Saturday, 16 February 2019

trip to Spa is like a trip to Mars....


I've been writing album reviews for Leftlion magazine for the best part of ten years now.  It's fun to listen to something that you have absolutely no pre-conceptions about.  The odd 150 word review also isn't all that strenuous, to be honest.  I also get a bit of a thrill throwing in ridiculously obscure references for my own entertainment, picturing baffled bands wondering what on earth I might be talking about.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I was persuaded by the editor to take a step up and take on my first interview.  Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods probably wouldn't be my first choice of interviewee because he seems so unforgivingly ferocious.... but when I met up with him in a West Bridgford cafe a few weeks ago, he was unfailingly polite (at one point, the man who furiously sings about waking up with shit on his sock apologised to me for swearing).  To be honest, I find their music fascinating, so fairly quickly I stopped worrying about meeting him and started thinking of questions to ask and worrying about whether or not my recording would fail (it didn't).

A 1000 word interview has been published and is available in this month's Leftlion or online here.... but as the interview is about four times longer than what I whittled it down to for print, I thought it might be interesting to put the whole lot up here.  Well, here it is:

---
Sleaford Mods

How do you remember it all?
It just takes you a while to rehearse.  Three weeks, four weeks. I’m doing a batch of new tunes now, but because I’m obsessed with it, because it’s your thing, you listen to a recording, you listen to a demo, then when it’s mastered, you listen to that.  You just keep listening. You kind of know half the lyrics anyway by then. Then, when you go to rehearse it, I’m doing a batch of new tunes at the minute.  It takes about three or four weeks and then they’re in.  Once they’re in, as long as you gig them, they kind of stay in.  It’s pretty straightforward.

It’s been an amazing couple of years for you. How’s 2019 shaping up?
Good. It’s looking good. The single’s got a great response, Kebab Spider. The tour is about 70% sold, so it’s looking alright.

I was reading the declaration you made when you announced Eton Alive: “Here we are once again in the middle of another elitist plan being digested slowly as we wait to be turned into faeces once more….” I know you get asked this all the time, but how do you feel about Brexit?
[laughs] Like anybody else in this country. In Europe they can’t understand it. I’ve been over in Berlin doing press for two days and they just don’t get it. They don’t really get the idea of class and of the aristocracy. In Germany, although there is an elitist class, it’s a republic so they don’t get it. In France, they’re quite similar to us.  Everyone feels so sad about it, and it is quite a sad thing regardless of the plus points, and there are some intelligent points. Jeremy Corbyn believes in it and I don’t exactly know his reasons and couldn’t relay them to you now, but he’s obviously got his reasons and he’s not a stupid man…. But at the same time, it’s not right, it’s not right at the minute. With everything in the package that it was produced in, the jacket it put on when it introduced itself to the masses. It’s just not acceptable. Nationalist, patriotism. Once again the working classes were conned and fed a load of dogshit. The idea of enlightenment, class consciousness thing. It’s not happened. It’s just pretty bad.

How have you seen it impact the people around you?
It’s created a massive divide. I was reading an article the other day about how the leave/remain divide will surpass Brexit and the psychology of it will be ingrained into other things. You had the divide and rule thing with immigration, with benefit scroungers, and now you have it with this. From an elitist point of view it’s quite genius. They’ve never had it so good. It’s fantastic, it must be fantastic to be motivated by making money, paying no tax, getting away with it, which is what most of them are probably doing, without trying to sound naïve. It’s fucking horrible isn’t it?

Since the beginning, your lyrics have focused on the lives of working people, working dead-end jobs at the bottom of the pile. Do you ever feel that you saw some of this coming? The way people feel, the dissatisfaction?
Yeah, as soon as the coalition got in, I knew that was it. You just felt it. You felt this darkness came over, this mist. I remember seeing George Osbourne’s face at this dinner when they first got in. He had this tuxedo on and it was this dinner for supporters of the conservative party, potential contributors. His face said it all: right, we’re going to do a better job this time. We’re going to finish off what she started and it’s going to be worse. You could see it in his face and it was fucking horrible. Sorry to swear.  I knew then, and without being politically aware, which I’m still not really, you’ve just got to be an idiot not to see what these people represent and what their policies will mean.

A lot has changed since you first started out: you’re more settled (married, kids, West Bridgford, Ken Clarke is your MP now). Is it harder to summon up the focus and the anger?
No, no.  It just comes in different ways. Part of it is not repeating yourself, as I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to try and make out I’m the person I was 5 years ago. Physically and psychologically things change.  It’s still there, it just comes out in different ways. It’s not so much a challenge, it’s more interesting to find out where it’s going to go next.

The thing that struck me most from watching the film (2017s Bunch of Kunst) was that you  look particularly drained when you come off stage. You sit there trying to gather yourself.  I read that you stopped drinking. How do you bring yourself back? How do you decompress after that burst of intensity?
I have a cup of coffee, loads of fruit, nicotine tablets. Another coffee, more fruit, another nicotine tablet and then I’ll get back to the hotel and get to sleep about two, three o’clock. I’m loving it. I love life. It’s great now: I’m sober, I’m happy… I’m alright I’m obsessed with the band and trying to keep it looking good, it’s a competitive thing to be in, especially after five years. We’re no longer a buzz band, but we’ve managed to maintain a reputation of being interesting, an integrity. Contemporary.  I’m in a great position.

I saw you in the guardian doing a round table at the start of the year with people like Paloma Faith.
She was actually okay, to give her her dues. She annoyed me at the start. She’s nice actually. She gets a lot of shit, but all these people when you meet them in person are actually alright.

Austerity and Brexit aside, what are your other sources of inspiration for the album?
Lavinia. The absurdity of fame. I wouldn’t class myself as famous-famous, but well known. Some of these people we’ve met, it’s ridiculous. The absurdity of awards shows, scenarios from how people behave in certain situations, usually at the bottom of the spectrum. From a personal perspective, there are some pop songs on there that are more form than on English Tapas where we hinted at doing something like that, but on this one there are three songs where we make a shift away from the usual sound.

Wikipedia describes your vocal style as “Sprechgesang (dramatic vocalisation between speech and song). You described it in the film as “a way of beating people up without hitting them”. You used to do spoken word stuff at the start, but on the last two records you’ve started doing more singing proper. Is that conscious decision?
Yes, it is, but I’ve also got into a lot more soul and R&B from the 80s.  People like Chaka Khan, Alexander O’Neill, Luther Vandross and stuff like that.   Andrew’s music was suggesting that to me from as early the EP we released last year with songs like Joke Shop.  With the new batch of stuff he sent through, there was a continuation of that, so I manipulated those ideas to fit my desire to want to try and sound like that. Obviously, it took a while because I didn’t want to sound stupid, and to want to do a pop song, coupled against what we normally do was going to be a bit… but I think we did it.

After ten years, has the process for writing and recording changed much?
A little bit. Andrew sends me the songs now and I spend quite a while writing and thinking about them, cultivating them at home. Whereas before we depended a lot more on improvisation and impulse. It has changed a bit.

Johnny Marr once said he spent ages pulling together a beautiful piece of music, sent it to Morrissey and it came back as “Some Girls are Bigger than Others”
That’s what Morrissey was like wasn’t it. His lyrics are weird, aren’t they? They’re still weird.  At the time, I was like 13 or 14. I hated them. I thought they were shit. I was a big Jam fan. They were frowned upon at our school. But, in retrospect, what a brilliant band.

Eton Alive is your first release on your own label, Extreme Eating. What was the trigger to take the plunge?
We thought, because we were independent before, we thought that perhaps we didn’t need a record label.  Some of the camp felt that they were working for the Man, some of them felt that everything was just being done for us and it just wasn’t very exciting, so we decided to leave. But it’s been a bit of a struggle really. You get to a certain point as a band where you’re quite big really, and when you release stuff you need quite a lot in place because you’ve got to promote it or it will just die.  We didn’t have much in place when we left and it was quite stressful really. But we have now got it up to speed. My wife Claire has jumped in and organised it all really, together with Cargo Records the distributor and all the people we’ve got on board to help push the album and give it a good sending off.  I think we’ll be alright.

Is this how you’d imagined it would be like being a record mogul?
I knew it would be hard work, but we left Rough Trade too early. We should have waited for another year and we should have perhaps released this album on Rough Trade and then done it. But we didn’t, and it hasn’t suffered. Well, it has a little bit, but not too much. I’m not sure if we’ll get a higher chart place. We’re releasing around the time of the Brit awards, and what tends to happen is that all of those artists around the Brit Awards get a surge in sales and we’ll probably be nudged down because of that.  Not the greatest business move, but we don’t suffer too much for it.

As a band, you’ve moved from playing venues in Nottingham like the Chameleon Café through Rock City and on to the Royal Concert Hall. I notice your tour in the spring is back in slightly smaller venues, so do you have any plans to play the Ice Arena or are you taking a conscious step back?
It’s taking a conscious step back. We just thought it would be good to do a proper, classic UK tour. It’s paid off, those venues are filling up quickly and why not take it back to that? People have loved it. We did it a few years ago and people loved it then, and we thought why not.  It made a change to just doing 8 dates in the UK at big places that, to be honest, we just didn’t fill anyway. We’re not the kind of band that just sell out somewhere straight away. We thought it might be a good idea, with the decision on Brexit looming around that time, to take it back to the far corners of the country. We did two nights at the Roundhouse last year. We should have just done one. It looks good, but you don’t fill’em.  What’s the point? I just got sick of that. Who gives a fuck? We just took it back to smaller places that we did a few years back, intermingled with a few bigger places like Manchester and Birmingham. There’s a few quite big, but why not pepper it with bigger ones. We’ll be looking at Rock City at the end of the year. People didn’t like the fact that we played the Concert Hall last year. It was a weird gig.  It was good, but weird.  We shouldn’t have done it, but hey, at least we can say we’ve played it. U2 played there back in the day, apparently, so it’s not unheard of, but it felt odd.  When Rock City is full, it’s fucking fantastic!

In the past, you’ve had the Trussell Trust at your gigs. Is this something you’re looking to do again?
Yeah, we’ve had the Trussell Trust, we’ve had Shelter, we did Refuge last tour and we’re working with them again on this tour. It’s quite a lot of working out, so it’s whether it’s feasible at some gigs. We’ve asked the fan club to help out and I think that’s what we’re going to have to do.

How would you describe your relationship with Nottingham and has this changed over the years?
Good.  I’m proud of representing Nottingham and I think we do.  We’re not wankers, we haven’t turned into wankers and we’re a bona-fide band from this area. There’s not been that many.  Us, Jake Bugg, and who else? Not many.  Paper Lace! You get a bit of shit from people, especially since I moved to West Bridgford, but what can you do. You get the keyboard warriors online, but people who know the band are quite respectful.  Twitter’s an art, you have to learn to get your head around it and not take things so seriously.  These days I’m better, but I used to be quite horrible.

Iggy Pop played a 30 minute Sleaford Mods mix on his 6Music show on New Year’s Day which he described as being “Like Jive Bunny on Spice”. Iggy’s been a fan for a while, have you met him.
No.  Not yet. He came to watch us backstage but we didn’t meet him as he left before we’d finished.  I don’t know if I would, really.
How does it feel to have someone like that enthusing about you?
It’s fucking great! It’s a real honour.  Meeting him would be a bit weird. What would you say? I’d just crumble and get a bit fan boy.
There’s a great moment in the film where Iggy is looking at a copy of Grammar Wanker and this magnificent rock god pulls out a pair of reading glasses.
It’s fucking brilliant. It’s proper punk. That’s how it should be!
Is there anyone else who’s support for the band has surprised you?
Whatsisname from Eastenders. Shane?
Ritchie?
Yeah.  He’s a big fan.  Collared me at the Brit Award [does cockney accent] ‘alwight mate!’. Yeah, he’s alright. A nice guy.
I guess being the kind of band you are, you don’t get to hear your stuff on the radio all that often.  Tarantula Deadly Cargo was used over the end credits of Channel 4’s Prison’s documentary the other day.  Do you have much involvement with that sort of stuff?
Not really. I spoke to the director a bit and he’s come to a couple of gigs.

After the album release and the supporting tour, what’s next?
Festivals, more gigs in the autumn and then figuring out next year what we’re going to do, where we going to play. Are we going to go to Australia, America? We’ll see what happens.

Glastonbury was a really big moment for you guys.
I don’t enjoy Glastonbury too much as it’s almost turned into a music industry event, but if you can get the gig it’s brilliant.  We’re not doing it this year as they won’t let us, but hopefully next year or the year after.
They won’t let you play?
You play one year and then you have a year off.  We played the year before, they had a year off and they won’t let us play this year even though we’ve got an album out. They’ve been told, quite rightly so, that they need more of a female presence on the bill, so the booker is scrambling around trying to get more women on the bill.  Fair enough, you know what I mean? To be honest, I’ve done it twice. You get that feeling when you’re there, because it’s televised, you get really nervous. You never know, they might offer it to us. Stormzy is playing this year, he’s headlining, and he played when we were there. I think the bigger you are, the more access you get.
It’s a bit depressing to see the fuss people made about Stormzy being announced as a headliner. The same fuss Kanye got, the same fuss Jay-Z got.
It's racist. Essentially they’re just saying, no we don’t want this black man playing. They don’t pipe up about anybody else. It’s just racist.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to Leftlion readers.
Thanks for the support. To anyone who likes us in Nottingham, thanks very much.
And anyone else?
Try and have a listen! Keep giving it a go.

One more question: with your 50th birthday looming on the horizon, are you planning a birthday party in a pub?
No. I think me and the wife are going to go to Paris.  She’s 40 and I’m 50, have a nice weekend in Paris.

It’s not a crap job, but it’s hard work. You’ve just got to keep going. It’s a vicious game to keep yourself up there. You’ve got to be alert, you can’t be messing about. It’s not the 70s anymore, you can’t be wasted.
I’ve now got this image of you training like Rocky, running up the steps of the town hall.
Yeah. That’s what it’s like. It’s going against this image that you have to be wasted. It’s not the done thing to say that you go to the gym. There’s this big stigma, but go against that. Smash the stereotype. That’s punk rock.  Bring it on.  I’ve not had a drink for three years.  I had to stop and the band’s got better. 

Thursday, 27 December 2018

time's winged chariot...



2018 has been a strange kind of a year.

On the one hand, I’ve run more organised events than ever before: three full marathons, four half marathons, two 20 mile races, the 15 mile Belvoir Challenge, 55km over Thunder Run weekend, the London 10 miler and well over a 1000 running miles in total. I’ve also run 25 parkruns and volunteered at parkrun on another 30 occasions. I’ve run summer and cross-country league races for my athletics club, earned an England Athletics coaching qualification, coached a couch to 5km programme and an Improvers group up at the track on a Tuesday night. I’ve helped to raise £11,000 for the MS Trust, taking our fundraising total over the last 4 years to something approaching £40,000. I’ve appeared in the national press and on television in a charity appeal on the BBC.

On the other hand, my multiple sclerosis seems to have progressed a bit this year. I’ve not had any noticeable relapses, and I actually came off any kind of disease modifying drug when I stopped injecting Avonex in January. At the same time, my left leg is much more prone to muscle spasms (which seems to be helped a bit by CBD oil) and my bladder has now become unpredictable enough that I have started self-catheterising. It’s amazing how quickly it becomes normal to push 40cm of tubing up a previously one-way passage. Does it help? Well, yes and no: I’ve had more completely uninterrupted nights since I started, which is obviously good, but I’ve also had some days where it doesn’t seem to have made any difference at all, and I frustratingly have no idea why. Still, we keep buggering on, don’t we? If you can’t laugh at these sorts of indignities, then what’s the point? Besides, when you’ve been well enough to be able to run three full marathons in a year, including one under four hours, I really don’t feel as though I have anything much to be complaining about.

I know I’ve not been blogging much. After a good run of around 15 years, I suddenly found that the itch seemed finally to have been scratched and I no longer felt the urge to get something up most days. You know what? That’s okay. I’m not going to say that I’m going to make more effort in 2019, but I am going to try to keep going. I like writing and I haven’t been doing enough of it for myself in 2018 and will try to make more time for it in 2019. If nobody reads it, that’s okay too. Although, to be honest, that’s always been true!

If there is anyone still reading this, I hope you survived 2018 as intact as possible and that you’re fit and ready to take on whatever life throws at you in 2019. You’re amazing.

Tx.

If you're interested, here's my year on Strava.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

never forget...


Vergissmeinnicht

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Keith Douglas

--

100 years on, and the old lie is still doing pretty good business.

Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.



Don't just remember. Learn.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

clanging chimes of doom...


I caught the last fifteen minutes of Simon Reeves' programme on the Mediterranean the other day: he was in northern Corsica, admiring a beautiful marine reserve where fishing is banned and where you cannot dive without a special scientific permit. Reeve spent the day in the reserve with a ranger, and as well as admiring the diversity of life, they spent the day chasing around after people in huge yachts who were illegally landing on the beaches, using banned jet skis and generally ignoring all of the rules that were designed to help life wildlife thrive.

It made me sad.

At the beginning of September, we spent a week in Sardinia, just an hour or so by boat south of where Reeve was in Corsica. We were there to dive the marine protection area off the North of the island. The Mediterranean is famously a bounteous ocean that has been teeming with life since ancient times. I have to say that this isn't my experience. Although the volcanic topography over and under the water makes this a stunning place to dive, the water isn't exactly teeming with life. Why? Well, perhaps some insight into that comes from the owner of the agriturismo where we were staying: he was a lovely, jovial man, but he told us that the dive shop who were taking us out each day didn't really like him or his friends because they would come diving to hunt grouper. The fact that fishing was forbidden in these protected waters clearly wasn't a problem for him. As Simon Reeve said in his programme on Sunday night, groupers are the top of the food chain in these waters, and their presence indicates that the ecosystem was healthy. I saw one solitary grouper when we were in Sardinia. The waters are increasingly barren.

To be fair, it was a little better when we made the trip one morning to dive off Corsica. Fishing isn't banned here, and we saw incongruously huge drag nets under the water, but there are quotas. Unlike in Italy, the French clearly respect these quotas and there was noticeably more life under the water, including several grouper. I've dived in the med a few times now: off Sardinia, off the Aeolian islands down by Sicily and off Malta, and it's basically been the same story each time... beautiful water and very little marine life.

I learned to dive off Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef in 2010. This is so extraordinarily beautiful, that it probably ruins you for diving anywhere else. It breaks my heart to think that subsequent global warming means that many of those dive sites are probably now filled with bleached coral and a catastrophic decline in marine diversity.

I've read in the news this week that humanity has wiped out 60% of all animal life since 1970. Just think about that for a moment. The human equivalent of that level of de-population would be to empty North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania.

And yet we frack and we deny the impact of climate change and we threaten to build walls against the waves of humanity trying to escape famine and war.

Humanity really is a plague species; a virus on the face of the earth.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

I remember when...

Just as my blogging here seems to be dying off, today I had cause to remember something we did together way back in 2005. Do you even remember 2005? I ask because I've just employed someone who had graduated and was born in 1996.  You know, 2005: when everyone blogged and had a magnificent nom de plume like SwissToni, Urban Fox or Lord Bargain? 2005: when the internet wasn’t only used to reinforce your own increasingly firmly held opinions and to throw anonymous hatred at people with slightly differing but equally entrenched views? When the USA didn’t rip children away from their parents and keep them in a cage?

Ah, good times.

Well, it was so long ago that you probably don't remember, but way back in those halcyon days, we did a handwriting analysis thing.  We had participative, inclusive fun then, didn't we?  No fewer than 18 people submitted a handwritten song lyric to me for analysis by B1rdienumnum (who had read a book on the subject and was thus more of an expert than any of the rest of us). What marvellous fun we all had reading that analysis and trying to guess who had chosen which lyric.


You can read the whole saga here (and just in case you can't stand the suspense, the results are here)

You just don’t see quality content like this any more, do you? Who has the time?

Heaven knows how, but in those crazy, early days when the world was new, as well as analysing handwriting, we also managed to do bookshelves, fridges and several rounds of a compilation CD swapping game.

I miss those days.

What happened to us?  Life just got in the way, I guess.

We were probably making other plans.  Or something.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

the other one would wait for me...

Unlike many Facebook memes, I've been really enjoying the one that sees people posting up an album cover a day for a few days to give us an insight into the records that have really meant something to them over the years.  The original meme suggests no explanations, but I think it's hearing what makes a particular album special to someone that really brings it to life... so, to hell with the rules, I've been busy encouraging people to explain.

I've just finished putting up my ten choices.  To be honest, I think people were mostly just pleased to have a ten day break from the relentless running posts and pictures that I seem to put up.... but, for your delectation, dear reader, here's a special earworms list compliled of songs from the albums that I chose.

I haven't just chosen my ten favourite albums or the ten coolest records I own; I've tried to pick ten albums that have been landmarks in my life.

Ready? Here we go!

Earworms of the Week: lifetime of music edition.

a-ha – Manhattan Skyline (from Scoundrel Days)

I had a few albums on cassette when I was growing up. I think the very first was Kings of the Wild Frontier by Adam and the Ants, but also in there was The Riddle by Nik Kershaw, Silk and Steel by 5 Star and Scoundrel Days by a-ha. To be honest, I’ve not listened to those other albums much in the last 35 years, but I do listen to a-ha fairly regularly, and I’m constantly struck by how little the music has dated. There’s something about their sparse, melancholic Scandinavian soundscapes that seems to have stood up well. I’ve seen them live a couple of times, once playing this album in full, and they filled huge screen behind them with an image of a rolling ocean: it seemed to fit the music very well. At the age of 8, I probably bought this because I liked the singles I’d heard on top of the pops…. Or just maybe I had impeccable taste in music even then. Yeah. You’re probably right.

Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills (from The Number of the Beast)

This is an album that set the course of my musical direction for the next few years, perhaps forever. I bought it on cassette because I liked the cover, but pretty soon followed it with Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and from there into Metallica’s …and Justice for All, the Monsters of Rock festival and the comforting world of heavy metal. My first CD was the metal compilation Protect the Innocent (opening four tracks, (Don’t Fear) The Reaper, Paranoid, Fireball, Ace of Spades). Not long after, I got my first leather jacket. Good times. Maiden are probably also the band I have seen live most often, bar one other artist.

Guns’n’Roses – It’s So Easy (from Appetite for Destruction)

You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby. You’re gonna die! For about 12 months across 1988/89, I essentially only listened to two albums: Pump by Aerosmith and Appetite for Destruction. I haven’t listened to Pump all that much recently, but this one is on a regular rotation. The other week, I watched Guns’n’Roses play live for the first time since Wembley Stadium in 1991. Unlike in ’91, they arrived onstage on time (early, in fact) and played for over 3 hours. Was it a perfect gig? No.. but at their very best no one can touch them. This remains an extraordinary album and still sounds dangerous today. They might have risen with the hair metal bands of the 1980s, but I’d imagine that Poison wouldn’t have attracted quite the same attention if they’d been headlining Download. This song opened their set and they just took it from there. I can live with an interminable Knocking on Heaven’s Door if they keep playing stuff like this. It was good to feel like a teenager for a few hours with one of my oldest friends who has been on this journey since the very beginning. Also, is Slash the most iconic rock guitarist ever?

Red Hot Chili Peppers – I Could Have Lied (from Blood Sugar Sex Magik)

Not the first album I owned by Red Hot Chili Peppers (that would be Mother’s Milk), nor is it my favourite (By The Way), but this is the album that made the biggest impression on me and took me further away from hair metal and towards bands like Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine. Why this song? The heartbreaking guitar solo. This was released in the same week as Nevermind and Screamadelica but has ultimately made more impression on me than either of those other records. Plus, you never quite realise how much swearing is on this album until you’ve put it on in in the car with your mum.

The Smiths – What Difference Does It Make? (From Hatful of Hollow)

…and now for an abrupt change of direction. In my youthful wisdom, I was scornful of lots of bands; I assumed that the likes of The Cure, The Stone Roses and The Smiths must be crap because of the type of people who liked them and because they weren’t metal. Imagine my surprise when I turned out to be one of those people. I’m hardly the first teenager to fall hard for The Smiths, but at 18 years old – later than most – they just seemed to speak directly to my soul. At the time, their back catalogue was incredibly hard to get hold of: my CD copy of this album is a French import that I bought at a record fair at the NEC. Imagine that, millennials! I like Hatful of Hollow because the session versions of these songs have an urgency that the studio versions do not, and Morrissey's voice is pleasingly growly.  Of course, Morrissey is clearly now a twat of the highest order, but The Smiths are probably the one band that had the biggest impact on the music I listen to, even today.

Billy Bragg – Between the Wars (From Back to Basics)

“Pay no more than £4.49 for this record!”

I think I owe my love of Billy Bragg to a cassette copy of this owned by my friend John in about 1989. He made some impression during my heavy metal years, but it was only really a little later, when my ears were open, that he sank into my heart. I’ve seen Billy performing live far more often than anyone else… I think about 20 times at Glastonbury alone… and I never get tired of him. He’s famous for his politics, but all of his best songs are about love. Love him or hate him, and he’s very polarising, he’s a genuinely warm voice in an increasingly cold world. He is the Milkman of Human Kindness. He will leave an extra pint.

Manic Street Preachers- 4st 7lb (from the Holy Bible)

Prickly, difficult, wordy… this might just be my favourite album of them all. I saw the Manics perform this at the Reading Festival in 1994 and stopped at Milton Keynes on the way home to pick up the album on its first day of release.. but as it was a bank holiday, every shop was shut and the shopping centre was locked. Remember those days? Record shops, shops that closed…? I think this really hits my musical sweet spot with ferocious guitars and hugely ambitious themes and lyrics (this song was inspired by a BBC documentary on an anorexic/bulimic girl close to death and features clips of her talking about her illness and desire to fade from existence). It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s catnip to me. Everything Must Go came next and made them famous, but this is the essence of the Manics for me. I used to listen to this on cassette on my Walkman (with Dog Man Star on the other side) as I walked back through the deserted streets of Venice at 2am in the morning as the fog rolled in off the Lagoon at San Marco when I was studying there. Magical.

Scott Walker – The Seventh Seal (from Boy Child)

It was my housemate Mark at University who first introduced me to the honeyed bass-baritone of Noel Scott Engel and I can’t possibly begin to thank him enough. He insisted that the Manic Street Preachers were “Welsh heavy metal” and tried to show me there were different paths, introducing me to Walker, to “The Man Who Saved the World” and to Johnny Cash (just before the American albums began to be released). It was in his room, over the corridor from mine, that I first discovered the extraordinary collision between *that* voice and his songs of love, existentialism and death. It’s a short step from there to his magnificent first few solo albums and his Jacques Brel covers (I think that Jackie was my gateway song, actually... before the Seventh Seal closed the deal). Walker stands alongside Iron Maiden and The Smiths in a highly unlikely trio of acts that completely changed my musical life. Thanks Mark.

Coldplay – Politik (from A Rush of Blood to the Head)

I fell out with Coldplay at some point after Viva La Vida: after that point, although they were bigger and more popular than ever, they seemed to me to have lost an important part of their identity. Before then, there was something about their gawky, wide-eyed “music for bedwetters” that really struck a chord with me. I liked Parachutes, but here the scope and ambition felt so much bigger. Yes, Chris Martin always seems to lyrically have puzzles missing pieces and things that are broken he cannot fix, but there’s something so English about this apologetic grandeur. They mailed it at Glastonbury 2002 too, headlining the Pyramid Stage a few months before they released this album and when almost no one believed that they had it in them. Perhaps this isn’t a choice for musical connoisseurs/snobs, but my love of bands like Elbow, The National and Everything Everything probably started here and it would be dishonest not to include them. I suppose I can probably just relate to being gawky, awkward and uncertain. I haven’t had a Gwyneth Paltrow phase, mind.

Fleet Foxes – Your Protector (from Fleet Foxes)

As the owner of a Medieval Studies masters degree, the cover of this album alone was probably enough to pre-dispose me to like this record, even before you get to the singing that sounds like it could have come straight from the lips of a medieval choir. Hell, White Winter Hymnal even sounds like a medieval rondel. Looking back at this list of records that have shaped my life, I’m very aware that there’s not very much from this century. The Coldplay album was 2002 and this was released in 2008, although to be honest, it sounds like it could have come from 1508. Oh well. At times, most notably on By The Way, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have produced some beautiful harmony work, but they’ve got nothing on these guys. Even the bloody drummer (Josh Tillman, now much better known as Father John Misty) has a lovely voice to add to the layers of harmony. This is a quietly lovely record. Perhaps it’s out of step with the modern world, but then again, so am I. You can’t listen to grime all day every day, can you?

So, there ends a nice little jaunt down my record collection.  Tag yourself, if you're interested in such things.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

uptight, out of sight...

Like most kids who grew up in the 1970s and early 80s, I have vivid memories of a gentleman by the name of Joey Deacon. Joey suffered from cerebral palsy, and in 1981, the International Year of the Disabled, he was the focus of a feature on the children’s TV programme, Blue Peter as an example of someone who had achieved a lot with his life in spite of his disabilities. Of course, kids being kids, the term “Joey” and the phrase “Spaz” immediately became shorthand for someone who was stupid… so much so that the Spastic Society changed their name to “Scope” (which obviously led to kids adopting “Scope” as their new insult for a stupid person).

I’ve had cause to think about spasticity quite a lot recently. Although I’ve been pretty lucky with my multiple sclerosis, one of my most persistent symptoms has been stiffness and cramping in the muscles of my legs. I’ve actually had a physio film my calf muscles as he couldn’t quite believe how much the muscles seemed to pulse and ripple of their own accord. The rippling itself seems fairly benign, but I also get night cramps in my legs, quite often waking up on agony. Mostly, this is confined to my lower leg, but the stiffness and the occasional twitch has spread up into my thighs, much to the irritation of the cat when she’s trying to get comfortable. I’ve been diagnosed some baclofen to help combat these cramps and twitches and the muscle stiffness, but as a runner, I’m a little bit wary about taking any sort of muscle relaxant: it might help me sleep, but what about the impact on my muscles when I don’t want them to be relaxed? Perhaps the acid test for me at the moment is that I’d rather put up with the cramps and the stiffness than risk anything which might have a knock-on affect on my running.

My MS is technically classified as relapsing-remitting, but I couldn’t honestly tell you of a single defined relapse. Instead, I seem to have a set of symptoms that seem to be fairly steady but slightly on a downward trajectory. By running two full marathons in a thirty day period, as well as the hundreds of miles of training, I know that I’ve asked my body to do a lot this year. It probably wouldn’t be all that surprising if the increased spasticity in my legs that has me staggering around like an old man whenever I get up from my desk at work is related to that. That’s quite a lot for anyone, never mind someone who suffers from multiple sclerosis and I need to be mindful that my body needs to rest, no matter how much I want to be out there flogging it. If my body wants to let me know the consequences of what I’ve done, then that’s probably fair enough. That said, I’m actually considering entering another marathon in October, so now is very much the time when I have a window of opportunity to rest up a bit before my training starts up again in earnest…. I’m hoping that the muscle stiffness is going to ease off, but let’s be honest: I’m not going to let it stop me one way or another until I can’t even manage a shuffle.

Meanwhile, I’ll just keep reminding myself how lucky I am when I feel like cursing my stupid, failing body.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

roll with the punches...


I seem to have lost my ability to jump.

How did I discover this?  Because it was jumps night up at the track.

I now spend my Tuesday evenings helping coach the kids up at the track with my running club.  Mostly, it's crowd management and trying to use the hour we have to wear them out before we hand them back to their parents.... but we also try and introduce them to the rudiments of the various athletic disciplines.  Yesterday was jumps. 

As well as introducing the kids to the delights of the long jump pit, we did some standing jumping.  As pictured above, that's putting both feet together, jump up onto the top of the mat, jump down... repeat with bigger and bigger mats.  Sounds easy, right?

Well, the kids certainly made it look easy.  Some of them could jump up to almost their own height.  Pretty impressive.

Me?  Well, I discovered that my ability to jump up more than about 6 inches has essentially just disappeared.  Maybe this is due to the fact that my body is still a bit battered and sore from running two marathons in the last few weeks (which it most definitely is - it's taking my knees about two miles into a run to warm up at the moment!). Unfortunately, I think it's also probably something to do with my general loss of muscle and flexibility thanks to my MS.

Is standing jumping something that I'm likely to miss?  Not really.  After all, I only noticed I couldn't do it when I was trying something that I probably haven't done at all in the last 35 years.... but even so, it still seems like a tangible marker of something that I used to be able to do that I now can't do. 

As I can run a marathon, perhaps I have no right to grumble, but still...  I like to pretend I haven't been affected by MS much at all, or at least try to ignore it most of the time.

Sometimes though, it just makes its presence felt.

Monday, 14 May 2018

upside your head...


Throughout my adult life, I have often been accused of being cynical.

I actually don't really agree with this assessment at all, but I've probably only got myself to blame.  I prize critical thinking very highly indeed, and I'm also blessed with an almost complete inability *not* to say what's actually on my mind.  On the rare occasions that I have been able to keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself, I have sadly been unable to keep exactly what I'm thinking from being easily readable on my face.

I admire this quality in other people, but I have to say that it hasn't been particularly good for my career.

Anyway.  Safe to say that I don't think I'm generally seen by people as a glass-half-full kind of a guy.

Until recently.

I was speaking to someone that I've known for more than a decade the other day, and he was genuinely taken aback when I suggested that I was a cynic.  He seemed to think that I was pretty much the case-study of an optimist.

I'm sorry...what?

Well, how else did I explain my attitude to life since my diagnosis with MS and the fact that I started running marathons?

Now I was taken aback.  I've been called lots of things over the years, but I don't think anyone has ever accused me of optimism before.

Well, it's been a little over three weeks since I ran the hottest London Marathon ever.  Since then, I've been managing a dodgy ankle, a black toenail (incredibly the first one in my running career!), a strained glute muscle, a sore knee, a possible inguinal hernia and a nasty lingering cough.

Oh, and MS.

This coming Sunday, I'm going to be running the Liverpool Marathon on what is apparently forecast to be the hottest day of the year.

If that isn't optimism, I'm not sure what is.

Well, what's the worst thing that can happen?

Wait.. don't tell me.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

open up my mouth, air comes rushing out...


Perhaps it's my age, but I find myself becoming irrationally angry when I see a child on a motorised scooter or mini-buggy or something. It's becoming increasingly common to see them on the paths and playing fields around the river near me. The council have recently built a lovely little mini-roadway around there, complete with pedestrian crossings and traffic signals, designed to help kids become more road aware on their bikes and things. Yesterday, seeing a little girl motoring around there on a scooter with an engine just made me feel cross and a bit sad.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I would have absolutely loved to have one of these when I was a kid... but not having one meant I was forced to get out on my pushbike under my own steam, and I'm pretty sure that didn't do me any harm in the long run.

That girl on the mini-roadway wasn't paying any attention to the traffic lights, either... and I hope she never takes that scooter out onto the roads.

Tsk.

Is it any wonder, I found myself chuntering to a friend as we were doing a warm-up before an interval session on the playing fields, watching a slightly tubby child driving around on a miniature four-wheeled, motorised truck, that type 2 diabetes is such a plague and that our kids are growing up fat?

**Pause for reflection**

.... rather than just growing up skinny and judgmental like me.