You’re not from round here, are you?

In ‘An American Werewolf in London’ a couple of American backpackers try to take shelter in a pub near the beginning of the film as they try and cross a generic bit of  Yorkshire, and it is now dark. As they enter The Slaughtered Lamb – which is full – all the talking stops and the locals stare at them with a distinctly unfriendly look.

The boys leave, and so the story starts properly.

Now, of course the reason for the unfriendliness is due to fear of strangers and more pertinently the werewolf on the loose but this kind of silence as a stranger walks into a pub is observable in real life. Oddly though, I almost feel more like this every day as I walk around London or anywhere else in the South East where people are always in a particular hurry. No one belongs and no one offers casual friendship, often not even the politeness of a word or eye contact and not even in some cases when the people who meet in this way are acquainted. We’ve been blanked many times by people we thought we knew well, and have probably done the same to others, as we rush off to the next terribly important thing we have to do.

Thankfully, at the weekend when we walked into a pub – the Fighting Cocks in Stottesdon, Shropshire to be precise – we had the opposite. We had smiles, several of the staff chatted with us pleasantly, seemed genuinely interested (and did not seem to mind the mud we brought in, only enquiring had we walked or biked). Behind me a teenage girl (one of several on the waiting staff) asked Derek – the old boy digging into his Sunday roast cheerfully behind us – if he wanted dessert and then suggested the treacle tart; positively received. Clearly he is there every Sunday at least.

Meanwhile the family who had come to celebrate Grandma’s birthday had to deal with the crisis of the unstoppable smoke alarm (well that is all we could glean) but could not get any signal on their mobile, this being middle of nowhere. So they asked the pub if they could use its landline, and got an immediate ‘of course answer’ – cannot see that in central London except in the direst emergency.

I have sometimes wondered what is going on here. Of course the phone borrowers and Derek are locals and the pub lives or dies on them. They could be related for all I know. But they treated us just as well. And it is not just a single pub experience. In fact what this most reminded me of is how we have been treated while on holiday on some of the smaller Islands round Britain, such as the Isles of Scilly or the Outer Hebrides.

In all of these cases, after several days we found people showing us cheerful recognition in a way I normally would only expect from people we knew really well. Now, I am under no illusion that this was anything but surface, but in context it is important. In some of these places, including rural Shropshire in inclement weather become quite isolated. Where we were staying this weekend had a ford to cross and several footbridges had been washed away; there are many places where flooding or snow would effectively cut off a village at least from any motor vehicle. Islands have it even worse, and at sea the weather can be changeable and unpredictable.

So it could easily be that when we are staying on a lovely but tiny island such as Lundy (off the Devon coast) in April, it could quite easily be that the island could be cut off for several days. At that point, the only people you can rely on are your fellow islanders, permanent and temporary. Someone gets ill – is that person in the holiday cottage a Doctor perhaps? Or a just a strong pair of hands to help clear a blockage and/or a soft pair of hands to help look after children who cannot now get to school as the ferry is not running? That stranger who has just walked into your pub might be incredibly useful to you, perhaps a literal lifesaver.

I think a lot of people who live in places that can be potentially isolated understand that (consciously or otherwise). Where we have no need – apparently – to rely on each other, we ignore each other except for the times we have no choice and for our closest friends and family for whom we might make the effort.

The lovely wife and I do have a plan to go and live in the country in our latter years. I hope we can learn to be the kind of people that when a couple of drenched backpackers turn up lost and helpless on our doorstep we welcome them in with honest hospitality and do not cast them out again to the mercy of the wolves.


Special Edition

Last week I was waffling on about the soundtrack of our lives and the effect on personal music tastes and it started me thinking – and laughing – about the very special edition versions of songs that exist in my experience and probably in my experience alone.

It is an area I feel of true nostalgia in that the past gave far more opportunity for creativity due to the limitations of the technology that we used to play and listen to music. Nowadays, with digital precision the mp3 players spool out the track as the artist intended far too reliably.

But when I was a kid, and we were reliant on vinyl and cassettes, then all sorts of interesting effects were possible.

The very first cassette tape I was given by a friend at school was a recording of Queen Greatest Hits volume one, on an incredibly cheap Agfa cassette. The friend concerned had done his best to fit the album on as neatly as possible (although it does not – so my experience of “Save Me” always has it cutting off just before the end) and I more or less wore it out over the years.

The main oddity of this recording was the sound system he had recorded it off was only going through on one half of the stereo. So I was getting only half the track, the right hand side. In most of the songs it doesn’t matter, but Freddie Mercury just isn’t for part of ‘Now I’m here’ and for a while I assumed that ‘Bicycle Race’ had a bell, then a gap of silence and then another bell… Which sounded odd and therefore it was never a favourite track.

I know better now of course. But my one sided version is still the original in my head.

The other classic recording mistake is, of course, the needle jump. As you try lovingly to transfer from the precious vinyl to the cassette, unless you had the best equipment going (I didn’t) then it seemed inevitable.

I am pretty sure all of us of a certain age have our own examples; my best one is my recording of the 7” of ‘Sexcrime (1984)’ by the Eurythmics. OK, it is a pretty stuttering track anyway, but my version quite literally jumped all over the place, no matter how much I tried to clean it with one of those soft yellow cloths that as far as I could tell just added yellow fluff to the dust and the scratches.

Moving away from our own recordings, the other area where our own individual versions of songs exist is in the misheard lyric department. Those cases when for twenty years you think the singer is saying one thing and when you finally find out the lyrics it’s something completely different. Usually something that has the potential to completely change your view of the whole song (a possible disaster scenario).

Thankfully, I am a lyric listener so if it tends to sound odd I usually seek out the words pretty quickly. I know a lot of people though who are less focussed on the words than the music and most of them are a little surprised to find out what the song is about. As a sideline there is that wonderful class of songs that sound cheerful and upbeat but are actually either really rude or depressing – a good example of the latter being the rather odd ‘Hello; this is Joannie’ by Paul Evans, do go and weird yourself out at

One of these that always stuck in my head as a kid (and I have to sing my lyric to, just like Kenny Rodgers’ “four hundred children and a crop in the field” – don’t ask) was The Kane Gang’s 1984 hit ‘The Closest thing to Heaven’ which to this day I am sure is really the closest thing to Hebburn, an unprepossessing suburb of Newcastle next to Jarrow.

And they were from the North East too so it is entirely possible that this is the lyric, and everyone else has got it wrong.  See for yourself

If I lived there, I think I would definitely adopt it as a local anthem.

Rings a Bell

I was having a conversation (OK, an email exchange) the other day with a younger friend of mine who is, and has always been, a massive David Bowie fan, about why people have such odd music tastes. Until last year she had felt well out of things in her peer group as until the former Mr Jones decided to come out with a top selling album from nowhere, most of her contemporaries had no idea who Bowie was never mind having a view on his music.
It got me thinking about what engages people with a particular type or types of music. I specify those that are engaged as I know a number of people for whom music is primarily noise in the background. That’s just the way they are made and they have other things to evoke mood or emotion.
For my friend, it came from parental influence and that is certainly one source of input.
I think most of us either hate the music our parents listened to (and forced us to listen to by default or design) or openly or secretly like it (depending on how embarrassing it might be). I was pretty lucky, as my parents ploughed a late 1960s furrow of 45s that included a wide selection of Beatles, Lulu, Nancy Sinatra and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. It was quite a diverse group of stuff from a limited time period, but that diversity probably influenced the eclectic nature of my music tastes. It also meant that I know more about 1960s pop than I should but that is no bad thing – some of it is very good indeed.
Then again, Val Doonican and Barbara Dickson probably do not get pushed to the front of the CD cabinet.
Then there is the first record you buy (‘Material Girl’ by Madonna), first album (Erasure – ‘The Innocents’) and that stuff that dominates your teen years – for me a heady mixture of Queen, Ultravox and Genesis, with Eurhythmics and Chris Rea thrown in for good measure. This is a key time for most of us leading through university and starting out on adult life, and the soundtrack of this time does stay with us.
And connected there is the connection of music to something good (or indeed something bad… Madonna’s ‘Power of Goodbye’ pretty much sums up the pain of my first relationship).
Here my music tastes take a dive. But then some of the happier times of my life were holidays off the Northumbrian coast, an orgy of rock pooling, castles and fish and chips. Fish and chip smell takes me straight back there to my preteens, but unfortunately so does the music of the late 70s summers; bright, vacuous and frequently disposable. There are things I like from this period that make me cringe, but it is a cringe with a grin. Some people argue that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, but people that is not true. I am definitely guilty of crimes against musical taste in perpetuating some of this stuff.
As I go along through life I do also see the difference between people who stay in their period with what they love and those who constant experiment and add to their music collection. Again, each to his or her own, although personally I have a dangerous tendency to explore new music, although hardly in an experimental way – just as well the Lovely Wife is much the same, or she would be more upset at the numbers of CDs I buy (note, I might like new music but I do like a nice shiny disc, a simple download does not really do it for me, although space may force this).
But I do recognise that the sounds of 2013 may not stay with me for too long, bar a few exceptions. While for some people “Get Lucky” will be a nostalgic touchstone for their lives in the same way as dance floor favourites of my college years – ‘Stop!’ by Erasure (again) and Black Box’s ‘Ride on Time’ for example – are to me.
Some will survive, though. I suspect my personal favourite track of 2013 – Bastille’s ‘Pompeii’ – will be in my favourites list for some years to come. Why? Because the subject matter has always fascinated me, and the Pompeii/Herculaneum exhibition last year at the British Museum was fascinating and effecting. So now the confluence of these two things – exhibition and song -is locked in my head.
Oh, and it is a storming track too, of course. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to try and persuade anyone of that, as it has a special place in my personal soundtrack.
But not as much as some piece of music that to me are truly unique, but more of that to come…

Recognition is the Problem

Now that the time of peace and goodwill is over once more, and the boxes are waiting to go up in the loft (the Christmas duck having been freed from the top of the tree only to find himself, once more, trapped in solitary confinement of an old Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin for twelve months) we can all start to be grumpy again. I do wonder if Charles Dickens considered a sequel to a Christmas Carol when Scrooge, in mid January, looked at what Christmas had cost him that year and decided that once was enough.

The latest source of irritation in the house is an old one for many people. These are automated answering systems and their joys. This is the summary of what I heard while trying to keep my face straight as the Lovely Wife tried to gets some sense or indeed any help at all out of a certain – delicious irony – telecoms provider.




‘I’d like to report a fault on the line.’ [Calm, clear]

Pause. There may have been the slight echo of an automated female voice somewhere out there in the ether.

‘I’d like to report a fault on the line.’ [Slower, slightly louder]

Pause. Still accompanied it seemed by a familiar ghostly murmuring.

‘I’d like to report a fault on the line.’ [Exploring a different emphasis, slight note of tetchiness perhaps]


‘I’d like to report a fault on the line.’[Dangerous edge to the voice, husband in danger alert signals recognition and now fully active towards possible evasive action]

If that tone of voice had been used on me, I would immediately have checked for the presence of sharp objects within range and promptly removed them.

What I do not get about these voice recognitions systems is that, well, they seem unable to recognise your voice. Or at least what you say. I have yet to find one that works for me, and I apparently talk ‘quite posh’ and relatively clearly.

So goodness knows what anyone with a strong accent is supposed to achieve. I am not a huge fan of push button systems but at least they don’t make you look like some kind of loony person as you constantly repeat yourself into the handset trying funny voices to see if it will respond. I might try sounding like HAL 9000 next time – see if pretending to be an automaton gets a response.

It does not have to be like that; later that day I had a cheerful online chat with technical support from a certain visual media streaming organisation as someone had used my email to set up an account with them.

I was somewhat surprised to get confirmation of my account come into my inbox, especially as it was addressed to ‘Rachel’. It took two minutes, it was sorted out and although there was no actual verbal communication it felt like you were talking to a real person. I even got the feeling that ‘Nicholas’ enjoyed his job. Or maybe it was just that he was amused at English bloke being called Rachel.

Talking to a real person doesn’t always work, especially the way that many firms outsource their call centres in ways that sometimes feel awkward or inappropriate. But I do think we should not depersonalise our communications. History tells you that in any sphere, the moment we stop seeing each other as people, bad things happen.