Sunday, August 18, 2019

To Be A Somebody

One night around 2010 I was sat having a coffee and a smoke with the old man in what had become a weekly tradition for us.  My mum had been dead three years and my dad had become ever more reclusive.  Never particularly close, we were making the best of what little time was left to us; he had yet to be diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually claim him but his willingness to simply give up on life indicated to me that the end was not far off for him.

So there we were, at the dinner table that had seen so many exchanges over the years, making small talk over a Senior Service.  

"I'm thinking of doing comedy again," I announced.

He made no reply but the scepticism in his eyes said it all.

I made no further in-roads into the world of comedy and we never discussed the subject again.

Nevertheless, the idea would continue to nag at me every so often until, at the end of 2018, I decided it was time to resurrect my comedy career (such as it was).  It had only been twenty years.

Everything comes to bear.  

In going through some old notes and drawings that had been stashed away in the loft, I came across this suitably pompous declaration: There is no me, only a series of inventions.  I don't know when I wrote this or even if the statement was cribbed from some more creative soul.  It doesn't matter, really, because the statement is as true now as it was then.

I invented a persona to inhabit because I wasn't overly impressed with the one I had been given.  I was awkward, socially inept, a gangly jumble of boney limbs, freckles, ginger hair and National Health glasses.

Why did you stick me in self-deprecating bones and skin? bemoaned Morrissey in his epic I Have Forgiven Jesus.  He could have been writing about my childhood self.

Your school days are an assault course that you navigate with instinct, luck and whatever qualities you carry with you.  Most of us get through with only a handful of scrapes and bruises.  One or two fortunate bastards come out the other side with nary a scratch.  And some poor sods come out deeply damaged and spend the rest of their lives shackled to whatever traumas were visited upon them during what used to be laughably called "the happiest days of our lives".

I got through my school years by being the class clown.  I was the kid with the jokes, the one who did impressions of the teachers and the people on the tv.  I didn't know it then but when I look back I realise I was employing my skills in order to survive.  I was looking for acceptance from people that I didn't understand or even like very much - 'Hell is other people' wrote Sartre; he must have gone to the same school that I did.  You see, if other kids accept you then they leave you alone.  In order to be left alone, though, I had to be someone else.

Fast forward to sometime in the late eighties.  I've tagged along with a mate and his girlfriend and we're in a bar in Liverpool (I was frustratingly single until my early twenties so I did a lot of tagging along with friends who found it inexplicably easy to get girls) and a bunch of his girlfriend's workmates have shown up.  I spend the next few hours trying out my best jokes and impressions, all to no avail.  Exasperated, I turn to my pal and tell him "Well, I've done this and I've done that and I've done the other and I've got nothing left to give".  On the drive home that night, he would spend an inordinate amount of time telling me how "sad" and "pathetic" I am for such a comment.  Some mate, eh?

He didn't get it.  He didn't understand how unbearable I found it to be me.  Years later I would be diagnosed with mental health issues and nobody was less surprised than I.

Looking back on old school reports, there's a consistency to the comments that lends weight to what I'm saying.  They speak of me constantly trying to be the centre of attention, of how I might do better at a certain subject if I wasn't so focused on trying to make the other kids laugh.  And then we have this nugget of wisdom from Mr McWatt: 'Stefan is essentially a show-off'.  God, he was a prick.  I'd love to meet him now and show him just how successful someone can be from showing off.  

The first decisive change I made to escape myself was a physical one.  In my early twenties, I started growing my hair.  I'd been hanging out at rock clubs (again, tagging along with a friend and his paramour) and I fancied being one of the 'hairy people'.  I got my ear pierced, bought myself a pair of cowboy seemed like a good idea at the time.  

Oh, and I got myself a girlfriend.  Huzzah!  Stefan lassos the moon!

By changing the way I looked, I changed the way I felt.  And I found that I liked this new me, this hairy invention.  And other people liked me, too.  They liked me enough to want to hang out with me.  Suddenly, I was part of a social circle, a scene.  

I would disappear for days on end, leaving the house on a Thursday night and not returning until the following Tuesday.  My mum was beside herself.  She thought I was on drugs - I wasn't; that wouldn't happen for a few more years.  

The final transformative act would take place in 1994 (it was a very good year).  Interviewing the band Mixie's Men for a local newspaper, I gave them a taste of my Billy Connolly impression.  This time, though, I wasn't looking for acceptance.  Nor was I trying to be someone else as a result of self-loathing.  This was me making a decisive effort to get to where I wanted to be, to get to the place I felt I should be: the stage.

I'd never known what it was like to perform legitimately, to be on a platform that demanded people pay attention to what I was doing.  I had never been in a school nativity or appeared in an end-of-term showcase.  Talent shows and school plays seemed to be for other kids, not me.

Never having been picked for anything, the only way I was going to get on the stage was by putting myself on there through my own efforts.  And so it was, one afternoon in 1994, over a few pints in the Argyle pub, Birkenhead, that I made my big pitch for stardom.

The following Saturday, I was on stage as the support act for Mixie's Men performing as a Billy Connolly tribute act.  The next three years was a heady mix of gigs, booze, drugs and yet more girlfriends.  

It was fucking great!

Well, that was over twenty years ago and I've been several other people since then, re-evaluating and re-inventing along the way.  Twelve years ago, already happily married and a proud father of two, I became a professional singer.  Haven't touched comedy in a long time.  Not a drop, sir.  

So why now?  I wish I knew.      

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Watchya Reading For?

Howdy-doo.  It was Father's Day last month.  My daughter bought me something that I can't tell you about - it's connected to a project I'm developing which is still too early in the development stages to tell you about (gosh, the secrecy!) - and my son bought me the latest hardback from Thomas Harris, Cari Mora.

There's something reassuring about picking up a Thomas Harris novel.  Like reading Stephen King, Mark Twain or John Steinbeck, you know you're in safe hands.  You know you won't be wrong-footed by a clumsy turn of phrase, that your eyes won't roll at a lazy cliche or an awkward metaphor.  The prose is elegant, insightful and loaded with little time-bombs.  He hasn't yet written a book that I've not revisisted more than once.

"It is the tale, not he who tells it" is an old adage (I think it's quoted at the beginning of Stephen King's Pet Sematary but don't quote me on that) and it's one with which I couldn't disagree more.  Maybe I'm a literary snob (although one look at my bookshelf, with its display of chillers, thrillers and autobiographies would suggest otherwise) but a story that's badly written is, for me, as bad as someone playing the guitar solo from Stairway To Heaven with out-of-tune strings, in a halting and constantly varying tempo, and all in the wrong key.  The tune may be the same but the phrasing sucks.

I'm never without a book and usually have two on the go at the same time.  I don't trust people who don't read; if I go into someone's house and I can't see a bookshelf, I'm counting the minutes until I can leave.  

I was brought up to read.  My mum was a voracious reader and she would swap books with my aunties and they'd phone each other up and talk about the books they'd read.  In later years, she would swap books with me.  It taught me that this stuff is there to be shared.

Reading is apparently the most intimate act in which a person can engage.  Believe it.  Now go and read a book.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

War. What Is It Good For? Answers On A Postcard.

It's 1985 and, after a visit to the school from a member of the local territorial army barracks (from which I was absent, presumably due to illness), some of my classmates decide to join the cadets.  With nothing else to do on a Thursday night, I enlist at Chetwynd Barracks.  A mistake but a short-lived one.

As a boy, I never had an affection for guns or warfare.  I don't even recall ever having a toy gun to play with (although I'm sure I must have; every boy plays with guns).  Joining the army cadets as a teenager was never, therefore, going to lead to anything.  One night, whilst standing at ease in the yard (having already been harangued for not being able to march properly), the sound of Paul Hardcastle's groundbreaking 19 blares loudly from the open window of one of the houses that backs onto Chetwynd Barracks.  Whilst the sergeant major fails to see the funny side, the confluence of events is not lost on me.  Hardcastle's anthem and the abject fear of having to wear an itchy-as-fuck uniform made from barbed wire, shards of broken glass and camel's pubic hair cement my resolve.  After a staggering total of four weeks, I leave Chetwynd, never to return. 

It is now 2018 and I am forty-six years old.  1985 was a long time ago, long time since I was a teenager, but here hasn't been a time since when the army hasn't been eager to take callow young men into its fold, specifically from the inner cities, where hope is at its lowest supply.  These strapping young lads, with nary a qualification between them, go into the army, all full of piss and vinegar and come out the other side (if they come out at all) as so much minced meat.

You don't believe me?  That's okay.  Go on and wave your little Union Jack in the rain same as you do every November 11th.  Stand in solemn silence at eleven o'clock and think your little thoughts.  Wear a poppy; why not?  Stick one on the front of your car where it will sit all year round, just to show the world how much you really care about "our boys" while meanwhile, "our boys" suffer the agonies of post-traumatic stress disorder (because, wake-up call, killing people and having people trying to kill you is not a natural way of life; it's not what we're here for).

Last year, early November, I was in conversation with a woman who is a sometime actress, sometime model, sometime radio presenter and full-time dickhead.  She was enthusing about Remembrance Day and about how much she "loves" this time of year. 

"You love it?"

"Oh yes, I love it."

"Really?  I always look on it as a sad time, a moment to mourn."

"No; it brings people together.  Everyone's beautiful."

"And what do they sing?"

"Oh, you know: all the old favourites.  We'll Meet Again, White Cliffs of Dover, It's a Long Way To Tipperary..."

"Ah, those old favourites.  Maybe if people started singing Give Peace a Chance, The Universal Soldier and Where Have All The Flowers Gone they might actually learn something."

Fucking Vera Lynn. 

Next year, when the politicians gather at the Centotaph, instead of cannon-fire (the sound of which alone must put years on the few surviving veterans who attend the event - either that or bring on flashbacks of being in the trenches; neither of which must be good for the mortality rate of those old soldiers) someone should play Pink Floyd's The Final Cut at full volume. 

What did become of that post-war dream?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Father, Son

On the song We're Sons Of Our Fathers Phil Collins opines on how his perspective on a changing world echoes the sentiments voiced by his father during the cultural revolution of the sixties.  "Seems all things come around in time" he sings.  How right he is.

My dad died before I reached the age of forty, four years after my mum died.  So, before reaching my fourth decade on God's green earth, I was effectively an orphan.  To lose one parent so soon in life is bad enough but to lose both before even reaching middle-age...well, you wouldn't know unless you'd been there.

On the face of it, we were not close.  But we had moments of closeness and they're the times I treasure the most.  

The Boy and the Old Man, January 2005

When I was a boy, my dad would take me fishing.  We never had a car so we'd get up before sunrise and make the long walk to Birkenhead Park, arriving at the lakeside just as dawn was breaking.  The split bamboo cane rod that I used had been my dad's when he was a young man.  Now it was mine, the burden of responsibility was not lost on me.

We spent time without number going fishing on Sunday mornings, our gear loaded on a two-wheel trolly (affectionately known as a "Charlie" in Liverpool parlance) and our rod bags slung over our shoulders.  Luncheon meat butties and a flask of coffee was all we needed to keep us going through the long hours of casting and watching our floats as they sat in the water, waiting for that tell-tale movement that told us a fish had taken the bait.  Sometimes we got lucky; sometimes the fish got lucky.  As I look back now, I realise that it was me who was the lucky one, just to have spent those quiet hours with the old man, learning from him and sharing his company.

There's fish in there...somewhere.  The view from our favourite fishing spot in Birkenhead Park.

Now the fishing equipment sits in the garage, never to be used again.  The old wicker basket that once held our reels and tackle box is now custodian of a thousand memories.

Likewise, the tools that he left me all have a trace of the man who once used them.  I take out a screwdriver and I can smell the smoke from his filterless Senior Service, the tobacco ingrained in the tips of his fingers.  The ball-peen hammer bears his initials on its handle, the drill bits are worn from  countless hours spent working around the house, in the shed and in the loft.

A time-served electrical engineer, he trained many men who now continue to work in the trade.  As for his own work-mates, they have long since retired, either from work or from life itself.  Sparking was not the trade for me, though, and I'm sure he regretted this.  A man likes to pass on the mantle to the son, after all.

So, what did he make of me?  This somewhat bookish young man who ended up pursuing a life in the arts.

Well, he was always pragmatic where my ambitions where concerned.  "Did you get paid?" would be his most frequent question when it came to gigs.

If you didn't get paid, what was the point?

While he watched the gigs get bigger and the cheques get fatter, he kept whatever pride he might have felt about my achievements to himself.  The closest he came to opening up was when he came with me to a gig on New Year's Eve 2007.  Having driven him home after the show, I saw him to the door where he told me, wet-eyed, that my mum would have been proud of me (she'd died earlier that month).

He was of a generation the likes of which we'll not see again, of men who kept their emotions bottled up and who were more likely to turn to the drink than to a friend.

He had a quick temper but he was not a violent man.  A political firebrand, he was a shop steward for most of his working life.  His strong convictions made for some pretty lean times during the eighties, when Thatcher's government bore down heavily on the unions and many workers made a stand by taking industrial action.  As an adult, I took my lead from him and when I started work in the public sector I was quick to sign up to the union.  You'd never find me crossing a picket line; I'm no scab.

As I've already mentioned, we were not naturally close but as we got older we made more of an effort.  In my twenties, I frequently accompanied him to his local pub on a Saturday night.  It was a privilege to be asked and I felt no small amount of pride when he introduced me to his drinking pals with the typically Liverpudlian: "This is me lad."

The Old Man's corner spot in The Wirral Hundred

After my mum died, we spent yet more time together but the next four years saw a steady and inexorable decline in his health.  The years of smoking and boozing combined with a general disinterest in life now that he was living on his own.  In the end, he just gave up.

Before I lost him to the limbo-like state brought on by the drugs that eased him into death, I was privy to one final glimpse of the man I had loved, feared and admired so much.

Sat by his hospital bed, I picked up the Echo and turned to the back page (football fans always read newspapers from the back page but I, never having been a fan of "the beautiful game", have never had reason to.  Why I should do so at this time remains a mystery to me.).  As I read the latest news from the premier league, a nurse entered the ward and made some flirtatious and wholly innocent comments to me.  I responded in kind, earning a mocking response from the Old Man.

And that's how I remember him, with a wry smile on his lips and a knowing look in his eyes.  He always knew how to take the wind out of someone's sails, how to deflate self-inflated egos.  His ability to do that without causing any real offence, to prick the balloon of pomposity - whether it was in conversation with some jumped-up authority figure or even his own son - with a good dose of dry humour, was something that was innately Liverpudlian.  And that's a heritage of which anyone should be proud.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Season's greetings and all that mother jazz.  It's your Uncle Stef here with another musical recommendation.

I like to think that my tastes are pretty diverse.  Look back on this blog and you'll see that I'm equally happy listening to Phil Collins, Miles Davis and Alice Cooper as I am PIL and Motorhead.  I just love music.

At the moment, I am working on a short horror story (keen readers of this blog will know that, while my chosen profession is that of singer, I am actually a frustrated author) and, for inspiration, I went looking for some dark ambient music.  The last time I did this my search was very fruitful, turning up such musical pioneers as Suicide, Coil and Throbbing Gristle.  My latest discovery has been no less revelatory.  

Godspeed You!  Black Emperor are a collective of experimental musicians from Canada.  Their compositions are often quite lengthy affairs, averaging around the twenty minute mark, split into movements of varying dynamics.  There's no singing; any vocals are courtesy of spoken word monologues, samples and field recordings - such as the street preacher whose lachrymose sermon features at the start of East Hastings on the band's debut album.

Of course, music of this length runs the risk of whimsical indulgence.  But Godspeed are not Yes and they use their time to construct pieces of rare terror and beauty, often within the same track.  This is not depressing stuff, though; there is hope amongst the horror and the effect of sitting through one of their albums - as I often do on long car journeys to and from work - is frequently transcendental.

Finding their music has been a rare treat for me.  I love coming across stuff that happily sits outside the mainstream.  That said, Godspeed You!  Black Emperor deserve to be embraced by the masses.  So, I urge you to go and check them out.  

Go on.  Improve your life.  You'll thank me for it.    


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I'd Just Like To Thank The Academy

Well, folk, it's that time of year again when I take time out to make public my thanks and appreciation for the support, love and loyalty I've had from family, friends and clients throughout 2017.

Firstly, of course, I have to thank my wife and our two beautiful children.  Without you, life is a hollow imitation.  I love you.

My parents did not live to see me reach forty and were denied any pride that they might have had in seeing me make something of myself.  Because of this, I value my family more than I ever did in my youth.  So, to my cousins up North and down South I say thank you and bless you for the time that we spend together.  I love and cherish you dearly.

I value loyalty above all other traits and I am lucky to be able to name three men as the most loyal and trustworthy friends that any man could have.  Over the years, we have drifted apart and drifted back together again as circumstances have conspired against us but our bond has never been in doubt.  You three are as precious to me as my own kin and I love you truly.

Professional thanks, now, to the people of the North West and North Wales who have given me so much work this year.  To the clients, both corporate and private, of Warrington, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Wrexham, Stockport, Preston, Bury, Derbyshire, Winsford and Middlewich thank you for having the good taste to book me to sing for you.  I am in forever in your debt.

And that's it for another year.  Thank you everybody for supporting me in this "dangerous but irresistible pastime".  

It's a life. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Greetings and salutations.

It's been a while, I know, but I've been a busy boy.

In truth, I hadn't planned on writing a new post but watching the documentary Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond (the recently released film about Jim Carey's performance as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's biopic Man On The Moon) was sufficiently inspiring.  

Let me first say that I'm not a fan of either Andy Kaufman (I put him in the same bag as Tiny Tim, another curiously successful entertainer with no discernible talent) or Jim Carey, of whom I first became aware when someone brought around a copy of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to my flat, clearly under the impression that Carey represented the second coming.  I don't recall even cracking a smile during the viewing and Carey's performances since then have done nothing to add to that impression.

The documentary seemed interesting enough, though, as it detailed Carey's absolute immersion into the character of the person he was playing, with frequently devastating results.  It provides a fascinating insight into the actor and his subject and is refreshingly unfurnished in its approach.

What resonated with me, though, was a comment Carey makes about his dad and how he sacrificed the artistic life for a mundane existence as an accountant in order to provide a more stable lifestyle for his family.  

Shit, that's what I did.

Carey's dad subsequently lost his job.

Happened to me, too.

The point that Carey makes is that we can only achieve satisfaction and success by doing the things that make us happy.  His father gave up a life in entertainment because he feared that he might fail.  He ended up doing a job that provided financial stability but fulfilled none of his ambitions.  And then he lost that job and the stability that came with it.

"You can fail at doing something you don't want to do, so you might as well take a chance on doing something you love."

When I was in my last year at secondary school, the art teacher, Mr Bell, asked me what I wanted to do for a living.  I told him I wanted to be a writer.  He told me I'd starve.

I was shattered.  Not only was I being told that the artistic, creative life was off-limits to me but I was being told this by an art teacher.  

When I left school, I struggled.  I went to sixth form college, simply to pass the time.  When I left there, everyone I knew was either in full-employment or university.  So what did I do?  I signed on.

Well, that was a long time ago and since then my life has twisted and turned beyond all expectations.  I've taken roads that have led to greater places and I've taken paths that have turned out to be no more than dead ends.  Not everyone has stayed the course of my journey; I have left many people behind and some people have left me behind.  

As I write this now, I am exactly where I should be, precisely where I want to be.  I have good people around me.  There is trust, love, support and respect in abundance.  

Am I happy?  No, not fully.  But I'm getting there.