Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Grow The Roses

A wise man once said to me, “From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.” Well, he wasn’t really wise, he was Lionel Jeffries the actor, and he never said it to me but sung it in the Disney film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Yet the maxim remains true, even far away from the reaches of The Child Catcher and Baron Bomburst.


A newspaper editor once fired the aforementioned Walt Disney because he, “lacked imagination and had no ideas.” We all know he went on to head a global entertainment industry.  His head, incidentally, the stuff of urban legend. Frozen in perpetuity? Stolen? Revived and attached to another body? All likely to be false but his dreams and our childhood memories are now deeply frozen together. All this from a man deemed a failure in the creativity department.


Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four years old and his teachers labelled him, “slow” and, “mentally handicapped.” The whole world now knows of his Special Theory of Relativity, even if most of us are too slow to understand its intricacies. His head had the brain removed, at death, and now exists in fragments, petri dishes, museums and universities across the world, much like his ideas that changed our thinking of it and its place in the universe. Not bad for a so-called dunce.


“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” A response by a studio executive to an early Fred Astaire screen test.  It is not known what happened to the exec, I’d like to think he was last seen flying down to Rio. Neither, I believe, had their heads or brains removed.


Sir James Dyson went through 5,126 failed prototypes before his vacuum cleaner really sucked. Jerry Seinfeld was booed off from his very first stand-up gig. Colonel Sanders recipe was rejected by hundreds of restaurants before he decided to go it alone. Even the mighty Henry Ford had three failed businesses behind him before he decided you could have any colour as long as it’s black. Thomas Edison, “too stupid to learn anything.” Winston Churchill, school failure. Marilyn Monroe’s first contract with Colombia Pictures expiring because they thought her not talented and pretty enough to make it.


Most people have many more, ‘ashes of disaster’ than they do, ‘roses of success’ Not all of us go on to be, or want to be, famous filmmakers, scientists, actors, models or inventors. Next time the crap is piling up just remember that the sweetest smelling flower more often than not needs
the stinkiest of compost to bloom. Not my words, dear reader, but those of Dick van Dyke’s dad.


Stephen Kerr 2013 (with thanks to Business for the information).

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Football's Prayer


It’s our Christmas Day, the presents unopened,

Hope yet to be dashed, excitement unspoken.


Beers chilling down as the temperature rises

Grounds filling up with all shapes and sizes.


Sofas are groaning, but not yet supporters

The grass is much greener, always in August.


All can still happen, all still possible

‘Til the very first moment, the very first ball.


And then we submit to the laws of the game

A first goal conceded, our seasons in flames!


A last minute pen, our season is saved!

But so is the ball, our striker just caved.


It’s our Boxing Day, the presents are opened

Stuffed full of footy, passions awoken.


Adjusting predictions, reality bites,

Carlisle away on a wet Tuesday night?


The highs and the lows of  a season to come

All hoping that we get our time in the sun.


And that’s why we watch from the ground or our chair

Massed congregations chanting Football’s Prayer.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Innocence Until Proven Guilty

I lost my innocence many years ago. It was nobody’s fault. It just happened. My body got longer and hairier and I suddenly realised that the action figures I no longer played with were no longer anatomically correct even though they hadn’t changed, I had. I still pulled the girls pigtails, but not quite as hard as I did before, and I didn’t run away as quickly, and I was secretly so pleased when they easily caught me. And that was that. Boom. I was all grown up. Well, I was anatomically correct for an adult but I hadn’t changed. Confused? You get the idea of growing up then.

The things that you can console yourself with as you age are your memories. Fixed, firm and fair in your head. Revisited for pleasure as traffic-free reminiscences when modern life often threatens to overwhelm you with its demands for multi-tasking wi-fi lifestyle choices of reduced-cholesterol phone upgrades; or so it often seems. The theme park of the mind but with no queuing, no rain clouds and no cheese sandwiches that have cooked in your vinyl rucksack and smell of heated Tupperware or spilled Ribena. Imagine walking down a sunny coastal path every day for what seems like forever. You know the path, you know the way and you know that the sun will always beat down pleasantly on your back for the journey. These are our childhood memories. I know I said the theme park was but allow a troubled man to mix his metaphors. Who wouldn’t want to revisit either at the drop of a synapse?

Of late my rose tinted specs seem to be more prick than petal as I’m forced to re-remember (which is troubling because I don’t remember if that’s a word) my childhood memories and make angular adjustments to those well-worn sojourns.

Something is happening with my childhood and it’s happening to yours. The safe haven of the past is suffering from a leak and the jagged present is rushing in. The sunny coastal path is being eroded, we’re not too sure of the way there, or back, and the sun is being covered by large black clouds. The theme park is closed for repairs. The one that’s at the end of the sunny coastal path. The one that’s being eroded. Confused? You get the idea of our predicament then.

The British TV actors and presenters that have recently been arrested and charged and accused of crimes of historic sexual abuse reads like a Who’s Who of the flared and flamboyant 1970’s. Off-screen the decade was dour if you were an adult. If the electricity didn’t cut out in the evening, if you could bury the dead, if the rubbish was collected, if inflation didn’t eat your earnings away to nothing, if you could get your head around decimalisation then you were doing OK, for the 1970’s.
For us kids it was just a kaleidoscopic decade of, well, kaleidoscopes for one, but colour TV, grass-stains, telescopes, lime-flavoured anything, long hair, wide trousers, short shorts, footballs, theme tunes, cartoons, top tens and wigwams. That was just the weekends. During the winter nights the TV was home to our heroes and idols, whose depravity we couldn’t imagine, hidden as it was off-screen, behind the curtain, behind the smile, behind the catchphrase and theme tune, out of shot, out of sight, out of mind. For the time being when the time being was the 1970’s.

What was it that drove many to act like that?  Was it simply because they could? Was it a power trip? Were they weak? Bored? Sick? Evil? Yes. Yes all of those.

So we all have had our childhoods re-invented by the very people that originally shaped them. As silently as their crimes went unnoticed we have experienced a creeping, pernicious alteration to our national psyche. A simple theme tune can now kick out the warm glow that once formed forever and replace it with darker thoughts that you can’t help but play host to but don’t want to acknowledge. A catchphrase once mimicked in the playground and playing fields now hides a darker, broken tale that no one'll fix. Why did this happen? Are we somehow responsible for the change? Did we do enough? Is it still going on? How many more? How’s about that then?


I don’t need my willy extending,
Maybe you should email my wife.
My wire transfer’s really not pending,
And I don’t need a coach for my life.

I’ve no need to improve my body,
So what if sand’s kicked in my face?
I’m comfortable looking this shoddy,
No need for alarms or for mace.

Nigerian Generals, I worry,
You’re losing your money again.
It’s nice that you say I must hurry,
But haven’t you thousands of men?

I don’t want free spins on casinos,
Why sell my house back to the bank?
I don’t want to date Filipinos,
I’ve found that they’re too often, Frank.

I haven’t just won a new iPhone,
I’m not the one millionth hit.
Nothing lasts forever, I’ve long known,
So send the free Will-Writing Kit.

Send vouchers to save on my shopping,
The shops pay less tax than we do.
Save rainforests dropping by chopping,
Watch Amazon’s profits accrue.

Send news of the sad and the needy,
Finally finely tuned my heart-strings.
Just don’t send me spam from the greedy,
As a smack in the mush often stings.

Rules of Engagement

I sometimes hate being English. It is so complicated. This is without me considering the countries that we used to own as right to buy tenants, shafted by the landlord English, who then ran off with all of the furniture the minute the tenants had signed the deeds. Yet consider it I do. As I say, it is so complicated.

Let’s say an Englishman, any Englishman, doesn’t have to be me, finds himself walking down a road that has a steep decline. I just happen to find myself doing this every weekday after dropping the kids off at school. But it doesn’t have to be me. Any Englishman will do.

I, or any Englishman, will invariably pass people that are walking up this decline, which they see as an incline. It is this perspective, sort of, that I want to discuss.

When is it acceptable to make eye contact with your passing traveller? Eye contact is a very un-English thing to do. It smacks of connection or emotion, and that simply won’t do. But it is trumped in the card game of life by awkward silence, the natural and deadly enemy of the Englishman. The Englishman can go through life without connecting or feeling emotion to most of the general public. They are simply the animated screensaver to the Englishman’s reality. What the Englishman cannot do is ignore a passing acquaintance. They do not need to know the acquaintances name. It is enough that they regularly pass them, as cable cars in a frosty decline/incline scenario  - about 9am every weekday morning.

If eye contact is made from over 20 yards away, and is reciprocated immediately, then the Englishman has gone too soon and is unable to maintain his stare for the desired length of time and must look away. Further furtive attempts at eye contact at shortening lengths from the acquaintance now looked contrived and un-natural. The Englishman works extremely hard not to look contrived and un-natural. The Englishman will therefore give up attempts at a distance of 5 yards.

If the Englishman holds his nerve, recognises an acquaintance and chooses to make eye contact at the point of passing, then he is in real danger of committing social suicide and completely ignoring the passing acquaintance. This is a certainty if the passing acquaintance is a fellow Englishman who went too early with a 20-yard effort.

Is there a desired distance for acknowledgement? Italians are said to wave, and continue to wave, from anything up to 100 yards away, the French, 75. Rumours of an Englishman shouting from 60 yards away were dashed many years ago when it was discovered that he was in fact the adopted son of a Spaniard.

We must therefore conclude that it is only the Englishman that refuses to conform to uniformity when it comes to this dilemma. We are desperate to change but more desperate not to cause a fuss. Any inward desire for improvement is kept in check by an Englishman’s sheer Englishness.

I shall be down the same decline on Monday. Keep an eye out for me.

Thick As Thieves


What do you do when your musical hero plays in your hometown?


When he stands on a stage placed upon the very fields where you used to play?


Where he is singing the classic songs at the very place you used to sing them, and pretended to be him, when they were just songs and you were just a much smaller version of what you are now?


You go and see him, of course, and you take what seems like half of the town along with you as Paul Weller came to Delapre Abbey, Northampton. My Northampton. My Abbey. I can still see the tree where I had a rope swing from the stage. Well I would have seen it if half of the town weren’t blocking the view as they followed me to pay homage to a true musical legend. Still writing number one albums some 30 years after his first. I think that’s a reasonable use of the word.


It was a very warm and sunny day. Very appropriate, when you think of it, because those are the days you remember, and boy did we remember this one.


I’d met up with an old mate from school and was introduced to a brand new one. Also appropriate, I thought, as Weller mixes the old with the new. He sprinkles his classic tracks selfishly amongst his current work, just enough to keep us old ‘uns happy but not so much that his back catalogue is used to create his own tribute act. It’s probably not what his old fans want but then how else do you keep yourself current when you’re 55. A remarkable man.


I hadn’t seen my old mate, Russell, since Weller’s first band, The Jam, were the biggest group in the country. I hadn’t seen Weller live, ever. It was a nice coming together alongside 6,500 like-minded people in the sun. People with a passion for music. Middle-aged people, admittedly, but all sharing some of the musical passion that has kept Weller at the top of his game for decades.


We arrived in daylight having spent the afternoon  touring the towns pubs and clubs, like you do when you’re young, but we were far from young, but if Weller could still kick ass some 30 years later then we were going to give it a bloody good try. The laughter and the memories flowed a little quicker than the beer yet neither stopped. I had arranged to meet other friends and go to the gig with them but taken over with folly, Fosters and refound friendship I decided to stay on tour.


Right at the front, we were. Leaning on the barriers drinking someone’s idea of beer from a yellow paper cup. I had never seen so many Fred Perry t-shirts in my whole life. Every colour imaginable yet strangely most seemed XL or XXL.


We bounced, we clapped and we cheered. I wasn’t 45 years old for an hour and 40 minutes, yesterday. I was younger. Everybody who was bouncing, clapping and cheering was younger, if only for an hour and 40 minutes.


Weller once wrote “But we seemed to grow up in a flash of time.” I know because I used to sing it in Delapre Abbey 30 years ago and that seems like yesterday. Then I realised I was in Delapre Abbey yesterday feeling like I did 30 years ago.

That’s the genius of Weller.

The Confused and Stubborn Cobbler


If you live in Northampton, have lived in Northampton, had ancestors from Northampton or worked in Northampton, then you are probably suffering from some confusion and stubbornness in your life. This is not your fault. Confusion and stubbornness is in the air, here, it seeps into your DNA and never leaves. Wherever you are in the world you are hosting the remnants of a little part of Northampton’s confusion and stubbornness. They go together like the River Nene and Southbridge, the Wellingborough Road and vomit, bus stations and urine or the Racecourse and muggings. We few are a confused and stubborn happy band and it’s all in the history.


We’ve had our interlopers from the past. Bronze aged settlements still sit neatly behind the well manicured lawns, double glazing and gravel drives atop Hunsbury Hill and Danes Camp, giving us a clue as to who later inhabited the site. They all left. We stayed. Roman pottery has been found in Duston, but then so have a lot of burnt-out cars and they weren’t necessarily from NN5. The Romans left. We stayed.


We had a castle, Northampton Castle, unimaginatively named but fairly impressive for the Middle Ages. We often held the English Parliament here, we tried Thomas Beckett at the castle before he fled to France. The castle was involved in a tug of love over the centuries between Crown and town, a pattern that is familiar to Northamptonians, leading to the destruction of the castle. It went and we stayed.


We had a big battle here during the War of the Roses. Henry VI v Earl of Warwick, kick off 10th July 1460. Attendance approximately 15,000. To cut a short battle even shorter the Earl of Warwick had a bye as treachery ensured he walked through the Kings lines and captured Henry. This didn’t make Northampton look good in the eyes of the Crown. Rest assured, Henry’s descendants had long memories. It wasn’t really our fault. Being in the middle of England our geographical position meant we were often the scene of battles that were not our doing, we only hosted the match. “Leave it out, he’s not worth it!!”, so passionately heard across town on a Saturday night,   had yet to enter the lexicon.


Delapre Abbey, the site of the battle, was one of only two Clunaic monasteries in England. That is, a monastery exclusively comprised of nuns, think Benedictines with braids. More confusion. Our monks had lumps.


Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and Delapre Abbey lost its female inhabitants, though the Abbey remains gloriously defiant to this day, the Friends of Delapre Abbey ensuring that their stubborn opposition to the development of this historic site leaves it for the whole of the town, and country, to enjoy.


King Charles II ordered our castles destruction and the razing of the town in 1662 as Northampton had stubbornly supported the Roundhead Parliamentarians during the Civil War. Most of the castle went, Northampton remained, until 1675 when a Great Fire finished Charlie’s job for him. The King donated 1,000 tons of timber from Salcey Forest for the rebuilding of the town, this passive-aggressive nature left the  people of Northampton rather confused. Did the King hate or love them? We erected a statue of him on our main church in town as a thank you but we’ve never really trusted the Crown here, much, since.


If we jump to the nineteenth century you’ll find a perfect example of the stubbornness of Northamptonians in the election of Charles Bradlaugh, MP, a stubborn fellow himself. An atheist free-thinker who refused to swear an Oath of Allegiance to a God he did not believe in. Contentious for the Victorian British in 1880 it led to his de-selection and a re-election. The people of Northampton, however, wanted Bradlaugh. Three times in succession he was elected, de-selected and re-elected by the town until a fourth election saw the law itself change and the town finally secure the man they wanted. This greatly upset those who vigorously opposed the amendment. This included the  Conservative Party, the Church of England and the Catholic Church. More reason for this maverick town to love Bradlaugh. George Bernard Shaw was a keen supporter of Bradlaugh and a young Indian barrister was one of 3,000 who attended his funeral. Gandhi’s participation a true testament from a stubborn hero to a stubborn hero for a stubborn town.


I mentioned our geographical position, earlier. We are neither London nor Birmingham, instead stuck midway between the two. We have a railway, of course, but off the main line. The reasons are varied but again down to stubbornness. You either believe the gradients too steep for Victorians to tackle (hmm) or the sadly more obvious one of Northamptonians refusing the construction of a direct link to London on their land.


We are a large town, very large. One of the largest towns in England, yet we have been denied or turned down city status more times than I can remember. It leaves us all a bit confused. We still blame our historical stubbornness to the Crown for this anomaly, who have yet to approve and sign off our city status. I doubt this’ll change any time soon. .This may have saved the town during World War 2 as we were rarely bombed. I believe the Zeppelin raids of World War One killed people in St James but we suffered no deaths from enemy bombing some 25 years later. The only aircraft to crash in town was an allied bomber, crippled from a raid, falling into the heart of Northampton, ironically just missing the statue of Charles II on top of the church I spoke of earlier. Bullet holes from exploding ammunition cases can still be seen high on the sides of All Saints.


Northampton has grown rapidly in the last 68 years since the war has ended. We were the fastest growing town in Europe in the 1970’s. We are no longer. We were the centre of the boot and shoe trade in this country a few decades before and after the war. We are no longer, though Crockett & Jones and Church’s shoes are still some of  the most highly prized footwear in the world.


I haven’t even touched on the only assassinated British Prime Minister being another Northampton MP, a Kings love for his dead Queen and the 720 year old statue that has stood as a mark of his sorrow ever since, the tunnels that criss-cross the subterranean town centre and the guy who co-discovered DNA being a Northamptonian. We also lay claim to the last Doctor Who, Matt Smith, a local lad. His Tardis is bigger on the inside than the out. Now that’s confusing.


Stephen Kerr – August 2013