Being Published

On a couple of occasions recently I have been asked what the first thing I ever had published was. This is a difficult question to answer, because I never know at what level the questioner expects me to begin.

For example, the very first thing was probably a comic tale about my classmates which I had published in the school magazine – ‘The Bin’ – when I was about 18. It was kind of cruel as it lampooned one or two people rather thoroughly, but at the same time there’s always a certain element of cruelty in comedy and at that time I was less inclined to shy away from it than I am now.

However, it may be that this was preceded by me having a letter published in Smash Hits magazine. As I have alluded to before, this was the premier music magazine of the time, bigger even than the New Musical Express (which at the time had lapsed into a kind of pretentious, navel-gazing, doldrums). It had never occurred to me to write in before, but for some reason I was inspired to put pen to paper after an innocuous comment by Robert Smith of The Cure to one of their journalists provoked a batch of unfriendly replies from readers.

Regular readers will remember that The Cure are my favourite band ever, bar none. In my volatile teenage years any criticism of them provoked a bad reaction from me, but this time I don’t think I went over the top. I do however have to qualify that, because I can’t actually remember what I wrote! I know that the comment that Robert made was that the cover photo on one of their albums* was supposed to show the three band members as the deceased body of Marilyn Monroe.

Now, of course, I can understand why people were not very happy about this. Monroe to many is an icon (even though she’s vastly over-rated in my view) and they were not to know that, at the time, Smith was going through a phase of telling whopping lies** to music journalists. If truth be told I was surprised that my letter was published, but I wore the small badge which I was sent with pride – right up until the time I lost it a few weeks later.

I am not sure which of these events came first, because I didn’t keep copies of either of them. It took me a long time to learn that I should do that.

*I’m not mentioning the name because it will stop this post getting past ‘naughty word’ checkers, but it is a 1982 album, the only one with three band members on the front and…well, if you need more clues I doubt you will get it anyway.

*I am not sure if this actually was a lie, but it came at the around the same time he claimed to have recorded a record of Frank Sinatra covers and to take a lamb on tour with him, so it quite possibly was.

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We’ve Got A Little Sister!

I’ve always been greatly amused by the stories of women who give birth in inconvenient places – the changing rooms of clothes shops, the office, Reading County Court, that sort of thing – and then claim that they didn’t know they were pregnant. To my mind, that must take a spectacular combination of stupidity, mathematical illiteracy and salad-dodging.

Now, I will confess to having at least two of those problems myself (though I only dodge undressed salad nowadays, and lettuce is lovely when stir fried). Even so, imagine my shock a couple of days ago when I found out that The Memory Blog has a little sister*.

The South African Memory Blog is the work of my lovely friend Sarah Jane and although a very tiny infant is still well worth a read.

Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing the parallels between Sarah Jane’s life and mine, seeing as she is a decade younger than me, grew up on a different continent and had the misfortune to be born a girl. I hope that you’ll enjoy the contrast, too, and from time to time I’ll pick up on something she’s said and give you my own take on it, just so that you can see the difference.

*Little sisters are fun. It takes them a long time to realise how gullible they are. Which is why on at least one occasion Karen ended up standing naked in the field behind our house whilst Roland Pettifer and I ran away with her clothes.

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I Never Play Basketball Now

I have always had a slightly ambivalent attitude to basketball. Most people, when describing me, usually mention that I am a bit on the tall side. However, by the standards of basketball players, I am definitely a shorty. And that strikes me as wrong. How can someone who is taller than 95% of the general population – so tall, in fact, that people taller than me scare me – be too short to play a game that is worth billions?

My indifference towards the game was probably not helped when, in the PE lesson where we were taught the rudiments of the game, I was roundly ridiculed for passing the ball back into my own half from the opposing team’s. You’re not allowed to do that and I just hadn’t listened when that particular rule was mentioned.

From this you will gather that my complaints about the heightist nature of the game are ill-founded, because I was never good enough to play for the school team, let alone have a career that might earn me a slice of those billions.

I was just about good enough to play for my form side. That’s not saying a lot in one respect, because you need at least five to make up a team and there were less than fifteen boys in my class and my selection for the side was based largely upon being the second tallest in that class rather on being any good.

Despite my presence, we actually had the best team in my school year. The other members of the side were pretty proficient (one of them did play for the school side for many years) whilst I drew a remarkable number of fouls simply by being so gangly it was hard to get the ball from me and so skinny that I was easy to knock over. When we won the game which gave us the nominal title of champions of our year, two of the opposing class’ best players ‘fouled out’ of the game, most of their fouls called for running into me as I blindly ran about not having a clue what I was doing.

In the following years, there were no inter-form tournaments due to, variously, teachers’ strikes or exams, so my basketball career, very minor though it was, at least ended on a high.

All of which gives me a good excuse to play this, one of my favourite songs from my school years and one which I never quite managed to squeeze into the Monday Morning Musical Memory series:

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A Matthew

Writing about my first wedding the other day reminded me of a curious little incident from about five months ago. I was walking along either Fleet Street or The Strand in London*, on my way to talk to someone about a job I eventually didn’t get because they were being idiots, when I passed a familiar figure. As I hadn’t seen him since 2000 it took me a while to realise who it was I had just walked past, and I am sure he didn’t recognise me.

The person in question was Matthew (or if it wasn’t it was certainly someone who looked like him), who at the time I did know him was some kind of political wonk at the National Farmers’ Union, where Helen worked at the time we got married. Which, coincidentally, was the last time I had seen him.

Matthew was young, enthusiastic, almost a dead ringer for Basil Fotherington-Thomas and one of the strangest people I have ever met.

The first time I met him was the evening that he and Helen had decided that the three of us would go to the River Cafe. Suffice to say that I can remember absolutely nothing of the food that we ate, even though I am sure it was wonderful and have mentally blocked the entire event.

We arrived to collect Matthew from his flat in the middle of Wimbledon. He was late. One of his flatmates let us in, sat us down in the living room and wandered off. Matthew came home somewhat later and introduced himself. Then he poured himself a glass of white wine without offering either of us a drink and went to get changed. My memory of the evening basically ends at that atrocious lack of hospitality.

The second meeting was another meal out, this time in Guildford. I can’t remember how this all came about, because it was supposed to be Helen and me meeting up with my good friend and former colleague Nick Hudson for a curry. Because Matthew somehow ended up being there too, we landed in an expensive French restaurant instead. The more the evening went on, the more pretentious and obnoxious Matthew became, to the point where I ended up apologising to Nick the next day for his behaviour.

And then there was the wedding. Where every other man wore a lounge suit and Matthew wore a morning suit ‘because [he] want[ed] to’.

I didn’t stop him to say hello.

*I am never sure where one stops and the other begins

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Family Names

The first time that you meet the parents of your new boy or girlfriend is always an awkward moment. Not only are you in essence admitting that there are parts of you that you wish to have in contact with parts of their offspring, parts which your putative in-laws would probably rather forget that anyone under their age actually had, but you have to deal with the dilemma of what to actually call them.

Does ‘Mr Jones’ sound unduly formal (and a bit stupid if you are not dating someone named ‘Jones’)? Does ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ sound unduly creepy? Where on earth is someone to stand?

I had a very different problem with Helen’s family, though. Meeting her parents wasn’t a problem and when I called them by something vaguely respectful like ‘Mr…’ or ‘Mrs…’ they immediately corrected me, telling me to call them ‘William’ and ‘Audrey’ respectively.

That, though, was the problem, because no-one else used those names. You see, everyone in Helen’s family called each other by a nickname. William was ‘Chums’, Audrey ‘Wombs’ (as in ‘Womble’), Helen ‘Balloo’, Karen ‘Boo’ and Stephen ‘Bugs’. Which makes it very difficult to decide how to refer to them. As an outsider, are such familial names too familiar?

I found an easy way around the problem in the end. I stopped referring to anyone by any kind of name. It was just less confusing for me.

Then again, after Karen had all of her wisdom teeth out and came home looking like a chipmunk I did nickname her ‘Chips’ – but I couldn’t use that at family gatherings because only she and I knew what I was on about.


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Pinch, Punch, First of the Month

I can’t remember when I was first introduced to this curious little ritual. It must have been when I was about six and actually knew what day, date and month it was, but I don’t remember when someone first decided to mock-assault me just because it was the first day of the month.

I do know that it was a little ritual that immediately attracted me. In fact, once my brother and sisters were old enough to understand it, too, we had to bring in a rule that you could only do it before midday, otherwise a slightly competitive way of acknowledging the start of a new month rapidly became four kids knocking seven bells out of one another!

It did get me into trouble once, though not serious trouble. It happened during my first year at school in Scotland. For some reason, we didn’t have our usual class teacher, Mrs Pettigrew, that day, but a different teacher who used to come in and look after us on occasion. I cannot remember her name now, but she was tall and thin (or so she seemed, everyone looks tall when you are six) and old (but everyone looks old when you are six). Moreover, she was distinctly unamused when I decided to ‘pinch, punch’ her.

As I said, I didn’t really get into that much trouble, but her verbal riposte left me in no doubt that this was not the sort of thing that one should do to one’s teacher and an activity best confined to one’s friends and family. I now wish I had been smart enough to recognise this as carte blanche to pinch and punch my friends, at least so long as it was the first day of the month.

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Andy and Me

I have seen many bands and singers over the years, so many that it is surprising just how many of them are still with us – or, to put it another way, just how few of them have died. After all, the famed rock’n’roll lifestyle isn’t normally regarded as being that conducive to longevity. Yet until this week the death toll stood – so far as I can recall, anyway – at just six.

Then, sadly, Andy Williams went and made it more than half a dozen. You might be surprised to know, given my music taste, that I saw him twice in concert, both times at the Royal Albert Hall. They were good shows put on by a consummate professional. Neither, however, were as good as the time that I was mistaken for him.

That’s a bit remarkable, isn’t it. After all, he was twice my age, American, wealthy and above all a very good singer. But it did happen.

Helen was a massive fan of all the crooners, but Sinatra and Williams were her favourites. That is how I came to see Williams twice, and how a joke about someone being ‘as much use as next year’s calendar is to Frank Sinatra’ almost got me divorced before we were even married.

At our wedding, we hatched a plan that instead of saying all of the usual platitudes about the bride in my speech, I would just mime along to a tape of Williams singing ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. I did, and it went down brilliantly. I even remembered the words.

Afterwards, we set off on the traditional tour of all of the tables by the married couple, but got split up somewhere along the way, so I didn’t find out until the next day that one of Helen’s colleagues from the National Farmers’ Union (where she was working at the time) had said to her:

Richard’s got a wonderful voice, hasn’t he? Do you think he would sing at my wedding?

Which has to be one of the funniest things said at a wedding ever. Especially if you have ever had the misfortune to hear me sing.

RIP Andy

(And RIP John Entwistle, Lee Brilleaux, Rob Jones, Martin Gilks, Gerard Smith and Chris Acland)

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