over more than twenty years truly is a subject for a blog all its own another time. Something else however, late in January 1991 was to have a far-reaching effect on me: my first ever live gig in a band! I played keyboards, at very, very short notice, in Mary Jane, a band formed of my friend Rich’s erstwhile school colleagues, performing at a ‘Battle Of The Bands’ at their school hall. My Diary records the bands on that evening faithfully, and I’m glad it does. Carve their names with pride: The Hitch Hikers, Death Before Disco, Mary Jane, The Flowerpot Men and The Clap. Mary Jane played crowd-pleasing rock covers in a hard and funky style and their guitarist Matt and drummer Bell were both particularly powerful and accomplished. Able bass-istance came from Pete, the quintessence of the affable, quietly competent bottom-end provider. Rich played a scratchy rhythm guitar and capitalised on a look somewhere between Keith Richards and Guy Pearce — the consensus being that he fixed the ladies to the spot. Their lead singer, Dan was — and indeed still is — a throaty vocalist who’d pace the stage back and forth, smoking distractedly and engaging with the crowd. The evening is a blur, but apparently we
knocked ‘em dead! The 2nd band got sent off for being crap! I got Shanghaied into playing live!
Little really came of this coalition in the short term, but I had considerable dealings with these boys and their associates in various permutations several years down the line — and indeed to this day. I didn’t realise that I’d laid the groundwork for years of extracurricular activity playing in bands — it just felt great to be asked to play, to be part of a musical entity for one night and be regarded by my newfound friends and the audience as a proper performing musician. You never ever forget that first time.
What has all this got to do with insurance? Absolutely nothing — and that’s the point. Life for several months had consisted of insurance or nothing else, a veritable vacuum, save for misery and boredom. The latter situation was due, over the space of a few short days, to become filled with joy, a sense of freedom and renewed self-determination. As the saying goes, you never know what’s around the corner.
Currently listening to: 
In Camera (Peter Hammill, 1974)
Nadir’s Big Chance (Peter Hammill, 1975)
Over (Peter Hammill, 1977)
The Rising Of The Lights (William D Drake, 2011)

Currently reading:
A Rural Affair (Catherine Alliott, 2011) - the chick lit review was postponed, so I’m back chasing the miserable dollar.
Currently watching:
Drop The Dead Donkey Series 2 and 3 (Channel 4, 1991 - 1992)

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