Were you around in the late 90s/early 00s? You might remember how almost every magazine and newspaper used to come with free CDs and DVDs. Covermount CDs they were called, and they featured games, music, old movies or basically anything that might nudge circulation northwards or demonstrate how, yes, we at Country Living are also on board with this new digital malarkey.
At the same time, every supermarket checkout displayed shiny CD-Roms aimed at encouraging you to hook up to the internet. For a while, the 120mm disc in its various forms must have supplanted the credit card to become the most ubiquitous man-made object on the planet.
That’s after you discount all the others, of course.
Anyway, I found myself collecting these objects for no other reason than I’m a bloke, and collecting useless items therefore comes naturally. By the mid-noughties I’d amassed several hundred. Then I had an idea of what to do with them.
I’d noticed that although CDs were opaque, if you held them horizontally they actually allowed light to pass through. So I wondered how this would look with sunlight passing through hundreds of them. I decided to construct a towering, er, tower; a soaring column of translucent digital storage devices stretching upwards and upwards, higher and higher, until God himself could reach out, grab a disc and dial up the internet using Compuserve’s Fax Modem.
I got hold of hundreds more CDs via a cheeky request to the company that made those covermount CDs & DVDs for the publishing industry. I bought a stainless steel pole the diameter of which was a fraction smaller than the hole in a CD. I dug a hole in the garden and buried the bottom 300mm of the pole in concrete. Then it was simply a matter of threading the CDs over the pole until I reached the top.
You want a few facts, I can tell. So the number of CDs shown here is around 2,000. Their height is 2.5 metres and the weight excluding the pole is about 35 kilos. I noticed after a few months that the pole had become visible at the top, so I had to get the ladders out and add a few more CDs.
I had to repeat this action many times over the years. When I came to dismantle the tower some 15 years later, I discovered that the weight of the CDs had forced the ones at the bottom to sink over 100mm (that’s around 78 CDs) into the ground.
I did have some nice shots of the sun shining through the tower, but the external hard drive that hosted all my photos suddenly stopped working. I know, I know. I should have stored them on a DVD.
Anyway, during the course of those 18 years, my unique CD installation wasn’t:
Talked about on social media
Selected for a major arts award
Shown at the Saatchi Gallery
Viewed over 4 million times on Instagram
The subject of a Ted Talk about the fusion of art and technology
Popular with any of our potential house buyers
So in the light of this last one, I’ve reluctantly dismantled the tower. All the CDs went into landfill but the pole itself is proving to be harder to remove. I can’t lift the concrete out of the ground, and I don’t have anything like an angle grinder to cut through the metal. (The metal-cutting blade that came with my electric saw was next to useless.)
Today marks quite an anniversary in my life. It’s exactly 50 years since I moved from my native Bournemouth to start work in that there fancy London. Cor blimey, luv a duck, gawd bless ya. To mark the occasion, here’s a little (?) look at the places I’ve lived in since then.
But first, why the move from sunshine to smoke? It all came about following the final meeting between me and the laughably named ‘careers officer’ at my school. He’d finally given up on me and my stupid ideas about working in things like journalism (‘you’ll never make it, lad’) and acting (‘what I said earlier’), and in exasperation threw a big book across the table. It was called ‘Careers for School Leavers 1971’ and was basically an A to Z of companies. They were the lookout for young blood, or more likely they’d simply paid to be in the book.
Anyway, I took it home and showed it to my dad. He had a quick flick through and landed on the page showcasing Sir Robert McAlpine, the construction firm. “I’ve heard of them. They’re massive. Go and work for them.”
So I went for an interview and got offered a job as a materials buyer. (Ask me about nickel-plated twin thread 2″ No. 8 countersunk woodscrews. Go on.) I was also offered accommodation at a place called the Caledonian Christian Club, a hostel for young Scots working in London in the banking sector.
You have questions, I can tell. But the fact that I wasn’t Scottish, did not work in a bank and could hardly be called Christian didn’t seem to matter. McAlpines was a Scottish firm and that was as good a link as any. So on Sunday 1st August 1971 my parents deposited me at the hostel, an imposing Georgian building in Endsleigh Gardens WC1, and roared off back to the coast.
My salary was £11 a week, which was crap even then. The equivalent today would be about £150. From that £11, I had to pay £4 a week for my room. Food was also included, and I remember some of it being edible. But my most abiding memory is of my fellow residents. I was one of perhaps three English guys in a community of around 70 expat Scots. Some delighted in telling me how superior Scotland was to England in every way. Some liked to swear in completely novel ways whereby sentences would be constructed almost entirely of swearwords, then one or two nouns and verbs would be inserted at strategic points to convey meaning.
A few had serious anger issues. One pulled a knife on me after I suggested that shouting at the manager of our local pub was perhaps not a wise move. I was with another when he split a man’s head open with a bottle of Newcastle Brown following some imagined slight in the nearby UCL student union bar. The area itself could be dodgy, too. Three big mainline stations were nearby, and on Saturdays the streets would fill with drunk football fans looking to have a pop at any strolling ‘cockneys’. I got attacked several times and learned a golden rule for surviving the big city: at the first sign of trouble, run like hell.
Go west, young man. Or even south-west
I’d like to say I forged strong and lasting friendships from the three or four years I spent at the Caledonian Christian Club, but I’d be lying. I couldn’t fucking wait to get away. When a school friend and his mate moved to London in 1974 and my salary had crept above starvation level, we got together and found a flat in Fulham.
Fulham was still a fairly working-class area back then, as evidenced by the mass of black and white flags that appeared when Fulham made it to the final of the 1975 FA Cup. I would jokingly tell friends that I lived in ‘Fulham NEAR CHELSEA!’ to make it sound cooler. You’d even see the odd scrap-metal collector driving a Steptoe-style horse and cart. But the area was changing. Our neighbours constructing a sauna in their cellar was a sure sign that the area was becoming gentrified. These days it’s all Whole Foods, plantation blinds and SUVs.
My flatmates were called Mike and Ted. However, after a few months I learned that Ted’s real name was in fact Leslie. Confusingly, he had a brother also called Ted. They called each other Ted whenever they met. Then, shortly after finding out that flatmate Ted wasn’t called Ted at all, he told me that his brother Ted was actually called Simon. There were no Teds. Right.
A bush with the law
We had some memorable parties in Fulham. Prior to one, we thought it would be a good idea to decorate the flat with some greenery. So after a night girding our loins in the pub, we headed off to nearby Eelbrook Common and began hacking at shrubbery. However, someone called plod and before we knew it we were spending the rest of the night in a cell in Fulham Road nick. The police didn’t press charges, but I dined in on Special Branch jokes for years afterwards.
A bloke called Wayne lived up the road from us and started turning up unannounced and being a right pain. Wayne the pain. I think he was what nowadays we’d call ‘special needs’, but back then he was just the local loony. “Look,” he said to me one day. “I got meself a tattoo.” I glanced down and recoiled. His forearm was a mass of bloody welts and scars, with vaguely discernible blues and greens and blacks amongst all the weeping crimson. “Who the hell did this?” I asked. “I did it! Wiv me pens!” Reader, he’d impregnated his arm with ink from coloured biros.
Mind you, I wasn’t exactly Captain Sensible. Once, during some sort of drunken game, I somehow managed to push my hand through the glass of the front door. I was bleeding copiously from the underside of my wrist so we quickly asked a car-owning neighbour to rush me to St Stephen’s Hospital. They couldn’t stitch it because of the position of the wounds, but the good news was I hadn’t severed an artery. Obviously. I still have the scars underneath my watch strap, and to this day have an aversion to thrusting any part of my body through plate glass.
Earls Court out
During the Fulham years I got several bar jobs, including one at a long-gone pub called the Lord Ranelagh in Earls Court. Earls Court being famously gay I shouldn’t have been surprised one night when a young Asian guy sauntered to the bar and said “I want cock.”
I was happy to redirect.”You want the Coleherne up the road, mate.”
He pointed to the back of the bar. “No. That cock. Cock a cola.”
I quickly made friends with the fellow bar staff and the pub’s resident DJ. They were fun and friendly people who didn’t call themselves Ted. A few of them rented a house in Wimbledon and when a room there became free, I moved in.
I still see the people I met here in 1977. All except for Jim. Jim was a transient South African – not nearly transient enough – who inhabited a strange kind of smoke-filled box room halfway up the stairs. He was everyone’s idea of the world’s worst flatmate. Never washed anything up, never even washed himself, and if you ever implored him to at least keep his door closed so that the rats didn’t make forays into the rest of the house, he wouldn’t understand you as he was perpetually stoned out of his mind.
Altogether more refreshing company was Sue, who I met through a Wimbledon flatmate. Even when she wasn’t dancing on pub tables or belting out Gary Numan songs on the underground, she was brilliant to be with. We had a lot in common, but although I was partnerless and keen, Sue was hooked up with a doctor and was all settled in a flat in Lewisham. So I was more than surprised one day when Sue called and said that she and I should drop everything, leave England and go live on a kibbutz. Surprised and stumped – what the hell was a kibbutz?
She explained. I listened. I asked about the boyfriend. He’s history, she said. I thought he was medicine? Boom! Anyway, I quit my job (by then I was working for a company that made oil drums), sold loads of my stuff to raise funds, relinquished my room in the Wimbledon house and bought a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv.
ThatGod and his mysterious ways
A week before we’re due to fly out, Sue rings and says that she’s no longer coming. Why ever not, I asked, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.
“I’m sorry. But I’ve found God, and believe my life will be better spent here, teaching the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
I know! I probably said much the same thing then as you’re thinking now. But the die was cast, I’d booked the flight and was soon to be jobless and homeless. So off I went to the Promised Land, there to enjoy a drink and drug-fuelled orgy of hedonism and debauchery, sometimes involving other people.
The old Sue would have fitted right in. The new Sue would have absolutely hated it.
My kibbutz experience and the subsequent jobs I had in the Netherlands have no place in this blog, which is primarily about the various London places I’ve lived in during the last half-century. So let’s miss out a year or so and pick up the story in 1980. I was back from my travels, a bit wiser, not at all wealthier but with a rich fund of anecdotes about chickens and bananas. Oh yes.
Initially, I shared a huge house in soulless Brondesbury Park with some ex-kibbutzniks and a bunch of Aussies, but that didn’t work out. (Turns out not all Australians are chipper, easy-going souls.) So I briefly returned to Bournemouth for a factory reset. I did a few manual jobs, including a stint working the spots at the Winter Gardens. It was here that I told a briefly speechless Michael Barrymore that there was not a soul alive who could convincingly whistle the theme tune to Panorama. The rest is history.
A fresh start
What to do with my life next? All I knew was, I didn’t want to go back to some boring office job. I wanted an exciting office job. So my mate Adam helped wangle me a role as a copywriter at a direct marketing agency in Bayswater (‘what is it I have to do again?’) And for the first month or thereabouts, he let me stay in the spare room of his and his wife’s house in Bounds Green.
It wasn’t ideal. Well, if you like living with super people who share your taste in music, comedy and leisure pursuits, it was the very definition of ideal. But I ask you. Bounds Green. See, the thing about north of the river is, there’s bloody miles of it to get through before you’re actually in north London. But to get to south London you simply step across a bridge and bang, you’re in it.
Until something better came along and not wishing to outstay my welcome, I decamped to a flat near Turnpike Lane. There were no recreational temptations here. Just me, the studiously quiet owner and a ticking clock. Every waking moment was like a never-ending wet Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. But when she announced she was hosting a party, I perked up. I volunteered to go to the off-license to buy some wine and beer. It was clear from her reaction that the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “Oh yes, wine and beer. Maybe some of the guests will enjoy that!” Whaaat? I bought as much as I could carry and, in the event, quite possibly consumed the lot.
The only thing of note to happen during my mercifully brief stay here occurred during a trip to the local launderette. It’s funnier than it sounds, but only marginally.
Salvation came in the form of a call from my old friend Mike, who’d fetched up in a mews flat in Clapham. There was a room there if I wanted it. I think I might have moved in before he’d put the phone down.
Cedars Mews featured a colourful and ever-changing roster of inhabitants. There was the needlessly tall Hugo, who once landed a summer job touring the country on a flatbed truck pretending to be Darth Vader. Mild-mannered James, the rural vicar’s son, who got himself arrested for mooning at a policeman as he rode past on his moped. I remember a waitress, a nurse, a film-maker, a bicycle courier, a shop assistant, an architect… The nights were long, the parties frequent, and the shopping kitty a bugger to resolve.
For reasons lost in the mists of time, we rented the adjacent garage to a famous photographer. He operated from a seven-storey apartment in Clapham Mansions, a grand old block of flats situated between us and the Common, and was in the midst of having a huge swimming pool dug out in his back garden. The noise was deafening. Anyway, he came round one afternoon to pay the following years’ rent for the garage. It was obvious he resented having to pay money to us mere flat-dwellers and was arrogant and rude. We got our own back in an unforeseen way when a letter arrived from the council asking if we had any objections to a neighbour of ours conducting a commercial business in a residential property. ‘None at all’, we replied. ‘We assume they have the necessary permission, just as we assume the people in Clapham Mansions will have sought and gained official approval for the large covered swimming pool currently under construction to the rear of their property.’
That did the trick. Work suddenly halted and the site remained silent for months, presumably while he got retrospective planning permission. Ha! Mind you, he sold the place in 2012 for £3.5 million so it’s conceivable he got the last laugh.
I meet my destiny
The most significant event of my time in SW4 occurred not in the flat but in the Windmill, the huge Youngs pub in the middle of Clapham Common. It was here that I first set eyes on Carol, who was later to become my wife. We spent increasing amounts of time in each other’s flats so eventually decided to buy our own. We found one in a freshly converted cotton-reel factory, situated one stop down the Northern Line in Clapham South.
Here is where I started to become a proper grown-up. Parties became dinner parties, the food kitty became a joint account and I found myself starting to use words like ‘flatpack’, ‘satinwood’ and ‘personal pension’.
The next move up the property ladder saw another move down the Northern Line to Balham, Gateway to the South. (In 1988, almost everyone came out with that quote when you said you lived in Balham.) We spent almost 10 years at our Victorian semi in Fernlea Road, a time that saw Carol and I get married and bring two unsuspecting young people into the world, Georgia in 1990 and Sarah in 1992.
We built some brilliant memories in Balham. (Although it was strange how, like Clapham South before it, the area seemed to become cool and trendy within weeks of us actually leaving it. It was like the Urban Gentrification Crew were waiting around the corner, saw our removal lorry trundle off into the distance and say ‘Alright lads, they’ve gone! Make with the wine bar and artisanal bakery conversion kits!’)
I exaggerate, of course. Balham was great. I even managed to persuade fellow Balhamite Arthur Smith to do a turn at my 40th birthday bash, held upstairs at the Bedford Arms. But towards the end of the 90s we were thinking about schools for our girls and more space for ourselves and our dog Echo, so in April 1997 headed off to New Malden.
We immediately hit it off with our neighbours when they popped round to introduce themselves and ask if we’d sign their petition. I asked them what it was about.
“They’re planning to open a pub in the high street!”
“That sounds good, where do I sign?”
“No no no, this is AGAINST the opening of a pub!”
Welcome to New Malden, people.
Although the ‘burb itself can feel decidedly parochial, it’s dead handy for nicer places. There’s Richmond Park, Home Park, the River Thames and all that Wimbledon and Kingston have to offer. We love our house, too. We discovered that a not-very-famous painter called John Sargent Noble once lived in it and that its cellar served as an air-raid shelter during the war. The biggest threat we faced was when a burglar broke into the adjoining house one Christmas Day at 2.00am and lit fires everywhere in an attempt to destroy his DNA (nice try, George). Although the occupants lost everything, our home was undamaged and we all emerged unscathed.
That brings us all up to date. We’ve lived here for almost 25 of the last 50 years and our memories of the place are overwhelmingly positive. But we can’t spend the rest of our lives in New Malden. I mean, come on. So where to next, hmm? Any suggestions warmly welcomed…
Who was that by? The Pet Shop Boys, wasn’t it? Or was there an earlier version? Fastrack would have told me. Fastrack was an outfit that sold CDs by post. (Straight away you can tell that I’m going back to olden times, here.) You rang them up, said the name of the song or the album, and they’d send it to you for less than you’d pay in Our Price or Tower Records. The important thing, and what distinguished them from other CDs-by-post people, was that Fastrack wasn’t a music club.
“So they don’t want the ads to look like ads from a music club, like Britannia.” This was the account man at an agency I was working for at the time, briefing me and the art director. “It’s not a club, you’re not a member, there’s no subscription and no commitment.”
“You sound like the ad!” I might have said. But he was right to make the distinction. Britannia’s ads were a staple of the printed press throughout the 70s and 80s. The music-club business model was to lure you in with a seemingly great offer, then trap you into receiving four or five CDs or videos a month at pretty much shop-bought prices. You had to send them back if you didn’t like them. Something like that, anyway. Britannia was aimed at people who liked collecting stuff rather than those who actually liked music.
The ads the art director and I came up with looked very different. No lists, no album covers selected to appeal to the biggest demographic, and definitely no coupon. One of our headlines was ‘From Abba to Zappa’ (a line that would be used by the Observer for their monthly music magazine some 15 years later). We were showing it to the agency’s MD and he shook his head. “I like it, but we can’t present it,” he said. “Why not?” I asked, not unreasonably. “Well, what if someone wants an album by the Zombies? They’ll think Fastrack can’t get it.” He was serious. At this point, you’d expect the creative director to step in and deliver an almighty slap, but he was off doing something else. So that ad never appeared. Neither did the one we came up with in response to the weirdest media brief I’ve ever encountered. The ad would be about the size of those cards you get in a newsagent’s window, except that in this case the newsagent was an army barracks and the window was a notice board in the servicemen’s canteen. The strategy was sound: squaddies can’t easily get off base to buy the latest CDs, so here’s a way the CDs can come to them.
The MD looked at the headline for what I felt was an inordinately long time. Like, longer than the quarter-second needed to read and understand it. “Incoming? You mean, like a message or something?” “Not a message, no,” I said, and virtually shouted the word whilst looking terrified at the office ceiling. Then I looked back at him. “Not with you,” he said. “Does it mean something?” “Yes! It’s what people in the army shout to each other when they’re about to be attacked by mortars or bombs or whatever. INCOMING! Like that. But in our context, it also means that their favourite CDs will be incoming, or coming in, to their base.” Fuck me, I was patient.
“Nope,” he says finally, “I don’t think anyone will get it.”
I still think it was good and, yes, I still remain bitter. ‘You were always on my mind,’ I say to myself. So what ads DID run? In the end, the MD overruled me, the art director, the creative director and everyone else, and declared that the agency should present ads that look exactly like music-club ads ‘because obviously they work.’
Despite my best efforts as a customer – I used to know their number off by heart – nobody ever heard of Fastrack again.
Do you have much technology around your home? Probably. And do you find that it all works reliably, consistently and seamlessly? Probably not. Hopefully not, in fact. Because I’m reluctant to concede the idea that it’s just us who suffer almost daily occurrences of unreliability, inconsistency and seamlesslessness.
Here’s the set-up: An Amazon Echo and two Sonos speakers in the kitchen, an Alexa-enabled Sonos One in the bedroom and a few other Sonos speakers dotted here and there. A couple of TVs and Wi-Fi courtesy of Virgin Media.
For a while, everything worked as it should. Usually, anyway. At bedtime, we’d set the speaker in the bedroom to play the Alexa sleep sound ‘Rain On A Tent’ for 30 minutes, and neither of us would ever be awake to hear it end. (Trouble nodding off? Give it a try.)
In the morning, we’d ask Alexa to play Radio 4 or Radio Paradise (an ad-free station that plays non-challenging music of a certain vintage) and Alexa would happily oblige. Meanwhile, true to its raison d’etre, Sonos would stream music from Spotify in whichever room we wanted. We could watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer…
All was well, techno-wise. But gradually things started to go awry. Not hugely, as in total system failure. But in niggling, inexplicable ways. (I’ve compressed the timeline. This all happened – and is still happening – over a period of months.)
“Alexa, what’s got into you?”
A request for Alexa to play ‘rain on a tent’ meets with ‘Sorry, I don’t know that one.’ I change the wording, making it explicit that I want the Alexa sleep sound. Same response. Luckily, there’s a phone app called RainRain that does much the same thing, although the sound quality obviously isn’t so good.
But then, a few months later, Alexa somehow rediscovers sleep sounds. Hurrah! We climb into bed and are soon fast asleep. Some hours later, I awake for a pee and find that rain on a tent is still playing. That’s weird – I’d set the timer for 30 minutes. ‘Alexa, stop.’ Alexa briefly pauses, then resumes. ‘Alexa, stop playing rain on a tent.’ Same thing happens. I physically turn it off, but Alexa immediately springs back into life with more rain. Eventually I have to unplug it and hope it doesn’t somehow re-energise, Christine-style.
In the morning, we plug Alexa back in and ask it to play BBC Radio 4. ‘Here’s BBC Radio 4,’ she confirms. But then – silence. ‘Alexa, play, er, Tom Waits.’ Nothing.
Downstairs, we ask kitchen Alexa to play Radio Paradise. She’s never had a problem doing this before, but now there’s just radio silence or ‘I’m sorry, I can’t find that one.’ I go online to try and sort things out. Some people say I have to disable the Sonos skill, then re-enable it. How that will help Alexa find a radio station? And what’s it got to do with Sonos anyway? But I go ahead and do it. The results are not what I expect.
Kitchen Alexa will now play Radio Paradise (RP), but has elected to play it through various Sonos speakers rather than via the Echo unit itself. This means we can’t control the volume using the handy buttons on Alexa, only via imprecise voice controls. Even more strangely, it’ll play the same four songs on a constant loop, with none of the normal station idents (Hippy Californian voice: ‘You’re listening to Radio Paradise daht cahm’).
Meanwhile, bedroom Alexa says it WILL play RP, then a week or so later decides I’ve listened to it enough and refuses to play it anymore. FFS. I give it a few days and try again and, guess what, Alexa has evidently decided that RP is okay for us to listen to after all. But there’s a catch. We can only listen to one song. Which she plays again and again to the point of audio torture.
Call that a password?
During one of my numerous attempts to get to the bottom of all this, I notice my iPhone is saying that our Wi-Fi security is weak. What new hell is this? I google the warning and discover that this is possibly the worst thing in the world, that passers-by will be emptying my bank accounts and ordering superyachts. But then others say it’s nothing at all to worry about at all; just Apple being over-cautious. To be on the safe side, I set about reconfiguring the Virgin router. I enter the password and am told that it isn’t strong enough. Well possibly, I think, but that’s the one we agreed on three years ago, so let me in because I’ve got some serious reconfiguring to do. Nope. I can’t use my previously acceptable password until I’ve changed it to a much stronger and of course far less memorable one. So I change it. Now of course we have to update Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon Prime on two TVs. This is where my day goes.
(The irony here is that the TV is supposed to get its WiFi signal from our Tenda mesh system, which has a different password altogether. I AM SO CONFUSED.)
Anyway, can I reconfigure the router? Can I heck. I don’t have the skills or the patience. But I do notice that the little white light on our router is suddenly glowing red.
Danger, Will Robinson!
This could be bad – red is the international colour of imminent threat. I ask @VirginHelp for help. They ignore me. On Virgin’s website I learn that the reason it’s red is because the router is overheating.
Ignoring the fact that we’re in England in October, that the router isn’t perched on a radiator or been covered with a cloth and that we haven’t lit a small fire next to it, I nevertheless do what’s suggested and TIOATIOA. 15 minutes later it reboots with the same red light.
So I call Virgin and, after 30 minutes, get through to someone in Bangalore. “It means it’s overheating,” they say. “Turn it off and turn it on again.” I explain that I have already done this, that it’s not hot where we live, and that there are no nearby fires etc. “It’s nothing to worry about,” they say. “Just leave it.” But a red light signals danger, I say. The light should be white.
“Well, if you don’t like looking at it, says the Virgin expert, “cover it up with a cloth.”
When the country went into lockdown I started growing my hair. Now, some eight months later, I’m just about ready to tear it out.
Postscript: In preparing this blog post, I tried to AirDrop the photos from iPhone to Mac. It always used to work easily. But now, suddenly and you could say inevitably … it doesn’t.
Postscript #2: Something else to get my head around. WordPress has suddenly changed the way blog posts are created. Everything is different, and it won’t let me add captions to photos.
Saatchi & Saatchi could have gone with ‘Labour’s Double Knockout’ for their Tory posters in the 1992 election campaign. Instead, they used the line ‘Labour’s Double Whammy’.
Nobody had heard or read the phrase before. All that stuff about speaking to your audience in their own language, use familiar words and phrases, assume at best a nodding acquaintance with the English language – all that was quietly dropped in favour of an expression that was new and alien.
Soon after the ads appeared, the newspapers were full of comment pieces about the wording. Where did ‘double whammy’ come from? What did it mean? Who dreamed it up? (Chris Patten, allegedly.) Was it an *gasp* Americanism? (I’d heard of the whammy bar, but that clearly wasn’t relevant here).
The public didn’t care about its provenance. But they could grasp exactly what it meant. And the expression is now firmly established in popular language.
This is why I don’t think we need to worry too much about the phrase ‘social distancing’. It might not be perfect. ‘Spatial distancing’ might convey the intended meaning more accurately, although it is a bit sci-fi. ‘Physical distancing’ sounds like something Gwyneth Paltrow might do. I said might. ‘Keep two metres away from each other’ sounds Ronseally straightforward until you remember that you’d have to include the imperial equivalent to appease the Daily Mail and its army of Little Englanders.
But from my observations, people are very quickly starting to learn what social distancing means to them in their daily lives. Sure, there’ll be those who choose to flout the advice, just as there are those who insist 40mph is okay in a 30mph zone or who see nothing wrong in dropping litter.
Sometimes, an unusual phrase is what’s needed to get standout and provoke a reaction.
One of the founder members of direct response agency Evans Hunt Scott (now Havas something or other) told me this story about his brief brush with journalism in the early 1980s.
He was doing work experience at a newspaper in Birmingham and had been sent to gather details of a burglary at an apartment block in the city. He found the flat, introduced himself to the tenant, interviewed her about the break-in and headed back to base.
The editor asks him about the robbery. David – for that was his name – replies that it doesn’t really amount to much of a story. The burglar had looked through the apartment window and seen the tell-tale flashing light of a video recorder (as rare then as now, but way more desirable). He forced the door and nicked it. The tenant came home to find her door open and the VCR gone.
That’s it? asks the editor. That’s it, says David. That’s not good enough, says the ed. So David is sent back to the tower block with a list of questions to ask the residents. The elderly female residents, preferably.
Questions like: Do you worry about being burgled and your flat turned upside down? Are you anxious about coming home late at night on your own? Does the sight of groups of youths scare you? To which the answers were inevitably yes, yes and yes.
Now there was a story. It was about far, far more than a one-off opportunistic theft. I can’t remember if it made it to the front page or not, but I do remember David telling me the headline they came up with.
Flats of fear
Remember, variations of this happen every day, in everything from whatever’s left of local papers to the national dailies. They’re not happy unless we’re scared.
A pipe-smoker from years ago, or perhaps from Yorkshire last week.
Mr Watmough certainly did things a bit differently. He was the geography teacher at my school in Bournemouth back in the 1960s. He doubled as the school’s second-tier, hands-off rugby coach who never once actually played any rugby, and tripled as the drama teacher for the boys who’d chosen drama as their ‘special subject’.
This was the name given to the one-hour period each week in which pupils could learn about a topic not covered by the national curriculum. As the other ‘special’ subjects included chess, running about and, unbelievably, additional maths, I chose drama.
There were around 18 of us budding thespians, not that we would have known what thespian meant at the age of 14. We didn’t have an allocated classroom so met in the dining hall about an hour before the dinner ladies started preparing that day’s heated sludge. We’d read parts of Macbeth, pretend to be other people, improvise dramatic conflicts, learn to project our voices (which we probably understood to mean ‘shouting’) and generally have a welcome break from the day’s usual routine of maths, double maths, corporal punishment and maths.
Mr Watmough smoked a pipe and he probably thought that teaching arty-farty, trendy-wendy drama in a room that wasn’t technically a classroom gave him permission to light up during the lesson. So he got out his pipe, filled the bowl with St Bruno, fished around for his box of Swan Vestas, struck a match, applied the flame to the tobacco until giant plumes of smoke began billowing around him and simultaneously replaced the match back in the box and put it in his pocket.
Then his jacket caught fire.
It wasn’t an instant conflagration by any means. A few moments passed before a curling wisp of smoke began snaking out of his right-hand pocket. We watched transfixed as Mr Watmough continued listening intently to a boy somewhere behind me who was extemporising haltingly about life being but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; the boy’s powers of concentration evidently compromised by the drama unfolding before him.
We should have said something, obviously. Was there not an ounce of common humanity between us? What if it was our own father slowly incinerating before our very eyes? Of course we’d raise the alarm. And as the flames took hold, one of us did. “Sir!”
“Shut up, Bailey.”
“Sir! You jacket’s on fire!”
Seized by a sudden panic, old Watmough began beating his flaming pocket with a vigour he’d never displayed on the touchline of the rugby pitch. The dining room filled with smoke: from his pipe, from the wood and cardboard of the matchbox and from the material of his ancient sports jacket. I swear I can remember the awful stench of a singed leather elbow patch, although that may be amusing-but-false memory syndrome kicking in.
I was reminded of the incident yesterday when Donald Trump suggested it might be a good idea to give guns to teachers. My experience of teachers – of those who raged and lashed out, who relied on whisky to get them through the day, who seemed to derive pleasure from assaulting and humiliating young boys and who could actually set themselves on fire during a lesson – strongly suggests that this strategy might not be entirely without risk.
 Although some boys could do with a clip round the ear!!!!!!!!!11
I found a new playlist on my Spotify account the other day, called ‘My Shazam Tracks’. Surprise number one was discovering that Shazam and Spotify already know each other. I can’t remember making any introductions. But there they were, together on my phone, probably talking about me behind my back.
Surprise number two was finding out exactly what was on ‘My Shazam Tracks’. I’ve used Shazam maybe half a dozen times – in pubs or offices or listening to the radio, hearing a song and wanting to know its name and who it was by. Like everyone else, I suppose.
But instead of My Shazam Tracks showing just these few songs, it displayed a list of dozens. The ones I remember Shazamming were there – tracks by Bonobo, Caribou and a John Williams film score. But so too were others so familiar to me I’d never need an app to identify them. Songs by Stevie Wonder, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, the Stones… The idea of holding my phone in front of a speaker to find out who was responsible for ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ is ridiculous. I’m not even a huge fan of either song, although I won’t skip to the next track if they come on, something I’d definitely do with Iggy Pop’s version of Louie Louie. That’s one of ‘My Shazam Tracks’, apparently.
So what’s going on? I asked @SpotifyCares on Twitter and they suggested I contact @Shazam. @Shazam were clearly too busy wondering how they were going to spend the $400m that’s about to fall into their lap courtesy of Apple.
So it remains a puzzle, and one which today developed another layer of puzzlement.
Keen to learn whose record was being played on BBC 6Music, I turned to the digital display of my radio. As is so often the case, this potentially useful aspect of DAB was being used to tell listeners the name of the DJ rather than the song being played. Then I remembered Shazam, and it turned out the song was Nadine Shah singing Holiday Destination. I saw that I could add it to my Spotify playlist. So I tapped the icon and up came this:
So I can’t physically add tracks that I like to ‘My Shazam Tracks’. Instead, a variety of songs – some good, some less so – is added to the playlist on my behalf by entities unknown.
It’s a funny old topsy-turvy world and no mistake.