“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?…

Pushing All The Wrong Buttons

“This Virgin West Coast train will soon arrive at Platform 4”

I grab my personal effects and head straight for the door

Now, what I’ve naively forgotten in my haste to leave the train

Is that I’m first to that green button – and the pressure is insane!

In several minutes time I will become a nervous wreck

As a legion of commuters start breathing down my neck

They’ll all be scrutinising to see if I delay

To get that train door open and shave a second off their day

But I’ve a second chance; my suffering denied

The platform we’re approaching maybe on the other side

In an act of desperation I push my face against the glass

Hoping to see rails instead of concrete rumbling past

But my reprieve is short-lived; this ordeal will come true

As the edge of platform 4 eases slowly in to view

The pressure is unbearable. A huge collective stare

“Why is he not pressing it? Their subconscious thoughts declare

In order to appease the crowd and defuse this madding scene

I start tapping at the button despite the fact it’s not turned green

And I can’t stop now, they’re watching. Soulless city worker eyes

“Open now you bastard!” my internal monologue replies

“Ding” – at last! The light comes on after what has seemed an age

One last furious tapping rep will release me from this cage

The noise of door mechanics is like music to my ears

The groans of agitation pass; my anguish disappears

I alight the train in deep relief and exhale a calming sigh

As London’s finest clamber past to offices nearby

I head towards the turnstiles reflecting on my fate

The next time I disembark a train I will procrastinate

An Extra 10 Minutes on the Toilet

The working week has finished and I’m shattered to the core

My head is full of spreadsheets that I’m trying to ignore

At home’s a boy that’ll hound me as soon as that key turns in the door

Know what? I’ll grab an extra 10 minutes in the toilet

The interrogation starts before my coat is on the hook

“Daddy where’s my lightsabre; have you seen my Star Wars book?”

“I drew a picture of E.T. – you must come have a look!”

Thank God for that extra 10 minutes in the toilet

“Do aardvarks dream? Can penguins fly? Wanna hear me count it twos?”

“I’m think they do, I ‘m not sure they can. Can I at least take off my shoes?!”

The questions are coming thick and fast; need my porcelain refuge

Too soon for my extra 10 minutes in the toilet?

The Lego’s out; it’s everywhere  – it’s messing up my head!

“I’ll be Luke – you be Vader . You can’t be Hans – he’s dead”

Is it wrong of me to be counting down ‘til this boy is up in bed?

I crave those extra 10 minutes in the toilet

The game finishes abruptly before the Rebels can advance

“Daddy watch me bottle-flip; have you seen this Fortnite dance?”

The toilets free, I’ve done my bit – I need to take this chance!

Al last!! My extra 10 minutes in the toilet

The seat comes down, my phone comes out. I scroll my Twitter feed

Sky Sports News and Facebook; there ain’t nothing I won’t read

Whilst I sit in quiet solitude and pretend I’ve more than weed

Thank God for these extra 10 minutes in the toilet

Have I been in here too long? I ask myself. Not sure what to do…

If I stay in here much longer I might give away a clue

There’s only one thing for it; I’ll feign a bout of gastric flu

And grab another 10 minutes in the toilet

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.