Monday, February 25, 2008

Farewell Attila!

I am back in the Leamington Garret. It is very empty.

My flatmate Attila has gone, leaving the garret in immaculate condition.

Hungarian spirits, chocolates and a greeting card are on the table. I feel very moved by Attila’s efforts.

In this flat I have truly had the best and worst of flatmates. When he was evicted my first flatmate - the one before Attila - completely trashed the pad. There was broken glass, rubbish, flour and other trash everywhere.

By stark contrast, Attila has been left it perfectly clean; probably cleaner than it has ever been.

I shall certainly miss Attila Szalo. A nicer guy and finer flatmate one could not hope for: reasonable, tolerant, decent, good-natured and kindly, in every respect.

Attila also had a fantastic - and surprisingly English - sense of humour. We used to laugh like idiots at our respective misadventures and misfortunes.

I guess that to some degree we were united by a desire to leave Leamington Spa – a drear Midlands town so utterly alien and unfriendly to both of us. Such a poor joke!

Coincidentally it is two years today that I moved into this flat.

Tonight I have been to the Reckless Moment comedy club, a quiet night with some good new talent (I suspect that were Warwick University drama students).

Friendly faces. Yet I wonder how I shall survive the next three-and-a-half weeks here.

Attila Szalo has returned to Hungary and then plans to travel the world for bit.

There was no doubt his major motivation was to leave Leamington Spa.

If his break in England had come in London, I would wager he would still be in the UK.

You can’t blame him, though. I am sure that if were not English, I would have quit the country after living in Leamington for a year.

Once you have seens girls punching it out on the street on a Sunday night, or a 10-person brawl outside the cheap pub at 7pm on a Tuesday night, it is not hard to find the grass greener elsewhere.

I reckon that, not including tonight, I have another 15 nights left in this one-horse, cowboy town.

Suddenly the flat seems huge. Again it looks different. It seemed to change totally after James left. Now it looks and feels different again now Attila has departed.

It changes its complexion with the cast, taking on the personality of its denizens.

I got here tonight, after driving at highish speed up the usual motorways, remarkably, in rush-hour traffic, sometimes fighting to keep the Astra Martin on the road, and found that, despite all our efforts, the James Blunts at British Telecom had cut off the Internet connection.

Has there ever been a more incompetent company? In the post was a letter from BT thanking us for our continued custom!

In a sense, though, it seems apt to be left here, cut off, off-line, truncated, tapping away on a computer bought for 15 quid from the day-job, playing Elvis Costello CDs through the 1970s music centre. Only 15 nights to go. . .

What is surprising is the enormous amount of stuff in the Leamington Garret. Two years ago when I moved in, it was virtually unfurnished.

Now I am on my ownsome – surrounded by masses of furniture and ornaments.

I am going to make an effort to chuck stuff out, but I know I shall be leaving, in three weeks' time, a flat full of possessions.

Funny thing is a lot of it is good stuff.

Hey, I had better turn in because Attila’s marvellous, amazing Hungarian pear-based liquor is doing amazing stuff to my head – and I have a 6.30am appointment with the pool at Pure!

Here’s a picture I took out of the Lewes Garret window this morn.

* It is a day on, almost witching hour again.

Today I have had to nurse the mother of all hangovers. That Hungarian spirit was stronger than rocket fuel. No amount of medication could alleviate my symptoms today.

Only after drinking three large glasses of it did I notice it says on the bottle that it is a mere 52 percent proof!

I probably would have been saver drinking diesel from the Astra Martin!

All the same I have been working feverishly to get ahead of the curve.

I am determined to leave my departments at the day-job in good shape. Out of a sense of pride in a job well done, I suppose.

I like everything to be just so, and obsess about it if it is not. Until I drink. Then it can all fly into the air like a deck of cards!

It occurred to me today how bad I have become at networking. I have literally hundreds of scraps of paper or backs of business cards with numbers of contacts scrawled on them; yet I never bother to put them in a contacts book or even use most of them.

I must change, and start networking, using my contacts.

I guess the reason I don’t is more about shyness and embarrassment (and laziness) than anything else.

I tried to talk to British Telecom today. I got cut off twice and eventually, after another 30-minute wait, talked to a gentleman in India who could not help me.

When I worked as a business journalist at CNN Television, we often used to get the then Chairman or Chief Executive of British Telecom on our show as a guest.

The anchor, Becky Anderson, always seemed finish by asking him when he was going to resign.

Nothing seems to have improved in the intervening years.

British Telecom appears every bit as wantonly incompetent as it has ever been.

It gleefully turns away business and revels in making its customers’ lives more difficult.

I don’t think I shall bother pursuing them; I can write this journal offline and upload in my lunch hour at work or at the Lewes Garret.

At least the music on the computer is working. I think I would go mad without it.

Actually, being without the internet will probably help me.

I might even revise my 2007 poems and write a few new ones. I want to write something about leaving Leamington.

Tonight I stayed late at the day-job, then went to the Pure health club, chatted to the people in the pool and sauna, and came back here to the Garret and started to pack.

By my last day, I want to have all bar one suitcase of stuff out of here.

The morning after my leaving do, I will close the case and jump on the train. Never to return.

Prince’s Count The Days is playing. Seems apposite.

* Would you believe that the Sussex fuzz managed to overturn a cop car in the street outside the Lewes Garret, without any other moving vehicles being involved.

The fools seem to have been speeding along at around 4am, hit a parked car and turned over their police car, writing it off.

It were not for alacrity of our neighbour who was awoken by the noise and photographed the car from her window, I strongly suspect the whole affair would have been covered up.

The fuzz were damn quick in removing their wreckage. It was gone by the time we were up, with only some orange sand and broken glass to show they had been there.

I sincerely hope a prosecution is going to result from this appalling incident.

The speed limit is 20mph and, although the fuzz tend to believe speed limits do not apply to them, these maniacs must, I estimate, have been doing three times that.

I may even drop Norman Baker, our industrious and parochial MP, a line about it.

* Eight Pints of Poetry, my poetry club in Lewes, is getting some excellent coverage.

The local glossy what's on magazine, Viva Lewes, has published an excellent interview with our next headliner, Attila the Stockbroker, plugging the gig.

Incidentally, Attila the Stockbroker will be in action at the Lewes Arms, Lewes, on Friday, March 14!

The renowned poet and Warwick Poet Laureate Jane Holland has published an account of the last Eight Pints gig, with a couple of images, at Poets on Fire.

Finally, the earth really did move for me at the Leamington Garret. I was awoken by the earthquake, with the walls quivering like jelly and my bed and clothes rail rocking violently from side to side.

Confused, I got up and assumed someone had been trying to break in. Then I fell asleep again and woke up at 4am and 6.30am, believing I had dreamt it!

It is a shame Attila missed possibly the most exciting event to ever hit Leamington Spa!

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Opening Night at Eight Pints of Poetry!

The first night of my poetry club – Eight Pints of Poetry! – went well!

Ash Dickinson, the Edinburgh Fringe’s current slam poetry champion, performed two good half-hour sets; I compered, reading more than 15 poems, and a very good open spot, Iona Jette, did about seven minutes.

After a tremendous family effort flyering during the previous week, the room was half full (rather than half empty!) which I thought a respectable result for the opening night.

And the crazy talk downstairs in the bar afterwards reminded me of the sozzled excesses of the Joe’s Comedy Madhouse years (not necessarily a good thing!)

The next gig is on Friday, 14 March (Doors: 8pm, Show: 8.30pm), again at the Lewes Arms, Mount Place, Lewes, East Sussex.

The headliner is the legendary Attila the Stockbroker. With a packed room and a few more open mic-ers, it could be the perfect poetry night!

I have been in the Lewes Garret for 12 days now.

It is nice to be home, having a rest, but I have found it hard slipping into the vibe here in Lewes. Strange! It makes me wonder how I will get on soon when I am back fulltime.

Before I left, I did my last performance on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio. It was the best of the three.

I was on with a guest presenter, John Butler (not my Oxford friend of the same name but a Cov Kid and former stand-up comedian), and the resident guest for the slot, the station’s poet laureate Jo Roberts.

I felt more relaxed than before; we had a good chat about the council’s plans to invest a billion quid (yes, a thousand million pounds) in another re-development of its precinct.

When I had lived in Coventry 20 years before, I pointed out, the council had been planning to re-develop the precinct. Now they are starting again!

Before the show, I had looked at images of Coventry before the blitz of 1940.

Although I had worked as a reporter at the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1986-88, I had never seen these pictures before.

I was struck by how beautiful Coventry had been, and how much damage Gibson had done with his master plan for concrete re-development.

Moreover, I walked past the shanty town bit of the city centre, the Parson’s Nose et cetera, and saw it condoned off by the police because a murdered man’s body had been found.

I thought: Coventry has not changed. More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War, it still hasn’t been rebuilt.

And 20 years after I left, its people are still slaughtering each other!

On BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio, I recited a poem I had written on this theme, Coventry Precinct.

Then I read Give Me A Haircut Like Byron!, and Women. They seemed to go well.

It was one of my better performances; I felt great afterwards. I shall miss BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio – a fine institution, worth the licence fee on its own!

The following day I was due to interview a 1970s sex symbol who now runs a stud in England’s West Country.

I set off from the Leamington Garret bright and early and was almost there when I got a call on my mobile from her scatty personal assistant.

To my astonishment, I was told that the ex-siren was in London that day!

It turned out that her assistant could have told me this days before but had simply forgotten – until I had driven hundreds of miles at high speed and was almost there!

She offered to re-arrange the interview but, in my disgust, I told them to shove it, and went to Weymouth for the day.

I should explain that Weymouth is one of my favourite places in the world – and a mere 200 miles from Leamington.

Admittedly, it took a little time to drive to Weymouth, but I was there for lunch – fish and chips in the baking hot sun. For a day in February, the weather was quite extraordinary.

I loved the quintessential blueness of the skies, the wide open beaches, the bustling harbour.

Some of my happiness memories are in Weymouth.

My father would drive the family Morris Oxford from Oxford to Weymouth.

The journey would seem to take an eternity (it is almost as far as from Oxford as from Leamington), but it was worth it to splash around in the acres of paddling waters, row my beloved inflatable canoe, and play the amusements.

I found the Weymouth shop where I think I bought the canoe, and went into the amusement arcade that me and my brothers liked the most.

Remarkably, inside it seemed hardly changed. I swear one of the attractions was even exactly the same - more than 35 years on!

Sundown found me at Portland Bill – a spectacular spot on the Isle of Portland, attached to Weymouth by the slightest spit of land.

I chatted to the twitchers (and they showed me some birds), and I met an old gentleman who was there with his granddaughter.

By the time I’d returned to the Leamington Garret that night, I’d driven 409 miles that day, and was absolutely drained. But happy...

On the way back to Lewes, my faithful motor, the Astra Martin, went through 180 (‘One Hunnnnnnnnnnndrrrrrrrrrrrrred and Ehhhhhhhhhhty!’ as they used to say when my Uncle Jocky was winning at darts) thousand miles on the clock.

* I also went to London for the day, taking in a very misty Hampstead Heath, Keats’ Garden, and a spectacularly beautiful Richmond at sunset.

Friends, I shall leave you with that image as I set off from Leamington with a heavy heart.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Exeunt Omnes : Jason Tilley's India

Hallelujah! A miracle has happened. I have found a great new day-job! I am leaving Leamington Spa! I'm returning to the big, bad city of London!

I can hardly believe my luck. Although I have been happier here over the last few months than before, quitting Leamington for gainful employment is an opportunity I have to - and will - seize with both hands.

It has been a long time in coming. I have lost count of the number of jobs I have applied for over the past two years.

I became so desperate at one point last year that I foolishly enrolled with almost every headhunter and employment agency in London. All to no avail. Until now.

It could not have come at a better time. When I came back after Christmas, my dear flatmate Attila Szalo expressed a burning desire to jack in his job in Leamington to travel in India.

So I invited my old friend Jason Tilley, who has spent the past five years travelling and photographing on the sub-continent, round to talk about India with Attila.

(Incidentally, I selected 18 of Jason Tilley's brilliant images to display with this blog.

Jason's tales of travelling India were extraordinary and, in some cases, rather disturbing. For instance, a sleazy bloke spiked his drink in a bar and then followed him back to his room, resulting in a narrow escape.

I would absolutely love to travel in India, but, as when I went to Ecuador, I suspect I would spend a lot of time avoiding other Westerners.

Attila has put in his notice at work and leaves on 18 February and I hope to arrange a good send-off for him.

Then I shall leave about a month later. (My best efforts to tie up loose ends and negotiate a reduced notice period ended up meaning I was leaving in eight weeks rather than three months).

It is all a bit weird - rather unreal. I cannot get my head around it.

In order to help make better use of the next month, I have joined the nearby and expensive gym - Pure - right round the corner from the Leamington Garret.

It is 52.50 pounds sterling for a calendar month and I reckon I will have to use it at least a dozen times to get my money's worth out of it.

Easirt said than done as I am often only here three full evenings a week.

Today was my first day at the gym, so I got up at 6.20am and went for a swim before work; then went in and told everyone I was leaving; went down to London for a meeting; came back and returned to the gym.

Pure is a lovely gym, even if the human scenery is not quite as spectacular as on the streets of Belgravia (where I was this afternoon).

I like the swimming pool. It is as if the Leamington Garret has its own beautiful, private pool - just a minute's walk from the penthouse!

On the poetry front I have not made much progress. At the weekend I printed out 10 of last year's crop and have started editing them, but anything and everything distracted me.

Today, on the train back from London, it dawned on me that my valedictory appearance on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire is next week, and I had promised the station's poet laureate, the highly affable Jo Roberts, that I would write a poem about Coventry Precinct!

I started it but, having penned only two lines, started chatting to a friendly girl from Birmingham called Lydia who tried to convince me that Brum was an extremely welcoming place.

It occurred to me that she might be right. Perhaps, I should have lodged in Birmingham rather than Leamington Spa. (Too late now).

But I digress... I did not fancy having to find a new flatmate. Having had one good one (and one very bad one), I was not keen on playing Russian flat-lette once again. (The scar has not fully healed).

The Landlord - Mr Rigsby out of Rising Damp - has kindly agreed for me to stay on after Attila goes at no extra rent (after a wee verbal tussle).

Attila's charming sister and brother - Zsofi and Peter - are staying in the Leamington Garret at the moment which has greatly improved the quality of the food we are eating, and also caused the Garret to be cleaned in the nick of time for Mr Rigsby's visit.

It is late on Sunday night now and I have just returned to Leamington Garret to find that the bureaucrats on the local council have taken down the 9am to 6pm parking restriction signs and replaced them with 8am to 8pm ones. They have also removed the disabled parking.

The former means I will have to set off for work by 8am every day and then park the best part of a mile away from the Garret between 5.15pm and 8pm every night to prevent some Nazi contracted by the council giving me a parking ticket for parking outside my own home.

I am not even able to buy a residents' parking permit because this street, despite its many residents, has been classed as 'non-residential' by local authority morons!

As usual there was absolutely no warning of the impending change in regulation and no consultation. I really hate the local penpushers. And yet still I pay the council tax to bolster their fat wage packets.

Now it is quiet and cold in the Leamington Garret; almost ten-fifteen with only a few lights still in the block of flats. I can see no one walking around, or doing anything.

Attila is away, presumably in London, and his brother and sister have gone back to Hungary, after a successful stay.

I feel like I am in a numbed state of limbo at the moment. Yesterday I made a list of the things I needed to do before leaving Leamington on the morning of Thursday, 20 March.

It came to 52 items! After working away at it most of today, I have ticked off only four of them!

The worst of it is that I wonder how much of my leaving plans are related to what I feel I ought to be doing - 'to do the right thing'.

When in reality, the vast majority of one's work colleagues, for instance, most probably don't give a fig whether you, or anyone, goes or stays.

I am organising an evening leaving do, but, if previous experience of day-job leaving events up here is anything to go by, it will be a quiet affair.

Regular readers of this journal may recall my efforts to gain a rounded knowledge of English poetry by reading - from cover to cover - the New Oxford Book of English Verse.

The last time I mentioned this I had reached Andrew Marvell, who was marvellous (don't excuse the pun!)

Now at last I am on my progenitor and hero George Gordon Byron. But, boy oh boy, have I suffered on this poetic journey!

I have read some great poetry but also some of the dreariest verse. There certainly seems to have been a slow patch in poetry in the half-century before William Blake came along.

Between Marvell and Blake, I read (some good, some dull): Henry Vaughan, Thomas Stanley, John Bunyan, Thomas Traherne, John Dryden, Charles Sackville, Aphra Behn, John Wilmot, Matthew Prior, Jonathan Swift, Isaac Watts, Alexander Pope, Henry Carey, James Thomson, Samuel Johnson...

And: Thomas Gray, William Collins, Christopher Smart, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Osbert Mordaunt, John Scott, William Cowper, Thomas Chatterton and George Crabbe.

I enjoyed parts of a lot of these dead poets, but it was like a breath of fresh air when I reached Blake and went into a purple patch of him, followed the great Robert Burns, the brilliant William Wordsworth, Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Caleridge.

Before Byron, Walter Savage Landor, Charles Lamb, Thomas Campbell, Thomas Moore, James Leigh Hunt and Thomas Love Peacock slipped in.

And I still have hundreds of pages still to read!

I have a couple of days of no-drinking to go.

This year I have decided that rather than being on the wagon for just January, I would extend it to 10 percent of the year, which means not drinking for 36.6 days (it is a leap year). Or this Wednesday night.

I have not really missed the booze, apart from in certain situations, like getting back to the Lewes Garret on Thursday night after a hell of a journey on the M40, M25 and M23, and really, really fancying a glass of red wine.

I went to The Stage's New Year at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London, for the first time in about five years.

It was strange being the only sober person on that huge room awash with people and champagne.

One of the many things I like about showbiz folk is their tremendous optimism in the face of adversity - at least publicly.

I met one of the girls who didn't become Maria on the hit BBC show. She was delightful and told me enthusiastically about her pantomime and her singing lessons.

Later, I got chatting to a very pretty girl who told me about her forthcoming engagement at the Kings Head pub theatre in Islington, north London.

Only after she had left did a mate tell me, 'That was Abi Titmuss - John Leslie's ex.'

I remembered her name from the popular press. I have never been very good at recognising famous faces!

 More than ever I left the party thinking that we are all getting older; none of my generation can truthfully describe themselves as young any more.

Perhaps surprisingly, I felt quite sad to hear of Jeremy Beadle's death.

When I wrote about television for a national newspaper, I often used to attack his cruel prankster shows.

However, when I met him, he was most pleasant, despite his avowed hatred of journalists.

And Jeremy Beadle took it in good part when I successfully played a prank on him live on radio, and later wrote about it.

If nothing else, he was a good sport, although his true personality will always be a mystery to me.

It is late now and I need to turn in soon in order to make it to the Pure health club before work tomorrow.

I went five times in the first three days I have been a member, but I am not sure I can keep that up.

And I am very worried about my fast-approaching appearance on Coventry and Warwickshire Radio on Tuesday.

I have written about the council's plans to demolish the precinct after decades of redevelopment.

It made me almost nostalgic for my days as the local pop writer on the Evening Telegraph in Coventry (1987-8) - with Jason Tilley taking brilliant photographs for me - but I spend far too much time with my head flush with yesteryear.

Now it is Wednesday February 6 and I have achieved my goal of not drinking for 10 percent of the year.

I have also pointlessly driven 407 miles today and am exceptionally cream-crackered (much more of which in a forthcoming blog).

I am trying to write this on Attila's tiny Hungarian laptop and finding it near impossible (my fingers are too fat) so for now I shall publish (without checking it) and be damned!


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