Category Archives: Bio

Growing Old Disgracefully

I’m looking forward to reaching the 69th anniversary of my birth. I have no other course than to look forward to it as it falls due next Tuesday. I cannot look back on it or even askance at it as it is out of reach. Getting nearer – but out of reach. So I must look forward.
I have the same choice about next week as when I entered the post-war world of Dulwich Hospital on 13th October, 1946. Although I was extraordinarily bright as a child, I’m fairly certain that my foetal sensibility, even at the hour of delivery, would not have been up to making critical choices about what was to follow – let alone grappling with the complex metaphysics. So I don’t remember being asked, given a choice. Do you want to be born? Who would you like to be? Would you like some siblings? Where do you want to live? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief? I wasn’t involved in any of that. At least, not for a while. And thus it will be next Tuesday. No choice. I’ll be 69. Soixante-neuf. Although saying it the French way only serves as an ironic reminder of temps perdu that are unlikely to be recherché.
Getting to be older, no one says old – they’re far too polite, means a number of things. It means changing channels when the incontinence pads advertisements appear on the TV; it means doing the Kevin Spacey thing with your eyebrows when a pollster is asking for your age group; it means desperately trying not to say, ‘When I was your age’ to people aged 50; It means not turning your youth into a memorial.
I like to think about and talk about the 60s. It was mostly a good time. But I didn’t choose to be around when all that stuff happened. I had no choice in the matter. I suppose that I chose to join in, you could say. I’ve never been one to stand on the side lines. So I have some responsibility for what happened. Just the millionth part of an iota of accountability for everything that’s happened since then.
But the God of History is who you need to talk to if you have a beef about One Direction, Global Warming and Terrible Television. She’s the one to see about your sugar addiction, your falling asleep at your day job because your second job at night and your third job on the weekends leaves you overtired and depressed, your failure to maintain a viable erection for longer than thirty seconds, your inability to understand why everyone in the room is laughing at the gag except you. Get her to explain your circumstances. and don’t take any of that ‘gene pool’ crap. It really is all down to her. She gives us the circumstances that provide the illusion of choice. Republican or Democrat? Full fat or reduced? The Embassy or The Roxy? Being born or remaining as a twinkle in the eye of the God of History that disappears as she nods off to sleep?
Yes. I’m looking forward to next Tuesday.


In Praise of Disorder


I’m that variety of mug known as ‘a collector’. I’ve mostly collected music, in the form of records, tapes , CDs and sheet music. There are thousands of these artefacts all around the apartment. The collecting started in my teens and has continued unabated for some 50 years. My golden period was the 90s when Wellington Record Shops owned by such people as Colin Morris and Dennis O’Brien had a large photograph of me in their shop window bearing the legend, ‘If you see this man, please usher him in.’
I like to own what I hear and like. That is, rather than just call it up on the PC. Why? Firstly because I have a fabulous, and hugely expensive so it needs justifying, 2-channel stereo. Secondly because I’m compelled to. Not by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Oh no. But by the gene pool. My parents were collectors. Of anything and everything. Making my way from one side of their living room to the other was like a game of Twister, such was the care needed with placement of limbs, lest I disturb a ten bob resin ashtray adorned by a macaw or a 100 squid oil of a Kentish sunset by someone from the Royal Academy.
There was, of course, music growing up in South London; Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Stan Freberg, Mahler, Beethoven, Pete Seeger. And The Goons. It was all there. Everything.  Everything except Rock and Roll. That I had to get for myself and listen to by myself. The first record I bought with my own money was ‘Hit and Miss’ by The John Barry Seven – the theme song for TV’s Juke Box Jury. The latest arrivals, today, are by BRMC and Tangerine Dream. The beat goes on – as Sonny and Cher once sang, although I do love Patricia Barber’s take on that song. Where was I?
Oh yes. So. Where to put all this stuff. And how to order it? You can go onto websites that will tell you. And I do mean tell, They’re quite didactic about things like sub-genres, chronology, alpha and artist order. When I read the monomaniacal ravings of the nutters that proliferate these places, I can get a little puckish. I like to ask if John Fahey’s ‘Blind Joe Death’ should be considered for filing under American Traditional, Folk, Folk Blues, Guitar or just, you know, John Fahey. ‘Ah. But under J or F?’ I hear you ask. Such fun. And I haven’t even started on Portuguese Fado and whether or not it still counts as Fado if a man is singing.
Then there’s always Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity character, Rob Fleming, who has his music collection arranged to reflect his romantic liaisons. I could do that and have, like, about 120 sections – which would be great to explain to visitors. Then when the visitors leave, rearrange them back into the original 3 sections
So here’s how I do it. I have lots of wooden CD cases all around the place. Over the years, I’ve played at storing discs by genre/sub-genre/alpha or by amalgamating all the sub-genres into one homogenous lump. The trick is never to finish anything I’ve started. That way, there may be two or three partially organised cases where, say, a Muddy Waters disc may be located. The prospects of finding anything within 10 minutes or so are significantly diminished if I have utterly forgotten  exactly where the genres or amalgamations are in the apartment.  This lack of certainty is greatly compounded by not having bothered at all over the last three years to introduce any semblance of order to recent additions. New arrivals are left in piles on, or by, the stereo, on the bed in the spare room or in places that only The Dark One and his minions know about.
But this chaos is positive. Creating danger out of certainty meets a creative need. I am fatigued – bored by order and safety. The joy of finding something cherished but lost, far outweighs the smug, slight satisfaction of knowing where to find that same thing without let or hindrance. And the pleasure is doubled, maybe trebled, enhanced by relief, when the disc finally goes on the turntable or in the player. I am recreating the first time.
And so I spit on your filing system. It is prosaic. I thumb my nose at your indexing cards. They smack of grey ennui. I pour scorn on your efficiency. It has no soul. Leaving nothing to chance removes the element of surprise. Duplications are evidence of life.

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
Friedrich Nietzsche



The Wellington writer and critic, Simon Sweetman, recently asked his readers a couple of questions that inadvertently led to my recalling some scenes from the past. He asked if we’d ever seen a great busker. And he asked if we’d ever known anyone decent who went by the name of Travis.

In 1968, I was living in London and becoming hip. Not cool, you understand, but hip.  Mods had come and gone; Psychedelia, Hippiedom and Timothy Leary were the thing.  Except I could only embrace some of it. I dug the counter-culture stuff, some occasional weed and most of the West Coast Music (Specifically not The Beach Boys though, whose very name brings on horrific psychosomatic symptoms if spoken, written or seen. Imagine what it cost me to print it here) but the residual mod in me demanded some attention to sartorial sufficiency.

So here I am in a longish queue outside the Carlton Theatre in the Haymarket. I’m waiting to get in to see Lindsay Anderson’s If’. Grey leather shoes with patterned toe caps, by Raoul; sharply creased, black mohair trousers and a tailored, black leather jacket with a sewn-in half belt. My concessions to the zeitgeist are a button-down paisley shirt and a conservative afro. The Gauloises cigarettes are situated precisely halfway  between hip and cool.

And here’s Don Partridge, singing while we wait. Known as ‘The King of the Buskers’, he’s a familiar sight around the pubs, clubs and theatres of the West End and Soho. He sings some Dylan and his own ‘Rosie’ which he’s recorded and been on the tele with. It’s a pleasant, early summer evening and we’re pleased to have Don entertain us while we wait. The shrewdly chosen pretty young woman takes the hat round and I add some coins to the many notes. Don’s doing okay thanks.

The movie ‘If‘ is pure, anarchic counter-culture. It marked Malcolm McDowell’s  debut –  in the role of Mick Travis (Yes, a tenuous connection, I know. But sometimes any idea is a good idea) –  a role he was to reprise in two further films for Anderson; ‘O Lucky Man’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’. The structure and surreal nature of the film are much influenced by Jean Vigo’s  ‘Zéro de conduit‘ (1933) but the plot of a student revolution, led by Travis, in an English Public School is an expression of Anderson’s belief that the British cinema needed to put aside its fixation with class and be more representative of the broader community.
We discussed that in the pub later and I managed to upset a few friends with an observation that Anderson was perfectly placed to attack privilege in that way, having been educated at Cheltenham and Oxford.
What neither I nor my friends properly realised at that time though, was that I was about to resolve the vexed choice between cool and hip by moving into the more considered role of rugged left-wing intellectual. Already my frequent use of irony, a newly grown beard and the recent acquisition of a houndstooth flat cap  were pointing me toward a classless society and women called Cordelia and Vanessa.


Boom Baby, Boom!

I was born in 1946
20% more babies were born in 1946 than in 1945
In schools, the pass mark for exams to achieve higher education was set higher than previously
I started work in 1964, aged 18
It was easy to get a well-paid job with prospects

We told people that we had a work ethic
People tell us we have a sense of entitlement

We were revolutionists
We were profligate conservatives

We tell the world that we were making history
History was making us

We invented Rock and Roll
Record companies and promoters invented Rock and Roll

We tore up the old rules, created new ones
Richard Nixon tore up the old rules, the traders did the rest

We created gender equality
The scientists employed by pharmaceutical companies created gender equality

We crashed through the class barrier
Wealth replaced class as the instrument of status

We liberated fashion, art, science  as well as fuck and cunt
The world is dying and it will cost you a million dollars to buy a house in Auckland

It’s 2015 and all the votes I’ve cast have counted for nothing
The class of ’46 has lived through important times
And has been beguiled by them
Boom baby, Boom!


An Encounter With Prometheus

‘To us it seems that Hermes’ speech is to the point.
What he commands to you is to relax from your
self-will and seek the wisdom that’s in good advice.
Do as he says, since wrong is shameful in the wise.’
Prometheus Bound

Laid flat-out in an ambulance, speeding toward hospital, spouting leads like the Hydra and uncertain data pinging its way to Mission Control is surreal. Like Major Tom, I’m in a tin can and there’s’ something wrong.

The kindly cardiologist, somehow redolent of Atticus Finch, leans in and mashes a Xmas platitude with diagnosis. ‘Season’s greetings you’ve had a heart attack.’ And now Billy T tells me, ‘We’re gonna anaethis…anesthize…emphas…we’re gonna make your wrist numb and put in a coupla stents. All right bro?’

I nod gratefully as I’ve found the wisdom that’s in good advice. My self-will has never been so relaxed. I wonder if the surgeon’s name is Victor and he has an assistant, Igor. And are they having a James Whale of a time?

Yes. I’ve seen that movie too. But never thought I’d be starring in it. It is surreal. It still is. Luis Buñuel directs Shortland Street perhaps. I don’t have a bolt through my neck and a forehead like Kelsey Grammer but I am made of clay – especially my feet. Prometheus saw to that.



Elegy For A Poor Boy

In his cups, he had noted that many years ago, he once knew what it is to be poor
But that now, he knows only what it means to be poor
The intervening decades having evidenced the probity of Uncle Karl’s dictum That
Only The Working Class May Move Freely Through The Class System

His early experience had rather shown the opposite to be the case
His family, his neighbours, his street, his teachers, his school, his friends
And the Anglo-Catholic Church personified by Father O’Byrne all telling him
He should be happy in his lot – with new, improved Serf

But he studied hard and learned how to be patronised by lessers with more
Became something in the City without ever becoming someone else in the City
A man about town doing business with men from Tudor facades out of town
Liked to call him a man abeout teown and let him hear the great divide

He fell under the influence of socialists. Not the flat hat and wire glasses sort
But the sort with Orwell paperbacks and a light burning permanently in the eye
The sort who went on marches and delivered pamphlets late at night
Wanted to own the means of production and distribution
(They even wanted to democratise the armed forces!)

Barry – gentle, brutal Barry – revealed to him the mysteries of the Class System
Being both as poor as a church mouse and middle class is not a contradiction
Class is not necessarily linked to wealth and possessions, he pronounced
If you trail the English bourgeois, you’ll soon learn how to get the best for less

So he took the lesson. Or rather, the bits that suited. And moved on
Mostly because Joe Stalin was not a Good Companion and JB Priestly was
He came to believe that any revolution should be the product of need, not guilt
History is a raging inferno that has many poor boys pissing on it






The Shadow Of Your Smile

Blatting along State Highway One with the window down
And Sympathy for the Devil loud enough to slow down the oncoming traffic
My sunnies impertinently reflecting the world back at itself
My pouty lips forming a post-irony smile
This is my favourite pose  À la recherche du temps perdu

But I’m old enough to know better, old enough to know better
Which makes it all the more fun and frees up the space for
The post-irony smile. Pouting with Proust and Mick
As the Accord, d’accord, behaves its way down the highway
Searching everywhere yeah yeah yeah searching everywhere

The left arm feels better, looks better if the window is all the way down though
Looks damn silly with the window halfway down
Looks like I’m trying to get out and the post-irony will be lost
On the ambulance crew, the cops and the rubberneckers
He was a day tripper, one way ticket yeah

It took me so long to find out, I found out
That I have to hold the pose long enough
For the world to see who I am
My pouty lips forming a post-irony smile
This is my favourite pose À la recherche du temps perdu




Are you a catholic?

It had been a time from hell. My life had changed in ways I could never have imagined possible only six months earlier. I was adrift and now, supposedly, recovering from the figurative and physical surgery of recent weeks.
The afternoon, autumn sun filled the hospital day room and I shielded my eyes so as to lend features to the silhouetted figure stood before me now.

Are you a catholic?

It was the young priest I’d seen a few times before. Thin, pale and nervous, he reminded me of David Warner as Master Blifil in ‘Tom Jones’. I wondered if his piety, like Blifil’s, was a cover for a more secular purpose. Used to rejection, he adopted a defensive crouch and continued.

Are you a catholic? Because if you are, I’d very much like to talk to you. May I sit next to you?
Well educated then. ‘May I’ and not ‘Can I’

Sit down Father. Be my guest. I’m Alan Stuart.
I offered my hand which he accepted gratefully and then sat on the bentwood chair next to mine. His timid smile somehow implied my knowledge of – and complicity in – his awkwardness. I leaned toward his smile and raised an eyebrow in query.

I’m Father Byrne. I’m attached to Catholic Social Services at present. We visit hospitals, rest homes and the like. Make contact with those of the faith….give comfort, support – mostly spiritual you understand….some material assistance too…I have…

Father, I should tell you that I’m not a church-goer. Not a worshipper. I was raised in the church, yes, but the best you could say is that I’m lapsed, apostate. The worst, well, the worst….. the worst would require a confessional and that would be a paradox, wouldn’t it?

The conspiratorial smile again. He knew I was testing him. Probably figured that I was at odds with the world too. Professionally sentient. And my cynicism was infinitely preferable to the open hostility he frequently met. I remembered watching him try to get the thin end of his wedge under Pat – who was in the neighbouring bed back in the ward. Pat was in his 60s and had quite a history. He’d run off to France in his early teens and joined the French Foreign Legion. But he was no Beau Geste. He’d fought the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. He’d avoided capture and lived in the jungle, existing on rats, snakes and dogs for a month before making his way to Laos and back to France. Pat had suffered malaria, dysentery and god knows what else – and for the last few years had had his head down a bottle. He was capable of philosophy but, like many professional soldiers, he had no faith and he gave Father Byrne a well-seasoned serving of soldierly invective. And the fingers.

Paradox. Yes. Very droll. But you still consider penitence as an option, yes?

If I get married, have children that need baptizing or need absolution when I’m moving on, I imagine that the church will be pragmatic enough to see the sincerity of my penitence. I returned his we both know how this goes smile.

He blinked at me and then contemplated his shoes for a few moments. Maybe he was considering Pat to be a more likely option after all.
Well, as I was about to say – we can offer material support too. Do you smoke? I have some cigarettes I can give you. Would you like some cigarettes?

Yes I do. I pointed to where Pat was sitting, playing cards. But he’d appreciate a hand out more than me I think. He’s on the bones of his arse, so a packet of Freemans would come in handy.

I can’t do that I’m afraid. He’s not a catholic. I can only offer assistance to catholics. I can only give these cigarettes to catholics. You’re a catholic.

I took the proffered cigarettes from him and put them in my pocket. I resisted the urge to walk across the room and give Pat the cigarettes there and then. I shook Father Byrne’s hand and asked him if he would bring a bottle of Black Label next time. The smile again –  but leavened with a little ruefulness this time I fancied.
Yes. I’m a catholic.







Today a man – well an artist – told me
I have beautiful hands
And I thanked, I thank, him for

He gave me cause to think of my father
Whose hands were beautiful
When they played Fats Waller
Or pointed me back to the right track

Today  I remembered
It is like to be a son
And I thank the artist, the man
For that.


It was an odd decision
Still reeling and spinning from a messy relationship break-up, the antabuse and the disappearance of Paul the supplier, I needed to find my way back into the world.
A friend, Alex, had seen the ad in the local paper.  The Casino in town wanted someone to manage their security and reception.
So here I am, waiting in reception.  Listening to ‘Nights in White Satin’ on the PA, waiting to be interviewed by Mr York-Danvers, the manager. As I’m sat there, two croupiers saunter by and glance my way. They look like an ad for ‘Twins of Horror’ –  the jet black Rod Stewart hair-dos, the deathly pale skin and the skeletal, articulated fingers that extend from their plum red velvet sleeves. Their immeasurably knowing smiles seem far too great a burden for their 9 stone frames.
But then there’s double-barrelled. He shakes my hand in an arcane, possibly masonic, way and we stride off to his inner sanctum.
Unbelievably, there’s a signed photograph of George Raft behind the imposing Edwardian desk. Double-barrelled tells me he likes to be addressed as ‘sir’ on all occasions. He asks if I can handle myself ‘in a tight corner’ and whether I’ve ever been detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. I tell him the usual lies and then we discuss duties, salary, hours and clothes and – yes – I can start on the weekend.
An odd decision
A black velvet suit, a poorly ventilated, crowded gaming room and an unusually warm summer present  a particular challenge to personal freshness. I have a friendly chat on the subject with the two reception/security staff – ‘bouncers’ to you – doing the late shift. They enquire about which Ballet Academy I attended and voice opinions, to which they are not entitled, about my sexual orientation.
Before I can ponder on how best to deal with my first staff problem, a bunch of lads – drunk and noisy – arrive in reception and demand admittance. My colleagues smile and fold their arms. I place myself between the lads and the gaming room, look at them calmly and advise them that sobriety and a correctly completed membership form is all that stands between them  and a wonderful evening’s entertainment. I hold the tempered steel chain we use to secure the front door in my left hand as a means of underscoring my determination in this matter. Sensibly, maybe even luckily, they see that discretion is the better part of wotsit and leave muttering terrible oaths.
‘Bigger poofs than you’, suggests Terry the bouncer. He’ll keep.
Double-barrelled is asking me about my accommodation. Do I have a spare bedroom? My frown is picked up by his scanner and he laughs. ‘Nothing like that’, he declares, ‘a new man arriving soon – needs somewhere to stay.’ The new man is connected. The Casino owner, a former professional boxer, has a sister who is in a ‘relationship’ with this guy – also a former professional boxer. Funny old world. As it happens, I know about Ray McEvoy. The McEvoys are one of those East End dynastic families. Successive generations of prize-fighters and villains. Ray is a former ABA finalist and ranked middleweight. I know he was working in a West End Casino where my cousin, Michael, is a croupier. I wonder why he’s schlepping around the provinces. Anyway, yes, I have a spare bedroom at the flat and I’m intrigued enough to offer it up.
An odd decision.

Ray is charming, handsome and light on his feet. ‘And there’s no one home’, offers Rob, the other tenant. ‘Cold as, mate. Dead eyes, cold hands. Did you shake his hand? Like ice.’ We’d met Ray earlier. He’d brought a few possessions, changed and gone straight off to the early shift. Rob is jumpy and thinks that I’ve made an odd decision.
Over the next few weeks, Ray more than justifies Rob’s anxiety. Any difficult customers at the door are offered violence – or the threat of it – and visits from Old Bill are becoming regular. One punter who Ray has ‘given a bit of a slap’ comes back with some hoods from a local drinking club and the result is a brawl that ends with your correspondent rendered hors de combat, bowed and bloody.
And now cousin Michael is on the phone telling us that our new flat-mate is on the run, having used an iron bar on a customer at ‘The Golden Nugget’ in London. This complements nicely the incident from the previous week when a pissed-off punter, playing poker upstairs, pulls a gun on the two sharks who had scammed him for several thou and wanted to leave the school early without allowing him the opportunity to retrieve his losses. Breach of protocol = Bullet in the head.
So, Casino life was dangerous and sleazy but rarely dull. We had all sorts happen in my short tenure there; The crew from up north who worked the roulette table by having a blonde with a spectacular cleavage bend over the baize as the steel ball nestled in its numbered slot. As the entire congregation waited on her every quiver, her associates moved the chips to advantage. Benny Hill criminals.
The airline crews, plying the Southend – Rotterdam route, turning up at odd hours, round the back, delivering God-knows-what.
The DI from Southend who felt sure that I had failing eyesight and couldn’t possibly have witnessed a particular incident outside the Casino.
And finally, Russian Max, the Pit Boss pressing me to also turn a blind eye to some profit liberation. This, and the constant menace of the sociopathic Ray McEvoy, persuaded me to pack up my belongings, pay up the lease on the flat and – with the help of some friends and an old Combi – return to London at the dead of night.
A better decision than some I’d made recently and, most surprisingly, I’d stayed dry and clean in the midst of these fleshpots.

Author’s Note
In order to protect the guilty, I’ve changed the names of the players. As ever, I’ve used some licence around time frames and sequence of events. But all this, and more, happened in 1972. And, to confirm the more recent stereotype, it all happened in Essex.