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 again” Press 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?