Dancing fool

If my 17-year-old self thought he was playing a complex game of 3-dimensional chess when it came to girls, the reality was more like wearing a blindfold to play table skittles with a shortened string. I really coudn’t have done worse; would have, in fact, done better by doing nothing.

As requested by Freeloading Georgia, I got Interesting Sarah from the shoe shop a ticket to one of our sixth form parties. And instead of realising that I might stand a chance with Sarah, I wasted energy resenting freeloading and less interesting Georgia, who had secured her own free ticket by acting as a go-between. When I thought about Sarah at all, it was only to think about optics, appearances, and the effect she might have on someone else. And really: the buffoon in the blindfold about to swing and miss at the table skittles thought he was going to be working the room, and using Interesting Sarah to bait and switch several different girls. Bait and switch is probably the wrong term, but I certainly thought I was conning someone, who turned out to be myself.

The venue for the party was a community centre in Dunstable, a bookable hall somewhere behind what had once been the town’s cinema. The music was loud, the lights were low; I don’t remember much else. I was hoping Interesting Sarah would turn the heads of both Helen and Linda, possibly Fiona, Paula, hey why not. Sarah was dynamite

Linda was a good friend of mine for whom I harboured Feelings, as did, turns out, my best friend John. While I was busy playing the room, John and Linda were busy outside.

My primary interest that night was in what Helen was doing: who was she with, what were they talking about, did she look happy? I was watching her, wanting her to notice me, to see me there. I was a brittle mechanoid, going through the dating ritual hoping all the time that Sarah would draw some attention. She certainly deserved it, and wasn’t getting it from me. Here was a good looking blonde with whom I might be seen. Oblivious to all else, I didn’t notice that maybe, just maybe, Sarah was really, after all, quite interested in me. And there was nothing wrong with her and everything right: she had a hinterland, she really did, though I couldn’t see it at the time. I’ll give her this: we danced: I have never, before or since, danced with a woman. I definitely trod on her toes. She probably didn’t care. We may even, at the close of the song, have kissed. I remember nothing after that moment, except this:

John came in from outside the venue, grinning from ear to ear, and exclaiming with the joy that she had said yes. Who was she?

Linda. John had asked her out, our best friend.

Sarah was forgotten, although that wasn’t quite the end of her story.

Jealousy was my overriding emotion. Jealousy and bitterness, and a sense of disappointment in myself that I hadn’t seen John-and-Linda coming, nor thought of it myself. The truth was, although I’d known her for years, I’d not made much of an effort to get to know her. I was too busy setting up my chess pieces on my imaginary 3-dimensional board, a fifth rate and much less logical Spock.

I knew her first, he knew her better. I remember the surprise I felt when they announced they’d been to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the cinema one weekend. Linda liked the Star Trek, it turned out. Meanwhile I’m silently swallowing the big lumpy whine: but I like the Star Trek. The inescapable thought that I might, had I the gumption and the luck, have had a girlfriend who shared at least some of my interests ate away at me. She liked Elvis and 50s rock ’n’ roll, she was beautiful and interesting and hilarious, and I was too busy playing games.

Ask me about my Pick Up Artist seminars. Competitive rates.

Best Music Downloads of 2019

8. Sheryl Crow Threads

It’s not that Sheryl Crow is retiring, but she says that Threads will be her last album. I guess that doesn’t preclude EPs, singles, and other download formats. Here, she calls on a variety of different friends and performs across a range of genres. Not everything here is to my taste, but once I’ve weeded out the unlistenable from the original 17 tracks, there’s still a core of decent stuff to make up a 10-12 track album. It’s too eclectic to hang together, but there are still highlights, including “Prove You Wrong” (performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris) and “Everything is Broken” (performed with Jason Isbell).

7. J.S. Ondara Tales of America

Born in Kenya, J.S. Ondara won a Green Card lottery and relocated to America, which is the place where all the music he listened to growing up comes from. He taught himself guitar; obsessed with folk music, he says he “Dove deep and fell hard.” Ondara sings poignant songs about the American experience, the promise and betrayal of the American Dream, with a hefty dose of Dylan influence. Songs of America is full of pretty melodies accompanied by his plaint vocal, sounding completely like American folk music but with a Kenyan accent. Highlights include the beautiful “Torch Song”, “Give Me a Moment” and “Days of Insanity”.

6. Trisha Yearwood Every Girl

Hearing Ms. Yearwood’s voice again after such a long hiatus was to rediscover an old friend. When I first heard her music (I can picture the scene) it was in the form of a single track on a sampler CD that came with a Country Music magazine. This was in the 90s, and I was pottering around tidying up in the first house I shared with my girlfriend (now wife). The clarity and power of her voice was immediate, and with the right material, she’s unbeatable. Highlights here include Lucie Silvas’ “Find a Way”, the title track “Every Girl in This Town”, and “What Gave Me Away” (performed with her husband Garth Brooks.

5. Maren Morris GIRL

While Maren Morris had a huge impact with her first album (notwithstanding her inability to get airplay on so-called Country radio), it was nothing like the high profile she maintained throughout 2019. It all starts with this, her second album, which swaggered onto the stage daring radio programmers not to play its super-catchy and soulful title track and then sailed to #1 on the Country album chart (and #4 on the mainstream album chart) and finished the year by winning the CMA Album of the Year Award. Whatever you think “country” sounds like, this isn’t it. This is dance, electronic, rock, soul, pop, all the genres, and behind it an artist of confidence and integrity who is in complete control. Highlights include the title track, (capital letters “GIRL”), “All My Favourite People” (performed with the Brothers Osborne), “A Song for Everything”, “Common” (with Brandi Carlile) and “The Bones”. But really, you only get the full sense of her broad talent by listening to the whole album.

4. Miranda Lambert Wildcard

Another artist in control of her own narrative is Miranda Lambert, who has come a long way since winning third place in the Nashville Star reality show back in 2003. Her first major label release, Kerosene, hit #1 on the Country album chart and sold over a million copies, and her every album since then has also hit the top spot. She also tends to hit #1 in her “off” years with her group The Pistol Annies. While sales in the streaming era are not what they used to be for anyone, Ms Lambert continues to achieve her status “backwards, in heels”, largely without the support of country radio. Highlights of this strong set include “Mess with my Head”, “It All Comes out in the Wash”, “Pretty Bitchin’”, and “Way too Pretty for Prison” (with Maren Morris). True stories told with a punch to the solar plexus.

3. Midland Let it Roll

I recently mentioned this August release, but here is its place on the list. It’s a great sounding record, with smooth production and that 70s country rock vibe. Highlights include the title track, “Cheatin’ Songs”, “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns”, “Mr Lonely”, and “Roll Away”

2. Hiss Golden Messenger Terms of Surrender

This intense set from the prolific MC Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger is warm, good-hearted and uplifting. Hard to place on the genre spectrum, this is Americana, folk-rock, singer-songwriter. Highlights include “I Need a Teacher”, “Katy (You Don’t Have to be Good Yet”, “My Wing”, and “Cat’s Eye Blue.” As a bonus, check out the non-album single, “Watching the Wires”.

1. The Highwomen The Highwomen

While Let it Roll may be a better all-round album, and both Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris have a claim to this spot, the larger project represented by The Highwomen places it highest for me. While their singles didn’t penetrate the cloth ears of country radio programmers, the album deservedly hit #1, and the group of collaborators gathered here represents the best in country songwriting and performing at the moment. While the challenge to country radio was rejected, I do think a number of the songs here have staying power, and we’ll be listening for years to come. Highlights include the title track, “Redesigning Women”, “If She Ever Leaves Me”, and “My Only Child”. As a bonus, check out their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on the soundtrack to the movie The Kitchen.

Bangor

When I think of the time I could save myself by persuading that idiot, hyperventilating child in the playground not to smash his front teeth, I think of the afternoon at the dentist on Anglesey having root canal while the rest of the Biology field trip crew hung around outside with the minibus in the car park. Let’s spin away from the agony of that moment and consider that small and exclusive group.

The A level Biology field trip was a few days spent in a Bangor Youth Hostel in order to explore rock pools and sand dunes. It was properly educational: I still know stuff about sand dunes that I learned on that trip, and I have several vivid flashbulb memories of that week, which was, above all, a few days respite from my various debilitating obsessions.

The first such memory is from the journey up the A5. We’d stopped for fuel and the toilets, and most people left the mini bus for a leg stretch. Paula, though, opted to stay in the back of the van so she could dry shave her legs, which she’d not had time to do that morning. I usually hate being away from home, but I was looking forward to that week. Paula was fun to be around.

The hostel was, I think, somewhere on the edge of the town of Bangor, having enough green space around it so that it was possible to take a walk into some woods. Or so I think I remember. It remains my one and only youth hostel stay. There was a girl’s dorm and a boy’s dorm, and we’d all packed home-sewn sheet sleeping bags. I have very faint memories of almost all the others. There was me, and I think at least two other boys; and there was Paula and about three other girls, one of whom was the attractive Fiona. There were two teachers: a woman and a man, the latter of whom I think was fairly new to the school. I recollect no names. I’d taken two science subjects at A Level, but I’d grown to hate both of them. I was generally switched off as far as the subject was concerned. The only bit of a Biology lesson I remember is when one of the teachers had been to see the movie Alien, and had Things To Say about the creature therein.

Fiona was, I think, a Y-band girl, meaning she was outside my circle of friends from the X-band at school, but being in the same Biology class at least, we had a passing acquaintance. She was from another friendship group with whom I had a slight and growing connection through a kid called Steven Rose. I could feel myself, in those days, being pulled away from my normal circle into Steven’s. For a start, they seemed like nicer people. It was like that Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld. You could hang out with Steven and his friends and play records and talk and it seemed less pressurised, somehow, than what was going on with my best friends. Steven had a copy of Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit.

Anyway, I think Fiona was friends with him, and so there weren’t many degrees of separation. She was pale, freckled, with red hair down to her shoulders. A good looking girl with a nice figure. That was one of the things about the Biology field trip: you got to see people in their field trip clothes. Even as sixth formers, we wore the same uniform as the rest of the school, apart from the tie, which was gold instead of blue. So for that week I was wearing t-shirts and my heavily patched and very tight jeans. They were super-tight because I’d actually sewn up the seams – you couldn’t buy them that way very easily. These days, the world is full of boys in tight trousers and girls in clown pants, but back then my drainpipes were unusual. And they were patched all the way up from the knees to the thighs. I dread to think what I looked like.

One night, before we all went out to eat, I was in the games room of the hostel playing on a beautiful old pinball machine while everyone else got ready (me, I was sticking to my ripped jeans, of course). I love an old pinball machine: the fewer flashing lights and garish graphics the better. This one was practically Amish in its minimalism: a couple of flippers and a dinging bell, no whistles, or other sound effects, and a basic level of illumination. But it still required an electricity supply to work. Nobody else was that bothered by it, but it was my ideal machine, so I was constantly feeding it 50p coins and playing. That deaf, dumb, and blind kid… You got free balls very easily, so one 50p might last all evening. This particular evening, Paula came into the room, unplugged the pinball machine in the middle of my game and plugged in her hairdryer.

I often wonder why I wasn’t more annoyed with her. Obviously, one wants to maintain a certain coolheadedness, but still, I could have tsked at her or had a little moan, or walked away, but I did none of that. Instead, I sat down, leaned against the wall, and had a really interesting talk with her while she was drying her long blonde hair. I fancied Paula, of course I did: she was vivacious and outrageously funny. She carried herself with a confidence that few others our age could muster and was, inevitably, way out of my league. Her boyfriend was a young footballer on the Chelsea squad who would eventually play for England a couple of times. He was 19, she was 17, and she had no interest in any boy from school. 

In class, she could make me laugh like no-one else. For one thing, she was an incredible, unstoppable liar, and didn’t bat an eyelid when found out. One conversation went like this.

Me (catching her in yet another lie): You should see a psychiatrist

Paula: My Dad’s a psychiatrist.

Me: Really?

Paula: No.

She could have been leader of the Conservative Party. She once confessed to me that what she most wanted to do in all the world was to be the girl on the Holiday programme. She could have done it, too: she had that easy charm and you could see her talking to camera with sand between her toes.

As wrapped up as she was in her out-of-school social life, she still knew what was going on with people. Clocked everything. She knew that one of the girls I fancied had no interest in me and delivered the news with brutal clarity. And she knew of my petty jealousies concerning my close friends who were going out with each other; the reason I found myself being drawn into Steven’s friendship circle. And, on this night of interrupted pinball, as she brushed and blowdried her hair, she pointed out to me something I was too oblivious to notice.

“That Fiona likes you, doesn’t she?”

“What?”

‘She’s after you. You’d better watch yourself.”

Huh. 

Paula was right. I don’t know if I was, for Fiona, the fancy of a field trip (and what ought to have happened in Bangor ought to stay in Bangor, naturally), or whether she was taking a longer view, but she kissed me once, or maybe twice, that week.

One time was in the dorm. We were running around being kids, playing pillow fights or something, and I found myself in the girl’s dorm, with their bunk beds, and Fiona. She positioned herself in front of me, we looked at each other, and snatched a quick kiss.

The second time was in the sand dunes on Anglesey. We were sunning ourselves, I think, and there came one brief moment when we were out of sight of both members of staff. She kissed me again: it was exciting.

But then there was this thing with my abscess and everybody sitting outside in a hot minibus waiting while I had a root canal.

Those days! The lost friends and lamented pinball machines of my youth and the always redheaded girl forever kissing in the dunes.

Saturday Job: Bejam

The night before I started my new job in the frozen food supermarket, Bejam, there was a fire. I turned up at work, nervous, first day, and spent more or less the whole of my first day scrubbing soot off the walls.

Well, this is shitty, I was thinking, and so it was.

Bejam was in the Quadrant shopping centre in Dunstable, on the corner of one of the pedestrian zones. It was about half the size of a modern Lidl, really, just a few rows of chest freezers with some dry goods (in bulk-sized packaging) around the side. Bejam was the first place I noticed kosher goods on sale; these were were exotic to my narrow experience. Nowadays, supermarkets like Sainsbury’s have whole aisles of specialist and ethnic foods, but Bejam felt off the beaten track. Eventually the chain was taken over by a smaller company, Iceland, which I guess is at least a more appropriate name. The Bejam name was based on the initials of the owning family. You can’t say it too many times without it sounding ridiculous. 

Four litre tubs of vanilla ice-cream, Butterball turkeys, rhum-babas, frozen peas: this was the stuff of Bejam, but not on the day I arrived for work. Working in retail as a part-timer, a school kid with a part-time job, you would, in normal circumstances, have very little to do with the full-time staff. They were generally given Saturday off and the shifts were taken by sixth formers. There might be one of them in on a Saturday. As for the Friday evening, you might bump into one or two of the full-timers as they finished off their shift.

But on that first day, all of the full-timers had been pulled in for the emergency clean-up. The shop was closed, but the fire damage such as it was, was relatively slight: the main problem was a layer of soot that covered almost everything, from the smoke. So there were two things going on that day that made me regret taking the job. The first was the scrubbing: it seemed pointless to me. We had very little impact on the soot, and it was obvious that a professional clean-up crew would be needed, along with a fresh coat of paint etc. But this was my first ever contact with cheapskate management, who were happy to waste everyone’s time as long as it saved them a bit of money further along. So even as I was doing it, I wasn’t trying very hard.

The second thing that made me hate the job on that first day were the coarse and loud and ignorant full-timers, the kind of gob-shites who made lessons boring with all their crap, and then went into the kind of dead-end jobs that people like me only did for pocket money. There was a big loud blonde kid who swore constantly and another one who was still hungover from the night before, and seemed to seethe with a kind of permanent, unfocused anger. As I said, in normal circumstances a Saturday worker wouldn’t have much to do with these people, and it was a rude awakening for this particular hothouse flower.

One of them was quite nice though: a ginger-haired sophisticate who spoke in an educated drawl, so that you wondered what on earth he was doing working at there. In my naïve way, it took me a while to twig that he was (flamboyantly) gay, but I never did work out how he managed to balance his love of cigars and the high life with the low wages he must have been on. 

I suppose you could argue that I thought myself above the work. The truth is, I think of myself, even now, as being above all work. Work is a horrible necessity, and I’m never going to buy into the lie that it’s something that gives you an identity or vocation. All lies spread by capitalism, though I wasn’t well read enough at that point to object to it by name. I never felt that there was any nobility, nor any point to work. Work in a frozen food centre largely involved picking orders, pricing up, filling freezers, and sweeping up mess. There was other stuff (breaking up cardboard boxes, corralling stray trolleys) but the days were fairly routine. You got your first exposure to customer service. You could be helpful, they could be rude, you couldn’t really do anything about it.

Once the soot scrubbing was done with and things returned to normal, things got more bearable. The girls on the checkouts were flirtworthy, often from exotic and strange secondary schools in other parts of town. I became convinced that most of the pretty girls in town had gone to Northfields, a school I have only the vaguest memories of touring on an open evening. And a couple of the other kids were fun to be around.

A while after I started, someone in the year below me at the same school, Martin, began to work there. He eventually became a successful software engineer. Back then, he was a prototypical computer nerd, into programming when software was being shared and published as printed code in electronics magazines. I believe that Martin had an Apple ][ when those things were really new and really expensive. I think in a way he was too early to catch the wave: he wasn’t Bill Gates, and he didn’t get to rise the later dot com tide. But he was a nice lad, interested in the world, and we would take ourselves away to the big freezer, put on the parkas and the gloves and ‘tidy up’ which involved sitting around in a nest of cardboard boxes and talking about Bob Dylan, computers, or other interests.

He was polite, uncomplicated and pleasant where I was seething with teenage angst and up my own arse with self-involvement. Because of this, and apart from talking to Martin, I think probably my favourite activity was the trolley run, which allowed you the freedom to wander around town looking for abandoned trolleys. This might involve twenty minutes or half an hour of solo wandering, and as long as you came back with a train of trolleys, you were good. And the great thing about it was, if you went really far afield, you usually found one that had been pushed that way by kids or people who walked home with their shopping and couldn’t be bothered to bring it back. So I’d be on the far side of the Sainsbury’s car park at the other end of town, and I’d spot the distinctive blue and yellow handle of a Bejam trolley and I could happily and slowly make my way back, picking up the other strays as I went.

Being out and about also meant bumping into other kids from school with their weekend jobs. I’d occasionally bump into my best friend John, out doing a trolley run for Sainsbury’s, or I could hang around out in front of the shoe shop and talk to Georgia from my school and her blonde and beautiful and slightly older co-worker, Sarah, who wasn’t.

The worst parts of the job were as follows. First of all, not being able to go home until it was time to go home, even though you were done and finished with your work. We were often delayed by the fact that one of the checkout girls had a discrepancy on her till roll, and the manager would sit with her in his office, going through every transaction until they found the error, all of which meant he didn’t come out the back to give the once over to the pricing up area and tell us it was okay to go home. Then there were the nights he’d decide that the cleaning was inadequate, or the final few boxes needed to be collapsed, before were were allowed to leave. Petty management bullshit, in other words.

The other bad aspect of the job was the knowledge of how the shopworkers treated the food. There were no bar codes in those days, so all the pricing up was manual. One of the full-time workers, whenever he was pricing up ice-cream, would crack open the lid of every single box, swipe the back of his finger across the ice-cream stuck to the underside of the lid, and eat it. So any customer who purchased ice-cream priced by him would have his mouth germs all over the inside. And of course melting ice-cream is the perfect medium for bacteria to breed. He was also fond of the frozen rhum-babas. Then there was what happened to the frozen peas, when the bag split. This would often happen, and it was not uncommon for them to swept up with a filthy dustpan and brush, poured back into the bag, which would then be resealed using the heat thingy. And I can’t tell you the number of times one of the cardboard chicken or turkey boxes would split, sending frozen poultry bouncing across the dirty floor.

Needless to say, I never shopped in Bejam (or Iceland) after I worked there. I’m sure I wouldn’t shop anywhere if I knew what went on behind the STAFF ONLY door.

What was mostly going on was the need for bored workers everywhere to entertain themselves through the day, and the constant battle with management who think that people who are having too much fun are having too much fun. Apart from having a laugh, the main object for me was flirting with the girls. I was especially taken with one particular girl, Juliet, who was my age and seemed to have such a grasp on being cool about everything. Unfortunately, she was (a) out of my league and (b) had a boyfriend, but that didn’t stop me trying. Once I knew she existed, naturally, I started to see her quite often out of school. I would take detours on the way home, hoping to bump into her in the Quadrant, or the local library, where she was sometimes to be found, sitting with her friends, killing time and trash talking.

The yearning that took over me was real, and yet I knew she wasn’t the only girl for me. A lack of focus was a problem. There was the interesting Sarah in the shoe shop; there were a couple of girls at school. In my mind, at any one moment, they would be the driving force in my life, but then when one of the others was around, I’d forget everything. Selfish, self-absorbed, but also bereft of the most basic self awareness.

Interesting Sarah from the shoe shop was a case in point. I knew she was a year or so older than me, and that immediately made me sure that she wouldn’t be interested in a mere school kid. I couldn’t even tell you what she was doing: whether she was working full time, or at college, or what. I didn’t like the other girl, Georgia, who was at my school (she was pushy and had a nasty side to her), but seeing Sarah meant putting up with Georgia, to an extent.

I happened to be involved with the committee that organised all the sixth form social events. We organised regular parties – it wasn’t just a question of an end-of-year prom. The word ‘prom’ in fact was never mentioned. It was just ‘6th Form Party’. I’m still a little bit puzzled at the way schools get officially involved these days with so-called Proms, including asking staff to work them. We had a number of our parties, no staff involved.

My dad—although the printing trade was already using phototypesetting— still had access to some kind of letterpress machine for small jobs, I got him to print us tickets. I usually made them hilarious in some way: jokes that usually backfired because people thought I’d got the tickets cheap due to the ‘mistakes’ they included. I was ahead of my time. My humour is consistent, though. It’s the same impulse that saw me name my first blog Hoses of the Holy. Anyway, all of this meant that I had easy access to tickets to our parties without needing to pay the cover price.

All of which Georgia knew. So in order to get herself a free ticket, Georgia drew the conversation around to the idea that her work friend Sarah might like to come to the party, you know, with me, and therefore, if I were to supply two free tickets, I might have a date.

None of which I believed for a second. I remember being aware of Georgia’s manipulations and not really caring. I gave her two tickets, just to get her off my back and for no other reason. I had no illusions about Sarah, barely gave her a second thought. My obsessions lay elsewhere.

I think I was a little bit wrong about Sarah: but that’s a story for another day.

The paper round

I was ten when I started my paper round, which was my first paid job. That was the last time I got pocket money from my Dad. I ended up with the paper round by default, because my older sisters, who had been the ones to start it, had quickly realised that it didn’t pay enough to be worth doing. So Muggins here, as the saying goes, ended up with the whole thing. It may seem impossible that I started so young, but I just double-checked on the newspaper’s web site: it was indeed launched in 1973, Year of the Tree: I was ten for eleven months of that year.

It was the first of the first local free sheets, an advertising-supported local newspaper called The Herald, which was to be delivered, gratis, to every household on a Friday evening. If you were the publisher of the Luton Evening Post or the weekly Dunstable Gazette, it must have seemed like a ridiculous idea, like the internet must have seemed to newspapers in the early 90s. My sisters signed up to deliver an enormous quantity: 531, a number I’ll never forget. But no: it’s not my memorable number for banking or anything else like that. 

This 531 was for the whole of the mile-long Jeans Way, plus the whole of the same length of the Luton Road that ran parallel to Jeans Way, plus several side streets. My sisters arrived home with their first pile of Heralds and immediately saw a number of problems. First of all: weight. This was not an amount of newspapers you could carry over your shoulder in the supplied shoulder bag. You couldn’t even support this quantity of newspapers on a bicycle with a rack. So my younger brother’s old pushchair was pulled into action. The pile of newspapers would sit in there, and my sisters would pull out thirty or so at a time to deliver.

The next problem was the sheer amount of time they would take to deliver, and the distance you would have to walk. On launch night, the weather was atrocious: it was dark, raining, windy. My older sisters, cannily, roped in some of their younger siblings to help finish the job quicker in these dire conditions. But the rate of pay was only – get this – half a penny per paper, so spreading the payment around made the job completely pointless.

£2.66 between two was ridiculous. Between three or four it was impossible. Which is why it didn’t take long for the job to become mine and mine alone.

531 newspapers, £2.66. It took a really long time. They were picked up from a woman’s house down the bottom of Dale Road. Even with the pushchair, this was really too many to carry, so I started splitting the pile into rough halves. They were supposed to be delivered on a Friday night, but on my own I didn’t have the time for that, so I would do half on a Friday and then the other half on a Saturday morning. Friday I did the Luton Road and the side streets off that, and then on a Saturday I’d finish off with Jeans Way and its cul-de-sacs. I’d get my pay, in cash, in a small brown pay packet.

My first step was to spend a whole lot of it on sweets, chocolate, and a fizzy drink. So I’d get a Yorkie and a Nutty, and maybe a packet of Munchies, and then a can of Lager and Lime or Shandy or maybe a Coke or a Cherry Coke. Sugar to fuel the long walk. I did this paper round, solo, rain or shine, winter or summer, for five or six years. In the final year or so, I seem to remember, the rate of pay went up to some other fraction of a penny, and I was being paid £3-something until I finally got a proper part-time job in Bejam, the frozen food supermarket.

On a Friday, I was usually out till after seven in the evening, and then on a Saturday morning I’d be out for another couple of hours. It was a criminally low hourly rate of pay: what, 50p an hour? Or, to state it baldly, £0.50 per hour. Not to mention that it was bone-crushingly boring.

How did I occupy my time?

I would sing. By the time I was 14, I was getting into music, so I would sing whatever I was into at the time. Principally, this was The Beatles. After a while, once I had all the Beatles’ singles and albums then extant, I would start with the opening track on the first album (“I Saw Her Standing There”), and I would sing every single song until I got to “Get Back” on Let it Be. I may have skipped those I didn’t particularly like, but I knew all the lyrics to all the songs. So that would fill my five hours. I’d also sing Dylan, Springsteen, and the Velvet Underground.

The other thing I did, which was just a mindless kinaesthetic activity, was to make myself as efficient as possible in a time-and-motion kind of way. Marginal gains, as it were. I would shave seconds off my time, increasing my hourly rate by fractional amounts. Some houses, for example, had no fence between them, and a convenient path beneath their front windows you could walk, to avoid the back-and-forth to the street. But there was a problem: the laden pushchair, with all the papers, would need to be transported between driveways so I didn’t have to double back for it. So I became really good at judging the amount of force needed to push it just the right distance, so it was waiting for me when I came out of the next gate. For some rows of houses, this would mean a hefty shove to get it fully four doors down.

It was pretty amazing: I would push, and the pushchair would travel, straight line, and come to a halt next to the gate I would be emerging from after I’d pushed two, four, even five or six, papers through letter boxes. I was uncannily good at this. It wasn’t something I was conscious of until a girl I knew, who’d watched me do it from her bedroom window, came along one day and tried to do it herself. Cue scenes of an out of control wheeled vehicle full of newspapers swerving wildly out into heavy traffic on the Luton Road.

I say vehicle because the pushchair wasn’t a pushchair after a while. When I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted to make a go cart, so I converted the pushchair. This left me without transport for the newspapers, so I used the go cart for that purpose. The front wheels now steered instead of being fixed, which made the pushing-between-house skill even more challenging. Still, I rose to it. I was able to control the front wheels to the extent that the go cart would travel in a straight line, and I could also scoot along with it, my foot on the back, my hands clutching the steering rope, travelling quicker between delivery areas. You rode this go cart like a chariot, really, because there was a platform for your foot at the back to help get it going.

I’ve always been quite good at that kind of thing, in my own quiet, competent way – but only when nobody is watching. I was a maven on my little scooter when I was a kid: used to use it to create giant, long, black skid marks down the pavement, especially outside Lisa Johnson’s house in Lamb’s Close. Later, when I was eighteen and living down in Herne Bay, I would cycle on my five speed racing bike for miles on end, with my hands off the handlebars. My handling of the pushchair and later the go cart was uncanny. 

I still have dreams in which I am in this go cart, or something like it, running it down a hill towards some close or cul-de-sac, steering by the skin of my teeth.

In places, I would take just the right amount of newspapers for a short Close or Crescent, leaving the pushchair or go cart on a corner to wait for me. This came from knowing, eventually, how many houses there were in this section, and so on. There was also a number of newspapers left over every week. Partly this was because of over-estimation, or because some houses were empty, or because some householders didn’t want ‘hawkers or circulars’, which I took to mean The Herald. So I always ended up with about 18 spare newspapers.

These came in handy one Tom Sawyer summer when my friends up the park decided to help me finish my paper round in double-quick time. They knew I wouldn’t be able to stay and play cricket or whatever with the 500+ papers to lug around, so about six of them offered to help. And there was another kid there, the local bully, who was hanging around with us, friendless, and basically bugging us. So I carefully counted out the spare 18 papers and told him a Close to deliver them to. I knew him well enough to be sure he wouldn’t deliver them, couldn’t be trusted with any actual addresses. And this tactic worked a treat because, after he’d thrown them over the nearest fence, he ran off home, probably chuckling about how he’d got out of the work. Which nicely dealt with the problem of him hanging around with us, because he went away and never came back, not being willing to face the terrible consequences of dumping the papers.

The girl who came to help one day was JB, who was my second girlfriend. My first had been a girl from my class with whom I shared a snog at a teenage party. The problem with her was that I didn’t like her very much, especially as she immediately went overboard with the gifts and a song she decided was ours. I dumped her quickly. The shame of it had been that, at that same party, my real attention had been on JB, who totally blanked me.

That was the thing about JB. She blew hot and cold. She acted like you didn’t exist, but then suddenly you were the centre of her universe; and then you didn’t exist again. She had a best friend called JM with whom she went everywhere. They called themselves Bill and Ben, and even went through a phase of wearing matching floppy sunhats, embroidered with their nicknames. To be out with JB (Bill) was to be out with JM (Ben). But we weren’t really going out in the sense that we went on dates. No, we just hung around in the park together, all day and all night, leaving after dark, usually when the park keeper came and chucked us out so he could lock the gates.

JB lived in the old Police House on the Luton Road. Her Dad drove what was then a fancy car: a Ford Granada, in the fancy fastback coupé version. Our neighbours had a Mark III Cortina, which was also a pretty nice car in comparison to the various broken down old clunkers my Dad drove. But the executive class Granada seemed like a rich person’s car: especially with the word Ghia on the back.

(Ghia referred to Carrozzeria Ghia, the same Italian coachbuilding firm that made VW’s Karmann Ghia, which for a long time was my dream car. I still get a pang.)

I’d liked Bill for ages, but she ignored me until it was convenient to hang around with me in the park during the long summer holiday. And when that fairly hot and dry summer of 1975 was over, she dumped me again. As I’ve mentioned before, 1975 is the forgotten summer of the 70s. We Gen Xers all remember the drought of 1976, but ’75 was almost as good a summer. A long stretch of sunshine, with a little bit of rain. Anyway, I spent the following year, the last year at Middle School, feeling kind of broken over Bill.

I yearned for her, and always looked up at her window in the Police House when I passed on the other side of the road. And then one day, something that had never happened before: a face at the window. My eyesight is too terrible to actually recognise a face across the street (astigmatism, which does weird things with faces in particular), but I guessed it might be her. That was odd, because the windows of that house had given me nothing in over two years of looking up at them. 

There was a part of the route that took in about ten houses, on the other side of a car dealership on the Luton Road. So I generally parked my go cart on an empty patch of ground and walked down to deliver the papers without it. When I came back to it that day, there were two girls sitting on the wall on the empty lot, singing some song: Bill and Ben. They’d tried to follow me down the road, they said, but couldn’t see where I’d gone, so they waited for me.

We went along back towards the Police House on that side of the road, and it was then that Ben tried to push the go cart from one garden gate to another, with predictable results. “I’ve watched you do it,” she said. “You make it look so easy.” I did: at this stage, I was generally launching the cart forward with my right foot.

We got to the Police House, and Bill invited me in for a drink. Orange squash, whatever. She took me upstairs to her room, then closed the door behind us, leaned on it and (genuinely) said, “Aha! Now I’ve got you.”

I don’t know what thoughts went through my head at that point. Nothing coherent. With hindsight, it was an opportunity I should have seized. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in her room. The year before, she’d let me cup her breast as we lay on her bed. But that paper round day, I panicked, and pushed past her and out of the house, back to the job. All I can say in my defence is that (a) she caught me completely unprepared – the contact was totally out of the blue after months of her ignoring me; and (b) I’ve always been conscientious to a fault about work – even shitty work, especially shitty work (because that’s all I ever really do), and I felt I needed to get back and finish the bloody paper round.

Oh my, a fool such as I. I was always out of my depth with her. Anyway, a brief return of the relationship because of course it was summer again: this time, the long, hot one. That was the summer I was in the park for most of the daylight hours. I can’t believe how young we were.

Once the summer holidays were over and we started at the Upper School, she dropped me like a hot rock. I don’t think she ever spoke to me again. I remember seeing her at school and she wouldn’t even make eye contact. Although she was the same age as me, she somehow always seemed like an old soul. She left school straight after ‘O’ levels and seemed to become an adult long before those of us who stayed on in the 6th Form. You’d see her and think she was a good looking woman in her late 20s, but she was still 17, 18. It was one such sighting that inspired the story The Pavilion, in which I reminisce about hanging around in the park during that long hot summer of 1976.

Plant a tree in ’73

In 1973, when Dutch Elm Disease was rife, when trees were dying in their millions, the government came up with the idea of a National Tree Planting Year. The Forestry Commission donated thousands of trees to schools and I signed up for a Scots Pine. I was ten years old, in my eleventh year. My younger brother, not yet school age, got a Rowan.

The Rowan didn’t thrive. It was supposed to spread and give shade and red berries. We planted it in the wrong place, in the middle of one of the lawns, and it disappeared quite quickly. I always suspected my dad mowed it. The Scots Pine, though: that thrived. It started as a single shoot and by the time I last visited my parents’ house, some time in the 90s, it was well over seven metres tall. I was told it would grow thirty centimetres a year. After twenty-odd years it was tall and strong, sitting at the very top of the garden like a sentinel. I think it’s probably still there. Google Maps used to show a huge number of trees in that spot, and even now, after a road and houses have been built in place of the railway line and allotments, I fancy that one of the shadows cast over the gardens has the spiky profile of the Scots Pine. By now it would be twice as tall again.

(Although it kind of breaks my heart that the rear view from the house I was born in, which used to be of the Downs, is now of a fookin’ house. The usual criminality in the Planning Department, no doubt. I always suspected that in Dunstable, someone was on the take.)

What a successful campaign that was, how it stuck in my mind. There have been other campaigns since, and I hope that they too have stayed in the memory of those young enough to have participated. Millions of trees were lost to the Great Storm of ’87, and maybe there were kids then, born in the late 70s, who cared for their own personal trees.

I often browse on Google Maps, looking at the world from the sky and thinking about the trees. Where we stay in France is almost all forest. Everywhere you go, you see trees being felled and transported for various reasons. Almost everyone burns wood for fuel, and there still seem to be plenty of trees, but you can tell they’re not being managed properly. There isn’t enough wildlife to coppice naturally, and nobody bothers to do it the human way. When we took over the house in France, there was an enormous quantity of coppiced bundles of sticks, set aside to start fires but never used. They were thirty, forty years old, but when we got a new woodburning stove fitted, the nature of these sticks wasn’t really right for lighting fires.

So we burned them in the garden. An illegal fire, as far as I can tell, because you’re not supposed to do that nowadays, but we had so much old and dry wood that we saw no other option. It was clean and dry and burned without much smoke, so there’s that. We also threw on a load of old orange boxes (like the kind Van Morrison said were ‘scattered’ in ‘St. Dominic’s Preview’), which we found out later are considered collectable by some. The old-fashioned kind of plywood orange box, depending on the quality, will sell for as much as a tenner apiece on eBay. I’m afraid to say I burned at least thirty of them, maybe more. It was hard to keep track.

The fire burned so intensely hot that in the end I was sitting twenty or thirty metres away, across the garden, keeping an eye on it. I kept circling it with watering cans, dampening down the grass. When it died down to a smoulder I dampened the ground one last time and went inside. It was still smouldering the following morning, like the Simpson’s eternal tyre fire.

Tree planting to fix carbon is one of the methods proposed to mitigate global warming. But while huge swathes of Amazon rainforest are being razed, and while many people insist on driving around in unnecessarily huge cars, the thinking doesn’t really feel joined up.

Fine tunes from Midland and Brandi Carlile

It is somewhat sheepishly that I provide a brief review of Brandi Carlile‘s By the Way, I Forgive You. While Grammy nominations don’t necessarily mean a lot, the six she received in 2018 as a result of this record do speak volumes. I’m sheepish because I did (of course) give her song “The Joke” a quick listen on the YouTube, but for whatever reason it didn’t grab me. Given how great this album is, I want to nag at that a little more. Carlile has a powerful, distinctive voice, and I’m wondering if trying to listen on crappy laptop speakers gave it an unpleasant timbre. Furthermore, I found the cover design offputting; turn a light on, I want to say.

Still, thank goodness for The Highwomen, which album has given me cause to go back and listen more properly to By the Way…, and I’m here to confirm what everybody from the Grammy nominations committee to Barack Obama already knew. It’s a tremendous album, full of confidence and swagger, a shout to the rafters of the kind of popular music that defies categories. The great pleasure for me now will be in going back and listening to her earlier records.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Midland have recently released their second album, and it too is a cracking listen. Perhaps because lead singer Mark Wystrach was also a soap opera star and model, people found it hard to take Midland too seriously at first. Early singles were good, but was this for real? Was this pastiche? The Nudie-style suits certainly nodded towards Gram Parsons, while the smooth harmonies recall Eagles and the 70s West Coast scene. Ultimately, the vibe is Alan Jackson mixed with all of the above, and (pastiche or not) these guys are seriously good.

Their first album, from 2017, was On the Rocks, and I’m still playing it regularly on my 4-star-plus playlist. Their second album, Let it Roll, released in August, proves that the first was no fluke. It’s packed with hits, is a pleasant listen, and doesn’t seem to contain a single duff track.