AUGUSTS

IMG_1886If you mourn the passing of anyone close to you, and especially if they died relatively young, that anniversary and the days leading up to it are likely to feel tense. While life has to go on, the tension between ‘carrying on regardless’ and ‘reflecting’ means there are a few dates in the calendar which one will always dread.

August is a difficult time for the London-born author and poet Joanne Limburg. In August 2008, when she was in the middle of writing her excellent memoir, The Woman Who Thought Too Much, about her experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder (both pre- and post-diagnosis), her younger brother Julian, a scientist living in the USA, took his own life. Now Joanne has written a second memoir: in Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations, she describes the impact of that tragedy with great sensitivity and care, as well as a capacity for emotional detail and depth. Small Pieces movingly pinballs across the years, either side of the tragedy, and lays bare the effects on her and the surviving members of her family and his, too. It encapsulates that feeling that, in whatever circumstances you lost a family member, it chimes with all the regrets you continue to carry around: if only I could have done something, if only I’d said that, if only I hadn’t said that.

In the summer of 2010, I left a full-time office job and opted for freelance life. Although I was still living in London then, and continued to do so for a couple of years, I wanted to see more of my family in Wales. I now had a nephew, my mum was still very active (as she continues to be), but I especially felt that I hadn’t seen as much of my younger brother as I’d have liked. Indeed, there had been about 10 years between our mid-twenties and mid-thirties where sightings of the two of us had been pretty rare. In my newfound self-employment I wanted to make up for lost time, and visit Wales more often. I especially thought that, as the two of us got older, we’d have more opportunity to see each other. We’d had a somewhat stormy relationship as children, but despite – perhaps even because of – the distance between us as adults, we had come to accept and respect our differences.

Then, on 2 August 2011, while I happened to be already staying with my mum, he visited, sat us down and told us that unfortunately, he had secondary cancer, this time a number of brain tumours, and he was about to begin radiotherapy and, subsequently, chemotherapy. He requested two things of us at this stage: firstly, that we must stay positive, and secondly, that on no account were we to research his sort of condition on the Internet. I never did the latter – though some time later, I read Tom Lubbock’s eye-opening and completely devastating Until Further Notice I Am Alive, which answered a number of questions I had been pondering. As for staying positive, I could really only do that while I was with my family. Privately, in my own head, my mourning process had already begun. Whether his end was days or years away, I was already aware there was an end approaching. We all know, abstractedly, that there’s an end for all of us, but here I knew it was coming. August the second was the beginning of all this.

When he told us, others went to pieces while I remained strangely, bizarrely calm. I somehow not only acted positive, but felt positive too. After all, he’d run marathons, was super-fit and was about to pass his maths GCSE with an A-star. If anyone could get through this, surely he could. But within a few days, I’d slumped into a gloom. I’d decided to stay a week longer at my mum’s house, and I vividly remember the ghastly Friday night that week when, perhaps dizzy with the oncoming crisis, we begged television to entertain us or at least distract us. Somehow we found ourselves staring like zombies at a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles. Now, there are those of you who may wonder if there is any other way to experience a panel game hosted by Chris Moyles, but we kept watching, perhaps out of spite, perhaps out of the same kind of spite that the panel game hosted by Chris Moyles was subjecting us to. It was agony, a kind of existential prison: we couldn’t or perhaps wouldn’t reach for the remote, possibly because to turn the TV off might mean we’d have to talk about what we were facing. And neither of us felt able to do that. A couple of days later, I returned to my home in south London, a city where riots had broken out in a few areas, and I decided to watch rolling news on the subject almost as a form of deranged escapism.

My brother’s decline would be swift. I could reel off all the significant dates as my visits grew longer and more frequent: first and last radiotherapy sessions, the last family birthday, the last proper conversation, the first and what turned out to be the last chemotherapy session, the last phone call, the last exchange, the last last encounter. At the time, I continued the positivity entirely for his sake and those around him and me. And then each time I’d go back to London and explode with horror and rage and sorrow, on the grounds that at least this way he wouldn’t be able to hear or see me do it.

He died not in August but November. Yet I mourn 2 August as deeply as the day he died, for it all stems from that.

Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces talks a lot about the limitations of memoir: frequently you can’t speak for other people. Everyone grieves and reacts differently, and for reasons of courtesy, confidentiality and just sheer mystery, there will always be gaps in our stories. She explores how one squares up our feelings with those of the people who remain. It is an account packed with insight and imagination into not just bereavement but of family, childhood and identity (specifically, in Joanne’s case, her Jewishness). It also wonders whether the object of your grief is gone or not-gone. Because whether or not we believe in a god or an afterlife, we can’t help but believe in the maddening but seductive and helpful power of memory. It is why, for both Joanne and I, in our different but sometimes similar ways, Augusts will always be tense months.

Joanne Limburg’s Small Pieces: A Series of Lamentations is published by Atlantic Books, as is her equally great account of OCD, The Woman Who Thought Too Much. Her brother’s death also inspired a series of poems in her collection, The Autistic Alice, published by Bloodaxe Books. Further information at http://www.joannelimburg.net

 

 

AD 1977: MY DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTLINE OF PUNK ROCK

As it is 40 years since that crazy 1977 summer of punk rock, I thought it was high time to exhume my diaries from the time to give you a sense of just what it was like to be at the epicentre of youth culture and fashion. It was quite literally a summer in which I was writing a diary, sometimes, if it was raining. From the very HQ of punk’s capital city: yes, a few short miles from Swansea. Here are some choice highlights. Strap yourselves in!

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IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER IF IT’S RAINING OR IT’S FINE

File_000(6)Andrew O’Hagan’s new book, The Secret Life, consists of three essays. The first of them, ‘Ghosting’, is itself about the process of writing, and his experience of trying to ghostwrite Julian Assange’s autobiography for Canongate Books, only to find that Assange cannot or will not commit to writing or exposing his real thoughts and feelings, who long ago gave up any professional and objective integrity for self-absorption and a studied cult of personality. Leaving aside everything else about Assange (and there is a lot of everything else about Assange), I keep picturing him as a man who spends a lot of his time staring in the mirror, stroking his hair while fantasising about being interviewed. ‘That was the big secret with him,’ writes O’Hagan at one point, ‘He wanted to cover up everything about himself except his fame.’

On Monday, I went to see Andrew O’Hagan speak about this new book at the London Review of Books Bookshop. Just minutes before the talk began, I learned of the death of a man who – while very famous in his day – never seemed to want to hog the limelight for its own sake. Brian Cant, truly I would say, was a hero to millions of us children who watched television between the 1960s and 1980s. On long-running programmes like Play School and Play Away, Brian – it would feel wrongly impersonal to refer to him by surname – felt like your television dad. With an eternal twinkle in his eye, he was the warmest, most generous and reassuring of TV entertainers.

There were some people on television in those days – we all know who – whom we felt we had to tolerate, mostly down to lack of other options. You never imagined Brian could be one of these bumptious, drunk-with-fame screen obstacles. Nor did he ever seem trapped by children’s television. In later years, when fleetingly interviewed, he expressed only gratitude and love. But it feels a shame that his full story remains mostly untold.

As I mentioned in last week’s blogpost, very little children’s TV was on offer in the 1960s and 1970s, and what there was existed in isolation. Often it was a single programme, a lifeline, a tiny island in an ocean of closedowns, interludes and testcards. Brian was often an inhabitant on these islands: Play School in the mid-morning on BBC2; Play Away the only children’s programme on Saturday afternoon while other channels broadcast hours of sport; lunchtime broadcasts for pre-schoolers, entertainment lasting just fifteen extremely precious minutes. In those latter lunchtime slots, Brian’s voice accompanied the action of Gordon Murray’s trilogy of stop-frame animated series, all set in the fictional county of Trumptonshire: Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton itself (1967) and finally Chigley (1969). It was disappointing to hear on Radio 4’s Last Word this week that Brian was reportedly only paid a flat fee for his original voiceovers, and did not receive any royalties for their many repeats.

Brian began to fade from children’s TV in the mid-1980s – his last remaining link, Bric-A-Brac (1980–82), in which he played a shop owner who only stocked items beginning with the same initial letter, was repeated until 1987. Thereafter my encounters with Brian became sparser but each one was a delight, nonetheless. I reacted with surprise to his cameo in the final episode of the Esmonde & Larbey sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1989), having almost forgotten he was primarily an actor. (As well as a lot of theatre, his many TV acting credits also included Doctor Who, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars.)

I never really saw Dappledown Farm, Brian’s subsequent breakfast TV series for young children, but his self-parodic narrations of ‘The Organ Gang’ on Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s This Morning With Richard Not Judy in 1998 were hilarious. ‘The Organ Gang’ was a consciously cheap cartoon about a cast of disembodied innards with faces (Barry Bladder, Beryl Brain, Lily Liver) – imagine a cross between Mr Benn, The Munch Bunch and indeed Camberwick Green. I enjoyed the way Brian gamely pretended to express apathy and even annoyance with the formulaic, threadbare scripts: in the last episode, he couldn’t even be bothered to sing the theme tune properly. I hope he enjoyed doing them, because his infectious sense of fun was still very much in evidence.

And then a few months later, early 1999, I heard the track ‘Fish’ by the artist and DJ called Mr Scruff on Chris Morris’s late-night Radio 1 series Blue Jam. It sampled Brian’s voice from two different sources, both records I had been given when very young. One came from the Camberwick Green story album, just straight transfers of Brian’s narration and Freddie Phillips’ music from the TV series, and it was specifically from a story where Windy Miller went fishing. The other, which took me a little longer to identify, familiar as it was, came from a 1972 compilation album of Play School stories, an item called ‘All the Fish in the Sea’, written by Janet Lynch-Watson, and told by Brian and co-presenter Carole Ward:

CW: ‘Why should it be that the fish in the sea are all unable to sing?

BC: ‘Just listen to me, young fellow/What need is there for fish to sing, when I can roar and bellow?

These were my first records, my first awareness (apart from books) of on-demand entertainment, to be played again and again, whenever I liked. Until I was doing research for this piece, I had not listened to the Play School record in many years. The last time I had played it was in 1980, when I was ten, and really much too old to be listening to it – but by then I had started buying pop singles and even albums for myself, and I played it knowing full well that I was about to bid farewell to something.

I last heard Brian Cant on Radio 4’s The Reunion in 2010, reminiscing about Play School itself. Most of his memories seemed to be less about him than his happy experiences with fellow presenters and encounters with the public who loved him. It just enhanced all the affection for this gentle, dignified, generous but fun-loving chap. It would be nice to think that a proper BBC tribute is being planned; I suspect generations of viewers would welcome it.

Brian Cant died on 19 June 2017, aged eighty-three. It would be fantastic if I could link to a
Brian Cant at the BBC DVD here. Make it happen, someone.

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life is published by Faber & Faber.

 

 

 

IN PIECES

IMG_1657As we get older, we cannot help but look back more and more. It’s inevitable – life is mostly about memory, and it’s often not even for nostalgic reasons. We’re faced with endless revivals and reissues and reboots, and Facebook reminding you it’s exactly eight years since you wore that hat, but it’s also that, in the digital age, the present is full of the past. There has never been so much ‘past’ hanging around before, and even if you are determined to keep up with new albums, TV shows, books and films, elements of them will still ping inside your head: motifs, emblems, patterns, that unavoidably hark back to past experiences.

Two recent events I attended found their respective creators also wrestling with memory and how it floods their present day lives. David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom, a jet-black but celebratory show about the eccentricities of his family background, has just completed its third theatrical run in London. I saw it two nights before it closed. Baddiel’s mother died just before Christmas 2014, when his father was already in the advanced stages of a dementia illness called Pick’s Disease, and the show finds Baddiel grappling with the dilemma of how to remember and portray those who are no longer ‘with us’, either literally or figuratively. It’s a complex show (but very funny), and it uses a variety of illustrative sources: photographs, documents, footage and correspondence.

I first encountered David Baddiel’s comedy on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the early 1990s; his stand-up was a combination of pop culture and sport (much of it exhuming the forgotten flotsam of his 1970s boyhood) and a frank, often unflinching gaze into ‘difficult’ areas: death, sex, illness, and even occasional glimpses into his own family life when growing up in North London. I sometimes wondered how his parents might have reacted to this particularly confessional type of comedy, but as he outlines in the new show, they seemed fine with it – after all, they came to lots of recordings, especially his mum. But I also found myself thinking about how pop culture is not mere nostalgia in our formative years – it’s a kind of furniture around us, a way of connecting us to the wider outside world.

The night after I saw David’s show, I saw the pop trio Saint Etienne perform live at the Royal Festival Hall, the same day that they released a new album, Home Counties. As ever, they continue to blend the contemporary (glossy, tuneful, often danceable) with elements that yearningly evoke the past. In their case, they use folk elements, mood music, what used to be called ‘easy listening’, and a smattering of references to TV, film and trivia. The effect can be both delightful and haunting.

Like Baddiel, Saint Etienne also use evocative visual accompaniments in their live act: archive film, animation, montages and graphics. During one song, ‘I’ve Got Your Music’, complete with period footage of Sony Walkmans, I kept giggling – sometimes a little nervously – at the recurrent use of Cliff Richard on rollerskates from the ‘Wired for Sound’ video. You can’t get rid of memories, not even – in fact, least of all – trivial ones. Least of all trivial ones. They keep nudging and distracting you.

On Home Counties, there are some short interlude tracks which allude directly to broadcasting that celebrates the past: The Reunion (a Radio 4 discussion about a past event) and ‘Popmaster’ (Ken Bruce’s enduring phone-in quiz on Radio 2). But on some earlier records in the 1990s, they used lo-fi samples from television and film: Peeping Tom, Billy Liar, Brighton Rock, House of Games, a Chanel No. 5 TV advert from 1970, a record about understanding decimalisation, and a pioneering fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Family, about an ordinary suburban family in Reading.

The effect of these extracts was disorientating. It evoked the feeling of how, as young children, our encounters with popular culture – the world at one remove – are often accidental and out of our control. At some point, I suppose when school enters the picture, when we have to start remembering things, we progress beyond a few snapshots and start to find ourselves living a more or less linear experience. From there on, it’s not that we remember everything; it’s just that we start to piece things together, and try and make sense of our surroundings.

For me, this point would lie in the summer of 1974, the long break between nursery school and actual school. I had just turned four years old, an age when you’re still mastering the basics of early life and so you’re forever in the present. You have no idea what is going to register so strongly in your subconscious that you will never forget it. Quite often, it’s not the big events, but the trivia. Forty-three years later, I can isolate actual moments in my memory. And they’re nearly all related to television, or at least contexualised by television. Yet they’re not the big events. No memory of the World Cup in Germany, or a US president forced to step down in disgrace, or either of the two General Elections. I’d like to be able to claim that I recall Victoria Wood winning the talent show New Faces, or Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest – but I don’t. And I didn’t see The Family either, at least not till the repeats in the late 1980s.

So I was fascinated by television – indeed, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t watching television, just as I cannot remember a time when there wasn’t music in the house, or a time when I wasn’t reading books. And so, my early memories – even if they don’t feature TV or pop or books – are determined by those contexts. For some reason, I have an unusually vivid memory for date recall – not faultless, but I can usually work out to the day when something happened. And because the Internet now exists and there are sites like the remarkable BBC Genome project, which has every BBC TV and radio schedule between 1923 and 2009, it is actually possible to cross-check these kinds of early memories to the exact day. (If I were a child now, in the on-demand world, this would be practically impossible to monitor.)

It was relatively easy to be obsessed by television in the first half of the 1970s as there wasn’t that much of it. There was no CBeebies or Nickelodeon. There were three channels, there was at most about 12 hours of children’s television a week, mostly in the late afternoon, and there were lots of intermissions and interludes, a lot of waiting. You even had to wait a few minutes for the television to warm up when you switched it on.

I felt like I wanted to own television, the way I owned books. And, in the days before video, not everything had a spin-off book or LP record. So how did I do that? Well, the answer is obvious: I tried to reproduce logos, graphics from TV shows and station idents. (I did play with Lego as well, honest.)

My favourite programmes were mostly visually driven: cartoons, Sesame Street on Saturday mornings, and a lunchtime show on ITV called Pipkins, which was like a comic serial for the under-fives featuring actors and puppets, and which on 5 August that year dealt with the death of the programme’s lead actor George Woodbridge by confronting the death of his character head-on. Quite groundbreaking. Did I watch that one? Frustratingly, I’m not sure – that memory is not there.

But my very favourite programme was called Vision On, ostensibly for hearing-impaired children but which appealed to them – and consequently a wider audience – by disregarding verbal content and concentrating on visuals: short films, animation, mime, surreal and comic sketches, and art demonstrations by the brilliant Tony Hart. Any speech that did remain was accompanied by sign language from his co-host Pat Keysell.

At the heart of Vision On was, I guess, was an early exercise in interactivity. ‘The Gallery’ was an invitation for young viewers to send in original artwork to the BBC and be rewarded with five vital seconds or so onscreen. The accompanying music is now an obligatory soundtrack to anything to do with painting: to those of us of a certain age and above: ping, Vision On.

I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, but I was already somehow skilled at lettering – and I was fascinated by the Vision On logo. Tony Hart, who created it, named it ‘Grog’, a symmetrical cross between a grasshopper and a frog. I could have just painted Vision On on some paper or card, and then folded it over to get a mirror image, but that would have been much too straightforward. Instead, I actually tried to copy the Grog from memory, without the image in front of me. I now realise that trying to copy something exactly can be harder than creating something. I was so committed to getting it right that I momentarily considered sending my best result off to the programme, before reasoning that they probably wouldn’t have needed it. Vision On already have their own Grog, Justin. It’s a big one, on their wall, behind them, every week.

Sometimes I found television funny; sometimes it made me feel funny (Samantha off Bewitched, that woman off Hickory House, and a classical violinist I kept seeing on BBC2 – probably  the young South Korean virtuoso, Kyung Wha-Chung). At other times, in the blink of an eye, it could turn into something utterly anxiety-inducing. There were public information films straight after children’s programming which alerted you to a world of road accidents, rabies, drowning in lakes full of shopping trollies, glass on the beach. There were other alarming things in the world: people also seemed to find The Osmonds dangerous and kept screaming at them on TV. (You remember that public information film: BEWARE OF OSMONDS.) I didn’t like the look of the ATV logo at all, and it was hard to draw. The dubbed monkey shrieks on Daktari – horrid.

Furthermore, there was some frightening regional thing after Sesame Street on Saturdays called Orbit, in which a doubtless well-intentioned announcer called Alan Taylor pretended to be in space (rather than a weather forecast studio in Bristol) with only a buzzing gonk called Chester for company. Alan Taylor, for reasons I have never quite processed, absolutely put the fear of God into me. The three minutes of Orbit that survive here – and I defy you not to sing along with the opening theme – provides no clue about what they might have filled the rest of the half hour with. Cartoons from Spain? Showjumping highlights? It’s going to be birthday greetings, isn’t it?

This was all disorientating and scary and yet I couldn’t back out. I had joined a story I didn’t yet begin to understand, but was determined to make sense of. Is that Bernard Cribbins singing the Wombles theme? Why do we keep being told ‘watch out watch out watch out watch out there’s a Humphrey about’? Why is television closing down now with some music – is it tired? Why is Alan Taylor doing this programme as well? Does he ever go home, and please can he do that? And oh god, why ‘The Laughing Policeman’, at all, ever?

And then, somewhere in the background which perhaps should be in the foreground of these memories, there was real life. And I strangely don’t remember much of that. I’m sure I went to the beach a lot with my family, and shopping, and played games with my brother and so on. My twin cousins were born that summer – they lived nearby but I don’t remember the event itself. Maybe I was too busy watching Wait Till Your Father Gets Home to notice.

But all my early hazy memories have television in there somewhere. The first definite early memory I have is of my nursery school teacher, who owned two Labradors, telling us it was time to watch Play School. So that can’t be later than about June or July 1974.  I can remember being on the back seat of a relative’s car snoozing while they went into a shop, and for some reason I can remember it was a Wednesday, and for some even stranger reason I remember that I’d just watched an episode of the stop-frame animation series Barnaby. (Summer 1974, but no later.)

In late August 1974, one week before I started school, we visited Birmingham, partly to stay with friends of my parents, but also probably because my paternal grandfather lived nearby, in Sutton Coldfield. I remember arriving in Birmingham on the Sunday afternoon: 25 August 1974. You must remember!: The Golden Shot was about to start. Three days later, on Wednesday 28 August, after Teddy Edward and Derek Griffiths’s Ring-A-Ding and that’s how I can be sure, we visited my grandfather. Or at least we visited his house. I do not remember my grandfather – I just remember a rather messy house. I sat in some kind of living room area – the decor was brown as most things in the seventies were. My brother may have also been there. My mum definitely wasn’t. I don’t remember much else – perhaps it was because the television wasn’t switched on.

This is all a bit embarrassing. Maybe I had tunnel vision, and didn’t like people very much. Or maybe it’s just that it’s harder to put a timeframe around real life. Unless you were diligent enough to put a date on the back of a photograph back then, you’d have to guess, and that’s not always easy. But in fairness, television is a powerful medium: colourful, urgent even in those more languid days, and yes addictive. But it taught me a lot, and one thing it did was start to explain things to me. Like music, it has frozen memories in time, a counterpoint to everything else that was going on.

I started school on Monday 2 September 1974, but I still went home at lunchtime to watch Pipkins. My grandfather died on Saturday 19 October 1974. But I have no memory of that.

Saint Etienne’s Home Counties is out on Heavenly Records.

David Baddiel’s My Family: Not the Sitcom has completed its London run, but tours the UK in 2018 and 2019.