One thing that the pandemic has taught us all to collectively identify with is the notion of being stuck. Whether it is stuck sat in front of a screen on perpetual Zoom meetings, stuck spending a lot more time with your household that you ever intended to or being stuck for choice when it comes to the quality of toilet paper available. We have all been stuck these last twelve months.

And being in this state of inertia has led me to spend more time regressing back through memories of scrapes and situations I inadvertently got myself in to. Including the time I got dangerously stuck trying to escape the feeling of being stuck.

It was the summer of 1999. For the previous few years, a small group of friends and I had been on a successions of booze-fuelled holidays together – usually in some notoriously hedonistic Greek resort. The plan was simple. Someone with impeccable organisation skills would take the mantle of booking the holiday, ensuring regular remuneration was being outlaid and that a suitable itinerary was in place to make sure we all arrived promptly and safely at our chosen destination. But this year was different. After years of trying to dissuade him from getting involved, Johnjo decided that he needed to prove his worth.

Now, Johnjo is an enigma. The living embodiment that intelligence and common sense are inversely proportionate. I once had to rescue him from inside his duvet cover when he got stuck trying to change his bed linen. He is purported to have been inside for in excess of an hour. He was also extremely stuck when it came to learning new culinary skills. For the entire time I lived with him at university, he had the same meal every night. A jacket potato cooked for 13 minutes in a microwave unceremoniously dumped in a sea of lukewarm baked beans. Potato Island. It appeared to keep him alive and just about provide him with all the nutrients needed to maintain his bodily functions, although I think he developed scurvy in the third year.

So, Johnjo set off on his quest to prove us all wrong. After a few weeks of hearing absolutely nothing, my house phone rang. It was Johnjo. He appeared extremely overexcited as he relayed the fact that he had managed to book us a week in Corfu, but had also done so at a fraction of the price we had paid the year before. After getting explicit confirmation from him that he had actually booked all the component parts of a package holiday, including both the flight and accommodation, I put the phone down genuinely shocked that I may of underestimated his competency all these years.

The big day arrived and we all met up at the airport still with the expectation that Johnjo was going to turn up with a handful of magic beans in return for all our hard-earned money. We were wrong. He gleefully handed us all our boarding passes with a wry smile on his face that appeared to mock the misplaced concern we had all had in his ability to perform simplistic life-tasks. There was at least a flight. After an uneventful journey and a successful luggage reclaim, we stepped outside in to the warm Hellenic air and asked Johnjo what happens next.

“I don’t know,” was the curt response. There it was. It had all been too good to be true.

It turns out that the reason this package deal was so cheap was that our final destination was to be allocated on arrival. We had absolutely no idea where we were going to be staying. We all got on the transfer coach and nervously awaited the result of the resort lottery that was about to unfold. By now it was late evening. The first port of call for the coach was Kavos – famed for it’s abject levels of debauchery and a perfect base for the week for a group of seven lads with misguided moral compasses. Groups of scantly clad girls banged on the windows as we limped through the main strip. “Please let us be getting off here!” our internal monologues cried out in unison. But no – instead Barry and Sheila from Pontefract were in for a week they will never forget as they nervously descended the bus in to the WKD fuelled madness.

On the coach went. Further and further in to the hills as all obvious signs of life began to diminish with each turn in the road. It was pitch black outside now and there hadn’t been a neon sign advertising “Beer and Cocktails” for many miles. Eventually, the coach limped in to it’s final destination. I will never forget the sympathetic look I got from the elderly couple who were still on the bus with us. “Bless them. They’ll get no action here,” the woman’s apathetic smile seemed to say. After checking in at the small hotel we would call HQ for the week, we went for a recce around what appeared to be a small fishing port in the north of the island. On completion of our impromptu site survey, we documented that there were two bars, three restaurants and no beach. Johnjo, you blithering idiot.

We popped in to what appeared to be the more populous of the two bars. That wasn’t really too much of a contest as the other one was completely empty. As we entered the bar, the only other occupants spun round startled by our arrival. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the term or collective noun but our only company for the rest of the week seemed to be a twi-hard of cougars from Derby. “‘Ere girls, the strippers have arrived!” the lead cougar cackled. What on earth had Johnjo got us in to? We were stuck in a remote fishing village in the middle of nowhere, trapped with a group of overtly forward women with over-familiar hands. We had to get out.

The next day we set about trying to formulate a plan of escape. Johnjo wouldn’t be joining us. He was recovering from a near-death experience he’d had that morning. In an attempt to lighten the mood of the the group, he decided to dive headfirst in to the hotel pool wearing an over-sized novelty troll mask. What he hadn’t reckoned on was the mask filling up with water quickly, which then dragged his head down to the bottom of the pool. After a short while, it became apparent that the shock of orange troll hair didn’t appear to be moving much down at the bottom and decisive action needed to be taken. It took three of us to drag Johnjo from the depths of the pool due to the troll mask on his head now weighing more than concrete.

We went for another stroll around our place of confinement looking for inspiration. We had missed it the night before because it had been so dark, but down by the harbour there was a cycle hire business. We could pedal our way out of this mess. We each hired a bike for the day and took the coastal path east away from our resort. After cycling for what seemed an eternity, we stumbled across a small, atypically Greek bar/restaurant which we decided to grab a beer and some lunch at – mainly in fear that we wouldn’t get an other opportunity to do so. Our host greeted us as we parked up our bikes like he hadn’t seen another human soul for years. He introduced himself as “Stevo” and was striking in appearance, mainly because he had bright, red hair which seemed out of place for a Greek man. Stevo explained that a lot of men from Corfu Town had red hair, which I naively assumed was a genetic mutation that had been passed down through generations. On reflection, it was obviously due to an overly randy Scotsman on the first ever package tour to the island. Stevo was exceptionally proud of his resemblance to Mick Hucknall – the only person on this planet to be so.

Over lunch, we explained to Stevo our predicament and our desperation to find some life on this holiday. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any good news for us and went on to explain that this region was synonymous with providing retreats for the more senior holidaymaker. He did, however, offer a solution to inject a little more adrenaline into our stay. His brother-in-law owned a speedboat hire company a little further up the coast which he could get for us at a discounted rate. This was great news! We finished our fish platters, down our Mythos’ and went looking for some much needed adventure.

We ditched the bikes, changed in to our swimming gear and grabbed a couple of crates of local beer for the trip. It was hardly a speedboat – it looked like something you’d see on the local park pond but with an outboard motor attached. Too excited to listen in full to the operational brief and what we should do in an emergency, we loaded her up and powered out of the harbour. Our holiday had at last begun! After about twenty minutes of seeing what she could do, we dropped anchor way off coast, opened the beers and began diving off the boat in to the Ionian sea. After a while, we collectively decided to try and head further around the coast to see if we could find the promised land of a resort with people not entitled to free public transport staying there.

Ppprrr… ppprrr… ppprrr… She wasn’t starting. With every pull of the ripcord, the motor sounded less and less responsive. One of my friends with an ounce of mechanical knowledge peered over the side of the boat for a closer inspection. In our haste to get away and with no regard for the safety lesson imparted quayside, we had managed to bend the propeller out of recognisable shape. We all sat there staring blankly at each other, waiting for someone to come up with a solution to the situation that was unfolding in front of us. Nothing. Looking around at the vista in front and behind us, we could no longer see the shoreline and there wasn’t a single other boat out on the horizon. The isolation we had felt before when we had arrived the night before felt incomparable to being cast adrift with hundreds of square miles of sea water in front of us. We were stuck. Properly stuck.

In desperation, I started searching around under the seats of the boat in case I had missed something. Tucked away under the back seat I found a small, sun weathered rucksack that I was sure didn’t belong to any of us. It appeared to be an emergency kit of some kind. I hurriedly opened it up. Inside was a pair of binoculars, a laminated business card containing the contact details of the ‘speedboat’ firm and a map. The binoculars were of no use when literally the only thing you can see is water. And as for the business card? This was 1999. Not all of us had a mobile phone at this point. And if you did have one, at this stage they were the size and weight of a house-brick and would have taken up a huge amount of your luggage allowance at the airport. Plus, it wasn’t a good look trying to smuggle a phone around that size in your swimwear. I opened up the map. I may as well have been in possession of an A1 size piece of blue cardboard. There were no discernible features on the map – aside from the blue of the Ionian sea. Although at the top of the map was a long red line stating in no uncertain terms – DO NOT CROSS.

I sat back down to study the map further. What could that red line denote? Had we already crossed it?! Before I had the chance to dissect this new quandary properly, one of my friends alerted me to the fact that a succession of boats had suddenly on the horizon. We had been saved! I grabbed the binoculars to take a closer look. At first glance, the boats appeared to be very sleek in design and were moving quite quickly – we would need to be quick to gain their attention. But as they came further in to focus, I began to pick out a few features through the binoculars and my blood ran instantly cold. Gun turrets, machine gun stations, a double-headed eagle embossed on a red background. They were Albanian warships. Suddenly, visions of this holiday being cut short and being conscripted in to the Albanian armed forces started flooding my mind. We had to get out of there – and fast!!

We desperately started trying to paddle the boat with just our bare arms towards where we assumed shore was – whilst consciously not flaying around too much. We didn’t need to create any unnecessary attention now that we were sharing the water with heavily armed death boats. Then, out of absolute nothing, I heard a sound as sweet as any chorus of angels. Prrrr… prrrr.. prrrr…. Ppprrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. A combination of tilting the motor at an obtuse angle and opening the choke right out had managed to get the propeller at least operation again. We could escape! Well, the boat was now moving at just under walking pace – but it was doing so in a direction away from being fired at and towards safety. I don’t remember too much about the journey back due to the large amount of petrol fumes I ingested due to the choke being unnaturally loose – although it did take the edge off the fear I had been feeling. It had originally taken twenty minutes to get out to our ocean playground; by the time we had limped back to shore, a further four hours had passed and the sun had set. Embarrassed, exhausted and in desperate need of clothing and a stiff drink we got back on our bikes and cycled back to the safety of our life-less fishing village.

For the remainder of our time in Corfu, not one of us complained about the quiet, the lack of people our own age or the wandering hands of the cougar collective. We were all alive, dry and not fighting for the Albanian brotherhood.

So, whenever I feel overawed by that feeling of being stuck, where life doesn’t seem to be moving in any clear and detectable direction I remind myself that at least I am not cut adrift in internationally disputed waters facing a militarised fleet wearing nothing but speedos.

“Ooo, Heaven is a Plate of Chips”

If ever there was an idiom that I most identified with it is to “just go with your gut”.

Which is exactly why this story starts with me in the queue at my local chippy on a Sunday evening, still nursing a hangover and in desperate search of carbohydrates. However, that wasn’t the only time I listened to my gut whist waiting for my battered sausage that night.

Chip Shop walls are an untapped data bank of useful information. If you ever need a will writing, a driveway tarmacking or to attain grade 8 on the viola there is a business card for your every need adorning the tiled wall of your chip shop. And even if you don’t need any of the services advertised on business cards haphazardly blu-tacked to the wall, you will find yourself inanely scanning them anyway, rather than strike small talk with the spotty 16 year old serving attendant on minimum wage.

But on this particular evening, there was something a lot more prominent on display. Even more glossy than the forehead of the teenager who was soon to serve my tea. You could instantly tell it was important as it was on A4 paper and in colour. And it wasn’t Billy Smarts’ circus either – that had left town weeks ago.

International singing sensation and Grammy nominated artist Belinda Carlisle was coming to town. My town!

I wasn’t actually a fan. I was only really familiar of her discography through school discos and taping the Top 40 on a Sunday evening. But when a globally recognised megastar comes to a sleepy Buckinghamshire backwater, it’s enough to make you drop your chips!

I rushed home to tell my housemates. At the time I was living with a couple of friends and to say we were uncultured was a gross understatement. The majority of the television we watched was on the now obsolete Bravo channel and usually involved a synopsis like “My battle with my 50lb testicle”. Our shared house was a perpetual tip – our glass recycling box was usually overflowing the day after our bins were collected and there hadn’t been a female visitor in years. One of my housemates once brought a pair of stick insects, insisting that they were zero maintenance and that “even we could keep them alive”. They escaped the first night we had them. For weeks we were picking up twigs and sticks that we had walked in to the house and that still remained due to our lack of a cleaning rota – desperately hoping we had located our new pets. They knew they were in trouble as soon as they had arrived and despite their limited cognitive capacity, made an astute dash for freedom.

But as I entered our hallway scoffing the last of the chips so I didn’t have to share, I divulged the exciting news of our chance to at last sample something remotely cultural – “Belinda Carlisle is coming to Newport Pagnell!!”

Well not Newport Pagnell exactly. I doubt the Workingmen’s Club or the British Legion generated the kind of pull a world renowned vocalist craves. She was due to play The Stables – an intimate rural venue only a few miles away, owned and managed by Jazz impresarios Cleo Lane and John Dankworth. Tickets went on sale the following morning and we were all keen to go. In a time before the internet and mass advertising, I had pulled down the poster in the Chip Shop to reduce the competition for tickets. I took the next day off work as holiday, sat myself in the least uncomfortable chair and hovered eagerly over the phone waiting for the ticket office to open…

I’m sorry – all our operators are currently busy. Please try againPress Redial. “I’m sorry – all our operators are currently busy. Please try again”.

It appeared that my plan to censor the marketing of Belinda’s cosy performance had been futile. Her appeal was apparently a lot more universal than those queuing for a fish supper. Then, after four hours of dogged persistence a human, non-recorded voice answered the phone. The operator regrettably informed me that due to phenomenal demand all standard tickets for the show had now been sold. However, due to a cancellation on the system that had appeared as we were talking, three tickets to sit amongst her entourage had just become available – at three times the standard ticket price.

‘Just go with your gut!’ – my internal monologue surmised. How often would an opportunity of this magnitude present itself so close to home? It had been a full 6 years since Eric Bristow had played that exhibition darts match in the back room of The Cannon.

“Ok!! I’ll take them!” I excitedly and nervously replied. We were going to see Belinda.

After a few months of building the excitement up to a tumultuous crescendo, the big day finally arrived. None of us had ever attended an event of this class before and we had already decided that we would wear our best suits for the occasion. To be completely honest, there wasn’t a spectrum of suits to choose from. We each owned one – and they had only been worn at the odd Christening or that court appearance where we decided owing the new Playstation was more important than keeping up with our council tax payments. None the less, we were going to pull out all the stops and look the absolute best we could.

We arrived at the venue and went straight to the bar. It appeared after scanning our immediacy that no-one else in the entire audience felt the need to convey their delight at witnessing such a private performance by turning up in cheap, polyester BHS apparel. I’m sure there’s another apt idiom I could cite here about polishing a turd. After finishing our drinks, we headed towards the main auditorium to explore exactly what kind of view we had secured for the equivalent of a months rent in our stick insect infested dump. The usher looked at our tickets and personally took us to our seats. Front row. Centre stage. Only a few feet from the microphone. This show was definitely going to be as cosy as this extremely cheap five year old suit I had wrestled myself to get in to earlier.

Before Belinda was scheduled to come on stage and enthral us, there was a locally sourced warm up act booked to get the crowd suitably engaged. The singer/songwriter that kicked of proceedings wasn’t particularly notable but what was very apparent was that the woman beside me was his biggest/only fan. I astutely worked this out as she had crudely fashioned her own non-official merchandise using an iron-on photo of the artist and a black marker pen. I am not entirely sure how prevalent restraining orders were at the time, but I remember thinking if I was him I’d pay for a full security audit of his home at the earliest opportunity. We didn’t stick around to see how much his abject fear affected his entire set and went to beat the crowd and get some interval beers from the bar.

The excitement amongst us was palpable. We were moments away from watching a huge international superstar perform in our own backyard. Up close and extremely personal. Wearing the nicest clothes we owned. Completely against the aesthetic we were trying to convey, we ordered a bucket of beer between us for the performance and went back to take our seats. The seats that were more expensive that the cumulative cost of our entire outfits that night. We showed the same usher our tickets again and she led us back to where we had been sitting. But this time they weren’t just front, centre and extremely intimate. They were now occupied.

“Oh. This isn’t right.” she observed.

“Too right!” I retorted. “We have paid a lot of money for this privilege. Can you please sort it out?”

The usher tentatively made her way towards the rogue seat thieves and what appeared to be a very uncomfortable conversation ensued. Although we couldn’t hear the actual details of the discussion, it appeared to centre around a challenge to see tickets, a very effervescent riposte by the male protagonist complete with arms flailing and foot stamping and ended with provisions for the man and his young daughter being made to sit stools dragged out from the bar. They both appeared very disconsolate as they stormed past us on the way to their makeshift viewing station at the very back of the room. We shook our heads in unison at the sheer audacity of their attempts to usurp our premium seats. Shame on you.

We eventually took our seats and the lighting was dimmed to almost complete darkness in anticipation of Belinda’s arrival. The tension was building with every passing moment of silence. Then the lights came up. Belinda entered the stage and immediately went for the jugular with her cornerstone song “Heaven is a Place on Earth”. The crowd went wild! But after a few moments of getting her stage orientation, she started staring straight at us with a look of what I can only describe as confusion. It unsettled her professionalism for a few fleeting moments, before she went on to deliver a performance well worthy of a months rent of a three bedroom semi detached house in Newport Pagnell.

On our way out of the show as my friends and I lauded over the spectacle we had just witnessed, the usher who had so expertly fought our corner earlier was eagerly waving at us to grab our attention. After meandering through the leaving crowd, she eventually caught up with us and with an extremely sheepish look on her face.

After a very brief and unsettling explanation, it transpires that we had inadvertently asked the usher to evict Belinda Carlisle’s husband and daughter from her show after they had made a surprise transatlantic visit to come and watch her. Whilst we were at the bar getting our bucket of beer, there had been a very quick and poignant reunion – hence the strange and telling looks we had been getting from the global superstar as she came on stage. After a 10 hours flight and a mercy dash to the theatre to get there in time, we had indirectly arranged for their removal from their our seats and they had to make do with watching the object of their affection from the worst vantage point in the house. Expecting to see her loved ones again as the lights came up, she was instead greeted with our smirking faces, feeling vindicated that we’d won a big battle for Joe Public.

And that was the first and last time I ever took inspiration from a Chip Shop noticeboard. I still don’t have a will, my driveway needs urgent attention and I haven’t picked up the viola in years. Still, I do have a story about the time I got one up on a platinum award winning international artist. Chip anyone?

Let me be Frank – I was There!

The one thing that unites us is the belief that we all grew up in an era when music or comedy was the best.

You are all wrong – I was.

I have been extremely fortunate to see some truly amazing artists perform over the years and am lucky to be able to say “I was there!” at a few defining moments in our musical heritage.

I was there in a pub in Bedford when Oasis toured prior to the release of their first single in front of a crowd of just twenty.

I was there amongst the crowd of 80,000 to witness Kurt Cobain fall out of a wheelchair dressed in surgical scrubs when Nirvana headlined the Reading Festival in 1992.

But it was something else I bore witness to that August Bank Holiday weekend in 1992 that presented me with my favourite “I was there!” moment – although I didn’t realise its significance until 27 years later…

I’ll start from the very top.

I have always loved music – ever since getting the inaugural ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ for Christmas in 1983 and listening to it incessantly in dens made out of my Masters of the Universe duvet set. The rudimentary nature of cassette players back in the early 80s made you listen to an album in it’s entirety without skipping or repeating songs. The lack of a rewind function meant that you needed a degree in physics and the patience of a saint to work out how to get back accurately to the start of a specific track.

My love of music also survived the artistic wilderness of the late 1980s – an epoch synonymous with the wailing of soap-stars spewed out by Stock, Aitken and Waterman on an industrial scale. The reward for successfully navigating that void of musical substance was the revolutionary output coming from North West America at the turn of the decade – the complete polar opposite of anything the Minogue sisters had to offer. Grunge.

And as this alternative riposte started to infiltrate the musical zeitgeist of pubescent teens up and down the country, kids started to pick up instruments and form bands with anarchic sounding names – and my friends were no exception. They were called Bogus Sham.

Most of my Saturday nights as a 16 year old were following the less than melodic exploits of Bogus Sham in Youth Clubs, Working Men Clubs and anywhere else desperate enough to have them perform. They weren’t particularly talented but the legacy of this new musical direction meant that if they made enough noise it could be construed as making a sociopolitical statement. Their early discography consisted of a homage to those with red hair called “Ginger”, an instrumental interpretation of music that accompanies porn movies and a very scathing critique of those in society that wore army jackets and had poor hygiene routines lovingly entitled “Fuck Off You C*nt”.

Watching Bogus Sham was never going to satisfy my craving for decent music but I did now possess a love of the live music scene. The rawness of the sound, the throng of the crowd, the thrill of drinking Castlemaine lager out of a plastic glass whist still underage. I was hooked. But nothing I had experienced before had me prepared for my first festival with my friends in the Sham – Reading 1992.

By the time that August Bank Holiday came around one of the band had learnt to drive and had access to his parent’s car – automatically cementing his role as designated driver by default. For the majority of us, this trip was the first time we had been away from home and collectively we had very few life-skills. Most of us didn’t need to shave more than once a month and had never had any real experience with girls. In fact it became a cliched saying amongst us that we didn’t need to lose our virginity any time soon as we were “saving ourselves for Reading”. I spent that Summer stacking shelves for an extremely low wage daydreaming about the adventures we were going to share that weekend and when the day finally came to load up my friends parent’s Ford Sierra, the excitement was at a crescendo.

We arrived at the festival site excitedly early and pitched our tent – no mean feat when there wasn’t an ounce of common sense between us. We walked in to town and picked up all the sustenance we needed to get us through three full days of live music on tap perpetually . This largely consisted of Ginsters’ pasties, enough Walkers crisps to fill a bath and a couple of crates of Strongbow. Meat ✅, potatoes ✅, apples ✅ – we were pretty sure that covered all the major food groups. After dumping our provisions at base camp, we all put on a freshly laundered band t-shirt to create the appearance that we knew what we were talking about musically and went to explore our Rock and Roll playground for the weekend.

It was very quickly apparent that we this idealistic utopia we had been ‘saving ourselves’ for was nothing other than a pipe dream. The festivals of thirty years ago weren’t like you see streamed in to your living rooms these days – with everyone decked out in Top Shop, Ray Bans and smelling of Mint and Tee Tree shower gel. The doors of the festival had only been open a couple of hours and already there was a musty bouquet in the air. The revellers that had started to conjugate on site looked like they had been mothballed from the previous year, kept in stasis and then reanimated still smelling of stale alcohol and roll up tobacco. Lynx Africa was still three years from being invented in the laboratories at Axe products at this point. Despite the disappointment that our chances of meeting girls with a standard hygiene regime had dissipated, we still had three full days of the greatest music to look forward to – and Friday night’s line up was a corker.

By the time we walked in to the main arena to watch the Friday night headline acts, we had made a healthy dent in the first crate of Strongbow. Full of alcohol fuelled bravado, we pushed our way to the front of the stage as the first few bars of Ride’s shoe-gazing anthem ‘Leave Them All Behind’ reverberated in to the Berkshire sky. We had arrived. Our pilgrimage to our musical Mecca had truly started and we were going to savour every amplified note belted out with ferocious intent.

Ride had warmed up the crowd perfectly for the night’s proceedings. The band had cut an ethereal presence on stage – their hypnotic melodies and intense light show had the whole crowd nodding in unison. By the end of their set, everyone was in a harmonic trance with an appetite suitably whetted for the best live music of the day – and they didn’t get much better at that time than the next act on stage – The Charlatans.

As soon as Rob Collins effervescently played those first few psychedelic keyboard chords, any mesmeric order that Ride had instilled in the crowd had gone and bodies started to launch themselves in every conceivable direction. Within seconds I had become separated from my friends, caught in a human riptide as my teenage cadaver was being unceremoniously strewn from pillar to post. It was becoming increasing difficult to watch one of the UK’s seminal independent bands and concentrate on staying vertical simultaneously.

Then it happened.

I felt a shuddering blow to the side of the head, an intense ringing in my ears and the immediate need to fall to the floor that wasn’t related to my cider consumption that evening. A stray Doctor Marten from a crowd surfer had almost knocked me unconscious. Any disorientation I had felt prior to that blow was now amplified and my lifeless body was now being propped up solely by the throng of the crowd. Eventually, the human current generated by the collective managed to deposit me on the periphery of the writhing mosh and I slumped to my knees feeling extremely nauseous.

After a few moments on my haunches, I decided to take stock of my situation. I had become completely isolated from my friends, I couldn’t tell left from right and after looking down at the ground to try and regain some sort of orientation it appeared that I was also missing a shoe. Life Lesson learnt # 1 – always take more than one pair of shoes to a a festival. For what seemed like an age I found myself wandering aimlessly around the site – desperately looking for the exit so that I could get back to the tent and lie down somewhere safe. After eventually negotiating my way out of the main event arena, it suddenly dawned on me that looking for a specific tent in an ocean of several thousand tents wasn’t going to be straight forward – especially when I had a lump the size of a golf ball now pulsating from my temple. I needed help.

I made an informed decision to head back towards the main site. I desperately needed to locate my friends, a first aider or my right shoe. Any of those would make me feel a whole lot better right now. As I reentered the performance arena, a sense of curiosity suddenly overtook my overwhelming sense of wanting to throw up on the grass. At the very back of the site was a huge red tent and people appeared to be falling over themselves to get inside. Despite my obvious need for medical attention, I just had to see what was going on inside. I pulled back the heavy canvas and peered within. What I saw took my state of confusion to a whole new level.

Inside the tent were hundreds of people. Steam was rising off their backs and they all appeared to be chanting in the direction of a small stage at the front. My eyesight had been greatly impaired by the blow anyway, but as a desperately tried to work out who this crowd was shouting adulation at I started to make out that the object of their worship had an extremely large, misshapen head. Then a very nasal voice started to serenade the masses:

“Oh, guess who’s been on Match of the Day?”
“You have, in your big shorts” everyone replied in harmony.

At the very front of the stage, decked out in full football kit and paper mache head was Frank Sidebottom – a comedian who I had no prior knowledge of at that precise moment. For a while I stood there trying to rationalise if what I was experiencing was a sensory misrepresentation caused by a large whack to the noggin or I was indeed watching a man with an oversized head enchant a crowd with his anthemic nose ramblings and a Casio Tonebook keyboard. And then I just let go. I forgot about sense and reason, what was real and what just a shadow of existence and I no longer cared where my right shoe was. It didn’t matter anymore. What followed was the most surreal, delusional and yet amazing forty minutes of my life up to that point. Alone, concussed, devoid of a complete set of footwear in the middle of a field in Berkshire – yet still very much euphoric. I wonder if this is what taking acid must feel like?

It wasn’t until last year that I came to realise how seminal missing the vast majority of that Charlatans’ set due to an improptu head injury had been. I watched the amazing documentary “Being Frank” – which chronicles the life of the multi-talented artist Chris Sievey and his perpetual attempt to become famous. The dark irony is that he eventually does make it in to the public eye as comedian Frank Sidebottom, yet has to clandestinely conceal his identity to create the mystique behind his paper mache alter ego. Sievey unfortunately dies relatively young and doesn’t get to revel in the posthumous praise the industry has for his very obvious talent. And that Friday evening at the back of a field one summer’s evening in Reading appears to have been the zenith of his career.

But for a few fleeting minutes, heavily concussed and deeply questioning my perception of reality I can say that “I was there!” when Sievey had the rightful adulation of hundreds of fans hanging on his every word.

Or was I there?…

Bratislava Palaver

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror films.

It all stems from when I saw a pirated copy of the film Piranha through the crack of the living room door as a six year old. As a direct result of my illicit viewing, I wouldn’t go swimming for a year and made my sister use the bath water before me for fear of being eaten alive.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and an invitation to a weekend in Slovakia landed on my lap, immediately after I had read an article in Empire magazine about the graphic nature of the soon to be released gore-fest ‘Hostel’ – set coincidentally in contemporary Bratislava. I really wanted to sample one of the jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but I didn’t want to live in abject fear of having my dodgy Achilles operated on with a rusty hacksaw or have a routine eye test performed with a blowtorch. I slept disjointedly on the offer and reluctantly agreed the next day.

After an atypically raucous and alcohol fuelled early flight, we dumped our bags at our concrete monolith of a hotel and headed in to the city centre. Only a few weeks before, the England football team had played Slovakia for the first time since the Velvet Divorce of 1993 and the city was still reverberating from the invasion of the boorish English underclass. The disdain for anything remotely related to Blighty was very palpable and we were already attracting some very dismissive looks from the locals. This weekend now needed to be a very successful public relations exercise if we were going to make in out the other side with our dignity in tact.

As with any trip to a continental city steeped in history and architectural beauty, a group of discerning young male travellers will naturally gravitate towards the same central point of local interest – the mock Irish pub. As we entered the bar it was very evident that a lot of effort had been made to create the aesthetic of being in a little corner of Ireland. The whole place was awash with the colours of the trídhathach, Gaelic football shirts covered every wall and you couldn’t move for oversized novelty green hats that stank of stale alcohol. It was very early on a Friday afternoon when we ordered that first round and had only a small spattering of clientele spread thinly across the establishment for company. We found a long table that we could all fit around, had the obligatory tray of Guinness delivered to us by a waitress that already knew she was in for a rough time and began the process of getting rapidly drunk.

After a couple of hours of the descent in to inebriation, things had started to get a little out of control. Our guarded waitress had already been mocked for dropping a glass, which was followed by the mandatory chorus of “Yaaaaaaaaaay!!” and patience with our collective was wearing decidedly thin. Just then, from my vantage point at the head of the table, I witnessed three extremely well built men enter the bar – decked head to toe in designer clothing and wearing sunglasses on a day that could best be described as distinctly overcast. They cut an intimidating presence amongst the backdrop of shamrocks and cartoon leprechauns – a point instantly amplified as I noticed every other customer leave the bar without finishing their drinks. I sat in paralysis as this set of obviously resourceful men took up residence on the table next to us, despite having the pick of the now vacuous pub to choose from. I struggled to even to utter a word of polite warning to my now overzealous group, as the sound of a second broken glass pierced the atmosphere. But this time the immediate company was exponentially more dangerous…

Tentatively, I was watching their every move out of the corner of my eye whilst desperately trying to quell the drunken euphoria that was emitting from our table. The three gentlemen were engaged deep in conversation, sipping tea from porcelain cups engulfed by the shear magnitude of their shovel sized hands. And then it happened – the moment that led me almost to squeal in sheer terror and drop a third glass that afternoon. In an show of very succinct disdain for our behaviour, the human colossus nearest to me gently lifted up his Armani jumper just enough to allow me to see the gun he had holstered in to his belt, before gently putting it back down again without breaking eye contact with his equally as imposing colleague. He knew I was watching them.

“We, we have to leave” I spluttered. “Guns. They have guns” It took a good few minutes for me to compose myself and to get the full attention of the group before my terrified ramblings were suitably interpreted. We all got up in unison and left an extremely generous tip for the waitress we had terrorised. It was now our turn to leave our drinks without finishing them. Retrospectively, this turned out to be a very good move as the following day we befriended a group of Belgian men that made an annual pilgrimage to Bratislava who gave us some very useful, if slightly tardy travel advice. The Irish Pub we had made an immediate beeline for was run by the Slovakian mafia and only recently a reveller had been shot dead in there for the innocuous act of spilling someone’s drink. We had literally dodged a bullet that afternoon and the rest of our trip needed to be decidedly more low key. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case as the lessons we had learnt the previous evening went unheeded as soon as our blood/alcohol ratio returned to an unhealthy level.

The majority of the next evening had actually passed without incident. We had gone to a nightclub where the music being played and the outfits on show created a very Eighties ambience, without doing so ironically. The most redeeming feature of this club after yesterday’s drama were the signs at the entrance declaring “No Firearms Allowed”. And for the reveller that was packing heat that still wanted to dance the night away to Nik Kershaw, there was a cloakroom full of safety deposit boxes purposefully designed to house your weapon. Peace of mind for this particular traveller who was already on edge.

As we left the club, one of my friends somehow managed to upset a couple of locals who were also leaving and a very heated discussion ensued between them in their native tongues. These two men were obviously not as dangerous as the protagonists from the previous day, judged solely on their appearance. They were probably of similar age to us, but looked like living relics from the Communist era. Their hair was mulleted, full moustaches adorned their upper lips and they wore matching woollen jumpers that looked extremely itchy and had geometric patterns repeatedly knitted in to them. After a few minutes of exchanging mutually incomprehensibly insults one of them suddenly started speaking English.

“Do you like girls?” one shouted. I wasn’t entirely sure of the reason for this impromptu sexuality audit, but we decided to complete it regardless.

“Yes – we do.” was our reply.

“Then you come with us”. They turned their backs, started walking out of the club and beckoned my friend and I into a Lada that was parked immediately outside. For reasons still unbeknown to me, we got in the back of the motorised antiquity and headed out of the city centre and in to the suburbs. Following behind us was a taxi containing a few more of our group as we had the presence of mind of arranging back-up if this moment of stupidity went south. After about five minutes, we all pulled up on a dimly lit street and got out of the car. In the distance, I could make out a set of neon lights and immediately made the assumption we were heading for another type of bar – the kind that involve women bereft of clothing and all the money in your wallet disappearing. I irresponsibly discarded the empty bottle of European lager I had been drinking in the back of the Lada into the nearest front garden. It was at that point, I realised why we had parked so far away from that bar in the distance – that wasn’t our intended destination.

Instead, the bottle of lager I had dumped with contempt had rolled across the lawn and now rested at the feet of another gargantuan human specimen – what did they put in the water around here?! I quickly got on my hands and knees, picked up the bottle and grovelled spinelessly at the foot of this man mountain.

“All of you in. Quick” he ordered. Without hesitation or fear for reprisal, I did exactly as he said and we all entered this suburban Bratislavan house. Suddenly the plot line of the film Hostel started to resonate and take on a very familiar feel…

Despite the very insipid appearance of the house from the outside, the interior told a completely different story. For we were now stood in the foyer of a fully functional den of inequity, a house of ill-repute – a brothel. The downstairs had been completely opened out to contain a bar and lounge area for small talk and discussions about business transactions to take place between consumer and purveyor of illicit wares. Our two Communist tour guides made an immediate move towards their prostitute of choice and left us to it. The immovable object that had greeted us in the garden now stood by the only means of escape and ushered us with nothing other than a forceful glare towards the bar.

Behind the bar was a very attractive woman who spoke extremely good English and formally introduced herself as the owner of this business enterprise. She asked us all what we would like to drink – I think I must be the only person that’s visited a knocking shop and asked to see the wine list. She then very cordially asked if I would like a tour of her emporium. With a glass of Shiraz in my hand, I was then led room by room around the sex playground she had built from scratch. You could tangibly feel the pride she felt for each of the modifications she had made in each room to cater for the more deviant in society. There were contraptions and devices in some of those rooms that I did not possess the awareness of how they would logistically deliver pleasure to the recipient.

Purposefully, she had kept the jewel in her sex crown to the very last. I followed her down a spiral staircase in to the basement where she had perfectly replicated a medieval dungeon in exquisite detail. I was astute enough to know that the majority of apparatus down here were explicitly to derive the opposite of pleasure. Some very impressive metal workmanship had gone in to assembling the array racks, cages, chains and clamps that adorned her pain chamber.

“Do you like what you see?” She asked inquisitively.

“Oh yes. You have built up a very impressive portfolio of devices” I nervously faltered.

Back above the subterranean terror cell, things were getting a little strained. The majority of the prostitutes were now absolutely hammered and were aggressively chasing new business opportunities amongst my friends by tearing at their clothes. The hulk of mass guarding the door had now locked us in and was demanding that we no longer wasted his time or that of his employee headcount. I had the very sincere impression that he was probably part of the business alliance that we had met in the Irish pub the night before. After a very quick reality check, I told my fiends to empty their wallets and we put together a very generous severance package to release us from this tenure – ensuring just enough money to get a now extremely urgent taxi out of there.

We flew back the next morning, slightly fortuitous to have escaped a weekend in Slovakia without casualties. Despite my dodgy Achilles still being intact and the majority of my faculties maintaining to be in relative working order, I couldn’t help but think that we’d been extremely lucky not to have been involved in a story-line straight out of a horror movie.

I still haven’t watched Hostel Part 2 or 3 for fear of a retrospective relapse. Any good?

The Thin Poo Line

As with any young male, one of the most enjoyable of all the rites of passage that besiege the path to adulthood before the concept of Council Tax and Stamp Duty takes over is that first “Lads Holiday”. A fortnight of inaugural hedonism that grows from a seed planted over a Friday night beer in January. It is then nurtured through months of siphoning every morsel of disposable income into a central fund governed by the most sensible friend. And finally yields in that first sip of continental lager around 6am in the Departure Lounge at Luton Airport

But I didn’t need to go on this ceremonial journey with the rest of my brethren. For I was in love. During the time my friends were excitedly planning their Summer sojourn decked in Ben Sherman shirts and Quicksilver shorts, I had been busy alienating myself from those I knew by spending every conceivable moment with my first real girlfriend. Their palpable excitement about hiring mopeds, jet-skis and foam parties was completely lost on me as I spent weekends in tea rooms and garden centres. That was until I got dumped.

To be fair, she had me pretty sussed from the very start. I had always been a little nervous around the fairer sex and it obviously showed.

“You remind me of that Irish actor off the telly.” Who could she mean after only knowing me for one date?

I started listing the cream of the quintessentially handsome Irish A-Listers. “Colin Farrell? Liam Neeson? Pierce Brosnan?

“No. You know the one I mean – Father Ted’s little dopey vicar mate”

So that was that.  In a time before mobile phones, I suffered the indignity of being dumped via Royal Mail as she didn’t have the heart to do it in to my doleful, puppy eyes. I had the further humiliation of having to walk a round trip of four miles to the Post Office and pay a postage fine as she failed to put a stamp on the letter. If it ever needed quantifying, the cost of a broken heart is £2.57.

With my tail firmly between my legs, I hobbled wounded back to the sanctuary of my circle of friends, obviously hiding the open emotive injuries suffered in break up. All the times I had rejected their invitations to meet up for a drink were instantaneously forgotten and after just a few trips to the pub the opportunity to join them all in Crete was presented in solidarity my way.

And on that morning at 6am at a bar in Luton Airport’s Departure Lounge as the collective chatted excitedly about the exploits that were only a matter of hours away, my mind started drifting to the possibility of meeting that special someone that could take away this pain…

Any romantic aspirations I had about that special liaison on our Lads’ Holiday were quickly dispelled. It was very apparent that we were staying in an unscrupulous war-zone where the possession of a moral compass was not standard issue kit. This fact was immediately underlined as I bore witness at close quarters to a man squat down, defecate into his throwing hand and launch a brown grenade indiscriminately in to the air and land amongst a small gathering of revellers. At least he had the presence of mind to shout out “INCOMING!!” as the freshly baked missile pierced the beautiful Hellenic sunset. Oh, how I wished I was back in Homebase.

Unfortunately, the least academically decorated of all my friends found this turd hurling exercise hilarious and immediately made a beeline for the perpetrator, congratulating him on his exemplary work – without shaking hands. And at that moment of mutual acknowledgement, any chances of me meeting someone new dispersed as quickly as the crowd watching the trajectory of that faecal Exocet. Our collective groups of friends amalgamated, and we forcibly descended into chaos.

As part of this new-found alliance, there had been a Gentleman’s agreement made the previous night to meet at a specific bar the next evening, which everyone unfortunately adhered to. Formal introductions were made, and the apparent leader of this unruly mob was the self-titled “Firestarter”. Not only was this an immediate reference to The Prodigy song that that he belted out with fearsome intent in every karaoke bar, but I truly believed this man could count pyromania as a favourite hobby.

The noise in the bar was now at a deafening crescendo; a raucous and macho outpouring of bravado. I tried to engage with the one in their group I assumed was the least dangerous in an attempt to join the dynamic. More accurately, I was extremely fearful of the consequences of not fitting in. I was given the sage advice by my new associate to never leave my drink unattended whilst in their presence. Before I could ask why, out of the corner of my eye I could see one of their group in deep conversation with a friend of mine, skilfully untether himself from his shorts and urinate down my friend’s leg without breaking eye contact. Never before had I felt such sheer wonderment and deep abject fear simultaneously.

For the next few days, this theme followed. Our two groups were now deeply entwined together – each holistically dependent on the other for differing reasons. They needed a willing audience to bear witness and laud at their incalculable levels of debauchery. We, on the other hand, were now so fearful on the ramifications of splitting from this union that we were readily amenable patsies for their insufferable high jinx. But this friendship did have a shelf life.  They were leaving tomorrow…

That final night had passed without [relative] incident for a few hours and despite the usual levels of extreme chauvinism and distinct lack of social graces, it was a comparatively low key affair. Only a few more hours of  insufferable masculine arrogance and my chances of meeting someone on holiday would surely improve tenfold! Then I overheard the rules of a game being negotiated between the two lead protagonists of our groups and my blood ran instantly cold.

“You get your best four drinkers; I’ll pick my best four drinkers. We go to the bar next door and order that gallon bucket of cocktail. The losing team has to drink the bucket again but filled with the winning team’s piss”

Before I could register my disdain at this proposal, my friend who had gleefully watched that poo sail through the night’s sky a few days previous readily agreed to the terms of the competition and thus an unbreakable verbal contract was formed. What had happened to my life? A few weeks previous I had been happily shopping for hanging baskets. I was now faced with the prospect of drinking a receptacle of undiluted stranger urea. I had to do interject and do something fast.

Discreetly, I disappeared from the hubbub created by the prospect of the ensuing competition and made a clandestine visit to the bar next-door. On arrival, I explained to the unwitting barmaid that two groups of people would be shortly visiting her bar and would be ordering two of the gallon buckets of cocktail. For an additional 20 Euro tip, I asked that the bucket I was to be drinking contain a healthier proportion of ice and that we were given straws with a larger diameter girth than the other group. I may not have possessed the brag and pomposity of the collective, but I did have an A Level in Applied Maths and I wasn’t afraid to use it.

As we all entered the bar, I got the knowing tell from the barmaid. Everything was in place. A large crowd had assembled to watch this horrific debacle unfold. It was now a straight fight between male overconfidence and science. From the first whistle you could tell that this wasn’t the first challenge the opposition had faced of this nature. They fully knew the consequences of losing and that wasn’t an option. To the impartial spectator, it was very obvious that they were seasoned professionals and aesthetically they seemed to be miles ahead of us. That was until we struck ice. Very quickly the amount we had left to drink was dwindling; the fear in their eyes was increasingly tangible. And then followed the very real sounds of victory – our straws were taking in slurps of air as they struggled to finish what liquid remained. We had won. Science and reason were victorious. What ensued was a very discernible inquest between them as to who was responsible for their defeat – all I knew is that I wasn’t drinking piss tonight.

As honourable victors, we didn’t make them consume the equivalent of eight pints of our urine. We had standards. We simply kept that in our back pocket in case we were forced in to another situation we didn’t want to be in for the remaining few hours of their time with us.

A few months later, one of their group made contact with us to see if we wanted to attend a leaving party as the least dangerous one I had identified with from the group was emigrating. Despite the obvious trepidation of meeting these guys again, there was a distinct curiosity to see if their animalistic behaviour was more refined in a different social context. The address we were given was no more than an hour away, so a car-load of us decided to make an exploratory pilgrimage to rural Leicestershire.

After the SATNAV had digested the postcode we had been given and taken us to the intended destination, we sat in the car in quiet disbelief. Either this was the most ironic leaving party destination ever, or my faith in the moral fabric of society was under severe interrogation. We were parked directly outside of the social club of Leicester Constabulary. The urine drinking, poo launching, bigoted underclass we had been forced to befriend were the physical embodiment of the barrier between law and disorder!

Well, everyone needs a holiday…

The Tale of The Loose Canary

Every pub-dwelling male drinker worth his salt has a ‘go to’ story.

It is the story that is pulled out when the alcohol consumption of the collective is at its most euphoric; the cornerstone anecdote to any lager-swilling raconteur’s portfolio. It has been retold so many times that each embellishment of the story-line blurs the distinction between fact and fiction further. Every recount will indubitably have the audience captivated; enraptured by every word reciprocated for the umpteenth time. My ‘go to’ story has always been The Tale of The Loose Canary.

Don’t be fooled by the vanilla description of the title. There is a canary in the narrative but it only serves to masquerade the true horror that unfolded that fateful evening; a sequence of events so improbable that it makes the odds of human existence at 4 trillion to one look like a safe bet.

It had all started so innocently. The grand re-opening of Milton Keynes’ seminal nightspot had drawn a small spattering of desperate nightclub goers to The Empire disco. The refurbish dance-floor appeared vacuous as a handful of middle-aged women bobbed rhythmically to new romantic classics. Ihad been asked to attend this landmark social function by a friend and acollection of his football associates who were atypically loud, raucous and distinctly unchivalrous to the opposite sex. This was going to be a long night– and prophetically I was proved right.

Adopting my standardised pose of leaning rigidly against a post on the periphery of the dance-floor, I was alerted by one my new found acquaintances that I may caught the attention of a woman across the other side of the room.

“Ere, that bird fancies you!” I was reliably informed. I made my first mistake that evening by inquiring as to who he was referring to.

“That one in the red. The one that looks like a horse”Unfortunately he was right on both counts. “I’ll go get ‘er for you”.

My body automatically tensed defensively in preparation for the awkward conversation that would inevitably follow. We were pushed together unceremoniously by our match-making intermediary in the expectation that fireworks would soon follow. Shortly after exhausting my full repertoire of small talk, another woman appeared out of the ether.

“Hi, can I have a quick word with you?” She pulled me to one side. “Just to let you know that my friend is married with two kids. You don’t want to go with her”

Thank God!! I had been presented with a way out of this predicament without the need to pretend to go to the toilet and never comeback. My saviour then changed the course of my night and thus my keystone anecdote was born “You’ll want to come with me”

In an act of spontaneous hedonism never to be repeated I agreed to the proposal. We discreetly left the club without arousing any suspicion and jumped in a waiting Hackney cab. A short conversation followed and it was soon established that we were going to her house. She also informed me that she had no money for the taxi and desperately needed a packet of menthol cigarettes. Before I could respond chivalrously and offer to pick up any financial impediment incurred by our act of decadence,

 I was offered a veryparticular sexual favour for the purchase of the minty cancer sticks. I can’t rememberif I agreed to the terms of the transaction before or after I realised thisentire conversation was being picked up the microphone in the back of the cab.I could never use Skyline Taxis again.

Once back at her house and with a packet of green Berkley Superkings firmly clasped in her hand, I was ushered quickly in to the living room and pushed back on to the sofa. This whole evening had a very unreal feeling to it and I wasn’t going to start craving reality just yet. After a few minutes of what can only be described as ‘pawing’, something caught my eye hanging pride of place centrally on the adjacent wall. From its outline I could see that it was either a plaque or a coat of arms and I fortuitously let my intrigue take over my base animal instincts on the sofa. As I cautiously approached the wall, the form began to look distinctly familiar. Through squinted eyes I could just make out the motto embossed at its base. Instinctively I froze in horror and my defence mechanisms whirred in to action for the second time that evening.

Who Dares Win

“You’re married!?! You’re married to someone in the SAS?!” I squealed.

“Try not to raise your voice too loud or you’ll wake up thekids” was her informative retort. They’ve got kids?! What had I got myself into?

I began surveying my immediate surroundings and stopped dead on the picture resting pride of place on the sideboard. The photo was of a very tall, strong and no doubt resourceful man clad in black uniform and nursing what appeared to be a very particular brand of assault rifle.

“It’s ok. He’s away a lot of the year and I have my needs”.

Before I could utter another word of disbelief there was avery loud knock at the door. Surely it couldn’t be my new military eliteadversary? He’d at least have a key or swing through the living room window ona rope in full fatigues.

“It’s my mate!! Quick, go and hide in the room at the top of the stairs!” I was ordered. I could make out the shape of my equine featured friend from earlier in the evening through the smoked glass in the front door.I stealthily made my way up the stairs and slowly opened a bedroom door. Suddenly a night light was turned on and two innocent little faces sleepily tried to work out who had woken them from their slumber. Before I could think of how to formally introduce myself to these weary cherubs, their Mum returned with some frightful news.

“She’s locked herself out so I have told her she can crash here tonight. She’s going to sleep on the sofa” I was trapped in this surreal pantomime until at least the morning. Reluctantly and still wearing every last piece of clothing I had worn that night I got in to bed with Mrs Elite Forces and her two bewildered children, adopting the fetal position and facing the wall.

After an extremely disjointed night’s sleep, I awoke at the break of daylight to some extremely loud snoring. There, asleep on the floor adjacent to the bed, was a Great Dane that had somehow proved very elusive the night before despite being the size of a small horse. I sat up in bed to further assess the chaos that was unravelling in front of me. As a final act of disregard for order and normality, a yellow canary appeared flying skittishly around the bedroom freely before landing gracefully on the frame of the bed. My inaugural act of hedonistic behaviour had led me to a suburban family bedroom,surrounding by a menagerie and had me asking far-reaching questions about my sanity. This nightmare took one final turn for the worse.

I could hear footsteps coming up the stairs; each one getting louder as they neared the bedroom door. The sound of my heart pounding was drowning out the snoring emitting from the comatose giant. I had to take evasive action or Shergar would find out that I had left the nightclub with her best friend. Considering every last inch of the bedroom was now consumed by a multitude of different species, the only option I could see was to hide cowardly behind the bedroom door.

As the door swung upon I took a deep breath to make myself as slender as possible. I needed had bothered. The door was immediately closed to ensure that the feral canary was contained to just the one room and I was reunited with the woman I had absconded from approximately ten hours ago.

“Oh, hi!” I inanely babbled.

“What the hell are you doing here??” was the instantaneous and sharp response.

My makeshift family went downstairs and I was left to face the music alone. I manufactured some unbelievable story that was as unrealistic as the events that had just unfolded in front of me the night before. Regardless,my long faced friend decided to take full advantage of this opportunity alone and tried to kiss me. This madness needed to stop and I had to escape this irrationality. I went downstairs and proclaimed that I had to leave. For some reason unbeknown to me I made the excuse that I had arranged an impromptu Sunday morning driving lesson, despite the fact that I was obviously at least three times over the limit.

Whilst I was waiting for my [non-Skyline] taxi to arrive I was formally introduced to the rest of the family.

“Kids, this is Uncle Marky and he will be taking us to the Beefeater soon. There’s an indoor play area there” The children exhaled an audible sign of genuine excitement. “Yay!!”

My taxi took what felt like an eternity to arrive. As it pulled away from the house, I looked back through the rear window at the three bedroom terrace that had provided the backdrop to my adversity, in sheer disbelief as to the events that had transpired that night. My perception of reality was being severely interrogated.

What I did know for certain is was that there was never going to be that visit to a mid-priced steak restaurant with adjoining soft play area and I was never going to see recompense for that packet of twenty green Berkley Superkings. But what I did now possess was a timeless story that would forever be my ‘go to’ tale.

The Room-mate From Hull

The transition from Secondary school to University can be a traumatic experience. Especially when all your applications have been rejected and you are scouring the ‘Clearing’ pages of Ceefax daily, frantically trying to find somewhere/anywhere desperate to make up their numbers.

I did have an unconditional acceptance letter from the University of Exeter, but it turned out to be a meticulously concocted April Fool’s joke by a group of close ‘friends’. I eventually worked out it was fraudulent after noticing that I had to meet in the “Adam Chapman Memorial Building” named succinctly after the school bully who tormented me on a frequent basis – but not before I had done a celebratory jig around the living room.

I eventually found a further educational establishment that wanted [needed] me [my money]. The success criteria for acceptance were that you needed to have a pulse and have intermittent access to an HB pencil. I was off to the hedonistic heights of Hull.

Due to the late nature of my application, finding accommodation proved extremely difficult. A local letting agent finally found me a place in a block of flats – a six bedroom apartment that was built to house seven students. I was aged 18, heading to a city where the entire male populous sported a wispy moustache and now I was going to have to share a room with a complete stranger. That stranger’s name was ‘Johnjo’.

Johnjo is the walking embodiment that intelligence and common sense are inversely proportionate. My first impression of him couldn’t have been further from the truth. Prior to leaving for University, this polite and extremely well-spoken Yorkshire man had rung me at home and pleasantly introduced himself as my new room-mate. He had the presence of mind to inquire as to what I was taking with me so that between us we could equip our living quarters for the next year with everything we would need without duplication. I later found out that his Mum had been whispering instructions verbatim in to his ear throughout the entire duration of that call.

September arrived and the start of the academic year was afoot. I arrived in Hull with all my worldly belongings dumped unceremoniously in to a large chequered laundry bag. Waiting eagerly for me at the top of the stairs at the entrance to the flat was Johnjo. Bounding on the spot like a springer spaniel waiting for his master to throw a soggy tennis ball, he excitedly thrust out his hand and uttered the immortal words “Hi, I’m John and I’m a little bit stupid.” Good God. That phoney offer from the University Of Exeter suddenly seemed very appealing.

Now, I have to be extremely careful how far I tap in to the infinite seam of Johnjo stories that ensued over the subsequent three years of academia for fear of starting an avalanche of idiocy.

Johnjo was an enigma. Due to his apparent detachment from reality, his life skills at aged 18 were non-existent. For tea every night he would cook a jacket potato in the microwave and then place it centrally in a sea of baked beans on a plate. It was a dish of such culinary aesthetic that it was affectionately referred to as ‘Potato Island’. He once accidentally knocked a pot plant in to his bed and then subsequently slept in soil laden bed linen for a number of weeks. He rejected the romantic advances of a fellow student claiming that he had no clean pants for the morning and needed to do some late-night hand-washing in the sink. The picture builds.

But one thing Johnjo had going for him in abundance was his passion for the arts. Grade nine violin player and a keen amateur dramatist, he joined the orchestra and drama club on his immediate arrival at university. Johnjo was very keen to segregate his artistic pursuits from the rest of his student life and kept details of all his performances clandestinely to himself. That was until I found a flyer in our shared room detailing the time and place of his next dramatic project. As a collective group of flat-mates, we were all on very good terms so I thought it’d be nice if we attended this particular show together, as a surprise for Johnjo – and it certainly proved to be exactly that.

The play was about a doomed warplane shot down during theWorld War Two and focused on the emotive dialogue between the pilot and the control tower, both of whom knew that there was only going to one fatally sad ending. I collected a programme from the foyer and flicked through briskly to see which role Johnjo was playing. He was to play a General in the Air Force present in the control tower. Strong, authoritative with a diligent sense of protocol and procedure, his character was written in to the play to convey a sense of reason to balance the emotion unfolding over the airwaves. I ushered my flat-mates eagerly in to the auditorium and we took our seats in the front row.

There before us were the entire cast, stood in their underwear and each with a potato sack over their heads. Neatly placed in front of them were their costumes. All of the actors in turn removed the sack from their heads, eyes firmly staring at the back of the room and then systematically got dressed for the performance with military precision. All apart from one.

Johnjo took off his potato sack and instead of adhering to the instruction to keep his eyes away from the audience he immediately caught a glimpse of a row of now familiar faces staring directly at him. The sense of panic was palpable. He picked up the pair of black, sharply pressed trousers in front of him and immediately put his left leg in to the hole for the right leg. After almost taking an immediate tumble, he steadied himself and managed to navigate each leg in to the appropriate hole. It only got worse from there.

The army shirt laden with stripes and medals denoting rank was buttoned up incorrectly where it was totally askew at the bottom and there was a large hole exposing his belly button. A stage-hand had to be beckoned into the unfolding drama so that the cuff links could be administered after four failed attempts. From recollection, I believe Johnjo performed the entire play barefoot as putting on the standard issue air force footwear would have brought the whole performance to its knees. The rest of the show passed mainly without further incident and we all gave him a celebratory [empathetic] slap on the back at the end.

From this point, Johnjo was a lot more careful about releasing details of his extra-curricular activities. We found out a day too late that he had played a gay Widow Twanky with Tourette’s in the drama club Christmas pantomime. Despite this, Johnjo continued to provide a wealth of comic relief throughout our academic tenure in Hull, almost exclusively without trying – more than enough to keep this blog going for a little longer…

Panic! At the Disco

To say I have been unlucky with the fairer sex is a gross understatement.

My first proper girlfriend had me sussed right from the wordgo.

 “You remind me of the Irish actor off the telly.” Who could she mean after only knowing me for one date? That immediately set my mind racing.

I started listing the cream of the quintessentially handsome Irish A-Listers. “Colin Farrell? Liam Neeson? Pierce Brosnan?”

“No. You know the one I mean – Father Ted’s little vicar mate”

Not surprisingly, we didn’t last longer than a couple of awkward and nervous months. In a time before mobile phones, I suffered the indignity of being dumped via Royal Mail as she didn’t have the heart to do it in to my doleful, puppy eyes. I had the further humiliation of having to walk around trip of four miles to the Post Office and the payment of a postage fine as she failed to put a stamp on the letter. If you ever needed validation, the cost of a broken heart is £2.57.

Even if I managed to summon confidence around women, invariably through the use of medium strength European lager, I would often be beset with the most unusual and tragic turn of events. Exemplifying this perfectly would be the time I had a very pretty girl approach me randomly in a crowded pub. Within a few short minutes of small talk we shared a very quick,yet passionate kiss. The effects of the European lager took its toll and I had to make a quick and inopportune pit-stop at the urinals. On my return, a quick scan of the pub had found my potential new love interest on the other side of the room to where I had left her. I immediately made a bee-line for her and probably used some cheap line like “Now where were we..?” We began kissing.

Suddenly, I felt a very sharp finger prodding deep in to my clavicle. A vaguely familiar voice, with a suitably more aggressive tone was demanding to know “What were we both playing at?” Completely confused and bewildered I slowly turned around and immediately felt the blood drain from my face.

I demand to know the odds of meeting two identically twin girls independently on a night out in The Castle pub in East Acton and them both showing  an interest in me. Scolding each other as they left, I was quickly returned to that familiar state of being alone. There has to be a pun here somewhere. Maybe “A bird in the hand is worth two in a pub near Shepherds’ Bush”?

At the turn of the millennium, I was still single and desperately trying to improve my odds of meeting someone by being in a place of social merriment every Friday and Saturday night – usually standing there waiting for something to happen. This next tale of misfortune was no exception. At the disco after an impromptu comedy night, a very mysterious woman suddenly appeared at my side and asked very meekly if I wanted to dance. The advent of the new millennia had brought with it a conveyor belt of ballads from boy-bands and one began to play as we moved succinctly towards the dance-floor.

It was very quickly obvious than neither of us were particularly rhythmic but that didn’t appear to matter. As we danced closely with our heads resting on each other’s shoulders my thoughts quickly turned to wanting to get to know more about this woman who had just dropped in to my life from seemingly nowhere. Brand new century; brand new luck!

We allowed ourselves the luxury of starting to dance to a second manufactured pop song, no doubt smiling as we swayed. Then something suddenly caught my eye. Across the room, I could see a very attractive girl subtly waving her hand trying to catch someone’s attention. Surely it wasn’t me – she could clearly see I was busy. She came closer and in to my immediate eye-line.It was me she was trying to attract! “Hi! I’m really sorry to bother you. Do you mind if I had a quick word?”

This was unbelievable! Torn between leaving this enigmatic woman who I had shared seven minutes of intense, close quarter dancing with and getting to know a clearly very beautiful woman, I made some awkward excuse to suspend the dance and was led to the edge of the dance-floor. I could see exactly how stunning she was now we had left the gloomy light and cigarette smoke that had enveloped the dance-floor.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I saw you on the dance-floor and I just wanted to ask you if you knew what you were doing?” To be honest, I didn’t. It was an extreme rarity for me to be in a position where I actually had a choice! I was desperately trying to think of a retort that was both intelligible and didn’t sound too desperate. Before I could utter a line of infinite suave, like “No, but I do now!” I was cut short with the chilling truth.

“I just wanted to make sure you knew that was a man you were dancing with”

And just like that *[insert imaginary click of the fingers here]* I was back to familiar surroundings -awkwardly leaning against the bar, nursing a now warm pint of lager waiting for potential love to fall in to my lap. Only this time a man in a Dorothy Perkins blouse, pedal-pushers and polka dot wedges was waving desperately at me across the dance-floor.

At least I knew I had a Plan B if my luck with the fairer sex didn’t improve.