Caught up in a wave of enthusiasm

Originally published in The Sunday Times 17 August 1997

Tim Dawson dons his wet suit, takes to a dinghy and gets a lesson in how to stay afloat.

I have got a mouth full of salt water. My wet suit restricts my arms and legs to jerky movements and I have a rope tangled around each limb. Halfway across the stretch of sea that separates Largs and Great Cumbrae, I am flat on my back in the hull of a tiny single-handed dinghy. As the sails flap and catch in the wind, I am destined for another dip in the drink. But as I pull on the ropes – mainly to give myself something to hang onto when I capsize – the boat turns a little further.

The sail fills and as I struggle to sit up and work out where I am going, I can see Cumbrae coming towards me, just as I had intended when I started to turn the boat. And there, up to his waist in water, is my instructor, Chris Nichol. He is a tiny speck on the beach. I can’t hear a word he says, but his gesticulations are expressive. As I went into the turn his arms flailed frantically trying to show me where I was going wrong. But I can see now that he is punching the air with a cheer. Because I have done it – I have learnt to turn the boat – or tack and gybe as I have almost got used to calling it. For the next half hour I sail to and fro, managing the turn with a little less panic each time.

It has taken me eight hours to get this far and it feels like a real achievement. I caught the nine o’clock ferry from Largs and before ten I was in the main teaching room of the national sports centre learning about the theory of sailing. It is, assures Nichol, easier than learning to drive.

“The thing that you must always remember when sailing is that the wind is everything,” he says. “Every time you go out, it will be coming from a different direction or at a different speed,” he says. “It takes a bit of getting used to the idea that each manoeuvre will have to be adapted to the prevailing conditions – it is no good just doing what you did yesterday, if the wind has changed.” With a model boat and a blackboard Nichol demonstrates the theory. Wind this way, sail that way, jib in, daggerboard down. His chalk lines and arrows begin to make sense, but the sea is there in the corner of my eye. I can’t help but worry that my mind will empty as I hit the first wave.

Before each turn on the water, we have to prepare the boat and learn how it should operate to work. Hard though I try, this becomes a confusion of knots, ropes and nautical terms. I am keen to learn and have no doubt that with a few more repetitions I would remember how to tie a figure of eight and recognise the difference between reaching and rigging. For anyone who was after thrills alone, the on-land learning could seem a drag. My first foray onto the water is in a wayfarer – the 40-year-old design of dinghy that has long been a sailing-school staple. Its size and weight give it a lazy predictability in the water and within a few minutes, the rudder and the rope that controls the mainsail are in my hands.

I am far from in control, but feel pleased to be able to carry out the instructions that Nichol – who is sitting beside me – issues. His constant praise for my efforts is encouraging, although I can’t help but worry that it is a teacher’s trick to boost my confidence. My fears are borne out as soon as I set sail in the single-handed Pico. It seems to be little more than a polythene plank with a sail – which is apparently ideal for the young or petite. It feels hopelessly small as I try to shift my 13 stones from one side of the boat to the other as the sail swings above me. In a lively wind it handles like a toboggan at speed – every twitch of the controls sends me swinging and skidding about the water.

However, it is the experience of handling the boat alone from which I get most satisfaction. By my fourth or fifth solo “ready about”, it is as though I have mastered a new sleight of hand. I’m not quite ready to show off my skills, but I can feel them coming along. I climb out filled with enthusiasm to learn how to do this properly when I have time.

I have also developed sufficient appetite for the water to accept a sail in one of the centre’s catamarans. This is in a different league of speed and power. As soon as its sails fill, it cuts through the water as though fired from a catapult. So effectively does it harness the wind that it is necessary to hang from its side on a trapeze wire to counteract the force. As it powers through the surf, cheap 1mg xanax online, half the boat often lifts from the sea.

I am not sure that my turns at the controls amounts to more than overseeing its autopilot mode, but for a few seconds at least, I felt as if I was captaining a cruise missile.


Happy to report that The National Centre at Cumbrae is still offering an excellent package of RYA course – as of June 2013.


Posh background: how an old soke became a new town

The following review is of the 2013 production.  It is good to see that the play has been revived in 2015.

Musical theatre thrives on improbable subject matter. Who would have thought a board game, animal sociology or a ‘magic’ train set could be the basis for long-running hits? Even in such iconoclastic company, though, a study of the life and times of the Peterborough Development Corporation (PDC) sounds prosaic.

Eastern Angles Parkway Dreams, however, with its singing architects and saxophone-tooting planning officers, is a joyful celebration of the idealism and energy required to create Britain’s post-war new towns. It is also testimony to the extraordinary human investment demanded of those who decamped to become their residents. Weaving together the stories of the dramatic expansion of Peterborough, designated a ‘new town’ in 1967, and a London family who moved there in the early 1970s, it makes believable heroes of the planners, architects as well as the ‘overspill’ families whose arrival swelled the fenland city.

Like a lot of Eastern Angles work, the play (written by Kenneth Emson, directed by the company’s artistic director Ivan Cutting and with an excellent score by Simon Egerton) is a ‘theatre documentary’, with much of the material generated from a Lottery-funded project to catalogue PDC’s archives and run a parallel oral history program. Many of the key players in City’s expansion, as well as ordinary Peterborians are among those who have provided interviews, and it is their words that have been woven into the script. The resulting authenticity is at the heart of the piece’s quality – from the divided identity of a boy whose family leave London while he is at primary school, to the nicknames used by PDC employees for prominent civil servants.

By the time that the Tory’s knifed the new towns in the late 1980s, Ebenezer Howard’s idealism had been tarnished by the realities of swiftly erected settlements and their transplanted populations. Harlow punk band the Newtown Neurotics’ Steve Drewett told the NME that new towns were ‘culturally bankrupt’ and ‘swamped their population’, while Bill Forsyth’s 1981 film Gregory’s Girl took Cumbernauld as an unrelentingly harsh backdrop for his teenage romance. And yet, as Parkway Dreams makes clear, these uniquely ambitious attempts at social engineering and rational planning, if considered today, have generally created stable, successful and predominantly happy communities.

The six-strong cast swop characters and narrative threads with aplomb, while the music, dancing and game-show interludes, provide enjoyable light relief in what might be a rather dry tale. As a piece of theatre, it is not without its own shortcomings. For anyone without prior knowledge of the politics and personalities of local government in the 60s and 70s, the sheer number of characters is bewildering, order ativan no prescription, and the overlong second half’s gallop up to the present day is needlessly melodramatic. Nevertheless, as a recent, if largely forgotten, contemporary history, it is a joyous romp, and deserves a much wider audience, if only as a reminder of what a genuinely ambitious political program can achieve.

Parkway Dreams will be performed at Ipswich’s Sir John Mills Theater from 15 – 18 May 2013

Culture Declutter chronicles

A blast from the past: the action game that fell short of its target

‘Impact’ promised that it was the ‘action battle game with real fire power’.  In 2005 it was the most heavily tv advertised game aimed at small boys.  My son James, then six, and in his second year at school must have watched the advertisement thousands of times on CITV and Disney’s woeful Jetix channel.

The advertisements showed the board game’s characters in animated fight sequences, blasting each other with fearsome bazookas.  Missiles whizzed through the air and cartoon versions of the plastic men who populated the game were thrust in the air amidst quaking scenery.

Inevitably, the game topped James’ Christmas wish list.  His uncle Tom provided the actual gift, at a cost of at least £30.  It made him that season’s favoured family member.

A substantial portion of the cost of purchase must have financed the blanket advertising that supported the product.  Perhaps that makes mugs of the punters.  But were it not for the frenzied tv build-up, the present would not have seemed nearly so magical when it arrived.

Once unwrapped, however, Impact didn’t really work.  The board folded out to provide a ‘battle field’ approximately 90cm by 60cm.  On this players arranged plastic blocks representing sand dunes, and on these were arranged the armies of ‘Raptor Scouts’ on one side and ‘Corezec Drill Rig Squad’ on the other.  Some aspect of play required you to move your characters around the board, but the main point of the game was for the little plastic models to exchange fire.  Each character was fitted with a spring-loaded ejector that, at the flick of a switch, shot a plastic projectile in the direction of one of your opponent’s models.

While there was some pleasure in setting the game up, play itself was dismal – at least for those adults who were persuaded to indulge their children.  Aiming was hard, the fiddly plastic shapes discharged accidentally before you were ready and the projectiles generally overshot the board and became immediately lost (to their credit, manufacturers Drummond Park of West Lothian did reply to a plaintive appeal for fresh ordnance with a bag of replacement bullets).  But more than anything else, it was very hard to get remotely interested in plastic toys firing bullets at each other that actually order zolpidem online left their targets entirely unscathed.  It was a game that married the most profound shortcomings of Subbuteo with those of Action Man.

James and his then best friend Edyn did set the game up quite a few times, but its completeness and good condition today, eight years later, would appear to confirm my assessment.  And today James consented to the game being dispatched to ‘charity’.

I can’t help but feel rather sad.

It represents one of those endless milestones that mark the end of something.  It brings to a close the period when my universe was crammed with cretinous children’s television programs and the ads that funded them.  It is evidence that my 13-year-old son is speeding towards adulthood.

It also represents broader changes.  Board games are, I very much hope, not dead.  But will one ever again promise to serve up ‘action’, while screen-based distractions are so much more visceral?  My daughter, five years younger has certainly never hankered for a board game.

Like so much modern culture, Impact’s moment was fleeting indeed.  Its box did promise an ‘Episode 2’, but, to my knowledge it never materialised.  I played Monopoly with my parents, as they has with their parents in the 1940s.  To this day, I play Monopoly with my own children.  By comparison, I would be surprised if James, when he is old enough to consider having children, will remember Impact – much less want to seek out the box to share its delights.  Even my paternal reminiscences will resonate only with those whose sons were born around 1999, I suspect.

There is something poignant about such a lavish flash-in-the-pan, as there is with all old, but unplayed toys.  It is the same quality that Stinky Pete embodies in Pixar’s Toy Story 2.  Of little interest to the children who wanted ‘Woody’ dolls, production of ‘Petes’ was limited, thereby making them collectors’ gold dust.

If I am honest, the game for which my son successfully campaigned was an elaborately packaged false promise.  Maybe it provided him with a useful lesson in the need for scepticism?  But even if Impact was lost on everyone else, it resonates with me yet, but it was the advertising campaign, rather than the game that had the real fire power.

Culture Uncategorized

Rayns’ end: a long career that preserved the best of live music

If a university education has any point, it is surely this. By exposing those seeking to learn to exceptional individuals, students may well pick up something of their knowledge and the craft of its creation. More important than facts, or intellectual techniques, however, is that aspirant scholars be inspired to go and strive for greatness themselves.

I reflect on this now by way of a guilty admission. Only in his death do I realise that I was fortunate to learn at least a little from just such an individual during my own time as an undergraduate.

Nick Rayns, who died earlier this month, was the entertainments office at the University of East Anglia’s students’ union. By the time I arrived in the mid-1980s, he had been in this modestly-salaried position for five years and was promoting a big-name act nearly every week. Looking back on the list of gigs that he arranged, it is hard to believe that he brought such talent to the campus – not least as, to a casual onlooker, Norwich appears to be rather off the beaten track.

In the year I arrived, The Smiths, Billy Bragg, Aswad, Everything But The Girl, Elvis Costello, Orange Juice, Marc Almond, Richard Thomson, Roger McGough, The Pogues (twice), Madness and Siouxie and the Banshees were among the dozens of acts who played (there is a full listing here). Rayns also booked U2’s first gig in the UK, Robbie Williams’ first solo gig and more than 30 appearances by Jools Holland.

My dealings with him were not profound. For a while we had adjacent offices. From mine, I edited the student newspaper, next door, he and his band of hangers on ran a rock-and-roll empire. It always sounded like they had more fun that we did, and the fug in that office was of a rather more exotic variety than the cow-gum cloud that hung over ours.

He was a colossus of a man – thickly bearded and fat as a barrel. If Giant Haystacks bore Rasputin a love-child, he might have looked something like Rayns. His dealings with me were somewhere between business-like and brusque.

It did not occur to me that he might have been unusual until I left Norwich.

My first job as a journalist was to set up and edit a magazine intended for the employees of students’ unions. Its initial print run was in three figures – but only just. The magazine’s stock-in-trade was articles by union managers explaining how they had invested lavish funds student drinking facilities – inevitably hitherto known as The Mandela Bar. Now tricked out in the style of a commercial night club, and rechristened ‘Oil Can Harry’s’, or similar, the rejuvenated facilities were enabling twice the previous number of teenagers to squander their grants on inexpensive beer.

To leaven this mix, I suggested profiling the generally colourful individuals who ran students’ union entertainments. With a neophyte’s naive enthusiasm, my first subject was Nick Rayns. His story was not atypical. He had arrived at UEA as a student in 1973 with dreams of becoming a rock star. The union gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in music, albeit in an off-stage role. Thereafter, at least in outward expression, his interest seemed to be for the business of music, rather than the music itself.

I gushed about his strike rate with big name acts, and he shrugged his shoulders and said that his only secrets were common sense and good organisation.

To my surprise, my launch edition had scarcely left the printers, when angry missives began to arrive. They came from Rayns’ counterparts in much, much bigger students unions who clearly hated him, and were furious that I had given him a platform.

The case against him went like this. Rayns, in Norwich, had no real competition as a promoter, unlike those in Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham. Not only that, but acts liked being able to fine-tune their sets – within a couple of hours of London, but beyond critical attention. Elvis Costello’s frequent appearances were, apparently, because he would always do a UEA gig to hone his performance before a foreign tour.

The charge sheet went on – Rayns was lucky with his facilities and had patently failed to understand that the college gig circuit was dying on its feet. They also hinted at a view that was widely-held belief at UEA itself, that Rayns’ business practices were not entirely above board. He certainly operated in a less strictured environment than many of them, owning much of the stage equipment himself, and leasing these to his employer, thereby, it was assumed, substantially supplementing his income.

But the simple truth was that his Redbrick counterparts did not like him. He disdained their cosy club, had a track record at which they could only marvel and was perfectly happy flaunt his success.

I was embarrassed to have to publish some of this correspondence – but there was a point on which they were right.

Profound changes were unsettling the way in which music was performed and consumed. Throughout the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, bands – generally four or five men with guitars – regularly went on tour. They would do this once or twice a year, generally after releasing an album. Fifteen or twenty dates on a tour were typical, forty-date cirumavigations of the land were rare, but earned a band extra credit with their fans.

Students unions provided the venues for a great many of these performances. At least some young people chose their place of study because of its reputation for live music. Famously, the DJ Andy Kershaw went to Leeds university because The Who’s legendary live album was recorded at its students union.

Dance music, rave culture and the spiralling cost of carting musicians and their amplification around the country eroded the scene little by little. Not until the noughties and the rise of music festivals were the joys of live performance rediscovered.

Having earned my first professional stripes, I moved on and gave students’ unions little further thought. Nick Rayns troubled my mind not once, until six weeks ago.

I noticed that the Eels were playing UEA. Close to the 30th anniversary of my ‘going up’, it seemed an auspicious moment for a trip down memory lane.

Out of curiosity I looked up the students’ unions staff list, and to my amazement found that Rayns was still there. I sent him an email, but was not surprised when a reply was not forthcoming.

The band, however, did not disappoint. The venue, known then and now as the LCR (Large Common Room – initials and acronyms are in UEA’s DNA) has a standing capacity of 1,500, the perfect size for this kind of gig. The audience space is slightly stepped, which gives the auditorium the effect of an amphitheatre and the light and sound are a perfect marriage of clarity and understatement.

The band were blistering, delivering a driving set which included pulsating, full-on rock, affecting introspection and occasional moments of comedy. For the hour and a half, I was mesmerised. My friend, who accompanied me, declared it the best gig that he had ever been to.

The experience certainly reminded me of the dramatic power of live music. As well the devotional aspect of travelling to a venue and waiting for the musicians to take to the stage, the assault on your senses in a confined space is hair-raising. It was evidence of just how short rock music is sold by open-air festivals. The range of bands you might see over a weekend is fantastic, but the experience is weak beer compared to the high-octane magic achievable in an intimate space.

I glanced over UEA’s list of coming attractions and now, as 30 years ago, it is possible to see sometimes two top quality acts a week. For a city of scarcely 100,000 residents, it is a staggering resource, and might go some way to explaining why its university currently tops national ‘student experience’ ratings. How much of this is down to the ents package, I can only guess. The audience at the Eels was, at most, only half made up of students – which is much how I remember the crowds of the 1980s.

Perhaps such a program is an anachronism. But whereas Shakespeare’s Globe is a recreation of the way that the Bard’s drama was experienced by his contemporaries, Rayns has been packing the same hall since the heyday of the college gig. His is an unbroken tradition and should be revered as such.

Whether it will survive his demise, I don’t know. Many of his acolytes from the 1980s are still involved in the organisation he built. Having served an apprenticeship of three decades, surely they should be able to pick up the reigns? Whether they will have the force of personality to maintain such singularity of purpose amid the fast-churn vagaries of a students’ union remains to be seen, however. As a vital piece of living heritage, I certain hope they do.

In the meantime, I simply offer thanks to have had the chance to observe such a phenomenon at close quarters. Perhaps if I had paid £9,000 a year for my education, I would feel differently, but at this distance, exposure to such a singular talent was a rare privilege.


For the record – does HMV’s demise matter?

The last time that I bought anything at HMV I came away with a box set of Sir Edward Elgar’s orchestral works and a book celebrating The Clash.  “That’s an unusual combination”, said the shop assistant, as he took my debit card.  “It’s all nostalgia”, I replied, absent-mindedly.

Walking away from the shop, however, I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness.  There was a time in my life when employees in record shops were the epitome of cool.  Lowly paid, shop-working Saturday-staff, they might be, but with their sculptural hair cuts, improbable piercings and knowing air of detachment, they were as hip as you could find – at least among the retail units on the average high street.

The significance of my purchases was entirely unwitting.  The Elgar was a gift for my father.  But by some fluke, the grandly moustachioed Edwardian composer was the one who cut the ribbon at the opening of the very first His Master’s Voice music shop – back in 1921 in Oxford.

The Clash book – a sort of photo-montage of the band’s glory years – was an impulse purchase which tempted me with a remainder-shop price.  My favourite band, its true, but so pathetic is it for middle-aged men to wallow in manufactured memorabilia that I resisted, at least until the price drop.   For all their punk fury, however, The Clash are emblematic of an age when signing to a label and selling lots of records was the only route to mainstream success – even though their songs complained about those who ‘turned rebellion into money’.

Replaying my conversation, it struck me that record-shop employees were surely going the way of the coal miners, printers and ship builders alongside whom I had once, long ago, stood shoulder-to-shoulder on picket lines.  There was a difference, however.  By the time I was demonstrating in support of workers in our iconic heavy industries, those sectors were already long past their peaks of production and employment.  With hindsight, the bitterness of the industrial struggles of the 1980s look more like cadeveric spasms than sustainable threats to the social order.

By contrast, my record-buying life coincides with the high-water mark of mechanically reproduced analogue culture.  Top Of The Pops attracted 15 million viewers a week during the 1970s, the music press revealed a secret and magical world in even the most hum drum valium online with no prescription provincial outposts, and a quick inspection of a person’s record collection, related all that you needed to know about their taste and cultural bearings (or lack of them).

The HMV ‘in town’ was for years my first stopping off point on a Saturday.  Oftentimes, with no money in my pocket, soaking up the atmosphere, hearing the new sounds and leafing through the racks of albums was enough to justify my bus fare.

But, wistfulness aside, is the demise of nipper and his trumpet a real cause for sadness?  On balance, I think not.

I am fairly certain that I have bought my last CD.  Apart from charity-shop finds, I am never going to buy another album.  Despite that, I listen to more new music now, than at any other time in my life – even the headlong rush of teenage enthusiasm that wove songs and their singers into the very tapestry of my being.

The reason for this is simple – for a monthly subscription I have an extraordinary galaxy of music available to me streamed into my computer or iPhone.   If I am minded to buy music to download, there is the Apple store.  To hear more esoteric material I turn to YouTube and Myspace.

Nor does listening to new music necessarily mean surrendering to big business.  Because of the internet, artists such as Joe Pernice have been able to carve our reasonable livings from recording and playing exquisite, occasionally hilarious, music without recourse to big studios, big labels or, big record stores.

I feel nothing but pity for those who have lost their jobs, and I worry about the sustainability of high-street shopping as a dizzying succession of anchor-retailers pull down their shutters for good.  But technological advance has been doing this to music for decades.  Records and their shops did for the big bandsmen of the 30s and 40s, just as surely as pipe organs and pianos narrowed musicians’ employment opportunities by allowing one person to emulate an orchestra.

When it comes to real nostalgia, then, I will devote myself to the artistry of the music itself, rather than mourning the changing arrangements for its distribution.  Where my children will find to hang out on Saturday afternoons remains to be seen.  I suspect that it would not have been HMV, though, even if the administrators had not been summoned.