A Few Months to Fool’s Errand

ONCE upon a time, my working world extended rather further than my desk and the screen in front of me.

Sure, most of my time was spent tapping away at a keyboard, laying out pages and ensuring newspapers got out on time without anything that could have meant any legal implications (the part of my job many keyboard warriors who just slap things online unchecked can never understand).

But back in the day, Saturday afternoons – which shows how long ago this was – and more than occasional midweek evenings were spent peering out over a rugby pitch, pad in hand.

Facilities varied widely. Reports were filed standing on top of a radio van in a storm to peer over a crowd lining the side of the pitch, from phones with no view of the pitch, sat next to a fire on a sofa in one press box, surrounded by increasingly drunken fans blocking the view and even, on more than one occasion, on the bench. Thankfully, never got on.

Ebbw Vale, 1961

Among my favourite places to cover matches was Eugene Cross Park, home of Ebbw Vale, which became my regular Saturday haunt for a few seasons.

It was a typical Welsh club ground, cricket pitch off to one end, a wonderful, steep terrace cut into the valley running the length of one side and a loyal following of familiar faces and supply of sweets from a fellow press box regular in return for spotting all the substitutions.

The Steelmen had  a pretty good side at the time, guided by a future Grand Slam-winning coach, supplying a number of Welsh internationals and reaching a Welsh Cup final. Played, bizarrely, in Bristol and the only time I turned up late for a game when working.

It also came with its own climate and you could spot those who were not used to it – interviewed great All Black Zinzan Brooke as he shivered in shorts and a T-shirt after a pre-season friendly against Harlequins in August. Those of us in the know were clad in multiple fleeces kept in the car for trips to the head of the valley, however glorious the weather was just 20-odd miles away.

Emergency office

There were frequent sprints (yep, long time ago) to the phone box up the road to phone in reports to other papers for a few quid – no chance of a mobile signal up there – and an interview with one of the players through a blocked door as he carried out a post-match drugs test.

Was even accused by some of the faithful of brokering a move for two of their international players to Gloucester when financial problems hit. May have answered a few questions about Gloucester and broke the story, but that’s as far as it went. Agent’s cut would have been nice.

Things have changed. Ebbw Vale don’t produce internationals anymore, although they more than hold their own at the semi-professional level, and my rugby watching is much closer to home – bizarrely, a row in front one of those former players at Kingsholm at a pre-season game which saw a rare move from The Shed to a seat in the stand.

But the town has popped back up in my consciousness in recent months, courtesy of what is a fairly clear leader in my list of albums of the year and which has popped up a few times in the A-F catch-up on the A-Z journey through my iPod.

Have liked Public Service Broadcasting before. When they get it right, their blend of samples from old films, TV and news reports over a carefully-built soundscape – ooh, feel slightly queasy writing that – is excellent.

But it’s been more the odd track rather than album that’s caught my attention, more the first than the more widely-favoured follow-up Race for Space.

And then they released Every Valley, recorded in a makeshift studio in the town’s former workers’ institute.

It is, quite simply, a work of art (ooh, drifting off in to slightly pretentious critic territory now) as it explores the culture, high hopes, crushing collapse and determination of the mining industry with liberal sprinklings of Welshness,  from the unmatched voice of Richard Burton, through contemporary soundbites from miners and wives, a dash of the native language to a male voice choir for the finale, perfectly pitched to deliver one final emotional punch.

The music has the ability to get in your head, those soundscapes (stop it, now) working alongside the samples rather than overpowering them and at times veering in to Mogwai and even, bear with me here, Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory. The gentle border territory.

The guest vocals of James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers – from just down the road in Blackwood – is maybe the one track which sits slightly uneasily on the journey which needs to be made from start to finish. No shuffling, always the mark of a good album.

There’s been a couple of tracks from the album in this catch-up, the title track and All Out, where it hits the heart of the strike.

Arcade Fire

We’ve had a fair amount of Arcade Fire – not quite sure what to make of their latest album, but the fact it has not caught hold of my attention probably says it all.

Among others, there’s been the debut from Girl Ray – the band which features an old friend’s daughter, just to make me feel old – new stuff from the always interesting John Murry, comebacks from Ride and At The Drive-In and a couple from the latest Jason Isbell offering.

After releasing the couple of great albums we’ve been waiting for Ryan Adams to come up with for years, he appears to have released an album we’ve received more than once from Adams. It’s OK, but…

And then there’s The National.

Have mentioned before on this trip that they are a band which largely passed me by. For some reason, suggest they were dismissed as just one of a bunch of anodyne The… bands which were around at the time. So anodyne, can’t really remember who they were. The Script? The Feeling?

Various friends rave about them, one whose musical judgment is pretty trustworthy, but they continued to pass me by although they snuck in to my collection courtesy of a few borrowed CDs from an ex-flatmate which went largely unheard.

They pricked my attention early in the journey when they seemed to pop up very regularly, but vanished just as quickly. Until now.

Their new album is pretty bloody good. At its best – Day I Die on this stretch – it is very good and while it doesn’t all live up to that, there’s enough to keep dragging me back and delve into that back catalogue.

In among starting on G…

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Clones to Come To

STRANGE what memories a song can summon from obscure corners of your mind.

Taking the relatively small sample of the latest section of the A-Z journey through my iPod – which covered plenty of miles from Mull Historical Society to Bombay Bicycle Club – several songs popped up with strong associations.

Arcade Fire’s Cold Wind rekindles thoughts of walking across the frozen Lake Baikal in the middle of Siberia, while Coma Girl by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros brings back great memories of gigs with The Mighty Badger (one of their later offerings, it was also one of my favourites).

And Ryan Adams’ classic break-up track Come Pick Me Up – indeed, the entire Heartbreaker album – reminds me not of personal heartache, but an afternoon spent washing up and cleaning the kitchen.

Memoirs of music fans often tell grand tales of first hearing the track that changed their life – Stuart Maconie’s Cider With Roadies recalls him first hearing This Charming Man while travelling in the boot of a friend’s car – but they tend to creep up on me, working their way into my brain until they have taken firm root.

But that first (second and third) airing of Heartbreaker one Bank Holiday Monday afternoon in Cardiff has somehow stuck. Even in such unexciting circumstances.

Cleaning the kitchen was not on my to-do list when the day started with the early shift at work, back in the days when evening newspapers printed on the day they went on sale.

Having gone into the office way too early – bank holidays always had an earlier deadline – finished off pages with the overnight sport and put together some early pages for the next day, it was back home by lunchtime.

Not to a relaxing afternoon in front of the TV or out and about doing something productive (work out which one was more likely, given this was a bank holiday in Cardiff, so it was probably raining), but to an almighty mess in the kitchen.

It had been growing for days as part of a stand-off between flatmates – three of us who had been in the house for a while versus the new lad.

Three against one hardly seems fair, but the latest tenant to move into my old room (after my rapid move into the much bigger front bedroom the instant the original fourth member of our happy band had moved in with her now husband) didn’t let being outnumbered sway him.

Not only was he impossible to understand – a thick North Walian accent was mixed with a tendency to mumble and swallow his words – he also had a rather different view to keeping the house tidy to the rest of us (for my former work colleagues, getting him to do his share was akin to trying to get me to make a tea round).

The work was not evenly distributed, one of us looked after all the bills and handed us regular notes on how much we had to pay, and kept the whole thing ticking over. The rest of us cleaned up after ourselves, kept life as simple as possible and got on remarkably well.

But not the new guy. (This blog has a bit of a rule to avoid names where possible, but seriously can’t remember his. Sure he told us, just not sure we understood it.)

Not the actual washing up - it was much worse than this.
Not the actual washing up – it was much worse than this.

It all came to a head after he spent an evening cooking for himself and managed to use pretty much all our pans and cooking equipment, leaving them coated in some unidentifiable gunk.

Leaving them being the key phrase. Piled up in the sink.

Having sat there for a couple of days, despite a few increasingly impolite suggestions that he washed them up, we moved the whole collection to outside his bedroom door.

He responded by simply bringing them back downstairs, where they sat in an unwashed pile which grew as he left more unwashed plates and pans in its wake – some of which we had to remove and wash ourselves just to have something to cook and eat with.

It all reached a head the Sunday night before that bank holiday when another of his cooking attempts (thankfully not that frequent) left a trail of devastation which greeted me en route to work the next morning.

The note pinned to fridge the letting him know my true feelings was gone on my return, but the mess wasn’t and my patience ran out – sadly not, as planned, by dragging him downstairs and forcing him to clean up as he was nowhere to be seen.

So Heartbreaker – bought, as a lot of my albums were in those days,  on the back of  an Uncut magazine sampler CD – was popped into the stereo and the job of clearing up began.

And having listened to it once, it went on again and again as the clean-up went beyond merely working through the washing up, but moved on to a total overhaul and reorganisation of the kitchen – totally out of character for me, but such was the need to keep listening to this wondrous album, of which Come Pick Me Up was a one of the highlights.

The reaction of the man who sparked this kitchen frenzy  – the latest in a list of flatmates who could, and probably will, fill more posts on this blog – was negligible.

He said not a word about the note or transformed kitchen and soon started work on building a new pile of washing up for him to ignore and us to get frustrated about, prompting another, less polite note pinned to the fridge which contained one or two words he may have had problems swallowing.

That had the desired effect. Mainly because he found it as he walked into the kitchen with his visiting mum, who evidently gave him a dressing down to the extent that he not only cleaned up the mess, but appeared at the lounge door with a cup of tea for the rest of us before she departed.

The lasting impact was far greater on my musical tastes, sparking a love affair with Adams’ work that saw him pop up several more times in this section and a burgeoning interest in Americana.

But there’s still plenty from the indie ghetto which had been my musical home up to then, three versions of Come Play With Me by The Wedding Present surfacing in the latest batch of tracks, along with two of Coffee & TV (possibly my favourite Blur track) two of Come As You Are by Nirvana (unplugged and electric) and the wonderful coupling of Cloudbusting, almost certainly Kate Bush’s finest hour, and Sufjan Steven’s Come On! Feel The Illinoise!

As for that ex-flatmate. He moved out not long after (the rest of us would soon go our separate ways as well) but our paths did cross some time later in a pub in Cardiff and we sort of spoke.

Just had no idea what he was saying.

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Broken Imaginary Time to Burger Queen

LIKE millions of people around the world, my progress through an airport is accompanied by a growing feeling of trepidation and no little dread.

The tension grows, the anxiety rises and the fear of what may be lying ahead clouds my thoughts.

Nothing to do with a fear of flying – that’s never bothered me unduly – but the merest hint of an airport causes my faith in humanity to evaporate as my fellow passengers take it in turns to engage their ‘incapable of thinking for themselves or of others’ travelling brain and carry out a sequence of actions guaranteed to raise my blood pressure.

Into the Airport LightThere’s those who appear to think they are the only ones in the entire airport with a plane to catch, those who believe the rules on liquids on board don’t apply to them, those who have decided to wear every item of clothing or jewellery containing metals and have made no steps to speed up their passage through security, those who stand side by side chatting on the moving walkways and those who seem to think that rushing up to the gate as soon as boarding is announced will somehow make the plane leave earlier.

And, above all those irritants, are those who interpret carry-on bags as bigger than the one which will carry my gear around Africa for 10 months, can only be steered through the airport on wheels and will end in them struggling to force them into the overhead lockers as they remove or relocate any more suitable bags which may dare to get in their way.

On entering the plane the frustrations come close to boiling over (especially on the return flight, when the annoyances cannot be smoothed over by the anticipation of the destination).

Despite evidence to the contrary, finding your seat is not difficult. Your boarding pass has a number and a letter which the airline has been kind enough to mark just above the seats all the way down the plane.

N173DZ B767 DELTA FLIGHT CDG-EWRFind that seat, put your bag in the luggage rack (having taken anything you want out beforehand), sit in that seat, stay there, don’t recline your seat without checking the tall person behind you does not already have their knees pressed against the rest of your chair, don’t lean on the person next to you and, for the good of the people around you, get off your phone before told to do so and don’t have a conversation with a friend several rows away.

And try to think of those people close to you – very close on some flights – for the hours you share in a confined space.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? Not on my flight back to the UK from the USA a couple of weeks ago.

Frustrations were already rising after the free-for-all boarding process as all five lanes were dealt with in no specific order by the sole agent at the gate and kept on doing so after sitting down in my aisle seat – next to a woman and her young son, probably aged about five or six.

Technically, it was just next to her, but he was climbing over from his window seat onto her and was beginning to make inroads into my space.

Opting to be resolutely British and stare straight ahead, my attention was caught by a backlog caused by a small, elderly lady needing help to lift her huge bag into the overhead compartment and then out again as she opened it to take out several items before settling down into the seat in front of mine.

Proficient in English to ask for help with her bag, she denied all knowledge when asked not to recline her seat, which made getting out of mine even more difficult when the woman next to me and child wanted out for a chat with a guy who had just wandered down the aisle with a baby in his arms.

They remained gone for a while as we sat waiting to push back and the prospects of a squashed night constantly getting up to allow them out was looming large.

And then came a tap on my shoulder.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you the gentleman who is moving to allow the gentleman to sit with his family?”

Not that I knew, but hey, this could be my escape and with the eyes of those crammed in cattle class on me, my bag was grabbed from up above and off we went in search of the seat vacated by the father.

The father who had opted to cram himself into economy, having shelled out for a seat in Business.

Singapore Airlines: Business Class in SQ947 DPS-SINSurely some mistake – but not one which they had chance to dwell on as my shattered, suddenly less than pristine looking form, settled into the wider seat, kicked my shoes into the supplied alcove, rested my feet onto the shelf beneath the much larger screen and ordered the ribeye beef, thank you very much.

Instead of little plastic trays, foil-covered shades of grey masquerading as food and trying to sleep sat upright, it was proper cutlery, a mini table cloth draped over your tray, a succession of courses delivered at your own pace and a night sprawled reclined full length, head resting on a proper pillow.

And nobody not knowing how to behave on a plane (bar me when one of my fellow passengers pointed out that the exit was actually behind me and turning round might stop the elite front section having to wait).

One impact of this stroke of fortune was that my iPod remained in my pocket and progress through the A-Z has been pretty slow as we edged along from Soundtrack Of Our Lives to Placebo, who took over top spot in the longest track yet at 22.39, even if most of it was silence, followed by what sounds like a reception class banging away at a roomful of instruments.

We had a group of Buddy songs (via The Lemonheads, De La Soul and Weezer), a Buck (Feeder), a Buffalo (Stump), Brothers from Mark Kozelek and Desertshore, which is a hugely depressing but strangely absorbing track, and almost the perfect subject matter for a country song in Bulldozers and Dirt by Drive-By Truckers.

Veronica Falls supplied Broken Toy – which falls into the must investigate further category – while Jesse Malin took us to Brooklyn and Arcade Fire to a Building Downtown.

Probably pick of this section was Bullet Proof… by Radiohead (remember folks, The Bends is better than OK Computer) while Rage Against The Machine’s Bullet In The Head blasted out pulling out of work on Sunday evening, to some strange looks from the congregation gathering at the church opposite.

And their parking is almost as frustrating as the behaviour of your average airport dweller.

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