We’re all going to die screaming in agony


God I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve met people recently who a/ Can’t name any of the Beatles except for Ringo; b/ Have never seen The Jungle Book; and c/ Ruin my wonderfully amusing anecdote about meeting Joe Stummer in The French House by not having a clue who Joe Strummer is. Yes I’m getting old. We all are. And as the days tick by I’m more and more aware of the fate that awaits all but the very lucky ones: WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SCREAMING IN AGONY.

I’ll say it again in italics: We’re all going to die screaming in agony.

‘The human species is the only one which knows it will die, and it knows this through experience…’ Wrote Voltaire in his Dictionaire Philosophique in 1764. This statement, with very few provisos, is a distinctly inarguable truism. But what that eminent brain box failed to point out was the sheer, abject misery that destiny has in store for us. The fact is, death is an unequivocally unpleasant experience. It is full of pain and agony and torture and all of us have it waiting for us. We can’t avoid it any more than we can avoid inhaling oxygen. And yet we know this and still carry blissfully on.

But I lie a little. Because actually there are more pleasant ways to die. Well not pleasant. What can be pleasant about shuffling off your mortal coil? What I mean to say is, less unpleasant. You could, for example, ‘die peacefully’ in your sleep. Or be hit by a bus. Or get blown up in a plane. All of these are events that tend to evoke universal sadness from friends, relatives and tabloid headlines. But it could be said that the only one not to suffer is the person who actually died. One second you’re alive and kicking, thinking about what’s for dinner or about having sex another alive (or dead) person. The next, absolute nothingness. Zilch. The final countdown. Totality. But the complete unexpectedness of death could actually be a godsend. That’s if you believe in God, which, it has to be said, is a fairly important if somewhat moot issue when you’ve just died.

They are the lucky ones. The ones who meet their maker completely out of the blue, without forewarning, sans advance notice, are the ones to be envied. For the rest of us the grim assassin is set to creep upon us in a predictably attritional manner. One moment you’ll have that dull ache, followed by a frisson of blood, followed by a period of denial, followed by a trip to the doctor, followed by those inevitable tests that are surely designed purely to humiliate, followed by that grim diagnosis (we’re all destined to experience that dark conversation with a doctor which begins ‘I’m very sorry, I have some bad news for you…’), followed by a period of fruitless drug consumption that is nearly always going to be a total waste of time, followed by a period spent in your bed, followed by a return to infancy in which your wife or husband or a complete stranger becomes your mother, feeding you and cleaning up the shit, followed by pain, more pain, pain and agony.

If I seem depressed it’s because I am depressed. Any doctor reading this would immediately dole out the Citalopram and hope that I go away and start smiling at people. But I’m not really depressed because if I am I’ve been so since I exited the womb screaming in agony. This, I believe, is what may separate someone like me from a lot of other people. We’re all dying, folks. And some of us are more dying than others.


Stop the tipping madness!

Here’s a novel concept: instead of deliberately misrepresenting the true cost of a meal why don’t restaurants try putting its ‘real’ price on a menu? Instead of forcing diners to perform complicated mental calculations after they have eaten a meal why not simply add the 20% ‘service’ charge to the price on the menu so that we all know what we are really paying for before we order it? Instead of forcing diners to give money to underpaid waiting staff on top of the meal they have just paid for, why not pay the waiting staff a proper wage and simply incorporate this into the price of the food described on the menu?

In other words, why don’t we dispense with the ridiculous service charge culture that we are all forced to adhere to whenever we sit down at a table in a restaurant?

It ain’t going to happen of course. Ever. Because if restaurants printed the true cost of their food on their menus punters might be a little less inclined to eat that food. And if restaurants paid their staff a decent wage the prices on their menus might prove a little too steep for most people.

And so the system is perpetuated: we go into a restaurant, choose from a menu that wilfully seeks to trick customers, get the bill and if it has not already been automatically added are to forced to work out a 20-25% surcharge, and we are served by staff who can often turn nasty if they don’t receive this surcharge.

It’s madness to my mind. But it’s never gonna change.


Why do we like music?

I have a very good friend who likes to think that his musical tastes are catholic. And indeed they are. Although he’s a bit of an ageing punk rocker and the vast majority of his musical preferences reflect this, he also likes Burt Bacharach, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and many others. However, there are lots of people he doesn’t like. These include Queen, Keane, George Michael, Frank Sinatra and most classical music.

Musical taste and how one develops it has long fascinated me. I say this from the standpoint of someone who really does like everyone. Well not quite everyone. But the older I get the more difficult I find it not to spot at least one saving grace when I’m discovering a new piece of music. In my case age has expanded my tastes, which, I suppose, is to be expected.

I do draw the line at a few things. I’m not, for example, a fan of One Direction. This, however, is because I heard them massacre the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ and Blondie’s ‘One way or another’ and felt completely disinclined to listen to anything else they had to offer. My ten-year-old daughter, however, who is certainly no one’s fool, seems to think they are pretty damn great. I have similar misgivings about the genre of rap as a whole. I like one or two artists, Eminem, for example, I think is really clever. But the rest of it I simply do not get. I’m pleased actually, because I’m 51 and I shouldn’t ‘get’ this type of music. It’s for young(er) people to get and to enjoy the fact that they possess something that the older generation do not understand. It’s the way it’s always been.

In my dad’s day he had Johnny Ray, whom his father hated. In my day I had punk, which my father despised. Nowadays rap is something that is not for me to like.

But I drift: the question I am asking myself is a simple but complex one. What is it that makes one like a piece of music?

I can attempt to answer this question as a series of bullet points:

• Melody
• Rhythm
• Performance
• Chord structure
• Cultural significance
• Personal significance
• Lyrics

Melody is definitely important. This doesn’t mean to say that a melody should be classically perfect, whatever that might mean. In actual fact, a really bad melody can also be very attractive.

Sometimes the beat of the music can transcend the melody or lyrics. Think Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t you worry about a thing’ or the Smiths ‘How soon is now?’. Think Barber’s sublime String Concerto.

Sometimes a song can be neither here nor there but the way that it is performed can raise it up a notch or two. A simple song such as ‘God save the queen’ by the Sex Pistols is a fair example of this. As is ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple on ‘Made in Japan’.

Chord structure
Here we step into muso territory because many people simply won’t be interested in chord structure. A good example of how chords can move is something like ‘Mucho Mungo’ by John Lennon. This song is only available on bootlegs and is pretty throwaway. But the descending chord structure (something Lennon did an awful lot) is simply lovely.

Cultural significance
Sometimes a song can be pretty ordinary but the context can elevate it. Examples that spring to mind are ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA, ‘Feed the world’ by Band Aid (a pretty awful song that sold millions) and ‘I am a cider drinker’ by the Wurzels. (That last one is a joke.)

Personal significance
This one’s a biggie because the worst piece of music in the world can become the best if, for example, you happened to have had your first kiss while listening to it. I have a whole list of sentimental favourites that include ‘Claire’ by Gilbert O’Sullivan, ‘Ernie’ by Benny Hill and ‘Europa after the rain’ by John Foxx. All of these songs (and many more) transport me to another time and place. Some even bring a tear to my eye. Sentimental old sod that I am.

On many occasions it’s almost as if lyrics are a bit of an afterthought. On other occasions it’s as if the lyrics came first and a tune was hastily created to accommodate. On the best occasions lyrics and melody share equal billing. Fine examples for me are ’10 x 8′ by Loudon Wainwright, ‘Dinner at eight’ by his talented son, and ‘What a wonderful world’ by the great Louis Armstrong.

So there it is. I’ve asked the question but I don’t think I’ve answered it at all well. Perhaps someone out there can offer some advice?


God save us from the King

I’m not part of their club. I’m not happy and I’m not going to cheer. The fact that the heir to a dynasty of exploitation and pain has managed to impregnate another over privileged heffer is not a cause for celebration to me. It’s meaningless and I feel sorry for those idiots flooding the Twitter and Facebook highways with their trite congratulations. And as for those buffoons who actually waited outside the hospital overnight, words fails me.

I don’t care if William or Charles or Harry or Henry or whatever his name is has a million fucking sprogs. It says nothing to me about my life. These people with their inherited wealth and the blood of millions on their hands should dig themselves a big hole, fill it with petrol and jump inside holding a lit match.

I’m not going to celebrate the birth of another blue blood baby. I’m not going to cheer as he grows up, goes to fucking Eton, then Oxford, and then becomes an officer in the RAF or the Navy while prematurely losing his hair. When will these royals realise that they are not living in Tudor times and we are not their ‘Subjects’?

If this kid wants to earn my respect (which he doesn’t) let him grow up and realise what an outrage it is that there is a place for the monarchy in the 21st Century. Let him understand that all of his wealth has been stolen from innocents. Let him dismantle the throne and start giving his money back to the people who have earned it and need it.

Then and only then might I start celebrating the birth of another royal brat.


In memory of Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson is only a year or so younger than me. When I was coming up as a sports journalist he was coming up as a boxer. We met a couple of times and to this day I’ve never been in the company of anyone who exuded quite so much menace as he did. It was almost tangible. He really was like a crazed pit bull terrier straining at the leash. A distinctly unsettling personality. And yet there was a lot more to him than his physical presence.

Mike Tyson was a multi faceted character: first there was his appearance – handsome, instantly iconic and yet somehow belonging to another era, another epoch, another period of human development. There was the babyish lisp that seemed to endow him with girlish vulnerability and made you somehow feel a little bit sorry for him. There was that neck: brutish, bullish, its muscularity somehow making him different than everybody else who plied their trade in his sport. A giant shock absorber of a neck. There was the physique: smaller in stature than most heavyweight boxers, the same height as myself in fact but with a torso that once again seemed to come from another place. Finally there was the power: the awesome, consciousness sapping punch that was terrible to watch but made him the most exciting fighter of his or probably any other generation.

No boxer in the modern era resembled Mike Tyson. He was a curious hybrid. Although if a genetic engineer had set out to create the perfect boxer it is most likely that Tyson would have been thrown on to the scrap heap. Modern heavyweight boxers are supposed to be towering, on a different scale to most men. But Tyson was merely average, perhaps smaller than most ordinary men. And yet somehow everything worked.

Tyson was special. He was different. As fight trainer Gil Clancy once remarked: Tyson’s punches ‘even sounded different’ to most other fighters. He was different but he was the same. For Tyson was not immune to the numerous and inevitable attractions and distractions that came his way outside the ring. His quick-fire marriage and divorce from TV starlet Robin Givens, allegations of drink and drugs, late night skirmishes in the street, ostentatious displays of wealth (did he really have a tiger?). And finally, dreadfully, the three year cessation of his career due to a rape conviction.

Tyson was a shooting star. His peak came undoubtedly in the 1989 91-second annihilation of previously undefeated ‘linear’ heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Before that fight Tyson’s rage was palpable and it was almost as if he concentrated the frustrations of a life that he simply had no control over into that deadly and devastating minute and a half.

Whatever the case Tyson was never quite the same afterwards. He was never as good as he was in that the fight. There might have been the occasional flashes of brilliance but they were few and far between. And in the end Tyson did exactly the same as the majority of his peers: he wasted his talents. He stopped doing the things that had turned him into a world beater and finished up face down on the canvas. It’s a familiar story.

What he leaves us, however, are the memories: A collection of fights that span the years 1986-1989 in which it is possible that he may have been able to defeat any heavyweight fighter in history. And in these wondrous days of instant information all are available on YouTube.

I spent this morning watching Tyson dismantle the likes of Spinks, Larry Holmes, Frank Bruno, Tyrell Biggs and Pinklon Thomas in truly thrilling fashion.

And if you’re a fan of what has been ludicrously called the Sweet Science I’d heartily recommend that you do the same.