Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Zero Degrees Proof

In which The Author doesn't sponsor an acquaintance
About three weeks ago on a Tuesday afternoon, Clare and I were walking to Penderyn. We were bored, it was a sunny day, and she'd never walked up the old Mineral Railway Line from Hirwaun. I met her in the village and we went exploring. As we were strolling through the narrow tree-lined lane, with rolling farmland on either side, she told me about the time she and her older brothers were drinking '100% alcohol'.
I told her that they almost certainly hadn't been drinking 100% alcohol. I remembered our old Biology teacher, the late Terry Smith, correcting one of the lads in our class when he made a similar claim. According to Terry, drinking pure alcohol wouldn't do you any good (to put it mildly). If they had been able to get access to pure ethanol, Clare probably wouldn't have been there to tell the tale.
They'd probably been drinking something which was 100 proof – a rather different proposition. In the UK, measures of proof haven't been used for ages. Instead, we talk about the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV). Historically the UK and the US used different standards to define alcohol proof anyway, which makes things even more complicated. And in the US they don't use the term 'degrees proof', as we did over here. Stating the ABV avoids this confusion and makes much more sense, doesn't it?
Something like Jack Daniel's (around 80 proof) contains 40% ABV. Absinthe, the infamous tipple formerly enjoyed by the avant-garde set of Paris, can reach an ABV of 74%, or around 148 proof. There is a brand of rectified corn spirit called Everclear available (here and there) in the US, which reaches a staggering 75.5% ABV. At the time of writing, it's banned in Alaska, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Washington, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Minnesota. I bet there'll be a few people in Aberdare making a beeline for the states not on this list once they read this.
But I digress …
As anyone with regular access to social media will know, the calendar is quickly being filled up with special 'Years', 'Months', 'Days', and even 'Hours'. The United Nations seems to have partly been responsible for this, when it declared 1959–60 as 'International Refugee Year'. Quite what this was supposed to achieve in practice is anyone's guess. At the end of 2015, there were an estimated 65.3 million people displaced by conflict throughout the world. So, yeah, they did a bang-up job of resolving that particular issue six decades ago.
There's a full list on the UN website, and they make for interesting reading. Taken collectively, they sound rather like a six-year-old girl's letter to Father Christmas, or the pipe dreams of a Miss World finalist. Since the beginning, we've had (to name a few):
  • International Co-operation Year (1965) was another rip-snorting success at the height of the Cold War and in the midst of decolonisation.
  • the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Prejudice (1971) proves my theory that half the people I meet in Aberdare still think they're living in the 1960s.
  • World Communications Year (1983) was devoted to 'Development of Communication Infrastructures' – have you tried getting a mobile phone signal in Cwmaman or Penderyn recently?
  • the International Year of Peace (1986) – yeah, right!
  • most laughably of all, 2001 was the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations – when it wasn't busy being the Year of the Twin Towers Attacks and the Start of the Last Crusade.
As if these aren't far-fetched enough, 2008 was the International Year of the Potato, and 2013 was the International Year of Quinoa. (I'm not making this stuff up; follow the link and see for yourself.)
Anyway, logging into Facebook or Twitter will produce a welter of similar annual or one-off special days. According to the trending hashtags on the latter site, today is simultaneously the Day of the Girl, National Coming Out Day, and World Obesity Day. That's an obvious (if rather unkind) triple celebration for one of my recent romantic near-misses. It's also Ada Lovelace Day, marking the often overlooked role of women in the development of science and technology.
Yesterday was something else; so was Monday. I can't really remember what the special occasions were. It doesn't matter anyway, because they will have had as much impact on the world as did the International Year of Idealistic Pie-in-the-Sky Hippy Bollocks (1968, in case you're wondering).
It used to be only the Roman Catholic Church that made up a feast day for every occasion, simply to relieve the boredom of poverty, drudgery, near-starvation, plague and premature death. Whenever they wanted a small celebration, an obscure saint could usually be found somewhere to provide an excuse to use red ink on the calendar. (This gave rise to the phrase 'red-letter day'; according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 'In almanacs, and more commonly in ecclesiastical calendars, important feast-days and saints' days were printed in red, with other days in black'.)
And, by Goddess, there were some really obscure saints. Try these for size, whom I've found by randomly flicking through The Book of Saints (7th edn, ed. Dom Basil Watkins. London: A & C Black.):

  • St Cointha (feast day 8 February)
  • Blessed Dominic-of-the-Holy-Rosary of Nagasaki (10 September)
  • St Eusebius of Cremona (5 March)
  • St Phaebedius (25 April)
  • St Mageldisil (30 May)
  • Blessed Otto of Heidelberg (28 December)
  • St Raphael-of-St-Joseph Kalinowski (19 November)
  • St Theophilus de Signori of Corte (19 May)
  • St Wulstan (19 January)
See – every day's a potential holiday if you're a good Catholic. It reminds me of a great stand-up routine from early in Woody Allen's career:
I was thrown out of college, and when I was thrown out of college I got a job on Madison Avenue in New York. A real dyed-in-the-wool advertising agency on Madison Avenue wanted a man to come in, and they'd pay him ninety-five dollars a week to sit in their office, and to look Jewish. They wanted to prove to the outside world that they would hire minority groups, y'know. So I was the one they hired, y'know. I was the show Jew at the agency. I tried to look Jewish desperately, y'know. I used to read my memos from right to left all the time. They fired me finally, 'cause I took off too many Jewish holidays.
But back on topic (for a moment): T.S. Eliot was wrong; October is the cruellest month. The autumn in Wales gets going in earnest; it pisses down with rain most days, and when it's not pissing down you're just dodging the showers. You have to put the lights on at five o'clock (if not earlier), and the clocks go back an hour at the end just to make matters worse. You can't even go to the pub for a quiet pint without bumping into a load of bloody students pissing away their first loan instalments. Over the last couple of years, this horrible month has been made even less bearable by hordes of born-again clean-living individuals trumpeting their achievements via social media.
Because October isn't just thirty-one days of misery any more. Oh, no – these days you have to get healthy as well. If you do venture out for a pint, you're bound to be up against someone self-righteously sipping a soft drink and announcing to anyone who'll listen that they're doing 'Sober October'. If you smoke as well, your visits to the outdoor shelter will be greeted by cries of derision by people who are quitting the demon weed.
If you don't already know about these things, Stopober encourages people to quit smoking. Sober October does exactly what it says on the tin (of diet Pepsi, naturally) and encourages you to take a month on the wagon. Stoptober is supported by pharmacies and the primary health care sector, with advice and support available to anyone wanting to take up the challenge. Sober October goes a step further, and encourages you to get sponsored for not drinking for 31 days. The money raised goes towards Macmillan Cancer Support, which is a very worthwhile charity.
A couple of years ago, I asked Rhian if she fancied doing Sober October with me. She laughed in my face. When I asked her about doing Stoptober instead (I've never smoked, and have never been interested in starting) she thought it was an even more ridiculous suggestion.
I thought it was a ridiculous suggestion as well, to be honest. I once – many years ago – decided to spend a year off the booze, apart from my birthday (when it's daft not to go to the pub) and rugby internationals (when it's simply rude not to). I stuck to my word until about this time of year, which surprised everyone I knew, as well as me. But it was the academic season in work, and we were besieged by new students who (Goddess knows how) were even more condescending and less well-educated than the ones from the year before. The brave face was starting to wear a bit thin.
It was coming up to lunchtime one particularly stressful Wednesday when Laurie looked at me and said, 'I think you need a pint, mate.'
I said, 'I think you're right!'
And that was the end of that. Still, ten months and a bit was pretty good going, especially when you consider that bookselling was always a fairly boozy gig anyway. But they only had my word for the fact that I wasn't going home and sinking half a bottle of vodka every night.
You see, these special fund-raising months have one major flaw: they rely on a degree of honesty and trust that's often lacking in society.
Let's take one example of a really good sponsored event – the London Marathon.
You register way ahead of time; you train every evening and every weekend to get in shape for it; you set up a JustGiving page and ask all your family and friends to sponsor you. Everyone knows it's happening, because it's on the TV. You turn up on the day, run 26 miles and a bit, collapse into a foil blanket, get your medal for completing the course, and ker-ching! Anthony Nolan, or MIND, or Macmillan, or Shelter, or the RSPCA, or whatever your chosen worthy cause is, gets a nice cash injection from your efforts.
And that's exactly why it works so well. You might get to be on TV, if you're lucky. Even if you don't appear in close-up, you're somewhere in the mass of thousands of runners, walkers, wheelchair athletes and pantomime horses making their way through Docklands and back into the City, then onto Westminster and the finish line. You've got your medal to show that you've done it. When you get back home, you can go to everyone who sponsored you with a clear conscience.
In preparing the ground for a sponsored event I'm hoping to organise next year, I've taken the difficulty of charting one's progress into account. If all goes well, there'll be a large number of people undertaking a challenge which will take them the length and breadth of the Cynon Valley over the course of a few hours. I'm expecting that a fair number of people will bale out before the end. (I know I certainly would.) With this in mind, I've split the course into ten stages. Entrants will receive a 'token' on completing each stage. It makes the accounting easier all round.
Suppose, for example, that Tom, Dick and Harry sign up to take part. I sponsor Tom 10p a stage, Dick 10p a stage, and Harry 10p a stage. Tom finishes the entire course, so I pay him £1.00. Dick crashes out after Stage 7, so he raises 70p. Harry gets injured after two stages, so he gets 20p. If anyone decides halfway through that they'd rather spend the afternoon in the pub, they simply hand in their five tokens and collect half the sponsor money.
I'd rather do it that way than pay someone in advance to do a challenge that they might not complete (or take it on trust that they've done it). When my good friend Neil R. climbed Pen y Fan (the highest mountain in southern Britain) ten times in one day to raise money for charity, I was happy to pay up. He posted regular updates of his progress on Facebook, and you don't make that sort of thing up anyway. You've got to be pretty damn serious about the endeavour before you sign up for it. On the other hand, I sponsored another friend to do a tandem sky-dive back about this time last year. As far as any of us know, she's yet to leave the ground.
Next month is the even more bizarre Movember, where guys grow ridiculous facial hair (Moustache-November – geddit?) to raise awareness of prostate cancer (and presumably to raise money as well). That's going to be a non-starter in Aberdare, where half the males under forty are already sporting ridiculous facial hair. Maybe we could sponsor girls under the age of 25 to sort their fucking eyebrows out instead.
Which brings us back to Sober October. When one of my friends asked me to sponsor him a couple of years ago, I agreed because I knew he was serious about it. A mate of his had succumbed to a particularly aggressive cancer, and his sudden death had hit all the boys hard. A couple of the others have done sponsored walks or swimming events to raise money in his memory. That's fair enough. But now it seems that everyone is trying to grab everyone they can for sponsorship.
Last week, one of the barbints in Thereisnospoon asked me if I'd sponsor her for Sober October. I said I'd have to think about it – partly because about half a dozen other people had already asked me, and I can't afford to sign up for every appeal that comes my way. If she'd been a good friend, I might not have thought twice about it, but she isn't. We know each other to say hello to, but that's about it. I wonder how many other regular punters she's approached to sponsor her – and, more importantly, how many have said yes. I shouldn't think there are very many names on her form.
The other reason, of course, is that I'd have only Mandy's word that she'd managed to stay off the booze for the entire thirty-one days. Obviously she can't drink when she's in work, but what's to stop her from sneaking to the off-licence on her way home, or catching a sneaky glass of wine over Sunday lunch? It isn't like any of the challenges I've outlined above, where there's some sort of control mechanism in place to make sure people can't cheat. You might as well ring up the Guinness people and tell them you've just broken such-and-such a record. Without any outside agency to measure your progress, it's going to be your word against theirs.
And that, I fear, is where Sober October falls down (no pun intended). Stoptober could yield a definite result, in that someone successfully gives up the habit and makes a positive impact on their health and wealth. If, on the other hand, they head straight to the shop for twenty Lambert & Butler on 1 November, then the experiment was a failure.
The only fair way to determine whether someone has completed Sober October is for him or her to have a full battery of blood tests (including a liver function test) on 30 September. Then they go back on 1 November, have the same blood tests, and you can compare the results. In the meantime, they have to agree to the sort of random testing that people working on the railways have to go through.
And if you're a serious drinker, is just one month off the sauce going to make that difference anyway? The damage has already been done. I knew a man who'd spent four whole weeks 'drying out' at Whitchurch Hospital (see Rehab), only to return to Aberdare and head straight to the pub for a pint. Trebles all round! Another triumph for the NHS! No, not really. The poor bugger was dead a few months later. It seems that all Sober October really gives you is another opportunity for one-upmanship.
With my fund-raising idea, at least you get the tokens to show you've completed at some of the course. If it does come off, it's going to be properly organised and scrutinised to ensure nobody can cheat on the day.
To this cynical mind, however, Sober October is very much like an alcohol-free drink. There's absolutely no proof.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

I can't explain, This is not how I am

In which The Author buys himself an early Xmas present
My regular readers already know that, of all the many rock bands I've listened to in my life, Pink Floyd's impact has been the deepest and most enduring. (I've gone into detail previously, especially in On the Up and Making One's Own Luck.)
I've loved them since I was doing my O levels and I've never outgrown them, because their music is timeless and wonderful. Also, the older you get, the more meaning you discover in their lyrics. In fact, for a non-musician (although watch this space), I've got far more pleasure from Pink Floyd's music than you'd imagine. I'm fairly sure I'm the only person ever to have sung 'See Emily Play', 'Time', 'Money', 'Us and Them', 'Wish You Were Here', and 'Comfortably Numb' (both vocal parts) at Thursday night karaoke. I used to joke that, if I were ever to enter Mastermind, I'd like to take Pink Floyd as my specialist subject – simply to have an excuse to listen to their entire back catalogue for weeks on end.
Last year the V&A announced a major retrospective of the band's career to mark their fiftieth anniversary, entitled 'Their Mortal Remains'. Naturally, I added it to my list of things to do this summer. Then it went on the back burner because I was busy with other projects. Two months or so ago I was talking to Huw F. He'd just come back from spending a few days in London, and he was very enthusiastic about the exhibition. A couple of weeks later, I was chatting to Barbara in her bookshop in Aberdare. It turned out that she and Adrian, her husband, had been to see it as well. In fact, Adrian was so impressed by the whole thing that he was planning a return visit.
Then I saw some amazing reviews online, and decided I'd try and squeeze it in before it closed. I mentioned it to Clare, whose musical taste is fairly varied. Since we've been planning a trip to London anyway, it seemed like the ideal excuse. I booked the tickets last week, and took advantage of National Express's latest offer to get us cheap coach seats.
As with some other London attractions, we had to choose a time slot for admission. I went for 1.30, giving us plenty of time to get across town in case the coach was delayed. Last week I was chatting to Laura, who keeps the record stall in Aberdare Market. She told me she knew someone who'd spent the entire day walking around 'These Mortal Remains'. This was obviously going to be something special.
We got to the V&A just after 1.00, and had to hunt around for a while until we found the entrance to the gallery. There was already a long queue, and people were arriving for the next slots while we were waiting to go in. We presented our tickets and made our way to a desk where two people were handing out the audio gear. Each of us got a pair of Sennheiser headphones and a wireless receiver to wear while we were making our way around.
When Martin H. and I went to the Sir Peter Blake exhibition at the National Museum of Wales (see Starless and Bible Black), there was a chance to listen to the definitive Under Milk Wood recording in the afternoon. 'Their Mortal Remains' is the next step in audiovisual presentations. With state-of-the-art audio equipment, you can walk around at your own pace, and the soundtrack changes according to where you are in the gallery. Virtually the first thing you hear is the familiar 'found sound' montage of heartbeats, random snatches of conversation, screams, birdsong, and those early 'samples' which feature throughout their records. Then you're into the exhibition proper.
It's a labyrinth of rooms, each one devoted to a particular period of the band's evolution. (Quick disclaimer: A lot of the spaces are fairly dark and I didn't want to use the flash, so a lot of my photos aren't great.)
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, so you follow the band's progress right from their early days as architecture students, travelling to gigs in a van painted with a white stripe. But that's only where the fun starts – because the exhibits are inside a mocked-up van with a white stripe. There's even a letter from young Roger Barrett (later known as 'Syd', of course) explaining how the van came to be decorated in that way.
I've always had a fascination with the psychedelic era, and I was amazed to see how much documentation has survived five decades. There were posters, flyers, cuttings from underground newspapers, and even letters from the BBC, including one complaining that a member of the band had 'freaked out' during a recording session. (No prizes for guessing which one.)
Every so often there's a red telephone box decorated with newspapers, magazines and news clippings from that era. (Here's the one to accompany A Momentary Lapse of Reason, for example.)
I had to chuckle at the one from the mid-1960s, which included the Radio Times commemorative supplement to accompany coverage of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral. Auntie Maggie had kept the same booklet. When we were clearing out her house, we decided to keep that and some other historic papers she'd stashed away. It's in a drawer in my house.
It was while I was in this first space that I realised just why we had the headsets. There are mini TV screens showing early 'promotional films', interviews with the musicians and their many collaborators (including the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and the Hipgnosis design team of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell), and rare footage from the band's live shows. As you move around, the radios and switch to the appropriate audio track. It means that you can explore the exhibition at your own pace, backtracking if you want to, and you're not interfering with anyone else's enjoyment. I went to look at the Atom Heart Mother piece in more detail and lost Clare entirely. (I didn't see her again until I was almost at the end of the sequence. She had to be briefly allowed back in to find me.)
It was quite wonderful to get up close and personal to the instruments that had produced some of the most important music of my life. There were David Gilmour's beautiful guitars, Rick Wright's array of keyboards and vintage synths, Nick Mason's painted drum heads, Roger Waters' bass guitars … I took plenty of photos of these, but they're a bit blurred. I'm blaming that on the low light, but I must admit that my hands were shaking a bit as well. It was a fairly emotional experience for me.
We'd gone in just after 1.30, and with my phone switched off I had no idea of the time. I wandered through the spaces without feeling any need to hurry. I found myself marvelling at the complexity of the LP covers. You can only really appreciate them when you see them on a large scale. A twelve-inch square is very nice to look at, but when you see the same images nearly two metres across, your jaw just drops.
If you looked up, from time to time you'd see things like the model aircraft which used to fly over the audience. There were props, models, animations, film clips and beautiful photographs, all accompanied by the highest 'fi' I've ever heard. I think I watched most of the interviews at least twice, and stood for ages while the story of the infamous flying pig (from the Animals cover) unfolded. One of the most remarkable exhibits was a letter from the NASA Space Centre in Goddard, Maryland. It accompanies a photograph of the British astronaut Dr Piers Sellers holding a CD of Dark Side of the Moon on board the International Space Station. It's a fitting piece in the story of the band whose live improv piece accompanied the BBC's coverage of the first moon landing.
There's even a room where you can watch the legendary prism design rotating slowly against a backdrop of the night sky, while 'The Great Gig in the Sky' plays through the sound system. Simply as an art installation, it was the most immersive and well-designed set-up I could have possibly hoped for.
There were plenty of people taking photos, but nobody jostled anyone or complained that their view was being obstructed. Everyone took their time and seemed to be having a thoroughly civilised afternoon. It was pleasing to see how many young people were there, too. I'd worried that Clare might be the only person under fifty, but there really is something for everyone to enjoy. Since the kids are back in school, we can't even attribute this to the 'family trip to the museum' effect. The youngsters were obviously there because they wanted to see it for themselves.
All course, all good things must come to an end, and Pink Floyd were no exception. People had written them off after The Final Cut, of course, when Roger Waters left to pursue his solo career. Instead, Messrs Gilmour, Wright and Mason continued as a trio, augmented by some of the finest session men and women in the business. As I've mentioned elsewhere, The Division bell is the only LP I've ever bought on the day of its release. And, of course, I wept when Bob Geldof pulled off a miracle and got the definitive line-up to play at the Live 8 concert in 2005.
When Rick Wright died, seven years ago last week, it meant the end of Pink Floyd. Without Mr Wright's unmistakable keyboards to underpin the melodies, it could never be the same. At the end of the chronological tour, there was some footage of them recording together. It was beautiful to watch these three old friends doing what they did they best. Knowing that it effectively marked the end of their time as a band made it especially poignant. I had a few tears in my eyes when I was watching that clip, I don't mind telling you.
And just when I thought it was all over, there was an surprise treat right at the end. Everyone took off their headsets and we sat down in a large empty room to watch that Live 8 performance of 'Comfortably Numb'. When I left the 'performance area', I was definitely crying. I'm still a bit emotional just typing this, to be honest.
I bought the exhibition catalogue in the gift shop. There was loads of merchandise on sale, but I didn't want to buy something like a keyring or a badge, which would be easy to lose. I thought an tenner for half a dozen postcards in a box was a bit pricey, too. But the exhibition catalogue will sit nicely alongside my several other books on what is, for my money, simply the greatest rock band of all time.
I found Clare outside the gift shop, and was amazed to find that I'd spent nearly three hours in the exhibition. We decided we both needed a pint (me more than her, I think), so we repaired to the Zetland Arms to look at my photos. As I've explained, they weren't great. Clint very kindly gave me his Canon compact automatic when he upgraded his gear, but I prefer my Olympus. (I know my way around that one.)
In fact, there might be only one thing for it. The exhibition has been extended to the middle of next month. I think that, like Adrian, I might have to pay it a return visit before it closes.
And Clare and I have made a pact to totally own 'Comfortably Numb' in karaoke before Xmas. It's not only my favourite rock song of all time – it was also the song that TV cook Paul Hollywood chose to save from the waves when he was a guest on Desert Island Discs. Kudos to him.
It's the song I want played at my funeral. And if any of you buggers get up to leave before the second guitar solo fades away, I swear I'll come back and haunt you.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Project No More Nice Guy: An Update

In which The Author's plan starts to bear fruit
Some six months after its inception, I'm pleased to report that Project No More Nice Guy is really showing some positive results. It's been a long time since anyone conned a drink or a meal out of me, and even longer since I went on a wild goose chase after an unsuitable female.
In fact, I've managed to pretty much avoid one unsuitable female since embarking on this research project. I don't bother going to the karaoke in the Lighthouse any more, which means that the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2 and I are very rarely in the same room. It's happened a couple of times. Both times, she seemed to think I was going to say hello to her. It didn't happen. Even when she asked me if anyone was sitting in Tony Abbott's regular chair, I just shook my head and turned away.
To be honest, I've almost quit the karaoke scene entirely, because it's just bloody boring these days. There are so few of us (and I was one, remember) who ever venture away from the Great Valleys Songbook that you might as well stay at home and listen to Heart FM.
Monday afternoon karaoke is dying on its arse. Gareth had the push a couple of months ago, and Phil the bar manager/chef/DJ/singer/whatever now hosts Performance and Cock-ups himself. His PA is far more suitable for a rock band, and his mixing desk settings reflect that as well. There's always way too much reverb on the vocals, and his backing tracks seem cheap and amateurish in comparison to Gareth's. He also doesn't have the range of music that Gareth and Jocelyn have on their systems.
The biggest problem is that he has his own little clique of favourites (Clare, Adrian, the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2), and hardly anyone else gets called to sing. The exception is Danelle, who (by some weird act of Goddess) actually gets measurably worse over time. She'd be lucky to carry a tune in a bucket anyway, but every week she gets more and more tuneless. It could be a good comedy act, like Les Dawson's piano playing, if only she had the imagination to market it as such.
So I find myself between the two camps – not nearly as good as Clare or Adrian, but nowhere near as entertaining as Danelle.
As a result, I've been dropped from the squad. In fact, I was in there a few weeks ago, toying with the idea of another pint. It was early in the school holidays, and I assume most people were on holiday. After about an hour, when it seemed that Clare and Philvis had made other plans – and nobody else had grasped the nettle – Phil came over to where I was sitting.
'Where are the singers today?' he asked.
'Well, there was one here,' I said.
And I made my excuses and left.
As for Thursdays …
I had a pint with my brother earlier, and he mentioned something he'd heard on the radio this morning. A Sunderland FC fan had phoned in to Danny Baker's programme, saying how much she was looking forward to the new season. They're no longer in the Premiership, so they're not up against the likes of Manchester Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, and so forth. There are no multi-million pound deals, and no players sitting on their hands (despite the expectations and media hype) because it's all about the money. They can get back to doing what they do best – playing football.
The Lighthouse decided a few weeks ago that Thursday karaoke was going to go the same way. It's all about the money. A series of 'heats' would decide who went through to the 'final', with £100 up for grabs at the end. After it was announced, I had a chat with Adrian, who is on the circuit anyway. He and I agreed that it would spoil the whole karaoke experience.
As I've pointed out before, plenty of people think they're singing in front of Simon Cowell et al. on an average Thursday night. With that sort of bait dangling, it's going to attract semi-pro singers from across the whole area. On that other hand, people like me, who just get up on stage because we enjoy it and have no illusions that we're ever going to hit the big time, aren't even going to bother.
Friday night karaoke in the Bonki seems to have finished very abruptly. In fact, the Bonki itself seems to have finished very abruptly. A few weeks ago Gareth told us that it had closed. I went past on the bus yesterday to double-check this rumour for myself. There was no sign of life, and no obvious reason for its sudden closure. It seems a bit strange, because it's one of the key venues for the Cwmfest music festival next month. More importantly for me, it's home to one of the Anthony Nolan Trust collection boxes. I'll need to get in touch with Simon and Kylie to find out what's going on, simply so I can retrieve the box and find it a new home if necessary.
So, in a few short months we've gone from five decent karaoke events (Lighthouse twice a week, Bonki, Cambrian, and Lindsey's fortnightly damp squib in the Glandover) to just the two.
By a strange coincidence, about six weeks ago the ChavMackworth announced a similar competition to the Lighthouse's. Clare entered them both, of course. She qualified for the Mackworth final straight away. I didn't stay for the results of that 'heat' – I hate the pub, and won't be going for the Grand Final tomorrow night. Clare asked me last night to go along and support her, but I think I might have to decline. I don't have that much cocaine to inhale in between the performers.
Adrian didn't enter a similar contest in the Bush a couple of years ago. He's in a no-win situation (literally): if he trousers the first prize, everyone will say it's fixed because he does this for a living. If he doesn't, people will turn around and say 'Well, we all knew you were crap anyway.' It's easier to sit on the sidelines.
As I've done.
Although my sidelines are strictly metaphorical, consisting of my armchair and a decent book. That Sunday night aside, I haven't bothered going along to either of the competitions. I've heard all the competitors before and (with one or two exceptions) there's nothing to get especially excited about. I can't imagine Tina blasting some Katy Perry our way, or Martin suddenly deciding to add 'Light My Fire' to his repertoire.
However, I've noticed that Clare has started trying some more songs since we first chatted about taking up the guitar again and going to the Open Mic nights in Aberdare. It could just be a coincidence, but they're all from the Great Valleys Songbook (a John Legend song, that bloody Adele song, some modern crap which I wouldn't be able to identify in a quiz). I blame the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2, who really does pepper her set with modern crap. She's sort-of working the circuit with Phil and his band, and we all know you can't venture off the straight and narrow when you're a semi-pro musician.
Clare obviously thinks she can compete on that basis. With no transport, no equipment, no proper experience, no contacts (apart from the precious few I've given her) and no real stage presence (in spite of my encouragement), I think she's going to be strictly a Session Musician. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. You can earn decent wedge from session work. But you still need transport, equipment, contacts … See what I mean?
Anyway, last night the three of us got back together for possibly the last time.
Philvis, who at best gets the sympathy vote because of his disability, and who really can't take constructive criticism or follow helpful advice, was still sulking because Clare had got into the final of the Mackworth competition and Tina (deservedly) had won the Lighthouse competition. He's still convinced he should have won both prizes outright. He's convinced he'll clean up at the Porthcawl Elvis Festival next month. A short, short-haired, bearded, glasses-wearing bloke, with a decent voice but only a vague knowledge of the words (even wearing a white jumpsuit that cost his parents a fair few quid) isn't going to stand a snowball's chance against professional tribute acts from across the UK and further afield.
But we can't tell him that.
To do so risks unleashing the Incredible Sulk for hours (or even days) on end.
So, last night, Philvis and I sang a couple of Elvis songs together to mark the fortieth anniversary of the King taking up his job flipping burgers in a Midwest diner (please see the hilarious and totally warped Good Omens by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman for full details). Philvis won't admit it, but he had to admit defeat during 'Jailhouse Rock', when I left him standing with only my sketchy knowledge of the song.
And there's a story behind that, too.
Clare's most recent Fuck Buddy is in prison at the moment. I won't go into the details, but it seems she only decided she really wanted him when he wasn't there. Since then, her sole topic of conversation has been her Fuck Buddy. Apparently she's going to move in with him as soon as he's released, and this time she knows it's for real, as the song has it. I got bored to tears of her talking about 'their' flat when we were in Pontypridd a fortnight ago. Considering that his rented flat won't even be there when he gets out, that could be a bit of a problem.
Her brother is more fed up of this single-minded obsession than I am – hence our choice of song last night. About two hours of ignoring her hyperactive babbling about the journey to visit Fuck Buddy on Monday, we decided that taking the piss might help the message to sink in. It fell on deaf ears, though.
And talking of people who've got themselves into trouble: the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2 might end up on Pubwatch after kicking a bloke in the head. I wasn't in the pub when it happened, of course. It was a Thursday karaoke night, so I was at home watching a film. I found out about it the following day. Lucky escape, or what? It meant that I was fairly safe to go to the Cambrian with the others last night.
Only fairly safe, though. We'd been there for half an hour or so when one of the occasionals (shaved head, tattoos, muscles, no real brain functions) embarked on an argument with some of his friends. Needless to say, because I once appeared on a TV quiz show over a quarter of a century ago, I was the obvious person to adjudicate in this particular case.
Or so he thought.
My Facebook status from last night pretty much encapsulates what I told him:
Project No More Mr Nice Guy (v 5.0) now live. No, pissed steroid head, I am not under police caution, in a job interview, or taking part in a quiz. You can't ask me a fucking question. You have a smartphone and access to the Cloud. Fucking use them.
And at about 10.30 we all made our excuses and left.
I was having a pint in the Glosters this afternoon when Clare messaged me. It's always a sign that she's at a loose end. She asked me to join her for a pint in Merthyr. I don't know why she was in Merthyr. I can probably guess. It was about 3.30 at the time. I told her that I wasn't going to spend eight quid and half an hour on a bus, only to have to head back to Aberdare in less than three hours' time. For just over double that price, I could spend a whole day in London, for fuck's sake.
She messaged back to say she was on her own.
But she never is, of course.
As long as she can log on to the Cloud or pick up mobile data, she spends most of her time messaging random people she's met on Facebook. It doesn't matter that the Fuck Buddy is in prison – in spite of how much she professes to love him – as long as he's out of sight and out of mind. She told me a little while ago that she was determined to stay 'single' until he got out. Considering that she was to all intents and purposes 'single' all the time they were together, it seems to me that she wants to have her cake and eat it.
Like the Incredible Vanishing Girl 2, and many other young girls I've met in the past couple of years in fact, it seems that Clare is perfectly happy as long as her vagina is occupied. It doesn't really matter who the current occupant is, either, just as long as he's muscular, tattooed, trendily dressed, and has his hair cut in one of the town's dozen or so Turkish barber's shops who churn out clones by the hundred. Once the vagina is unoccupied, Good Old Steve gets the inevitable phone call for company and free drinks.
Which, if I'm not very much mistaken, was the inspiration for Project No More Mr Nice Guy in the first place.
Anyway, there's much more to report in detail from my Facebook statuses and Tweets over the past six months or so, but that's a very brief summary of the research so far. The full analysis will have to wait until the experiment is complete, of course.
But at this rate it could continue for the rest of my natural life.