Why I’ve a problem with “No problem!”

 

OK, here comes this year’s silly season, apropos nothing, totally off-the-wall post.

Fly in the soup

At a restaurant not long ago, my friend and I were served by a waitress who was both able and pleasant.  The only fly in the soup was that in response to everything – and I do mean everything – we said or even in response to nothing at all, she would say “No problem!”

“Do you have a table please?“ – “No problem!”
“That’s great, thanks” (upon being shown to our table) – “No problem!”
“Thank you” (for setting the table) – “No problem!”
“Ah, we haven’t quite decided yet…” – “No problem!”

And so it went on.  Each course arrived “No problem!” as did the wine and tap water and I think she might even have said “No problem!” as we exited through the doors.

Pat little phrase

Anything repeated ad nauseum becomes annoying but hearing this pat little phrase perhaps two dozen times (well it felt like it) over two hours brought home how it’s become the de rigeur, catch all response of our times.

Every era has one.  Which swinging 60s film has the young female lead repeating a bemused, bedazzled “Super!”?  Then there’s the hippy era’s “Groovy!” even if perhaps mostly in mythology.

Ours is not ‘Perfect!’ as proposed by a New Statesman columnist recently but this problematic little proposition.

Problem solving

So why do I have a problem with no problem?  Because why would there be a problem?  We were in a restaurant doing what people do, following the etiquette, enjoying our food, paying the bill, leaving a tip and the waitress was doing her job.  Why would we need multiple, ongoing confirmations that there isn’t a problem?

I suppose it’s trying to say “Nothing is too much trouble” except I don’t hear it like that.  “No problem!” is like the lesser relative of EastEnders’ bully boy Phil Mitchell’s “You got a problem?”  The phrase comes tainted with latent aggression.  It implies that the graciousness of declaring all is well is entirely the prerogative of the no-problemer.  It takes back power, is designed to induce unease.  It’s saying: I don’t have a problem with you right now, but If that changes you’ll soon know about it.

So please may we dispense with this robotic, passively aggressive patois?

How about adopting the charming and embracing “Prego!” (“You’re welcome!”) of Italian restaurants?  I’d have no problem with that.

Birdwatching in the 1970s

birds-in-your-garden-1971Were garden birds so different back in the 60s and  70s?  A blackbird in 2017 seems pretty much the same as a blackbird in 1977 (or my memory of one) though an ornithologist may well beg to differ.

Take The Birds In Your Garden, an RSPB booklet from 1971.  Forty-six years on and it still does what it says on the cover, forming a perfectly usable guide for identifying and attracting garden birds.

Yet times have changed…
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This photo suggests the RSPB wanted to appeal specifically to suburban bird-watchers (I don’t think they were called twitchers then).

Our ideals of human habitation are clearly not what they were in 1971 though bird boxes cannot be so very subject to changing architectural styles.  I do recall some pretentious ‘heritage’ boxes in the 80s complete with pinnacles and turrets, suitable for the upwardly-mobile blue-tit perhaps.  The boxes above are perfectly in keeping with the pared down, dwelling-unit feel of the houses.

1973’s RSPB booklet, The Birds From Your Window was a rather more elaborate affair with a groovy font to boot:

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The illustrations, fine for identification purposes, are not a patch on those by Charles Tunnicliffe for his Wild Birds in Britain 50-card series for Brooke Bond in 1965:
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Brooke Bond birds: Waxwing, Long-eared owl, Long-tailed tit, Woodcock

The Birds From Your Window has pages on birds spotted by various well known people in their own gardens.  The choice of contributors – Humphrey Lyttelton, Joyce Grenfell, Robert Dougall and Peter Cushing – makes no concession to a younger audience though I was familiar with three out of four as a nine year old in 1973.  Peter Cushing proffers an elegantly written piece:

birds-from-your-window-peter-cushing-page

birds-in-autumn-winter-1975On to 1975, and Birds in Autumn & Winter is graced with a Tunnicliffe illustrated cover albeit without the decorative background detail which makes the BB cards so lustrous.

Fledgling tweets

I was only ever a casual bird-watcher through windows and on walks in the countryside around Guildford.  The birds were always so damned elusive though my Auntie Wyn was able to identify stray hoots and treetop twitters with casual ease.

My parents tried to interest me in a Surrey Bird Club membership as a Christmas present in 1973.  I didn’t make it to any of the club events but do remember leafing through their unillustrated magazine with its blue and green card covers.  Within, members crowed excitedly over rare sightings of exotic Scandinavian visitors or the occasional bird of prey in Cheam.

Winging it

I also recall a windswept trip to Pagham Harbour in Sussex in May 1978 with a Christian youth group.  This came just after the then Labour government’s introduction of the May Bank Holiday which fell on the coldest, wettest May day for several decades if not centuries.  Pagham too was cold and desolate.  We maybe heard the occasional screech across the mudflats but I don’t actually recall seeing a single bird despite long hours spent clutching binoculars in numb fingers.  A thermos of Heinz oxtail soup and white bread fish paste sandwiches (no crumbs for our feathered friends) helped sustain us through a long, grey day.

I think I went partly out of some misplaced duty to my parents.  As I shunned the numerous sporty events at least I could show I was relatively ‘normal’ by going on a bird-watching trip which was supported by a total of three boys out of over a hundred and fifty.  Well at least it was an outdoor activity…

The spirit of 1970s’ bird-watching is best captured by Martin Parr’s marvellous photos (again, Surrey Bird Club).  These are studies in English eccentricity where the camera is turned back on the middle-classes, patiently at leisure in the home counties.

birds-in-your-garden-bird-watchingFrom ‘The Birds in Your Garden’, RSPB 1971

Leonard Cohen

In July 1985, Jacqui, a friend from university, left me with a slightly scuffed anthology of Leonard Cohen poems.  Jacqui had on a billowing, flowery dress and a canary yellow, wide brimmed hat.  She was grinning joyously as she pressed the book into my hands with a huge sloppy kiss.  It was an insanely sunny day.

Whenever I’ve returned to the book since, its gloomy contents – like gazing down into the darkest well – serve only to bring back the fleeting brilliance of that moment.  Jacqui and I never saw each other again.  Of course I still have the book, like so many – somewhere.

Leonard Cohen died earlier this week at the age of 82.  Few have expressed jaded romanticism and pared down ennui more eloquently.   If I’m in the mood, his confessional seriousness is oddly reassuring, his lack of self pity exemplary.  Cohen’s comfort was always uncompromising and felt unintended which is why it works.

With a few exceptions (Hallelujah) Cohen’s  melodies were underdeveloped to say the least, often relying on a curious flatness or limited circularity for effect.  The bland synth backings of I’m Your Man (1988) make that album, if anything, harder to like now than then; the programmed drums and motonous bass of Ten New Songs (2001) are crudely repetitive.  But perhaps these shortcomings are to draw our attention back to the lyrics.

I can still see Jacqui’s inscription inside the book but I just can’t remember the words.

Leonard Cohen: 21st September 1934 – 7th November 2016.

To Blackpool from London with love

I wanted to comment on my recent trip to Blackpool and say a few things which couldn’t be said in my Take Three Songs… on Blackpool post.  These comments also touch on the musical legacy of the 60s.

Blackpool Brexit

I headed for Blackpool with my partner just days after the schism of the Brexit vote.  There was much talk of divided Britain, with the vote split at least three ways: young/old, urban/rural, educated/less  educated.  Crucially for me, whilst London overwhelmingly voted to remain, English coastal areas tended to vote leave.

I live in the London borough of Lewisham where the vote was 70:30 in favour of remain.  Blackpool voted exactly the opposite: 70:30 leave.  So what would it feel like to spend a week in ‘another country’?

The air was poisonous post referendum.  There were reports of a spike in race and religious hate crime.  As a gay couple and with my partner being Vietnamese, I even wondered if we would be made to feel welcome in Brexit Britain.  What nonsense.  Everyone, without exception, could not have been friendlier.

Still, we must have looked like a couple of real Londoners.  Within half an hour of getting off the train, there we were on the North Pier, throwing darts to win an oversized teddy we didn’t even want.  We needn’t have worried.  The rules kept changing so that it remained always just beyond our reach and we realised we’d been fleeced by the charming, fast-talking stallholder.   That’s when we knew we had arrived in Blackpool.

Going the golden mile  

It has to be said Blackpool has seen better days; the southern stretch along the seafront is in really rather a sorry state, hotels struggling to survive nestle amongst boarded up B&Bs.  The pier felt a little on the desolate side, many of the rides were silent, their minders, glum (mind you, the weather was more like early April than July).

Blackpool grew up as a mecca for holiday makes across the north back in the days when mills and factories uniformly shut for two weeks.  Blackpool wasn’t the holiday resort of choice, it was simply the place to go.  Gradually that tradition became eroded – by cheap foreign holidays, by the closure of most of those mills and factories, by more choice and greater individualism.

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Now there are too many hotels, B&Bs and guest houses and not enough tourists.  That’s unlikely to change anytime soon.  Nobody seemed to want to talk about the boarded-up southern stretch, as if it was an embarrassment to the town, an affront to its battered pride.

I don’t know what future, if any, is planned for Blackpool.  Regeneration?   It’s hard to imagine the luxury apartments currently springing up across London here.  I’m only glad that the dystopia masterminded by Tony Blair’s government – swathes of Las Vegas mega casinos towering along the front – never came to pass.  I don’t want to romanticise Blackpool (though I could) as there is real deprivation to be found and we saw some of it.  Blair’s casinos would have provided jobs but their corporatism would have seemed at odds with the quirky, rough diamond feel of the place.

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Blackpool long gone

A friend has very fond memories of Blackpool in the very late 60s and early 70s – long cycle rides from Middlesbrough to scour myriad newsagents in search of rare comics, ice creams along the prom, the sound of the sea in one ear and Radio 1 in the other.  A taste of freedom in Blackpool’s very own swinging 60s – seaside tradition meets Carry On meets pop.

The newsagents are no more, taking their saucy postcards with them, the latter killed off, I suspect, more by Facebook selfies than political correctness.

What of the 60s legacy?  I found it in the adventurous curveball squares of this building:

And the music?

Blackpool rock

Well I heard more 60s music during our week in Blackpool than over six months in on-trend London.  Sweet’s Co-co blasted unashamedly out of Shenanigans, a garishly green prom-side Irish bar; the next night it was Blockbuster and in another bar the night after that, a lesser known hit by The Love Affair with joyfully inebriated punters spilling out onto the street.

Browsing the rock in a gift shop, we heard Gilbert O’ Sullivan and – Paper Lace! – from a radio, possibly but you just don’t hear these songs in public in London or Brighton.  They have long since vanished off the hip radar, banished to – where?   The coastal fringes of the airways?  It was as if the soundtrack to Blackpool was a Blackpool with love bylinenarrow band-width Gold radio-station, definitely one which broadcasts on medium or long wave only.

Is this catering for simple seaside nostalgia or is Blackpool ‘stuck in the past’?  Are Paper Lace and Gilbert O’Sullivan the musical equivalent of a steak sandwich (only £2.99) and a can of Pepsi?  Get Down and get with it.

It occurred to me that 60s pop has a kind of polarised dual ownership.  On the one hand, there are the hip, knowing style curators, the nerdishly cultish, retrochic crowd and on the other hand, the long-term residents of a semi-forgotten hinterland of ex-chart pop, punters who grew up with it and have never grown out of it.  Or is it just because they’ve never moved away from Blackpool?

A song might occasionally traverse from the old fashioned place to the hip new one (when the curators allow it) in the form of a rediscovered gem ripe for reappraisal or, more likely, a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed ironically until forgotten again.  But by and large, drawbridges are raised between the smart, metropolitan hip, collectable 60s and the far flung estuaries of pop’s yesteryears.   Nobody in Blackpool was enjoying Blockbuster ironically.  They were partying like it was 1973.

And perhaps that’s the point.  We really are two Britains culturally as well as politically.  Only until 24th June, we never really knew it.

Back in the London bubble…

I felt the divide most acutely not whilst in Blackpool itself, not even watching the twirling foxtrotters in the timelessly enchanting

surroundings of Blackpool’s rococo Tower ballroom, but upon re-entering the fabled London bubble.

“I haven’t seen you for a while, you been away?”
“Oh yes, we’ve spent a week in Blackpool”.
Silence.
Change the subject.
Some mistake surely: he couldn’t really have said Blackpool –could he?!!

I was met with this stunned silence on at least two occasions.
“Why on earth would you want to go there?!” was written all over their faces.  I might as well have said we had had spent a week in a multi-storey car park in Basingstoke.  I also suspect a sense that I had offered myself up to enemy territory, the land of the dreaded Brexiteers.  These incredulous reactions were from liberal, left leaning remainers to a tee.

“Where are you going?” I would proffer in return.
“Sicily”, “Stockholm”, “Seville” came the replies, sights set on Euro glamour and continental chic, backs turned against the trippers and UKippers, the barnacled underbelly of pierside unfashionability.  

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I found these insights rather sad and perhaps symptomatic of the neglect our traditional seaside resorts feel glowers out at them from an indifferent capital.

Blackpool illuminations

Whatever might it take to mend these rifts in the years ahead?   Maybe more than HS2, 3 and even 4, more even than Tate Blackpool.

Perhaps when regeneration comes, in whatever form regeneration takes, the 60s musical allegiances might find themselves redrawn too, into a legacy which is more shared, more representative, more democratic.

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Take Three Songs… on Blackpool

Loved up and shoulder to shoulder

The other day, a young (20-something) couple walked by me with their arms wrapped tightly atop each others shoulders.

Seeing this took me back forty years in an instant.  This is my memory of how young people embraced in the hippy and post-hippy eras; no longer standard 1950s’ hand-in-hand nor the boy’s hand curling round the girl’s waist but this egalitarian, unisex – and surely quite uncomfortable – expression of lovedupness.

The couple would typically be patch denim clad, flared trousered, smiley badged kids who might have walked out of a youth club or a Coke advert.  Their embrace, in its compression, drew them together and down towards the ground as if they were a little overpowered by their own affection (and affectation).

Hippy embrace

This shoulder hugging memory had become so faded that I didn’t know it was there until I saw it played out before my eyes.

 

Here, the arms aren’t nearly high enough to qualify, they should be virtually horizontal, but this is the best image I could find.

Cold shoulder

I wonder why the shoulder-top embrace has become so rare?  Perhaps it lives on at festivals.  Or might it not now seem a little too soft or even drippy for a high-fiving, snapchatting world?

Maybe modes of behaviour subject to revivals just as fashions are.  Or perhaps the couple I passed by really were ghosts from the early 70s.

Moving On

I have just moved house.  Well it was three weeks ago tomorrow but I’m still living out of cardboard boxes and mislaying everything (not just due to age, for once).

Moving house

 

I am reminded of other significant moves in my life: aged four in 1968 – leaving our bungalow in Leatherheard one morning, the magic of being taken to a house in Burpham near Guildford that same afternoon and finding all our furniture and my toys there: our new home where I lived happily for the next seven and a half years.  

Chapters of memory

We tend to categorise our life according to where we live.  Doing so provides convenient chapters of memory and emphasises the underlying importance of home and place.  But carving time into chunks can also over define these chapters so that the story ceases to flow one from the other.

Gosden Hill Road from frontThis is what happened when I moved aged eleven in 1975.  I didn’t want us to move and remember scowling with hate-filled venom as my parents showed prospective buyers around.  I thought my fixed, silent, demonic stare might somehow ward them off.  It didn’t work, at least, not with Mr & Mrs Hunter and their curly-haired twin boys.  They even had the audacity to arrive just as Terror of the Zygons reached its climax.

As moving day drew near, I relented slightly and left a message under a loose parquet floorboard, wishing happiness to the Hunters and whoever followed them.  I sometimes wonder if that strange little note was ever found.

Old, cold, sludge green

So on a cold Thursday 13th November 1975, I left school to find our optimistic, open plan 1960s’ home was no more. InMoving on its place was an austere 1950s, metal windowed house with an asbestos garage and mean little prefab outhouse. It wasn’t so far away from our old house but might as well have been a million miles.

The floorboards were already up for re-wiring which didn’t bode well.  Paintwork was utility ‘sludge’ green (as I called it) and the walls were the mock-Regency stripe of a boarding house. Ceilings were too high, windows too low. The rooms felt old, cold and the house comfortless, utilitarian almost institutional.

It was the end of one chapter for sure but I didn’t want the next chapter to begin:  secondary school, adolescence, exams, being bullied, feeling isolated, different…  in fact it had already begun two months ago: I’d left my cosy C of E village primary of one hundred children and started at a 2,000 strong comprehensive that September.  Our move only emphasised the split from that past.  I asked my father to paint my bedroom lime green and purple in protest; much to my surprise, he did – almost drowning out the Regency stripes.

Teenage threads

Since then I’ve struggled to recover the story of life which flowed over that 1975 crevice, to try to spot the elements which had already appeared before the change.  In fact, the seeds of adolescentMoving on 2 disaffection had not just been sewn but were already growing up around me in my final two terms at primary school.  A childhood culture of vim and vigour was giving way to a disaffection amongst the more precocious children.  I can see how hopeless I was at football, how removed from the rough and tumble of most boys’ activities as I stayed on the sidelines with a few close friends.  I can see how setup I was to fall.

I’ve realised that ‘bad’ things would have happened anyway regardless of where we lived.  It’s just that our change of home allowed me to idealise the abode of childhood and castigate the haunt of adolescence.  Looking back, as I have felt more benevolently towards my teenage self, I’ve almost learned to love the ‘teenage’ house too.

To look for these common elements is important, I think.  To remove some barriers, restore a little natural justice, try to see the true lay of the land from a more distant vantage point.

Old times

And this move?  Well, I suppose it’s the move from mid, middle age towards the early embrace of old age, given that I’m hoping to live here a long time.

And I feel OK with that.  A new life is emerging from the cardboard boxes that might be every bit as magical as the belongings which materialised in a sparkling new home back in 1968.

Time to unwrap some more toys…

Old Singles

Lovely Honeybus cover

I chanced upon this cover of one of my favourite Honeybus songs, Colin Hare’s Be Thou By My Side.

 

 

The band is LA based Electric Guest.  Most of what they do seems much poppier but this is such a sympathetic cover enhanced by the hilltop setting and an all round natural vibe.