A Dog’s Life

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An arson attack on the Manchester Dog’s Home this week killed 60 animals. They must have suffered horribly. It’s a terrible story which has, quite rightly, affected many, many people. A subsequent fundraising campaign has raised more than £1m at the time of writing.

Why are we affected by an event like this so much more than the horrors we allow others to inflict on animals each day? We have become very adept at finding flimsy, fragments of difference between moral positions and building our ways of being on top of them.

To put the deaths of these dogs into a crude context, the Humane Slaughter Association estimates that each year in the UK 2 million cattle, 8 million pigs, 9 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 750 million birds are slaughtered for human consumption. Let’s cut ourselves a break and exclude the fish and birds and stick with just those animals that are roughly the same size and shape and apparent intelligence as dogs. That’s 19 million each year. By the time those 60 dogs died on Thursday evening, 52,000 similar mammals had already been killed in the UK that day.

How can we mourn one group so publicly and ignore another so steadfastly?

Is it because the dogs were killed either by accident, maliciously or for no purpose whatsoever, depending on the motivation of the arsonist?

The fact that we put the corpse of an animal to use after it is dead is immaterial. Immaterial to the animal, of course, but also utterly incidental in moral terms. Just because we take some benefit from the death does not give us the right to take the life. We refuse to justify many, many other actions which would benefit us at the expense of others.

If a death is made acceptable by the subsequent consumption of the corpse, then would this event have been made more acceptable if the dogs had been eaten?

If we bestow moral purpose upon a death by eating the body, then why do we not eat the bodies of dead humans? Not to do so would be relatively less moral under this calculation.

Are we moved so greatly by this story because the dogs that died suffered so horribly? I’m afraid that hardly sets them apart from many hundreds of thousands of farmed animals.

Is it specifically because they were dogs? In the UK we, for the most part, treasure dogs. In other countries they are food. We venerate whales whilst others eat them. Dolphins? We wouldn’t order them from the menu but we try to find ways to think around the fact that they die as our fish is caught.

There is no meaningful distinction to be made between dogs, cats, pigs, sheep and cows that is clear enough to justify the slaughter of one species whilst another is offered love and protection. The only credible position is to admit that we like one species more than the other. There’s a philosophical term for that, which many of you will find amusing, but it is nonetheless an important concept: Speciesism.

The fact is that we, as individuals and collectively as a society, turn a blind eye to the deaths of millions of animals each year because to do so serves our interests and keeps us from having to make significant changes to the way we live our lives. We outsource these deaths to others to keep us from thinking about them in any depth.

Unless you have already made changes to ensure that your life minimises the deaths of other animals, then this event should give you pause to consider your many complex and problematic relationships with other species.

If you mourn these dogs and ignore the other mammals killed in your name each year, then you must accept the label ‘hypocrite’.

Sense memory

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It came almost immediately, triggered by the change in the weather, a small change to the environment and by the striving.

Was it always autumn when we tried, or were made to try, sports for the first time? The start of a new school, or a new year, of a new team. Feelings of trepidation, of hope and expectation tempered by looming failure and disappointment. The micro-analysis of performance. This could have been done better. If I had done that, then the outcome would have been more decisive, the impression created harder to forget.

Being watched. The knowledge that as the ball approaches you, everyone is watching to see what you will do. This is the feeling that sportsmen successfully sublimate. This is the feeling that sub-sportspeople cannot escape as time is sliced into finer and finer layers that flick by one by one by one. Slow motion that passes quickly. This is my chance. That was my chance. The end of a long anticipated, long dreamt-out session and all there is to dissect is five seconds of contact with the heart of the game, and nothing to extract from those.

No-one has noticed you. Perhaps your name is on a sheet somewhere, but the game has moved around you and away from you.

The football is somehow rounder, more elusive than any you have dealt with. How can it be so different from others? It comes to you quicker, or you to it slower. It behaves in ways you cannot predict and you have less time to adjust because the others are at you and the ball, the game, the focus, the heartbeat has moved on elsewhere. You can run after it. Maybe the proper thing to do is find some space? No coach ever spotted a schoolboy finding space and thought he saw anything worthwhile. And if you do find the right place at the right time, if the smaller, harder, trickier ball comes quicker to your feet, will you be able to control it, to use it productively?

Tonight the temperature display across the sports park reads 20 degrees but there is a layer of cold settling above the heat. Autumn is on its way and the season has shifted irreversibly. The cold currents bring the smell of torn fields and rain. The warm brings a hint of fire.

Teenage Top 40 tape – The songs

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Continued from I Was A Teenage Top 40 Taper

I’m writing along with my first full run-through:

14. ‘Hello’ – Lionel Richie

I feel fondly towards ‘Hello’ but not for the right reasons. Having discovered pop music and begun to appreciate its power, ‘Hello’ was one of the first singles to reveal that it could also be simultaneously crap and inescapable. Listening back now it’s just creepy. It’s almost impossible not to assume that Richie is actively and enthusiastically singing the part of a particularly determined stalker, one who is quite prepared to play the long game. The video. Yes, the video. Again, one of the first times it dawned on me that popular culture could actually be rubbish. And it reinforces the stalker theme. Horribly.

Whereas ‘Against All Odds’ has come to make perfect sense to me, ‘Hello’ seems less and less comprehensible.

13. ‘Dancing Girls’ – Nik Kershaw

I really did feel warmly towards Nik Kershaw. He was, I came to realise, a little silly. Well, just a little man really, who seemed to think that the harder he pouted the higher his heels would become. So pout away he did whilst his assistant dutifully and secretly added more and more stacking to his shoes. I do half-remember Dancing Girls now it’s started but it’s a bland electro pop porridge, bopping and blooping away in a monochrome fashion with little memorable to cling to and, hence, little to remember it by all these years later with the possible exception of that line “and they … the night away” which I can sense coming before it arrives.

It definitely wasn’t on my top 40 tape.

12. ‘Somebody Else’s Guy’ – Jocelyn Brown

I don’t recall anything about Jocelyn Brown. I do remember the chorus of this song and, as she approaches it she certainly seems to be belting her way through the preamble. “Still, I can’t get off my high horse”. There really was a lot of soul funk around in the mid 80s. I don’t think it really made any impact on me until it began to absorb electronic influences and mutate into driving machine music like Colonel Abrahams.

This was not on my top 40 tape.

11. ‘The Lebanon’ – The Human League

This may have been, but it’s hard to tell. It’s so familiar it could have been there, it could have lurked on an early ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ album. It was certainly all over the radio. That U2-like guitar still carries a sharp edge as it skitters across the top of the fairly gruelly surface of the song and Oakey’s voice is being pushed into territory it clearly should’t be occupying. Perhaps this is an extended metaphor supporting the songs main thrust. But let’s be honest, the song takes itself way too seriously to attempt that and Oakey is way too limited a singer to be attempting this.

I’m discounting this too. Not on my tape.

So, here we go. The real reel.

10. ‘When You’re Young and In Love’ – The Flying Pickets

Is it their song? I know it. It feels like I know it completely from the first words, but is that because of this? Well, maybe. The Marvelletes covered it in ’67 but only reached number 13, whereas this one was hanging about in the charts for weeks and weeks. It’s entirely pleasant.

Novelty or no, there’s a pure sense of wonder when a number of people sing at the same time. I might not make this my pop music of choice, but i would be happy to stand in a room as they sang it.

9. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ – Blancmange

Clattering school-music-room percussion, drums like biscuit tins, wibbly synth lines, a vocal which gruffs up as it taxis for chorus take off. It’s a great song. Whatever happened to Blancmange? They seemed like something of a big deal when I was 13. Could it be (whisper it) that they were not? The more this plays, the more I must conclude that the power comes from familiarity rather than some elemental force. I’d have a tough time selling this in to someone who had never heard it, but for me, that moment where he coos “I’ll say you let me be your friend” as the music calms and spaces out, shedding the growly chorus and bobbing into the verse, is pretty elemental. There’s also something about machine music when it is trying to sound like human music and it starts to click and tick like rapid firing clockwork that really does something to me. Probably started with ‘Two Tribes’ and went right through to New Order and beyond.

8. ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’ – Deniece Williams

Is a great tune. I hadn’t thought of this for decades and I can remember most of the words first time through. I guess it’s fairly standard squelchy pop soul of a mid 80s vintage but there’s a certain finger-popping, bobby-soxing charm to it. Let’s give the boy a chance.

7. ‘Locomotion’ – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

This is not, I guess, what Andy McLusley and the other guy thought they would be doing when they came up with the portentous name for their band and started out making relatively influential synth pop. It’s a rather weird flowering into light-touch pop featuring subdued steel drums, an endearingly banal lyric and a general chug that somehow harks back to the early 60s. This is one of the songs I can imagine my parents would have rather enjoyed hearing in the midst of the Radio One playlist. It’s entirely sweet and utterly inconsequential.

6. ‘Footloose’ – Kenny Loggins

Speaking of 50s throwbacks…That gyrating baseline, that brutish beat. ‘Footloose’ seemed like a creature from another era when it cut a swathe across the 1984 charts. The film itself, although not quite common pop culture currency, helped to reinforce the image, although I never saw it, then or now, and only know the one 2 minute slice I caught a few years ago when I was pleased to see ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ taking a pivotal role. Then the song sounded dangerously other in the context of the charts. Now its the only thing 90% of british music fans know about Loggins. Poor old Messina never even gets a look in. Who was Messina come to think of it? Was his name Dave? That’s sort of a genuine question.

5. ‘One Love’ – Bob Marley & The Wailers

And speaking of songs from another place. One Love was the first proper reggae i’d listened to properly. Back then it seemed completely at odds with everything around it. The rhythm, the guitars, the singing and the lyrics all running in a different direction. As a kid I never really got to grips with it and, in some way, as a result kept the whole form at arms length. ‘One Love’, perhaps the most organic, relaxed and positive song in this run down, was the alien item in the Top Ten when I listened back then. Now it still stands out, but for different reasons.

4. ‘I Want To Break Free’ – Queen

This too caused a bit of a stir, as I recall, in at least two ways guaranteed to get Dads around the country tutting furiously at Top of the Pops. Firstly the cross-dressing video which, as I recall it now, was pretty funny. Secondly there’s a guitar solo in the latter half which, in my father’s memorable words, sounds like “a fart in a dustbin” (it’s just started and, well I never, it really does).

It’s actually plodding rock trying to incorporate a few synth pop flourishes and achieving little in the process. I suppose it could be a cry from Freddie Mercury’s heart. What an odd character he was. Flambuoyant, mysterious, contradictory, troubled, challenging, infuriating and yet, perhaps most surprisingly, completely uninteresting, at least to this 13 and 43 year old.

3. ‘Against All Odds’ – Phil Collins

Hated Collins as a kid. He came to symbolise both political and musical conservatism for me. I don’t know how much reports of his politics were overstated and they probably wouldn’t have hugely influenced for a couple more years at that point, but something about him… here was a man who really could be your Dad, and that’s not what a pop singer is supposed to be. That his music was adopted and held shoulder high by Dads really didn’t help.

I hated this song too. Slow, overbearing and about soppy stuff. No thanks. I suspect this was my most FFWDed song of the ten. Now, I think it might be my favourite.

The lyrics are beautifully observed, and of course would make no sense at all to me for at least another ten years. The music matches their overwrought drama and Collins’ voice provides precisely required grieving ordinary Joe timbre.

2. ‘Automatic’ – The Pointer Sisters

There was a time when ‘automatic’ served as shorthand for ‘excitingly futuristic’. Hang on, i’ll just Google the Pointer Sisters on my smartphone…

Weirdly this is their highest charting single in the UK, although I suspect ‘Jump (For My Love)’ and ‘I’m So Excited’ made more of a long term impression. This sounds like standard desperate futurism by a group 11 years into their recording career. Still, it’s a neat flashback to what happened when soul and disco began to adopt and adapt electronic music, and it’s a fairly insistent piece.

1. Duran Duran – ‘The Reflex’

This is what the future really sounded like back in the early 80s. Duran Duran are what happened when punks decided it was okay to be pretty and famous. I felt a primitive disdain for them as a young lad. I suspect this was not based on a detailed cultural analysis but because girls liked them. Still, several of their singles stand up tall today, and The Reflex was, at the time, the most shocking and disorienting. The cut up vocals, electronic percussion, cascading guitars and veering, digressional structure and pro to digital video set it apart from the crowd. And I didn’t even know who Nile Rodgers was.

Conclusion

I didn’t get half the memory blitzkrieg I was expecting listening back to this rundown, but I did surprise myself with how deeply all these songs are imprinted. Next time, perhaps i’ll add in the gentle squeaking of a cassette sprocket and play it through a tiny mono speaker, or one of the beige single ear-buds that came with the deck and would, soon, become my conduit to late night John Peel shows. By that point, things were changing quickly. Looking back, some things seem to have stayed the same.

Exile on Main Street

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Yesterday we spent a few deeply and surprisingly pleasurable hours wandering Main Street in Vancouver. Deeply, because they built the slow and easy sense of relaxation that is impossible to summon by will but arrives finally like a conquering force, transforming all it finds. Surprisingly, because I hate recreational shopping. I hate that it exists, that it is what lots (and lots) of people in the affluent part of the world I live in do for fun (“Hi, my name is Milton and my favourite thing is to consume products or to walk about looking for and subsequently coveting things I want to have sold to me in the future”) and I physically hate wandering about shops without purpose. My body quickly becomes stricken by a torpor that even a growing sense of trapped fury cannot break through.

But yesterday we wandered about a shopping street looking, and sometimes going into, shops, and it was deeply pleasurable. It could be that the tide of relaxation was always due to reach its high water yesterday afternoon and that this blissful onset coincided with our time on Main Street. Whenever I’m lucky enough to have a holiday, it noticeably takes a long time for the tension of lift. It’s sad to reflect that it takes at least four or five days away from the everyday stresses and routines of life at home and at work before relaxation can get a foothold. It means that weekends are never even close to being enough. Occasionally I’ll feel the edge of it coming in on the Sunday of the four day Easter break but that’s quickly eclipsed as work rises darkly behind the horizon. 

So, sure, I was due to start feeling well, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that something about the process of drifting up and down that street didn’t have a lot to do with it.

The businesses on Main Street created a sense of well being. Which is stupid, but I can’t deny it. For now, for today at least, this street and the people who run the businesses here have nailed a certain vibe, a particular but hard-to-pin-down aesthetic that, for a relaxing middle-ager like me, oozes warm pleasantness. They are all, in detail, different from one another. Here is the Regional Assembly of Text selling their own handmade cards and stationary which no one needs but most passers by can’t help but want. Here is Red Cat Records, a straight down the line record store eschewing fancy interiors for racks stuffed to the hilt with vinyl and CDs. Here is a fish and chip shop selling battered salmon from a open front. Next to it a bar with a sign outside reading ‘Today’s soup: whiskey’. And here is a store who’s front declaims ‘Welcome Home Eugene Choo‘ selling… Well I assume they’re selling something.

Between them are new retro interiors, clothes with bold illustrative prints, grocery stores that also sell Haruki Murakami novels, a bike shop packed with new and second hand bikes literally piled on top of one another and a soap dispensary that does nothing specific but still manages to make you want to fill your home with soap and it’s apparently many accoutrements. Cafés and bakeries too. And a mechanics and a Veterans Centre. In the middle of all this at least one residential house that screams “Instagram me!” In such a needily pretentious way that I assume it’s a film set or artwork, put there for that very reason.

I can’t bracket these places as hipster, or even knowingly trendy to use a much more off-trend adjective. They are instead, for the most part, unironic spaces created and curated with care and love by people with various but usually appealingly good taste. The contrasts between them are clear but, apart from a certain retro industrial ‘we just welded and hammered this old place together’ chic, it’s hard to say what it is that binds them together. Maybe it’s just the street they all face. 

Somehow, being around a bunch of seemingly unrelated places that are just done so well brings a certain salve to the soul. 

A couple of weeks ago Google paid a lot of money to buy an app called Jetpac. Jetpac is a clever idea, which is cute enough to sell the app to users, based on interesting technology which was intriguing enough to sell the company. Whilst the end results are weirdly baffling, the idea behind them is a doozy. They have, they claim, analyzed all publicly available geotagged photos from Instagram and have used these to compile machine rendered city guides, in the form of ‘best of’ lists. 

Which locations have the most smiling women? Which bars have the happiest looking people? These must be the best bars in the city! Which spots are most often frequented by men with moustaches? These, my friend, are your hipster hangouts. Which coffee shops get snapped most often? You get the picture.

Cute idea, as I think I may have mentioned. And, hearing about the buy out as we prepared to make the trip to Canada, I downloaded it and looked with interest at the places it told me were the top of Vancouver’s particular pops. As we headed away from Main Street, I scrolled through the various top tens for the benefit of our guide, the exquisitely well-attuned Sarah, and she scoffed at the choices the robots had made. I drew my own conclusions from the fact that none of the wonderful places I’d seen on Main were featuring, but various Tim Hortons were. Either this app and me, or the rest of the human race and me, were just out of step with each other.

Listening to Sarah give her immediate reactions to the places being recommended by the app, it struck me with a certain force that there is no longer anywhere in the world, or at least no city, on which I could offer similarly well-qualified views. We left Manchester 11 years ago now. I have great trouble remembering the names of the places we used to spend our time back then. Even if I could remember them, at least half will have closed. I left Leeds more than twenty years ago. Called upon recently to give reassurance to a colleague who’s daughter is heading there to University this autumn I could only fall back on ‘she’ll have a great time’ and ‘of course it will all have changed since I was there’. In other words, ‘I have nothing of any value to share with you’.

Now my nearest city is Exeter and I go out there maybe three or four times a year. If Jetpac has a list of the best places to have your office Christmas meal then I am slowly compiling some experience which could be brought to bear. For anything else, forget it.

How did this come to pass? I know nowhere. I belong to nowhere that anyone would know or need to know about.

Come to think of it, I live in the middle of nowhere, and I know that nowhere pretty well. I just don’t expect anyone else to be interested in to have taken snaps of it or to be asking robots where the best places to hang out are. Nowhere just isn’t that kind of place.

Downhilling with the Stoics

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Some good things happened today. Among them, I got to go downhill biking in Whistler for the second time, 6 years after the first. Also, I started to get into the meat of Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. As I did so I had the feeling that, in his description of modern day Stoics and the way they seek joy in life, Burkeman was encapsulating the way I have come to feel about happiness, expectation and contentment.

The two came together as I sat alone at the bottom of the chairlifts in Whistler Village, waiting for the time when I could head over and get kitted out for my afternoon of biking. In the book, Burkeman discusses an approach to unhappiness based around confronting fears and concerns directly and actively considering what might be the worst possible outcomes. This is set against the prevalent doctrine of positive thinking, which advocates planning actively for everything going right for you, with the underlying promise that just wishing for the best will certainly make it happen.

It seems like some cursory rationalisation is all that’s required to pull apart the seams of this approach. Quite often, perhaps most times, the things we want to happen and the things we don’t want to happen, come to pass due to forces completely outside our control. Let’s say, as shorthand, they happen or don’t thanks to luck. If your outlook and the basis for your happiness is predicated on everything going right always then when something doesn’t, what recourse do you have? Pretend it never happened? Pretend you never wanted it to go any other way? Reassess your entire worldview? None of these are satisfactory. More practically if your approach to life is to screw up your eyes and wish for the best, when the worst happens, and it will, how can you hope to meet it and cope?

Negative thinking suggests instead that we contemplate the worst that might happen and that, through doing so, we will come to realise that even this is still survivable and that most undesirable outcomes are actually pretty trivial. 

This morning I read a chapter which dealt partly with social embarrassment. The point made through reasoning and personal exposure is that you may fear embarrassing or awkward situations but your belief that they will somehow cause you harm is actually the only significant problem you face. In practice, if you do the thing you’re afraid of, put yourself in the situation you dread or, as a practicing stoic might, think through in some detail the possible consequences of doing it, you’ll come to realise that nothing really bad is at all likely to happen. Other people don’t care if you behave differently. You aren’t somehow marked out as a pariah. No-one you meet subsequently will have received a news alert warning them to shun or secretly mock you.

I haven’t been downhill biking for years. I know enough to admit to myself that I can’t remember how to do it. W had a guid last time. He thought us three rules, all related to animals. I can remember that I need to adopt a stance like a fat cow, that I either should or should not be a flamingo, and nothing else. For a pursuit where a steering error can send you head first into a tree trunk, a sense of humility is no bad thing, at least in your opening exchanges. 

Since the last time we were here I’ve spent a considerable amount of my spare time pedalling bikes up hills. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing that. Riding downhill is a fun consequence, a by-product. I also love getting on my bike and exploring the countryside, going whichever way pleases or piques me. Downhilling is the opposite of both these. A ski lift takes you up the mountain and you follow a two foot wide trail all the way back down again. All reactions, no decisions and pedalling strictly a novelty.

I knew that I was back to being a total beginner. I didn’t know the code. I knew that despite being a very experienced cyclist I was heading straight for the novice green runs. As I looked at the queues for the lifts I craned to see how the riders ahead of me were loading their bikes onto the carriers. I thought about what would happen if I messed it up. I wondered whether the other bikers would look at me with contempt or pity.

Once I got up there, would I crash and friction burn? How would that look to the hard bitten men and women coming down behind me?

Then, instead of spending the next 30 minutes wondering whether the guy in bike shop would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, or whether it would be obvious from the fact I was wearing running shoes that I was the odd kid out on the lifts, I spent a couple of minutes thinking about what the consequences of those things might be. 

Answer: nothing. 

If you’ve ever worked in a shop, did you remember any but the absolutely wackiest customers? At the end of any day do you remember any of the strangers you clapped eyes on for less than five seconds, even those who looked a little out of place? Of course not. So why should I give a care about whether other complete strangers, strangers most of who will spend most of their lives living on a completely different continent, fleetingly think about me. In fact, to even expect them to notice is grotesque arrogance. If I had a problem on the lift, or got lost on the trails, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that someone would help me and then forget about it. 

So instead of getting more and more anxious as I waited to begin, I drank my coffee and thought about how much I was hoping to enjoy it. And when I got to the lifts I commenced doing just that. 

I spent three happy hours pounding, by my standards at least, down that mountain, then being lifted back to the top. For the first hour and a half it felt as if I was going to spend the whole time on the beginners runs, because, Good Lord, downhilling is sketchy. One weight shift a half second too late and even on the easiest trails you can expect to be in the undergrowth with at least one or two skinned limbs. 

Ordinarily, this novitiate status would have formed a nagging sense of failure which would have hung around in the background of my day and left me feeling that even though I had felt like I might be enjoying it, I really was failing all along. None of that this time. I simply got up and got down with a smile on my face and increasingly numb tendons in my hammered forearms and wrists. I fell off twice and laughed about it. I barely spoke to a soul and by the end of the session I could have carried on for another three hours, had my hands not been frozen into claws. 

Confidence and positive aggression are important parts of downhilling. One of the lessons I relearned quickly is that letting the bike run at speed is often much safer than running with the brakes applied. But today I was able to prove that contemplating head on what might go wrong can give a major boost to good times.

I Was A Teenage Top 40 Taper

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I’ll save you the paragraph about how this will make no sense to anyone under the age of 40. Let’s just accept that there was a time when music was not instantly accessible from everywhere, and that kids discovering pop music would tape the Top 40 run-down on a Sunday evening and play and play and play it until the tape ran blank.

I did this. I didn’t do it for long, at least I don’t recall doing it for long, because as soon as I began to have pocket money I started spending it on records and commenced playing those until they were worn flat. I think, on reflection, that taping the radio was almost as much about having and using the technology as it was about wanting the music. But it’s amazing how much something like that can ultimately affect your inner workings for the whole of your life.

I had a digital alarm clock with built in radio and cassette deck. It was amazing. I could set an alarm to start the radio or even leave a tape with ‘Play’ pressed and have that kick in. Why on earth I needed an alarm clock aged 12 I have no idea.

One of the things I did with this machine was start recording the radio. Had I had access to unlimited media, I would have captured unlimited stuff, but instead I had access to one C90. It was a BASF tape with an orange label. On one side I recorded 45 minutes of the Top 40 countdown and on the other I recorded an edition of Michael Bentine’s comedy show. I listened to both over and over and over again and as far as I recall I never recorded over them.

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I don’t think of them often as a collection, but whenever I hear a song that was on that one side of my orange BASF C90, I get an immediate memory jolt followed by an image of that cassette radio alarm clock with tape in position and me about to press play. I can even feel how those buttons felt to press. Hell, now I come to think of it, I can even remember the specific round buttons that controlled the clock features, and how those felt to use.

Yesterday I heard ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins. I’ve come to believe it to be a great song, a real piece of work, but I used to dislike it. It wasn’t at all what I was about. Hearing it yesterday in the midst of a great edition of ‘This American Life’, it occurred to me that this was one of the songs I used to find a chore when it came up in my Top 40 playback. My opinion of the song has changed, at least in part because I now understand it, but it’s still incredibly tightly bound to my memories of that particular tape and that particular edition of the chart rundown, Sunday evening on Radio 1.

As I was trying to recall the other songs from that tape – I know them when I hear them, but I can’t just conjure them up – it occurred to me with blinding clarity that now, with the infinite resources of the world wide web, fifteen minutes work could probably find me the exact top 40 track listing I had recorded and played so hard and that, furthermore, with Spotify and another five minutes of effort I could recreate it and listen back to it for the first time in 30 years.

So where to start. Wracking my brains, all I could recall with any certainty was that in the mix with Phil Collins was ‘Footloose’ by Kenny Loggins and either ‘Don’t Tell Me’ or ‘Living on the Ceiling’ by Blancmange. As I think about it, I lean towards the former. Then yesterday, as I started to write this, I also got a burst of ‘One Love’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I’m sure that was in there too.

I think that should give me more than enough to triangulate the week or weeks i’m looking for. Surely there can only have been one or at most two weeks when those four songs were all in close chart proximity to each other? I purposefully delayed rushing to a computer to so I could savour the moment a little more. The internet has to a large extent destroyed the delayed gratification of a successful information hunt. No more paging through 8 years’ worth of NMEs in my parents’ loft to find the name of that song by Stump…

And then the strangest thing happened. I was at home today and, for the first time in many months, I left Radio 4 playing all morning. Which meant I heard small portions of a re-run of Rufus Hound interviewing Sarfraz Mansoor about his teenage diary. As I pottered into and out of the kitchen I heard him reading back some both effusive and self-centred musings on Live Aid, in a diary entry which ended with the words “Frankie is number one, Axel F is number two and ‘Crazy For You’ number three,” and a bell went off. Surely he couldn’t actually be talking about the same week I was scrabbling to recall? Surely? Surely… not?

But Axel F really does seem like it was probably there and my immediate thought that Frankie Goes To Hollywood, of whom I was a massive 13-year old fan, were not – I would have remembered – was soon eclipsed by the shocking realisation that ‘Frankie’ the saccharine chart-bestriding mega-hit by Sister Sledge almost certainly was. I’m pretty certain that ‘Crazy For You’ was definitely in there. My goodness.

Now I need to know.

So, let’s start by pulling together some release dates.

  • ‘Against All Odds’, charted 7 April 1984, peaked at number 2  – 14 weeks on the chart
  • ‘Living On the Ceiling’, charted 30 October 1982, peaked at number 7, 14 weeks on the chart
  • ‘Don’t Tell Me’, charted 14 April 1984, peaked at number 8, 10 weeks on the chart
  • ‘Footloose’, charted 28 April 1984, peaked at number 6, 10 weeks on the chart
  • ‘One Love – People Get Ready’, Charted 21 April 1984, peaked at number 5, 11 weeks on the charts 

So, I’m looking for a Top 10 some time after 28 April 1984. I could just find the chart listings from that date on and paw through them chronologically but, as I’m seeking the full Proustian rush, I’d prefer to get as close to hitting it first time as I can. I need to follow up the Sarfraz Mansoor angle…

  • ‘Frankie’, charted 1 June 1985
  • ‘Axel F’, charted 23 March 1985
  • ‘Crazy For You’, charted 8 June 1985

That’s a different chart then.

So, time to dive in. Let’s find the chart for 28 April.

Top 10 looks like this:

  1. HELLO – LIONEL RICHIE
  2. AGAINST ALL ODDS (TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOW) – PHIL COLLINS
  3. I WANT TO BREAK FREE – QUEEN
  4. YOU TAKE ME UP – THE THOMPSON TWINS
  5. THE REFLEX – DURAN DURAN
  6. A LOVE WORTH WAITING FOR – SHAKIN’ STEVENS
  7. (WHEN YOU SAY YOU LOVE SOMEBODY) IN THE HEART – KOOL AND THE GANG
  8. GLAD IT’S ALL OVER/DAMNED ON 45 – CAPTAIN SENSIBLE
  9. PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE – DEPECHE MODE
  10. LOCOMOTION – ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK

I’m getting major vibes from ‘Hello’, ‘The Reflex’, ‘You Take Me Up’ (a song I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard a single time in the intervening 30 years but which now, at such a distance, sounds delicious in my head) and ‘I Want To Break Free’, but the rest, OMD, Shakin’ Stevens and Depeche Mode? Nothing. I know ‘People are People’ of course but it’s just not feeling like it was part of my tape, and the others I can’t say I can even recall.

I’m also getting slight twinges of concern that the Official Chart Company only seem to provide Top 10s. It’s possible that the run I’m looking for is 20-5 or similar.

Let’s try the following week, 5 May 1984.

  1. THE REFLEX – DURAN DURAN
  2. AGAINST ALL ODDS (TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOW) – PHIL COLLINS
  3. I WANT TO BREAK FREE – QUEEN
  4. HELLO – LIONEL RICHIE
  5. AUTOMATIC – POINTER SISTERS
  6. LOCOMOTION – ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK
  7. WHEN YOU’RE YOUNG AND IN LOVE – FLYING PICKETS
  8. DON’T TELL ME – BLANCMANGE
  9. ONE LOVE – PEOPLE GET READY (MEDLEY) – BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS
  10. YOU TAKE ME UP – THOMPSON TWINS

This is starting to feel a lot more like it. ‘One Love’ and ‘Don’t Tell Me’ have snuck into the picture and even ‘Locomotion’ has come back to me (“Crossed every ocean, for the sake of locomotion, but it wouldn;t take a notion, [erm…] to change my [erm] soul [?]” or somesuch). Everything in this list now feels right although the Flying Pickets are still not quite doing it for me. 

Quick check of the week after, 12 May 1984.

  1. THE REFLEX – DURAN DURAN
  2. AGAINST ALL ODDS (TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOW) – PHIL COLLINS
  3. I WANT TO BREAK FREE – QUEEN
  4. AUTOMATIC – POINTER SISTERS
  5. LOCOMOTION – ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK
  6. ONE LOVE – PEOPLE GET READY (MEDLEY) – BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS
  7. WHEN YOU’RE YOUNG AND IN LOVE – FLYING PICKETS
  8. DON’T TELL ME – BLANCMANGE
  9. FOOTLOOSE – KENNY LOGGINS
  10. HELLO – LIONEL RICHIE

At which point I realise I’d forgotten about Footloose last week and also that I really don’t remember the Flying Pickets being anywhere near this thing, whilst the Thompson Twins definitely feel like they must have been.

I’m getting more confused.

And now, drifting in from somewhere deep in the distance with a ring of familiarity, “Dreams will come true, if you believe they do, when you’re young and in love”…

The next week, 19 May, looks like this:

  1. THE REFLEX – DURAN DURAN
  2. AUTOMATIC – POINTER SISTERS
  3. AGAINST ALL ODDS (TAKE A LOOK AT ME NOW) – PHIL COLLINS
  4. I WANT TO BREAK FREE – QUEEN
  5. ONE LOVE – PEOPLE GET READY (MEDLEY) – BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS
  6. FOOTLOOSE – KENNY LOGGINS
  7. LOCOMOTION – ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK
  8. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BOY – DENIECE WILLIAMS
  9. DON’T TELL ME – BLANCMANGE
  10. WHEN YOU’RE YOUNG AND IN LOVE – FLYING PICKETS

I’m getting more initial recognition vibes from ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’ than I did for The Flying Pickets, and this is getting even harder to pin down. Where the hell has ‘Hello’ gone?

I look at the following week and suddenly ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ and ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ are getting involved, and those feel like definite ‘no’s for all sorts of reasons.

So, I’m saying… Actually, which week am I saying?

It dawns on me that I need to see the 11-20 brackets. In fact it very specifically dawns on me that I can recall Kid Jensen declaring that Blancmange were down to number 15. Looking at the above that definitely seems like a false memory, but… who knows? Fortunately an off-site google reveals that the Official Chart Company do indeed host the full Top 40s for each week.

I’m in.

Looking at 12 and 19 May, the 11-20 brackets look like this, respectively:

  1. THE LEBANON – HUMAN LEAGUE
  2. LOVE GAMES – BELLE AND THE DEVOTIONS
  3. DANCING GIRLS – NIK KERSHAW
  4. I’M FALLING – THE BLUEBELLS
  5. (WHEN YOU SAY YOU LOVE SOMEBODY) IN THE HEART – KOOL AND THE GANG
  6. SOMEBODY ELSE’S GUY – JOCELYN BROWN
  7. TO ALL THE GIRLS I’VE LOVED BEFORE – JULIO IGLESIAS AND WILLIE NELSON
  8. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BOY – DENIECE WILLIAMS
  9. AIN’T NOBODY – RUFUS AND CHAKA KHAN
  10. JUST BE GOOD TO ME – S.O.S. BAND

and 

  1. LOVE GAMES – BELLE AND THE DEVOTIONS
  2. THE LEBANON – HUMAN LEAGUE
  3. SOMEBODY ELSE’S GUY – JOCELYN BROWN
  4. DANCING GIRLS – NIK KERSHAW
  5. HELLO – LIONEL RICHIE
  6. BREAK DANCE PARTY – BREAK MACHINE
  7. I’LL BE AROUND – TERRI WELLS
  8. STAY WITH ME TONIGHT – JEFFERY OSBORNE
  9. I’M FALLING – THE BLUEBELLS
  10. JUST BE GOOD TO ME – S.O.S. BAND

and what strikes me from both these second tier rundowns, apart from the still resonant sadness of the S.O.S. Band, who must have tuned in that second week excited to hear what progress they had made from a promising entry into the Top 20 only to find they were still at number 20, is that none of these songs are hitting my memory button.

Sure ‘The Lebanon’. Once you’ve heard “Before he leaves the camp he stops (He scans the world outside) And where there used to be some shops (Is where the snipers sometimes hide)” there’s no forgetting it, but Belle and the Devotions? Terri Wells? Nope. My brother and I had a minor thing for Nik Kershaw as a kid so I’m sure I would remember if I knew ‘Dancing Girls’. ‘Break Dance Party’? As a kid who already owned ‘Hey You The Rock Steady Crew’ I would have been all over it.

So. Let’s make some decisions.

Definites: ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Footloose’, ‘Don’t Tell Me’, ‘One Love’. 

Pretty sures: ‘Hello’, ‘Locomotion’, ‘I Want To Break Free’, ‘Automatic’.

Apparent must-haves: ‘The Reflex’, ‘When You’re Young and In Love’.

So, having squinted at the two most likely looking top tens, it basically boils down to whether I have ‘Hello’ or ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy’. I’m more or less certain that I had ‘Hello’ on one of these tapes, but then that song was so omnipresent that it’s impossible not to feel some sense of icky familiarity with it. I’m going, therefore, to go with Deniece Williams, as that strong recollection must surely have a more singular source?

So, I’m nailing my orange flag to 19 May 1984. What’s more, I’m going to take in the top 15, just enough to slip a consoling arm around Lionel Richie’s shoulders and say “Hello, it is indeed you I’m looking for”.

So, that’s that. Now to build it, listen to it, and write about how it feels…

Not at Worlds 2014 – Day 2

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I feel faint. I’m not sure whether I feel faint or just like I’m going to be sick. Perhaps I’m going to be sick and then faint. My team are playing a top-of-the-pool game and the pitchside 3G connection has gone down. the tournament has been dark for 15 minutes and I have no idea what’s going on.

This is worse, way worse than being there. My job for Chevron is, was, simple. It is to hang around until someone needs to move the disc on, make myself available, receive the pass and then move the disc on safely to a team-mate. It’s also to catch the pull and move the disc on or to walk off field the pick up an out-of-bounds disc, bring it back, put it into play and then pass it successfully to a team-mate. I can do those things. I’ve been doing those things for 20 years now. I can train for them and I’ve been training to be able to do them for 20 years. These are things, some of the only things, I’m good at.

Being in the middle of a big game is easy, once you know what you’re supposed to do and know that you can do it. You control most of the variables and, if you do that right, the outcome.

Watching top level ultimate when you have a stake in it is terrifying. The disc, which moves so smoothly and safely from your hands to mine and then on to his in a game, seems almost impossibly fragile in flight when observed from beyond the sideline. How can this thing ever complete successfully when almost any change in circumstances between thrower and receiver could cause a turnover. How can those catches possibly be made when almost any minor misjudgment, any miniscule mis-alignment of fingers, will see the disc bounce straight back out again.

How can we catch when we could drop?

I have just come back to my office. Chevron are playing a German team out in Italy. From a distance the tournament seems to be in some sort of chaos and we’re dependent on twitter and texts from friends for updates. From what I can gather the format has been reorganised in the last hour or so to mean that the outcome of this game could well be the deciding factor in my team securing a top 16 finish. I don’t even know whether they know this. I’ve been walking around campus here constantly refreshing twitter on my phone and shaking shaking shaking.

We’re 12-9 up now. Things sound good. This is so much harder than move – catch – throw – move. Now it’s 12-10.

13-10.

Not going to Worlds 2014

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Today is the first day of the Word Ultimate Club Championships in Lecco, Italy. My team is seeded 12th in the Open Division. I’m not there and that’s proving stubbornly difficult to deal with.

For many ultimate players, World Clubs is the pinnacle of the sport. It’s possible that the standard of play is higher at the US National Championships each year, but that’s not genuinely accessible to players from the rest of the world. The inclusion of several teams from each of the top countries makes World Clubs the most testing, the most fiercely contested and, I would say, the most dramatic tournament there is. Here you compete alongside your club team-mates, at the conclusion of a 4-year campaign, clashing with players from different countries and sometimes vastly differing ultimate cultures. One way or another, it always seems to go down to the wire.

In 2010 my club, the club I started with my best friends, set a target of reaching the top eight and missed out on that goal in a sudden-death point by, it has to be said, a couple of yards. That was the extra distance on a throw that went too long that otherwise would have won the game and got us there. We stood around after the game, looked each other in the eyes and tried to accept that four years of planning and preparation was over. Weeks later, we started again.

When that happened, in Prague, I was certain that would be my last World Clubs. I was pretty sure it would be my last season. I was already ten years older than almost everyone else in the team, and almost every year since 1997 I had given a fair chunk of my time to preparing for international Ultimate, either for club or country. There had to come a time to hang up my cleats.

The next year, I showed up for training, and it felt good. So I played and really enjoyed it. The team was rebuilding and I was just playing because it felt like fun. I did the same the next year. And then the next. And then we were at the end of 2013, we’d qualified for Worlds the next year, and suddenly I was on the brink once more.

Right now, nothing would give me more of a thrill, more delicious anticipation, than being in that team hotel with the rest of the squad, preparing for the first game tomorrow. And over the next week, it’s not possible that anything could satisfy me more than being there and taking the opportunity to reverse the result from four years ago. Four years ago, after we lost, if someone had told me I could be there to do it all over again in 2014, I would have signed on the dotted line. And yet I quit in February, after the last trials session. I’d made it through for selection and nothing stood between me and the championships other than staying in shape.

I did that because to train and prepare properly would have taken me away from my family for yet another run of weekends, for yet another Summer. It would have drained my finances, at the expense of the others things we could be doing together. I don’t regret the choice, and having long, long days together has been important, meaningful and just plain good.

But goddamn I regret it right now. Because right now, they are in Italy, hours away from beginning. I could be there with them, the mistake of my poor, immature choice would be behind me by now. the weekends away would have been endured. My family’s understanding would probably have been extended one more time, and I would be ready to play, alongside my team-mates, for one last time.

If you ask me whether I would swap 6 months of weekends with my wife and daughter for 6 days of competition with my team-mates, I would say no, mean it, and that would be right. But my god, I wish I was there, and not to be hurts like hell.

Those people

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Those people. Those children those women those men.

For those people this is not the beginning or the end of a story.

For those people this is not the conclusion of a neatly plotted tale, or the beginning of a situation that will now unfold. For those people there is no narrative arc. There is no understanding. There is no sense that those people saw this coming. There is no consideration as to whether they could have done differently.

For those people there is no conclusion, for a conclusion must be preceded. This is not an outcome.

For those people there was life then fire then children tumbling away from parents, lovers strapped to plummeting metal, strangers being torn to shreds and all of them engulfed in fire and then nothing.

For those people there are no questions, no ramifications, no recriminations no redress no remorse. For those people there is no remembering, there are no tributes, there are no tears. For those people this was not a possibility, not a concern, not a calculation. For those people this did not come then happen then go away. For those people this is not a mystery, not a mistake, not an outrage, not a crime.

Those people are gone.

You and I are not those people and that is the only difference between us and those people.

I’m awake down here

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I’m awake down here while you sleep
The house is slow growing warm
Our floorboards tick as the birdsong fades
Dust swims in the currents I’ve formed

I’m moving as you rise from the deep
The radio laps on the block
Coffee grows strong in the heart of the stove
And I have one eye on the clock

As you drift from then into now
In the hour before you will rise
The sun still boils the dew from the lawn
As I work through my exercise

Today is approaching you now
My shortly snatched shower runs dry
A chattering tumbles its way down the stairs
A cough, a shout, a cry

The coffee cools down alongside
The radio talking unheard
Whilst I’m upstairs lifting you in my arms
The future once more deferred

One day I will not be waiting
As night ends and you drift ashore
But the wood will still glow with the warmth of the sun
And the dust will still move like before