Friday, 9 December 2016

I remember I remember – the 6th Christmas Blessay

I have little doubt that we will look back upon this year as the time when we had to say some sad and teary farewells to an alarming number of celebrities. I too have had to hold back some tears on certain days, and will expand on just a few of these in the main body of this year’s diatribe.

Not that I am any huge follower of celebrity fads and fashions, as well you know.  Yes, I love my music, and I do worry for the future of TV once Strictly is over and the Bake-Off has packed up and moved, but I have never had a long list of “faves”.  In both my reading and music tastes, I am flighty, I move from topic to topic, author to author, genre to genre, and I delight in the variety.  However, there have been some passing’s this year which have touched very deeply on my conscious, cutting deeply to my precious memory banks, and it is to these which I shall pay some reference. 

However, before we get onto celebrity death, let’s recall that there have been entirely too many non-celebrity deaths this year, and I have been touched by this also – I had been to more funerals before the end of February in this year that I had in total in any other year previously.  Losing two good friends, well within their 60s, put the year into sharp focus, and reluctantly sharing in the anguish of those left behind is something I always find more than a little humbling. 

So, when turning my thoughts to the subject and nature of this year’s blessay, it was an easy choice really.  Some of my other festive blogs have used current events to outline my somewhat tenuous grip on reality, whereas in others I have tried to crowbar in yuletide cheer in any way possible.  This blog, you will be disappointed to hear no less, shall prove no exception.   I’d like to take you on a trip down my own somewhat twisted memory lane, and put a very different spin on how to reflect on this year of celebrity adieus, especially at this time of the year.

Naturally, as you may well be thinking, how on earth will I limit this to just a few, if that’s what I’m going to attempt.  Well, my plan is to talk you through the importance of 4 such people to me and to my background, and to celebrate some of their work, whilst placing it all in the context of the season we find ourselves descending into.

Four deaths from this year have had me looking down the myriad kaleidoscopic lens of my past with greater focus and clarity than usual.  And my point is this: despite the sadness, how much joy is there in the recalling? So, here goes …

I remember, I remember …

As a secondary school student who was still trying to decide what hairstyle I should go for / what musical gang I should join in the playground / how and where to align myself, there were many minefield like conundrums to negotiate.  Music was first and foremost amongst them.  I couldn’t see myself growing my hair and wearing so much black, so being a goth was out.  Equally, I was one of the few teenagers in my school who liked washing, and I didn’t like Iron Maiden, so being one of the rockers was also a no-no.  House music was something I really got into, but being far too young to even consider attending raves or clubs put something of a dampener on it all. 

As I came to slow and sad realisation that I was about to plough my own furrow, I heard another track from Prince.  I had always listened to and been aware of Prince, and had enjoyed sneaking a watch of the Sign of the Times concert video with the older brothers of friends, but I had a secret confession, an admission too grave to voice to this group: I didn’t get it. I had a horrible feeling that although I thought the music of Prince was okay, it was nothing more than okay, and I worried for many nights that I would soon have to file Prince in the same place I still do Bob Dylan and Fraggle Rock – thanks, but I just don’t get it. 
Then, three things happened over the course of a single year which blew my mind, and changed my opinion for ever.

First, on a cold autumnal Saturday whilst I was staying at my Nan’s house for the weekend, I heard a track the like of which I had never heard before.  It ranged from the classical to the balletic, and then had a drum beat most military parades would kill for.  As for the lyrics, they screeched and soared poetically above the music like an eagle.  Only at the very end did the electric guitar arrive, weeping and wailing like it had been shot.  My first ever listen to “I wish U Heaven” by Prince (which, you can guess, I am listening to as I type these words) made me do something I rarely did as a child: I lied to my Nan, and told her I was going round the corner, whereas I actually got the 113 bus to Sutton Coldfield where they had the good record shops, and bought myself my first ever prince single. 

Secondly, I was on holiday in Devon, and was enjoying the last party night in the club house before the interminable trudge back up the M5 to home the following day.  Towards the end of the evening, the cheesy as you can imagine DJ made some joke about “get ready to party like – “ and the rest of the sound fell away from me, as the opening bars of “1999” announced themselves, and the entire room went into some kind of ecstatic trance.  For 4 minutes, the room swayed and bounced as one, and I knew what had been missing from my earliest Prince experiences, leading to my younger confusion. 

Finally, at some point close to or between these two, which I may have recalled in the wrong order if I’m honest, I got to see the man himself.  Only briefly, but I attended a concert with a friend of mine who was disabled, and who was desperate to see him.  However, disabled seats being what they are, we were way too close to the front for my friend to put up with it for any more than a short space of time. 

Still, after several years as a devotee of the Paisley one, it is the slow tracks which mean so much to me.  “Scandalous”, the achingly slow song at the end of Batman, is still for me the best example of a non-Christmas song to employ bells.  “Insatiable” at the late night end of Diamonds and Pearls is the most beautiful song about being part of a couple. 

For me, however, the most poignant song in the whole Prince collection is one about death.  The death of a friend to be more precise, and a tune that, whenever it is selected by the shuffle function on my itunes, forces me to stop and think.   “Sometimes it snows in April” comes from Under the Cherry Moon, and constantly reinforces the unpredictability of life, and all the questions it may raise.  But isn’t that what is it to be human?

Although I was as sad as the next person when I heard the news of Prince’s death, I cannot help but feel a little smug and yet enormously grateful at the fond, fond memories he provided for me through his life and work.  Which continues on and on in our house, with my son and daughter now massive fans of the album that, ironically, contains “I wish U Heaven”. 

I remember, I remember …

I can recall it even now.  Sat there in our lounge, the three of us as ever, watching something my Dad had chosen.  In fairness, that statement isn’t as negative as it sounds, as it was through my Dad that I got the chance to watch a whole host of amazing early 80s TV, such as The Young Ones and Spitting Image.  It was my Dad who got us into watching WWF wrestling long before it ever became well known in this country, and indeed stopped us watching it long before it hit mainstream.  So he was, despite all outward protestations, a fairly decent judge.

However, I had never heard of this woman whose comedy show he wanted us to watch, and so I sat with not a little trepidation that we sat down to watch an hour long show (rare in its own right) by a woman who was married to the Great Suprendo (whatever that meant).
Within 3 minutes, I was hooked.  I couldn’t believe that this wonderful woman could tell these labyrinthine stories and still deliver a killer gag every 20 seconds.  She could take on characters, she could improvise, she spoke both to the audience and to herself, and she could play the piano. 

Those of you of a certain age may recognise that I am going on about the first ever viewing of “An Audience with Victoria Wood”. It was December 10th 1988 since you asked.   I can recall even now sitting spellbound, unconsciously leaning into the TV to drink in more and more of what this woman was saying.  Those of you who do recall it will of course recall the now-famous song with which she finished the show, and which has gone on to become possibly her finest single individual moment.

However, my relationship with Victoria Wood did not end there.  A good few years later I was a student who was delighted to hear about a new Victoria Wood show about to hit our screens, called “Dinnerladies”.  Once again, I was spellbound by a piece of sheer theatre that was quite unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced before. 

Full of characters you identified with and cared for, with 1000 story lines being played out separately but oh-so-intricately all at once, this was a show that went from strength to strength.  Let us not forget that it also boasted more than a few quite exceptional and heart-breaking / warming Christmas editions, and script writing to die for. 

The news of her death in April brought so many of us immeasurably sadness, but goodness me, weren’t we lucky to have had so much to smile about in our lives, thanks to a woman who defied all odds and almost incurable crippling shyness to become one of the best comedy writers our country has ever produced.

I remember, I remember …

My mum and dad preparing to go to one of my junior football Christmas doos on a Friday night.  You knew it was a dressing up affair because my Mum’s mirror and all her hair stuff came out onto the dining table in our little haven of a flat.  Tea was a chip shop affair (get in!). Taxis were booked and timings made explicit.

Thankfully, I was now beyond the age of a babysitter, so instead of this interminable torture, my mate Neil came around with some videos from his Dad’s shop (which I would go on to work in the following year).  We also had, if memory serves, an industrial bucket of crisps and a couple of cans of shandy.  Surely, that is what is meant by hedonism?

The first video was a trashy horror / sci-fi affair; never completely my style, but it had that geezer from Twin Peaks that everyone was talking about at the time, so all was well. We ploughed through this film and the vast majority of the crisps, with much giggling and hilarity. 

The second video, cracking into the shandy, was a very different affair.  I’d heard of it and seen the posters, but apart from that I had little experience of it.  For twenty minutes or so, we watched Bruce Willis (no relation, no honestly) look all forlorn and hurt as he was spurned at Christmas by his uber-80s missus.  I was getting, truth to tell, just a little bored.

Then the bad guy came on screen, dressed in a Calvin Klein suit and with a beard to die for.  I was suddenly strangely gripped, mesmerised and, if I’m honest, scared as this villain became more and more menacing.  For two hours we were hooked, until, oh-so-inevitably, the bad guy won and the villain perished. 

I was even more amazed when I read the credits to discover that this German bank robber was in fact English. 

Of course, the film was Die Hard, and the actor Alan Rickman.

It was not long after this that I was being unutterably bored by Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when who should pop up as the villain but – yep, you’ve remembered – Alan Rickman, once again acting the Hollywood superstars (including the usually ever dependable Morgan Freeman) off the screen.  Once again I felt humbled at an amazing performance, and not a little pride at the work of this English man.

My wife and I watched the first Harry Potter together when she was heavily pregnant with our oldest son, on the Christmas day prior to his lengthy birth, and will always be a special moment in our family history.

Many years later, as a father whose children still adore the Harry Potter films even now, the sad news of Alan Rickman’s death earlier this year caused sadness to our entire house, and the first three HP films to be watched almost relentlessly for a good month.  I am forced to say, I did not begrudge them a moment. Once again, I was left saddened but openly thankful that we had had something this good in our lives.

I remember, I remember …

Early this year, when the mornings were still opaquely dark, I got into my car to make my journey to work, catching as I did the end of some piece of cheesy musack for which Radio 2 gets a bad reputation.  At the end of the track, the radio plunged into a silence that lasted probably only 5 seconds, but it felt closer to 3 years.  I was imagining something between the death of the Queen and the detonation of something nuclear.  When the silence was broken, the news was different, but no less sad.

“Apologies listeners, but we are hearing breaking news stories that David Bowie has died”.

The rest of the journey was characterised by numbness and disbelief.  Bowie? Dead? Surely the (insert one of his many nicknames here) was immortal, and would outlast us all, bringing out a brand new album once a decade for time eternal?

It would appear not.  The news of David Bowie’s death hit everyone in ways we could not have fathomed.  In our playground, I had some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations I have had with our school community, and the staff split into two broad groups – those who were experiencing him for the first time now, and those who had known and loved him for years.  I fell into the latter category, for a whole host of reasons.

I remember the amazement with which I gawped at the TV the first time I saw the video for “Starman”.  Too young to have seen it on first airing in 1972, I was watching it on one of the various music programmes I would have had available around a decade later.  I recall even now being star struck (pardon the pun) at this incredulous performance, made by a man (I think?) who hugged and teased his group whilst they sang the most wonderful song.  “Let all the children boogie” is still one of my son’s best catchphrases.

Soon after this, I remember seeing the video for “Ashes to Ashes” and cheering and whooping with joy.  As a devotee of Adam and the Ants, I always thought that more men should be dressed as French Mime Artist dolls, especially at the time of a cliff side apocalypse. All joking aside, once again I was simply blown away by a song that was utterly unlike anything else I had ever heard, and I love it still to this day.

I remember, a couple of years later (I think it must have been around the time of Live Aid, so 1985), the spine tingle I felt when my dad played me the song “Life on Mars”.  I didn’t know whether to clap, cry or hide, but I knew I wanted more. Of course, with the advent of the internet, I can now watch the haunting video at the click of a few buttons, but it haunts me still, even at my ripening age. 

I remember getting a bootleg copy of Black Tie White Noise long before anyone else, on something called a cassette.  It did not matter to me that, two months later, Black Tie White Noise came out to very tepid reviews, most people not liking it.  Didn’t bother me, I still love it, probably for that reason, although I‘ve no idea whatever happened to the cassette.

I remember, I remember…that’s the whole point.  I could give you a thousand memories that concern Bowie and his work that put me in a thousand different places at a thousand different times in my life.  When I first heard Hunky Dory all the way through, when I got my first copy of Ziggy Stardust, listening over and over to a latter day cover version of “Ashes to Ashes”, watching him perform with Arcade Fire, being the only kid in my year to have watched Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence all the way to the end, the list goes on.    I could also tell you about the Christmas Eve when Labyrinth premiered, and I was utterly petrified.  (In fairness, this came hot on the heels of the Never Ending Story, so having failed to keep it together when that wolf-thingy leapt out at the end, I was never going to manage a baby snatching pixie king in tights, was I?).

And that is the point of this blog.  Although we may feel sad at the untimely, often altogether too early passing of celebrities and those dear to us, what more joy is there to be had in the remembering?  If it is simply human to be sad, how humanely simple is it to recall, and to take joy in our reminiscing?  Yes, 2016 will probably live in our memories as a time of sadness, but I feel it should be looked upon as a bridge to a wonderful cache of memories for us all to share and delight in. 

After all, isn’t that what makes this time of year special for us all?  If we didn’t have such amazing memories of Christmas and of this period, why would we look forward to it pretty much from the end of summer? Surely, if we didn’t have such a close memory connection to this festival, then the shops would be spending thousands on advertising and decorations for, well, pretty much for nothing.

I know full well that the reverse is also true. There are people for whom this is not a wonderful time of year, and that is because it is generally connected with exactly the kinds of memories people don’t want: bereavement, separation, loss and need.  Please don’t think that anything else I go on to say will belittle the angst some people must sadly feel at this time.  To these individuals, as ever, go my deepest and most heartfelt wishes, and a hope that one day this will change. 

Also, I know there have been other deaths – celebrity and non – that have meant so much to people this year.  The first Children in Need without Wogan was a little poignant for us all.  Again, please don’t feel that I am making one seem more important than the other – how could I?  Whilst I have been writing this torture, the sad news of the death of Greg Lake has been announced – it is solely down to him that I truly, truly do believe in Father Christmas.

However, for anyone like myself who takes great joy in this time of year (and I know my colleagues will find that difficult to believe, but it is true) it is our wealth of memories that connect us and what make us start smiling in anticipation the first time you hear a vaguely festive tune as the backdrop to an advert, generally mid-October.

And where does one start? I remember, I remember …
My first record player
Playing Santa in a school production of Rudolph The RNR
My millennium falcon
Forever waiting for aunt, uncle and two cousins to arrive for dinner
Morecombe and Wise
The start of my book collection
Coins from a pudding
Hating the Pogues when I first heard it
My first Christmas as a husband, as an expectant father, and then as a father
The Two Ronnies
Refusing to wear paper crowns from a cracker

Even now, Christmases still hark back to the echoes of generations and yuletides past.  I still, to this day, receive a huge box of After Eights from my mum which generally doesn’t see Boxing Day evening (and a card from my Aunt with my name spelt incorrectly).  I still giggle when my children return home with their costume requests for their production, which invariably contains the words “party clothes”.  I am still forced to ask: Why one earth do people drink sherry at any other time of year?  And, yes, I still refuse to wear paper crowns from crackers. 

Our memories define us.  They shape and style us.  Like everyone, I have memories that make me sad, and, indeed, some I would sooner forget.  But my festive trove of memories from this time of the year are as precious to me as any trinket or bauble I shall ever possess.

And now, as I get older, and trust me this year I am feeling it more than any other, I find myself trying more and more to be the maker of memories, wishing beyond hope that my children will, in 20 years or so, bore their friends or any other audience with tales of how magnificent are their memories of Christmases past, and how their parents provided them with a host of wonderful times.  If I can achieve that, what a lucky man I am.  I hope to make the graceful and splendid move one day from I remember, I remember to I shall never ever forget ….

Thank you, if you’ve got this far, for making it all the way to the end of what will probably be my last Christmas blessay; they have run their course, and times are, I am always pleased to say, a-changing.  To you all, may I wish you peace, serenity and joy at this time of year, whatever your faith or persuasion.  If this is not your time of year, then I wish you contentment and peace, and a swift resolution to whatever it is that ails you. 

Above all, I hope that you find yourself sometime in 2017 (even saying it makes it sound all spacey!) with a newly replenished and enlarged collection of memories to make you an even more wonderful you.  Merry Christmas to each and every one of you, and the most prosperous of new years to us all.

For this year, and this part of the journey, that is all.