Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1976: Have myself a little talk

Secondary school was full of new experiences. Not all of them good.

I had no interest in doing woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing or home economics, the four practical subjects on rotation in that first year. None of them held an appeal so the fact that it was woodwork first made no difference.

Our first project was to make a letter rack. It was simple: three bits of cheap pine. One for the base and two for the sides, shaped anyway you like. No screws or tricky joinery necessary, just wood glue to hold it all together. Easy as pie. But could I do it?

I decided to go octagonal, and needless to say I was pulled up endlessly for the myriad saw slip marks on it. I just about managed to chisel the grooves in the base for them to stand it and when it was glued it was wonky, but amazingly it survives to this day.

Of course, some people - even girls! - were brilliant at it. They probably left school at 16y and now run their own bespoke kitchen fitting company and are worth millions.

So when it came to metalwork I was beyond hopeless. Some people were fashioning house numbers and name plates (think of the handiwork that went into the 25 Cromwell Street sign and be impressed), whereas my bit of polystyrene that you had to assemble then mould into your house number by dipping into the molten metal vat just disintegrated. That vat's only proper purpose that I could see was as a recepticle for a classmates' pens when Mr Smith's back was turned. Anything that could be thrown in, was thrown in. And as for the dry ice and the sulphuric acid...

Why they let a group of 11 to 12-year-olds near powertools, sharp edges, heavy blunt instruments and vats of boiling steel is anyone's guess, as the temptation to piss about was far too great. It was bad enough being let loose with a compass or being around a Bunsen burner. Who didn't put their hand in it? Or worse? It was all I could do not to put Stuart Gill's entire briefcase in there and then die laughing. I'm sure I got letters home. But seeing as these were non-academic subjects, my parents couldn't have cared less. Like when I had a letter home about not trying hard enough in cycling. They just laughed. And as for cookery, that's quite another post altogether.

Anyhoo, this song reminds me of a woodwork lesson in which we sang snippets from and discussed this song as being too American to be believable for the cheesey - and they were - Brotherhood Of Man, though it does remain my favourite BOM song, and perhaps their least remembered too.

I'm still totally non-practical, though I did assemble an Ikea miniature filing cabinet in record time over the weekend and I can change a fuse, put the rubbish out, use a drill and mend leaky pipes. But I won't be making a rabbit hutch or putting a shelf up any time soon.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

1995: It's never easy

One day, standing in the kitchen, I was suddenly hit by a realistion that I should be a journalist. I now knew what I should do with my life. But had I ever written anything of note? Not really. And did I have any experience or any means of getting into my chosen profession? Hardly. So what should I do?


For six years I had felt stifled, bored, unchallanged and creatively barren. Not that I was this fabulous artist dying to break free from the restraints of legal publishing, but at least it could have been a bit more exciting and it really just wasn't me.

I applied for many magazine and media jobs, none of whom replied, though the BBC were always very good at at least sending you an application form. One day, however, an agency called me in. They told me that it was all very well me wanting to work for Q magazine but at my age, and with my lack of journalistic experience, the only way out of my current predicament was to retrain. I had no money and couldn't possibly support myself were I to do this, and at this point I could see my life ebbing away, stuck in a job I loathed forever.

Shortly after this however, we were told that my department was being up to Yorkshire and I wasn't going with it, so I was going to be plonked in the editorial pool. End of story. There, I would fester and grow bitter. And older. I couldn't countenance it.

So seeing as they probably wanted rid of me as much as I wanted rid of them, we came to an agreement: I asked for six months pay and I got it, without a quibble. I told them my plans and they kindly did all they could to get me onto a course I'd seen. And after an interview in which we had a general knowledge test, had to construct a news story and talk about why we wanted to be on the course, I was in. Just weeks later the time had come. I was starting a new life.

I had a friend who was a journalist. He'd been a bit of an inspiration. He'd worked for Channel 4 news and Radio 4, and I wanted a piece of that. Sadly, just two weeks before I was to start my course he was shot dead by a sniper in Croatia. On their way back to their hotel (on their last day before coming home) they'd seen smoke rising from a distant village and took a detour to investigate. And then it happened. He was 29.

I saw it on the front page of all the papers when I got into work. It made me more determined than ever.

Sixteen years ago this coming weekend, I left work, had a leaving do and was due to start on Monday. Mrs P was away on a work trip so I had a weekend of panic shopping and fretting about the people, the course, the journey - after having not done anything new work-wise for six years this was a big change for me.

I needn't have worried. From the first day I knew it was the right thing to do. As the term went on it just got better and better, but that's another story. Everyone should have an epiphany.

This bittersweet song was everywhere at this moment in 1995. I never know whether to be happy or sad when I hear it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

1991: Can only lead to no good

I'd been in my 'proper' job coming up for a year and I really loathed it. It wasn't the company's fault per se, though the lack of training didn't help. It was boring and I was no good at it. I didn't have the patience to sift through law texts looking for literals and putting things into style. It just wasn't me.

But at least I'd made some good friends. Some people seemed to have very exciting lives though, like my colleague and friend whose boyfriend was co-manager of some new singer called Seal. I'd never heard of him but I was told he was going to be huge. And then came his collaboration with Adamski which suddenly set the world on fire and there we were, right in the middle of a big pop moment, with Killer soundtracking the summer of 1990.

While my friend was good at her job and very reliable she, like me, wasn't that bothered about it, so as she had a car and lived nearby she'd pick me up in the morning. But as we worked in the fledgling Docklands (Canary Wharf was under construction) and lived in south west London, it took forever to get there in her battered 2CV and it had to stop. My boss was running out of patience. But that summer was a scorcher, and each morning in the car this would come on.

As the months went by Seal became big news, and we were invited to the Wogan show at the Shepherd's Bush Theatre early the following year to see him perform his new single Future Love Paradise. We met him and the manger in the Bush pub next door first, and he was unusual looking, slightly intimidating, but charm itself. The music biz coterie around him were a different matter, a scary dark denim everything-raddled corner huddle with menacing Ian Dury overtones.

I don't remember who else was on that edition of Wogan except some woman who'd walked the Pennine way on stilts in order to publicise schizophrenia or something. What I remember most is that Terry came out to talk to the appreciative audience which was made up of coach parties of pensioners pre-show, then they all cracked their Tupperwares open during the show. It was flasks a go-go. It was like they'd make the journey just to eat sandwiches in a different setting.

Not long after, my friend's boyfriend was ousted by the management just as Seal went stratospheric and he had to find another interest on the borders of the music industry. I can't be sure, but I think that's what did for him in the end.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

1979: Although nothing seems right

On the way back from the beach, we'd popped in on Great Auntie Beryl and Great Uncle Alec in Christchurch. I'd only seen them once before at their daughter's wedding in 1973, the first wedding I went to and the last one until 1988 (Since then I've been to at least one a year). And I never saw them again.

But what really sticks in my mind is that on this Bank Holiday Monday, we heard the news on the way home that Lord Mountbatten had died. Mum remarked that these types of tragedies always happened on bank holidays. I begged to differ then as I do now - I can't think of anything else of that magnitude that happened over a bank holiday. Can you?

My mind was elsewhere, however, because the very next day it was back to school. Such an abrupt end to a very long summer holiday. You try really hard not to let those back to school displays in shop windows get you down but it's always at the back of your mind. Mrs P and I noticed a large poster advertaising the Oxford intrument box in WH Smith's window in Jersey at the weekend, and we both shuddered. That hateful triumvirate of protractor, set square and compass - they still fill me with dread. I still couldn't tell you how to use a protractor and thankfully I'll never need to know.

I wasn't much looking forward to going back to school. Everything was changing. I was 15, it was the final O level year, friends were shifting about, joining other groups, Two-Tone was in full swing and I desperately needed the fashions, there were rumblings we were moving abroad and I generally felt rather unsettled. Where was I going with my life? I really didn't want to think about it.

So here's a back to school song for you if ever there was one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

1977: Her mind is Tiffany-twisted

I used to tell people Hotel California was the first record I ever bought. It wasn't of course, as documented way back when in this blog. For some reason I thought it was cooler.

What it was, however, is the first record I sought out the words too.

When you hear an oldie on the radio these days it's all so clear and fresh that sometimes you hear a lyric that finally makes sense. Back in 1977, when radio wasn't on FM and muddily came through AM, you had to listen hard. I remember a Radio 1 FM trial day in about 1983. They played 17 by The Regents and it all sounded so utterly different. So thank God for Disco 45 magazine.

Remember it? It printed songwords long before Smash Hits was a twinkle in anyone's eye. Here, you'd find all your favourites written out, sometimes I would imagine by someone listening to the radio rather than getting them from the horses mouth, but it was the only way you could find them. I can still do you a flawless Up Town Top Ranking if you were to ask me.

So on the day we set off for holiday in Cornwall, I was armed with Disco 45 waiting for Hotel California to come on the radio. And when it did it was a revelation: 'warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air'. I wouldn't have guessed that in a million years. Songwords in print - I was hooked.

Cornwall was miserable though. A nasty little terrace backing onto a bleak disused tinmine with ancient neighbours meaning we had to keep quiet at all times. We went to Mousehole and Penzance, stayed in St Ives on the way down, and I had my 12th birthday. Oh, and it pissed down so hard we only stayed half the week. Hotels in California were but a dream to me then. I've not been to Cornwall since.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

1977: Flowers in the dustbin

Of course I never heard this record at the time. You wouldn't have heard it on any radio station and I knew no one who owned it because most shops refused to stock it. I remember being in Acorns, the local record/gift shop, and a man thumbing through the singles chanced up on it.

'I see you've got this in,' he said.
'Well,' mused the woman behind the counter. 'We sort of had to.'

I knew what she meant. What sort of record retailer would she be if she didn't stock it? Not for her to kow-tow to newspaper hysterics and the Mary Whitehouse brigade. But if only I'd bought it. It was the rare, super-valuable A&M version too. That man didn't buy it, but someone probably did and now they're sitting on a goldmine. Story of my life.

Because neither I nor anyone I knew had never heard the song, there was a lot of speculation about its content. Someone said it was banned because the words were 'the Queen's a fucking bastard' to the tune of Remember You're A Womble. It was perfectly plausible.

But then I saw the lyrics in Record Mirror, with talk about fascist regimes, morons and H-bombs. I was unsure as to what it was all about, but there was no swearing in it. No future, yes, but no rude words. What a disappointment.

So once I let it slip that I knew the words to this major secondary school talking point I was inundated with enquiries and was asked to recite them to anyone who asked. I couldn't really remember them so I just layered it on - at 12 I don't think I knew what a fascist was, but I knew it was bad. Even the single school would-be punk sought me out. I was terrified but I got away with it. There were no real punks in our town and if there were a mother wasn't doing her job properly, so I was told.

Those of us who remember this magical Silver Jubilee-tinged time (with my 12th birthday slap bang in the middle of it), will recall how much of a stir this record caused. Even in my small corner of southern England people were up in arms, and everyone was convinced there was a move to pretend Rod Stewart was number one rather than the Pistols who were actually outselling him, but nothing was going to take the shine off the nation's street parties. These dreadful people! The country's going to the dogs. Even my granny - the prudish one - had heard of Johnny Rotten and had it in for him. And the fact that they had the word 'sex' in their name. Gasp! TOTP and Radio 1 called them 'the Pistols', because clearly the sex bit would offend. The filth and the fury, eh?

When it all died down - which of course it did, with everyone of a certain age declaring that the establishment had won out in the end - I saw an ad in Record Mirror for their new single Pretty Vacant. We were in the car when I spotted it, and I remember thinking, good for them for weathering the storm and coming out the other side, not allowing themselves to be beaten down by a few maniac naysayers.

I had no idea how the world worked.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

1980: They want us to join their fighting

I used to despise smoking. But of course, once everyone else was doing it and it you knew it was bad, well, you just had to find out what all the fuss was about didn't you?

Well I did.

I've never been one for peer pressure as such, though in the early days of these things mattering in your life it was a different story. That said, I tried to show that I wouldn't be cowed, even when I really wanted to do something I knew I shouldn't. Sometimes though, you've just got to.

Smoking never bothered me. Dad smoked, Uncle Tony smoked, everyone smoked. On buses, in pubs, in shops, in houses. No one said a word when our next door neighbour used to light up while doing the school run. We'd be in the back and he'd chainsmoke all the way, windows closed. Not ideal, but these days he'd probably be in court for that. But what did bother me was friends smoking.

I was properly shocked when I saw Vivienne Walters smoking outside the newsagent. 'And she was always such a nice girl!', I thought. I was totally taken aback. But then as I subsequently discovered, she wasn't the only one. Far from it. Everyone was at it. Classrooms smelt of smoke, it was in the air. There didn't seem to be much they could do to stop it.

She immediately fell in with what were considered a bad crowd, who at the time were really quite scary and all seemed really hard and clearly much, much older. They used to gather to smoke on the way home or at the local lake. I was terrified of some of them. They once chased me and my friend Jonathan into a river when we chanced upon them in a country park. By this time though, he'd joined them. I knew some of them, some being in my class or in other classes but I purposefully kept my distance. Mum would have killed me. And besides, they wouldn't have wanted me.

But there was a mystique, if not a glamour then some kind of pull. My friends Shaun and Richard were peripheral figures and one Saturday as autumn was coming to 1980 we went to the sports centre. It was a large place, more a park really but with a dry ski slope (coming soon 1981: My Skiiing Hell), and various sports pitches. It was usually empty and because it was sprawling you didn't really see a soul.

We went into the vast empty coffee bar and Richard put Stevie Wonder's Masterblaster on the jukebox. It sounded great. So when they got their fags out I was nervous but I finally gave in. I'd smoked. Oh my God what had I become! It was illicit, bad, I'd get in trouble if they smelt smoke on me. I was loving every minute of it.

At home, Mum and Dad had old friends Margaret and Philip for the weekend. Their son had recently died of a brain tumour and they've moved away. Dad was admiring Philips powder blue Chevette. Mum had bought the Barbara Streisand Guilty album. Woman In Love was number one. The next day, our rabbit died. I tell you, it was all go.

I had the odd cigarette over the years until I became a bona fide proper smoker in 1982. I haven't stopped since. And this is why peer pressure is bad for you, kids.

Friday, August 12, 2011

1974: From July 'til the end of September

I'm no fan of the beach. All that sand. As a child, I'd refuse to put my feet on it. I didn't like the way it moved and it made me feel very unsteady. I grew to like it a bit more and once you're in the sea - as long as you feet don't have to touch the ground - then it's fun. But I remain a non-beach holiday person. I'd much rather stick to the city and sit by a pool, but even then not for long.

This was a problem as a youngster. Mum and Dad were sun worshippers. The minute the sun had got its hat on they were out on loungers in the back garden. Our neighbours said they were vain. My brother, like my parents, tanned like a dream whereas I was the one who burnt to a crisp in an instant and had to spend most of the time covered up in the shade with a comic. In Thailand once I got so badly burned I blistered. My skin has never really recovered.

So it was with little joy that in the summer holidays we'd often go on day trips to the beach, sometimes as much as twice a week. Packed into Mum's roasting white Mini Clubman, we'd take the long journey through the New Forest, get caught up in endless roadworks around Ringwood, then on to Boscombe, just outside Bournemouth.

We'd leave early too, and always hear Radio 1 and 2 join together at about 9ish, while trapped in a hot car, picking the melted resin out of the inside of the back side pockets and hearing songs like this one come up time after time. Only recently did I realise Strawberry Switchblade sampled that brassy bit.

Sometimes we'd meet other friends down there, sometimes we'd have a friend come along in the car and sometimes it was just the three of us. I can still smell the car: Sandwich Spread sandwiches, hot fruit, flasks of hideous milky coffee and Smith's crisps. Mum's brandy snap craze was in full swing at this time too, but they didn't travel well. I still don't like them. Eating on the beach is one of life's horrors. It's not natural. You always get sand in your sandwiches. And in your crisps! The highlight of day for me was a Haunted House or a Captain Cody. Refreshing relief from all that heat and more often than not, sand-free.

That said, I don't remember hating days at the beach. It was something to do, kept us from under Mum's feet and so worked for everyone. Mum would sunbathe while we splashed about. It was very free and easy. But given the choice, I'd far rather have been in front of the telly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

1984: Take your baby by the hand

It was my roomate's dad's birthday and he asked me if I'd like to accompany him to London for the birthday dinner. It's Chinese...

Okay, but panic mode. His father lived in Chelsea and, was from all accounts, an absolute monster, with a second wife they all hated. He was also, I was told, incredibly formal, a hard taskmaster, hugely old-fashioned and they weren't that close. So all that - and what about the dinner? Would I have to pay my share? Unlike my friend, I didn't have that kind of money.

I was mixing with some high-falutin' types at this boarding school. By now I was in my last year and had become well used to this new world. Me, the boy from the comp mixing with sons and daughters of the landed gentry, rubbing shoulders with foreign royalty and even bagging himself an ambassdor's daughter as a girlfriend.

Thankfully it wasn't all like that, and there were plenty like me, forced into boarding because their parents were living and working abroad. But it was still vastly removed from my old life and I wasted no time in blending in. (I know I became a bit of a monster too, but that's another story).

So up to London we went. It was already dark when we arrived at Sloane Square station, and shops were all but shut. It was March time, and the windows were full of all-the-rage dayglo and flourescent stuff. This song was in my head and all over the radio, it's darkness always reminding me of that brief moment. I took fashion notes as we hurtled down the King's Road to his shipbroker father's old money pad in Oakley Street, my mind racing.

I was nervous about meeting these grand people, and as we let ourselves into the basement my roomate asked to shake my hand. When I asked why, he said he wanted to check that my handshake would pass muster with his father. I nearly shat myself. I was also stunned that ANYONE would do this. Some families, eh?

As it happens, dad and wife couldn't have been lovelier. Stepmother made me feel very welcome - she even shared her fags. Father was not nearly as formal as he sounded and had sideburns Mungo Jerry would covet. Dinner was nothing fancy and all paid for. There was nothing to worry about after all.

My roomate remained my best pal for at least 10 more years. We're still in touch but we don't see each other. After moving to a huge farm hin Sussex, his dad was ditched by the stepmother, so he sold up, moved to Minorca and promptly lost all his money in that Lloyds disaster.

Wonder if it's still necessary to check handshakes?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

1979: It seemed like the real thing but I was so blind

One of my best pals for a few years a boy called Richard. He lived in a modest house but with one exception: he had a swimming pool.

As you came down the hill to his house you could just catch a glimpse, and what a thrill it gave you. We didn't have a swimming pool and none of our neighbours did. My aunt did, but she lived in another town, and the only other one I knew of was an indoor one where my brother learned to swim. So to have a friend with a pool was a prize indeed.

Not that I ever remember going in it more than once. But what I do remember is how much money I was told they had. Despite the small house it was new clothes and cars all round, all the time. Stepfather was a car dealer and seemed to be doing alright. Richard always had the latest leather jackets or Farah slacks, and would chide you if you were wearing a home knit, nasty flares or non-mod parka that dad got in bulk from a sub-Millets warehouse near Shepton Mallet. Nothing like that for him.

I remember his tale of trailing round town buying new clothes after being given (something like) £50 for his birthday. Whatever the sum was, it was a dream to me. I still got 70p pocket money and did three paper rounds.

So on his 14th birthday party I had to buy him something good, and I bought this. It had a blue removable middle and I was so pleased with myself for buying it I threw the bag away and held it, A-side out, for all to see as I walked along the street. I thought it was terribly trendy and therefore so was I for even thinking of buying it. And of course Debbie Harry was the fox du jour.

Anyway, he was thrilled, and we all went to a roller disco. Later in the year we'd go our separate ways as she moved on with the bad crowd and had no time for me. Shame, cos he was always a good laugh. I think he's a car dealer himself now. I bet he's got a swmimming pool. Maybe two.

Monday, August 8, 2011

1983: There are things in life that one can't quite express

There are some things I've never been comfortable with: paying taxi drivers, tipping generally and having my hair cut.

Though over time those things have become a lot easier as you learn how to handle them, I'm still not mad about having my hair cut. It's nice that I've still got hair to cut, but it's the chatting that gets me down. The woman who cuts my hair now is lovely, though I preferred the man who used to do it.

He was one of those wind him up and let him go people. You didn't have to say much, just listen. The new one is more of an effort, and being at least 15 years younger than me makes me feel truly ancient (she'd never heard of David Essex but thought her mum used to like him). But at least I don't have to go through the embarrassment of telling her what I want. That was always my worry.

I'd rarely go to the same place twice as a teenager, after being coiffeurely scarred by childhood visits to Don's World Of Hair in the precint, where I'd come out with a Prince Valiant, until I steadfastly refused to go there anymore aged 14. We had such a row on the way back once my mum stopped the car and made me walk home, which was doubly awful as everyone could see I'd just had my hair cut and were clearly laughing and pointing.

Dad used to go to Mario's, which was a proper something for the weekend joint, and one could only look at the Penthouses on the table but dare not touch. You could buy combs and Brylcreem and nail clippers and Cossack hairspray, proper grown-up man things.

Mum on the other hand used to visit Paul at his high street salon, which was all smoked mirror tiles and pampas basins. My brother had birdshit hightlights there once, but I never went.

As I got older it became even worse. I wanted a trendy haircut and I wasn't going to get one at the barber. So when I went to boarding school we'd go to a buzzy little salon in a dark passageway in the local town. When I first went there I had a bit of a Human League thing going on, but by the end of '82 this look was on the wane. But if anyone could move me into '83 it was them.

So I tore out a picture of Edwyn Collins from Smash Hits and took it with me. I was well into the fey indie band look but lacked the right hair. With some bemusement and probably great internal hysterical laughter, the hairdresser did what she could. But in those days before hair products - for men at least - were widely available, and with my thick but fine hair, there was nothing much that could be done. I came out looking like a beachball that had been punctured on a rocky crag. Oh well. They didn't call me bullethead for nothing, you know.

And then came Morrissey and then came Body Shop coconut hair gel. And I never looked back - until the time I went for the Terry Hall look (See 1982 Fame entry), and then the time I went to the Vidal Sassoon school when I first moved to London to have my hair cut for free, where after five hours I came out looking like Jason Donovan and was forced to dip my head in a lake.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

1978: Baby set my heart on fire

It's coming up to Christmas 1978, and my next-door neighbour asked me if I wanted to go to her school Christmas party. Despite her being at a convent school in another town, I knew a lot of her schoolfriends and jumped at the chance, especially as her friend Chantal would be there.

This exotic creature, with her drainpipe jeans and loafers and prototype Susanne Sulley hairdo was a year older than me and obviously way out of my reach, but I could look. I could even touch...

As it was Christmas, and there was a disco, the nuns had decided to allow boys in, so I wasn't the only one. A pile of fishtail parkas in the vestibule gave it away on arrival, and I pinched a Who badge and attached it to my v-neck.

It was a proper disco, and in the middle of it was Chantal in her satin trousers, a goddess, twisting and writhing to Message In A Bottle and Best Friend's Girl and Hanging On The Telephone, her coterie dressed almost identically to her.

We all danced to everything - even trying out some fancy footwork to this Racey debut hit which was racing up the charts at the time, but which was quickly abandoned due to lack of any kind of skill.

During the course of the evening I half-jokingly asked my neighbour if she thought Chantal would mind if I touched her satin trousers. So she went and asked her. I was mortified. Her look said, 'as if I'd ever let someone like you come anywhere near me'. Cue scratch of needle on record signifying that the evening was over and rather large note to self.

That said, I did accidentally brush by.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

1988: Summer In The City

Two months into my stint at the central London bookshop and I was loving it. Working in a shop was so freeing, and always being busy and on your feet though exhausting at first was brilliant for fitness - I lost a stone in a month - and interacting with the general public had its upsides, especially competitions among us to see who could be the rudest. I often won. If they complained to management all the better as they never took it seriously.

We celebrated each day's petty victories in the pub more or less every night. I'd leave the house those sunny May mornings with this song ringing in my ears, jumping on the bus with my obligatory copy of The Guardian and heading for Charing Cross Road with a spring in my step.

I'd come off the back of a period of particularly miserable unemployment, having left the job my dad had fixed up for me by dint of being made redundant. It was the best thing that could have happened to me - I loathed it, was terrible at it and was bored and lonely and skint, but that's another entry.

Not that I wasn't skint now. In fact I was so skint I resorted to eating raw pasta and drinking longlife milk. My flatmate did what he could but he had his own problems. We were living in his sister's rather nice garden flat in Shepherd's Bush. But I didn't pay her any rent. That too is another entry, but I spent my days half-heartedly looking for a job, and applying for things like head of PR at the Town Planning Association and other things I was totally unqualified for, all the while with my parents trying to encourage me into banking or finance and other utterly unsuitable careers I had zero interest in.

Frankly I was enjoying watching Open Air and A Country Practice, and I got seriously into Sons & Daughters. But it couldn't go on. I was going to bed really late and getting up really late, lying in and watching Santa Barbara and Chain Letters and never going out. I was losing my self-worth. And I really needed some money.

I did find something I liked the look of, though I was unsure what it was. It was a trainee at a sales promotion firm in Islington. I got an interview, to my surprise, and drove up to trendy Islington.

On arrival a man who looked liked David Puttnam came down the stairs in the lovely open plan office to meet me. We went into a meeting room, he opened his hardback notebook and askedme what I knew about sales promotion.

'Well, nothing much," I said. "I was hoping you could tell me." And with that he snapped his notebook shut and frog-marched me out of the building. In a flash I was back on the scrapheap. Why hadn't I prepared? What was I thinking? It was all so hopeless.

As I headed home I decided that it just wasn't working out for me. In a self-dramatizing Mary Tyler-Moore-type moment, I vowed to give London one more chance. No job by April 1 and I was going back home.

A week later, the ad I'd seen in the Media section of The Guardian week in week out but never considered was calling me. I'd never have to eat Tyne Brand tinned mince ever again.

Monday, August 1, 2011

1980: A place where nobody dared to go

While we're talking of family holidays, this one from 1980 is probably in the Top Five.

I'd always, always wanted to go to Holland, but to be honest it seemed as far away and as exotic as Brazil or Hawaii. The fact that it is of course but but a stone's throw away never really registered. There was a British Airways ad around at the time (I can't find it on YouTube) in which people flew over countries and those below waved at them while the person on the plane smiled contentedly. There was a Holland one of these which just made me want to go all the more.

We were actually due to do another caravan stint in the south of France, but after the the last bakingly hot, claustrophobic experience mum bailed so it was decided that we'd go on a driving holiday around Belgium and Holland instead. I couldn't have been more thrilled.

Ostend, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp, then Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Gouda, Delft, seasidey Zandvoort, the rather austere Hague, eating cheese for breakfast and having chips with mayonnaise, a tour of Amsterdam's red light district - nude women in windows! Gosh! - trips to windmills and cheese factories, seeing just how massive the Smurfs still were, trips down canals - it was great. Not tiring at all. Though I wasn't driving. We slept under duvets (or continental quilts as they were known back then) in pine-panelled guest houses with dorma windows, or superclean hotels that were all white. It was all so different. So near, and yet so far.

To this day I have no idea why I was obsessed with Holland, but I imagined everyone had piles of round cheeses stacked up in the market square outside their windmills and wore clogs. The cheese bit was right, the the rest wasn't, but it didn't disappoint. I've been many times since and Amsterdam remains one of my favourite cities.

Anyhoo, Xanadu mania had also hit the continent. But has anyone actually ever seen the film? I remember being in a bar in New York in 1998 and someone put it on the jukebox and everyone got up and danced. I'd never seen anything like it. Enjoy.