Sunday, 13 December 2015

The other Steve Palmers

I used to occasionally get emailed and asked to do things like mend Chris Moyles's radio studio. That's because an engineer shared the same name as me when we both worked at the BBC. I used to reply: "Well, I've got a toolbox under the stairs and I can take a look..."

There are several other Steve Palmers out there. Including the stress expert. But more of that particular namesake in a moment. 
On the left: Steve Palmer. And on their right, Steve Palmer
First though: a few of the Steve Palmers in my life. I was chased down the road at university by animal rights activists because a Steve Palmer was conducting experiments on little fluffy creatures. I tried to say it was a case of mistaken identity but anger can make people unreasonable. 

My dentist nearly performed root canal treatment on me when there was absolutely no need. Another Steve Palmer, though, was in agony. And the day I was writing this I had a mystery call asking for Councillor Steve Palmer from somewhere in the Scunthorpe area.

The picture above shows Steve Palmer and Steve Palmer, together at an event held by the charity where I’m a trustee. Steve tells me that we have a namesake making life safe for people in Stockport.

And when I was at BBC London, the sports journalists thought it was hilarious to get me to read out the Queen's Park Rangers team news on a Friday, because the club had a striker with my name. 

But it’s the stress expert that I most remember. Part of the BBC job was to ring up guests and tempt them onto radio shows, to speak in response to an item in the news. This is how the conversation went with Dr Steve Palmer’s personal assistant:

Me: “Hello. I’m calling from the BBC. We’d like to ask Dr Steve Palmer onto our show to talk about an item in the news on stress.”

PA: “That sounds interesting. He is in today and I’ll try and put you through. Can I say who’s calling please?”

Me: “I’m so glad you asked me that...”

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Leopard skin, sneakers and great pop songs

So there I was sweating in the Camden Palace moshpit, dancing to someone whose name is Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo. Oh, and he groaned. So far, so obscure. But it’s one of the top five gigs I’ve ever been to. It was 1989. And this morning I realised that I feel so grateful that I got to see this band. 
Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
Obscure? I’m here to tell you that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were totally funky and danceable, with wonderful, joyful pop songs.

Try this one for size: Melodi Yala 

They were one of the first bands introduced to me by Charlie Gillett (see previous blog). If Paul Simon encouraged the world to listen to South African music - and I still love Graceland - then a much bigger influence for me were Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and other bands.

If you don't know where to start, try the three Indestructible beat of Soweto albums. Here's a link to information about volume one. Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens featured heavily on these albums. 

It was the late 80s and all this was being played against a backdrop of Apartheid coming to and end. Some preferred the bullet. These musicians preferred the penny-whistle. Oh, and the guitar. Because these were really accessible pop songs. And here's my Spotify 'best of' playlist.

But I maintain that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were nothing without each other. Here was a strange man groaning away wearing a chief's regalia on stage – a leopard skin over his chest, fur armlets and leggings, a skirt of animal tails and beads around his head; with three women who danced around in huge red circular Zulu hats, skirts of leather and beadwork, leotards and sneakers. 

And when Mahlathini died in 1999, that synergy died too. I'm sure the Queens are amazing on their own and they still tour. 

It's just that I got to see the Real McCoy. I'll never forget being at that gig, staggered that so many other people loved them, and were singing along: "This music is produced from the same pot, the same pot. Everybody knows". 

The style of music is called Mbaqanga. But if you're not bothered about that, then at least do give them a go. And I hope you, like me, start tapping your toes and feeling good the moment their songs start. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Subbuteo - Milan in my bedroom

My eldest loves to Xbox; my youngest his iPad.

I had it worse. Forty years ago, I became completely obsessed with Subbuteo.

1970s Subbuteo, with the unrealistic nets, balls and players
Some great goals flew in; some amazing saves were made; and the woodwork (well, plastic) was pinged by the ball on many occasions. 

But did I take this all too far? Well the conditions had to be just right. The ball was as tall as the players, so I remember buying a smaller ball to make it more realistic. Because obviously, people standing on plastic moulds with their arms dangling down by their sides; well, that was really realistic, wasn't it? 

That wasn't the manufacturers' fault. But what was inexcusable was adding an extra line a few centimetres from the penalty box. You could only shoot from within this line. That wasn't realistic at all. 

However, the first Subbuteo sets came onto the market in 1947, so my expectation of 'reality' has to be placed in the context of a post-war rationale. No flashy long-range shots allowed. Austerity football. And the line stuck. You can see why: a kick from a player had power. I could have shot from my sister's room and it would have gone all the way in. 

And talking about my sister, I was beside myself when she kneeled on my goalpost. And then ecstatic when I realised that she'd clipped of the bottom of the post and now the goals were flush with the ground; just like real goalposts. So I sawed off the bottom bits of the other goal. I also had to have the nets drape down, not taut like the manufacturers made them. What did they know? I had the San Siro stadium, Milan, in my bedroom. The ball nestled in the net beautifully when it flew in. 

It was all about realism. Occasionally I'd do like my sis and inadvertently kneel on a player. No problem. I had glue. But, once dried, the players would invariably sink into the glue and end up being much shorter than the other players. Again; no problem. One such sinkee was in claret and blue strip. So, he was the diminutive Billy Bonds for West Ham and the tiny Brian Little for Aston Villa.

And I have to admit to sometimes dragging the ball, rather than flicking it. I enjoyed cheating, with no one judging me. 

Because the thing is, I can hardly remember playing Subbuteo with anyone else. No; this was a solitary activity. I played entire tournaments, rigged games so that my preferred team would win and put real snow on the pitch when it snowed outside (it was a good excuse to use the orange ball). Always with commentary. From me. I was totally on my own. 

I remember my dad having a quiet word with me in about 1978, suggesting that I'd probably become a bit too old for this. And I listened to him. But I'll never regret my obsession - or the broken plastic. Now - where's the electronic device? 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Simon's Sudan

My friend Simon’s love of Africa in general is only eclipsed by his love of Sudan in particular. He just adores the place. 

Sudan: No third world disaster here 
Here are some facts that I looked up on the internet for you: Sudan was home to numerous ancient civilizations, has recently seen rampant ethnic strife and has been plagued by internal conflicts, including two civil wars and fighting in the Darfur region. 

Sudan has 4,725 kilometres of narrow-gauge, single-track railroads that serve the northern and central portions of the country. But, to put it frankly, travelling by train in Sudan can be erratic. And quite uncomfortable. 

But Simon tells me that he loves an article by fellow Sudanophile Iain Marshall, written in 1990. So, about 15 years before the rest of the world started blogging.  

Iain says: "The concept of transport is based on the principle of moving from A to B in Sudan. The comfort of the journey is of little importance. People overcome the hardships of such travel by a wonderful act of will. They simply ignore all the signs of pain and irritation. During the course of that journey I was treated regally by my fellow travellers. A handful of dates extended from the press of bodies; a house in a tiny Nubian village providing tea; countless offers of water from roadside houses.”

Iain also goes on to say: “The Sudanese proverb ‘Ar raffig gabl at tarig’ - travelling companions are more important than the journey itself - has rung resoundingly true on every trip I have ever made in Sudan.” Iain’s now made that 1990 essay into a blog.

Thousands of years ago, the area of north Sudan was extremely volcanic. And Simon was, one day, feeling pretty volcanic himself.

As I’m writing this I’m smiling because I saw Simon last night. Good timing because he was in London on a rare trip and we had a great catch-up with friends. He was in high spirits as he’d just been to his beloved Sudan. Of course we all reminded him of his story about the train…

On a moving Sudanese train, Simon opened the door to the loo on a speculative visit. A family was living in there. He really didn’t want to interrupt or ask them to move out - so that he could move his bowels. So he held on. Finally the train arrived in a station, where it was to remain for an indeterminate amount of time. That happens in Sudan.

It sat beside another train in the searing East African heat. That other train – a freight locomotive - had apparently been there for days. Days and days and days. With no toilet on the station, Simon was by now dancing around in agony and he had to grab this opportunity. He ran around the back of the second train, out of site; and pulled down his trousers. And just as relief started washing over his body, that second train started pulling out of the station, rather too astonishingly quickly for Sudanese rolling stock that had just been rusting on the rails for so long.

And so the passengers on Simon’s train got an eyeful. I bet even the family in the toilet turned their eyes away when they saw him perform the walk of shame across the tracks.  

Simon’s got a whole series of stories about his Sudanese travels. For instance, when he had to remain in a plane on the runway during a sandstorm. When the storm had abated and the passengers got off, his Sudan Airways 737 had been stripped of its livery and was a perfect, beautiful, silver, the paint ripped off by the swirling sands of East Africa.

All I know is that Simon carries with him, wherever he goes, things that bung you up. He apparently used some this February in the north of Sudan. Although the communal loo had a great view of an ancient temple, Simon says: “I popped two Imodium to avoid ever having to go in that bog whilst staying there!” 

And Simon only let me write all about him if I included this YouTube tribute to Sudan. No Third World disaster here. A lovely film with a strong message. 

Super Sudan. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

"I'm a Val, I know." The record that exploded in my ears

Tonight I was listening to the excellent Round Table on Steve Lamacq’s show (Six Music) and I immediately turned it off. Why? Because I suddenly had a powerful memory of listening to the Radio One version of the show in 1982 and hearing something that moved me and has influenced me from that moment when Richard Skinner spun it on his record player. So tonight I located it on Spotify and listened again.

Back in 1982, the song exploded into my ears on 275/285 MW and I just had to hear a quality version, so I immediately went out and bought ‘Valley Girl’ by Moon Unit Zappa. Please have a listen now. It’s the most bizarre record I’ve ever heard. It still is, 33 years after that monumental moment on Round Table in ‘82. It’s a pastiche on a certain type of teenager who lived in the San Fernando Valley in California. “Gag me with a spoon. Gross. Grody. Grody to the max. Barf out. I am sure. Totally.”

The thing is, it opened up something in me. It was summer time and I was off to university in the autumn. I was open to anything that socked it to the man and I was very impressed with everything that Vivian Stanshall did. The wackier and more bizarre, the better. It was us eccentrics against the world. And I knew that when I turned up on campus, people would flock to me because I owned this ridiculous record.

Life is different to expectations though, isn’t it? I’m not sure I ever played it to anyone. But I’ve listened to it so, so many times. And Frank Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit, apparently only sang the song so that she could get onto her dad’s tour and thus spend some time with her father. Moon Unit didn’t share my enthusiasm for bizarre things, after all.

But, listening on the bus just now, it sounds just as fresh, ridiculous and beautifully bizarre as it did in 1982.

Friday, 28 August 2015

My uncle, my Nana, John Noakes and Eddie Waring. Attitudes to dementia have changed

 "You're looking at one ton of rugby – meat, brawn, muscle, brain, the lot of it!"

Eddie Waring 
In February 1991, my grandmother wrote on a piece of paper that "Cecil died" and then lay on the floor and froze to death. She had dementia and nobody around her understood the condition. My grandfather had died a few months before and at least Nana Concon was able to write down her thoughts in some way before she died in that cold snap, almost 25 years ago. My grandparents were of the generation whereby they often didn't have the heating on - they'd lived through the war and were cost-conscious - she probably didn't stand a chance. 

Let's skip to 2015. My uncle has dementia. Hearing about the types of support he gets, you realise that we've come a long way as a society in 25 years. Back then our collective knowledge about dementia seemed to amount to jokes about people always forgetting things and being a bit dopey and 'senile'. That didn't help anyone. Nowadays, the support for my uncle is miles away from the support my Nana had. Or indeed the shameful way that Eddie Waring was treated. 

I got into rugby league when I watched a documentary on Eddie Waring in 2010. And it did mention that he had dementia. Reading the cold language of this Wikipedia page, though, you'd worry that we've really learnt nothing:

"Waring's overall health declined very quickly after his retirement from the commentary box. He was diagnosed with dementia and died at High Royds Hospital in Menston, West Yorkshire in 1986." 

That's right. A mental hospital. That phrase is so out-dated and people with mental health issues look at those old buildings like High Royds (and there's one near me in Friern Barnet) as places that needed to stop doing what they were doing. But also, it was so inappropriate to place Eddie Waring in High Royds. This, despite the fact that a rugby league fan has read this blog and told me that he's heard that the care in High Royds could be very caring and compassionate. 

I quoted Eddie at the start of this blog because he had so many memorable one-liners that made his commentary an essential complement to the action on the field. And he ended his days in High Royds. Despite what I say above about compassionate care, the very mention of the institution brings up horrifying thoughts, not least because it's the title of a song by the Kaiser Chiefs. Some of the band grew up nearby and it had a terrible reputation. My heart breaks when I think what support my uncle gets now and how the rug was pulled out under Eddie Waring; and my Nana. 

A couple of months ago, former Blue Peter presenter John Noakes went missing. John has Alzheimer's and I bet his support is so much better than what was offered to Eddie Waring. And quite right too. 

So my uncle has better support than my Nana did, and John Noakes has a better prospect than Eddie Waring did. I think that’s something to celebrate. But it’s also worth spending some time wondering whether a lack of care about dementia 25 and thirty years ago, is something we should all feel more than uncomfortable about. 

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Confessions of a caffeine-holic

I could murder a coffee. Scrub that. I could commit genocide for a double macchiato. But I'm not allowed. I'm a caffeine-holic. And I currently have none in my system. I intend that to always be the case. 

Don't get me wrong: writing about it makes me feel like caffeine's raging through me. But don't make me drink coffee. You wouldn't like me when I'm on coffee. 

There. I feel better now. I mean I still desperately and urgently want a cappucino right now, as the first thick, brown liquid makes its way up the side of the styrofoam cup. But I'm calmer. 

I started realising I had a problem about 20 years ago. Although, thinking about it, I've had this problem since caffeine first entered my life, or to put it more directly, my blood stream. Caffeine makes me jittery. I mean; it makes me deliriously happy for 20 minutes and then jittery. And then I turn into an over-the-top blabbermouth. 

It gets worse. If I was to have a single shot at 08:00am, I'd still be awake at 04:00am the next day. It's the same with decaf and chocolate. I used to have the odd bit of chocolate and then, in March this year, I added that to the list of banned substances that aren't allowed in my system. This moves things on a bit from when hot chocolate was my 'caffeine-free' choice. I had an item on BBC London 94.9fm about this, when I worked there in 2000.

A strange thing happened in about May, two months after I kicked chocolate. I had a surge, as if I'd had a few espressos. It must have been me rejecting the remnants. I felt like Dr Who regenerating. 

So I can't go back. Ever. But now I want to. I won't. 

I have this weird conversation with people. They say: "Oh go on, have a small coffee." I say: "Can you imagine me on coffee?" They reply, knowing that I'm quite hyper anyway, by saying: "Oh, yes. I see now." They achieve a vision of clarity. And then skip off to Starbucks to drink something that doesn't affect them. Lucky, lucky...people.

I admit I have fantasized about the end of the world. Not because I want it to end. I love the world. No. It's because I'd run riot. Not in the streets, but in a coffee shop, if I was lucky enough to be there when the 20 minute warning came in. I don't know how to make a machiatto - perhaps I should learn just to be ready for this eventuality. But I would have time to dive behind the counter, as the baristas flee in terror, make a coffee, and relish the experience. That would last 20 minutes and I wouldn't have those nasty side-effects, as we're blown to kingdom come. 

But, in the real world, I often go into the kitchen and sniff coffee. I do it without thinking about it. And then I think about it. And I will always have this in my life. But no more caffeine. God I miss it. But no more. I miss it.  

Monday, 6 July 2015

Chris Squire: Black Yes fans speak out

“The number of black people listening to Yes would astound you.”

Chris Squire. 1948-2015

I burst into tears when I heard that Yes bassist Chris Squire had died. Yes were such a big part of my life as a young man. And then I rediscovered them about ten years ago. I only really like a few prog bands, but Yes, in their first few albums, had the tunes. The Yes album, in my view, is a perfect album. 

But an interesting issue has risen following the news. The band have often been seen as a group for white suburban young men (I fitted into that category nicely in Hatfield in 1981). But a YouTube commentator says that black Yes fans have often been invisible and that it's a real issue. Paul Jenkins, a You Tuber from the USA, says: "Just as whites were stigmatized for listening to black music back then, we weren't supposed to listen to white music." Paul's happy for me to blog about this as he's keen for it to be aired as an issue. 

This blog is really just a copy-and-paste job, but I hope that I've fleshed out the most interesting comments by black Yes fans in the USA, reacting to the news of Chris's death, on this YouTube discussion

You see, I'm used to seeing no black, Asian or any non-white faces at prog rock gigs. At Christmas my brother-in-law bought me a souvenir book of Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in 1979. There I am, aged 16, photographed on one of the pages. Along with pages and pages of white faces. 

I don't know what it's like for any Yes fans drawn from BAME communities here in the UK, but the YouTube discussion gives you an insight into feelings across the Pond. And it shouldn't be an issue: you like who you like. But, for these guys below, it is an issue. 

Paul continues: “As the good Lord as my witness, you Caucasian people have NO IDEA how many blacks listen to Yes. Seriously, the number would astound you. I think it's fitting that the gulf, however small it was between say, Weather Report and Emerson Lake and Palmer, has finally been seen, or at least heard to be non-existent. One of my favourite bands was Gentle Giant, and yes, I am black.”

And YouTuber rembeadgc says: “I grew up in the South in a predominately ‘black’ public school system in the latter part of the ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Pride' eras. But I remember borrowing Fragile from a ‘white’ schoolmate and being transported to only God knows where when I really listened to Long Distance Runaround, Heart of the Sunrise and South Side of the Sky. My world had been forever altered. It was like an alternative universe all created by these musicians: Chris Squire, Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. No offence meant to any of my atheist or agnostic friends out there, but Yes has always been one of the reasons I believe there is a God!”

And metamorphosis67 puts it in context with his experiences: "I'd been to many Yes concerts and you would see maybe 20 or 30 black people in an audience of ten thousand."

Paul Jenkins continues: “Sadly many Yes fans carry racial views that are completely antithetical to the spirit of the group. I'm black and a guitarist and learned my scales by sitting around with Close to the Edge for hours at a time trying to play things I didn't yet have the chops for. Yes is not just music to me; their music is like an old friend that I grew up with. RIP Chris Squire.”

You see, these guys are of a generation that was listening to Yes in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not a new thing. They were listening at the same time that I was. And we all miss Chris.