Friday, 21 July 2017

So far this month, I have...

Seen a heron right up close.

Been to Tintern Abbey for the first time in many years.  
Considered legal action.
Considered whether to continue making music, given that I would definitely rather not be a social media content provider, marketing agent, publicist, booker, ticket agent, plugger, writer, runner, chauffeur, caterer, engineer or any of the other things deemed essential for musicians to do before spending any time making music, in this place/time where music and musicians are abundant and easily accessible, and yet respected so little.
Unwittingly attended a regular live music night I had meant to try for ages (and found it terribly disappointing.  (Which is why I resisted calls to get involved.)).
Seen possibly my favourite new Bristol graffiti: “DO NOT PARK HERE I WILL NOT PUT UP WITH CHEEK OR FREE LOADING”
Taken a picture of a dead bird, upside down in water (the bird, not me).
Wondered why characters in animated sitcoms wear the same clothes in every scene and episode, whereas human sitcom screen actors wear different clothes in every scene and episode.  Both seem oddly unreal.  Subsequently wondered if anyone else has ever had this thought, and thought some probably have but they would then most likely have dismissed it as too banal an observation to ever make it into the public domain.  TV producers will know the answers to these questions, but they aren’t telling.
Been run over by a car (to be fair, I wasn’t really run over, in the strictest sense.  But my back wheel was, in the literal sense.  While I was on the bike.  So, if I had been a few inches to the right of where I was at the time, it would’ve been my right leg looking like this, instead of my back wheel:
Luckily, the driver who caused this through negligence (and not having a wing mirror – which is also negligence, I suppose) zipped off immediately, which saved us a frank exchange of views.  (During which, I might have questioned why anyone would reverse quickly, without having checked who/what is behind, and without an off-side wing mirror (it was all wing and no mirror) to facilitate this; why, having done so, and hearing a cyclist bang a panicked hand on the back window in terror of being crushed, acknowledge this, only to reverse again, faster; Presumably, there was something important to which to rush.  To a garage, to replace a missing wing mirror, perhaps.)) 
Seen Mavis Staples (at the O2, which was a shame.  It was supposed to be at the slave-trade-sponsored concert hall nearby, but the ghost of a slave trader has haunted the place and it is unsuitable for music now…so, the gig was shifted to the mobile-network-sponsored Worst Venue In Town™.  To be fair, the sound was much better for this gig than most previous ones I have seen there.  (Some of the older audience members had their night spoiled by people talking loudly behind them.  Some of the younger audience members had their night spoiled by being told to shut up in the most passive-aggressive way.  Two of the younger audience members affected reached out to make friends, later in the set, while Mavis sang “reach out…make a friend”.  One was successful in this, enhancing the experience for all concerned.  The other was unsuccessful, having been rebuffed, spoiling the experience for all concerned)) without even writing a review of it.  (The support band were impressive.  (And Mavis was excellent.))
Interviewed a friend (who wrote the title track of the new Jay Z album….uh huh.  (The interview was for the PFR podcast.  (And our interview is an exclusive.  (The PFR is The People’s Front Room, a festival venue and arts collective that put on parties and use art to open your brainhearts and stuff them full of creative goodness – and the podcast is a growing part of that.  We play music you might not have heard and we talk about the role of art, among other things.  I’ve enjoyed doing it, have you been listening….?))))
You can listen here:
Been delighted for friends who have great things and exciting opportunities now and/or coming up.  Thought about how fortunate I am to know so many talented people doing great work and living well.
Wondered why the Orange Order still exists, where the political impasse in Northern Ireland will lead, and why picking up a bottle that has been thrown at you is a bookable offence.  Subsequently wrote a draft blog about the intersectionality of football, politics and sectarianism.  It’s the third or fourth attempt at writing about the July marching parades season.  None have been published anywhere.  (Or even finished).  (Subsequently remembered why the Order still exists.  None of the reasons are good, or even interesting.)
Written my one annual pithy facebook status/tweet which gets a respectable amount of likes.  (In case you’re interested, it was this: “Breaking news: children's TV show has new actor. In other news, women exist.”)
Written a blog with 23 sets of parentheses. (And wondered, subsequently, about my odd fetish for parentheses.  (What is it about?)) (And then wondered if anyone will read it.  And then wondered if any of that small number will like it.  (Estimated: No.  Published it anyway.))

Friday, 14 July 2017

NYFC Stories (2)

We wake up hanging, again.

It is waaaaaaay hot outside – and in.  Which doesn’t do the hangover any good at all.  Hard to sleep, apart from everything else.
It’s painfully hot out.  We spend the day eating, and trying to recover, and then retreat into a bar, mostly for the AC.  “My baawwss waaawnts to turn aawwf the AC an leave the fuckin windows open!” says the bar manager, incredulously.  We’re glad that hasn’t happened.  The outside world, with all its heat and smog and noise, is shut out and we are soon chilled like a couple of glass bottles in a fridge. 
The bar manager is interviewing for new staff and there’s a few tourists in.  It’s also Happy Hour, so we get a couple of cheap beers and some fries and get our hairy dog on. 
Dai, being more local than us, takes us out after he finally turns up.  We go to what he calls a “Country [& Western] bar”.  It’s a proper dive bar, not like them Hipster Dive Bars where it’s like a theme pub.  No, this place is real; it’s American, not really like New York at all, more of a Southern place.  But then what do I know, I’m not from round yer, am I?  Maybe it’s a theme pub after all, Country & Western/Southern-themed.  But it’s definitely not hipster.  They don’t do tabs (sensible, in a place like this), and it’s cheap (perfect).  There are bras hanging all over the place, for some reason. 
We’ve been here a while, and we’re thinking of moving – after the inevitable “one more”, of course – and then a fella at the bar starts talking to AK, heaving heard her accent.  He is a former London resident, and a big football fan.  His name is Seamus, he’s Irish(-American), of course, like 60% of America and 80% of New York.  He knows (exactly) where he is from, of course (“Counny Cworrk”).  He’s a very nice fella, and we’re all having a nice, relaxed time.
Seamus is some sort of banking consultant and has good sense/classic white guilt enough to be embarrassed about it.  “Bet you don’t get many banking consultants in yer”, I venture.  He agrees, with a shrug.
“If you’re embarrassed about it, why do you do it?”  Asks, AK, pointedly, living up to her name (it’s really just her initials.  Yeh.  I’m great fun, I am.  Love to tell a story.)
“Well, I guess…”  Seamus fumbles awkwardly. 
“Never mind dissembling awkwardly, mate, we’re the bloody Brits, alright.”  I tell him,
“You just do what you got to do, feed your family, same as everyone else does, and forget about it innit.”
“Yeah, I guess”, he smiles.
“And get your hand in your fuckin pocket, it’s your round, ya dodgy-banking bastard!”  AK roars, much to Seamus’ delight.
We’re havin a right good laugh here, it’s turnin into a good night.
AK also meets a composer who is very interested in Finland – Sibelius is his favourite composer, and he has some connections in the region – especially Estonia.  He tells us that Estonia and Finland are the only two countries in the world with the same tune for their national anthems (different words, of course).  I tell him I’m not sure about that, then we briefly discuss Northern Ireland politics, for some reason.  I will admit that things are starting to get slightly hazy, at this point.
AK and I have a little dance, at Dai’s insistence, twisting and jiving round the wooden floor, kicking up sawdust.  Well, it’s his dollar in the jukebox, fair play, I reckon.
I leave the table for a minute, and when I come back, my seat is taken.  There’s a new guy, and the first thing I hear him say is “Shots?!”
But that’s not the first thing I notice about him.  No, the first thing I notice about him is that he’s built like a shit brickhouse.  He’s very nearly square in the chest, roughly as wide as he is tall.  He’s got a big round Ross Kemp bald head and he’s looking a bit glassy-eyed, a bit glazed, if you know what I mean.  Takes one to know one. 
Over the next hour or so, this man will drag us along on his journey of emotional pain.
His name is Joe, he’s also Irish, of course (he also knows where from, of course, but I forget as soon as he tells me), and he is from New Jersey.
This is the extent of the personal information I will glean from our time together.
After Joe realises he is in my seat, and that AK is not up for a shot (if you’ll excuse the pun!), and that she is with me, he jumps up out of the seat and apologises to me.  Then he (physically – yes, literally, yes, literally, physically) drags me to the bar and gets the barmaid to line up shots. 
Looks like I’m doing shots, then.
Joe tries to get others involved.  In the end, Dai comes over and has a shot.  Then Joe starts talking about more shots and we say no.  Then he looks at me and asks if he is a bad guy, if he’s being an arsehole, or something.  I can’t remember the exact words he uses, but I remember his pleading, his plaintive expression.  He looks like a child who has been told he is not getting any presents this Christmas.
He honestly looks like he might cry, or prang out and hit someone hard enough that they won’t get up.
I tell him he’s not a bad guy and maybe should just calm down a bit, take it easy. 
So, the night has taken on a slightly worrying edge.  Darkness is seeping in, under the door, touching everything.  I ruminate on all this to Dai. 
“Christ, mate, who are you, Dylan Thomas?  Lay off the whisky, will you?”
Joe snaps out of his melancholy long enough to grab me and mutter something about the bouncer, something that makes me think he is suggesting that he and I could go and beat up the bouncer.
Obviously, I tell him as politely/firmly as possible that I want no part of that – after which he puts his arm around me and starts to pull me toward the corner of the room, where the toilet is.  His biceps are the size of my thighs.
Being as he is a bit aggressive (in a possibly, hopefully friendly sort of way), and I’m really not sure what it is he is trying to do or get me to do, I resist.  When Dai looks over, frowning, and says “Alright mate?  Should I get the bouncer, or something…?” (Apparently, I will learn later, in the expectation that he is probably over-reacting and that I will wave his concerns away), I say “Yes mate, that would be lovely!” very quickly.
The darkness in Joe’s mind is trying to infect us all.  Whatever put him in this mood, he is in no position to tell us about it, and we’re in no mood to find out. 
Dai gets the bouncer, who ambles over with the languid gait of the career doorman who has seen it all and is content to see how things play out before intervening.  The hands-off approach of the world-weary.  I understand it, but I’m struggling to stay upright with this huge bloke hanging on my shoulder, quite literally trying to drag me down with him.  I’ve met some hard nuts in my time, but back home, I usually know where I am with them – and how to easily get away…
But we’re visitors yer, I don’t know the place – and the last thing Dai needs is any trouble. 
The bouncer has a word, taking Joe away from us.  I relax a bit, and am ready to head back to our table to resume our drinks and our conversation with the other locals, but Joe emerges again. 
The bouncer is elsewhere, and Joe is all about shots and advances on AK and apologies for it (always to me, never her) and aggression and asking if he is being awful and looking plaintive and Bambi-eyed, and then we look at the situation and say “let’s just leave”.
We go outside, after pointing out to the bouncer (who is now on the door) that Joe is aggressive/a powder keg with a lit fuse/a total liability to all of us, himself and the bouncer included.  The Bouncer nods, and talks to us while wait outside for a taxi.
About this time, (a couple of minutes after we’ve left), Joe bolts out of the bar and charges down the road at a fast pace, apparently without having seen us.
The bouncer tells us that Joe has been here before, comes in every couple of weeks and is in this state half the time, or more.  (Apart from anything else, this goes some way to explaining the bouncer’s previously relaxed attitude.)
 “Well”, says Dai, “if I had to guess, I’d say that fella is a former US marine with PTSD.  Met a few in my time, yer, always in bars like that.”
“Sounds about right.  It’s like fuckin Watership Down one second, and Black Hawk Down the next.”
Watership Black Hawk Down!”
It’s not funny, mind, is it? 
“How is it like Watership Down?”  Asks AK.  I try to explain, but me and Dai get bogged down in a lot of reminiscence, and the point gets lost.
The bloke was clearly very intimidating, riled and upset, and we have no idea why.  Until you ‘ve walked a mile in another man’s moccasins….
But I genuinely believe he meant us no harm at all, for whatever that might be worth. 
Probably nothing. 
A few days after this encounter, I will see a report about Mosul, and I will think of Joe.
But as I say, I’m a visitor yer, and I’m tryin to be nice.  After all, all the bloke’s really done is buy us some drinks and try to be friendly, in his own sort of style….
Nice to be nice, innit.

Friday, 7 July 2017

NYC Stories (1)

“I fly into JFK – my heart goes boom, boom, boom
I know that Customs man
He’s gonna take me to that little room – oh, no, no…
I got the Paranoid Blues
From knockin around in New York City.”
Paul Simon, Paranoid Blues

Flying is amazing, isn’t it?
I am always amazed, and always look out the window at the take-off and landing.  This time I see Wembley in the distance as we take off, and see the Severn bridges below, about 15 minutes later.  It took two and a half hours to get to Heathrow and quarter of an hour to get back to Wales…

Flying is one of those things I never get blasé about (not that I do a lot, to be fair).  Because it is amazing.  I have no real understanding of how it works.  To me, we might as well be powered by farts and buoyed in the sky by our collective expectation of maintaining the usual altitude.  (I’m not an idiot, and if someone explained it, I’d get it.  But I prefer to think of it as some kind of magic.  As Karl Popper wrote, magic is simply unexplained science.  And since no one has explained aviation to me in any detail, that seems like the appropriate term.  Although my only knowledge of Karl Popper is from an Irvine Welsh short story.  So that’s unreliable.)
Anyway, flying is amazing.  

I particularly enjoy the sudden – and regular – shunts and whirrs and burrs that make it seem like any other form of mechanical mass transit…..which it probably is (we take off nearly 2 hours late, so it definitely is.)
I always look out the window and I always think of the Enclosures Act.  And so, here we are in a bus 30000 feet above southern England, watching TV and films and drinking for free.

It’s still public transport, so I’m still with the general public, naturally.  Sat in front of me is a Hasidic couple.  When the meals go round, the stewardess apologetically explains that, as they have not ordered a Kosher meal, they haven’t got any.  The woman had already been wearing such a pained, pinch-faced expression, that I can only imagine (she’s sat in front of us, so I can’t see) what consternation this causes.  Neither her, nor her companion (I’d say husband, if I was the type to make assumptions) smile at any point; he is merely stony-faced.  She regards everything around her as if it were smeared with excrement.

I get talking to a man sat near me, who is from Cardiff.  His name is Dai.  He likes a drink.  (Friends I tell this story to later will describe him as an “enabler”, which I will find apposite.  And amusing.  In equal measure.)
Dai seems nice, and keeps getting us drinks – enabling the drinking, if you will.  He will.  Even though there are staff to bring us drinks, and the drinks are free, Dai gets rounds in when he heads to the toilet.  (We’re right near the back, by the toilet and catering supply dump, so it’s easy enough and saves us calling staff to get us drunk.)
I try to take it easy on the drink, because I’m a bit nervous about going through customs/immigration…

Dai seems on my level, and his opinions are progressive (and/or interesting).  Then, in the middle of some schtick I’ve started, he makes a weird joke about gas chambers, apropos of nothing – at which point, I put my hand over my mouth and point to the Hasidic woman right in front of us….it takes Dai a minute to catch up, at which point he says “Sorry!” quite loudly and shrugs.  Oh well, his shrug seems to say.  It wasn’t a racist joke, just stupid.  I like Dai, so I’m inclined to let it go, although obviously I didn’t like it – and wouldn’t have liked it anymore whoever was hearing it.  (It wasn’t really about gas chambers per se, he just mentioned it, for reasons best known to himself.  More odd than offensive, in my book.)

I have a coffee to sober up. 

At one point, the Hasidic woman suddenly jerks her chair back, nearly spilling my drink.  Not a crime, but a bit rude without a heads-up.  Dai is in the same boat, but the woman in front of him moves it at his request.  He seems like the sort who would not stand for any shite.  The (excellent-throughout-the-flight-and-presumably-only-straight-male-ever-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-joke-which-I’m-not) steward politely requests the Hasidic woman do the same.  Everyone is happy – except the woman, who still wears the expression of a bulldog chewing a wasp.  Or maybe it’s just the expression of a person who was hungry, having a shit time and then heard a very offensive joke.

I disembark, tired but sober/ing.  It is around 1 am on my body clock as I go to the visa check place – 7pm NY time.  Dai and I say our goodbyes without exchanging numbers or planning to meet.  This is the way I would usually want it, but in this case, I regret it just slightly because he does seem an intriguing character.

So, in the event, I’m in a queue waiting to see an immigration official (here they’re part of the Police dept. as well, so he’s technically a copper – and therefore, presumably, armed(!))

I know from experience that immigration officials/border guards are professionally humourless, gruff and do not respond positively to humour/humanity shown by entrants.  I have found this in the UK, but my (admittedly limited) experience of entering the US means I know that I will likely not be regarded as a person, and should not regard as a person the person not regarding me as a person.
Because I am not a first-timer, I do the first part pf this process on a machine, and print a receipt to show the border guard, which includes a black&white picture of me.

At this point, I see Dai being spoken to by one of the seemingly-endless succession of queue management staff.  He had been running around, confused and a bit drunk, ducking under barriers and generally behaving conspicuously.  I avoid him, giving him the widest berth possible. I don’t need this shit right now/ever.

I join the “line” (that’s what they call a queue here) to see the Border Guard, and assume the body language of an innocent person who is not at all nervous.  I wonder for a while what facial expression a person would show in this situation, if they had no paranoid fear of being discovered a liar and criminal and taken to a small room with no windows and confronted aggressively with proof of their lying criminality and frog-marched on to a plane and sent home, at their own expense, without even an opportunity to reclaim baggage, and subsequently barred from entering the USA for ten years.
And then I wonder if all of this calculation plays out on my face, in place of the weary nonchalance I am trying to affect/convey.
I notice the BG walk off with the person at the front of the queue, and this does nothing for my nerves.

Then I notice that the person being led away with the BG is Dai.  And my heart falls out of my arse.

I watch the BG noticing me noticing him after he returns.  And this also does nothing to help.
Having looked around at the queue, I am relieved to see a lot of white faces in line….for reasons with which I am not comfortable.
America is a very mixed, and very racially stratified society.  NY has a complex place in all this: most of the border staff are not white.  I wonder, briefly, how they feel about all the anti-immigrant feeling and crazy rhetoric and executive orders…and whether their race makes any difference to their feelings on this.
And then I go back to thinking about myself.

I briefly think, again, about the Hasidic couple from the plane.  And I see them go through, having completed their security checks.  I really hope they didn’t hear Dai’s joke.  I hope we weren’t assholes to them, and that they looked pissed off because that’s what they look like, or because they were pissed off about something else (going hungry, for example).
And then I go back to thinking about myself.

By the time I get to the queue for passport/visa checks, I have convinced myself to calm down a bit.  I have put on a zip-up hoody to cover my heart, so that it’s less obvious that it’s thumping out of my chest.
A Border Guard calls me forward, out of the queue...

I am in a state of nervous exhaustion.  There’s NO WAY they’ll send me back. There is NO CHANCE they’ll search my criminal records history and see…well, what’s there.
And even if they do, I know what I’ll say:  I didn’t lie, I completed that form to the best of my knowledge and belief, and that, because I am under no obligation to reveal my "criminal" past under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, I had forgotten all about it – it was all years ago, decades ago, for Chrissakes!  I will say that, even though it will not help (the ESTA application explicitly discounts the RoOA, but I will only mention it to corroborate my story of forgetfulness).  It will not help, but this is my only back-up plan.

The BG glances at my passport, and bids me also follow him.  At this point, my entire life flashes before my eyes.  The BG does not tell me why I should follow him and I am not inclined to ask.
I am led to a small waiting area, and invited to sit.  Next to Dai, it turns out.  He is smiling serenely to himself, barely acknowledging my presence – until the BG leaves the area.

Dai looks at me askance, as if recognising me for the first time.  “What you in for, then?”
I look around, furtively, and whisper “I lied on my ESTA…!  I think they know!
“Your fuckin what?”
“ESTA – the visa waiver thing!”
“Jesus, I’m surprised they haven’t got you in manacles, you despicable monster.” He chuckles.  “How would they know?  Say fuck all, you’ll be fiiiiiine.”
I am scared to ask him what he’s doing here, but my curiosity doesn’t have to wait long before he offers, blithely:
“Yeah, well, I got caught a few years back trying to get a backpack full of stuff in.  So now, I get hassle every time I come through.  Occupational hazard innit.”  His grin is oddly disconcerting, but I don’t know if this is because of my febrile state, or his strange calm.
I feel like a kid in school, relieved that there’s a worse kid than me waiting outside the Headmaster’s office – and then trying to play up my own transgression, trying to look hard to the hard man.
“Well, I got done in London a long time ago, I guess they wanna give me some shit for that, maybe…thought I was done with all this shit.”  I’m trying to seem cool.  I’m not proud of this, but it's what's happening.

After what seems like aeons, another BG, who I have not seen before, approaches us both, looks at a clipboard and looks at Dai.  Then he lowers his clipboard, looks at me as one would a rabbit in headlights – a combination of surprise, sympathy and pathos – and asks gently:
“Why are you here, Sir?” – and then, looking at the clipboard, “Mrrrrrrr….Davies?”
“Umm, I don’t know, they just asked me to come over by here.”  Ohfuckohfuckohfuckhowdoesheknowmynameohfuck

He shrugs.  He looks around.  The other BG, the one who bade me follow him to this purgatorial bench, is nowhere to be seen.  He, the new BG, asks my nationality, and I tell him.  He asks if I have an ESTA or visa, and I tell him I have an ESTA, brandishing the receipt in trembling fingers.
He thinks for a second, before turning to Dai to tell him:
“Could you please wait here a moment, Sir.”
And then, to me:
“Follow me.”

Dai nods, almost imperceptibly, being savvy enough not to let on that we know each other.  I’m very grateful for this, and acknowledge his help, displaying my gratitude with a slight nod of my own, when the BG’s back is turned.

I wonder how differently this whole scene would play out if he and I were not both white and entering a majority white country. 
And then I go back to thinking about myself.
The BG leads me away, and as my heartbeat threatens to deafen me, we arrive back at the queue I had been plucked out of, for reasons I now cannot fathom.  A few moments ago, of course, I thought I knew why.  Which was marginally better, and simultaneously much much worse.  This BG looks friendly, in spite of my expectations, and makes smiling small talk with the entrants.
So, anyway, I’m suddenly back in the main hall, and everyone behind me looks annoyed that I have joined at the head of the queue, and the new BG calls me forward.  His name is not Paul, but that’s what I’m calling him (all the staff have their names embroidered on their shirts, it’s an American thing).  He is a Person of Color (that’s how they spell it here), and I feel that this is a positive aspect.  I cannot explain why I think this.  Paul takes my passport, receipt with b&w photo, and Customs Declaration (which I have completed honestly, as I have no meat or vegetables on me – I even made sure to scoff all my yoghurt-covered banana chips and chocolate-covered brazils, just in case), and he directs me to press fingertips to a small screen for a scan, and while doing this, asks me if I am here on holiday.  I answer:

“Yes.  Yeah.”

He asks me where I am staying.  I say
“At my brother’s place, in Brooklyn.”
He says:
(The first time we came here, Brother C told us not to volunteer this information, as “I’m staying with family who already live here” is a red flag to a US BG.  My companion on that trip ignored this advice, cheerfully offering up the information without being asked specifically about it, and the humourless BG looked at him for a while that seemed very long, presumably to make absolutely sure we weren’t just a little bit Mexican-looking, before waving us through.)

Paul is friendly and goes about his work with laid-back professionalism.  He asks me about my job, and follows up with employment-based small talk.  This is not what I had come to expect from previous visits.
Paul asks me to remove my hat for a pic (I have already done the fingerprinting and picturing on the machines, before queuing), and asks me about the holidays I get from work.  I treat this like a conversation with someone who is not holding my fate in his hands, and respond.  I do not ask about his job/holidays.
He hands me back my passport and receipt with the b&w pic and says:
“Enjoy your holiday.  Cheers.”
And I say:

“Thank you.  Thanks.”

I note, but do not commend him on his use of British idioms, as I walk away, trying not to look relieved.
I haven’t felt so nervous/paranoid/subsequently relieved dealing with law officials since I stopped smoking weed.
I am sober now, that’s for sure.

After I collect my bags, however, I realise there is another layer of passport control, and my heart sinks and then starts to beat faster again.
Luckily, it’s just a cursory check that we’ve been through the proper visa process – what the staff at this particular checkpoint here laughingly call the “Welcome Commiddee” (that’s how they pronounce it here).  Thankfully, I kept my receipt with the b&w pic (even though no one told me to), and the copper/BG/whatever is happy with that.  I overhear one of the other officials telling a passenger who has asked why his brother was taken out of the queue and questioned:
“It’s a trial, they’re testing a new system, so they need people to go and do a body scan thing.  Maybe it’ll be quicker for everyone if they wind up using that – and anyone who does it won’t have to wait in line.”

And I’m out into the night, on an adrenaline high, grateful, tired and wired.  I jump in a yellow taxi, and I’m on my way into New York City.

I made it. 

If I can maaaaaaaaaaaake it there, I’ll make it aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnywheeere,
It’s up to YOU!  NEW Yoooooooorrrrrk

Friday, 30 June 2017

Glassstories 2017

“Some stories are magical, meant to be sung…”
Paul Simon

“Life writes many stories upon us, stories that make us who we are.”
Harvey Denton
Some stories cannot be told chronologically.

You know where you aaaaaaaaaaaare
You know where you aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare….
“Well, that’s me done.  I’m finished.  Spent.  Emotionally.”
The Band are absolutely on it.  Graham Greene on keys, Langston Hughes on the tubs.  Literally Literary Motherfuckers.  The Rapper is grateful.  The crowd is live.  Emotions are high.  Life Is Real.
“Happy music is depressing”, he sighs,
“That’s why I always sing
These terrible things, in
Your Mum’s ear
At her birthday party
In her local social cluuuuuuuub…”

The Mandolin Player leans on the bar at the back of the venue, looking at his bandmates.  He is clear and loud, which is a novel treat for him.  He plays better as a result.  But he cannot use a microphone at the same time. 
The Messiah comes down onto the stage and a hush descends.  He surveys the crowd, although without his glasses, the assembled throng are a mere busy blur.  There are at least 26 billion people present.  “I am pretty great, but there will be one who follows me who is greater still.  And s/he will tell you what to do.  I am but a humble facilitator, here to organise His/Her People to be ready for His/Her Revolution of The Spirit.  For I have youth on my side!  HERE I AM, LORD!  I am your instrument!  Play a flattened 9th on me!  Invert the chord sequence!  Modulate, motherfuckers!”
Amid the delirium and chaos, a quiet voice in the crowd intones: “I hoped he’d do ‘I Am The Resurrection’”.

POLITICS:  Hope is absolute fucking bollocks.  I’ll take a reasonable plan over a vaulting hope any time…and we’ll take those alluring promises in writing, thanks.  On a legally binding contract.
ART:  Plans are absolute bollocks.  I’ll take vaulting ambition over a plan any time.  And I will promise everything and nothing and none of it will be verifiable or accountable.

For The Messiah did not come to tell us what to do!  The Messiah came to show us of what We are capable – that we even are capable!  It is written: “Solemnly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.   You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
And he held my face, my very face, and told me everything will be alright.  He told me everything will be alright if WE make it alright, and finally I understood.  And there were no plaintive whines, no cries of entitlement, not a snowflake in sight.  There was a massive crowd moving through itself, creating itself, inventing itself, becoming itself.  And some surprisingly wild reactions to some surprisingly mild rhetoric.  And then Run The Jewels came on.

Run The Jewels are one of those Rap Groups they have now.  One of them describes himself as a “chubby rapper”, which is funny because it’s true.  Their warm-up act was a well-known veteran politician making his Glastonbury debut, but for some reason, a lot of people leave after the support act and don’t stay for the Heavy Rap Shit.  Weirdos.
“You wanna hear a good joke?  Nobody speak – nobody gets choked!”
The end ends with There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, but it doesn’t really actually end there.  There are no endings In Real Life, are there?  But this isn’t Real Life, this is a Story.  And we can do whatever we want with stories.  So let’s just say the whole thing closed out thusly:

Ugly spectres loom among the revellers.  Darkness, having enveloped the just and the unjust, is cast off just as starkly, exposing every sin and every act of grace to full view.  The dulling effects of the outside world persist, despite the best efforts of the artists and Party People.  Eternal vigilance is the price of carefree superhappyfuntimes.  Ironically.
But, as in the outside world, the spectres persist, but need not be heeded or accommodated.  As in the outside world, those with love will find this easier.  Let’s look after each other, yeah?
Sunday’s quotes of the day:
“I’m gonna marry the fuck out of you – and it is not gonna be a dignified ceremony.”
“Singing along is not mandatory, but if you don’t sing along, you’re a massive bag of horses cocks.”
“I don’t mind paying premium price for a premium pint, right, but there is just absolutely no shitting way I’m paying nearly a fiver for a pint of Carlsberg.  The bloody robdogs.”

The Drummer joins in “for old time’s sake”. 
“For old time’s sake”, The Rapper smiles.
The Pianist smiles. 
The Drummer and The Pianist gang up on The Rapper – purely for comic effect, you understand.
“Just because we’re in the Circus Field, doesn’t mean youse pair need to be clowns!”  At the mention of the word “Circus”, the pianist immediately plays Entry Of The Gladiators.  The Band are indeed skilled acrobats, walking the tightrope stretched from the Platform Of Maximum Annoyance to the Platform Of Hilarity.
It’s a bit shambolic, compared to the other set they played, which was an angelic, uplifting, ethereal, out-of-body experience.  But it’s not bad, and everyone has a pretty good laugh.  It can’t always be so emotionally intense, can it?
Two very famous people are at the West Holts stage (it used to be the Jazz World Stage, do you remember?)  They are very, very famous.  So famous, that, as they have no obvious professional or personal connection, they presumably only know each other because they are both so Very Famous.  They are watching the singer on stage who is the younger sister of someone who is equally – perhaps even more – famous than they.
A young woman turns around and makes eye contact with one of the Very Famous People.  As she opens her mouth to speak, a handler appears from nowhere and ushers her away from the Very Famous People, speaking very quickly and very quietly, like the disclaimer at the end of a radio advert.  The young woman is told that she can absolutely say Hello to the Very Famous People, but must absolutely not take any pictures. 
The young woman is bemused as the handler melts back into the crowd.
Finally, she speaks to the Very Famous People:
“Hi….um…have you got a light, please?”

“What is the purpose of song, if not to get us singing along?”
The crowd sings along:
“Hold on, my heart is breaking, but
Life is so much richer with you in it
Thank you for staying
Thank you for being my friend.”

“Maintain all the love, all the fraternal feelings, all the joy, and take them out into The Real World, where they are so sorely needed.” Says The Rapper, and people look bemused. 
Hopefully because they didn’t need telling.
PHEW!  For a minute there, I lost myself…..


Friday, 23 June 2017

Rattle Bap

For those who don’t know, a Battle Rap is a verbal joust in which competitors try to best each other with clever put-downs, boasts and wordplay.  This is delivered in rhyme and usually has the familiar rhythmic patterns of rap music, although it is not always accompanied by music.  It is decided either by the crowd in attendance, and/or by the duly appointed judge/s.
(Rattle Bap is a pun on Battle Rap which I used in the title purely for my own amusement.  Sometimes, in a long-running series of writings, one just needs to put in something purely for oneself, doesn’t one?)

This is one of the traditions established in the early days of Hip Hop, and like most of those forms of expression, is now recognised worldwide.

A few years back, I was invited to this type of duel for the very first time.  Challenged, if you will.  The Challenger was a young man of my acquaintance, who, as far as I am aware, was not (at the time) an accomplished, experienced, or even precocious rapper/MC.

Without wishing to speculate on the young man’s motivations or psychology: it started as a boastful joke, and his mates noised him up about a battle between us, until he asked me about it several times.  Having had enough, I simply told him that if I was challenged, I would have to respond to the challenge, one way or another. 
So, he challenged me and I accepted – and prepared to meet that challenge.

In a battle, anything is a target – good friends can say disgraceful things about each other in battle and still be friends after.  Nothing is taboo.  I’ve seen a mate of mine battling against someone he knows, who concentrated mostly on some very very racist and offensive attacks that would have been totally unacceptable in any other context; maybe even prosecutable…but that’s the whole point – you can say anything.  It’s real Free Speech.  That doesn’t mean there are no consequences, it just means MCs in that arena can say anything in the heat of the moment and their opponent is expected to come back at them just as hard – or crumble, and lose the battle.  They are really the only two options.

Like a lot of the original elements of Hip Hop, these kinds of battles (whether between crews or individuals) were a creative way of settling disputes and replacing/discouraging violence with friendly(ish) competition. 

The battle was to take place at a show we were both playing at The Thunderbolt in our native Bristol – outside (a capela), between the band’s sets (right after The Challenger’s set, and just before my set with GrayDog, in fact).  The landlord of the pub was hosting the battle, and after we explained to him what a battle is, we agreed on two rounds and went at it.

Oh, and my opponent’s favourite song was A Little Respect by Erasure, and he used to play it a lot at his early solo gigs.  The relevance of this vignette will become apparent.

So, here’s what I did on the day…..




First off, I gotta be careful what I say – cos
It all ends up on his Facebook page the next day.
So post this: You better rap better than you sing, mate.
Don’t worry, you’ll lose the puppy fat someday,
Hope you’re enjoying puberty, by the way…
Come to think of it, what is your age, anyway?
Have you ever seen a girl naked –
One that didn’t have a pop-up advert covering her tits?
I know you failed your exams, kid, but it’s just good practice,
When you quote someone, to acknowledge your sources,
Otherwise you’re just biting
I’m not often telling people what to do, but….
Is all this about some girl at school that don’t like you?
You got nothing to lose, I got nothing to prove.
All offence and withering contempt is very much intended…
‘Cos this shit here is just theatre – And not the good kind, either:
You on some amateur, A level student thing – oh shit,
Sorry, you didn’t get to A levels, did you?
So you’re still on GCSEs
And yet, you challenged me, like Billy Big Bollocks.
I’ve got the looks, the brains, experience and talent,
And you’ve got…glasses.
I never ran away from a challenge,
And Tubby here invited me to say my piece
So he gotta deal with the consequences
I’m not here to sneer and cause friction,
But we need to talk about your addiction to my diction,
It’s a fiction, you keep takin the piss, but we’ll see
How many of my songs you play badly,
At your next gig - if there ever is such a thing,
We’ll see how much you nick my gig banter and lyrics.
Tonight you might get a couple of bitch slaps in
But when the student is out shouting and jabbering,
The master is busy mastering.
I should finish, ‘cos this is a bit embarrassing.
Truth is, I shouldn’t be battling this kid –
Cos I believe we shouldn’t criticise children in public.
We can talk later, if you’re ready for some learning
But for now, shut the fuck up while grown folks are talking.



I believe education should be free,
That’s why I came here today to let you pretend to battle me,
Short jokes?  That’s funny,
No one’s ever noticed my height before,
You must be a uniquely observant and witty
Chronicler of the human condition…no, wait, that’s me.
You’re just like every gobshite that went to school with me.
You talk fast, but I think much quicker
I suppose you’ve had fun slagging off your hero on twitter…
It’s not a battle, it’s a massacre, I come as the teacher,
The adult world’s ambassador, I’ll batter ya
With these rhymes I’m really spoilin yer,
I know you won’t get some of the references,
But you can look it all up on your computer later.
Experience is a perfect teacher,
And I’m here to teach your flabby ass some humility.
You are weak in the execution of your talent
That Chemical Bomb song is your best one,
And you didn’t write it.
I’m an educator, so I stay on message,
This medium is a blessing, and I’ll be
Right here watching and takin the piss.
You’re in the right place, like an alcoholic, so
Keep on coming back,
And I’ll keep on showing what you lack, young paduan.
I’m surprised you can rap with your tongue up my ass –
Oh, that’s right, you can’t.
I used to sing: “When I grow up, I wanna be a drug dealer”
But he’s singing:
“When I grow up, I wanna be Clayton Blizzard” –
and that just ain’t happenin.
[Singing] You’re so in love with me,
You’ll be forever green – with envy
That you were not born me – you weren’t even born Dizzy
(That’s Rascal, not Gillespie, for anyone as old as me,
In case you’re wondering), So…
You have tried rhyming
But, Billy, please,
Give a little respect To yourself…..


Friday, 16 June 2017

First Thoughts On Waking, Vol. IV

LIFE GOES ON.  Stokes Croft looks the same as it did yesterday.  Bristol is still cool.
Election Results Day is also Bin Day.
“Bin day for democracy.” – Mark L.
I couldn’t wait for this to be over, but that was tempered by the fear that everything might be Even Worse.
No one needs my thoughts on any of this, do they?  No. And yet, here they are anyway.
Election results are IN: New Labour lost.  Convincingly.
Other election night losers include the Prime Minister (whose party actually won on the narrow technicality that they got the most votes and the most seats – and yet, who, since she demanded a mandate for sticking it to the Europeans and didn’t get anywhere near a majority that might have allowed her to claim it, is a Giant Loser), The Sun and The Mail (who seem the same, and yet also more shrill, ugly and desperate than ever) and the 172 Labour MPs who voted No Confidence in their leader last year – the leader who has now delivered them increased majorities.  (And who, are therefore, also ironically, Winners.  Despite their best efforts.)) 
Yesterday I listened to You Can Have It All by Yo La Tengo.  I really like that song, but it seems a far-fetched, decadent promise…later I will tell people it was the last song I heard before voting, but that was actually I Know Him So Well by Elaine Page and Barbara Dixon, from the musical Chess.
One of the reasons representative democracy is so popular is that it allows us the space to not give a shit about anything that happens politically, because we vote for people we don’t know to represent us in a distant (in every sense) parliament.  That may be changing.
One of the reasons representative democracy is so unpopular is that it is distant from us, in every sense.  That may be changing.
In Stokes Park, overlooking the M32, there is a former psychiatric hospital which has been converted into luxury flats.  (In a neat parable of These Times.)  On the wall at its base, for anyone driving, walking or cycling past, someone has painted, in big letters: “VOTE LABOUR.” (In a neat parable of These Times.)  The graffiti was covered by a blue tarpaulin. (In a neat parable of These Times.)  And the next day, the tarpaulin was off and the painted message was visible again. (In a neat parable of These Times.)  And then, on the morning of Election Day, the blue banner was back in its place, taunting the people of Bristol. (In a neat parable of These Times.)  Following the election, the banner is gone, and the graffiti remains visible to all.  (In a neat parable of These Times.) 
The Centre cannot hold…A terrible beauty is born.
Corbyn lost, and is therefore clearly unelectable and should resign.  #satire
PM: Let me do what I want.
Electorate: Do what you're told.
PM: Give me a mandate
Electorate: No. Fuck off.
PM: Let me interpret the referendum result in the harshest possible way and use it to usher in an era of even greater neoliberal economics (ie, privatisation and spending cuts).
Electorate: No. Fuck off.
PM strongly and stably loses 20 seats to a terrorist-sympathising loony left pacifist. #worstcampaignever
PM strongly and stably begs for help from a bunch of terrorist-sympathising loony right wing Sectarian bigots.
Hang on, which is the one who’s supposed to bezzy mates with Irish terrorists?
‘Dazza Hygiene's match report’ (text message):
“The blues parked the strong and stable bus and relied heavily on counter attacks.
The reds put in a strong performance and are happy to have done better than expected.. But ultimately failed to qualify for the Champions league negotiating table.
The final group spot has therefore been given to relative minnows, DUP, whom neutrals consider to be a thoroughly wholesome bunch.........”
I preferred the David Cameron replicant.  A more convincing human than this new one, and not quite as disgusting-acting/sounding/looking.  How is the PM-bot technology going backwards?  This is technological regression.
This is a massive defeat for the government, on the government’s own terms.  #reasonstobecheerful
They hammer poor people, they cut spending, they privatise everything they possibly can – and it doesn’t even reduce the national debt.  Their only supposed virtue is stability/strong leadership, and they’re also clearly shit at that.  What, then, are the Tories FOR?
Paul Nuttall smirking as he gets his ass handed to him.  UKIP were obliterated, which is obviously great news….although, it might mean Farridge back....again.
Whoever has been booking guests at BBC News for the last 3 years or so should be roasted alive.  I’d vote for anyone proposing that.
From the off, this was a massive pile of bullshit: the PM lied about the reasons for doing it so brazenly that her grip on reality/hubris will be questioned, even by her own side.  Whoever is advising her on this should be in a queue for severely-cut employment benefits.  [UPDATE: Her two “top”/”closest” advisers have resigned, meaning they will not be getting any JSA…#SATIRE]
When the PM was asked the naughtiest thing she’d done, I’m surprised she didn’t say “contempt of court”, since she was convicted of that in 2012.
Peter Mandelson still absolutely repugnant, say humans.  Andrew Neil baiting Mandelson to admit New Labour is dead…good old Westminster entertainment from two of the smuggest faces ever to darken that cesspit of depravity.
IDS still the “absolute worst cunt ever” according to everyone.
Always a rare and strange experience when Westminster suddenly gives a fuck about Northern Ireland, and we all remember it exists.  #interestingtimes
The Parliamentary Labour Party is waking up to the fact that their leader is waaaaaaaaay more popular than they are.  (Two years too late, but we are all slow to realise these things sometimes.)
A man with a bucket on his head, calling himself a lord, is seen as considerably more sensible, both in policy and presentation terms, than the current prime minister. 
This is mostly regarded as a delightful development.
We are divided, we are confused, we are concerned.  We are SANE. 
Hating The Tories now right on trend.  #80sretro
The end of austerity sounds good, but talk of revolution and turning tides seems premature.  But it’s a start.  A good start.  A ray of light in dark times, if you will.  (You will, won’t you?)
That little ray of light is a chink in the armour of the neoliberal consensus that has dominated us politically for the last forty years.  If history has taught us anything – repeatedly – it’s that power concedes nothing easily….
The Work starts.  NOW.
It might not even be, of itself, a Big Thing.  But lots of little things make a big difference. 
Sometimes, I think We might just be alright.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Everything Is Happening At Once


I am at/have been/will go to The Louisiana many times.  I will first play there in 1999, and I’ve seen several great gigs there.  The sound is/was/will be always superb. 
I am here “now”, watching The Dessert, Alba and Wovoka Gentle, presumably in that order.
When I watched this show, I will have already experienced it and described it on a recording which will not be available until after the show has happened.  When I watch the show, I will have not seen it having discussed it, but if you hear the recording, I will have seen it when you hear me discussing having seen it.  I am seeing it now.
Wovoka Gentle (no, I don’t know what the name means) have an impressive array of equipment; I understand none of it.  Hoppy gamely tries to talk me through it, but I’m quickly overwhelmed.  There are a lot of pads with buttons on, and a couple of synths.  I step up on to the stage to get a sneaky look at the most intriguing item: it looks like a sort of electric auto-harp, but could just as easily be a toy instrument.
(If I were writing a review of the set, I would have said that there are three members of the band and that two of them are twins who look a little bit like the comedian Bridget Christie, but that really isn’t important so I didn’t say it.  I won’t even write it.)
I will enjoy their set, but I did also think that the vocals should have been more prominent, but will find them just slightly too effected (yes, effected, as in Effects/FX Pedals), and, indeed, affected, to cut through the soundscapes they are creating.  The whole thing still sounds great, but it’s a shame not to hear more of the vocals.  Because they are great.
The group rectify this with their encore, for which they get off stage and walk into the middle of the room with an acoustic guitar.  They sing, in beautiful three-part harmony, a song written by someone else and subsequently made famous by John Prine (I think – as I say, they were off-mic at this point).
It is the perfect ending to the evening.  I think it happened at the end, anyway.  (Of course, after that I went home, so I suppose maybe that was the end of the evening.  Although, really, for me, the end was when I went to sleep, which was a while after I got home….there aren’t really any endings in real life, are there?)
When I am there I will re-experience/reimagine (you could call it remembering) being here as a spotty nineteen year-old with an arrow shaved into my head, clutching a microphone in my teeth and screaming.
For the record, The Dessert are here playing their first show, not that anyone could have guessed that from their lush sound and polished performance.  The drumming is sensitive.  Yes, sensitive.  The synth/guitar player has given himself a lot to do, but manages it all ably.  The singer’s voice sits on top of the soundscape perfectly.  It’s an unusual and pleasing mix of influences and sounds.
Alba plays with her band, and she is angelic.  She has, just like me, “always wanted to play here…”
“For Harry, as always.”
The love in the room is almost palpable; many of the crew are here, and supporting their friends; but no one is doing any favours.  The music, from any other mouths, would taste as sweet.
This will, at some point in the future, give me the experience of the past memory of someone else’s memory of someone else, who saw the infamous Radiohead performance at Glastonbury in 1997 (yes, that’s the one, just after the release of OK Computer), which I will not see and will not have seen, who describes it thusly: “Moving.  Very moving.  I cried.  Twice.”
I am experiencing being onstage here and feeling the love in the room just as I am experiencing the love in the room now as I watch the bands onstage, from offstage.  It was almost overwhelming, it’s like everything is happening at once.

The day after this blog is published, Scotland will play England at Hampden. 
England will almost certainly win, probably comfortably.  If history is any sort of guide, England will win comfortably without being good.  And Scotland will try hard and be passionate without being good.  If there is any good luck to be had in the game, it will not favour Scotland.  But Scotland are getting better, and a lot of their supporters are enthused again.  And their manager is popular, espousing a traditional emphasis on teamwork and fairness for the postmodern game. 
England are offering the same old turgid shit as always, which has, depressingly often, been enough to see them beat their rivals.  But the England manager may just have over-stretched himself here, read his own press too much, been too arrogant about the chances of a Scotland team cheered on by their vocal and increasingly confident fans.  Anything less than the big win predicted by cheer-leading journalists will be seen as a failure.
And there will be lots of talk about the whole thing, with precious little insight troubling the mountain of bullshit.  And I am experiencing it already.  And I have experienced it already.  And I will be experiencing it. 
But I will also experience the time Scotland beat England at Wembley, when England were recently-crowned World Champions.  And Scotland ripped the piss out of them and stuffed them 3-2, and were therefore, definitely, by a long way, the best team in the world.  But even then, we knew, didn’t we, that that was not the end of it, that Scotland (best team in the world though they undoubtedly were, in 1967) could not rest on their laurels, that they would need to fight again – their fans could not simply stop turning up for games, having seen their team become – indisputably, remember – The Best In The World.  The fans needed to go again, didn’t they?  And every time, as they still do now, in remembrance of that brilliant day when they skelped the arses of the would-be World Champions. 
And that Scotland team went on to create the NHS and the welfare state, remember.
But I also will experience the nightmare of Euro 96, when the domestic abuser and alcoholic Paul Gascoigne scored to give England a thoroughly undeserved victory over a gallant Scotland side, Gascoigne having achieved an unassailable level of popularity by aping the humour and language of his Scottish opponents (having been playing his club football in Scotland), and delighting the tabloid press who had previously waged a smear campaign against him and his colleagues.
And Paul Gascoigne went on to launch the 2003 war in Iraq, remember.
It will be almost overwhelming, it’s like everything is happening at once.

Toyface are demonic and angelic, sacred and profane, funny and dark, innocent and raunchy, florid and reserved.  They are playing at The Gallimaufry on Gloucester Road, where I have been and will be again.  And I will be having had many experiences here before.
(For example, I have experienced now the baffled cynicism of a teenage know-all at the excitement over the election of Tony Blair, who will go on to vindicate my low opinion of him.  I will later experience the resentful smugness of a university graduate know-all at same.)
This is their “last ever” gig, we are told (the veracity of this claim will be discussed but not resolved tonight).  I will be disappointed, in the future, not to see them play again.  I am not now, however, because I am watching and enjoying it.
If Radiohead were a jazz trio fronted by a cool woman who is a wee bit awkward instead of an experimental jazz-inflected electronic rock quintet fronted by a very awkward man who is a wee bit cool....they would sound like this.  One has to be oneself, though, doesn’t one?  That’s the appeal of both these bands.  (I’m not sure why I’m thinking about Radiohead, though.)
“This is about having an existential crisis in your mid-20s, but I’m nearly 32 so it worked out…”
I do not know much, Dear Reader, but I can confirm that The Frontwoman does indeed still exist.  And I can relate, being also a (materially, at least) existing being.
I am thinking “Moving.  Very moving.” but I cannot recall where I am recalling that from.
Come to think of it, I think it was at The Fleece, the time I screamed into a dentally-gripped mic…
"Just hope propelling our dreams...", The Frontwoman sings. 
Sometimes love can feel tangible.  Sometimes, I think We might just be alright.
It’s almost overwhelming, it’s like everything is happening at once.