When I was little it seemed like every child that I encountered in the many books I read, whether a gruel-weaned urchin or a fallen-from-grace posho, was fortunate enough to depend on the patronage of a generous benefactor. Maybe they couldn't afford an education, perhaps they were too poor for ballet lessons, or only had one vaguely presentable dress to attend balls in. Whatever – a kindly figure from the shadows of anonymity came to their aid.
I am neither an urchin nor a posho. But still, I don't have any dresses to attend balls in either. Although this is a matter of sartorial anthropology, not financial hardship. How happy I would be if I stumbled down the stairs one morning to pick up my post, only to find there on the doormat a stiff white envelope with my name written on the front in a scratchy, curling hand.
And what would be inside? I'll tell you, gentle reader. Tickets to see Neil Diamond at the O2 arena, retailing for £50-£75 each, plus plucked-from-the-air ticket agency handling charge. That is what. Holding them in my trembling hand, I would fling the door open and tear down the path, only to see disappearing around the corner an elderly gentleman in pin-striped trousers, a burgundy tailcoat, and a silver moustache, the tip-tap of his walking stick on the pavement growing ever fainter. Naturally I wouldn't be able to tell he had a moustache from the back, butI would just know. And obviously in my head, where this plays out, I would be living on the Royal Crescent in Bath, and not a scruffy, terraced main road in south-east London.
Anyway, my point is, Dear Neil Diamond. I hope you are very well. But £50? For a cheap seat in a vast arena, where all I would be able to make out are the sequins on your stage gear glimmering like fireflies? This is badly done indeed. Regards, Miss Jones.
While it probably costs a lot to sew diamanté on to satin shirts, I can't imagine Neil really needs the money. However, I don't like making an example of him because a) he is basically god and pretty soon everyone will realise, and b) he's hardly the only culprit. Dear Dolly Parton, do the rides in Dollywood need some urgent and costly maintenance as this seems the only explanation for your exorbitant ticket prices?
And then there's Leonard Cohen, at the O2 arena, matching Neil's hefty tariff. I don't know what is more shocking - the fact that Leonard Cohen is playing the O2 arena, or that he's charging so much for the privilege. And the latest person to make me dream of envelopes and letter boxes is Ray Davies. How lovely, I thought, to take my mum to see him at Hampton Court on a balmy summer's evening in June. Not for £60 though. Come on, Raymondo. You can't pretend you live on dead end street any more. Not in those sunglasses.
Oh, and do your shirt up. You're 63 for Christ's sake, you're not Cristiano Ronaldo.
So anyway, that is my plight. And until that band of genteel philanthrophists chooses to make a comeback, I'll just have to make do with this. Sing along when you know it.
I'm far too innately slothful to be a campaigner of any kind. But lately something has fuelled my righteous anger – or the closest thing to it I'll ever have. It's not so much an injustice, comrades, it's a case of idiots just plain getting it wrong.
I am hereby launching, only semi-apologetically, which is pretty strong stuff for me, the campaign to Keep The Club Sandwich Classic (KTCSC). I need to work on my acronym, I know. The club sandwich, for vegetarians reading, is a toasted (pay attention, this becomes important) sandwich, stacked as high as the sky, with salad, bacon, turkey or chicken, and often many slices of bread. Held together with cocktail sticks, it is a mainstay of hotel lounge cuisine – why, I have even eaten one in the lounge of a hotel in Kyoto. And it is as much a part of my childhood as hand-me-down Sindy dolls and The Good Life. It has fed me and thousands like me perfectly well for more years than I have been alive. So why meddle? I know I am a purist about these things. I can't begin to imagine who would ever want a passion fruit KitKat, or Marmite with a touch of champagne, or baked beans on a pizza or... but let me tell you how all this started.
The KTCSC story begins some months ago in the newly refurbished, shiny-escalatored branch of John Lewis in Cambridge, with us queueing for the cafeteria, which these days is called a brasserie. It was a chilly day and I craved something to thaw my icy extremities. We were handed the menu while we waited for a table and I saw my shangri la – a club sandwich. We sat down and ordered straight away – two club sandwiches, please, and a diet coke and a still mineral water – and they bought our food straight away. I mean before our drinks even arrived. But what they bought was a cold, cold sandwich, so very cold, with a limp sprig of salad, some ham – ham! in a club sandwich! – masquerading as bacon, and some flaccid slices of turkey that looked as though they had come from the same family of animal products as luncheon meat. (Do they even make luncheon meat now? Or has Jamie Oliver run it out of town?) This was bread that had never even been in the same room as a toaster, let alone had any kind of actual brush with its fiery jaws. Disappointment does not begin to cover it.
Then, yesterday, we took a break from a hard day's decorating to go for lunch in Dulwich's most upmarket cafe. They have more types of tea than there are Heinz varities. I had previously glimpsed the promise of a club sandwich on the menu – but your sophisticated grasp of narrative will lead you to surmise correctly that this would not end well.
I could have a salmon club sandwich. What? I could have one with fancy ham – ham! in a club sandwich! – and some ludicrous farmer's market cheese. I could have another variety too blindingly painful to the senses for me to remember. No classic club sandwich though, done to perfection in God's own way. It sickens me. But this is where the fight starts. WHO'S WITH ME? Oh OK, just me.
I think I'm fairly aware of my own failings, although I'm sure there's plenty lurking ready to throw me a surprise mortification party. And one of the ones I know well is that I just don't have a dissecting, analytical mind. The kind that effortlessly glimpses a path through dense webs of information. As a result, I'm appalling at arguments. (Among the barbarous verbal weapons in my glittering armoury: 'Never mind.' 'It's probably my fault.' 'It's hard to say unless you're actually in that situation.') I would almost certainly be dreadful at chess. And the complex political climates of places far away often make me wish John Craven would sit me down kindly and tell me what's really going on. But even I can tell that radio news – the kind I listen to (I'm not including Radio 4 in this, 4 fans) – is news for idiots, by idiots.
On this morning's 8am bulletin on 6 Music, they revealed that financial regulators were investigating who spread rumours in the city which caused share prices to drop. That was it, verbatim. That was the story. Someone spread rumours and suddenly money went wrong. What exactly were these rumours? That Jeff on the Tokyo desk is adopted? That Fiona in New York has 'started'? That Elaine the night cleaner will do it for 20 Silk Cut and a pint of Snakebite?
Things often work this way on the radio news I get to hear. A story breaks, and initially the report sounds for all the world like it's been excitedly put together by reporters from a student newspaper, blithely untroubled by facts and sources and explanation. Then, in the half-hour between that and the next bulletin, it's as if they've shown their work to a proper, grown-up journalist who's said, 'Now, remember what we learnt about who, what, where, when and why.' By 8.30am today, a gentle rewrite had introduced motives and suspects and consequences, and the free press had once again reclaimed its dubious merits. Until 9am, anyway.
Luckily, there is one bastion of the fourth estate that you can always rely on.
I was buying my lunch today in Marks & Spencer and there was an elderly man in a wheelchair, marooned in the middle of an aisle, quite alone. I didn't see him at first but I bumped my basket on his chair as I walked past and the dull clang of our clashing metalwork alerted me to his presence. I did, of course, stop and apologise, which is more than I would normally do in this situation, since M&S is full of dithering idiots barring my progress towards the fresh scones (today: cherry) and making me question my childhood dream of living in a department store. And as I wandered off, I saw his female companion, a sturdy older lady, walking over to him saying, 'They haven't got any of your sandwich. They've stopped making it.'
Christ. You're old. You can't walk. You're abandoned mid-aisle in M&S. And they stop making your favourite sandwich. I would have said that an M&S scone could cure most maladies. But I'm not sure they could counter that much cruelty.
Bev's memory finger (noun) A physical gesture and/or verbal exclamation mid-conversation in acknowledgement of a point which must be returned to and discussed further, a related thought/incident/anecdote, or a tangent to be subsequently explored. To do so at the moment of usage would constitute unnecessary distraction or plain rudeness. Often used in intense, rapid female discussion where many voices are competing to contribute.
ORIGIN Engl colloq, 21C: My friend Stef's friend Bev.
I was pottering around Waterstone's in Camden today, killing my lunch hour, wondering if a Dalek Sek Voice Changer Mask was an appropriate present to buy a fashionista who writes for the broadsheets as a 30th birthday present. They were half price too. Then, as I was flicking through Delia's latest, I overheard two frail old ladies discussing the bestsellers in fiction, and in particular whether to buy Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones.
This caused me some dilemma. I have read Mister Pip. And I know that about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through, Very Bad Things happen. Things that could not be guessed from the book's spritely, tutti-frutti-coloured cover. Quite Bad enough to put you off your toasted teacake and pot of tea for two.
You fool, Jones, you might say. Very Bad Things lurk all over the place, ready to declare themselves in their slightly bored and matter-of-fact way. And old people have seen it all. They love a bit of trouble and are, after all, the key demographic in the audience of Midsomer Murders (although that group also includes a surprising amount of my friends). Only last year, as we were selling our jetsam at a car boot sale, an elderly lady asked my mum and I if we had any crime novels, because she 'loved a murder'.
But my point is, if your book-reading days and months are numbered – though of course this applies to all of us – don't you want to make every one of those books count? Wouldn't you want the option of shooing away any black clouds before they're on top of you? Wouldn't you welcome a warning – the chance of turning away from literary peril, towards the snug pages of something that will rub some warmth into your withered heart and brittle bones?
At a mere 34 years young, whenever I go into a bookshop, I always end up feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the books that I haven't read and never will. (This is different to my friend Kelly. Whenever she goes into a bookshop, she is always overwhelmed by the need to poo. I'm not even making that up.) The stakes, then, when you're choosing a new read, seem incredibly high. I wish there was a way of knowing what would leave you feeling unhappy, or cheated, so you didn't waste your precious reading hours on it. In the future, I'd like it very much please if, through a combination of technology and witchcraft, bookshop displays could customise themselves specifically for you when you walked in. Imagine if each book that was unsuitable would communicate that message through flashing lights or the recorded, reassuring voice of Michael Aspel, who of course would still be alive, though principally operated by animatronics.
'Yes, the cover is very nice. So is Alan Titchmarsh and you don't want to spend four hours with him.'
'You will never get past page 30, however many times you start. Your interest in quantum physics falls dramatically short of your estimation.'
'It's grubby. You love it. Hide it inside The Spectator when reading in front of your train-commute crush.'
'Just because it has a pastel cover, you think you're better than this. Get over yourself.'
'This has a pastel cover. You are better than this.'
It can only be a matter of time. I've seen Minority Report.
I do not pretend to know a fraction of what I knew about football in my younger days. When I was a callow sixth former, you could have asked me what David Batty ate for breakfast (sugar puffs, almost certainly, with a grating of black pudding on top) or what David Platt liked to listen to in his car on the way to the training ground (Luther Vandross, more likely than not) and I would have been right back at you with an answer, before you could say 'Shouldn't you be revising?' Admittedly, these are not the kind of facts that would prove critically useful during a pub quiz, but since I am a genius at pop music, I earn the kudos of my teammates elsewhere.
The beautiful game rarely turns my head these days. But the events of the weekend have whispered sweet nothings into my ears once again. This year, modest ol' 2008, there will be only one premiership football team in the semi-finals of the FA cup. And that premiership club is Portsmouth who, soz Pompey, hardly count. And by that I mean that only about 4% of Saturday afternoon visitors to, say, Miss Selfridge, or Mecca Bingo, or Frosts Garden Centre of Willington, Beds (or indeed anywhere populated by men and woman who don't have default plans for 3 o'clock on at least one day of the weekend), would think of them as even being in what the footballing lexicon calls the top flight. This tingly scenario has not happened for 100 years. Which is a proper, official, historically large unit of history.
Real sports fans – who, remember, eat pies not prawn sandwiches – are Romantics. They'd probably deny it and mutter on about some sense of community, their own very modern kind of church – utterly valid and my top answer on a different day. But how else to explain the swooping in the stomach, the priority-warping passion, the crushing sense of loss, the habitual tilting at windmills and tireless cheering of lost causes clad in the kind of garish colours rarely seen on a group of straight men who are not on a cycling trip. It's the stuff of Cervantes, I'm telling you. And even Cervantes would have been well and truly boggled at this year of years.
Though the more I think about it, this surfeit of magic and romance, the more I think it's all too much. I feel almost sick from feasting on it, and I've come to the party late. Eighteen stone Cardiff City fans must be swooning like Keats. Brian Barwick can barely get to his office for the corpses of slain dragons blocking his path. And here's what worries me… what drama is left for the final? How can 22 heroes further distinguish themselves when they've already dispatched all the baddies? I can't believe the FA, with their eyes on gimmick and spectacle, won't have something up their sleeves to wake up the ratings. Personally I'm advocating the release of real-life lions on to the pitch. Three of them of course…
(In geek news, the title of this post refers to a nice song by Belle & Sebastian. And while I was looking for a clip of it to post, I found this piece of fancraft, which could have been put together especially for me and no one else. And that, of course, is the romance of YouTube.)
Considering that I live in south London, and he lives in north London, I see an awful lot of Bobby Gillespie. I'm not even trying, yet somehow the whey-faced stringbean seems to follow me wherever I go – Soho, Spitalfields, Marks & Spencers at Marylebone Station. Yesterday I went out for lunch with my friend Elizabeth, and no sooner had we crossed the invisible border between dirty, desperate Camden and the white walls and lifestyle delicatessans of Primrose Hill than there he was, pedalling towards us on his strangely old-fashioned and upright bicycle.
We took a seat by the window in the Engineer pub. (You may recognise the name from the Spotted pages of heat magazine. We only spotted Jade Goody, which almost moved me to ask for a refund.) Bobby took a seat in the window of the deli opposite, giving us a grandstand view of his lupine countenance which was so pale as to look almost… spectral. And as we ate our cheeseburger (me), and polenta and peppers (Betty), we remarked on the fact that though Bobby is slightly, I don't know, ravaged, he's pretty much looked that way since the 80s and actually doesn't seem to age at all.
Then it became clear. Bobby Gillespie is a ghost. And he is haunting me.
But why do you torment me, Bobby, up and down the streets of your town (to paraphrase the Go Betweens), silently apparating on your two wheels, ting-tinging your bell in lieu of some rattling chains. Which you have probably used to fix your bike because it looks pretty old. Why, Bobby, why? Is it because, with my pallid, Dickensian workhouse complexion, you think I too have had my spirit severed from its fleshly and extremely stylish moorings? Is it because I was the only person regularly attending indie discos in the early 90s who did not own a copy of Screamadelica? Or is it because I have on several occasions scored laughs by saying you dance like Mowgli in the Disney version of The Jungle Book?
Either way, I am now forced to reinterpret Movin' On Up as being about your ascent to the afterlife, and not about whatever I thought it was about before. Which was probably drugs.
It's late now, and I'm fully expecting to wake in the small hours to find Bobby Gillespie standing at the foot of my bed, ready to introduce me to the ghosts of Britpop past, present and future. I'll let you know if I find out what Sonya Aurora-Maden is up to now…
I have read some extremely joyless reviews of Be Kind Rewind, most particularly by Philip French of The Observer, who, from the small amount of his work I've absorbed, doesn't really seem to do joy. I note from the infallible Wikipedia that Philip French is, in fact, 75. Naturally this has no bearing on his ability as a critic, but I wonder if reaching old age as a dead ringer for Uncle Junior from The Sopranos has left him feeling slightly jaded with his lot.
'The f**kin Feds are so far up my ass, I can taste Brylcreem'
'Be Kind Rewind is a sentimental, whimsical embarrassment'
Anyway, sorry, uncle Ju, but the magical mincing machine that is director Michel Gondry's brain always bewitches me. And while I'm aware I'm dazzled to the extent that I suffer a minor dislocation of my critical faculties (Dave Eggers also does this to me, albeit with a slightly different method, and Jonathan Safran Foer), I wouldn't have it any other way. No, I don't think Jack Black completely nailed it. And no, I didn't sit through the 'let's make our own movie' part without the slightest ding-ding on my wince-ometer, But I could happily see out all my cinema-going days in The Gondry Enchanted Forest, where the everyday is transformed, with the casual deftness of a balloon modeller, into the extraordinary.
Also, Mos Def = hot.
One of the joys of a trip to the Odeon Beckenham, aside from the chance to see my lovely friends of course, is renewing my love affair with the gleaming aisles and chic packaging of Waitrose, which, like any good mistress, arranges itself seductively round the side of the train station. As I flirted with the ready meals, I heard a handsome young orderly whistling one of the Moldy Peaches' songs from the Juno soundtrack, to the indifference of his colleagues. I wanted to catch his eye, and say, with the power of my mind, and the muscles in my face, 'Me too! I know what you're singing, even if none of these pork-pie-hatted, white-overalled automatons don't. I know'. Maybe he couldn't see me from behind his painstakingly dishevelled fringe, maybe my powers of telepathy aren't all they might be (although surely that's not true), but alas, I was unable to distract him from his work. But us impotent disciples of Le Gondry live for these dreamy non-encounters. And those thai red curries won't unpack themselves.
I don't really like Mother's Day. And it's not just because there are so many truly disgusting gifts around appealing to your sense of laziness and desperation. It's purely an extension of not liking Father's Day. Since my dad died, I've always found it very tricky. You steel yourself for Christmas, anniversaries and birthdays, and people remember and call and ask how you are, but that sneaky day in June always sidles up alongside me when I'm starting to relax into the warm bath of the summer months and punches me hard in the stomach. And this is me, technically a grown-up. I can't imagine what it's like to grow up without a mum or dad when you're a child, and what it is you do when everyone else at school is making a card out of pressed flowers and glitter, or constructing a pen holder out of the inside of a toilet roll and some wallpaper, because all dads have pens, don't they, and they need somewhere to put them. If it was up to me, I'd abolish them both – not just because of this, but because if you need a designated day of the year to be nice to your parents, you should really have a word with yourself. I realise I'm preaching nothing more original than spending time, all the time, with the people you love, no matter who they are and how many you have. And the industries of books, music and self-help groan with people who have said just that a lot more eloquently than I have. I only mean to say, here's to families. And here's mine.