Writer’s blog, Week 25, Tuesday

Photo on 2014-06-10 at 09.37

Tuesday. Unless you’re one of these weird dilettantes who goes on holiday, you have to take your respite – even if it’s only geographical – where you can get it. A couple of days’ house-sitting for Mum and Dad in Northampton feels like a holiday, even though I have the same amount of work to do as if I were in London. A change of scenery is as good as a new play, sometimes. Because it’s sunny, I ate my breakfast on their patio. I could do this at home, but choose not to. I think I may be trying to make a few days’ hard work feel more holiday-like. Leave me alone.

Haven’t done a writer’s blog for a while – end of April – so there is much to update. I was at that time deeply optimistic about what had been previously coded Sitcom A but had entered the public domain via the British Comedy Guide as Wild Life. We staged a full-cast read-through in a small theatre above a pub in Turnham Green and it was a fabulous day. We couldn’t have put in any more effort – and by “we”, I mean my management company Avalon, our producer/director Sioned, and the illustrious cast, Frankie Boyle, Isy Suttie, Miles Jupp, Craig Campbell, Adam Hess and Angela Simpson.

It was not picked up.

I am disappointed by this outcome, but at least it draws a line under a project that was “in development” for two years. There’s only so much blood, sweat and tears you can put into something. During that time I was paid a one-off fee, despite all the extra rewrites and other energies expended upon it. A writer does not work by the hour, or the day, in development. (Actually, even when green-lit, a project pays a writer by the script, before residuals. This is why I sometimes wish I had the skills and training to be a plumber, where good work is paid for, and some even incur a call-out charge just to come and look at the problem. I never resent paying a plumber, as they can plumb and I cannot – despite my best DIY efforts in this vexed area!) Anyway, we move on.

Photo on 2014-06-10 at 09.38

Maybe Sitcom C should now be promoted to Sitcom B (I may call it The Scottish Sitcom, actually, for luck). It has – as previously logged – been turned down by one broadcaster, but is still “in play” with another, according to the exec at the production company which originally pitched it. With each day that passes without news, I imagine the worst.

What was Sitcom B last time we spoke (the collaboration with a very funny comedian based on one of his characters) has with caution and by default been upgraded to Sitcom A, in that it looked for all the world to have the best chance of being commissioned until BBC3’s move online was announced and all bets seemed to be off. Having, again, put a lot of hours in on this, I’d like it to go further, but nobody can legislate for the channel it’s pitched at being effectively shut down. I have made a new friend, either way. And no writing experience is wasted experience.

The production company who pitched Sitcom A also make Badults (that’s how I met them), which enjoyed a return to BBC3 before the drawbridge is pulled up, two Mondays ago. Having script-edited this series, I can honestly say I think it’s twice as strong as the first, which suffered many a sling and arrow on social media, but impressed the channel enough to get a second bite of the cherry. As is now traditional, we all watched Episode 1 go out live, round at Ben’s flat. Here we are.

Badults2flatlineup

From left to right: exec Gav (seen in cameo as the man with balloons in Ep1), producer Izzy, Badults Tom, Ben and Matthew, actors Ivan and Max, and script editor me. It’s a fun show to work on, and a thrill to see my name fly past in the end credits. I rather suspect its chances of a conventional third series are low, but nobody yet knows what the online BBC3 will look like, or if it will even commission anything longer than 10 minutes. (If I was fully online, I wouldn’t.) It’s very sad, and I hope David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and Alistair Campbell are pleased with themselves.

Drama A, incidentally, is moving at a pace slower than any comedy. We had a meeting with a broadcaster three weeks ago, at which positive noise were made (positive noises cost nothing – they literally give them away), and the first script and seven detailed storylines have been delivered. Why it’s taken me 26 years to discover this, I don’t know, but getting anything commissioned on TV is like trying to get the attention of a giant, distracted baby. Some days, you just run out of gurgling noises and funny faces.

Here’s your moment of Zen. BBC2 repeated I Love 1980 last weekend (as you know, I appeared on I Love 1980, I Love 1981 and I Love 1982), but it never turned up on iPlayer or On Demand, so I was unable to watch it. I found a shit version on YouTube, as a couple of people had pointed out how young I looked on it. (It was shot in 2000.) What you didn’t say was how fat I looked on it. I fear I have misremembered this particular bit of the past.

Ilove1980aIlove1980bIlove1980dIlove1982a

Writer’s blog: Week 26, Saturday

S

It’s been a while since I squeezed one of these in, but it seems opportune. I’m in Northampton for a couple of days at my folks’, but still working, still writing, still pitching. It’s Saturday. The photo above is misleading, for I am not in Glastonbury, nor wearing a fisherman’s hat. I really like this atmospheric shot; it was taken of me at dusk, along the main commercial thoroughfare to the Pyramid Stage by my brother-in-law Paul at Glastonbury 2009, which was my designated “mid-life crisis Glastonbury”. (You can read about it in excruciating detail here.) I loved every second of it. But I haven’t been since, and it’s conceivable that I’ll never go again, mainly because 2009 was so perfect in every way.

I’ve been thinking about it as I watch – or fast forward through – the Glastonbury 2013 coverage I’ve taped. (Hey, I have no interest in the Vaccines, or Rita Ora, or the latest wide-eyed BBC3 presenters being run in*, and I was ready for bed at 10.30 last night in any case.) I hadn’t been since 1995 when I went in 2009 so it was a special occasion, and uniquely family-oriented, in that I was convinced to go by my brother-in-law.

Though I am not at Glastonbury this year, due to media and social media saturation, I am acutely aware that the festival is ongoing, as I type. I do not wish I was there, in actuality, but I do sort of miss it somewhere in my bones. It’s somewhere you can go and get away with a hat, for a start. I hope everyone who is there is having an epic time. For fun, here’s a photo of me taken at Glastonbury 1990, my second ever Glastonbury, which was a filthy one, and the inaugural year of the festival’s dedicated Comedy Tent, where I spent the bulk of the long weekend. I loved that, too, although it had been too wet to realistically pitch our tent on arrival, so we slept in the car. I think I’m too old for that shit now.

AC1990Madchestertop

It’s refreshing to get away from the fabled “hustle and bustle” of London – as I am doing by hopping it to the parental pile in Northampton – although I watched an episode of the BBC2 series The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads on Wednesday, which was all about life on London’s night buses and ought to have been enough to put anyone off moving to the capital, but, oddly, made me miss the place, and glad that I live there.

I’ve been resident of London for 29 years (minus the three where I moved out to Reigate by mistake), and although as you get older you’re inexorably drawn to a less stressful environment, I do find it hard to imagine living away from the smoke. And The Route Masters was a deftly captured – and slyly cast – snapshot of what makes the city simultaneously terrifying and joyful, with all sorts using the nocturnal bus service, which, since the relaxation of the licensing laws, really is an all-night proposition. I loved the Muslim driver Zajad, born and bred in London, who recounted being told by a fire-and-brimstone passenger that they were all going to hell: “I told him, we’re not going to hell, we’re going to Ilford.” Priceless.

Route Masters1

When I lived in Streatham, in South West London – must have been late 90s – I was on the top deck of a bus, coming home late at night, and a stupid verbal misunderstanding between two male passengers led to one of them drawing a knife on the other. The man on whom the knife was drawn looked shocked and disappointed that it had come to this, and did not raise the aggression levels. It seemed a possibly idle threat, but when a young man is standing up pointing a knife at someone else, you tense up. Someone ran down the stairs and informed the driver, and he stopped the bus – handily, right outside a police station. Officers boarded the bus and escorted the knifeman off, with his large but friendly looking dog, as it happened. It was one of those ugly moments you experience in cities.

I watched half of Eye Spy on Thursday night on C4, the “moral dilemma” hidden-camera show “narrated by” Stephen Fry, although he makes an appearance too, as if to bind the format to him when frankly, he’s effectively just the voiceover artist, it’s not “his” programme. In it, situations are created that test the moral fibre of members of the public – £30,000 in cash left in a phone box, an actor playing a racist waiter in a small restaurant, a boy in a wheelchair at the bottom of some steps – and instead of these stunts being played out for our vicarious pleasure (except they are), they’re framed as a social experiment.

EyeSpy

In brief, you get to see how much citizens of this country use the phrase, “What the fuck?”, which is an awful lot. I question the social efficacy of the format, but it did monitor how much racist abuse from a waiter diners will put up with, and you couldn’t help but feel proud of the Londoner who was first to stand up to the actor playing the racist waiter. (They did the same “test” in a restaurant in Manchester and not a single diner said a word. This is not conclusive proof that people in Manchester will put up with more racism than those in London, as it is not proof of anything.)

BlogWk29Friday

So, what have I been doing? Gathering my thoughts for a “corporate” next week. I’m hosting a series of Q&As at an “away day” for a large international media company, where various TV shows are previewed and their producers questioned before a large audience of delegates. I enjoy doing these gigs, as it means I get to meet executives from TV; people who make telly. These are the people I hope to be working with, and the reason I spend a lot of my time working for free – out of necessity – on pitches. I’ve been working on one today. At least the corporates help pay for the days when I’m not being recompensed for my time.

Next week’s busy, as I’m also interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright about their new film The World’s End for Radio Times. The weird part of that is, I’ve only seen the first half of the film, as the second half isn’t going to be finished until the day after the interview! This can’t be helped, as my deadline is Wednesday. I really liked the first 45 minutes, by the way, but then I was bound to: it’s Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright! Sometimes you can take a confident flyer. I am also meeting a producer about another scriptwriting project on the Friday, which is more unpaid work, but vital, as such connections lead to other connections, and writers exist in a permanent, cosmic join-the-dots puzzle, hoping to make those connections.

On a more paid note: yesterday, I delivered the second draft of a pilot sitcom script that’s in development with – I think it’s safe to say this – the BBC. That is, I delivered it – eg. emailed it – to the execs at the production company who are paying me to write it, and who will deliver it to the BBC, whose commissioning editor is paying them to pay me to write it. We all hope we will get paid some more money in order to write a lot more of it, with a view to actually making it into actual telly. So fingers crossed that the BBC will like it. I’ve certainly put a lot of time and effort into it, and so have my producers with their copious notes, and I really like the made-up characters I’ve invented and put into it. I could imagine writing five more stories for them, at least.

It’s good to see one’s family. While at my Mum and Dad’s, I get to see my brother, who lives about 40 minutes away in a less towny place, and his family, and dogs, and I get to see my sister, who lives five minutes away, and her family, and guinea pig. They’re good, my family.

I walked to the Weston Favell Shopping Centre this afternoon, for some fresh air and exercise, and I found it particularly hostile to pedestrians. It’s not clear which way you have to walk to get into it – and I speak as someone who lived in or near Weston Favell for the first 19 years of my life, and remember the mall when it first went up and was called the “Supacentre”. But it’s set behind a car park, a petrol garage, and a drive-thru McDonald’s, all of which rather suggest you ought really to pull yourself together and be in a car.

WFShoppingCentre

Ah! The official website gives directions only to people planning to “get here” by car or bus. There is no official pedestrian route to it. Well, there is, as I managed it somehow, but only by crossing lots of roads and going the long way round. (There’s a pretty scary looking “walkway” but this only works if you are walking from the direction of Standens Barn; I would have had to cross a road to get to it, which rather defeats the object.) When did Britain become America, and when did Northampton become LA?

Still, at least I’m not at Glastonbury!

JenLong*Incidentally, before I get back to work, I should add that I encountered, for the first time, a young presenter on BBC3’s Glastonbury coverage called Jen Long, whose energy and fluency and ability to hit her mark, in a field, were commendable. I thought she was great. I’ve looked her up and she’s on Radio 1 in the night, and she runs a fanzine, and she used to do Introducing on BBC Wales. I expect great things of her.

The OK foundation

It can be told. Last Tuesday night, in the Main Hall of the Maidwell Building, at the Avenue Campus of the University of Northampton, the frankly legendary Bill Drummond and I gave a joint lecture to students and paying customers as part of the Articulation series of events, curated by Associate Fellow of the university John Harper, who taught Bill in 1971 when he did the one-year foundation art course on this very site, and who taught me in 1983 when I did the one-year foundation art course on this very site. The experience changed both our lives forever and set us on very different paths through art, music and the media, converging occasionally along the way. We both give thanks for that formative experience.

It was John, always a force of nature, who inspired us both, 12 years apart, and who had the momentary lapse of reason to suggest we join forces for one evening under what was a fairly hastily conceived umbrella: Art Vs Art. John’s first, insane optimstic email was sent to both of us at just after midday on May 14 this year. By 3pm that afternoon, we had both said yes, and a date was fixed – far enough into the future to seem conceivable. (For the record, although a long-standing fan of his various works, I had only met Bill on one occasion, although it was to interview him on 6 Music in 2008 for his terrific book 17, so we had, it seemed, bonded sufficiently.)

Over the ensuing months, the three of us pinged emails back and forth, in search of some kind of shape for this live event, which remained amorphous but hopeful even after the tickets had gone on sale. Bill and I had been photographed, for the 6 Music album, in 2008, and this unique shot was all we had for publicity, so out it went into the world.

In it, you can sense the disparity in height (I look up to him etc.), and in attitude. My grinning inanity compares unfavourably with Bill’s authoritative gravity. But there it was.

Over the ensuing five years – five years! – the parting in my hair would change sides, and I would stop wearing black t-shirts that were already frankly inappropriate for a man in his 40s; while Bill would remain pretty much the same. He’d already found his visual brand.

The passage of time turned out to be key to our lecture. (Was it a lecture? Or was it too men talking about themselves? Maybe it was both.) John Harper had caught us both at an impressionable young age, a decade apart, and, as Bill stated, the course at what was then a technical college and years away from attaining university status taught him “not just to look, but to see.” For me, it broadened my artistic palette, and gave me the freedom to express myself in new ways. I’ve always thanked art school – both Nene College, as it was in 1983, and Chelsea School of Art – for exposing my obsession with drawing cartoons for the commercial outlet it was, allowing the act of writing to take over as my creative impulse. I used to draw cartoon strips. But it was the writing in the bubbles and the captions that turned out to be my calling. (God, let’s hope so, as without practice, my drawing ability has withered.)

Now, photographs were taken. The big one above is a phone shot of the sign outside the building, which I intended to relegate and replace with one of me and Bill, when one was supplied. But one shall not be supplied, for the very sound reasons given at the bottom of this blog entry. In the event, and of the event, I only have photos of me and John. Thanks to Fiona Cordingley for supplying these. They’re very good.

Here though is a nice shot of John introducing us. He is hiding behind a photocopied shot of him as a younger man in the 70s; more passage of time. When I arrived at Nene, aged 18, he blew my mind, with his fine art sensibilities and empowering “schemes.” (“What’s the scheme?” he would inquire of his students – not always a question you could answer.)

The “scheme” turned out to be tag-lecturing. Bill (just out of shot, to the right) would tell a relevant anecdote. Then I would tell one. Thinking on our feet, we found hooks and references in each other’s ramblings to feed back into our own. It must, at times, have seemed to the excellent, attentive, wide-age-ranged, in-tune audience of a couple of hundred as if we had planned it all out. Here, you can see my slipping the first JAMs 12″, All You Need Is Love, onto the turntable we asked for. It was fun to be able to go and rummage through my bag-for-life while Bill held the audience’s attention and cue up a vinyl record. Music was our first love, after all. Before art.

I hadn’t warned Bill I was going to play one of his records. (I didn’t even know I still had it until I checked my single flight-case of 12″ vinyl before heading down up to Northampton, and really only played it to illustrate a later point about how much power the NME had over us in the 80s: I read about the record and bought it without having heard a note of it – something unheard of in the download age.) It was the one point in the evening where Bill seemed flustered. Not because he minded me playing it, but because he feared the audience might expect him to riff on his pop career, which he has no interest in doing. We got through it, don’t worry.

In the photo above, subliminally influenced by the guerilla art of Bill Drummond, I have emptied out onto the floor a folder full of my commercial illustration work from 1987-88, after I’d graduated, and during which “pay the rent” period my creative urges were satisfied not by my work, which was soulless and supplied by the yard, but by rustling up my own fanzine and writing and designing it, ready for Kall Kwik. So, indirectly, the soulless art pushed me in the direction of what would be the first rung on another career entirely, one that was driven by art, albeit soon subsumed by the imperatives of commerce. It is a career whose story has been told many times, so I won’t repeat it here.

Tuesday happened also to be my Dad’s birthday, and he came along to the talk, meeting Bill over a fruit plate and two doughnuts in a gallery space which became our de facto “green room.” The age difference between Bill and my Dad is about the same as the age difference between Bill and me, so we got on fine, the three of us. (Dad had rather sweetly looked Bill up on Wikipedia in the afternoon – research!) The combination of my – our – alma mater, the curatorial joie de vivre of the infinite John himself and the presence of my father made Tuesday a very special night indeed. I’m so glad we agreed to do it, against all odds. Perhaps this is how all visiting lecturers should be forced to operate, by being thrown together with another visiting lecture and making it work on the hoof. I sincerely hope that the audience felt they had not wasted their evening. I certainly hadn’t.

Bill’s climactic section involved him donning a high-viz tabard and a bespoke Homburg, and living out his fantasy of being a superhero street sweeper. This was a routine he’d clearly done before, and it was a fitting end to what turned into a two-hour talk, as he swept the stage with his broom. Much of the detritus that required sweeping was, as seen, a pile of my own work. Which was fitting. We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d planned it.

I hope to return to the University of Northampton soon, although, in the future, it will up sticks and easels and move to a new site, and will no longer sit hunkered around the old building into which both Bill and I tentatively stepped in 1971 and 1983, respectively. But it doesn’t do to be nostalgic. Bill and I were ancient, and justified, to varying degrees, and have both done varying degrees in big cities other than Northampton, but it was good to be back.

Postscript

Statement from Bill Drummond regarding the absence of photographic evidence of he and I at this event:

Now that we live in an era where we can all post an unlimited amount of information about ourselves I am interested in exploring how little information I can post and still function in the modern world. Part of this includes limiting the photographs taken of me in any one year to no more than ten. I have now reached my limit for 2012.

Writer’s blog: Week 47

Wednesday

I give up. I don’t know what week number it is. Anyway, we’re hurtling toward December, I know that much, it’s Wednesday, and the heat is on at the Pappy’s sitcom for BBC3, Secret Dude Society (the working title seems to have almost hardened into a title, but not fully so hold your horses for a bit longer). As I type, I’m currently on the East Midlands train, more literally hurtling back to London Euston from Northampton for a full day’s script meeting with “the boys” – Matthew, Ben and Tom, who are not boys – our fastidious Scottish bosses Gav and Rab from Glasgow’s illustrious, industrial estate-based production company The Comedy Unit, and producer Izzy (with whom I previously worked on the cruelly cancelled Gates for Sky). I am, as previously stated, script editing the six-episode series. The onus remains on “the boys” to come up with the goods, which, after all, they will be acting out in a TV studio in February before a live studio audience, but my job is to help pat it into shape. It’s cool to be part of someone else’s first sitcom and to be around a conference table with creative, funny people.

I was involved in a talk at the University of Northampton last night, part of a series called Articulation, a sort of “tag lecture” with fellow alumnus Bill Drummond. I will write about that unlikely and amazing experience once I have the photographic evidence that it even took place.

Thursday

I am unnaturally soothed by the repetitive, mundane, always-looking-sideways-off nature of the PhotoBooth pictures I take of myself to illustrate Writer’s Blog. They are spectacularly uninteresting, and reveal little about my physical context (oh, not those ducts at Radio Times again!), but they are honest and true. And they reveal the routine nature of my life. And the occasional fluctuation one way or another in terms of the size of my double chin.

Arrived in London at 10.27 yesterday morning, as advertised (I must admit, I am generally quite lucky on this train from Northampton, the 09.25, which I regularly take after a sleepover at Mum and Dad’s), and joined Pappy’s and co round the circular conference table in a ground-floor conference room at the West Kensington-based media company who own The Comedy Unit by 11.00, unnaturally hot, as ever, after a trudge in too many layers with too many bags. (This time of year is always a conundrum: waterproof outer layer, optional jacket underneath, optional cardigan under that, over shirt … how to strike the perfect, temperature-controlled balance? On Stephen Fry Gadget Man on C4, he demonstrated an air-conditioned jacket, from Japan. I don’t want one.)

With all six scripts at varying stages of completion, we read aloud, and made notes, and shared notes, and made more notes, from 11am-6pm, and ate the traditional platters of M&S sandwiches and sausage rolls (cheese ones for the veggie) while we worked, so as not to waste valuable time. It was, as you can imagine, as hard and tiring as the equivalent time spent working down a coalmine. I still love the fact that the sort of food we eat in the middle of a working day is exactly the kind to ensure a slump, mid-afternoon: bread, pastry, sponge, potato. We are a curious race.

My day at Radio Times today has been focussed. I have had to supply a week’s worth of Film of the Days for the magazine that will hit the armchairs of Britain in two weeks’ time, as we are in “Christmas pick-up”, which is where everybody works super-hard in order to get the famous Christmas double-issue (our biggest seller of the year) out in good time for the festive period, which means foreshortened working weeks in order to pull all schedules forward. (This means that the staff get an actual week off for Christmas, secure in the knowledge that the issues for the first week of the New Year is already “in bed”.)

Arrived home to find that my annual Cats Protection advent calendar had arrived in the post today. You may be unsurprised to hear that this is my favourite charity after Thomas’s Fund, of which I am a proud patron. What can I say? I like cats. It is also an annual New Year tradition to scan the opened calendar, even though it is impossible to do it and let you see inside each door, without removing the doors, which would be counterproductve, as the names of the kits are on the door.

Oh, alright, here’s one where the doors are off. You’re so demanding.

Anyway, it’s good to think of those less fortunate than ourselves at this cold and festive time of year, so spare a thought for those who haven’t been sent a Cats Protection advent calendar.

Read an alarming but expected piece in today’s Media Guardian about BBC4 controller Richard Klein considering axing the currently ongoing, back-to-back Top of the Pops repeats from the late 70s. They’ve had to yank a couple presented by Jimmy Savile in recent weeks, and one presented by DLT, and you can understand why Klein might be nervous about forging on with the initiative into 1978 next year. (After all, even though Kid Jensen, Noel Edmunds, Peter Powell etc. are free from any implication of wrongdoing, it’s the atmosphere of adult male DJs surrounded by fawning teenage girls and introducing the lovely Legs & Co with a glint in their eye that now seems to have curdled with recent revelations.) I love these re-runs – shown in full, unedited, they present valuable social documents, and I hope BBC4 keeps airing them. It’s too easy to edit the past, and these half-hours show 1976 and 1977 as they were, with The Jam rubbing seditionary shoulders with the frankly offensive Barron Knights. Save TOTP!

Watched Sky’s documentary about Bradley Wiggins, A Year In Yellow (can’t imagine why Sky had exclusive access to him … oh yes), and found myself utterly captivated by it, despite my threadbare interest in sport and almost non-existent interest in cycling. Not only did it explain the Tour de France for me – thanks to intelligent and eloquent input from three cycling journalists who were a credit to their trade and chosen sport – it depicted Wiggins in an honest manner. He seems decent, self-aware, dedicated, a family man, averse to fame, a bit shy, a lover of peace and quiet, proud of his tower-block roots (his Nan, who raised him, still lives on the same estate) and committed to the purist notion that he will not leave his wife for a supermodel, nor takes drugs to enhance his sporting performance. I wish him well, and will review this programme, with clips, on next week’s Telly Addict.

Friday

Just heard from the University of Northampton that some official photos of my night with Bill Drummond are on their way, so expect a full account soon. I’m off for a meeting with my agent today, what we call a “catch-up”, which is always done face to face. Clearly I can’t give anything away, but I will say this: I’ve had some encouraging news from a particular broadcaster this week about one of the projects I have “in development”, something I’ve developed and written by myself and have invested a lot in. Not a commission, as yet, but not a knockback, or an interminable series of notes, and that in itself is promising.

As mentioned above, but not stated for the record before, Gates has not been recommissioned by Sky Living. I’m sad about this, as I felt we – the team who wrote it – had more stories to tell about these parents and teachers. It is not to be. And there was me thinking everything got a second series on Sky! I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that Mr Blue Sky – a far more personal project – was not automatically recommissioned by Radio 4, but we’re in the process of re-submitting it as we speak and have fingers crossed for a good decision before Christmas. If we get the green light – and again, I have loads more stories to tell with Harvey, Jax, Ray, Sean, Lou etc. in a third series – it may not air until 2014, but it would mean a concrete commission for the New Year. I’d love to end another uncertain, up-and-down professional year with something positive in the diary for 2013.

I do know that Personal Training, the short film I wrote with Simon Day, who stars, will be airing in the New Year as part of Sky Atlantic’s Common People strand, for which ten character-based shorts have been made by Baby Cow. That has been officially announced: it begins in January as part of Sky Atlantic’s Comedy Monday line-up. We shot it in two days, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. It marks the debut of Simon’s latest character, Colin Reed. We wrote a film about him for C4, years ago, which was put into development and then cancelled before it went into production after one of those pesky management changes that happen all the time. We have always been determined to get Colin out there, and thanks to Sky, and Baby Cow, that is definitely going to happen.

The estimable Stuart Jeffries, who has written scathingly about C4 in the past, has gathered his thoughts on the 30-year-old channel for the Guardian this week, a very good read. Over the years, as both presenter and writer, I’ve been in and out of meetings at all the major broadcasters, including C4, although off the top of my head, I think the only actual programmes I’ve been involved in have been clips shows (nothing wrong with those, of course, although they’ve thankfully dried up).

When I was still paired with Stuart Maconie in the 90s and simultaneously on ITV with the Movie Club and Radio 1 with the Hit Parade, we paid our first visit to C4 at Horseferry Road to pitch our own comedic cultural magazine show (Get Culture!) with a supportive commissioning editor who left the channel about a week later. We learned a valuable lesson that day: you’re only as popular as the current commissioning editor thinks you are.

The late Harry Thompson, whom I interviewed about Peter Cook for Radio 4, and had stewarded The 11 O’Clock Show to fruition, gave me an insight into how C4 then worked: some excitable exec would designate some up-and-coming comedian as “the new face of the channel”, tell them so, wine them and dine them, try them out in a few things, and then tell them that, in fact, they were no longer “the new face of the channel”, because somebody else was. In this, I guess C4 are not so different from the BBC, or ITV, or Sky, who have long been in the business of creating a Hollywood-style “stable” of stars. But unless you have signed a contract, it’s all meaningless.

When Simon and I developed and wrote the 90-minute version of Personal Training for C4, in 2007, we had every reason to believe it was going to air. Instead, it was never shot. You weather such setbacks, or else – as I always say – you get out of the business. When the 10-minute version airs on Sky in the new year, all the agony and the ecstasy will have been worth. (You could conceivably write scripts that are never made forever and live off it. But what kind of life is that? And in any case, unmade scripts will eventually start to work against your professional reputation!)

I discovered yesterday that Lee Mack’s autobiography, Mack The Life, has been published in hardback, in time for Christmas. I knew he was writing it, as he tapped me for some clarification about the early days of Not Going Out last year. I look forward to reading it, as I sincerely hope I am at least a footnote. But Not Going Out, as important as it has been for me, professionally, was never my show, and series six – the first without Tim – is being filmed right now, the second series with which I’ll have had no involvement whatsoever. I’m glad it’s still going, although Tim’s absence will be a problem, I suspect. We shall see. I’m out. When you work on a show almost full-time for two series, then as one of a much larger team for two further series, this seriously reduces your annual income. Then, we you are relinquished altogether, that has an even more profound effect on your income. But it’s good to be forced to concentrate on projects of your own. Series six airs in the new year. (Lee and I remain friends, by the way.)

Roll on the end of the year. It’s around now, just before the advent calendar doors start to be folded back, that I always start to take stock of the disappearing year. Has it been an improvement on last year, or the opposite? Have the highs outranked the lows? Have the slaps in the face outweighed the pats on the back? Don’t know yet.

Writer’s blog: Week 40

Sunday. I think, actually, today is officially the last day of Week 39, but if I write a bit more tomorrow, it will be Week 40. (Who numbers weeks? Apart from weekly magazines? It’s so impersonal.) I find myself in Northampton for a couple of days, at my Mum and Dad’s, and I type from “the office”, which used to be my bedroom when I last lived here, 28 years ago. Let’s run that number again: 28 years ago. I brought my new Cud mug up with me, the one that Cud kindly sent me, to leave it here as “my mug.”

I came up on the train yesterday. An easy enough journey, just under an hour from Euston if it doesn’t stop at all the incidental stations, like Cheddington and Tring, which it didn’t. (I’m sure they’re not incidental if you live there.) I was sat parallel to a party of six young men who were on their way to Birmingham for a rave-up. They weren’t the most objectionable young men you could share a carriage with, as they weren’t swearing constantly, which is frankly amazing, but they were drinking, and bantering, and doing so at a high enough volume to make it impossible to ignore them without headphones. Because I could hear literally every word they said, I know that they were staying in a hotel in Birmingham, and meeting up with some other mates for a drink, then going on to some exotically named club for 8.45. This was about 2.30. They were a pretty beefy bunch, and I’m sure they could take their booze, but, having broken open a bottle of transparent spirit, and even taken the Glyndbourne-like step of bringing ice to put it paper cups, they were playing cards and drinking shots as forfeits. Even over an hour, you could clearly detect them getting drunker and more slurred, and more “fucks” started creeping into their dialogue.

I feared they were peaking too early, but maybe a nap was built into their itinerary at some stage. When I was a young man, I’m sure I traveled with mates and made similarly gregarious noise (there was one train journey to Derby to see the Boo Radleys in 1993 …), but am I simply post-rationalising if I suggest that my generation had a bit more self-consciousness than the current younger one?

It’s always pleasant, and a bit weird, to be back in Northampton, especially as my folks still live in the house we moved to in 1983, a year before I left (and to which I returned regularly during the next three years at Chelsea). In many ways, it hasn’t changed a bit. My sister and her family still live here – a five minute drive away – and very few of the next tier of the family have strayed very far. My Dad’s sister and her husband spend a lot of time in their apartment in Spain, and one of my male cousin’s two daughters has literally just ventured down to London to go to university, which has been big news within the clan. Good for her, I say. It’s not contractual to leave the town you grew up in – and if you’ve read my books, you’ll know that I owe Northampton a lot, and regard it with massive affection – but it’s good to test your boundaries, and see if perhaps they were further out than you imagined.

Because it is Monday, I find myself at Mum and Dad’s on the very day that they go out for an organised ramble, with friends. This is a regular meet, once a month, and it involves a gentle walk though the open pastures of Northamptonshire, beginning in the car park of a pub that serves good food, and ending in the car park of the pub that serves good food. I have heard tales of these walks, and they always sound bucolic and encouragingly local and not too strenuous, and with a pint and a plate of grub built tantalisingly in. So I accepted the invitation to join them, and make the number up from 11 to a round 12.

We gathered at 10.30am in the car park of the Britannia on the old Bedford Road. Now, I know this pub of old as a remote outpost of hospitality visible from the A428 and nestled by the river Nene. Today, this once-rural inn is blocked in on all sides by newly-built office blocks and retail-park hotels (which must be good for business). The pub itself, inevitably run by a national chain owned by an even bigger national chain, seemed really welcoming, especially after a three-mile hike, but had this lunchtime been cursed by a power failure. So we drove to the next likely spot, the Lakeside, another pub run by a national chain, but also, sadly, jinxed by the same local power outage. We ended up – happily – at a less corporate, more cosy, lower-ceilinged pub in the village of Great Houghton called the Old Cherry Tree, whose friendly staff rose to the challenge of seating and feeding a dozen middle-aged ramblers with a thirst.

Mum and Dad’s friends, a bunch of retirees of similar vintage – and most of whom I’ve met at Wellingborough & Hatton Rotary functions where my Dad had to provide the speaker, so it was me – proved voluble and inclusive company, and I enjoyed being the token under-50 among their sensibly-shod ranks. They joked about me turning them into a sitcom, and the funny thing is, it might just work (mental note etc.). There’s something charming about the over-60s, as we shall politely call them, and the comfortable way they mock each other and chuck innuendo around and claim to be eating “healthily” by not ordering the chips, but then eating chips off other people’s plates. I wouldn’t mind being like them when I am over-60, and I salute them for building this exercise/booze-up into their monthly calendar. (Part of our walk, by the Nene, seemed to coincide with the famous Nene Way. It certainly took us up to Weston Mill, which is a spot I visited as a child, and which terrified me then.)

Living in London, the countryside feels far away. In Northampton, you don’t have to go far out to hit rolling fields. The town is speckled all around its edges with gorgeous villages, like Great Houghton, and a pub lunch can never be far away. They do not call them “gastropubs” round here, as they are unpretentious, but they hit the spot.

As did Hot Fuzz, which I watched again last night, having “taped” it off ITV2 the night before. (My used of “taped” on Twitter caused a degree of nostalgic merriment.) Having already been awestruck by Shaun Of The Dead, and its Pegg/Frost/Wright progenitor Spaced, I knew Hot Fuzz was going to be for me, but remember being even more blown away by its fizzing, metatextual ambition than I’d hoped when I saw it in 2007, prior to meeting Pegg for the first time for a Word magazine interview, after which we rather sweetly stayed in touch. Although the shock value has gone, I was still blown away, again, by how rich and funny it is. Bring on The World’s End, the pub-crawl finale to their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy and being filmed, well, right now.

It is Tuesday. Here’s a weird thing. Yesterday, I picked up a copy of the finale to my own trilogy of memoirs, That’s Me In The Corner, published the same year Hot Fuzz came out. (And for the cover of which Simon Pegg kindly supplied a quote. What a shame even his mighty reputation couldn’t help us shift a few copies!) The reason I did so is that in October, it joins Where Did It All Go Right? as an e-book. I’m excited about this, so I idly flicked through it, wondering if it really was as bad as its sales figures and near-total lack of press coverage suggest.

Do you know what? It’s quite interesting. I mean that objectively. With its tales of pre-PC newspaper publishing, pre-Internet journalism, pre-digital radio, pre-satellite TV and pre-Twitter information sharing, it may just have evolved into a valuable social document. It’s only six years old, but it seems so very quaint.

Also, if Twitter had ruled the world, I would have been able to promote it myself, without the help of a disinterested publisher. I looked it up on Amazon, to confirm its e-publication (you can pre-order it for £7.69), and, of course, found myself doing the thing you should never do …

I must admit, because it was roundly ignored by the press on publication, I was delighted at the time to get a couple of rave customer reviews on Amazon. I have rarely checked back since. These raves have now being tempered by some real stinkers! Now, before you say it, I know you need thick skin to put yourself out into the public domain, but I always found negative customer reviews the most astringent (and we are talking one-star assassinations in some cases), as these poor bastards will have paid good money for my work. If a critic doesn’t like it, so what? I have not fleeced them of any money, only time. As an author, you do not wish to pickpocket anyone, and fervently hope that a combination of honest packaging, hard work and the context of your previous endeavours will be enough to frame an informed purchase, and thus rule out crashing disappointment. But this isn’t always the way.

“Disappointing … a chore … dull” … These were not the reactions I was aiming for when I wrote That’s Me In The Corner, as you can imagine! Anyway, as my publisher said to me on publication of my first book, in 2003, when I earned my first Amazon customer slag-off, this puts me in the same bracket as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. I’m feeling more philosophical about the negative reaction to the book now – and the most negative reaction of all was not to even mention the book, a route most national publications took! – and wonder if, by the power of Twitter and the passage of time, That’s Me In The Corner will take on a new, Kindle-fanned life? If it sells two downloads, I shall be happy, as long as the two people who download it are happy. (I wonder if Ebury will let me write a new chapter dealing with that last six years? Hmmm.)

This is me posing in front of three large photo-collages my parents made a few years ago and which are clip-framed up in the “office”. (Actually, maybe my brother made them?) Not that you’ll be able to make much out from where you’re sitting, but the middle one is themed around me, my brother and my sister, from childhood to young adulthood. (The one to the left, out of shot, is based around their kids; the one to the right, partially obscured, is all Mum and Dad.) They’re fun to gaze at, with all their fashions and their haircuts. A couple of days at your parents’, and you do tend to fall into nostalgic reverie.

My new 3G phone, the Samsung Galaxy Ace I, is supposed to arrive today. I am entering the future – or the recent past, as the Ace I is very much last year’s model – while at the same time gazing at my distant past. My parents have recently bought a new PC for the “office”, and with it, changed broadband provider from Orange to BT. They wish to move certain important emails from their Orange account to BT, but due to computer woes, had been reliant for way too long on the remote Orange website client, where their emails are now stored. I set Outlook Express up for them and hooked it up to BT, so that they may now use that to retrieve and send emails, but I could not for the life of me get Outlook to import message from the Orange website. I actually spent a lot of yesterday afternoon trying, and failing. I asked the glorious hive mind of Twitter – the Twitterhive – and received a lot of helpful advice and hints, but none worked, and it looks as if my Dad is going to have to simply forward the important messages to the new account by hand – a laborious task, and one we were trying to sidestep.

If you have any further advice (and I even tried setting up a Gmail account and importing to that, but the password kept being rejected, even though it’s correct, so I gave up), there’s still time!

In the meantime, I have work to do, so will end this Northampton-based blog entry with another pic that sums these past couple of days up. (Thanks for having me, Mum and Dad!)

Tomorrow’s chip paper

I was very sad today to learn that the Northampton Chronicle & Echo is to cease publishing as a daily paper and go weekly, starting next month. I grew up with the Chron, and even though I left the town it is published in 28 years ago (heavens, that sounds like a long time when you write it down), I’ve enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with it ever since, always providing a quote or a contribution if asked, while the paper has always been very supportive of not just my commercial ventures, like books and gigs, but also the work I do with Thomas’s Fund, which of course is Northamptonshire-based.

When I was 15, my friend Paul’s Dad worked at the paper in the print room, and it was through this contact that Paul and I had some cartoons we’d drawn together published in the Chron. This was quite a thrill for a teenage boy. Indeed, we were photographed for the paper, and its rival the Mercury & Herald, when our cartoons landed us on the local news show Look East.

I guess it was my first taste of the media, and my first taste of nepotism, for which I remain inordinately grateful, and although my jobs in print have been in specialist publications, either music or film, my first job was at a newspaper, the NME, which gave me an early taste of the industry as it emerged from hot metal and adapted to new technologies. (Ironically, the NME was a weekly, with its frankly languid production schedule. Some of my colleagues, Steve Lamacq and Terry Staunton notable among them, had come from local papers, and I always considered that “proper” journalism. Putting out a daily paper!)

The story of the Chronicle & Echo, whose parent company Johnston Press is downsizing five of its local dailies (also: the Halifax Courier, Scarborough Evening News, Peterborough Evening Telegraph and the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph), is one for our times. People aren’t buying newspapers the way they once used to before the internet and 24-hour TV news, and as such, the industry is in steep decline. I’m just glad the Chron isn’t being closed altogether, as has already happened to numerous local titles since the crash. Newspapers are having to go digital to survive, but as we know, advertising revenues for websites are way down on the sort of money you can charge for print ads.

I subscribe to the Guardian, which saves me money, and also, I hope, supports the print edition. I need it to survive, as I don’t have an iPad, or an iPhone, or any kind of electronic reader, and I demand an old-fashioned papery edition, please. It’s wise to subscribe to any paper publication you “take” regularly, as this kind of security helps the publishers to plan ahead and creates a better “story” for advertisers. (I spent the first ten years of my career in print, and it rubs off.)

Here is a photo of myself and my friend Paul with Sarfraz Nawaz, Northampton cricket star. It was taken for the Chronicle & Echo by the Chronicle & Echo at the offices of the Chronicle & Echo, where a reception for the team was laid on in 1980 after they’d won the Benson & Hedges Cup, and Paul and I were invited to attend as we’d drawn caricatures of the whole lot of them. It’s an event I look back on fondly. The closest I came to a Jim’ll Fix It, although I hated the turquoise suit Mum made me wear.

Of course, I now follow the Chron on Twitter. Follow them on @ChronandEcho, if, like me, you find local news about Northampton vitally important. The rub, of course, is that the paper makes no money from being followed on Twitter. Their website is here, and at time of writing, the lead story is about the potential collapse of Northampton-based Aquascutum, another local icon. The bad news is everywhere. (Stop press: since typing that, the Chron has broken the story that Aquascutum has indeed gone into administration. I found this out via Twitter.)

Apparently, redundancies will be in “single figures” across the reduced newspapers, but it’s a sad day nonetheless. The end of an era. The Chronicle & Echo, like many local papers, was a daily feature of my life in Northampton. My Dad had this letter printed in it, in 1980. We thought it was the coolest thing in the world at the time. I don’t imagine the young people of today would give much of a toss. They publish things all the time on Facebook and other sites – who needs a newspaper to do it?

I live in London and my local paper, the loathsome London Evening Standard (currently a Boris Johnson party political broadcast in paper form, wrapped in constant propaganda about the London Olympics), is given away for free. It is, literally, worthless. I miss pressing my 50p into the grubby hand of a vendor on my commute home, and I don’t even like the paper. I feel that somebody should play the Last Post on a bugle.

A riot of my own

Never been in a riot, as The Mekons’ first single had it – a riposte to the Clash’s White Riot; equally, as of this week, I’ve never been so close to one. I suspect this may be the experience of others. I live in South London, and although the riots began in faraway Tottenham on Saturday, and spread to even-further-away Enfield on Sunday, the newspapers’ handy, cut-out-and-keep riot map of London quickly sprouted little flame symbols right across it, east, west, north and south. Shops were looted on Monday night in Brixton and Streatham, where I lived for 15 years, and certainly yesterday, as I travelled home through South London, shops and businesses and pubs were closed and boarded or shuttered up, so there was no room for geographical self-satisfaction. This unrest affects us all in London – and now affects people in Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester and pretty much anywhere with some shops. So, as I write, I’ve still never been in a riot, but I have lived in a riot-torn city.

In 1981, when Brixton, and subsequently Handsworth, Toxteth, Southall, Hyson Green and Moss Side, went up in flames, I was in Northampton, which remained untouched. (The closest the flames came was Bedford, which was still a county away.) I was working in Sainsbury’s on the Saturday when the riots were rumoured to be coming to town. My job was to collect shopping trolleys and I spent a lot of my day out in the Grosvenor shopping centre, Greyfriars bus station and adjoining car parks. I was rounding up some trolleys in the bus station when I heard the sound of young, male voices shouting; it’s kicking off, I thought. I came up with a brilliant plan of action, which was to climb inside one of my trolleys for protection. It might have been a stupid plan, but I like the fact, retrospectively, that I came up with one. As it turned out, the young, male voices belonged to a very small group of young males, who ran through the bus station, trying to frighten everyone, but quickly ran out of steam, and just sort of stopped. They were a bit pathetic. But so was I for being scared. There was no Northampton riot in the summer of 1981.

This summer’s riots are not yet burnt out, so we won’t discount Northampton prematurely. On the Chronicle & Echo website, in fact, they talk about a number of copycat riot stories in the town turning out to be no more than unfounded, or even wishful, rumours. Eight people were arrested last night after some stone throwing on the Wellingborough Road, but that’s it. (Actually, there’s a debate going on, on the Chron website, about which number equates to a riot: it seems to be 12 people with “a common purpose”.) As it happens, I spent yesterday in Northampton, visiting my parents. I went up on the train from Euston in the morning. Before the train left Euston, two teenage boys came into our carriage and sat down across each other from the aisle. For the record, one was white, one was black, although both spoke in the familiar patois of young people, which is essentially black.

I must admit, I was disturbed to hear the more loquacious of the two enthusing about the previous night’s rioting in London. My estimate is that the boys were no more than 16 years of age, and yet he clearly believed the unrest to have been a spectator sport. He spoke as if he was there, but he might easily have just watched it on TV. Either way, he felt that it was exciting and cool – and, in his own young mind, justified – that people had looted shops. He spoke of the “Feds”, which I now understand to be the de rigeuer slang name for the police. The Feds were clearly his enemy. His friend, much quieter, eventually fell asleep, so the other boy shut up. To be honest, I was glad to have had a safe opportunity to hear the voice of the disaffected teenager up close. The headrests of the seats meant that I didn’t catch the boy’s eye. I don’t think he would have liked it if he felt he was being watched, although he was talking loudly enough to sound as if he wanted to be heard. (I hate it when two people sit opposite each other in a public space and raise their voices to be heard by their companion, by the way. It’s so arrogant. But don’t get me started on that.)

Here’s the inevitable bit: the ticket collector came into the carriage, and politely requested to see the tickets of the two boys. He woke up the one who was asleep. The other one admitted he didn’t have a ticket. He informed the ticket collector he was going to Milton Keynes. He was informed that the ticket was £17.50. The boy asked if he could pay for it at Milton Keynes, implying that he didn’t have the requisite cash on him but could access it at his destination. The ticket collector was not satisfied with this option and informed the boy that he had to pay it now. After a bit of discussion I couldn’t hear, the price was lowered to £8, so I’m assuming the boy told him he was a child. He still didn’t have the money. The sleeping boy claimed that he had paid for a ticket, but could not produce it. The ticket collector repeated his request for the money, at which point the non-sleeping boy started using swear words, and was told that he didn’t need to swear. The situation had turned a bit ugly.

Also in the carriage was a young woman – I’d say she was around 20. She leaned over from her seat and admonished the boys, saying, “We’ve all paid for our tickets, so why don’t you pay for yours?” I admired her indignation but felt it was ill-placed. The ticket collector had control of the situation, and the non-sleeping boy answered her back: “Who the fuck are you?” The ticket collector advised her, in a calm voice, not to get involved. It was agreed between the ticket collector and the two boys that no money would be forthcoming, so the ticket collector left the carriage. It was patently obvious that he was either fetching someone, or calling ahead to the next station. When he was gone, the boys left the carriage and I could see them disappear into the toilet together. They were going to wait it out until Milton Keynes.

Apart from exchanging smiles of relief with the young woman, we kept quiet. We were glad that they’d gone. We pulled into Bletchley, and the boys did not reappear. If I were them, I would have done. Having told the ticket inspector they were getting off at Milton Keynes, it would have been cleverer to get off at the station before, and get the next train. When we pulled into Milton Keynes, the boys emerged from the toilet and came back into our carriage to get off the train. They now had their hoods up. Good disguise. Sadly for them, the ticket collector had called ahead, and there were about seven large looking men on the platform – let’s say it was the station master, some other uniformed network rail employees, one security guard and another big bloke in casual clothes, who may or may not have been a police officer. The boys, worried now but keeping up the macho pretence, told each other that it was “the Feds” as they huddled by the door waiting for it to open. But the doors didn’t open, except for the one that the staff opened manually to enter the train.

So, the boys were escorted off the train and questioned by seven men. It was clear that they were about to use the same story they had used on the ticket collector: one of them had paid for a ticket but could not prove it by showing a ticket, the other one convinced he could get the £8 at Milton Keynes. I can’t lie, I was glad that their fare-dodging plan had been foiled. If they had booked ahead online, as I had done, they could have picked up one-way tickets to Milton Keynes from Euston for £6. It was a bargain.

It was a minor, unimportant, even everyday incident in the broader scheme of things in The Current Situation. But it gave an insight into the mindset of two very young boys who seemed to have either been involved in the rioting, or had been supporting it from afar. Two boys who felt that the “Feds” were the enemy, and that stealing goods from shops, throwing bricks and setting fire to property was a cool way to behave. I will not read any more into what kind of boys they were. But they were certainly the kind who felt that they could use trains for free. (Were they coming home to Milton Keynes? Had they come down to London to join the fun? Or did they just hop on the first train out of Euston that left from a platform with no automatic ticket gates or guard?)

I’ve spent so much of the last three days watching 24-hour news, I am convinced it is a power for evil rather than good at times like these. We didn’t have Sky News or News 24 in 1981 – your chance to get on TV! It’s quicker than applying to be on Britain’s Got Talent! – and, as such, I think they burnt out more quickly. Social networking has been a tool for spreading information, but it has also been a tool for organising clean-ups, so it’s hard to call for its abolition, like someone who has never used Twitter will probably already had said in the Mail, a newspaper I’m avoiding even more stringently than ever currently. We live in a 24-hour culture, but we need reasoned coverage, like the sort you get in newspapers – remember them? – or on evening news programmes, not the endless replaying of the same footage, which gives the impression that a student is having his backpack robbed every 15 minutes, and that a burning building is still burning 24 hours after it was lit. I speak as someone who has been glued to Sky and the BBC since Saturday, but glued to it and hating myself for it. These are riots that take place mainly in the evening, not all day. (Perhaps if it rains tonight, the looters will stay at home with their mums. I am not the first to note that riots generally take place in clement weather.)

Like Brixton in 1981, the riots had a flashpoint, which was an incident involving the police, which has led to civil unrest, violence and looting. While I obviously don’t condone violence, when it erupts against the police, what might very leniently be described as an angry response rooted in a broader political and social malaise loses any precarious moral high ground when it turns into, or leads to, the looting of shops, and the burning of property. This time, although the shooting of Mark Duggan is looking to be a pretty regrettable affair, the violent reaction to a potential unjustice seems to have turned into looting almost immediately, and that certainly seems to be the driving force behind the subsequent riots occurring outside of Tottenham, which fall squarely under the banner of “copycat.” Social deprivation, racial tension, unemployment, poor policing, decimated public services due to the cuts – these universal grievances carry a moral weight. Until you use them as an excuse to not pay for your tracksuit.

I do not discount the broader political and social malaise, but it’s so much easier to take a reactionary, even right-wing view of those participating in social unrest if all we see is young people – and it is mostly young people – going into Currys and Carphone Warehouse and walking out with stolen goods. How quickly any political high ground is lost. You have a problem with the police, you don’t burn down and loot local shops where local people work. You don’t ram buses with recycling bins. You don’t burn down a post office. You don’t pillage from a minimarket whose owner probably doesn’t have contents insurance.

These riots have long since stopped being a protest. They have turned into a free-for-all. (Check this excellent, on-the-ground report from the Guardian‘s redoubtable and unflappable Paul Lewis on the demographic of the rioters.) Friends and relatives of Duggan have repeatedly distanced themselves from the disorder and want no part of it. These riots are a terrible advert for young people, the majority of whom, let’s agree on this, are not doing it. They’re a terrible advert for the police, who failed to keep control for three nights’ running in London, and only managed it last night because 10,000 more officers were drafted in. (The Duggan inquest is already a terrible advert for the Met, who, once again, seem to have put out one statement, and then contradicted it with another one. Mind you, nobody is running the Met at the moment, due to resignations over the phone-hacking scandal.) And they are a terrible advert for London. And Manchester. And Birmingham. And elsewhere.

I think of London as a city where people of all ages, races, creeds and hat size generally rub along together – a brilliant advert for multiculturalism and community spirit – and then, to quote the appalling Pearl Harbor, all this happens! If you live in Manchester, or one of the other fine cities and towns with broken shop window glass underfoot this afternoon, I expect you feel largely the same. We ought to be good at this getting along with each other shit.

The two boys on my train may or may not have been masked up and rifling around the broken glass in a JD Sports window in London on Monday night. But their apparent glee shocked me. Other masked crusaders have been caught, or interviewed, by the media, expressing a similar glee. My usual sweeping complaint about teenagers today is that they are disengaged and apolitical. I was happy when the student protests proved me wrong on that score – most of those on the streets were issue-driven and clued-up, and active, not passive. But I’m not hearing the same from the rioters of 2011. Now, you might say that this is because, on the whole, they are ill-educated, and students are more likely to be white and middle class, but when in the heat of the moment, a gaggle of them kicked in Millbank’s windows and scared the shit out of blameless party workers pushing pen around in the offices there, the woolliest, most liberal bit of me almost let the students off the hook. But even that woolliest, most liberal part of me finds it hard to let the opportunists in hoods and scarves off the hook, because they are directing their anger at the wrong things.

If you want a revolution, you’re going to have to break a bit of glass. But have a look at whose glass it is and ask who’ll be paying for it to be replaced before you stick a boot into it. Or is my dazzling logic and perspective a bourgeois luxury?

 

Boring

Hey, not to be too self-pitying about it, but the lead letter in the new Word magazine came from a disgruntled reader of the previous Word magazine, who went to the trouble of getting in touch with the magazine to declare that the piece I’d written for that issue about my experiences, aged 14-17, as a member of the Northampton College of Further Education Film Society, was “the most boring piece I’ve ever read in a magazine.” Quite why this rude man went to the trouble of letting Word know is beyond me – as beyond me as why he continued reading when the first page, and the second, had bored him so much. Anyway, because Word do not republish online, I sought permission to reprint the piece, in full, here. It’s very long. And it’s very boring. Hope you like it! (If you don’t, please stop reading at the exact point that you get bored. That’s my advice.)

FIRST PERSON

In the early 80s, post-punk music and the cinema battled for my very soul

On Valentine’s Day, 1980, a couple of weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I saw my first “X” film. The visceral Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, I didn’t have to sneak in through a held-open fire door, wear a false moustache or lower my voice an octave, as per underage tradition. I paid £1 to see it, legally, projected onto a modest screen before an auditorium of arranged plastic chairs at Northampton College of Further Education’s Arts Centre, courtesy of their members-only Film Society.

I loved it and wrote the following haiku-like review in my 1980 diary above a rough cartoon approximation of Donald Sutherland in his “footballer’s perm” phase, emerging from an alien cocoon: “Really good’n’gory. Nice pod scenes, rather horrific, creepy and ace.”

To contextualise this pivotal event in my junior filmgoer’s life, in the same week in February 1980, my friend Pete and I had settled on the name D.D.T. for our first bedroom band (he on electric guitar; me on ice cream tub and tyre levers); and I’d optimistically posted off my entry for a Smash Hits competition asking readers to draw the 2 Tone label mascot Walt Jabsco as he might appear on the sleeve of another record (I had chosen The Damned’s Smash It Up and neatly depicted him smashing up vinyl records) – the prize was a copy of The Specials LP.

Like any 14-year-old, I was wracked with a confusing hormonal need to fit in and rebel at the same time. My musical tendencies reflected this: I saw myself nominally as a “punk”, although beyond a product-free sticking-up haircut that worried my Nan despite usually falling into a tame centre parting, I was just a provincial boy who wore sweatshirts and baseball boots from the Kay’s catalogue and nothing more outwardly seditionary than the regulation Harrington jacket, which we all wore.

But a glance at the customised cover of my 1980 diary reveals a serious schism. Between the cut-out Photostats of my favourite bands the Undertones and 999 are pics of Gene Hackman, The Elephant Man and Marilyn Monroe, plus the logo of the aforementioned NCFE Film Society. At that difficult and easily distracted age, I was a little bit films and a little bit rock and roll.

I was not yet a member of the Film Society when I saw Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers – part of a special, leafleted Spring ’80 Horror Films Season along with Piranha and The Return Of Count Yorga – but a guest of my friends Neil and Dave, a pair of what would these days be called nerds from the Trinity School side of town whom I’d fallen in with at Saturday morning art classes at “the Tech”, and whose trendy English and Communications teacher Mr Tilley had been their link to the Film Society. Without perhaps fully appreciating it at the time, Neil (feather-cut, rainbow braces) and Dave (Phil Oakey fringe, green v-neck) were to be my passport into a new world and, ultimately, a fast-track to adulthood. That Film Club, as we knew it, would one day help qualify me for a career in film criticism would have been purely abstract at the time.

Northampton was, in the year of London Calling, one of the “faraway towns.” Punk rock had only arrived there the year before, but I did my damnedest to catch up. My first official punk single had been Something Else by the Sex Pistols. (Rat Trap didn’t count as it didn’t have a picture sleeve.) Pocket money was thereafter invested in seven-inch vinyl futures; my broker was John Peel, whose late-nite Radio 1 show I was literally listening to under the covers through a single waxy earpiece. I remember in January 1980 going on an expedition to the still-new shopping mall in Weston Favell – colloquially known as the “Supacentre” – with my music-nut buddy Craig; after much deliberation, I bought the London Calling single, while he bought The Special AKA Live! EP. That evening the Undertones were featured on Nationwide, which felt like a moral victory for “us”.

Craig lived in Weston Favell and so did my parallel pal Paul, who’d accompanied me to Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. When I was round Craig’s, we’d listen to music. When I was round Paul’s, we’d draw cartoons together and pore over the movie spoofs in back issues of Mad magazine. Craig was into football, Paul couldn’t even throw a ball straight when cast as a fielder in a school game of rounders; I was somewhere between the two.

It’s clear to me now: between the years of 1979 and 1983 I was half-punk, half-nerd.

To neatly illustrate: in 1979 I’d begun to regularly buy two grown-up publications – the New Musical Express and Film Review. The former provided a vital weekly bulletin from the frontlines of the war on mediocrity, the latter a monthly fix of movie news albeit rather more vanilla in tone. An uncritical industry cheerleader for new releases, Film Review sold monthly through the ABC cinema chain. I expressed my devotion to it and to cinema in general by sending off for back issues, to study and keep, an early nod to voluntary history. I was now fully abreast of what was out, coming soon, and – less so in those days – in production. I had also become a devout disciple of Barry Norman and BBC1’s Film ’80, which morphed into Film ’81, Film ’82 and so on.

Paul and I expressed our groupie love of Barry one bored afternoon in 1981 – between drawing Mad-inspired caricatures of Charlton Heston and learning Monty Python LPs by rote – by improvising a silly, imagined clash of the titans, Barry Norman Vs Chris Kelly (ie. the presenter of ITV kids’ movie magazine show Clapperboard). The cassette of this Pythonesque routine has been lost in time, fortunately, but it was definitely the Film Review me in ascendance, not the NME me.

When the two worlds collided, such as the week in December ’79 when the NME devoted its cover story to a learned appreciation by Angus Mackinnon of Apocalypse Now, I felt whole. The rest of the time, I was torn. Was I about 999 and the Undertones, or Gene Hackman and The Elephant Man? Did I hang out with Neil and Dave and Paul, or Craig and Pete? The solution was: I hung out with both, separately.

Hey, I haven’t even mentioned girls, whose sinister, preoccupying scent further complicated the hormonal tug-of-love in 1980: during the April and May of that year I started writing the name of my first actual girlfriend in every typeface I could passably render in a diary far more usefully employed as a logbook for films seen at the ABC and tunes heard on Peel.

In the final dark days before the VHS revolution, access to movies was controlled: you either saw a film at the cinema when  the chains decreed it, or you saw it on TV after the usual five-or-six year gestation, and even then often cut for taste by the philistine broadcaster … unless you joined Film Club and transformed Tuesday nights for the best part of the academic year.

My 14-year-old desire to see Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers was salacious rather than academic: it was an “X” therefore I wanted to see what might be in it that qualified it to be one. (The “X” certificate seemed far more illicit than its prosaic replacement the “18”.) My stunted height, choirboy’s squawk and smooth features guaranteed I was among those fourth-formers who failed to get into The Exorcist and, a year later, Kentucky Fried Movie, even though on that occasion I was accompanied by my Dad, which cut no ice with the woman at the box office. But the NCFE Film Society, which I eagerly joined in September 1980, existed outside of such arbitrary, draconian restrictions.

First rule of Film Club: there were no rules. Actually, there was one: “All films start at 7.30pm – please try to be punctual.” Once you’d paid your flat membership fee (£7.50, or £6 for students, OAPs and “claimants”, which went up by a pound the following year), you were entitled to see all 36 films showing in the 1980-81 season and to sign in your own guests. A flash of your blue membership card also secured entry to and “unrestricted use” of the “Real Ale Bar” on film nights, where those of us at O-Level would comically nurse half-pints of shandy while making up nicknames for the more grown-up regulars. (“Stacy Keach,” we called one of them, for self-evident reasons, keeping up the cineaste theme.) Film Club was run by a tireless man called Frank Quigg, who we must assume worked at the college. I have a picture in my mind of a slightly less racy History Man type with elbow patches but I may be post-rationalising.

During that first, mouth-watering season I saw any number of films that would have been off-menu if I’d continued to live the life of casual grazer: Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (another “X”, excitingly), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (a landmark Cuban film set between the 1959 Revolution and the 1962 missile crisis with a prescient fractured narrative), Revenge Of The Creature in old-school red/green 3D, and the “lost” 1974 kitchen-sink drama Pressure, whose raw depiction of everyday life and separatist politics within the Trinidadian community in West London was quite a socio-political eye-opener. This was, I guess, the cinematic equivalent of roughage. Were it not for Frank Quigg, I might never have broadened my palate in this way.

It would be nigh-on impossible to explain the thrill of physical admission offered by Film Club to today’s generation, spoiled as they are by push-button, palm-of-the-hand media access and the instantaneous sharing of opinion. You can download selected arthouse movies from the Curzon website the same day they are premiered on its cinema screens. If you favour less legal means, I expect the whole century of film is at your fingertips. In 1980, it was like we’d discovered a magic portal to another world.

By the time 1981 and phase two of Film Club’s season had rolled around, a glance at my diary in February reveals a typically teenage list of “likes”:

  • Digestives and butter and cheese
  • The B-side of Teardrop Explodes’ Reward
  • Clint
  • Film Club
  • Playing snooker at Craig’s
  • Lemon mousse
  • And a girl I’m not going to name

See how effortlessly films now slot into my 15-year-old spreadsheet? Focussing my teenage filmgoing devotion on Clint Eastwood was predictable; Paul and I had just seen a double bill, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly – “very ace indeed” – and The Outlaw Josey Wales – “Guns, guts and gob” – at Film Club so he was fresh and weatherbeaten-cool in our minds. But the tug of drumming along to Teardrop Explodes B-sides remained in place, not to mention the girl I wasn’t going to name. (This meant she wouldn’t go out with me.)

However, having paid my £6 I was still committed to squeezing my money’s worth out of Film Club, and dutifully ticked off Summer Of ’42 (“ace Durex-purchasing scene,” according to my diary), Robert Altman curio Brewster McCloud (“a wonderful epic of weird and wit”) and the first part of a Bill Douglas double, My Childhood (“black and white poverty-o plot”) as the season built to its climax in April with Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative 1972 Russian sci-fi landmark Solaris (“bloody subtitles”).

It would be easy to back-romanticise and rewrite my own underdevelopment so that Film Club’s steady diet of foreign movies had a profound effect and opened my mind to world cinema on the spot. It didn’t. Bloody subtitles indeed. I even fell asleep during the 165-minute Solaris, awoke and snuck out before the end. (Neil and Dave assured me that it got better after I’d gone.) But the fact remains, I was exposed to some choice nuggets of exotic cinema at an impressionable age, from Japan (Nagisa Oshima’s Empire Of Passion) , France/Italy (Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe), Germany (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu), and Argentina (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s The House of the Angel) … I’d grown up with Abbot & Costello and British comedies like What A Whopper on TV, and James Bond and Disney at the pictures, so this forced march of maturity was significant.

But never mind the quality, feel the width. In 1981, I saw a total of 121 films. I have this precise figure at my fingertips because, world-class anal-retentive that I undoubtedly was, I had started keeping a running tally. This was the year that the Collins family took delivery of its first VCR – a Philips V2000 with the double-sided cassettes, very much the cleansed ethnic group in the VHS-Beta war – which eased the hunting of films around the TV schedules and empowered Paul and I to pause and replay the best bits of Chinatown, Death Wish, Deliverance and other choice, late-nite items from the ragged pages of the Radio and TV Times.

Within the year we would be supplementing our running cinematic buffet with those first trophies from video rental shops. At this nascent stage we’d bring home anything, frankly. And BBC2 were still lashing together Saturday night horror double bills, so you’d get 1943’s The Seventh Victim followed by 1975’s Race With The Devil. (Even on holiday in North Wales or the Channel Islands, we’d talk Mum and Dad into taking us to a local fleapit to catch the new Bond film: Live and Let Die in Nefyn, For Your Eyes Only in St Helier.)

If all this counting and collating suggests a quasi-autistic relationship with films, I can assure you that love coursed vividly through it. The badge of honour was in seeing every film I could possibly see. You can sense by the way each one is logged in my diary – title, year of release, certificate, followed by still frankly juvenile assessment (“Chariots Of Fire, 1981, ‘A’, starring Ian Charleston, Ben Cross … that’s all the big stars out of the way!”) – that I am now under the factfinding spell of the big film encyclopaedias I’d started buying or borrowing from the library.

I was taking a pocket-academic interest at last; starting to memorise years and directors’ names like other boys reeled off the previous clubs and goal averages of First Division footballers. Key Christmas/birthday presents of the time included David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of The World’s Greatest Movie Stars and Their Films by Ken Wlaschin, which I pored over as if handling sacred scrolls. In particular, I fixated on filmographies of favourites like Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and Charlton Heston, transported into reverie as I wondered what obscurities like Zandy’s Bride, Psych-Out or I Never Sang For My Father might be about, or if I would ever see them.

Putting all such film studies aside, I still gleaned enormous, mathematical, savant-like satisfaction from the simple act of seeing multiple films in ad hoc double, triple or quadruple bills. During the Christmas holidays in 1981, for instance, I marked up six in one day, thanks to bingeing at the video with Bridge On The River Kwai, Carry On Doctor, Savage Bees, Superman, Superman II and Magic. At such a greedy rate, you can see how, the following year, my film total went up to 144.

In 1983, the year I turned 18 and cast aside the maroon blazer of the sixth form, I saw 175 films, which is I suspect a lifetime per annum record. Film Club, whose 1982-83 season was my last before heading off to London and to art college, helped plump up those impressive numbers. I never went to film school. But I didn’t need to. Here, on tap, were the likes of Tony Garnett’s directorial debut Prostitute, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, further unsweetened black experience in Britain courtesy Babylon, Spielberg’s 1941, the seminal Richard Pryor In Concert … but it is sad in retrospect to see Tuesday nights at Film Club gradually displaced by rented videos, band practices and nights at the Bold Dragoon pub.

I let my subscription to Film Club lapse without ceremony or fuss. Too many distractions. I carried on meticulously logging films in my 1983 diary, whose cover collage continues to convey my cultural duality by ranging Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now against Echo & The Bunnymen under sticky-back cellophane. I had carved up my soul and sold it piecemeal to post-punk raincoat music and Athena movie icons. My tastes in cinema had been converted to small-“c” catholicism by Film Club, and during the Christmas recess in 1983, I willingly sat down in front of the telly for my first Busby Berkeley musical, 1943’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game and 1969’s stunt parachutist drama The Gypsy Moths, mainly because I was on a mission to see the whole of Gene Hackman’s CV.

I won my copy of the Specials LP in the Smash Hits competition in March 1980, by the way, and my drawing of Walt Jabsco was printed in the magazine. I was thrilled: an early taste of the media.

Before the decade was out, I saw my first ever professional film review – of the ho-hum yachting thriller Masquerade starring Rob Lowe – published in the NME, where I had found employment as a humble layout boy. From this en suite vantage point I had taken to pestering the paper’s section editors for writing work, and they were starting to cave. Writing about music, and commissioning other people to write about music, dominated my nine-year employment history from 1988 to 1997 – NME to Vox to Select to Q –  during which, videogames and live comedy made further supplementary claims on my time. But my devotion to films never waned.

In 1995, I briefly became the Editor of Empire magazine; in 2000, I landed the job of hosting Radio 4’s weekly film programme Back Row; and, a year later, began writing about films for Radio Times, where I am still retained as Film Editor and – unbelievably – share reviewing duties with the source of my early film inspiration Barry Norman. I couldn’t have achieved any of this without my self-enforced early-80s cinematic education, enhanced and nourished for those three key years by the imaginative and varied programmes of Frank Quigg, the geeky company of Neil, Dave and Paul, and the NCFE Film Society, where unrestricted use of the “Real Ale Bar” had made me a man, even without ever sampling any Real Ale.

And all this from a 16-year-old whose considered assessment of Buñuel’s radical exposure of bourgeois sado-masochism Belle de Jour ran, in the 1982 diary: “This epic about horse carriages and bras was shit bum wank.” And why not?

Alan Moore knows the score

Northampton, Northampton, Northampton, middle of England! Can I just pay tribute to my home town? Saturday saw what was, for the inexperienced me, the culmination of a week of Edinburgh previews for my show Secret Dancing. In other words, I’d done one in London on Wednesday, and one in Brighton the next time, and this was my third. (I know, it’s small fry compared to, say, Richard’s Christ On A Bike previews, which seem to be happening pretty much every night. But his is a far more sophisticated, written show, conceptual, precise, and technically demanding; mine is a “genial ramble”, and I suspect it will evolve a little over 16 performances in Edinburgh. Oh, and it’s free, whereas Richard is charging money, and that is precisely why I’m doing it under the Free Fringe umbrella. It will, I hope, be the perfect setting for my solo debut, even though Richard says I have still priced myself out of the market.)

Anyway, having now done the show three times, in full, with three dry runs at the Hen & Chickens before these, I think I can confidently say that I can remember where it all goes, and that the additions and cuts I’ve made along the way are helping improve the overall shape and rhythm. In a way, it should feel like I am just chatting and telling stories, jumping from one subject to another. If you’ve seen it and agree with that assessment, I’ll be happy to hear from you. London, at the Phoenix, was odd, in that I had a lot of family and friends in – something Michael Legge had a lot of fun with in his stand-up set, and which I think they enjoyed in the correct spirit of the occasion, which was a bit like Boxing Day or something. Naturally, it was my family and friends who heckled! For all I know, it might have made other audience members uncomfortable. Either way, I enjoyed doing the show from one end to the other, and trying out an elaborate opening gambit which I have, since Brighton, scrapped, for the sake of geniality and simplicity.

Off to Brighton the next night, on my own, I experienced what must be the default emotion of the actual, professional stand-up comedian: a weird sense of isolation. It was a lovely day, blue skies, and the sound of seagulls and smell of the sea – and the sight of already drunk people at 5pm, everywhere – made me feel at home. I love Brighton. And when I arrived at the Three & Ten pub, to meet Nicky who runs the venue there, with my bags and expectant face, I was cheered to learn that we had sold 29 tickets! Despite a faulty microphone (hey, I wonder if any other comedian has ever experienced this?), I think I managed to connect with the audience, seated in rows, and I managed to entice two volunteers for the Secret Dance-off at the end, one of whom actually wanted to be onstage (thank you, Viks). I know I sounded nervous. I was nervous. But nerves are to be defeated. I am a lucky man, in that through the podcasts with Richard, and now the radio show, I have kind of landed in the middle of an available audience, a handful of whom are prepared to come and see me without Richard, which I know is a risk! I wonder if I end up soaked in sweat because it is hot outside and hot in the small venues, or because I am in actual peril up there? Either way, after an enjoyable time at the Three & Ten, but forced to catch the train because I was due on 6 Music breakfast the next morning, I was embarrassed to be lined with tidemarks on my black t-shirt. Must start travelling with a spare. You live and learn.

This photo, taken by Verity Knight, is from the Nook Cafe, at the Fishmarket, in Northampton on Saturday night. I think that might be the back of my sister’s head on the left! Thanks to amazing pre-show publicity in the Chronicle & Echo (thanks, Ruth!) and on Radio Northampton (thanks, Sarah and Pete!), plus the novelty factor of me coming home to Northampton having moved away 26 years ago, we sold all the seats in this bijou but splendid venue. By day it serves vegetarian sausages to Alan Moore – really! – and by night it becomes a venue, and later a disco. All praise to Tamsyn [pictured above with a perspiring me, post-gig, and in the Secret Dancing pic] who runs the place, and whose reputation precedes her in the town. She, and Joe, and the rest of the team – many of whom can also be seen Secret Dancing in the pic – run an amazing space.

I reorganised the show after Brighton, and Northampton saw hopefully the most evenly paced version thus far. I could see their faces at the Nook, as the lights weren’t as theatre-bright as they were in Brighton, and that’s always offputting, as you can see non-laughter. It was a lovely, mixed crowd, and I hope there was something in my ramble for everyone. During my serial killer identification test, nobody had their hand up after I’d asked if they had “feelings of inadequacy,” so either the comedy fans of Northampton do not have feelings of inadequacy, or they are lying.

So, as I leafed through some copies of Alan Moore’s Northampton fanzine Dodgem Logic on the train back to London on Sunday (Joe from the venue works on it as an editor), I felt a real connection to my old Northampton haunts. I do actually remember the Fishmarket when it was, yes, a fish market. There are even some original marble slabs in there, as a reminder of its former role. But I like the fact that it’s now an arts-collective-run gallery and venue and cafe and market, and hangout for Alan Moore. It’s not how I remember Northampton. (There’s a nice review, which gives a good flavour of the town and venue, by Wishus, the Bard of Northampton, here.)

I hope to return to the town after Edinburgh, unless, of course, the experience kills me. In which case I will be dead.

Oh, and here are some more pics from the Secret Dancing dance-off at the Fishmarket:

Any questions?

Nene

This is me at Nene College, Avenue Campus, Northampton, at the end of summer term, 1984. Yesterday, I was back, wandering the same corridors, this time not as a student, but as … a visiting lecturer. The “journey” from pupil to tutor has taken 24 years. It’s now the University Of Northampton, having been upgraded in 2005, and those who’ve been following the story, will know that I was proud to be made a Fellow of the university in August 2006 (an honour I share with Jo Whiley and Bob Harris). Since then, I have been back to cut the ribbon on the new Heyford building, where the Foundation art course is housed. When I attended Nene, you could only do a foundation; nowadays, you can do your degree there too. (Perhaps if this had been the case in 1984, I’d have stayed in Northampton. As it was, I left for London, and never looked back.)

My day as a lecturer was split into two parts. I was met at the entrance by John Harper, a legendary tutor who’s been there at least since 1983 when I first walked, wide-eyed, through its doors. It was he who invited me, and he who oversaw my first project as a proper art student, which was to build a tent in the main hall of the college, along with my 50 or so fellow foundationeers. The only specification was that we weren’t to make any holes in the floor. Come the end of the day, the hall looked like a pretentious refugee camp. I made mine by lashing together some of Mum’s old sheets and an Oxfam raincoat with brown tape and string. I then stuck a plastic shark above the door and strung a red light bulb from the inside, with some photos of Marlon Brando around the flaps. John then made us spend the day sitting in our tents, drawing the space. This is how I recorded that head-spinning event in my diary of the time:

DiaryNene2

It was strange to be back in that very hall – now kitted out with tiered seating and a big projection screen – lecturing about 100 students, some of them fine art, others graphics and illustration, mostly the same sort of age I was in the mid-80s, a few of them mature students, and with a sprinkling of tutors, many of them called John, and again, quite a few from my day. As a visiting lecturer, and first-timer, I was called upon to talk about myself, or what Strictly Come Dancing contestants would call my “journey” from Nene to whatever the fuck I am now. I made up a fat portfolio of work, which ranged from a cartoon of Top Cat and his gang that I drew when I was about five, via a still life of some wellies and a carrot I drew for my Art A-level and the very picture I made from inside my Oxfam tent, to the crowd-pleasing smears I created whilst at Chelsea School of Art, where my natural inclination towards doing cartoons was looked down upon and discouraged, meanwhile paving the way to actual employment on leaving college. The theme of my talk, which lasted over an hour and a half, was Art versus Commerce, something that I hoped would pique the interest of both fine artists, who make art for art’s sake, and the commercial artists, who do it to order (as I did). Because I began my higher education in that very hall, I hoped I would connect with the students from the off, and I kind of think I did. They certainly seemed attentive and responsive (ie. they laughed at my self-effacing jokes and carefully placed swears), and nobody slept.

However, once I’d got to the end of my “journey”, and soaked up the applause, I threw open the usual Q&A opportunity to the students. After all, I’d covered an awful lot of ground, from foundation to the NME, and I felt it was time to respond to individual questions. Not a single hand went up. Not a single student, in the prime of their life, currently engaged in mind-expanding creative education with a view to entering the world via the door marked “Art and Design”, wished to know anything further. I must admit, I was shocked.

For the afternoon session, I was to hold a more intimate seminar in a smaller room, and John asked for a show of hands from anybody interested in discussing the issues further. Four hands went up.

Not an auspicious showing, I mused, as I ate lunch with the Product Design faculty and listened to their stories over bread and salad and pork pie and red wine (a Thursday lunchtime tradition, so I discovered). I really like the staff at Nene – as I shall continue to call it, Opal Fruits/Hammersmith Odeon style – although even though I’m 42 I still felt a bit like a student when sat among them! Having seen a lot of the students’ work last summer, I know that they’re producing some fine stuff in design and fashion and fine art, and that the still-young degree courses are punching their weight in an unfashionable town. But when did students get so shy and unquestioning? I’m not flattering myself that I’m the most interesting person in the world, but I’m an ex-student and I’ve been in the real world for 20 years and I was only there for a day, and I still can’t believe that nobody had a question. I don’t take it personally – I think it says something far more general about the next generation: perhaps they really have been beaten into submission by SATs and New Labour’s literacy/numeracy hours, too worried about passing tests to ask supplementary questions. When Rob O’Connor, the record sleeve designer, came to Chelsea to talk to us, my friend Rob and I were all over him, asking him everything we could about working in record sleeve design. (It’s actually his handwriting on the cover of Siouxsie & The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope album for God’s sake!) We had a visiting photography tutor called Ronnie Randall, who’d also had a couple of reviews printed in Sounds – again, we wouldn’t let him go! Tell us everything!

Anyway, about 15 students came along to the afternoon seminar, and it really raised my spirits. They were a mixed bunch, and after doing some more talking about the problems of being creative to order, and the way autobiography can inform your work (it certainly did mine!), I asked them all to reveal an aspect of their life or personality that feeds into the work they do. Not one of them let me down, although some were more shy than others. There was a fantastic mature student in there called Dave, who’s 65, and had an incredible story to tell. I hope he inspired the others. I hope just by being there and getting them to talk, I inspired them just a little bit. I’ve spoken to lots of students over the past ten years, mainly through the NUS, and it can be extremely rewarding. I can see why teachers do it. (Not that I would compare doing a day here and a session there with actual lecturing or teaching – I know my limits. I have friends who are teachers and I take my mortar board off to them.)

Universityentrance

Anyway, I really loved going back to Nene for the day. It’s a terrific School of the Arts and I’d happily do it again. As a postscript, one of the students in the afternoon seminar emailed me and told me he’d been inspired by the day, so all was not lost.

Now, any questions?

No?

Nothing?