Thursday, 1 December 2011

Another memorial

A sad anniversary yesterday, a year since the death of my foster father Alan Shotliff.  There was much to admire about him, but his best epitaph came from the doctor:  "Thanks, but I'm afraid we can't use any of his organs for transplant.  He's used them all up."  That says more about him than I ever could  *raises glass*

I've got one art O level, it did nothing for me

It's a while now since we saw the Specials at the Ricoh Arena, but a couple of things have stuck with me.  One was the obvious and genuine pride the city has in its alumni.  It was a much-needed reminder that Coventry isn't London-only-less-good, it has a proper civic identity of its own, however fragmented and buried that may be.  Not all the Specials fans were from round here, but it was easy to see that all the 40-something rude boys and girls shared a little part of the story of why we're the way we are today.  It was also nice to join in the singing and dancing at the bar as we waited to get served, you don't get that at a Kasabian gig.  I imagine.
It was a thoroughly warm "welcome to Coventry" for me.
I did wonder though why you never hear the Specials on the radio.  Ghost Town excepted, they never feature on    nostalgia radio stations or compilations, even "alternative" ones (on which, generally, if you are lucky you will get the Jam and Bananarama).  I've genuinely not heard Rat Race or even the eternally relevant Too Much Too Young since 1979.  Why not?  None of the words have become any less valuable in 30plus years, and none of the tunes have become any less enjoyable.
Still, even though these days the Specials are Dammersless, they made a very large number of very elderly teenagers very happy.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Happy Halloween

Boring Gavin
by Cindy George

Gavin was thinking about his first love.  He was four and she was in his class, the lovely Corinne Turner.  She had been born with an extra toe on each foot and sometimes she would take her socks off and let you look.  Gavin thought this made her exotic and magical and showed his devotion by sitting quietly near her wherever she went.  It didn’t seem to bother her any more than toes eleven and twelve did, he was just there.
“Haven’t you got a mind of your own?”  That was his mum.  “You don’t have to do everything that Corinne does, you know.  Tell you what, let’s go to the park.”  He loved those afternoons in the park with his mum, almost as deeply as he loved Corinne.  There were swans to feed and if you chased them they would flap their giant wings at you and chase you back.  He wasn’t allowed to chase the swans but sometimes he did it anyway.  Just to show his mum he did indeed have a mind of his own.  She was long gone now, of course, he was fairly certain of that.
Remembering his mum made him think of when he was older and had a proper girlfriend, pretty Marianne who was exquisite but had less brainpower than a catnip mouse.  She left him in the end for someone more exciting.  Steve, Gavin remembered; he had had a car and very nearly a moustache.  Gavin didn’t even try to compete with that.  He remembered wondering what had happened to Marianne, where she was now.
But the real love of his life had been Ellen, clever, kind and beautiful, with dark hair and light eyes and a smile that made him realise everything was well with the world.  Had there been anyone before Ellen?  He couldn’t quite remember.  But he knew Ellen had been beside him from the day they married in the crumbling sandstone church of her remote northern hometown.  She had borne his child, or maybe children, and he could picture her face perfectly, cradling a crying baby, shushing it and wiping away a tiny splash of milk with a soft pink bib with flowers on it.  Must have been a little girl he had then, thought Gavin, that’s nice.
Ellen was there on their holiday to Florida, and oh, they had two little girls by then, and they squealed and ran away from the pelicans just like he had done with the swans only minutes ago.  “This has been the most fun I’ve ever had, ever ever!” Ellen had told him.  “Well it must be very boring most of the time being married to me” he’d laughed.  She said if she’d wanted excitement she would have married an astronaut and they’d laughed for ages, even though it hadn’t been as funny as all that.
The girls had married as well, what beautiful weddings they’d been, he could still see Katie in her off-white gown with the lace-up bodice her mum hadn’t been too sure about but in the end it was perfect down to the scent of the bouquets but the best thing of all was her smile.
And when he was in hospital they were all there, so tender and loving. 
But then there was nothing, just a cold damp darkness. 
In one last tiny flare of consciousness, he realised he wasn’t Gavin Mason at all.  Just a lucky graveyard worm digesting the memories from Gavin’s dead brain.  The thought flickered and went out.

Monday, 17 October 2011

How to tell you are in Coventry

Londoners walk up and down escalators, regardless of whether they are working or not.  They're still stairs.  In Coventry, the escalators generally work, but when people get on them, they just stand there and wait to be conveyed up or down.

Londoners pile onto buses in this order: 1 - people who think it is their very own personal bus, 2 - people who think they may as well push in as everyone else is, 3 - people who are fully aware there will be another, less crowded bus along in a few minutes.  In Coventry, people form a neat line in order of their arrival at the bus stop, and enter the bus in the same order.

In London I had my hair cut in a nice 1920s-style bob, same length all the way around, shaved up to the bottom of the bob at the back to neaten and define the style.  In Coventry, it is compulsory to have the same haircut as everyone else, varying only in length.  When I first moved here, a town centre hairdresser layered it up the back for reasons I don't understand, leaving pointless wispy bits growing out in random directions over the back of my neck.  Four months later, having recovered from this somewhat, I made an attempt at a different hairdresser to have my style restored.  "I don't do shaving" she said.  This calls into question my entire understanding of the term hairdresser.  I left with the same unwanted style I went in with, but now with slightly tidier layers.  Apparently Coventry doesn't do horizontal lines in hair.  Must be some sort of council legislation.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Granny Thomas

The last few weeks have been so hectic that I've neglected to mention a major event in our little world, the sad passing of Paul's gran, Jean Thomas.  I'd only known her as a nice old lady who loved her family and her dog, and carried on knitting for charity long after her fingers and eyesight had let her down.  Only at her funeral did I get a tiny glimpse of the person she really was: the hiker, the war worker, the artist, the woman who battled to make a good life for herself, and to gift her son and grandchildren with her own strength, humour, practicality and ability to make things better for those she loved.  Paul is lucky to have had her as a gran, and I am lucky to have someone who's inherited some of her qualities.  I'll try and remember her as I never knew her.

Monday, 10 October 2011

I haven't been so scared since I had typhoid

I am so SO lucky to have somehow got onto this highly-oversubscribed MA, at this prestigious university, with these world-class writers to teach me, and these incredibly talented fellow students.  I am ridiculously appreciative and excited about where something like this may lead.  So far I have hated every single second of it.  I am so terrified and overwhelmed that part of my brain is trying to preserve itself by sabotaging my attempts to get to classes - putting me on a bus so thoroughly wrong I ended up paying £15 for a taxi, sending me to the wrong rooms at the wrong times, and ensuring I forget watch, phone, pen or some other crucial accessory every time.  I am unable to eat on the days I have to go in.  I haven't met my tutor yet, I'm too scared to contact him (also I find myself even less able than normal to process faces, so I have no idea what he looks like).

Presumably my awesome incapability will make an excellent story one day.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who lives in a house like this?

London was the ultimate destination, there wasn’t really anything that came after London.  From the age of about 7, London was my ambition.  London meant away from the dull hell of the unwanted child and away from a post-industrial town with no community, culture or happy memories.  London was where there were lights and people, London was where things happened.
My flat in Hackney was full of light and life.  Ikea and Argos helped my generation escape from the stale, solid Victorian furniture which most poor 1970s households were still built around.  My front room looked out over the High Street from a curved bay window.  From there I could see life I’d never dreamed of: MPs, drug dealers, celebrities, petty criminals, people who ran lifestyle coaching businesses; people from Poland,  Ghana, Ireland,  Australia and Cyprus, people who I never thought I’d share space with.  In the cemetery across the road were further glamorous strangers: doctors, composers, Victorian gentlefolk, tragic babies, forgotten heroes, the founders of the Salvation Army.  
I had never eaten a herb, been abroad or met anyone who did what they wanted for a living before I was 16.  
Inside, it was the home of the person I wanted to be.  Books and music that said I was just too young for punk and just too old for acid house, but took an interest anyway.  Things that could only have been gifts, to show that I had friends.  Photos to show I’d travelled.  Things that said I was the sort of person to get excited by things. 
The last few months, though, were tense and sad.  The crushing bad luck of chronic unemployability combined with the monstrous good fortune of having Paul and his family to help made the move to Coventry inevitable and eventually desirable.  I started thinking about what sort of person this would make me.  A housewife?  A suburbanite?  A normal  person.  Yes, it turns out that I am a normal person after all, the one thing I was always desperate for because I was shunned and strange, and dreaded the most because I thought I was special.
I don’t know who lived here last, we bought a blank slate from a redeveloper, all in cream and white and upvc.  Neighbours have mentioned an old woman, but the surveyor found a pushchair in the loft.  It doesn’t feel like a house with a story, generations have been passing since the 1930s, completing their business here and moving on, it’s not a house that has absorbed their characters.
There are thousands of houses like ours, a three-bedroomed terrace, now with a kitchen extension and open-plan ground floor (no need to huddle in tiny dark rooms now central heating is available.  No need to be cut off from each other when cooking or reading or watching telly).  The whole suburb would have been a vast building site throughout the 1930s, a new lifestyle for workers from the nearby mine.  The mine became a landfill site for the last half of the century, and now it’s a nature reserve and we can go blackberrying on it, or stand in our back garden and watch buzzards hunt.  Because that’s the sort of thing we like to do.  We are people who live in a house, and we like nature and cooking and gardening.
These aren’t houses for people who live on their own, though plenty do.  Mostly the bereaved, or those who’ve extricated themselves from a bad relationship.  But the main occupants are families.  I never played as a child, but the same shrieks and giggles I used to find so pointless and unfathomable are still audible from my back window.  Now I have Paul, though, and we are a family, a small one, just us two, how we like it.    I am a person who lives in a house and experiments with growing vegetables.  I am a person who lives with my partner.   I am a person who engages tradesmen, in as much as window cleaners turn up occasionally, and I agree to give them money.  I can almost see the day when I become a person who gives a shit about the condition of my lawn.  It is frightening, but I can finally stop fighting.  I can see our house on Google Earth, it is there, and as I zoom out, I can see how tiny we are, but we are still part of a city, of a country, of the world.
I thought I was moving back out of the light into the shadows.  Now I’m learning how to make my own light. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Consolations of Coventry

Watching the street I used to live in on telly, and stupidly sad that I'm not there.  Not there to be scared and angry in a city full of scared and angry people.  Not there with the extractor fan on to get the smell of burning bus out of the kitchen.  Sorry about that, people from Brighton who bought my flat.  

Instead, I'm watching it all on telly from miles away and feeling a tiny bit less than alive because I'm not in London, where things happen.

This ridiculousness forces me to remember why I like living here, in my house, with my beloved, in a city that's not yet mine.

The other Saturday, we were wandering around town and heard an unusual noise.  Looked up to see three birds, one of which seemed to be carrying another.  Took a while to process this visually, then realised I was looking at two peregrines taking a pigeon - an Attenborough-worthy drama right in front of us in the city centre!  They live in the church spires, and it turns out everyone knew about them but us, or at least the Coventry Telegraph did.  We then pottered around the Herbert Museum for a bit, going "ooh look, a Lowry" and trying on the armour from the kids' dressing-up boxes, all finished off with a decent cup of coffee.  

The previous week we were at the Godiva Festival, as documented elsewhere, and I can't think of anywhere else I could watch Heaven 17 for nowt, while drinking Pimms and watching families settle down with their kids and dogs for a bit of an eighties singalong.

The following week we unexpectedly got tickets for Latitude - they arrived on Wednesday and by Thursday afternoon, following a couple of quick emails, we were off to Clapham to be ferried to the festival  in style by the legendary Dave the Owl. Despite the perpetually annoying and unnecessary difficulties of travelling horizontally across the UK, we learned that a trip to Southwold at two day's notice was perfectly possible, and I even  had time to nip to Asda and get a pair of wellies for £12.

That's a handful of reasons to be happy living in Coventry right there, and I've only been here a few weeks.

When the riots reach us, I almost feel as though I can say, while banging heads together:  "Not in MY city, you don't".



We had Proper Riots in the Olden Days

Feel weirdly homesick watching my old streets and local shops getting smashed up live on rolling news.  Kids on the rob and throwing fireworks don't make Kingsland Road any less familiar, but this is beyond a "riots in Hackney, no-one notices" joke.

I spent the first day simply astounded at how copiously and fragrantly people were shitting on their own doorsteps.  It took a while to realise that these people were prepared to trash their own community because they don't see that it is theirs.  As far as they're concerned, the corner shops and the homes above them, the buses and the roads are all legitimate targets, no different to the corporate giants or the government agencies who've served some of them so badly. 

I was living in Brixton during the riots of 85, and any rioter, any passer-by could tell you what the problem was then.  Disaffection, alienation, racism, poverty, unemployment - the rioters were using the only means they had to get things to change.  No-one this week seems like they could point out any purpose in their breaking and burning.  They're blindly lashing out, not in any hopes of effecting change, but maybe because they're the sons and daughters of those for whom things never did change.  The rioting has no message other than "our lives are so shit that this is what we do".  It's self-harm on a grand scale.  

It was not till today that I first saw anyone involved being interviewed or even wanting any kind of platform, outside of the people who were asking reasonable questions about the death of Mark Duggan.  The Croydon teens on the BBC came up with "we're showing the police and the rich people we can do what we like".  Bear in mind that for them, "rich people" include shopkeepers and their staff.  People are looting pound shops.

Previous riots (and let's not forget that England has such an ancient and prolific history of them that they're almost normal) have had a point, an enemy and an agenda, however ill-defined and variable.  There's no such thing here.  Rioters used to smash McDonalds and burn useless jobcentres.  Now they're destroying ordinary people's homes.

They're holding us all to ransom, but not making any demands.  The pathetic looting of hair weaves and cigarettes alongside the 3D TVs shows that they're not expecting things to be better after all this is over, not even different. Even Sky News have stopped referring to people who break into a jewellery shop as "anarchists".  This isn't anarchy, it's another sort of capitalism.

I'm not saying that the rioters have nothing to complain about - but whatever it is, they're NOT complaining about it.   Nicking trainers is not, in itself, a political act, however inarticulate you are.  They haven't even got a decent soundtrack to riot to.  At least the 80s had the Specials, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Smiths.  This lot have got Swagger Jagger.  

Stay safe, London and Birmingham (not to mention Dublin, Dundee, Humberside).

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


I was still shaking bits of London out of my shoes (Olympic Park dust and Dalston hipster charity shop dandruff) when we realised it was time for our old chinas to come up and visit us for the Godiva Festival.  It calls itself the UK's biggest free family festival, which may well be true.  The only rival I can think of is Cambridge's Strawberry Fair which tends to feature more "your child's name on some glittery mud"-type stalls and less in the way of festivally music acts.  
I didn't see much of the promised "local history and culture" at Godiva (if you don't count the roller disco), and had a small tantrum at the sign on the curry stall assuring "nice and mild", but the entertainment was free, and we did have large amounts of fun. We were only there on Friday which was 80s night, headlined by Blancmange (yes!) and Heaven 17 (yes indeed!).  I shamed myself by complaining I didn't remember Mirrors from the 80s at all, to be gently told that they are a contemporary synth-pop band who spent the 80s mainly getting conceived.  They did turn out to be rather good though, in an Interpol-meet-Kraftwerk-but-unexpectedly-jaunty sort of way.
Blancmange didn't disappoint.  Well, I would have liked to have heard The Day Before You Came, but maybe it would have been a bit of a downer for such a pleasant evening.  However, God's Kitchen remains one of the most solemnly bonkers tunes of the keyboard-poking era, and nobody could fail to be excited to hear Living on the Ceiling, not even Blancmange themselves, apparently. Delightful.
Heaven 17 were a fantastic choice for headliners.  A genuinely good band containing two borderline geniuses, taking the music seriously but happy to play the hits to a casual crowd, and at least one song that everyone knows.  "Isn't this all a bit funky for you?" asked The Lovely Paul (I may have been grabbing that groove thang by the throat and throwing it in the ocean at the time).  He doesn't realise that in the olden days we had to take good music where we found it, be that in Unknown Pleasures or Penthouse and Pavement.  Wisely, that now-classic album is what the set's built around, and although it's had the now-inevitable anniversary tour, the songs evoke a thrilling combination of teenage exuberance and nostalgic horror at one's former self.  Not for Glenn Gregory though.  No, he simply looks genuinely pleased to have an audience, though he does apologise a lot for having crammed too many words into songs, never expecting to have to play them live thirty years on. There are new songs, and they are good new songs, and if they were the work of a new band (say, Mirrors) I would seek them out, but it is hard to hear them out of context in this setting.  Halfway through "Let's all Make A Bomb", Gary and I reminisce about spending a good ten years of our lives utterly convinced that we could die in a nuclear war at any given moment.  "We survived the eighties!" he cheers, and the song becomes a celebration.  They make sure they do the favourites - most people have, after all, come to hear Temptation, which they know from best-of-the-eighties compilations, or remember from high street nightclubs - but are careful to also include their own favourite which turns out to be a rather soulful Let Me Go.  Throughout, it's easy to drift off, thinking: "That's Martyn Ware, right there.  They might do Being Boiled or anything".  That doesn't make it a tiny bit less surprising and thrilling when they actually do Being Boiled.  After thirty years, STILL the only pop song to be written from the point of view of a silkworm.  Tch.  Pop stars today.
I suspect the other two days of the festival were just as much fun, featuring, somewhat surprisingly, Athlete and Musical Youth among others, but we had other destinations in mind.  That's a whole new post though.


Thursday, 28 July 2011


I feel my real "welcome to your new home" moment will be seeing the Specials play at the Ricoh Arena in October, but in the meantime, I was diverted by Home of Metal, a summer-long project with tentacles all over the Black Country radiating from an enthralling exhibition at the Museum of Birmingham.  
Even if you're not especially Metal, it's exciting to see Rob Halford's rhinestone-studded leather suit and Black Sabbath's massive light-up cross, and the inclusion of big looming chunks of 1960s industrial machinery to give things a bit of context.  
In fact, context is what this exhibition does best, I could have stayed in the mockup of Ozzy Osbourne's mum's front room all day looking at ye olde newspapers (favourite line: "the free-love pads of Edgbaston").  
It's also fascinating to see, via old records and posters, the divergence of the early "scene" into prog, pop, metal and beyond into NWOBHM, thrash, industrial, goth and who knows what's next.  So much of the exhibition relies on keepsake and souvenirs from those who went to the gigs and bought the records that the "fan days" on which anyone can book a table to exhibit their collection is a stroke of genius, and I find myself wishing all museums did this.
For six quid (and I am fully aware that you'd be lucky to pay double that for a comparable exhibition in London), it was a fantastic insight into metal, the Midlands, and the relationship between them.
Things learned: Bolt Thrower were signed to the record label of fantasy wargame company Games Workshop.  There is a Walsall Museum of Leather.
Favourite exhibit: Napalm Death KitKats and sweets made by Japanese fans.

Gardening Leave

We were recently forced to confront the surprising fact that pea seeds are, in fact peas.  Also, pumpkin seeds are the same thing as those seeds you get inside pumpkins.  Both appear to be growing.  The "spicy salad mix" is hurtling skywards faster than we, or even the caterpillars, can eat it, getting spicier by the second.  I find myself running at butterflies swearing and shouting "get off my land".
Yesterday, we had for lunch: bread that I baked that morning and radishes from the garden.  If the house had been a bit cleaner, I'd have felt rather smug.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Not moving from - moving to.

I'm just going upstairs.  I do this all the time, with an enthusiasm I don't normally have for exercise.  Sometimes I even skip.  It's still an exciting novelty for me - I've never owned a flight of stairs before.  Or a roof, or a garden, or a bit of the actual Earth with a building on it.  This could never have happened in London, where people lived above and below me, and a "management company" reluctantly maintained the building out of which my flat was hollowed.

Now I have a vegetable patch and three bedrooms, one of which contains the Lovely Paul.  I can be in London in just over an hour, including the taxi to the station.  I have a place on the Warwick University MA course in Writing.  I am a very lucky girl indeed.
It would be nice not to be sodding unemployable of course, but at least I don't have to get up too early in the mornings.

Before I left London, I had a suspicion that it might be possible to go out more, do more things and see more people from a Midlands base than the capital, and this seems to be the case - for a start, it takes less time to get from Coventry to Euston than my daily commute did when I lived in Zone 2.

In the eight weeks since I moved, I've been to three festivals, two museum exhibitions, several nice restaurants, a site of historic interest, some pubs and Ikea.  Many many trips to Ikea.  

I'll try to only tell you about the interesting stuff.