Armchair Theatre is the latest volume of my autobiographical newspaper and magazine columns. It features a selection from 2011 – 2018 and is available on amazon worldwide as a paperback and a kindle.
LP Hartley said, “the past is another country: they do things differently there.”For me the past is a newspaper column I can’t remember writing, about stuff I can’t remember doing.Since the late 1980’s I’ve written about my family life and times in humorous columns for various newspapers and magazines. Since 1994 I’ve written a weekly column for the grand old Scottish morning newspaper, The Press & Journal, the circulation area of which is larger than Belgium. Obviously there are a lot less sheep in Belgium.
To my amazement the columns proved quite popular and they were first published in book form in 2009 under the title, ‘The Familiar’ by the Edinburgh publisher Black & White.Like all the best career moves the idea of writing a ‘living autobiography’ happened by accident. The first column was written to fill an unexpected hole in a newspaper. The deadline was tight so I used what was to hand, namely my family’s recent move to the country, an event we are still recovering from. Before I knew it one column had turned into a thousand.
Most writers would have something better to do, but the truth is, when you get paid to hang your dirty linen out to dry, it becomes addictive. The selection in this volume dates from 2011 to 2018 and marks my family’s move from rural Scotland to the sunny south east coast of England.Happily I’ve never stopped doing stupid things so I’ve always had plenty of material to work with. No barrel was ever scraped during the writing of these columns.
Here’s a sample column from Armchair Theatre…
I was expecting to see Chris behind the counter of his record shop Vinyl Frontier, instead there was a punky young girl. Punky probably isn’t the right adjective but my youth culture lexicon is forty years out of date.
“I see the tablets are working Chris,” I said.
My wife rolled her eyes but the girl just gazed at me with a Poker face.
“Chris is normally a bloke,” I explained to my wife.
“Well he’s not today,” she muttered and went off to seek solace with Joan Baez.
I think I said punky, more because of the girl’s attitude as opposed to her vivid blue mohican, heavy black eye-liner and multiple piercings. She didn’t look as if she suffered vinyl fools lightly. Apparently Chris was out to lunch and had left Miss Congeniality manning the decks. There was a sulky Leonard Cohen song groaning in the background that matched her face.
“I’ve got this album,” I said to punky girl, “music to slit your wrists by, isn’t it?”
The girl may have shrugged it was hard to tell.
Undettered by her charm offensive I explained how I was on a marketing drive for my writers’ workshop and asked if I could replace the poster in the window with a new one. The current one looked like it had jaundice. But the girl didn’t have the authority to approve poster replacement.
“I can sell records,” she said very slowly, “and…um…yeah, that’s it really.”
So far our campaign wasn’t going well. Earlier in a nearby newsagent the grumpy elderly owner had refused a poster on the grounds that he hated books.
“And writers!” he added before plunging into a phlegm-splattering coughing fit.
I put the poster on the counter and assured punky girl there wouldn’t be a problem, but her attention had wondered back to her computer screen.
“Do you have any ukelele records?” asked my wife from the depths of the heavy metal section.
The girl was about to reply, probably to say something like ‘just what’s there’ which is the stock answer to most questions asked in a record shop, when a woman bustled in with her young son. She seemed quite excited and was obviously on a mission.
“I really can’t believe it,” she began breathlessly, “this must be fate.”
Punky girl and I looked at her with casual indifference.
“I wonder if you can help. My son wants to cover his bedroom walls with record covers and we were just discussing it when we suddenly found ourselves outside your record shop, it is a record shop isn’t it? Anyway Toby’s got this vision, haven’t you Tobes?”
Sensing impending embarrassment Tobes had already dislocated himself from his mother and was trying to blend into the Jazz-Rock section.
“He wants a different decade on each wall,” continued the woman, “I think it’s going to be fantastic, we need, I reckon around 200 covers. Depends if we do the window wall. What do you think Tobes maybe we should leave that one? Anyway we’d like to buy some record covers please and lots of them.”
Chris once told me that a bloke came into his shop with a machete and asked if he could sharpen it for him. It’s this kind of thing that has always put me off working in collectable retail.
The punky girl said nothing for a moment. My wife and I meanwhile pretended to rifle enthusiastically through the 70’s Prog Rock section.
Glancing at the girl I could see she was still sizing the woman up. Tobes had now thrown his lot in with us and was up to his nose in Tubular Bells. He looked about 10 or 11 years old when he came in, quite young to start a record cover wall. But on closer inspection I think he was about 13.
“The thing is,” began the girl languidly, “this is a record shop and I’m only authorised to sell,” she paused for a moment, “records.”
“No problem then, because we don’t want the records, just the covers, don’t you keep a supply of spare covers?” replied the woman.
“The weird thing is right, for some reason people who buy records also want the covers,” said the girl very slowly as if she were explaining some complex abstract maths problem.
The woman looked genuinely surprised.
“Really, don’t most people just leave their records lying around on the floor and forget about the covers?” she said, laughing to herself as if she was overstating the obvious, “you know, like you do with hardback books. I always lose the dust jacket, it’s so unnecessary anyway don’t you think?”
Again the girl sucked all this in and chewed on it. It was at this point that I began to appreciate how cool she was and not in an unflustered sense.
“There are boxes of cheap records underneath the racks,” she said, pointing at one box in particular.
The woman lit up and started rummaging in the box, but the first record she pulled out was a Gary Glitter album entitled ‘Touch Me’. Wincing, she turned sharply away from it as if it was painful to look at, then holding it at arm’s length she pushed it quickly back into the box.
“Come on Tobes,” she muttered, “we have to go.”
Punky girl was smiling to herself as they left, but I wasn’t. Outside I could see the woman peering at my faded poster and typing my number into her mobile. Time to take cover.