For richer, for poorer

My approach to money was evident from a very early age: I saw it as a method of obtaining things I wanted and I had no interest in hoarding it. This attitude was evident and constant from the age when I was given pocket money through to when I earned it for myself. At the age of sixteen, for example, when I earned £10 a week working in the kitchens at BHS, I would go out at lunchtime and spend the lot on a combination of albums (£3.99), 12″ singles (£1.99) and singles (£0.99). (And how I enjoyed those journeys home on the bus looking at my spoils!)

Later, at university, I became acquainted with both overdrafts and credit cards, and consequently spent my holidays earning money to pay of the spending of the previous term. I’m not sure this was entirely reckless – I knew I’d pay the money back – but I found it easier to spend money that I would owe rather than money I’d earnt.

I wasn’t that long out of university before I was married and having children. Quite a lot of children. I don’t think my wife’s attitude to money was much worse than mine but the fact that she was now spending money that I would have to repay caused a terrible amount of friction in our marriage. And, in truth, she ran up some significant debts clothing and entertaining four small children and herself.

All through this time, certainly from shortly after our first daughter was born, I was working as an IT freelancer, earning more with each contract so that we were always able to service our debt, and the chickens only really came home to roost when we divorced and I was suddenly confronted with the full consolidated amount. And solely responsible for it.

But I’m a chap who has more than his fair share of luck and it was around this time that I pretty much doubled what I was earning and, for once in my life, I forgot about spending and concentrated on clearing the debt. And then, abruptly, after a couple of years, the debt was gone and suddenly all this money coming into my bank account was mine. Life was good. We did up the house, which was run down when I bought it, went on holiday and generally enjoyed having some cash.

Now, for years I’d dreamt of running my own business and I’d had a little hobby company  alongside my day job for a few years. In 2004 I suddenly had an amazing opportunity to make that hobby company my full time job and, without too much consideration, I took it. I employed some people and everything went well for a while before I began to realise that I was out of my depth. There’s a book called something like “The E-myth” which is all about people who start businesses because they are good at something and ignore the fact that they’ve no experience of running a company. Well, that was me.

I’ll spare you the details of the company’s fall from grace but suffice to say that I had to remortgage my house to pay the salaries whilst we struggled to deliver the work we had to the quality we wanted, but never making a profit. By this stage I had stopped paying myself. My second wife, who stuck with me all through this, bought the food, whilst I tried to keep the bailiffs from the door, the telephone connected, the electricity flowing and a roof over our head.

This was stressful enough in itself but at the same time I tried to keep up appearances. My daughters still had all their music lessons and, in our social life, I bought rounds of drinks I could barely afford. Couldn’t afford, in fact. I’ve always been a sound sleeper but now I found myself waking at two o’clock every morning to lie there worrying. And I’ve always enjoyed a drink but now, for the first and only time in my life, I found myself drinking to relax, downing a couple of glasses of wine within minutes of walking in through the door. My wife wanted me to go back to working freelance but I had all these people relying on me for their salaries.

And I learnt something else during this time, which is the appalling way in which our society permits businesses to behave towards their debtors. Credit card companies who didn’t ring me during the week would ring me six or seven times on my home and mobile ‘phones at the weekend to harass me about payments. The mortgage company, scenting a mortally wounded customer, were interested only in repossessing the house and not in talking to me about ways in which I could restructure my payments. It was hellish.

But I stuck with it. My company’s ethos and approach to business began to pay dividends. Our problem changed from “where’s the work coming from” to managing cash flow, in itself a huge problem for small businesses but trivial compared with the prospect of going bankrupt.

So, these days I can’t complain. I get paid regularly along with everyone else and those credit card bills are getting cleared. I can’t remember the last time the mortgage company had to call. That said, I recently had some confusion regarding my council tax that resulted in a debt collection company getting involved. In the end I went into South Lakeland District Council to sort it out, which we did to our mutual satisfaction. Oh, except there’s still the bill for the debt collection agency.

I spent a couple of minutes cogently explaining just why I shouldn’t have to pay this bill: I had been in communication with SLDC at the time, trying to sort the matter out. There was simply no reason for involving a debt collection agency and, therefore, no reason why I should pay for them being invoked by the council. We argued. I didn’t lose my temper, I rebutted and, eventually, the fine – for that’s what it amounted to – was waived. My issue here being that SLDC simply invoked the debt collection agency at the time because I wouldn’t submit to their (erroneous) arguments. An action they then expected me to pay for.

So, it’s been a weird few years. I went from being well off to experiencing the unsympathetic attitude and, at times, aggression that businesses will display to those who are in a parlous financial situation. I was certainly broke and yet do remember that I always had the safety net of returning to the freelance world if I needed it. That wasn’t much solace at the time, for a variety of reasons (including not wanting to admit I’d made a mistake) but I can’t imagine what it’s like not having that option, of having nothing to lighten a bleak future, no cause for optimism.

And now I see the wealthy in power, screwing the poor and the disadvantaged, whilst the middle classes do nothing, perhaps grateful that Osborne’s ideological cannons are not trained on them.

In conclusion then, I’ve been poor – although not in poverty – for several years this last decade. It seems now that I was always optimistic but a moment’s reflection recalls so many dark days and anxious, sleepless nights. And the worst thing was not the worry about looking after my family but the stress induced by the companies that will all rely on to make our lives work. Believe me, without fail, they are all bastards.

PS The Co-op, the ethical Co-op, was the worst of all.

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Read, Rewind, Replay, Rant

I had a very pleasant day, today. I had a coffee and some sausages for breakfast, made a quick call to the office and then cycled over to the house to spend the day with Dan and Abi.

Dan had a half-term tennis club at 10:30, so Abi and I walked down into Kirkby Lonsdale and had a J2O and a coffee in The Royal Hotel before heading back up to Booths to buy some lunch and also some mince and kidney beans for my dinner.

We’d hoped to go to the cinema but the bus times and screenings didn’t work out so we spent the first half of the afternoon at the house, first eating lunch – sausages and crisps! – and then drawing (them) and dozing (me). At three o’clock, we walked back down into town and Hannah gave us a lift back to the cottage, where we read and played chess in front of the fire, with a short break for a couple of Hobnobs.

Their mum picked us all up at about half-five and I had a short bout of dealing with three of my older daughters regarding insurance for the car they share before going for a swim and then cycling home.

As I write this, I’m eating the chilli I made myself when I got in, having had a handful of peanuts to stave off the hunger pangs when I arrived home.

All sounds pretty pleasant and innocuous, right.


I had three sausages for breakfast. They come in packs of six at £2.85, so that’s around £1.40. Let’s call it £1.50 and pretend that would cover the coffee, too.

When Abi and I went into The Royal, that cost another £4.50.

The shopping at Booths came to £10.23, which was for lunch for the three of us and my dinner.

A pack of Hobnobs costs a pound and I think there’s probably around fifteen in a pack so, let’s say it was 25p for the four we ate.

I swam at the local heath club, at which I’m a member, but let’s say it would have cost £3 at a leisure centre (it would have been £3.60 in Kendal).

That’s £19.48 for the day.

I could have bought cheaper sausages, that’s for sure. Maybe we do want people eating cheap food and keeping that market buoyant with all the health scares, cattle destruction and horse meat that goes with that. Maybe we do want people eating those foods linked with obesity and diabetes.

Abi and needn’t have had coffee and a J2O at The Royal. That’s beginning to look like the real luxury of the day, although Dan’s tennis also qualifies.

And, of course, there’s no real need to go swimming and keep in good shape is there? The NHS can pick up the bill for that in the long run.

So I could have done the day on £11.98 even without resorting to cheaper food.

Of course, I didn’t feed the kids in the evening, or indeed, give them their breakfast this morning, so there’s that cost to be added.

It all makes IDS’s £53 a week look a bit bloody stupid, doesn’t it?

And I’ve not included the fact that my house was lit and heated (roughly £3 per day) or taken my broadband into account (about a pound a day) or the firewood that we burnt. Today we didn’t need to buy any clothes, so that was lucky.

We’d also talked about going to the cinema, which would have come to over £30 for our bus fares and tickets, never mind the cost of popcorn.

And having spent an hour talking about insurance and taking into account the cost of petrol, I’m damn sure you couldn’t run a car on £53 a week.

In conclusion then, if you’re one of those people who’s faced with living on £53 a week, I think you’ll need to give up your car and doing nice things with your family. You’ll have to stick with the clothes you have and get used to wearing a lot of them at once in the winter. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where there are jobs and there’s nothing preventing you from working, you’ll have to put some of your money aside for the bus and maybe borrow some smart clothes.

It’s all a bit pathetic, isn’t it? I see IDS is dismissing the petition for him to live on £53 a week as “a stunt”, claiming that he has been unemployed twice. Ah, beware anecdotes from this man who lied about his degree on his CV.

Here he is in today’s Guardian talking about finding himself unemployed:

“It was a shock – absolutely awful. I felt pathetic. I remember telling my wife. We looked at each other and she said: ‘God, what are we going to do for money?”

So how did our plucky little soldier with the “can do” attitude manage? Read on:

“Duncan Smith’s wife, Betsy, is the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe who served as lord-lieutenant of Buckinghamshire in the 1980s and 1990s. Duncan Smith and his wife, who sent their children to Eton, moved into Lord Cottesloe’s 17th-century Old House in the village of Swanbourne in Buckinghamshire in 2002. His in-laws moved into smaller accommodation to make way for the Duncan Smiths and their four children.”

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

I understand why the LibDems went into the coalition: I’ve heard it first hand from MPs and senior people in the party. Maybe that decision was based on good faith and maybe it was – at a stretch – the right thing to do at the time. BUT IT WAS THE WRONG DECISION. It’s time to face up to that, dissolve the coalition and tackle these vile bastards head on.

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Odeon: passionate about profits.

Yes, OK, Odeon, why don’t we talk about being “fanatical about film”?

For a start, I’m not a film nerd; I couldn’t tell you who produced most of the films I love, although I do sometimes look them up on IMDB. (The actors I can tell you, OBVIOUSLY; I’ve watched the films. Duh!)


When I lived in Edinburgh, I used to go to the cinema two, sometimes three times a week. I’d walk home from work, put some food in the oven to roast, go for a run, come home, shower, eat and then walk across the city to the Cameo or the Filmhouse or the Dominion. I saw all the major films, loads of minor ones and some that, despite their excellence, I’m surprised ever saw the light of day (Hello! Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner.)

And then at the weekends, I’d take my daughters to the cinema. One week, I went to the cinema five times! Honestly, I am your perfect potential customer.

So, anyway, if we’re talking “fanatical about film”, Odeon, I think I’m qualified to be in the conversation.

On Sunday, I took my son to your Odeon in Preston to see The Amazing Spider-Man. He loves the cinema, too. That’s good for you, isn’t it, Odeon? People growing up, seeing the value of the cinema experience over watching DVDs at home. Yes, right. We’ll come back to this point in a minute.

So, we went in and went to the front desk to buy our tickets. “Two for The Amazing Spider-Man, please” I said, indicating Dan at my side. You know, one adult, one child. “Would you like premium seats?” I was asked but I thought, no, by the time we’ve bought snacks and drinks, it’ll be twenty quid. “No, thank you.” I replied.

“That will be nineteen pounds and ten pence, including your 3D glasses, please.”

NINETEEN POUNDS AND TEN PENCE. For a man and his son to go and see a film.

But I paid, of course.

And then we paid £4.50 for some dorritos and cheap cheese dip (“nachos”) and £2.65 for some carbonated water flavoured with cheap syrup.

£26.25 to see Spider-Man.

Anyway, I put that to one side. It was paid, we were in, we were going to enjoy the film together (which we did; it was brilliant, especially Martin Sheen).

But at the end of the adverts, there was an infomercial, or whatever they’re called, showing a closed down cinema, the deserted auditorium interspersed with shots of people watching films: people enjoying the cinema vs the decaying, unused theatre. The subtext was clearly that something valuable was being lost. Something enjoyable and precious was under threat.

And do you know what the message was, at the end of the clip? Don’t buy pirated movies.


It’s not pirates that are keeping people out of the cinemas, it’s your ridiculous prices, which mean that an ordinary family can’t afford to go to the cinema on a Sunday afternoon. Have you ever heard of EasyJet? Lower your prices, Odeon, and fill your cinemas. You can make far more money – which is clearly your passion, not films – by getting LOADS of people into your movie-houses.

I love films. LOVE them. I’ve been taking my children to the cinema for twenty years and now I can barely afford to.

You idiots. Fanatical about film? No, passionate about profits.

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Why I think Michael Gove is an idiot and a class warrior.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Gove – Secretary of State for Education – announced a return to the old exam system, ‘O’ level style, where people would study a topic for two years and then take exams at the end. This set me thinking.

About fifteen years ago, when I still worked freelance, I picked up a contract to work in Asda’s IT department. Since I was in need of a job, this was rather good news. There’s just one thing, though, the recruitment agent told me, you have to go and sit English and Maths aptitude tests. Aptitude tests. Exams in disguise.

So I went along to the head office in Leeds, where a nice young lady from HR sat me down and explained that everyone who worked at Asda had to take these basic tests. She was sure, she smiled at me, that I wouldn’t have any problem but it was just part of the process. Furthermore, she said that there was no need to worry. Perhaps she said that to everyone, or perhaps she was just sensitive to my advanced state of agitation. Either way, she explained that she would start each paper by asking me a sample question and, if I got it wrong, then she would say, “Perhaps you’d like to think about that again”.

I can’t remember if we started with the English or the Maths but both times she gave me the warm up question and each time I gave my confident response, followed by her saying, sympathetically, “Perhaps you’d like to think about that again”. Now as it happens, I passed both tests and modesty precludes me from telling you just how well I did on the Maths paper but I hated the entire experience and left the office a perspiring wreck.

Indeed, whenever I am stressed or about to take on something new, it is not uncommon for me to have bad dreams of the type where I arrive at school to find there is a really important exam, requiring lots of revision, which I knew nothing about. I’ve met loads of people who have a similar experience, so it’s clear that the trauma of exams is something that haunts many people.

Sadly, my son appears to have inherited my anxiety; he had a piano exam today and the ability with which he could play his pieces has, over the week, deteriorated from a breezy confidence to a level of syncopation that isn’t indicated in the sheet music.

Quite apart from my intense dislike of exams, though, it strikes me that they are a very ineffective way in which to measure someone’s competence. A teacher is well placed to assess a pupil’s aptitude and how well they are learning a subject, a subject that the teacher will know well. Exam papers on the other hand are sent off to be marked by people of varying degrees of competence and it’s not uncommon for papers to be returned to be remarked and to come back with a completely different result. At the school at which I am a governor, for example, we went through a period where the results from the AS English papers were consistently at odds not only with the pupils’ predicted grades but also their final A level grades, which, amazingly, did reflect their teacher’s predictions.

So, exams as a good method of assessing ability: fail.

One of the aspects of the modern system that Gove objected to was their modular nature. By this method a pupil studying a topic could resit modules until they passed. By way of analogy, let’s look at learning to drive. Let’s say you are excellent at reversing ’round corners and doing three point turns but you are also, unfortunately, a risk to the general public when it comes to roundabouts. The fact that you find managing the indicator whilst turning the wheel a bit of a challenge doesn’t mean you haven’t mastered the other aspects of driving, you just need to focus on the one that causes you problems. (And whilst we’re exploring this analogy, it’s worth making the point that it makes no sense for an instructor to put you forward to take your test before you’re ready but look how many people fail under the exam conditions of the test.) Thus, if I was learning Physics and couldn’t get my head around, say, magnetism, what’s the point of me repeatedly sitting a paper full of other things I know instead of focussing on the one I don’t?

Gove seems to think this modular approach makes it too easy. Perhaps what he really means is that it supports children in large classes in state schools. Or perhaps what I mean is that I have an inherent suspicion of Tory education policy. But I digress.

Finally, I’d like to briefly look at the way the world works or at least the part of it in which I am involved. Recently at work, we undertook a project that involved some technology that we hadn’t used before. Consequently, we did a lot of research and our development involved a bit of trial and error. At no point did I say to anyone “Well, you’ve studied that technology now, so you have to build the application without further reference to the online guides and manuals.” Of course I bloody didn’t. We have access to information pretty much whenever we need it. The modern skill set is based around taking in new information and learning to apply knowledge, not about learning things by rote.

Yes, there are specific instances where information has to be learned and retained – vocabulary for languages springs to mind – but even here, what exactly is being tested? Surely it’s about comprehension and usage? If you have an interest in language, then you will acquire the vocabulary as you go along, certainly by the time you have selected the topics for GCSE or A level.

I think that modern system is great. More assessment by the teacher who is instructing the pupils, opportunities to revisit topics that cause a pupil difficulty and, ultimately, a confidence in the pupil that they are able to learn and apply themselves.

Gove wants to return to a discredited age where one’s success can depend on one’s ability to “cram” information and one’s facility with examinations. The teachers’ role is reduced to preparing people for exams, rather than working with pupils, helping each work in their own way to take in information and to be assessed by the person who best comprehends the pupils’ understanding of a topic.

It’s too late change this now. The next Year 10 intake will return to this “linear” style of education and exam taking. I don’t know of any teachers who believe this is beneficial. Gove, as it happens, has no experience in education apart from what he has acquired since taking his current role two years ago. His Academy programme has yet to deliver the rotten fruit that is its inevitable output, as schools realise their budgets can only be met by reducing staff numbers. Who will benefit from this? Only that minority of pupils at the few state schools lucky enough to have a strong business team but also the majority of pupils  at private schools.

I’m not paranoid, I’ve never sold the Socialist Worker, but there is no mistaking the Tory agenda here. Whatever their failings, New Labour opened the door to social mobility in this country and the current government is doing its best to slam it before too many people sneak through.

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When the future dries up. (Well, has it?)

This morning I took my youngest to see The Pirates, which we rather enjoyed, the voice actors saving it from being a bit Aardman by numbers. As we came out I saw an advert for the rebooted Spiderman franchise and then this poster for the Top Cat movie. (My daughter, Abi, is helpfully pointing it out for you in the photo.)

This made me feel a bit low, to be honest. It’s not often I find myself quoting Bono but there is a line I like in U2’s song ‘God Pt II‘ that runs “You glorify the past/ When the future dries up”. Whatever the dictionary definition of decadence (oh, all right: “marked by decay or decline” and “characterized by or appealing to self-indulgence”) to me it always suggests a lack of forward momentum. Resting on one’s laurels seems a form of decadence to me and that is where we seem to me to be in cinema at the moment.

Of course, that may simply be symptomatic of the fact I don’t go to the cinema very much, these days. When I worked in Edinburgh, I’d go two if not three times a week, spreading the love across the Dominion, Cameo and Filmhouse. And then I did get to see films like ‘Warm Water Under A Red Bridge’ and ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’.

As ever, when thinking about the arts, my mind to turned to music. My dad played me a lot of music when I was young and I could hear the difference between, say, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Eddie Cochran, and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Simon and Garfunkel. Some of this was, no doubt, down to the recording techniques and sound quality but also a lot of it was down to what was being done with the music. Buddy Holly was clearly ahead of his time, in this respect, but it was clear that, for example, the much (and, probably, rightly) maligned ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, was a different beast from ‘Love Me Do’. My point is that music had a strong and apparent forward momentum and an enthusiasm amongst those who were making it, resulting in some incredibly constructive competition.

In 1979 I made my first clear break from the music that I discovered through my dad when my friend Adrian Coe played me Madness’s ‘One Step Beyond’. I fell in love with the band immediately. (I did like other ska bands but The Specials were a bit too serious, Bad Manners too far the other way.) It was exciting music, clever and funny, plus there was the whole gang within the band element of The Nutty Boys.

However, 1979 was also the year I bought ‘Are Friends Electric’ and discovered electronic music. I’ve documented my love of those early electronic bands elsewhere on this blog but my point is that, actually, this was a period of amazing innovation, musically. Some of this seemed instinctive – Shriekback – some quite self-conscious – Peter Gabriel – but there were many bands in between, such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, Devo, Talking Heads and, of course, Simple Minds to name just a handful. To me, 1978 to 1981/2 was pretty much the best time for music but there still appeared to be a forward trend after this specific period. Even The Smiths, who always seemed to have an eye on the past, were creative in forging a new sound.

It was sampling that first struck me as indicative of a creative decline – a decadence, in fact – even if some of those tracks were very good. This phenomenon reached its nadir with the sampling of entire songs to sing over, although, again, I still found room in my heart to love Sugarbabes’ ‘Freak Like Me’ and Richard X’s ‘Finest Dreams’. But I think what really disappointed me was the arrival of Oasis who looked to The Beatles not just for inspiration but also for templates.

Since then I have enjoyed many new albums but I find myself going to gigs by bands I’ve loved for years and buying CDs by groups that already feature in my record collection (as we used to call it in olden days). I want to hear new music. I don’t just mean songs I haven’t heard before I mean styles of music that are fresh, new and different.

In the same way that the conservatism of the film industry has led to formulaic storylines, films defined clearly by genre, so the music industry repressed musical innovation. But with the advent of the web and then social media, not to mention affordable high quality home recording, so I’d hoped to hear a proliferation of new music. Maybe it’s out there and I just don’t get to hear it.

I’m always happy to take a recommendation of a great new band, album or song, but can anyone recommend to me some new music? I’m not looking for stuff that’s difficult – I’m a great lover of pop – but just music that will excite me because it’s different from what I’ve heard before.

Thanks, in anticipation.

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The devil is in the retail

This is Devil’s Bridge in Kirkby Lonsdale. The story goes that the townsfolk made a pact with the devil that if he built them a bridge over the river, he could have the soul of the first person who crossed the bridge. When the bridge was completed, a canny old lady sent her dog across the bridge and the devil had to be satisfied with the animal’s soul. Now, putting the old woman’s callous attitude towards her dog to one side, this suggests both an impotent devil and also one rather lacking an eye for legal detail.

Away from the stuff of legend, though, the real devils in our society are those large organisations (and governments) that lack a moral compass. Often, profit is the end the justifies the means and over the last few years, this seems to have come to affect charities. Of course, this isn’t a completely new thing. A young and very broke Jeffrey Archer became wealthy overnight after his first charity event – for which he took a 10% organiser’s fee – raised four million pounds. His justification was that the charity made a whole load of money it wouldn’t have had otherwise and his percentage was an incentive to raise as much as possible.

It’s a seductive argument, isn’t it? And an amoral one. Now companies have sprung up that will hassle you on the street, collecting money for charities in return for 30% of the takings.  I went passed a chap last year, collecting for Save The Children, who tried to intercept me and I told him, politely, that I wasn’t interested. As I walked away he said “Not all kids are as lucky as yours, mate”. I found this pretty offensive. Not because it wasn’t true but because he was using guilt as a weapon. Not because he cared about the children – he wasn’t working as a volunteer for Save The Children – but because he wanted to make a “sale”.

Last week, someone knocked on my door collecting for, I think, Cancer Research. I explained that I already gave to some charities and I didn’t feel able to give any more plus that, if I did, I would donate directly to the charity and not sign up on the doorstep. This time I was treated to a shake of the head.

Even this practice of seeking you out in your own home is not quite as invasive as Christian Aid’s policy of ringing up existing donors to ask them to give a bit more. I’m not by nature someone who gets angry but I wanted to snatch the ‘phone off my wife when I heard her listing her monthly expenditure to justify why shouldn’t couldn’t give more. (Incidentally, this practice was defended by Christian Aid, saying it wasn’t actually them who make the calls, which is cowardly.)

And, finally, today, I saw an advert for Help For Heroes, which appeared to have a mocked up stamp on it saying “Charity of the Year”. Having googled once I got home, this appears to be a project to get companies to adopt a certain charity as the recipient for their donations for the year. The way it looked on the advert implied (or, at least, I inferred) that Help For Heroes was THE charity of the year, like it had won an award.

I think a mistake is being made here. Charities are being seduced by short term gain, by focussing purely on the target of raising money. Now, OBVIOUSLY that is what charities are for. But that doesn’t mean they should do anything to raise money. I run a company and sales are massively important to us, they are the lifeblood of our business and I’ve been approached frequently by companies offering to generate leads for us, on a commission basis. It’s very tempting, especially when times were tough.

However, I care too much about my business, about how we approach and engage with people, to let someone do that on our behalf. Save The Children for me – someone who cares a lot about children – is now associated with the young man who tried to make me feel bad so he could make a sale. That’s not intellectual, that’s just my emotional response. But intellectually, I hold them in low regard for allowing an amoral third party company to take a cut of the money that well-meaning people want to give to help children.

I don’t know what the answer is, except to say don’t deal with the devil, don’t be lazy. You are doing good work but you need to work at it.

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On Simple Minds

Image from Empires and DanceWhen I was in my early teens, I would take the bus home from school, do my homework, eat my supper and then, usually, either I would cycle up to my friend Darren Lodge’s house or he would come to me. (I think we slightly favoured his house as his dad would occasionally let us share a can of beer.) It’s been so long now that I can’t even imagine what we used to talk about – although the limitations of attending an all boys school would almost certainly have featured – but I do remember that we used to listen to David ‘Kid’ Jensen‘s radio show on Radio 1 from eight o’clock until ten.

Whilst we knew that John Peel was officially cooler than Kid Jensen, we preferred the latter’s show for two principle reasons. Firstly, we had to be home by ten-thirty and, secondly, we simply preferred the music. And, in fact, whilst I remain full of admiration for John Peel’s huge, pioneering and eclectic appetite for music and also aware of many of the bands he championed, thirty years later it is the music that Kid Jensen played that I still listen to.

My memory won’t be 100% reliable on this but I believe it was on Kid Jensen’s show that I first heard Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model‘, OMD’s perfect pop moment ‘Messages‘, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Cabaret Voltaire, Shriekback and many other bands who made the early eighties such a musically rich period. In fact, the quality of the singles chart in the early eighties was, I believe, a direct result of the abundance of good music that was being encouraged by the myriad independent labels of the time.

At some point during this period, I heard Simple Minds’ ‘I Travel‘ for the first time. It was, I must admit, not love at first hearing. In fact, they sounded a bit like one of the bands John Peel might favour; melodies not immediately apparent, a syncopated rhythm, something hard about it. I was still, at that point, drawn to more immediate pop (with the exception, arguably, of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn‘).

But the subsequent singles that Kid Jensen played – particularly ‘The American‘ – swayed me ’round and I started to listen to Simple Minds in earnest. For my sixteenth birthday in 1982, my brother (I think) gave me my copy of ‘Empires And Dance‘ and every time I hear it, I can vividly remember being sat in a dining room chair, hunched forward (due to the short cable on my dad’s headphones), intoxicated by a music that was different from anything that I’d heard before.

Those first five releases by Simple Minds range from the derivative (but still high quality) pop music on ‘Life in a Day‘,  through the improvisations and experimentation of ‘Real to Real Cacophony‘, to the sudden mature accomplishment of ‘Empires and Dance’, followed by perhaps their finest release, the double album ‘Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call‘ to the transcendent pop of ‘New Gold Dream (81~82~83~84)‘.

I don’t think I’ve ever loved a band or artist more than I loved Simple Minds and although I had my misgivings about the rather rock and populist ‘Sparkle in the Rain‘, I was always very proud to describe myself as a Simple Minds fan. I didn’t go to my first gig until 1982 and I missed the New Gold Dream tour that year and then for reasons I can’t recall I couldn’t go to any of their – at the time record breaking – run of seven nights at Hammersmith Odeon on the Sparkle in the Rain tour. Those, of course, were the days when bands played extra nights to satisfy demand rather than simply moving into venues that were so big that they made the entire live experience redundant.

And then disaster struck. Like the most dramatic tragedies, the catastrophe was not immediately apparent. The iceberg took the form of a pleasant enough track that the band agreed to record for John Hughes‘ movie, ‘The Breakfast Club‘. ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)‘ was initially released in the US and only became available in the UK when Jim Kerr heard how much fans were paying for imported copies. This concern led to a huge hit for the band and I’m tempted to think this went to their collective head.

Certainly, the band that appeared at Live Aid in 1985 were nothing to do with the band I loved with such a passion. Their excellent drummer Brian McGee had left the band prior to the recording of New Gold Dream and now bassist Derek Forbes was gone, too. The rhythm section had played an unusually prominent part in the band’s sound for those early albums and suddenly their absence was very apparent. (Incidentally, they now perform as Ex-Simple Minds and they are far better live than one might expect.)

And then, immediately before I left for university, Simple Minds released ‘Once Upon A Time’, which, frankly, I’m not even going to provide a link to. It is, perhaps, the most disappointing album I’ve ever bought and God knows I have made some unwise purchases in my time. Thus, I arrived in Liverpool to find myself, for the first time, in the company of many Simple Minds fans. I wonder how many friendships were nipped in their first flower  as I bitterly railed against a friendly comment on my Simple Minds lapel badge followed by an innocent comment about the virtues of ‘Don’t You’ and ‘Alive and Kicking’.

With my characteristic optimism, I had bought a ticket for the album’s tour and despite the pleasant surprise of finding Shriekback in the support slot – their beauty lost in the vast, echoing space of the Birmingham NEC – the concert itself was a clanging, clattering disappointment.

For the subsequent twenty-six years, I battled on, telling anyone who would listen that these stadium rockers, now synonymous with pomp and vacuity, had once been the most exciting band in Britain, with their finely crafted albums and surprisingly powerful and passionate live performances. In fact, my friend John joked on Twitter today that “for many years I thought they were called “Simple Minds 78 to 82″ so determined was FP to clarify his fandom :)”.

Over recent years, however, the band started re-introducing older songs into their sets, with an unexpected respect for the original material. In a gig at Hampton Court last year, they played good versions of both ‘Sons and Fascination‘ and ‘This Earth That You Walk Upon‘. And then they announced both a boxed set of the first five releases and also a tour where they would play five tracks from each of those first five releases.

I was cautiously excited.

After all this time, it seemed my broken heart might be mended or, at least, there might be one final evening together for old times’ sake. And so, last Friday, in the splendid company of John and our friend Ash, I proceeded to The Roundhouse in London. Suffice to say we were by no means the only forty-somethings who had decided to go along that evening. I wish I could have had a lens that would have enabled me to see everyone as they were thirty years ago, to see the fans inside undisguised by the passing of time.

And so the band came on. Only Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill from the original line-up, although the drummer, Mel Gaynor, has been with them since playing on bits of New Gold Dream in 1982. They launched into ‘I Travel’ and I was immediately reassured. Whilst Jim Kerr would prove incapable of dropping the vocal stylings he had picked up over the many years of stadium performances, he was, I think, as restrained as he could manage. But the band were spot on, particularly the bass player who was gratifyingly playing without ego, doing his best to play as Derek Forbes did.

The next track was ‘Thirty Frames A Second‘ and at the end of it Jim Kerr said “This is the stuff’ and I couldn’t have agreed more. I’ll put a full tracklisting at the bottom of this post but as the gig progressed all my anxieties evaporated and I found myself transported back to the days of my first love, unsullied by the disappointments of the intervening years. Played live, the intricacy and beauty of the songs becomes even more apparent and suddenly the yearning I’d felt all through the years of listening in frustration to my collection of bootleg live recordings was sated.

What I liked particularly was the care that the band showed in curating this exhibition of their own material. For example, Charlie Burchill producing his flying V guitar and playing the violin on ‘Pleasantly Disturbed‘. And, as I’ve mentioned, the care taken over the bass playing and, particularly, the sound, especially on ‘Theme For Great Cities‘ and even exposing a part I’d not previously noticed on ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall‘.

John wrote a very sweet piece after the gig which you can read here and he’s right, I did shed a tear or two. Although the songs weren’t adjacent, hearing ‘Hunter and the Hunted‘ in full flight, followed a little later by the complex powerhouse of ‘Love Song‘ just about tipped me over the edge.

I do a daily blog and I had assumed my photo for that day would be of my ticket for the gig or a poster or, quite possibly, a blurred snap of the band on stage. But in the end it was a picture taken facing the other way because, when it came to it, I didn’t need a special lens to look back in time when I could see the rapt faces of my fellow fans.

You know, I had thought that these gigs might have provided a kind of closure for me but if anything my love for Simple Minds (78 to 82) has grown. The gigs were a reminder of just how much Simple Minds meant to me, how very, very good they were and also, if you’ll grant me a moment of pride, made me think very fondly of my teenage self. Excellent taste, young man!

The set list:

I Travel
Thirty Frames A Second
Today I Died Again
Calling Your Name
Life In A Day
Hunter And The Hunted
Love Song
Pleasantly Disturbed
The American
In Trance As Mission
70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall
This Fear Of Gods
Promised You A Miracle
Someone, Somewhere (In Summertime)
Theme For Great Cities
Chelsea Girl
Glittering Prize
New Gold Dream (81~82~83~84)

The astute reader will notice that despite the tour being called 5×5, there were actually twenty-six tracks played. I’m a bit gratified the album that they couldn’t whittle down to five songs was ‘Empires and Dance’ (I swear I still have a crick in my neck!).

I’ve put the tracks onto a Spotify playlist here.

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