Monday, 14 December 2009

Breakfast Club Re-workings....

Several times today and over the next fortnight, the channel Movies24+ is showing a film called The Christmas Card, which has made me delve a bit into my past and look up some old acquaintances—in the modern way without actually contacting them, but instead doing a Google search. The Christmas Card is a pleasant enough, indeed warmly likeable Hallmark-style television film about a family-less Army Sergeant stationed in Afghanistan who receives a Christmas card from a stranger in northern California who, as part of a church charity drive, sends encouraging cards to soldiers. He was so moved by the card and the description of her life and beloved town that, when his senior officer rather oddly convinces him not to sign up for another tour of duty just after a colleague dies in his arms, but instead asks him to go lead a civilian’s life and start by delivering that soldier’s dogtags to the ‘widow’ (though I’m sure the previous dialogue established her as his fiancé, but hey, it’s television). He ends up in the town described in the Christmas card and within minutes of arriving bumps into the sender of the card, of course, and falls in love with her. But she’s engaged, and it’s complicated…. Still, he sticks around, gets a job working for her family’s logging firm and even stays in her family home, naturally after saving her father (played by Ed Asner) from getting hit by a car. All sweet with many improbabilities, but it’s all rather endearing if you just accept it.

The plot is not what drove me to look backwards. None of that relates to me. I initially wasn’t even watching it so much as having it on in the background as I worked on the PC, but I turned to see that the hero was someone I recognised as being a well-known child star, because his mouth was unmistakably familiar. I could easily picture it simpering in some wimpy way, perhaps in an 80s sitcom or some big Home Alone –type film as it—more than the rest of the man—was so well known to me. I can place actors quite quickly—even if it’s just from an appearance in a Poirot I’ve seen a dozen times, but this time, I had to resort to the Internet Movie Database.

I scanned the list of films and other appearances, which included some well known programmes like Desperate Housewives and Melrose Place, neither of which I had watched. None of the films were the household names I had been expecting. He was in Alive, playing one of the survivors of an air crash who ate the others, but I hadn’t managed to face seeing that yet (though it’s now on order with Amazon). I’d rather watch something fuzzy and warm like The Christmas Card.

I was baffled. What did I know him from? Then I saw that he was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I grew up. How funny! I thought , but that still didn’t lead me down the obvious path as loads of people are from there, many of whom are decent entertainers—James Taylor, Loudon Wainwright III, Ben Folds, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the dBs and others I can’t think of now, but seriously, there are loads.

Then I saw he was only a few months older than I am. Hmmmm…… So I got out my 1982 yearbook and looked up John Newton in my class and, sure enough, there was the face of the ‘child star’ with the simpering mouth that I was thinking of, but on a skinny boy who looked vastly different. So I was remembering the child, not the star. He certainly wasn’t a star then. In fact, whilst I really can’t picture where he fit into the scheme of things, and I can’t recall whether he’s someone I’d say hello to if I passed by, I definitely think of him immediately as being a bit of a, well, the word dweeb comes to mind but I can’t be certain why. When I searched for clues in the yearbooks of those three years at Chapel Hill High School, looking for his appearances other than his official class photo, I only found him once as a member of the small Dive Club, which I didn’t know existed. Much to my surprise, I seem to be on every page, in every club even though I also volunteered at the hospital until I was old enough to work and then I had a busy job in a department store. I thought I led a quiet existence where I wasn’t noticed too much, but it looks like I was busier than I recall, and my yearbooks are filled with passages written by (often merely vaguely recalled) people thanking me for being such a great friend, even though I usually left the school early to go away so often didn’t get time to pass ‘round my yearbook for many signatures.

It’s all a frustrating mystery. In a sense, I’d quite like to have a day to go back in time and wander around my high school as an observer at that time. I wouldn’t want to find myself, like one of those Disney films, suddenly in my high school body expected to deal with everything thrown at me by everyone and pass exams I hadn’t studied for because I’d been a 43-year-old woman the previous day. No thank you. But I’d like to walk around invisibly beside that me and observe who she interacts with and try to place everything, given that I don’t have the technological record of it all that kids these days do with their mobiles uploading videos to their facebook pages and all that. So I’d just like a refresher course, plus it would be interesting to see what people were really thinking now that I know how to read them better. And see what I was really like because I never seem to have had a real clue about that, or how others saw me.

As I married an Englishman and left the country as soon as I finished University, I lost those ties that many people who stay in the same town retain. Fortunately, a close high school friend is now living in the New Forest so I was able to ask her if she remembered this John Newton. She recognised his name immediately—more than I can say—but when she googled him and saw the photos of this fairly attractive chap who’s in shape and has great hair, she understandably couldn’t place him as a fellow high school student. That’s because, looking at him, you would assume he’s always been attractive, that he was the big man on campus, perhaps the star quarterback. Nay.

That’s what pleases me so much. I really can’t recall precisely what I thought of him, but looking at his fellow Dive Club members, there’s one guy I remember well who was, well, not widely respected as a winner, and I think John probably hung around with him and was judged by that company, plus I think he probably didn’t carry himself with the mature social skills that some of the real Big Men on Campus did. So I’m thrilled for him that he moved on from that and carved out what seems to be a much better life for himself and I hope he’s happy with it.

It seems that, not long after leaving high school where probably not enough of us noticed him or gave him any credit (or just plain thought he was a loser, because we’re all cruel at that age), he was ‘discovered’ and cast as the lead in the series Superboy. Okay, I never knew there was a series called Superboy. But looking at the DVD covers on the site, he really fits the bill even then. He looks like a young Superman, and I can see him playing Clark Kent as well (I would always prefer Clark Kent, though bumbling can be a turn-off). He’s quoted on his IMDB page as having taken up martial arts and the spirituality that goes with it after he left school, and that’s no doubt what led to the fuller body and Superboy look. Again, good on him.

Now he’s a jobbing actor with a wife and I hope he’s happy. He could go back to the high school reunion, if they have those, and no doubt draw a crowd of drooling women who had ignored him then, and—well, not pay them back in a Carrie-like manner, but just get his own back perhaps in the satisfaction that he’s made something of himself (mind you, most people but me seem to have done so!).

Go John! And, as my friend says, seeing him in that 2006 film looking quite good and youthful also reassures us that we’re not as old as we might sometimes feel. I might just watch the film again tonight. The whole reason I had it on to begin with was I’m trying to convince my system that Christmas is on its way, and far too quickly. It was somehow September one minute and now that massive holiday is with us in just a matter of days, which is terrifying. So I could do with a bit more Christmas spirit, and indeed in the film, Christmas seems to be going on for a few weeks.

Flicking through the yearbook briefly, I saw photos of a few boys who I had crushes on for an age (usually until they asked me out, at which point the interest evaporated, a cruel curse I’m not sure I’ve shaken), of people who I have heard are microbiologists and other impressive doctor-y sorts now, and a few other memorable souls. There were members of The Pressure Boys, the great local ska group (who copied Madness’ trademark group walk, and whose Mitch Easter co-produced fine 80s album Jump! Jump! Jump! I was thrilled to be able to get recently from Amazon on MP3 since my vinyl is in the States) and one that caught my eye in particular was Stacy Guess, who was always particularly intriguing—if not a bit out of it—because he was an incredible trumpet player, and I once played the trumpet in the school band, albeit truly dreadfully. He went on to join the fantastic Squirrel Nut Zippers (you must get their Christmas Caravan album and make sure you start any long Christmas journey with Sleigh Ride blaring; it is so tremendously uplifting!) but a few years after leaving the band, he died of a heroin overdose. Very sad.

Another musician in our midst easily caught my eye as I glanced over the class photos: Dexter Romweber. Even at the age of 16 or so, he stands out with his jet black greased paramour rockabilly haircut, and he and similarly coiffed Tony Mayer would always wear distinct long black coats over white t-shirts. They weren’t racing to keep up with 80s fashion like the rest of us; they could care less.

I always liked Dexter. I liked that he looked different and dared to look different. But our paths didn’t cross that often, and I doubt we would have had much in common other than a love of music. I do remember playing some part in our Junior Follies talent show one year, which was thrown to fund the Senior Prom, and sitting with the overseeing teacher, Kip Gerard, auditioning the acts and deciding who would be on the bill and in what order. One band had this drummer I liked (initially because I had a crush on his friend, but then after talking to him a few times I realised he was pretty neat himself, very calm and confident), and I loved that they covered such things as XTC’s Burning with Optimism’s Flame, which ain’t that easy if you want to sound good, and The Romantics’ What I Like About You.

Also on the bill was a noisy rock band I didn’t rate called something about an exit or a motorway, and then The Kamikazes--Dexter and Tony's band. They were special, like having the Stray Cats on our high school stage, but with more of a goth look and less of a pop sound. Everything was black; I feel like Dexter even put black under his eyes like a boxer but I’m probably imagining that. I don’t recall much about their sound now; I just clearly picture Dexter and Tony with their rockabilly-coiffed jet black hair, and Eric Peterson, I think his name was, who really caught my eye with his lovely wilder blonde style (which now brings to mind Sideshow Bob of the Simpsons.) He held more of a fascination for me but didn’t go to our school, as I recall, and I think Tony was younger, but Dexter was in my class.

Around then, Dexter’s sister Sara was finding fame as the drummer in the band Let’s Active, who had a record contract and some great songs, including Room With a View and Every Word Means No, the latter of which I feel certain was used in a film. (There is even a tribute album out for the band, which included Mitch Easter and Faye Hunter). Now Sara's joined her kid brother in the Dex Romweber Duo, and, having had their new album hastily delivered to me by Amazon after stumbling across Dexter again in the pages of my yearbook, I’m so impressed to hear that quiet eccentric-looking kid in my class belting out some of his own songs in such a mature, impressive voice, joined on the album by the likes Cat Power, Neko Case and Exene Cervenka of X (at least two of whom he’s toured with). Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids, another local group, joins in on guitar on the odd track, but I am biased against SCOTS (not Scots though, you understand) as one of their past bassists who idolised Tina Weymouth worked with me at a department store and convinced naïve foolish me to lend her my photos that I took from the front of the Talking Heads concert during their Stop Making Sense tour, negatives and all so she could get reprints (back in the old timey camera days), and she STOLE them all, the absolute cow. I hate her for life and am glad she’s no longer in the band and hope she’s now employed scrubbing the toilets at her old school.

But back to Dexter, he sounds so incredibly mature on this album….but then, we are 43-ish, and he’s been in the business since he could walk. On some songs, he sounds like Tom Waits, others Nick Cave, sometimes even Johnny Cash. Many are covers and I liked quite a lot of them. And apparently Jack White (I’m not a fan but I know everyone else is) is a big fan of Dexter’s and suggests he wouldn’t be where he is today were it not for Dexter’s influence, particularly from when he was in Flat Duo Jets. I had no idea what to expect from this album—and there are others on their way—but I am terribly impressed, and I’m highly critical. Good ol’ little Dexter.

And me, what have I done? Well, I haven’t made it big yet. I like to ignore the fact that time is passing and I seem to have a dull, miserable job in a place where I’ve been trapped for most of my adult life which is now becoming unbearable (no doubt because they know we must be thankful to have a job now, so they torment us while they can). I have written trillions of songs, a few of them decent, and I have at least two solid books in my head that I need to find the time to write down before I go senile (which I worry will be soon), and several other plot ideas with scribbled bits of paper all around the house to go in them. If only I weren’t working full-time even out of hours at my stupid miserable job. I worry that, the same way that I let the University experience pass me by by working full time during my 4.5 years there, I am letting my destined life and dreams pass me by by working more than full time now. That would be really awkward, to say the least, if I woke to realise that I was 75 and still hadn’t gotten around to dealing with my creative side that I feel really does have something to offer (though everyone believes that about themselves I suppose) if given the chance. But it may well happen…..

Perhaps that’s why I’m all the more supportive and thrilled for the success that these other classmates have accomplished. Maybe everyone hasn’t heard of actor John Newton. Maybe loads of music lovers haven’t yet been exposed to Dex Romweber, though I recommend having a stab at his music. (I know that even a recommendation from someone like Jack White won’t draw in the public when recommendations about Ron Sexsmith from Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney haven’t brought him the fame he has really earned. In fact, he apparently was passing out fliers for his lawn service the day after the Flat Duo Jets played on David Letterman). But, though it’s a bit unlikely, they could one day be on the future equivalent of Parky explaining that, surprising though it seems when you look at them and where they are now, they were not popular in high school and just did not fit in. And those who really did fit in, where are they now? Maybe failing in the society of high school is a good sign as it’s not the real world and it’s best to wait to bloom later when it counts. Some of us are still waiting!

So that’s the long, rambling stroll down memory lane all caused by a Christmas film that I wasn’t even watching……

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Normal Service to be Resumed Eventually....

Okay, I’m rubbish again. I’ve updated neither my website nor blog for ages. That’s because every waking moment, I am struggling to meet work deadlines, apart from the few events I’ve attended for the sole purpose of ensuring I have at least two hours now and then when I’m not working. Plus, you really shouldn't just live in London and not live in London; there's so much going on. I have in mind to blog on those events, or review them on my music website when they’re concerts (eg Spandau Ballet at the O2), and in many cases, I’ve scribbled down some thoughts that just need a bit of attention before I can post them. I so envy these people who don’t seem to have an office job who can sit and blog every day, or those who are more together who can fit in both.

When I get a chance—and some I hope to post this weekend though I've brought lots of work home as well—I will add some things that might not be quite so timely now, but will be there in case anyone is interested in my talking about some of the wonderful plays I’ve seen in the past few months (Endgame, A Doll’s House, Duet for One, Waiting for Godot, Arcadia, a few Stoppard adaptations of Chekhov), some other events (Barry Humphries as Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage with an orchestra at the Albert Hall, Margaret Atwood reading from her new novel in a church while Roger Lloyd-Pack, Diana Quick and others act out scenes, Horseman’s Sunday or the Blessing of 100 Horses—an annual church service on horseback, Cart Marking in the City etc) and book signings following excellent talks (John Banville, Joss Ackland, Michael Palin, Dara O’Briain, Griff Rhys-Jones, and Alan Whicker [without a talk]), and the Save The Rhino event at the Royal Geographical Society with Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine, though sadly the latter was kept from us by swine flu, but the former held the fort admirably, talking about their recent Last Chance to See series, and I hope both are feeling a bit brighter soon and that the latter is not overwhelmed by this Twitter storm (though it’s mostly love for him, which I trust will help).

Incidentally, Blighty is showing the first part of Stephen Fry’s brilliant and enlightening documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive at 10pm on Sunday, 1 November; I highly recommend that you try to see it.

….And more from me later, for anyone sufficiently patient to trouble themselves with a return to this site! Thank you and apologies again.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Rushing…into the path of a car, and accidentally from London Bridge to Cannon Street via Sevenoaks

I’m always being told to slow down; I rush around madly and people can never keep up, and even when I’m standing still, I seem to encourage people to suggest that I should calm down when I actually feel quite chilled, other than perhaps some frustration at the listener’s inability to keep my pace and his or her misinterpretation of my mood. I’ve noticed that people I’ve been talking to more often seem to pause too long when I’m done as they sift through the numerous thoughts and statements I had blurted out in what they had initially expected to be just one sentence. Or I hear ‘Hold on, one question at a time.’ And I do walk super-quickly; I can’t help myself, and I curse in my mind the surrounding slow people who delay me, with only occasional pangs of guilt about that. This is me, and I doubt I’ll change.

I have been given two strong signs recently that I should slow down, though. Nothing like a heart attack, though the second thing nearly proved fatal. The first was just stupid. Not foolish exactly, as I can see perfectly clearly how it happened. It just felt stupid.

The other morning, I was coming in a bit late to work as it was the first day for some time when I had no early meetings, but the off-peak train service was worse, and there were no direct trains to London Cannon Street. So it took a slow hour to get from my home in Kent to London Bridge Station, where I would change trains and arrive at Cannon Street a few minutes later. I could easily walk from there; it’s surely less than a mile away, but it’s quicker to get one of the regular Cannon Street trains leaving from platform 2 or 3 (they always change with seconds’ notice once you have walked the entire length of the wrong platform). As my train approached London Bridge Station, I could see a Cannon Street train already waiting there, so I manoeuvred myself to the door so that I could be the first one out, and rush to the nearby staircase to change platforms. I am sufficiently desperate and shameless not to mind running up the stairs amidst the crowd then practically hurling myself down the other stairs to the platform to get the Cannon Street train before it leaves. As I am tremendously quick, I almost always manage to make this transfer against all odds.

That day, I was just as proud as always to slide through the doors of the Cannon Street train just before they shut. I paused for a moment’s relief and to catch my breath, then began to move towards the front of the train, but the train was weird, nothing like the normal crowded aisles with crammed seats on either side. It had curved corridors and a first class compartment, unlike the commuter trains with which I was familiar. I felt instantly alarmed and tried to move back to the door but my way was blocked by some student tourists, and then I felt the train start off in the wrong direction. I glanced through the window at the monitors on the platform to see that I was not, in fact, on the train that would deliver me to Cannon Street in three minutes, but rather on the train headed for Hastings, East Sussex, on the south coast. About 70 miles away. I tried to remain calm, figuring that the train would reach its next stop soon and I could get off and change, perhaps at Lewisham or Greenwich. But the first stop was Sevenoaks.

For those of you unfamiliar with the areas, Sevenoaks is about 30 miles away, further out in Kent than the place from whence I had just spent an hour travelling. So that can’t be a good thing. And I had meetings later that morning that I could not miss. It got worse. I had no ticket to travel on this train. My annual ticket only covers my usual route from my station to central London and back. Now I was taking an unwanted detour that could tie me up for several hours when I needed to get to work, and on top of that, I would either have to fork out a fortune for a return ticket to somewhere I did not want to go, or I might be prosecuted for fare dodging, as the rail companies are not known for their sympathy. I was mortified.

It does sound amusing now. But at the time, I was gripped with fear and fury at my stupidity (a matter of turning left at the bottom of the stairs at London Bridge out of habit, rather than right where the Cannon Street waited on a lesser used platform).

I initially just stood by the door, as if refusing to take a seat and settle into this journey against my will might help my plight. I quickly faced up to being in for a long haul and took a seat, but kept my jacket on and didn’t take anything out of my case to read or do as I was still on some sort of silent wilful protest. Plus, I had to figure out a plan and notify work.

I could not bring myself to ring them. Everyone around me, all those who were not accidental passengers but apparently perfectly happy to head for Hastings, would have surely smirked and chuckled when overhearing my desperate phone call, adding acid to the wound. I suppose they would have a right to dismiss me as the idiot I was, but I chose the coward’s way of silently emailing two colleagues about my ‘SERIOUS PROBLEM!!!’ as I overstated at the time in my subject line. They must have opened the message with real trepidation about what horrific revelation awaited them—perhaps involving a lost limb or some sort of explosion--only to laugh for an age at what I had done. I’m sure that’s how I would have handled it were I on the carefree other side.

My colleagues came back with kind, sympathetic and reassuring messages, promising to stand in for me at my meetings if I did not return in time, not letting on about their fumblings for the necessary papers that they were quickly trying to learn. They kindly suppressed laughter in their written words and one claimed to have almost done the same thing several times before. The other encouraged me to sit back and relax, listen to music and read a book. Bless them; if only it seemed possible.

Instead, I frantically tried to find via the Internet on my phone the train timetable for this foreign line, but had trouble getting a connection for some reason, perhaps because the train was moving so fast, which at least seemed a good sign. I cowered low in the seat like the criminal I felt I was, guiltily waiting with dread for the guard to come into the carriage to check tickets, which I normally barely notice as I never break the rules, but now seemed to spell my doom. I had no ticket; I was a stowaway.

When the guard finally came, shouting ‘tickets please’ and slowly making his way towards me after checking that all of the goody-two-shoe passengers had proof that they had paid for their journeys, his footsteps seemed to pound towards me, every step amplified as he approached my row. When he was standing beside me, tall and foreboding, I lowered my voice and explained that I guess I had to buy a ticket (in hopes that was at least an option) because, actually, I was just trying to get the Cannon Street train and didn’t mean to be on this train at all. It sounded hilarious as I heard it out loud, but I would have accepted him mocking me; that would have been preferable to issuing me with some massive fine and criminal record (do they really do that? The posters threaten that and I’ve never really cared because it would never apply to me). He studied my face in silence for a moment.

I must have passed the test. I clearly looked obviously very, very stupid or, and I can guarantee this one: very, very stressed. And I was wearing a stuffy suit, had my briefcase and was emailing on my phone so I perhaps looked more like someone headed for the City of London at this time of day than seeking a day out at the seaside. His face sort of flinched with what I read to be tired disgust, and he consulted some little machine he was carrying as I braced myself for the news that I owed a shocking amount that I was unlikely to have with me. He screwed up his face further like a disappointed science teacher, practically made tutting noises but seemed to just about manage some restraint, and said he guessed I wanted to know the time for the next train from Sevenoaks to London so I could get to Cannon Street. I didn’t dare let relief set in and still waited for bad news, but he just reeled off a few route options and stunned me with the news that this was such a fast train that we were due to pull into Sevenoaks in the next five minutes. Sadly, he told me, the next London train would leave one minute after that, so I’d have to wait half an hour for another train, and all of my options involved another change at London Bridge for Cannon Street. For the first time, that thought struck fear into my heart. I'd demonstrated that I was incapable of such a trick.

As he continued to explore his magic machine, I looked out the window across the aisle for the first time, and I saw countryside. Real green stuff, big chunks of it. Fields with sheep and horses and haystacks. Wow. If only I hadn’t been so absorbed with my plight, I might have sat back and enjoyed the journey. To this day, despite having lived here about 20 years now, I love looking out train windows to see the gorgeous scenery of England. It’s just that my normal journey shows a lot of dirty dull buildings, warehouses and crumbling blocks of flats.

The guard eventually left me after saying I needed to tell that story to the guard on the London train, and he spoke in a bit of a snooty tone to me, but never asked for money. He was either very kind or I easily passed for a pitiful fool. Either way, I was thrilled. The train drew into Sevenoaks and I was determined to make that train that left for London in one minute. I flew out of the carriage as soon as the door opened and rushed up the stairs, racing across to what I thought the signs that appeared as a blur suggested would be the London platform, ran down the stairs and leapt through the doors of the train waiting there, ecstatic to have made it. Wait a minute, I thought, have I learned nothing?! I stuck my head out of the train and looked down the platform towards the screen that confirmed that it was, indeed, the London train. Hurrah.

This train was more crowded so I was forced to take a seat across from a gaggle of teenagers. I thought what a field day they would have when I was flogged for fare dodging on this train. The other train’s guard gave me hope that this guard might also accept my entirely true but pathetic story, but I still ducked down and felt a sense of fear and stilted panic as I waited for the moment when the guard came into our carriage to find me, the fugitive. When you think about it, they would have more reason to prosecute me for being on this train without a ticket, because I did technically knowingly board the train at Sevenoaks without a ticket. I was probably expected to miss this train, report to the ticket office and hand over my credit card before getting the later train. But I hadn’t.

Fortunately, the guard was an even kinder one on this train, a woman who didn’t loudly repeat or react to what I as saying so that she might delight the teenage audience across the aisle. I could easily have been lying this time, just someone heading to London, late for work, but maybe I had an honest face, or maybe she figured it unlikely that someone would have the gall to suggest such a stupid story, casting themselves as the dunce in order to escape paying for the journey. She stopped just short of patting me on the shoulder in sympathy as she just nodded and moved on. Bless her. Maybe I looked even more stressed than I felt, if that were possible.

This train travelled much more slowly but because the Hastings train had raced along like an airport express, there was a chance that I would make my meeting. When I finally reached London Bridge again, where over an hour before, I had arrived thinking I had only a few minutes left of my journey, I thought it best to walk to Cannon Street; it would take longer but seemed safest. But then I saw that a Cannon Street train was due to leave from another platform in just two minutes, so again I raced up and down the stairs towards that platform, this time repeating in my head with each step: “Turn left, turn left, turn left, turn LEFT!’, and I duly did, and this time, uh, left was right. I still double checked the screens on the platform to ensure I was on the right train—and have done that repeatedly before boarding any train ever since-- and off I went, having taken an unexpected trip to the countryside and over an hour to reach this mere moment’s departure from London Bridge on the Cannon Street train.

When I arrived at work, I slunk towards my desk through the back way, approaching my colleagues with an expression of shame mixed with an accepting smile, fully prepared for everyone in the vicinity to begin applauding or laughing or beginning to never let me forget it. But it looked as though my potential saviours had kept it quiet and were just relieved that I made it in time to spare them having to step in for me. Naturally, rather than sensibly keep it quiet, I ended up telling half the people individually of my adventure. It usually meets with a smile. Just yesterday, someone told me they spent the weekend in Sevenoaks with family. ‘I’ve been to Sevenoaks!’ I piped in enthusiastically, ‘…for about 30 seconds.’

The other incident a few days before was a much quicker tale, but nearly more devastating. I was rushing, as always, racing from home towards the local train station on what should be a 20-minute brisk walk, but which I always have to do in 13. I had just cut through the cemetery to reach a busy but narrow road that is difficult to cross, and I usually walk up it for a bit in hopes that I will find a break in the school traffic before the fork that leads me off in the wrong direction. Today, I saw that there seemed to be a teeny break right away, so without pausing, I just darted through the cemetery gates and onto the road, keeping a worried eye on the car approaching from the right as I tried to move out of that first lane into what I thought was now a clear lane. I began to step forward into the opposite lane, but my right shoe started to slip off slightly (I usually wear trainers—see my tale of my foot saga—so my feet are usually tightly secured in the shoe, but today I was wearing loose flats as I was due to meet people after work). For a split second, I paused, and a big red van suddenly passed two inches from my face. In other words, I had somehow completely missed seeing that a van was racing towards me on the lane I was about to step into. When I initially launched into the road, I checked for traffic coming that way, but think I did so through the windows of cars passing in the near lane, and there must have been a blind spot; I hadn’t realised. Somehow I did not see this van at all and thought the road was briefly clear. If I had stepped forward as intended without the brief shudder of a pause, it would have instantly wiped me out. No time for braking, screaming, or moving—I was stepping directly into its immediate path and would have been whisked away or crushed immediately, perhaps before the driver even understood what that huge thud was. It took my breath away; I don’t know what it did for the driver, although he might have imagined I had no intention of doing anything but waiting for him to pass, though I was standing tantalisingly close. However, when I reached the other side of the road, barely breathing, a pedestrian walking in my direction had huge eyes, wide with a terror as though he had just seen a ghost. He looked at me as though I should not be there, and then slowly passed by me in a dreamy, stunned state, still with those huge eyes.

I found, when I finally sat on the train, that I was shaking just a bit.

After work, I met friends for a drink and then dinner but then had to return to the office at 10pm to finish up some things and get some work to take home with me. Later I looked back and realised that I could have worn trainers after all as I had returned to the office after going out, so I could have changed shoes then (I keep normal flats in my desk drawer). Then it hit me that, had I done so, I would probably be dead.

When I returned home late to hungry cats, I realised that I very easily might not have done. It might have been some authorities coming in instead, eventually, to sort out my affairs. I’m not normally so sentimental, and I’ve had close misses before, though never that seriously close, so this really had me looking around my flat with different eyes. (Can I just say now, having examined my flat with those eyes, that the reason it’s in such a disgusting cluttered state is that I’m always, always working and when I do get home, I am doing more work or I fall asleep exhausted right away, and I was planning to clean it soon! Don’t let the world report that I had a secret identity as some crazy hoarding bag lady. It’s unfair that people can comb through your home and judge you on how you left it last when you were certain that you’d have a chance to tidy it and sort things out when you got back. I wonder now if I should leave a note saying ‘I was planning to vacuum this weekend, honest! I’ve just been really busy….’)

A few weeks after these incidents, I do find that, as I charge across the London streets with my usual cocky arrogance and certain invincibility that I’ve always had, which made my friends turn pale, I suddenly realise that I’m just as fragile as anyone and I try to take more care. Not as much care as I should, but I do have a new respect for traffic. Unfortunately, I’m sure it will wear off. The moral of the story, of both stories, is slow down and be calm--like everyone is always telling me. But I just can’t see it. I’ve got to be me.


I've been a bad blogger. I've neglected my website and totally neglected my blog, which is a shame because I've had so many millions of things that I've intended to blog about (although I always doubt that anyone is reading so it shrinks down the priority list sometimes). Some things I jotted down a few thoughts about, planning to post something that evening, but work has dominated everything. I've managed to get to the theatre and some other events in an effort to refrain from working all the time, and definitely wanted to blog about those, but everything is a stack of neglected notes. And the people who have contacted me in various forms via this blog, Twitter and the website have been horribly neglected. I'm so sorry, and I'm aiming to improve. Must Try Harder.

For now, I shall upload a few of the things that perhaps were not quite so time-sensitive, for what they are worth. Slowly, as several things need to be retrieved from scribbled scattered notes and pieced together properly through my dense memory. But one day I will get a grip and devote more time to these things! Thanks for your patience.....

Monday, 25 May 2009

Swotting on Spotify for Eddi, Boo & Co Concert

Tomorrow I should have the pleasure of seeing Boo Hewerdine, Heidi Talbot, John McCusker and Eddi Reader in concert at the South Bank. To celebrate and stoke up the mood, I’ve drawn up a playlist on Spotify with some selections from those artists as well as a few related to them in some way, such as Brian Kennedy, Declan O’Rourke, Martha Wainwright and her pater, Loudon Wainwright III, Jools Holland and Thomas Dolby. Please have a listen, if you like; it’s free to sign into Spotify (if you don’t mind a quick aural ‘advert’ that pops up only very occasionally) and it’s a wonderful tool for listening to music that you might not have yourself. If you don't yet have it (and I'm sure you'll use it loads to listen to whatever you like), download it here: Otherwise, please head here: or: spotify:user:braintracer:playlist:0ZTR9wYdjO8D8lDBS6VSk9 . Meanwhile, I shall delve into my mental meanderings here to comment on why I included what I did, and unfortunately, I go on way too much as usual, so skim (and I’ll hope to find time to trim)!

Declan O’Rourke kicks off fairly early in the list. His song Galileo is just stunning. Hence it is covered by many, including Eddi Reader, but even her fine pipes cannot better this original version. Gorgeous. I saw him open for Paul Brady at the Barbican [my review is at ] and he’s even better live without some of the soppy production, though there’s nothing wrong with this song. And you may be surprised to hear the applause at the end of this song as it seems impossibly perfect to be anything less than a torturously refined studio cut.

Get Happy by Danny Wilson follows, full of brass, boppy backing vocals and handclaps--wonderful. I once saw Boo perform with Gary Clark of DW at Ronnie Scott’s (support for the honey-voiced Colin Vearncombe of Black), and their paths seem to have crossed a fair bit. Neill MacColl of Boo’s 80s band The Bible also joined forces with Gary to form King L for a bit. When this cover of Get Happy comes up on my iPod, I find the feet of my spirit tapping wildly but joyfully.

Ezio Lunedei and his skilled guitarist Booga are, like Boo, from the Cambridge area. They are fans of his and covered his 59 Yards, and I recall seeing them at the Cambridge Folk Festival once right before Boo, Eddi and Colin Reid took the stage, so they always make me think of Boo. Wild Side is my favourite of their songs and would be great in a film, I always think.

Brian Kennedy is here as he has covered many Boo songs and they’ve worked together. I would have liked to have put a Brian/Boo collaboration here such as Different God or Glass and Diamonds, but neither is on Spotify. Nor are any of the Sweetmouth tunes, a one-album collaboration between Fairground Attraction's Mark E Nevin and Brian. Mark had loads of songs written for Eddi to perform on their next album as Fairground Attraction, but she went solo, so he got another limitless, soaring voice to sing them instead. Some of them are available on live F.A. albums, but I enjoyed the smooth, peaceful delivery on the Sweetmouth album. The Waltz Continues is my favourite from the latter with Brian, but here I’ve included a live version by Fairground Attraction, which is a treat as I hadn’t ever heard Eddi singing it as planned. A footstomping live version of Sweetmouth’s Fear is the Enemy of Love is available as a B-side on one of Brian’s singles, with Calum MacColl on lead guitar; they used to play together regularly until I guess Ronan Keating offered Calum more solid work. [Calum is Neill MacColl’s brother and Kirsty MacColl’s half brother, sharing the same father, the legendary Ewan MacColl. More later on the siblings.....] It’s a shame Spotify doesn’t have at least Mark’s first solo album, but they are adding to their collection all the time. Fairground Attraction’s biggest hit, Perfect, is included in my playlist for the sake of nostalgia, although it isn’t dated.

Brian’s Irish hit Captured is also here, from his wonderful first album, back when he seemed to be an intriguing gutsy folk crossover artist rather than the more pop-obsessed Eurovision contestant, but I still think he’s grand; nothing wrong with being into pop stardom and representing your country, is there? I first discovered Brian in 1990 when I dragged my brand new husband and in-laws against their will to the venue in time to catch the support act for Suzanne Vega when they had deliberately planned to miss the support act, whereas I like to experience new music. I ditched them some years later, not just because of that though. In fact, they were all wowed by Brian when I finally got them there on time.

One time a friend and I were chatting to Brian Kennedy after a concert, mostly trying to convince him that he should take Boo Hewerdine on tour as his support act. My friend said BK should play more Boo-scribed songs anyway and BK mentioned something about the guitar parts being too tricky, having been written by a man with big hands, and I pointed out that if he had Boo touring with him, then Boo could join BK on stage and play those tricky parts. And then BK did tour with Boo opening for him, then joining BK on stage as his guitarist. Our commission cheque hasn’t yet arrived so I assume it was just coincidence, and the concerts were grand.

Boo’s limited catalogue on Spotify meant most of what I wanted to share is unavailable, but I’ve added Butterfly, which is a fun co-write with the group Hepburn; I've not heard their version. It's horrid that so many Boo classics, from the rocking to the breathtakingly featherlight soft, are simply not available. Still, there are some terrific things here, as Boo rarely produces anything less, such as A Cloud No Bigger Than Your Hand and one of the newer ones that I just adore, Sing to Me. One day perhaps.... Fortunately, I only use Spotify for sharing and recommending, as I seem to have more songs than they do at present (which is why there is no room for me in my flat), but it is an impressive service, so I’m definitely not faulting it, just feeling a bit frustrated by early limitations today.

The Swimming Song; I’m not overly fond of Eddi’s version of this Loudon Wainwright III song but it is cheerful, and most people enjoy it. Loudon’s versions are always a delight. He’s included here not just because Eddi has covered his songs, but also Boo toured with him long ago (and Loudon apparently came out and watched Boo’s set), and shortly after that, Boo used Loudon’s then unknown daughter Martha on backing vocals for his Thanksgiving album. Martha never sounded better. Thanksgiving is an astonishing omission from Spotify and I hope that will soon be rectified; it’s probably Boo’s best album with some true classics like Murder in the Dark; Bell, Book and Candle, and the hauntingly beautiful The Birds Are Leaving.

I have included a song of Martha’s, not the profanity-ridden diatribe at her father that drew quite a few breaths when she belted it out at the Royal Festival Hall in front of people who had come to see her brother Rufus Wainwright or their mother and aunt, the McGarrigle Sisters—but which still won enormous applause after the initial stunned gasp when her admirably passionate delivery ended. Nor have I included one of her poppier songs from her more successful recent album, but Factory, which I enjoy although it sounds to me an awful lot like Tom Robinson’s War Baby [which the great Roddy Frame sang with him when the latter appeared on Tom's radio show a few years ago. Tom kindly lets you download his songs without charge at so you can hear what I mean, but do leave a donation as it’s good of him to do that.....]

There are a few Loudon songs here, including one of my favourites, Hitting You, which is about his guilt over hitting a young Martha. I’ve also included one of his earlier tunes, Red Guitar, which really caught my ear when I last saw him at the Royal Festival Hall and he captured us all when he poured this out from the piano. Plus Unhappy Anniversary, one of Loudon’s many songs making a sad subject sound like a party. ‘Scuse the banjo, though at least it’s played well. I left out some of Loudon’s truly moving sad songs after the death of his parents, which I tend to include on my ‘mourning songs’ iPod playlist that helped after my own father’s death, and still does. Another such song is I Felt Her Soul Move Through Me, which Boo and Eddi wrote together. Boo’s version is here, about his mother, whereas Eddi sings it about her father (which suits my needs more but I first knew Boo’s version and am partial to that otherwise).

As none of Boo’s earlier albums, nor A Live One, are available on Spotify yet, I can’t share with you some of this absolute best work, not even A Slow Divorce, which is what first roped me in when I saw him live with Clive Gregson and a pregnant Eddi Reader in the early 1990s. Nor does Spotify have any Clive Gregson at all, not even the fun 1980s tunes of his band Any Trouble, which was criticised for being too like Elvis Costello (not that Elvis Costello-ish would be an insulting adjective in the 80s, and Clive’s got too much songwriting talent to be dismissed as unoriginal). No Christine Collister either; not only was she a long time collaborator with Clive, but she and Clive used to perform a Boo song, which is how they met, and Christine played a big part in the Kirsty MacColl Tribute at the Royal Festival Hall that Boo effectively curated and at which he performed (with Brian Kennedy and Mark Nevin), along with his past The Bible fellow band-mate, Neill MacColl, Kirsty’s half brother. [My review and pictures of that impressive night are here: Kirsty MacColl Tribute]. Boo, Eddi and Clive all perform together on a few singles, the best of which is Wonderful Lie, but which I can't include here.

Kirsty is here.....My Affair, a fun example of her brilliant wit, great punning and pace, and wonderful Cuban flavour. Also, the outstanding England 2 Columbia 0 from her magnificent final album released shortly before her tragic early death when she was hit by a speedboat belonging to one of Mexico’s wealthiest businessmen whilst swimming with her sons off Cozumel, for which there still has been no justice (visit her mother’s site . But focusing on the song rather than that sadness, it was again a wonderfully Kirsty way of summing up an experience, pulling together all the emotions in a clever way after she nearly fell for a guy who wasn’t the free and single chap he purported to be, and his friend thankfully took Kirsty aside to let her know before she plunged too deeply into that disaster. Kirsty's outstandingly fitting song Dear John, directed at her ex-husband, producer Steve Lilywhite, at the time of their divorce and co-written with Mark Nevin, was deemed too sad and personal to be included on Titanic Days, but Eddi released a superb version of the song later.

Secret Heart is one of many wonderfully beautiful songs from Ron Sexsmith, one of the most skilled but overlooked songwriters around. Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney have the sense to be big fans and he’s won or been nominated for the Canadian version of the Grammies a few times. Wonderful, kind man with a humble delivery. I first saw him deliver a set standing all alone on the giant stage at the Albert Hall when he came as support at short notice for Elvis Costello when Elvis was touring with just Steve Nieve in the late 1990s, I think. Ron’s On a Whim is covered by Eddi with Boo in the producer’s seat and that version is tremendous and close to perfection...but missing from Spotify for now.

Another Canadian is on the playlist: kd Lang, singing Boo’s song My Last Cigarette. He sometimes tells a story about how he was up for the Ivor Novello award for that one and attended a show where he and kd were going to perform it, and then right beforehand, kd fell off ther stool and stormed off, so he lost the chance. Or something like that. Hearing her version now after knowing it so much better with Boo’s voice, I find it nearly unbearable. No one could fault her voice; it's the dreadfully horrid lap steel guitars, my worst enemy.

I’ve included Darden Smith because Boo and Darden released an album together. One of my favourite (of many, many excellent) Boo songs is First Chill of Winter, which I don’t think he likes, perhaps because it appears to have been just thrown together by two tired men pent up in a hotel room trying to force some creativity through their pens and picks, so they started singing about the need to close the window as it was chilly. Though it could pass for a philosophical statement and it's a beautiful and beautifully performed number that I have to stop and focus on whenever I come across it. That album is understandably not on Spotify, but I was disappointed in the Darden Smith collection and would rather have added New Gospel.

Hummingbird I rather overlooked until I saw Eddi, Boo, the masterful Paul Brady (if I remember correctly), and others perform it on one of the Transatlantic Sessions series that is occasionally shown on BBC4, and now it gets my foot stomping when I hear it. The only problem with using these live tracks on the playlist is the chat at the end which, whilst nice, rather breaks the rhythm and also might get your hopes up that you’re about to hear something that you don’t.

There’s also a live version of one of her older tunes, The Right Place, which almost sounds as though she’s introducing a song called The Rapist, but fortunately nay. The Girl Who Fell in Love with the Moon is a marvellous song when performed either by Boo or Eddi, and as I usually prefer Boo’s versions (a prejudice?), I included this version by Eddi as I do think I might unusually just slightly favour it as it sweeps along so sweetly.

That’s Fair is a great one from her first album Mirmana, which Spotify only has two tracks from. (The Swimming Song came from this album, too). Neill MacColl was one of “The Patron Saints of Imperfection” who accompanied her, as well as Roy Dodds, and Neill’s brother Calum joins in a couple times. Jools Holland plays on several tracks, including Hammond on this one. I would have liked to have included the first track, What You Do With What You’ve Got (which was mixed on the album by Thomas Dolby and includes Aly Bain on fiddle), but I’ve done the next best thing if you see the end of this entry.....

Heidi Talbot’s beautiful Cathedrals is here along with Parting Song. On her album, Boo provides acoustic guitar and backing vocals, John McCusker (also due at the concert, the soon to be ex-Mr Kate Rusby) supplies fiddler and mandolin, Neill MacColl is on guitars, and Roy Dodds, the Fairground Attraction drummer who performs both with Eddi and with Mark Nevin and Brian Kennedy, is there doing his thing. Heidi will be at the concert, of course. She also provided vocals for the Drever McCusker Woomble album released last year, from which I’ve included All Along the Way and Silver and Gold.

Over it Now from Eddi's latest album is another Boo/Eddi-penned tune. Quite sweet and catchy, and a good demonstration of my belief that banjo=bad whereas mandolin or ukulele=charming.

Intuition is a fun cover of a John Lennon tune. I remember being so pleased when I finally got my hands on it, back when Internet purchasing was just making things a bit easier to get rare copies of things from across the world. And now you only need to go to Amazon or iTunes and download these things within minutes of having the whim of wanting it, or listen to Spotify.

Chris Difford, formerly of Squeeze, should be here, as Boo wrote with him and performed on his last album, The Last Temptation of Chris, the launch of which I was able to enjoy, listening to Chris and Boo and a few others play on the other side of the crowd whilst my friend and I sat on a sofa at the back beside Paul Gambaccini (if it was okay for him to remain seated, it was okay for tired us). Unfortunately, all Spotify has is his (enjoyable) charity Christmas single Let’s Not Fight This Christmas and one of his post-Squeeze collaborations with Jools Holland.

Jools Holland is here because of his early work with Eddi, and she recorded the vocals for Waiting Game, a punchy song with great brass, but that’s not in the catalogue nor is the utterly impeccable live version of Dr Jazz, which doesn’t feature Eddi but is too brilliant for words. Still, Spotify has a lot of Jools Holland and I’ve added an earlier song that I always enjoyed by Jools pre-his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, though many people complain of his weedy voice. I liked it.

Perhaps more of a surprise inclusion is Thomas Dolby. He’s just released The Singular Thomas Dolby, a retrospective with a DVD of 19 tracks, and I nearly included one of the fun old 80s hits like Radio Silence or She Blinded Me With Science, or the Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration (Fieldwork, but that instrumentation sounded a bit too 80s to burst onto this somewhat folkier playlist just now), but instead went for The Flat Earth, which I was surprised to see wasn’t on this new compilation, so I’ll have to download that track or get the earlier hits album, Retrospectacle (sadly all my old vinyl is with a kind overburdened friend in the States, so I source much of the older music through CD compilations). It starts a bit slow but bear with it.

Thomas is here because he has worked with Eddi in the past; as I mentioned before, he mixed one of her better early tracks. She also contributed to his song Cruel from his Astronauts and Heretics album. I believe I read on his blog (which I’ve only just come across but need to explore more as he writes impressively, clearly an intelligent man) that he’s planning to do some recording with her in the near future. That, I am sure, will be worth the patience required until its release.

Meanwhile, you can watch Eddi performing What You Do With What You’ve Got with Thomas adding lovely piano and the great Boo Hewerdine on guitar in 2003 (or 2004?) at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, for which Thomas Dolby is the Music Director. This clip is a treasure, the kind of thing we’re so lucky someone bothers to make available, so be sure to tune in:- That’s one of the prettiest early Eddi solo tunes, which is another omission from Spotify, but now you can hear and see it with two superb musicians accompanying her. At the same site, you can watch Eddi perform the much admired Kiteflyer’s Hill, a Mark Nevin song from her excellent Angels & Electricity album, co-produced by Boo.

Incidentally, I’ve just come across an archive bit of Thomas Dolby’s blog shortly after he posted those videos, where he describes a story Eddi told at that event about auditioning for his The Flat Earth tour in 1983 and also, at his request, practicing the unrealistically high female vocal part in what became his hit Hyperactive. That part in the end was, of course, ‘digitally enhanced’, which I gather irked Eddi somewhat after she failed the audition perhaps for not being able to reach quite the high register that was required. Of course, Thomas D tells it better:

I also considered adding to this playlist some Colin Reid, the amazing acoustic guitarist who has performed quite a few times with Boo and Eddi, and both singers have guested on his album, but he seems a bit too obscure for Spotify, although there is a live version of Eddi doing the Fleetwood Mac cover that she contributes to Reid’s album. Neill MacColl put out a great album last year with Kathryn Williams, but that’s not available on Spotify. Jane Siberry, who has performed on stage at the South Bank with Boo after he opened for her, was excluded as Spotify only has hymns by her and nothing from her extensive back catalogue, and others were excluded for the same reason. But I don’t wish to sound like I’m criticising Spotify; it’s an impressive utility for those whose flats do not look like a cluttered HMV warehouse or who have not ripped their CDs to the PC or network.

But I hope some of you perhaps give my playlist a listen as it’s full of great artists, and I hope that I’m not a jinx for concerts (given that Morrissey cancelled when I was due to see him at the Albert Hall recently; hope his health improves) and I get to see some of those great artists on Tuesday. I’m unusually allowing myself out ‘on a school night’—on the eve of some crucial meetings for which I need a clear head and ideally an early night, but it’s been far too long since I’ve seen Boo perform and the bill and venue are too tempting to keep me behaving.

Incidentally, Boo--and several others I mentioned in these ramblings—is on Twitter, although he’s a rare tweeter (as am I; I’m there primarily to observe and enjoy). I’ve been meaning to blog about Twitter for yonks now, but now there’s probably little else to say as it’s recently reaped so much publicity, but I still may in the next couple days if I have time before work saturates my life again, as I know there are still some people out there who have little clue what it’s about or how to take part, and I’ll help if I can. You might like to follow the musicians I’ve mentioned who are on Twitter.... I’ll go into more detail in the next blog, and might even finally get around to updating my neglected website, too ( About Last Night.... ). Meanwhile, full accounts appear there of past concerts by many of the artists mentioned here, including Brian Kennedy, Eddi Reader, Boo Hewerdine, Loudon Wainwright III, and Ron Sexsmith, so please delve in if you have time to kill...whilst listening to their artistic gifts on Spotify at .

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Orangutan Diary

The final episode of Orangutan Diary will be shown on BBC2 today at 5.30pm and shows highlights from the past series. Even if you can’t tune in or view the episodes online, I would suggest you get the wonderful DVD of the whole second series. Not only are the baby orang-utans adorable (and disconcertingly like human babies, even laughing when tickled) even to those unsuspecting folks who would not expect to be moved by such things, but the people who look after them are amazing:-
• the Danish former flight attendant who started it all, staying up all night with orphan baby orang-utans in her home and turning that into the world’s biggest ape rescue centre;
• the English GP who acts as chief medic to the orang-utan orphans and also treats the staff when they are ill, balancing his time between an A&E in Scotland and the Borneo jungle
• the impressive babysitters who wander into the forest with numerous young nappy-wearing, dewy eyed orphaned orang-utans draped around them whilst pushing groups of others sitting in wheelbarrows back after a long day
• the delightful groups of technicians (Teknisi) who are sometimes shown wandering into the wilds of Borneo to climb to dangerous heights and to dart adult orang-utans who are in danger of being killed and catch them safely in a net when they fall hundreds of feet to the ground below; and
• the bold souls who stop at nothing to venture to wherever they have heard there is a baby orang-utan illegally being kept as a pet, never knowing what hostility they might encounter.

On my father’s birthday recently, which since his death I have taken as leave from work to avoid bursting into tears under pressure on such a sensitive day, I chose to cheer myself up by watching the entire second series on my recently arrived DVD of Orangutan Diary. It was gripping stuff.

Orang-utan means “man of the forest”, but unfortunately the forest is rapidly disappearing. A Danish flight attendant, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, years ago decided she must do something about the plight of the orang-utans being orphaned through this heartless destruction of their habitat, and she did.

She started the Nyaru Menteng Orang-utan Rehabilitation Project in Indonesian Borneo in 1999, working with the Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation (BOS), and it is now the largest primate rescue project in the world, with more than 600 orangutans in its care. I often look at her wandering around the sanctuary in casual khakis and no make-up and can still easily picture her dolled up in the ‘glamour’ expected by that profession, all make-up, uniform and smiles. Yet she could hardly be further from that life now. She is tremendously hands on, meeting and caring in her heart for every ape and every member of staff, training and managing the latter, which includes dozens of local Indonesian Dayak.

Lone is quite amazing. In itself, seeing the problem of Borneo’s forest destruction and the devastating effect on orang-utans and wanting to fix it is impressive, but whereas in my case, that means sending a small donation, in her case, it was an astonishing life change, moving to the jungle in Borneo and starting up the rescue centre, with a whole system of rehabilitation and progression for these apes.

The centre is looking after six times its intended capacity of red apes, which have tragically lost their homes in the wild principally because of the demand for palm oil, which is destroying rainforests at an alarming rate so the land can be used for palm oil plantations. Not only do the orang-utans then lose their habitat and starve, but a shocking number are killed by humans, who often slaughter a mother in front of its traumatised baby and either leave the baby to die or take it as a pet, although it’s illegal and the only home they seem to offer tends to be a tiny wooden box.

Baby orang-utans in the wild would stay with their mums until they were nine years old, and the youngest need constant care and lots of love, like human babies. At BOS, the orphaned babies attend nursery during the day—complete with baby bottles and coconut milk “juice boxes”-- and have 24/7 care from the "babysitters". The youngest babies at night sleep together in a room full of snores with loads of orang-utan orphans in laundry basket cribs, with babysitters present. The slightly older ones are taken out into the jungle each day by their babysitters to learn skills an orang-utan will need to survive in the forest, such as using tools to find food, building nests and climbing trees. The much older ones are taken to a safe island (orang-utans can’t swim) where they have almost no contact with humans, although it is still a false environment as there is not enough space or food to sustain a large population of apes that would normally be spread out, so the humans drop off a food supply each day. I understand there is even a fruit plantation somewhere on the BOS grounds.

A very few orangs are fortunate enough to be released in a safe place in the wild, but of course these safe places are rapidly diminishing. Here again is where Lone is amazing. In addition to keeping an eye on her wonderful orang-utan village and practically acting as the foreman for building works on top of her other duties there, she also scouts out places deep in the remaining forest near a mining outpost, chartering an aeroplane and helicopter, navigating through piles of paperwork and red tape, and arranging an intricate web of schedules that eventually enable some of the orang-utans who more recently joined BOS, and thus are wilder with the necessary skills to survive, to be taken there. This involves a dizzying scurry of activity where orangs are sedated, crated along with food, loaded onto planes and automobiles until they are delivered, dangling in their crates from a harness below the helicopter. The team also need to be dropped in what seems to be remote jungle and camp out until they can release the orang-utans.

Meanwhile, the workers at BOS rescue and, where possible, quickly relocate adult orang-utans that are found near rubber plantations (they eat rubber sap that takes days to collect, so are at risk of being killed by the workers), too near schools or villages, and of course on the dreaded palm plantations, where they can be attacked with machetes if not reached in time. They also go to amazing lengths to find and confiscate babies that are illegally kept as pets.

One of these confiscations shows a waif of girl struggling for many hours in an attempt to reach a rumoured captive baby orang, trying to progress down impassable roads where vehicles become trapped in deep mud and bridges have collapsed, using mopeds that take them for miles until they have to turn back, borrowing a boat that is too weak to fight the river’s current, and finally arriving only to find the people keeping the orang-utans are not home. This young girl, fortunately with someone from the Forestry Commission and a camera crew, which I hope helped, waited until the people returned—carrying a gun—to convince these people illegally keeping two babies (perhaps after killing the mother) to hand them over to BOS without any payment even though each ape is worth a month’s wages if they were to sell them, and to teach them why they should not capture any more.

I missed much of the series when it first aired (I can’t usually watch wildlife programmes as I get upset when I see furry things run for their lives and then get eaten) but when I caught an earlier episode on BBC2, I was entranced—not just because of the adorable animals, so clearly our cousins, but also because of these extraordinary people who work with them.

One puzzle that really caught my eye was the presence of Dr David Irons, whom was referred to as a GP rather than a vet, but I since learned that he heads a medical team that also looks after the 200 staff, and he demonstrated his experience well in one episode by calmly rushing into the forest to administer pain relief to a babysitter who injured her chest in a fall, helping her cope as she was carried on a make-shift stretcher back to the BOS centre and driven to hospital. (It was very serious but also a bit surreal to see hairy orange arms right in there with all the human ones grappling at the patient).

“Dr David” points out that orang-utans have 97% the same DNA as humans and they get some of same illnesses, such as malaria and colds, and “The medicine’s as if I’m in a hospital in the UK but obviously with hairier patients.” And he is in a hospital in the UK fairly frequently, apparently spending a few months as A&E manager at the Galloway Community Hospital in Stranraer, Scotland, to fund his voluntary work at the orangutan centre, where he pays all his expenses. He got involved, following an earlier stint working at a small rescue centre in Borneo, when doing admirable work with impoverished children in Argentina and he saw a BOS appeal for £3,000 to buy a tract of forest and realised that, if he worked over the Christmas holidays, he could earn that amount and donate it himself. I understand he attended a BOS event in London (where have I been when those have come along? Must not be mentioned in Time Out), hit it off with Lone and now spends most of his time in Borneo as the BOS Medical Director at the centre. He and Lone are terrifically impressive; I never meet people like that, but then I’ll never be a person like that, which might have something to do with it. (I should say with some shame that I like my home comforts, my gadgets, PCs, books, music, movies, theatre, art galleries, Starbucks, cooler air and showers.)

Bizarrely, mobile phones seem to work in the Borneo jungle, and Dr Irons in a newspaper interview spoke of how he can’t keep his too near him or the hairy orange charges tend to pickpocket him.

It occurred to me that he would be fascinating to follow on Twitter, but alas, he is not yet with us. Just picture his tweets though: “Cuddling orang recovering from malaria” one day and then, a month later, “busy night in Stranraer A&E, another stabbing but we’ve patched him up”. I assume he’s publishing or at least preparing useful papers and studies on medicine whilst there. He would be fascinating to have a chat with if he ever stopped in London on his way back to Scotland or his family’s home in England.

Steve Leonard and Michaela Strachan present the BBC2 programmes but are hardly in-your-face; in fact, I almost completely forgot that they were involved. Most scenes are just the camera following those who work there daily, showing how it is with some warm narration.

I have heard the odd bit of criticism of this false environment, and some wonder how much it actually helps orang-utans. Indeed, even Lone is no doubt aware that she is unlikely to re-home them all, with only a comparatively few released on precious and rare safe land with rapidly increasing new arrivals, and the newly arrived adults keep pushing the babies they are raising further down the queue.

But what is the alternative? Leaving babies to die slowly in the wild or to go mad kept in boxes by the people who they saw machete their mother, sometimes injuring them, or be illegally sold as pets, and leaving the adults to be destroyed even when you have a chance to save them? That’s no answer, particularly not for an endangered species, and one that is such a close relative. Lone gives them a second chance. She even houses a blind orangutan and another with crippled arms after having been kept in too small a cage, so he cannot now climb trees. The younger ones have love and comfort, and it is important that there are people willing to rescue and rehabilitate the myriad orangutans who need our help because of what we, as humans, are doing to them.

The jungle is being devastatingly bulldozed. Illegal logging is a dreadful problem but palm oil is the single biggest threat to the orang-utans’ survival, and we, consumers, keep feeding the demand for it. It is in everything—food, fuel, cosmetics. Our homes are truly littered with many dozens of products containing palm oil. I try to be aware of it and avoid it, but it is not often listed in the ingredients. Then I was horrified recently to read the box of Nairn’s Oat Biscuits that had been delivered with my grocery order, which I swore by as useful food following stomach bugs and the like, and now see that, like everyone else, I’ve contributed to the destruction of this tremendous world resource as it lists palm oil as an ingredient (though at least they do not hide it like others). We really need to be more aware of what contains palm oil and to campaign for less of it to be used. (There are websites and blogs who try to help educate us on the former.)

There is a BOS UK branch although the website is currently undergoing maintenance (seems fine now, go to: ), but you can adopt an orang-utan there or merely make a donation by visiting . With adoptions at BOS, you receive an official personalised certificate, a background story and an A4 colour photo of your orang-utan, with updates promised on your orang-utan at least every six months.
View the general BOS site at
On that site, you can view a video postcard by Lone from Borneo with some help on the camerawork from a curious Orang. It has also been posted on YouTube, I believe after the first series, at

So many would benefit if you made a contribution to either BOS or WWF, and even more if you did so through both. I adopted as a gift for my mother some years ago an orang-utan via WWF and continue to give a monthly donation for that purpose to the World Wildlife Fund by direct debit, but I also intend to send a small donation (I’m heavily in debt but hope every small bit helps) to BOS. I think it makes an excellent gift—generally, or if you’ve forgotten to order something for someone, and particularly for children who need to be made aware of the need to help the planet in this way.

Whatever you choose to do, please somehow help these lovely creatures who are some of our closest animal relatives, and do, if you can, catch the series. To whet your appetite, a snippet is on YouTube here, focusing on Dr David Irons but also showing the one horrible event seen on camera, when an orang-utan suffers a terrible fall from a tree and bounces off a concrete wall: YouTube - Sumanto Falls . There are also other short clips, including one showing the shocking state in which one nearly dead mother and her baby arrived, and then you see her so healthy after eight months at the centre, just before being released into the wild in a safe area: .

The DVD of the full second series is the best bet, available at Amazon here, and I can only hope some of the profit goes to BOS: .

Monday, 13 April 2009

Missing the Easter Bunny

Well, I’ve tried to celebrate Easter in English style again, but I can’t help thinking back with fond nostalgia to how we celebrate it in America, and I think that comes up trumps.

I love it here in London but I do think that children would surely enjoy a visit from the Easter Bunny more than what seems to be such a serene holiday here. Although I do acknowledge one perk in having such a long weekend here, whereas at home, some regions take Easter Monday as a bank holiday (not that we call them that) and others take Good Friday, but none take both.

Here, Easter seems to mean eating Hot Cross Buns, which I hate, but I bought some low fat ones that I mistakenly thought might be whole wheat versions and not have so much icky orange peel in them, but they were pure poisonous white flour and just as awful as always. Plus, when you think about it, they don’t do what it says on the tin. They’re not hot; you have to toast them. I’m surprised there’s no EU Directive outlawing that claim. Not that it genuinely worries me, it’s just an observation; no doubt the name stems from the old nursery rhyme where a seller is selling them hot.

Easter here also means going to the shop and buying a big single big commercial chocolate Easter egg branded Mars or Cadbury or something ordinary and handing it to your child. How dull, compared to the wonderful Easter egg hunts we had as children, after the Easter Bunny (rumoured to be a relation of Santa Claus) hid coloured real eggs and plastic eggs containing candy for us to seek out and enjoy.

At home, we would, supervised by adults, boil eggs and then dip them into food dye, use stencils and other things provided in egg-decorating kits to make remarkable patterns and exciting little eggshell works of art. Then our parents would assist the Easter Bunny by buying loads of hollow plastic eggs that split in two so they can be filled with jelly beans, an Easter staple, and little edible coloured bunnies made of marshmallow as well as small foil-wrapped chocolate and mini candy eggs. Our parents would also buy standard Easter grass, stringy bright green plastic stuff, and then hide bunches of the stuff throughout the house or, if the weather was lovely as it usually was, throughout the garden, with said candy-filled plastic eggs and dyed hard-boiled ones nestled on each patch.

We were given brightly coloured Easter the baskets in the morning, sometimes along with a cute stuffed bunny rabbit (not a real one of course). Then we would have the joy of rushing around the house or the garden and discovering with glee hidden clumps of Easter grass with eggs on it—plastic and dyed. We would fill our baskets with them and later pig out on the candy (I don’t recall ever actually eating the dyed eggs; that wasn’t the point), but the joy was in the hunt. It was delightful and exciting and a wonderful tradition. Sure, sometimes in June my mother would move some furniture and find some Easter grass with old jelly beans or marshmallow rabbits inside a plastic egg, but that stuff has a long shelf life as it’s hardly made of delicate organic fruit. Or there was that time when we went to church and returned to find that the dogs had done the Easter egg hunt for us and neglected to share the candy. (NB please never give your dogs chocolate as it is toxic to them!). It’s a fun, bright, happy Spring holiday, and although candy is involved, you have to work for it to this degree, and even children realise that’s not what it’s all about.

I don’t necessarily mean they focus on the religious element any more than over here. Indeed, the religious importance of the day seems to be more at the forefront over here, although I think that stems more from the traditions observed on certain days, such as having pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and so forth, because the church and state have been linked for centuries. I don’t recall Lent being so widely observed at home, for instance, with colleagues or fellow pupils discussing what they might give up for it.

It was sweet to hear Dame Judi Dench on Aled Jones’ Radio 2 programme this morning speak of her excitement about this holiday, which she said she loved about as much as Christmas, as Christmas was special but brought with it a great deal of stress and anxiety in the planning, whereas I suppose this was just a calm celebration. That was despite the fact that she was working hard giving numerous performances over the long weekend, including Easter day, in the play Madame De Sade, to which she has returned following a fall when she sprained her ankle. She also loved that Easter meant she could indulge in whatever she had given up for Lent, which this year was chocolate and potatoes. The latter she said she loved more than chocolate, more than lobster even.

I must confess I gave up nothing for Lent this year. It sort of passed me by; I was sick on Shrove Tuesday so couldn’t partake of the traditional pancakes and then time rushed past before I remembered that I should have made some sacrifice. And really all that would have made a difference would probably have been my Chai Tea Lattes, and then I would have either had a nervous breakdown or not bothered to go into work, as that is the carrot on the stick that gets me from the station to my office (see previous blog), and then I would have been sacked and my cats and I would be homeless and I would be bankrupt. So maybe that’s too big a sacrifice. But we don’t need that to prove that I’m perhaps not the best of Christians.

Even though I was less religious, if not agnostic, at home (not that I would think of myself as being particularly God-fearing now but, having lost some dear ones, I somehow have to have a bit more faith now and I never let a day pass without counting my many, many blessings) we would go to church on Easter. Everyone went to church on Easter, even if you never darkened its giant doors any other time of the year. Strangers would flock in, much to the undoubted irritation of the regular congregation who suddenly found that they could not get a pew, and the doors would have to remain open as the crowd spilled out onto the ground in front of the church. I’m surprised they didn’t put up big screens and speakers outside so the people who couldn’t cram themselves into the church could share the experience more from there. Maybe they do that now. But somehow, even if you couldn’t quite make out what the vicar was saying and couldn’t manage to get down to take communion, you could tick an important box to say that you’d gone to church on that holy day, for whatever your reason.

Here, although church seems to be discussed more and more people seem to be openly Church of England (like Episcopalian, as I am in the States) owing to the historical and still present link to the state--whereas at home, one never dares make assumptions about one’s faith because there are so many different accepted and common denominations--I don’t know of anyone who was planning to go to church today. Obviously, some people do.

I might even have felt inclined to go out of tradition, out of a need perhaps to seek some comfort and no doubt many other wrong reasons, but I would feel such a stranger, I would never have the courage. What if I stand when I’m meant to kneel? What if they have some rule where newcomers have to sing a solo? What if they don’t provide the words for the hymns so I can’t even lip sync as usual? What if I put a pound coin in the collection plate and it turns out the norm is a £20 note now? What if everyone stares at me because I’m the only stranger? What if I nod off and snore? What if I’m the only one who turns up at all? Fear of the unknown keeps me out of church today more than the desire to sleep in or just be lazy. A beautiful church is just around the corner and I pass by it every evening, reading the posters on the board about its different services and welcoming recitals and coffee mornings, and I almost want to belong a bit more, but then again it isn’t really me. I’m not sure where this feeling comes from. But I do what I need to from here.

...And in addition to that, I have listened to the odd radio and television show where church choirs sing Easter hymns, although I felt less inclined to enjoy the Easter Songs of Praise than I might, despite some beautiful soloists’ performances, as I seem to recall hearing that they filmed these Easter specials in December or something. A similar revelation many years ago about Jools Holland’s New Year’s Eve Hootenanny programme, which is filmed in November with everyone just pretending to count in the new year and toast it with champagne, means I don’t bother to watch that anymore and just record it. If they can’t be bothered to be there live for me, why should I be there live for them?

But I did half listen to part of Songs of Praise, and I did half listen to some things on the Beeb radio, and I half heartedly ate hot cross buns and I ate some of an organic dark chocolate egg, which I was disappointed to see was not also Fair Trade, and I freaked my cats out with a little toy chick that chirps like a real one when you place it on your hand. And I’ve hummed much of the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar and have been fairly productive in getting a few things done around the house, yet quietly, as it seems wrong to hammer or run washing machines or anything like that on Easter. So I guess I’ve observed it in my own way, but even at the age of 42, I rather wish I was racing around my grandmother’s garden gathering hidden eggs. And if I had children, I would certainly do my best to recreate that American tradition over here. It is a delight that I highly recommend. And kids are too lazy these days! Make them work for their Easter candy, don’t just hand them a big chocolate egg! They’ll thank you for the challenge, I’m sure.

The Church of Starbucks and Encountering Its Leader

Having seen the King of Starbucks, Howard Schulz, recently promoting on BBC Breakfast Starbucks’ Via Ready Brew, its new instant coffee, I was reminded that I meant to blog about bumping into Schulz’ head UK honcho in February

That is, during an excursion to Starbucks for my addictive elixir, I ended up meeting the MD of Starbucks UK. Either that or he was just one of those weirdo attention-seekers who completely fabricate their Walter Mitty existences in order to feel important and gain misguided respect from gullible strangers. But I think now that it was the former.

Numerous colleagues took pleasure in announcing to me that Starbucks had just opened a new branch in Moorgate, closer to our office than the other branches that surrounded us. This was important news as I am a notorious Chai Tea Latté addict.

I know many people are anti-Starbucks. Many felt unhappy about Starbucks’ previous rapid expansion (the satirical The Onion reported many years ago that “Starbucks, the nation's largest coffee-shop chain, continued its rapid expansion Tuesday, opening its newest location in the men's room of an existing Starbucks.”) and feel no sadness that branches are now closing in the States. I keep bombarding colleagues with facts about their Fair Trade and charitable activities in attempts to soften their anti-capitalist pig dog feelings toward it, but I doubt I’ll win that war, although when I’ve treated them to various hot drinks, they’ve all thoroughly enjoyed them.

Not the way I do Chai Tea Lattés, of course. They are my favourite treat, my only vice, but more than that: they are, frankly, the reason I make it to work and get through the day. Not just because of the caffeine content; they are the carrot and stick that keep me putting one foot in front of the other to lead me from the rail station to the office rather than just to another platform where I might board a train that’s headed back home. So, despite my awareness that I’m spending a bazillion pounds a year on tea by buying two of them a day, you could say that, without Chai Tea Lattés, I would be bankrupt and homeless, as work would probably stop paying me if I stopped turning up, and then the mortgage and credit cards would drown me, and my cats and I would be out on the street.

When Starbucks first reached these shores, I would stare longingly at the people walking all around me clutching those magical cups that promised a hot, wet treat, sometimes foamy and sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate, which seemed indulgent yet couldn’t possibly be as fattening or artery-hardening as, say, a bowl of trifle or a hot fudge sundae. It was just a drink, so surely not so dangerous, yet they were carrying little cups of pleasure to enjoy when they reached their destination. I wanted that, but I detest coffee. That’s one reason they made me leave America.

I would occasionally meet friends there and enjoy a hot chocolate, but that really is too sickly and fattening to get regular pleasure from, plus as a rookie I frequently scorched my tongue and throat by forgetting that it’s much hotter than milky tea so shouldn’t be poured down one’s gullet as soon as one sits down. They eventually came out with Chai Tea Lattés, which had the fun foam of café lattés but rested above delicious black Assam tea with spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cardamom—absolutely scrummy, and if you get it skinny (with skim milk), it’s not half so dangerous. Sadly, I always get the largest size, Venti (which comedian was it who pointed out that Starbucks’ three cup sizes all mean ‘big’ in three different languages?)

So, Chai Tea Lattés were a little bit of happiness for me, but after my father died and I first returned to work following some weeks off trying to grow my brain back, I really did feel I couldn’t possibly leave the station in the morning upon arrival in the City unless it was on a train headed back home. Then I pointed out to myself that there was a Starbucks just a few hundred yards away, in my sights, and if I could just get there…..and once I got there, everyone was very friendly and seemingly supportive, and they gave me a wonderful drink, which really did become the carrot on the stick leading me to my office, where I would be able to sit down and enjoy my treat. Once I was there, it was a bit easier to cope, having already crossed the overwhelming threshold, and if I found myself flagging, it was good to have an excuse to pop out for a 10-minute walk (to a Starbucks) even on the busiest afternoons. I would go to a different branch from the morning one partly as it was closer to the office but also because I didn’t want the people who worked there to realise what a total addict I had become. Though what would they care?

At a good branch of Starbucks, they learn your drink by heart, despite you being one of hundreds of people they see each day. I just walk into the door and, as in a country pub, they start preparing my drink. Sometimes, when there is some loathsome swine in front of me fetching 12 drinks for his office and delaying me hugely, they will pause to make mine and hand it to me before finishing the swine’s thoughtlessly huge order. I love them. They know exactly how I like my drink, which can turn out dreadfully in the wrong hands (and paying over £3 for a cup of tea is ridiculous, but paying over £3 for an undrinkable cup of tea is infuriating and makes you want to kill someone). They are always kind and friendly, bizarrely seem happy in what seems an uneventful job, and even if my train journey has been heinous, which is often the case, their sunny dispositions and the way they know what I want without asking (how many spouses could say the same?) lifts my spirits a bit, and then they hand me my ticket to travel across the City to my office: the promise of a delicious drink. My small reciprocation was to give them a box of truffles at Christmas.

On this day, I had only 15 minutes before a meeting and really couldn’t see how I could make the journey, but was reminded that a branch had just opened very nearby. So I popped out after all and was waiting for my magic elixir to be made when I noticed a man standing half way between where customers waited for their drinks and half-way between the counter, where a member of smiley member of staff was answering his questions. He seemed to have his feet planted firmly there and I wondered whether, despite the smile, the staff member were irritated by this possibly lonely weirdo customer. But it wasn’t my business; I checked the emails on my phone and got ready to grab my drink and get to my meeting.

But then this possibly lonely weirdo customer spoke to me. I flinched slightly as I'm usually expert at avoiding chatty strangers who might want to take my bank details or convince me to change energy supplier. He started by introducing himself, and I never listen to names as I have some disability when it comes to remembering them and I’m usually too busy being judgemental about the speaker to hear what he has said. I did catch the North American accent though, and (despite being American myself), thought to myself in an unfriendly Londoner way: These Americans always have to talk to everybody, don’t they? So I gave him only a quarter of my attention and a brief smile whilst turning back to my phone, ‘til he said he was the Managing Director of Starbucks. He was wearing a baseball cap and, from what I recalled shortly afterwards, fairly casual gear and no tie. I never would have pegged him as an executive of anything.

Initially not sure whether he was THE head of Starbucks (this was shortly before the publicity after that insult exchange between Howard Schultz and Peter Mandelson), although I thought THE head must be CEO rather than just MD, I still assumed he must be from America and asked him what he was doing there. He said he’d been unable to make it for the grand opening of that branch a few days before so he thought he’d pop in (a statement that made me more sceptical as surely the head of Starbucks wouldn’t go to every new branch). His popping in, if he were he who said, must have been a real shock for the employees, particularly as he was travelling incognito. (Unfortunately, it had no softening effect on the very scary woman who I assume is the manager, who rules that branch like some SS exercise, shouting at the staff and humiliating them in front of and as well as the customers, making me dread going in there so much that I usually don’t, which is a far cry from the usual Starbucks philosophy).

He asked if I were a regular, which can’t have meant at that particular brand new branch, and I said that unfortunately, I was one of his best customers. Why unfortunately, he asked. Because it was going to bankrupt me, I replied. I don’t suppose Starbucks execs are amused about constant jibes about how much they charge for drinks (which I happily pay twice a day, it should be noted).

The price of a cup of tea has, I must say, completely skewed my sense of value. If I try to resist purchasing something, I’ll think, well, that’s just the price of a week’s Chai Tea Lattés, so I go ahead and get it. It makes me think how cheap a lottery ticket is, a third of a Chai Tea Latté, and that could be my ticket to a peaceful life of writing rather than a pressured life of a horrid job, so I make foolish decisions there occasionally (as the odds are ridiculous). However, one benefit of this value measure is that I donate to several charities via monthly direct debit as it’s usually paying per month to each what I spend in a morning at Starbucks, so it is easily justified despite my debts (and I’ll give them so much more once that lottery win comes in).

This head Starbucks chap spoke to me a bit more, and I said I’d been meaning to write to them in praise of their Walbrook branch. I raved about its service and country pub ways and said I didn’t know what they did to inspire their staff who might otherwise feel they were working in a tedious job (albeit one I could never, ever do with my lack of memory and of speedy manual skills), but they often cheered me up when I’d just emerged from some hopelessly late train as a ball of furious frustration. He spouted off a bit about the Starbucks philosophy of making each visit a welcoming experience blah blah etc, and I didn't mind though I knew all that. That corporate speak speech was what made me think he most likely really was the MD, and it would have been rude to make my ever-present scepticism evident at the time anyway. I was handed my drink, and he smiled at its complexity when the employee announced to me what they had produced at my request. We were getting along fine (though sadly, he didn’t offer me some high-paying job with free Chai Tea Lattés perhaps doing magical music compilations on their label which people could buy digitally in shop from machines as well…..) until I stupidly said, as I began to depart, that he must be American as I was.

“I’m Canadian”, he said with the cold exasperation that every Canadian must say a dozen times a week when people assume they’re one of us. My assumption had really been more because he was from corporate of a US company; I famously don’t really hear accents and have been known to insist to my colleagues’ amusement that a voice on my voicemail was clearly American when in fact it was Scottish.

So Mr Starbucks went off me quickly when I called him American, and he said he’d lived here about 25 years, which I muttered was a few years longer than me and that he hadn’t lost his accent, which was a daft thing to say particularly as I hadn’t really heard it.

I scraped into my meeting back at the office and announced that I’d just met the MD of Starbucks, unless he was just a pathetic creep pretending to be the MD of Starbucks, and even the anti-capitalists there were impressed as though I’d accomplished something special. I recounted how we’d been chatting along happily until I insulted him by calling him American when he was Canadian.

“Well, if you can’t tell, we have no hope,” one of my English colleagues said. Another proceeded to teach us all the key words he swore were a giveaway if pronounced a certain odd way as a Canadian would. But they were words that don’t often come up in a chat about coffee, like “house” and “quinine”. When I skied regularly in Canada in my youth, it seemed to me that most Canadians added “eh?” at the end of each sentence, but that might be regional or have died out; indeed, I hadn’t known any Canadian singers such as the great Ron Sexsmith to say such a thing constantly during his between-song banter at concerts. And this man hadn’t said, “You’re a regular customer, eh?” yet he still proved to be Canadian.

When I eventually had a chance to Google the MD of Starbucks, having concluded that it was Starbucks UK and not the whole conglomerate who was represented, I started to believe that I had, almost as expected, been hoodwinked, as the MD was a Phil Broad who looked nothing like the chap I met (who, curiously, almost did look a bit like some photos of CEO Schultz). But eventually I found that Broad had stepped down last summer and been replaced with Darcy Willson-Rymer, who was hard to find a photo of, but I believe that surname is Canadian. I eventually found a tiny photo of him sitting around the table with several others from an article on fair trade coffee, and I’m pretty sure that’s the baseball hat guy.

Do I feel like I’ve met my patron saint? Not quite, but it was an interesting few minutes whilst waiting for my lovely nectar. I was glad for more than one reason that I had ventured out to that new branch despite my lack of time. Even if he didn’t offer me a great job in their music business or as Chai Tea Latté Taster purely based on my, uh, magnetism during the few minutes we spoke until I dared to insult him with the A-word, it was an experience to break up the monotony of the days.