Sunday 4 March 2018

Some rather more helpful things that I have learned in four decades of singing in front of people for money

As I mentioned in my last blog (which I have been told was unhelpful and had a misleading title) I have an average at best voice which has been forced into the spotlight out of necessity. This was brought into very clear focus last night when the lead vocalist of one of my bands couldn't make it and I was once again thrust into the singing spot. At least it gave me an excuse for the music stand full of lyrics I had (I've used one for the last twelve years of acoustic duo Rob and Dave, despite rarely adding new material, and make no excuses for never having cared enough to learn the words). Lyric learning tip, run through the words in your head (keep the words out of sight, just check you're doing them right occasionally) while you're doing something entirely mundane like walking to work or washing dishes and they stick easily. I haven't bothered, but I used to care enough to.

I know, I used this photo last time as well, but I honestly can't think of any better one to use

In light of last night's near-disaster, I figured the best thing I could do is share what little I have learned over the years in hopes that it helps others who don't want to sing but find they have to. As opposed to the self-indulgent snark of my last piece, sorry.

The first piece of advice I can give anybody is know your range and stick to it. If you can't get to the note you are aiming for it will both sound rubbish (somewhere I have a recording of an eighteen year old me trying to hit the chorus of Self-Esteem by The Offspring which demonstrates this to great effect) and destroy your voice. I was reminded of this while screaming American Woman by the Guess Who last night and then having to croak the rest of the set: I really should have practised the songs earlier in the day. If your band are dicks and won't change the key to a more comfortable one then drop the song, do something else. Then remind your fuckwit guitar player that people only listen to the singer anyway.

This leads nicely into the obvious one, practice. Practice a lot, and at full volume. I don't. If I practice at all then I tend to do it mumblingly and about an octave lower than I'd do the song live (unless I am in the car, and then it is both loud, out of tune, and probably the best workout my voice ever gets these days). Hence all the trouble with The Guess Who. You can go for stuff outside of your range when you practice, since increasing that range is a good thing (though less likely to work the older you are, sorry) and nobody is there to hear you miss those notes.

Inhibition is your enemy. Have none, fear nothing and don't worry about being embarrassed. I should have curled up in a ball and died a few times last night, since trying to play John Entwistle bass lines and sing at the same time is a very good way to not be able to do either. By manfully singing all the wrong notes and fluffing the bass lines (lot of root notes, really a lot) I got through it and, depressingly as always, nobody in the audience even noticed I had fucked it up. That's how little they care, just go for it. It is both terribly sad, and incredibly useful that even when they're paying attention they can't tell when you get it wrong.

Learn an instrument so you can accompany yourself. Singing along to records with a voice already there as reference is no good for getting your tuning ear going. Karaoke machines with flashing words don't help you develop your sense of timing. Learn to read music, understand intervals, scales, keys and dynamics. Your voice is an instrument every bit as hard to master as any other. The more you use it, the better it gets. But you can't get to the fiddly mechanical bits if you break it and you can't buy a new one: if it hurts, stop and do it differently. (From the guy who tried to fix a completely knackered larynx with 3 pints of cider and a marlboro light last night – do as I say, not as I do. In my defence, it worked in time for War Pigs).

Take lessons, really. I know I don't, and am always claiming to be self taught, and may have taken the piss out of you for having lessons, but that's because of my selective memory. While it's true I never had a lesson, a solid ten years or so of choir practice and GCSE music does give you an advantage. And is, in fact, comprised mainly of singing lessons that I have pretended not to have taken. This will also help to increase your range – in a much safer way than trying to scream as high as Ronnie James Dio.

Up above the streets and houses, Rainbow flying high...

Finally, stand up. Really, don't ever sing sitting down, and not just because it scares people into thinking there's going to be a key change when you stand up. It constricts the diaphragm, stops you being able to access your lungs properly and makes you look like a dick. If your back is so fucked that you can't support yourself anymore, get a stool so you're still upright or find something to lean against.

Be aware that none of this is approved by any actual singing teachers. These are just things I have noticed over the course of my accidental singing career. If you follow them then you too can manage to achieve mediocrity. In case you think this is all just false modesty, check out the massively multitracked vocals on this track I recorded a year or so ago.

Saturday 17 February 2018

A Few Things I Have Learned Over Four Decades Of Singing In Public For Money.

Once upon a time in the relatively recent past, they made a movie in which you not only had to believe that Gwyneth Paltrow was Huey Lewis's, naïve, angelic, virginal, Las Vegas Showgirl daughter, but that Huey himself made his living as a karaoke hustler. That's right, a karaoke hustler. I don't think that's ever been a real thing but I would like it to be. Duets is a movie with many faults, but Paul Giamatti's performance remains the single greatest portrayal of midlife crisis/breakdown ever. Michael Douglas in Falling Down and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty are hailed as benchmarks, but they lack the heart. They lack that spark of crazy that Giamatti brings to 'popping out for some cigarettes', and neither of them ever made me cry singing 'Try a Little Tenderness'.

The sheer joy of singing at full volume to a room full of strangers cannot really be represented in a batshit crazy movie that represents Karaoke as a viable career option, but it does a good job. Music soothes even the savage beast, supposedly, and has an unreasonable effect on our moods. I maintain that anybody can sing, given enough time and practice. Certainly well enough to sing in a choir, do karaoke or impress their friends. The trouble begins when easily-impressed friends suggest that those of average ability should do it professionally. It does, admittedly, lead to the only bits of X-Factor worth watching, but also to some of the most excruciating pub bands I have ever had the misfortune to watch (and occasionally find myself depping for). Luckily I'm too polite to tell those who are willing to pay me money for my musical services that my dog's angry requests for a walk are more tuneful then them.

This is how you sound to me when you sing
Stop it

Singing is not black magic, but you need to spend a hell of a lot of time doing it with no sense of dignity or shame in order to be able to hold your own. If you hold back for fear of being laughed at, you will suck; if you give a shit what other people think of your voice, you will suck; if you are not using every single part of your being to project the very essence of the song out into the world, then you will suck. Even if you are doing all of this, you will probably still suck – join a choir or an am-dram group instead, there is strength in numbers. I have, at best, an average voice, but ever since I was twelve and every band I put together failed to find a singer, I have been resigned to having to do it. Having grown up singing in both church and school choirs (once at a big posh do in Exeter Cathedral, and once on the telly), I was the default best-of-a-bad-lot choice for frontman.

I was about sixteen, a little drunk at a family party and singing AC/DC's Crabsody in Blue when I received the review that gave me hope. My big sister turned round to me and said, 'shit, that was actually quite good.' It has stuck with me forever, and any time I am worried that I might not be able to pull a gig off, I remember. My sister is not one for unnecessary compliments (she also once mistook a Led Zeppelin record for me practising, I took her shout of 'Turn your fucking guitar down!' as high praise).

I seem to give less fucks as the years go by
Sorry I couldn't find any pictures of me in the choir

It's no different from learning any other instrument. I gave up piano lessons when I was about 8, and took up guitar a few years later. I spent every minute I could between the ages of 11 and 20-something with a guitar in my hand, playing, playing and playing it some more and am now good enough to play without really thinking about it. Whereas, I am currently re-learning how to play the piano properly and it is hard going thinking about the mechanics of what my hands are doing and what notes I want to play. Because I am old now, and it is less intuitive. In the same way, those singers I am lucky enough to work with that have been singing in front of bands for as long as they can remember are – for the most part – fucking heavenly. Whilst those who hit mid-life crisis and decided to give it a punt because they always wanted to try it are – at best – pretty good, you know, considering, etc etc. Like most things, if you leave it too late, you will never be great. Just accept it.

I am unreasonably critical of other singers, because I cannot understand how, if a song is inside your range (mine is incredibly limited – but I know what notes I can and can't hit) and you've got an instrument to pitch to, you can still manage to not be in tune. I understand that years of angry choir masters rapping my knuckles with rulers refined my tuning, as has the last more than thirty years of singing in public, and that my knackered right ear is now a permanent monitor allowing me to hear my own voice in my head above everything else. And that I lack empathy for others. Maybe somewhere in there is the difference between the fan/karaoke/choir singer and someone with the brass cojones to stand at the front and tell the rest of the band what to do?

You Have To Earn The Fucking Cape
Pay Your Dues

Monday 15 January 2018

Change Is Inevitable, You Will Be Assimilated.

The most annoying thing about middle age is the creeping nostalgia, everywhere you go things scream, 'I am not like I used to be!' at you all the time. I am not from the age of steam, but most stations are, the slatted wooden roofs and victorian buildings hit you with a warm glow of Jenny Agutter-related feelings.

The now-sadly-locked-forever doors between platform and cafe at Exeter St Davids take me back to the days when my mother used to leave me and my siblings on the train and send us off to our grandparents. Anyone could get from street to platform and back as often as they liked without buying a ticket, or having to find a human being to help you through a broken automatic turnstile. A well-meaning parent could put you and your bags on the train before waving a tearful goodbye (probably tears of relief at getting a break from the kids) from the platform. An abandoned bag would be picked up and asked about, rather than detonated, and you could buy your ticket on the train after getting on (or try to skilfully avoid the conductor). Modern stations are now, architecturally speaking, an uneasy mix of Enid Blyton and Philip K. Dick.

Once on a train it is now customary to make a little living room in your seat. Young girls are setting up tablets and headphones to bingewatch shows on netflix, all the while holding their phones to their faces to make sure they're getting enough insta-likes – 'On the train bingeing Ru-Paul, lol. #bigweekend #essaydue #lateron.' filter filter filter filter. Meanwhile the besuited city men continue to hammer noisily at laptops or give it the full trigger-happy TV into their mobile phones: working, working, working (perhaps).

My reaction to this is surely a sign of my age, the world keeps moving, and we can move with it, or be angry about everything until we die. I felt a pang of sadness that these kids weren't allowing themselves a bit of space, time to think. That they weren't even paying attention to the TV show they were watching, let alone where they were, being in the moment for a minute. They were no different to me, sitting reading a book (I am currently going through a phase of reading dreadfully written books with really interesting plots, or beautifully written books with no discernible plot, and one anomaly which turned out to be both) on a kindle no less. Or even the newspaper-reading bowler-hatted commuters of the golden age of steam. Ignoring everything and putting yourself into a little bubble is what being on a train is all about surely?

I remembered the days when I used to cross the country by train with an 8 pack of lager and a packet of embassy no 1. I was that drunk bloke on a train, waving a cigarette in your face and making you talk to him about whatever happened to come to mind. I met some of my best friends on trains, admittedly, I never saw them again after I got off, but for a few hours, we were best friends. I still drink on trains, but the difference now is that I buy it from the trolley – fellow passengers find this more socially acceptable (upon field testing my acceptable train drinking theory, a man gave me a scathing look as I pulled a can of Strongbow from my coat pocket, minutes before he paid for a tiny bottle of trolley wine).

This is not a real historical picture of me on a train

On my return (from London) I had a look at my notes. There were loads again, enough that, added to all the previous pieces I've written (this, this and this at least) I could probably make my next book non-fiction: a misanthropic yokel's guide to the capital. On the other hand, I can't keep on writing jokes about modern parents (this time they impressed me, a lady in a hijab patiently explaining the 1666 restoration of Charles II using Frozen as an analogy), ludicrous fashion trends among the young (this year it's Noddy Holder trousers and big socks) and urban runners (my favourite was an angry goose on the south bank).

Security is the new constant. The streets of London have never been more fear-inducing. More so because it probably is necessary. Armed police and crash barriers side by side with anachronistic horseguards (who are not necessary, because of the armed police and crash barriers). Add this to the fact that everyone you walk past has an earpiece and is talking to themselves down their sleeves, so therefore must be a secret agent, and you could be living in an Orwellian dystopia of your own making. The city itself is the same stark contrast as the station, shining glass and steel alongside iconic historical edifices – Bladerunner writ large atop Fagin, Scrooge and Pickwick.

We are treated like idiots now, from the locked station cafe doors to the 'Caution Extremely Hot Water' signs above the tepid stream of public toilet handwashing water. Large public tactile art installations rendered impotent by cordons, every stair covered in high-vis yellow and black tape, and warnings on tube platforms about dropping your phone on the line. Like most of the modern world, it is beyond satire.

The first ten years of the millennium saw change beyond belief. When 2000 dawned, there were a handful of us hanging out in forums and text-based chatrooms online, still seen as weirdos, I had a CD walkman and a coat full of paperbacks for long journeys, and wrote notes in a notebook in my pocket (when I hadn't lost it). By the end of the decade everybody was sharing pictures of their breakfast via smartphones, I was reading books on a kindle (same one I still have), making notes on my phone (truly a godsend since any pen left in my pocket will make a break for it within an hour, and my notebooks all ended up in illegible scrawls) and could fit my whole record collection on a box in my pocket (again, the same one I still have). All the changes since then have felt like tinkering around the edges, bigger phones, smaller phones, slightly more intuitive interfaces, whizzier graphics. This could be just because I got old. I was in my twenties when it all began so I paid attention. Do please prove me wrong.

The past was generally okay if you had staff and a big house
like the Box of Delights kids did

It makes people yearn for the past, for a simpler age – as change always has done. The hipsters returning to print books, vinyl records, and waxed moustaches are no different from the pre-Raphaelites trying to return to what they saw as a golden age of art. Going back is both impossible and ultimately undesirable. Fictional versions of the days between the wars, travelling on steam trains and listening to Jazz are very different from the realities of polio, tuberculosis, manual labour without health and safety and dying in childbirth. Besides, if you did it properly, you wouldn't be able to snapchat it, so what's the point?

But for most kids it looked a bit more like this
Not quite so palatable

The London I have just visited, and the trains I travelled on are completely unrecognisable from those of my youth. It's not a bad thing, and the world moves on. Eventually it will become so unfamiliar to our eyes that we do not want to see it anymore. It's always been this way, and prepares us so that when we finally have to leave this world, we are glad to wave goodbye to a place we no longer recognise.

Saturday 16 December 2017

Tis the season to be shopping, fa la la la la, la la la la

Tis the season to be shopping, fa la la la la, la la la la.
I fucking hate Christmas Shopping, fa la la la la, la la la la.
To be honest, I hate all shopping, fa la la, fa la la, fa laa laa.
I'm a grumpy middle-aged bastard, fa la la la la, la la la la.

This is the Christmas tree in the town where I live this year
presented without comment

My earliest memories of going Christmas shopping involve getting the train up to London from Guildford, going round Hamleys (which was very much like a fantasy dream sequence from a movie at the time, all trains and tinsel and elves and magic) and then going to watch ET at the pictures. I'm pretty sure this memory is utterly garbled with a whole load of others, particularly since we lived in Cranleigh when ET came out. I was only five, so I think I'm allowed to misremember this stuff.

Once we were safely relocated to Devon, the Christmas tradition became a family car ride to Barnstaple (seriously, we lived in Bideford, and if you couldn't get it in Woolworths or Jimbos you probably couldn't get it in Bideford) where we would all split off to buy gifts, before meeting up outside Marks and Spencers in time to go home: where my mother would berate me for having bought nothing but Transformers and comics. Gifts are hard.

By the 90s, I was taking my Christmas shopping trips to Barnstaple on the bus, without parental assistance. This meant that my mother was unable to berate me for spending the whole afternoon in Second Spin and coming home with nothing other than Black Sabbath records (original first pressing Vertigo) because she didn't know. Thus began my 90s tradition of running round Gateways on Christmas eve and buying everyone shit biscuits.

Come the millennium everything changed. I don't mean the advent of online shopping, I mean I began my future of working in jobs that are relentless all day every day slog right up until Christmas Day itself. I was a postman then, and on reflection it was much easier than being in the personalised tat industry where I find myself now. The bus to Barnstaple continued to be ridden – though in more of a rush, and usually on a Thursday afternoon – I got an 180g Vinyl repressing of Meet The Residents, and everybody else got biscuits from Somerfield.

Then I moved to the middle of nowhere, the bus to Barnstaple (or anywhere really) only went once a month, if the moon was fat and the wolves were running, and the job in the tat industry began. Thank you internet shopping. In all honesty, once I had moved in with my now wife, then girlfriend, my Christmas shopping became more a matter of handing over money since I could now inhabit an ages old male stereotype and leave the shopping to the missus. She is still not happy about this arrangement, I still use the job as an excuse. I can only get away on Sunday afternoons at best. I still forget that shops open on Sundays now. I am old.

If you go googling for images to illustrate Christmas Shopping
all you get is smug wankers with shiny bags like this
This is nobody's reality

I do still have to buy gifts for the wonderful woman who does the hard work of real christmas shopping, so I am glad of the internet. Working long hours at a computer screen in November/December means you can have a window open on amazon and shop while you work. This used to be the perfect solution. Sadly, Ebay/Google/Facebook/Twitter etc. now log everything you have looked at, and blast it into the pop-up ads of every page you see. I now have to cradle my laptop away from my wife for the whole of December in case it flashes up ads for every single thing I have idly browsed in consideration of gift buying. I think I'm getting away with it by alternately telling her she wouldn't like the German Scheizer porn I'm watching and that I'm looking for her replacement on Guardian Soulmates.

When it comes to receiving gifts, I am a relatively well off forty year old man. I genuinely have everything I need/want except for a whole bunch of records and books, and the only way to find out which ones I would like would be for me to put together some kind of fucking wedding list for you, like a total prick might. The entire point of buying gifts is to show how well you know someone, give them a thing you think that they will like. I don't like things, give your money to Amnesty or chuck it in a homeless guy's coffee cup (as long as it's not the one he's drinking out of). That's the Christmas spirit, not some novelty plastic tat that I will rewrap and give to some other person I want to pretend to care about next year.

I like seeing the people I care about, I like sitting around having drinks with them, I like Christmas movies, I will always cry like a girl watching It's a Wonderful Life, every year. I like family Christmas Cocktail hour (it's never just an hour) and I like Christmas. I still hate the fucking gifts though, don't get me any. Humbug to all of you.

Here is my dog Sky in a Christmas hat
She hates Christmas too

And yes, that is The Box of Delights on in the background

Monday 13 November 2017

How To Throw Off My Entrenched Male Privilege And Stop Being A Dickhead

As a heterosexual, white, cis-gendered, public school educated bloke it is a difficult thing to write progressive and, dare I say it, feminist literature in the 21st century without being called a patronising wanker. Nevertheless, I try – because I am a patronising wanker. There are a million excuses of history and upbringing and conditioning that #allmen can use to try and get out of behaving like total bastards, and, if I'm totally honest, it takes serious effort to break your programming and not be a default mansplaining, bum-groping, calm-down-dearing cunt of a man.

This is absolutely no excuse to be one though.

Not even to use a historic female genitalia based insult to make a point.

I still did though.


There's really no good excuse to use pictures of Dave Lee Roth
and a load of girls in bikinis either, but I thought it would illustrate the kind of thing 
I thought was cool when I was twelve.
Which is kind of where the problems start right?

I am not writing to excuse the behaviour of Weinstein, Spacey, Fallon, Green and all the other blokes being rightfully called out for their behaviour. I am not even trying to do a #notallmen type right-on liberal mansplain. But since all this misogyny went centre stage I've been thinking a lot, about my own behaviour, about the behaviour of people I know, my family, my friends, my colleagues. And whether it is more to do with society than being an actual twat. And if I too am awful, or if we're all just twats. #NotAllTwats.

Before all of this began, I was (and still am) up to my ears writing my third novel, which I think of as an exploration of modern gender identities, a look at what it is to be a man – with all the historic baggage that goes with it – interacting with LGBTQ characters and modern women in the 21st century, told through the eyes of a teenager and his dad. Anybody actually reading it will almost certainly think of it as a string of dirty jokes, some comic deaths and a disappointing conclusion (am fixing that though), but underneath all the bollocks there is a study of how to wield a pair in modern Britain.

I may have mentioned that I am a heterosexual, white, cis-gendered, public school educated bloke once or twice. Yet I have still been a victim of misogyny. Not in any way as seriously as genuine victims, the closest I came to being assaulted was when a bloke bought me a rum and coke and then shoved his tongue down my throat. Had I been that way inclined I probably wouldn't have minded, I was more surprised than upset if I recall correctly, but we're not all so hedonistic and other people would be traumatised by it (a fact that Julia Hartley-Brewer seems incapable of understanding). However, as a skinny geeky kid with no interest in sports, an inexplicable obsession with his sister's doll house (which I am still thoroughly envious of to this day, it had more rooms than Castle Greyskull, and a garage) who preferred to hang out with girls, I was called a few choice names and beaten up in the changing rooms enough. As a long-haired man with a penchant for dressing flamboyantly (and not averse to wearing dresses sometimes) I still get similar treatment from proper blokes. Though I don't get beaten up in changing rooms anymore.

Despite all that, I have almost certainly been a dick to women without even realising it. We are conditioned by society to see them as lesser, as decorative, as either mothers or whores. This is not a healthy state of affairs. We are bombarded on all sides with movies, books and songs where the stalker eventually gets the girl. She said no, don't stand on her lawn playing Peter Gabriel on your wet boom box you creepy dickhead, move on to one that does like you.

Conditioning happens on both sides, and neither version is healthy. Girls are brought up to not seem easy, not be tarts, not take control of their own sexuality. While blokes are encouraged to sow their wild oats, set out on a quest, drag them back to the cave by their hair, faint heart never won fair maiden, etc. etc. Having been brought up to respect their decisions, my teenage self walked away from girls who said no. Feeling like a right-on progressive 90s dude. Occasionally, a few nights later the same girls would ask me why I had left them alone, and that they didn't mean no, they just didn't want to seem easy. A different type of bloke could easily have taken this to mean that no doesn't always mean no. I didn't want to take the risk thanks, so I kept leaving them alone. Regrets, I've had a few...

This is not putting the blame on the girls, the anti-teases, the exact opposite of the ones that kept saying yes right up until they said no. Who I also left alone, and walked away from (and on one memorably friend-zoned night, sat next to, stroked the hair of and read Shelley to). They are completely within their rights to act so. I changed my mind on enough occasions and could happily walk away without being grabbed and made to carry on (except for that one time, and it turned out she was right). Most girls I know didn't get that choice. I genuinely do not know any women who have never been assaulted in one way or another. Up until the #MeToo hashtag started trending I assumed the scale of this shit was no secret. The surprise expressed over it was the most surprising thing about it for me.

I do not think I have ever been guilty of it, but I don't remember a lot of the 90s, I was drinking a lot, I was the lead guitar player, and I was living in the aggressively macho-culture of the 'New Lad'. This meant that we could neck pints of lager and shout 'Wahey! Look at the tits on that!' ironically. It was a pretty fucking thin veneer. I do recall once grabbing the bottom of a girl that I thought was the same girl whose bottom I had been grabbing totally consensually a few nights before only to look round and see somebody else's face. Mortified, I left before either she or her friends pulled me up for it with no more explanation than 'oops, sorry'. In retrospect I may have come off more aggressive than coward, whatever the truth of it. I'm sorry if it was you. So yeah, #MeToo and #YesAllMen I suppose.

The toxic legacy of outdated attitudes will take a long time to dissipate. I am still shocked every time a co-worker refers to an occasional tech-engineer that visits as 'that he-she thing'. More often than not it's those I would least expect it from: just because you're educated it doesn't make you enlightened. She is a woman now, and deserves to at least be referred to as such. I am more shocked though, at my own inability to stand up for her in her absence. Inside I am clearly still a twelve year old boy, scared of being called a gaylord by the rugby team if he sticks up for the girl they're calling Tucgoals (the ugly cow who gets on at Locky's stop) on the bus. I got buried in bags for that. I need to realise that isn't going to happen now, man up (fucking awful expression) and tell the dickheads to stop being dickheads. It is no longer acceptable to be a misogynistic dickhead just because you are scared of having the piss ripped out of you by the other misogynistic dickheads for not being a misogynistic dickhead. It might turn out that all of you are secret feminists and are filled with self-loathing at your behaviour.

Break your conditioning, and don't be a dick.

Sunday 15 October 2017

The Perils of Getting Selfies with a Massive Murderous Monster on the Moors

Aside from the first six years which, in my failing memory, have become a gritty urban life on the wrong side of the A3 in Guildford, where a toddler can fall into a snowdrift on a footbridge and not be discovered for weeks, during which time he learns to fend for himself, ultimately running a gang of sentient snowmen on the mean streets of Stoughton (my parents assure me I was not in there for more than thirty seconds and I should stop moaning about it and telling massive great lies) I have lived most of my life in beautiful Devon, and have lived with a dog for more of it than I haven't (I would say I've owned dogs, but that would imply that I have some kind of control over the stubborn furry wankers). This is why it is surprising that for most of my life, I have shown little to no interest in the bits of Devon that aren't pubs.

In my defence, my first dog, Rambo, was more than happy to just walk round the corner to the Portobello, where the barmaids would feed him kit-kats and Guinness. He was very much a town dog, since we lived in Bideford at the time, and his favourite walks were on weekend mornings – hoovering up leftover takeaways from the pavements – he only needed a lead for the look of the thing and very rarely moved more than a couple of feet from my ankle. By the time we moved out here to the countryside his arthritis was so bad that it was all he could do to get to the pub for a saucer of Guinness and a bag of pork scratchings without me having to carry him most of the way back.

Rambo and I, when we were young and pretty

Rizla, my second dog, was fond of big walks up on the moors, but since she was so easy to walk on the not-Dartmoor-moors near home – since she was terrified of sheep and cows, and could run around off lead wherever we went – I didn't often get out to the real Dartmoor-moors with her. My cat, Kahlo (sometimes referred to as Bitey) also got sulky if she didn't come out for walks with us, and we couldn't take her in the car, so nearby was where we went. Rizla was also far too easily tempted by the lure of pork scratchings in the pub, and was friendly enough that that was what we did.

Rizla was every bit as upset about the cat muscling in on her walks as she looks here
There used to be two cat-dogs running about with her until Heisenberg died

But since I got Sky a year ago, it's all been a bit different. She's an Alaskan Malamute, which, if you've never owned one, is a bit like having a pet cow. She is enormous, stubborn, needs rubbing down, brushing and drying as soon as you get in from a walk if you don't want her to get a million different weird skin infections (so maybe it's more like having a horse than a cow?) and seems a lot less murdery than she really is (not cow-like at all, poor choice of simile, I apologise – wolf seemed too obvious). My step-daughter doesn't believe me that Sky is quite so murdery, but then she hasn't witnessed it firsthand since she doesn't live with us anymore. She just sees the big cute fluffy doggy and can't believe it is actually mostly wolf, with all the prey instincts that that entails. Her view of the animal kingdom has been warped by a weakness for Disney films, and she tends to anthropomorphise dogs. Also she has never seen Sky throwing a rabbit around the garden prior to ripping it to pieces, or dragging a mole from its hole, or ripping the tail feather off a pheasant. I have, and I am getting a lot better at stopping her now.

My wife now works nearly every Saturday morning, so I resolved, about a year ago, to go up a different tor every weekend and get a selfie with the big dog. Thus getting out and about on the moors, and getting valuable instagram likes at the same time. Sadly, as with everything, there have been mitigating circumstances: Devon weather (such as the weekend we went up there last year and I couldn't see Sky if she went to the end of her lead – I have never been so glad of having a navigation app on my phone); laziness – it is all too easy to just hop out of the door and have a quick run over the not-Dartmoor-moors by the house – especially since there's usually a bit where Sky can get off the lead for a bit there: I'm relatively confident that she can't take out a cow; Sky's current reluctance to just get in the fucking picture – which is leading to me getting covered in crap trying to hold on to a wolf that has just rolled in everything awful while waving a phone in its face; and hangovers – which joyfully continue to affect most aspects of my weekends.

Sky refused to even turn around, I am making all the effort in this relationship

Despite Dartmoor's reputation as a huge, bleak, lonely place – which I can see from my garden: Yes Tor, looming like Mount Doom in the distance – it is in fact almost impossible to find a weekend when the moors are not covered in school kids doing Ten Tors training. It's not just the kids with massive rucksacks though, it's as crowded as Oxford Street out there on a nice day, hikers of all ages with all the gear, crushing themselves into awkward positions on the ground trying to get the perfect angle for their selfie – ensuring they get the sheep, the pile of rocks, their artfully made sandwich, travel coffee mug and all their expensive hiking gear in shot to maximise those all-important instragram likes.

I can be as withering about them as I like, bouncing around the moors in my cheap wellies and battered straw hat, but I am no better. Since I started writing books, and thus having to have a marketable online presence (apparently) I too now have to rack up those all-important instagram likes. Which means getting those selfies perfect, this is where the photogenic doggy becomes indispensable. Just this morning I was lying in a muddy pit atop East Mill Tor, holding on to the sheep-poo-covered neck of my filthy Malamute and begging her to stay in shot so that we could get that perfect picture.

This was a lot more painful than it looks
Neither of us are actually happy
Instagram is a lie

A couple of weeks ago I was in a similar position on top of High Willhays when my hat blew away in the relentless Devon wind. I let it go just to get the picture (then gave chase, and got it in the end) which makes me question my judgement. I never took photos before this. I still forget to most of the time, I find memories better than photos, since they can be fuzzier, blurrier and paint a more flattering picture of you when you look back on them later.

This picture serves no purpose and I very nearly lost a perfectly good hat to get it

Sad to say, I do spend a lot of my walks with Sky wishing I had done them with Rizla – who as I have said, was very well behaved off a lead. She would run off, but come back as soon as I whistled the Superman theme to her (much of this may have been tempered by nostalgia, she rolled in fox shit as much as any other collie). Whereas this is Sky's idea of recall.

Never let it be said that dogs don't have a sense of humour

Added to which, the most aggressive thing Rizla ever did to another animal was lick a kitten's head slightly too aggressively (by which I mean she put Bitey's entire head in her mouth when she tried to steal her dinner) whereas Sky will try and eat anything that looks edible, especially if it's moving, so she is not ever allowed off her lead. This makes short cuts across moorland rather more treacherous than expected, since those ever so handy not-quite-paths are easy enough to pick your way across on your own, but when you are being dragged by a 30 kilo wolf trying to get at a sheep that looked at her funny, they are a little more tricky, and I spend an inordinate amount of time digging my boots into the mud, trying and failing to haul her back in and praying I don't smash my head in on the rocks as I slide ever further downwards on my heels. I fell over once (I say once, it happens a lot these days), she just got to the end of her lead and looked back at me with a shrug, didn't even come back to check I wasn't dead.

This is quite problematic for a writer, since we spend a lot of time while walking desperately trying to scrawl down notes for the amazing idea we just had. This is simple when your dog happily jumps about not trying to kill everything in sight, and lets you get on with it. Not so much when she is attached to one of your arms by a rope and doesn't want to stop – ever. This is why I have started falling over more often, and have no record of my amazing ideas. It also leads to long cuts through bogs and marshes as we have to leave the nice, flat, easy-to-walk-on-with-a-big-dog-on-a-lead path because some other, smaller, better-behaved dogs have turned up.

Ultimately, I am very lucky to live where I live, and be able to go walking on Dartmoor within ten minutes of leaving my house. Admittedly, the nearest bit we can get to is also an army firing range, so it does present a few unique dangers in that respect, but what's life without a little danger. I am also very lucky to share my life with a very beautiful (also time-consuming, annoying, badly behaved and stubborn) animal, that listens to all my crap, inspires me to write, gets me out of the house, melts my heart every time she looks at me and will continue to earn me those all-important instagram likes (along with those few accounts that automatically retweet anything hashtagged as #Dartmoor and #Devon). Long live our never ending Tor Tour.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

How did Australia go from being super-mega-bonzer to Channel 5?

Back in the mid-80s when I was a kid, TV was a grey miserable place, filled with bad-cockernee-accented kids wearing big coats and taking heroin, drowning in swimming pools or dying of an aneurysm in the back of teacher's cars. The psychedelic joy of the Magic Roundabout, Jamie and the Magic Torch and the Clangers were long gone. Yet inexplicably Blue fucking Peter survived to make you get up and do something less boring instead. Well, it was either that or American cartoons filled with rippling muscles, inexplicably sexualised cats and thinly veiled toy advertising. Welcome to Thatcher's TV Times. Then, with almost no warning, the sunshine from down under started to peek through and before you knew it the playground was filled with the sound of 'G'Day mate,' 'Bonzer,' 'you drongo,' and people being 'dobbed in.' Australian TV had hit the UK.

First we were warmed up by the Young Doctors, then came Paul Hogan and Crocodile Dundee (which was on this weekend, I still really want his boots) then came the soap operas, millions of us rushed home from school so as not to miss our fix of Neighbours and Home and Away, (other than my wife, I have never loved another woman as much as I loved Stephanie Scully off of Neighbours – right up until she cheated on Toady with Rivers out of Heartbreak High) insomniacs became irrationally attached to the covert lesbianism of Prisoner Cell Block H. Eventually the Doctors were flying, but still pretty young. It all came to a head in the early 90s, with Round The Twist, when surely it couldn't get any better, the pinnacle of inventive Aussie brilliance. Nay, the pinnacle of televisual entertainment itself.

It could. The greatest television program ever made nearly slid by unnoticed in the summer holiday mornings – Pugwall. He had a dream, he was going to make it. So did I, and Peter Unwin George Wall made it come true for me.

Seriously, I was unhealthily obsessed with this show, I still am

A lot of people believe the Charlene and Scott wedding from Neighbours is the high point of late twentieth century Aussie culture, but they weren't lying in front of the TV on a sunny summer morning just waiting to see if the Orange Organics got a gig, and if Pugwall could get to snog Jenny, so they were wrong. Don't misunderstand me, the Neighbours wedding gave us Angry Anderson and the best power-ballad of the year - Suddenly, without which I would never have found out about Rose Tattoo, who are fucking awesome.

Yeah, I know, but he did this as well

There was a point when you could have been forgiven for thinking the UK was Australia, the charts were filled with Kylie, Jason, Craig McLaughlin, INXS, Midnight Oil, Crowded House, The Birthday Party, Cosmic Psychos (alright, maybe not the charts at this point) Peter fucking Andre even. And then it all went to shit, Jet, Delta Goodrem, Savage Garden? Anybody remember them? No, of course not. Those days are gone now, and the only big names from down under are hiding their roots as Canadian super-heroes and Norse gods.

What can have brought about the collapse though? Neighbours and Home and Away both relegated to Channel Five, where nobody is going to bother, Paul Hogan reduced to an obscure reference on Family Guy, and Prisoner but a distant memory of a badly produced mushroom scene. What do we get from modern Australia? A love of xenophobic immigration controls? The joy of casual racism? An indifferent response to claims of historic genocide? Some unhelpful stereotypes involving domestic abuse and dangerous blood alcohol levels. Pretty much, but then we already had them. Before my Australian friends get all up in arms about this, remember I am British, we are not merely nonchalant about historic genocide, most of us seem pretty fucking proud of it most of the time. Or remarkably blinkered about how you get an empire that the sun never sets on.

I am at a loss to explain how Aussie culture nose-dived as it did, from the giddy highs of Dame Edna Everage and Stefan Dennis's pop career down to that girl you don't recognise now who used to be in Neighbours being Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (I google this shit so you don't have to). Did it begin with Kylie (Minogue, the original one, not Jenner, whoever she is, and why is she above Minogue on google autocomplete?) losing the plot and deciding to sell bedding rather than be the queen of the disco? Or does it go further back to poor old Michael Hutchence (star of the greatest motion picture ever made – Dogs In Space) succumbing to a cheeky stranglewank in a hotel room?

There was a year or two in the 90s when I watched this film at least once a week

Maybe there was a brief moment in the late 80s and early 90s when Australia laid off the booze just long enough to capture the zeitgeist in a flash of exciting youth tv. Maybe this is how it is, Aussies were just the fidget spinners of their day? Is Australia even still there? Who can say? It might just be covfefe. But given that during my (very minimal) research for this piece I found a page of Australian Celebrities that described Rolf Harris as a beloved Australian personality, I can only assume they took their eye off the ball, and went down with Rolf.

 How the hell do you go from this to this and expect nobody to notice?

It could just be the death of all originality, as we get spin-off after spin-off of things we have seen before until they become as unrecognisable as the Twist family were by series three of Round the Twist. I wish I had the answers, but I don't. Just a hope that some day soon, my clothes will be referred to as daggy again by someone with ludicrously sunbleached hair wearing lovebeads, a day-glo vest, board shorts, sunnies (sunglasses to you and me) and thongs (flip-flops). Or I could just listen to Courtney Barnett make Australia sound as cool as it once was.

N.B. In the interests of taste and decency this piece has blithely ignored the careers of both Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, I think it's for the best.