Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Egg (short story)

At 8:17 am on the twenty-third of July 2010, Marcus McGinn was sitting on a southbound Bakerloo line train that had just stopped at Embankment station. He was on his usual morning journey to Tranquil Mind Insurance, based in Elephant and Castle, where he worked as a junior broker. The train was crowded, as it always was at this time of the morning, but a number of people disembarked at Embankment and the seat to the right of McGinn became vacant. Some more people boarded the carriage, including a man of indeterminate age with matted hair and straggly beard who was dressed in filthy rags. This man took the seat to the right of McGinn. A number of passengers glanced at the man with obvious distaste and quickly looked away again. The door closed and the train pulled out of the station. At this moment, the man shifted in his seat and McGinn caught a whiff of an unspeakable odour emanating from this unsavoury man. McGinn hastily pulled his handkerchief from his breast pocket and, unable to control himself, retched into the little monogrammed square of pale blue cotton. As he did so, the fried egg he had consumed that morning for breakfast landed in the handkerchief. Although it was true that he had got up a little later that morning than usual and, being in a hurry, had quickly wolfed down his breakfast with little ceremony, he certainly did not think that he had swallowed his egg whole without cutting or even chewing it – but there it was, nestling in his handkerchief, looking just as if it had come fresh from the frying pan! Horrified, McGinn hastily attempted to conceal the egg, wrapping it in the kerchief, which he now clutched gently in his left hand. He wondered if anyone else had noticed it; he felt sure that some of them must have done, but did not dare to make eye contact with any of the other passengers in order to find out. He knew that his face had turned crimson to the very tips of his ears. He suddenly became aware of how hot it was on the carriage and felt a drop of sweat trickle down his right armpit. McGinn continued to avoid any eye contact and attempted to look as nonchalant as possible, but he was convinced that everyone in the carriage – even the man who had caused him to retch in the first place – were now staring at him with a mixture of disgust and contempt.
     After what seemed like an eternity, the train finally pulled into Waterloo. McGinn normally would have travelled on to Elephant and Castle but, unable to bear the idea of remaining on the carriage under such circumstances for a second longer than necessary, he quickly bolted out of the door. Still clutching the egg, McGinn decided to head for the exit and find somewhere to dispose of it as quickly as possible. He would be a little late for work, of course, but his timekeeping was normally good enough that he felt he would be easily forgiven.
     McGinn turned a corner, nearly colliding with a young woman in a suit, and walked up the escalator quickly. There were people everywhere and McGinn wondered how he would be able to get rid of the egg unobserved. Reaching ground level, he remembered that, as a precaution against the planting of bombs, there were no bins inside Waterloo station. He looked around for inspiration but he could not shake the feeling that people were looking at him strangely; certainly, he was looking anxious and sweating more than was normal, even for rush hour during this time of year. And he was terrified that someone might see him furtively discarding the fried egg he carried in his handkerchief – how could anyone possibly explain such a thing? McGinn decided that his best option would be to walk to work from Waterloo; he was sure he would find a bin on the way in which he could casually ditch the egg and be free to carry on about his business as if nothing had happened.
     Exiting the station, he stepped out into a beautiful sunny morning where men and women hurried to and fro on their way to work, many of them clutching their morning coffee or yakking away down mobile phones. Everyone got in everyone else's way as they plunged along the pavement towards each other as if going into battle. The first bin that McGinn came across was situated at a bus top. A number of people stood there looking as if they had very little hope that a bus would ever turn up. Worried that one or more of these people would see what he was up to, McGinn decided to keep searching. Grease from the egg had by now well and truly soaked into the handkerchief and was making a runny mess of McGinn’s left hand. He could not let this go on much longer.
     At last, he saw another bin standing on a corner on the other side of the road. Dodging the traffic, he ran across and was nearly there when a garbage disposal man in a high-visibility vest appeared as if from nowhere, lifted the bin from its base with well-practised ease and began walking with it to the dustcart that was now making its way slowly towards him. Thwarted once more, McGinn continued on his way. As he walked quickly on, he heard a voice call his name from behind. Startled, he looked back to see a woman smiling and running to catch up with him. It was Cynthia from the office! McGinn liked Cynthia and had been considering asking her out. If she caught him with the egg, not only would that option be out of the window, but he would surely become a laughing stock at the office! McGinn had to think fast. He could hardly run away from Cynthia now that she knew he had seen her, so he stopped to let her catch up and then asked her for the time. She replied that it was 8:46. McGinn, feigning surprise, said that he had an urgent call to make before going to work and asked if she would be kind enough to let them know at the office that he would be a few minutes late. He then walked quickly off up the nearest side street with no purpose other than to get away from Cynthia in order to dispose of his egg in peace.
     Every time McGinn was about to ditch the egg he would notice someone nearby and have to give it up. He hated London. It was almost impossible to be alone here for a second. He was just reaching a peak of self-pitying frustration when he spied a little alleyway which he felt sure would be deserted; with renewed optimism and a sudden surge of relief, he strode towards the alley and entered. He had hardly gone two paces when a large, powerfully built man with a shaven head and heavily tattooed arms appeared from behind an empty oil drum and stepped out in front of McGinn. He smiled at McGinn as if sorry to inconvenience him and said softly, “Where do you think you’re going?” McGinn made no reply. The man then said, “Your wallet.” At this point, something strange happened. McGinn, without deciding that he was going to do such a thing, found himself with his right hand around the man’s throat and his left hand pushing the fried egg into the man’s face. Taken by surprise, the large man let out a cry of disgust and fell back. McGinn let go and watched the man trying to wipe the egg from his eyes. McGinn felt strangely detached from the scene before him but, after a couple of seconds, he came to his senses, turned around and made a run for it. He was not pursued.
     On his way to the office, McGinn dropped into a coffee shop that he often went to and used the gents. He scrubbed his hands as thoroughly as possible, trying to remove all trace of the egg. When he arrived at the office, he was twenty minutes late. He washed his hands again, but was unable to rid himself of the smell of fried egg for the rest of the day.

© 2011 Martin Dowsing. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

My Week In Music

I go to a lot of gigs, but even I rarely go to five gigs in five days as I have over the last week… It began on Wednesday with Nick Lowe at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve been a fan of Mr Lowe’s since I was small and, as his appearances seem to be quite infrequent nowadays, I thought I would make the effort for this one. I suspect that this infrequency probably began shortly after the time that Curtis Stigers covered one of his songs on The Bodyguard soundtrack album, which sold something like 15 million copies (almost entirely due to the fact that it also contained Whitney Houston’s lip-wobbling performance of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, a ballad nauseating enough to make a rat vomit. The path to wealth is clearly not always an obvious one!). For some reason, I had been under the misapprehension that Mr Lowe had been living in L.A. for the last few years. I can’t remember where I picked up this piece of misinformation and I always thought that it seemed rather out of character, so I was pleased to learn that he does still live in Brentford after all. Anyway, a friend of mine called me up the day before the gig to ask if I was going, because he had just been offered a free ticket by a friend of his who was Nick Lowe’s tour manager. This was surprising because I thought this friend of mine knew no-one in the world of music apart from me – and I’m not so much in the world of music as clinging on to the edge with breaking fingernails… But let me get back to the point (if there ever was one). Unlike many rock artists, Mr Lowe has chosen to grow old gracefully it seems and, if his performance lacked a little of the excitement of his late 70s peak, he now has a sort of mature, dignified gravitas which suits him very well. After the concert, thanks to my friend, I managed to worm my way into the after-show, which was in a small room surrounded deceptively by mirrors so that it looked like a big room. It was crammed full of sweaty people and I think I accidentally jostled Mr Lowe at one point in my rush to get at the free beer which is, of course, the only real reason for going to such things – well, that and the opportunity to impress your mates by casually telling them you were there and trying to make it sound more exciting than it ever actually is.
     The following evening I was back at the Festival Hall, this time for Ron Sexsmith and Anna Calvi. I know some people who would probably sneer at Mr Sexsmith for being MOR or something but, personally, I love his wonderfully warm voice – and some of the songs are simply superb. There was also a nice surprise duet with Meltdown curator Ray Davies on a Kinks song I was unfamiliar with and it all ended well when the night finished with Lebanon, Tennesee, my favourite Ron Sexsmith song.
     Earlier in the evening there was a set from Anna Calvi, an artist I had not previously heard, although I was aware that she was one of those currently being hyped as the “next big thing”. For once, the hype seemed deserved – Ms Calvi has an exciting and individual electric guitar sound, a soaring voice, a very cool stage presence and at least a couple of great songs. I came away a fan.
     The following night I popped into the 12 Bar Club to see Ed Tudorpole (pic 1). I was a member of the Tenpole Tudor fan club when I was about ten years old – and I still have the badges to prove it. A lot of Mr Tudorpole’s songs are a bit throwaway and are mostly in a humorous rock ‘n’ roll vein, but the man is such an engaging character it would be almost impossible not to be entertained. Unlike Nick Lowe, he seems to be much more of the determined-to-grow-old-disgracefully school, playing a seriously battered acoustic guitar with his chest bared and swearing quite a lot. There was something heartening about this though, and he went down well with a punk-friendly crowd, most of whom were considerably younger.
     I was all set to have a quiet night in on Saturday when a friend called me up at about 4pm offering me a free ticket to see The Sonics (pic 2) and Wire that very night – so it was back to the Royal Festival Hall for the third time in four days. On my arrival, I was introduced to Viv Albertine from The Slits, who seemed very nice and still looks fantastic. Anyway, for reasons too tedious to explain, I missed the first half of Wire’s set. After seeing the second half I was quite glad about this. They were not terrible, but it simply did not do much for me. The Sonics, however, were far better than I had dared to hope they would be. I understand they’re all around 70 years old now, but my god they rocked! When they did Strychnine the place exploded and the RFH’s “no dancing” policy went out the window as the middle-aged audience abandoned their seats and swarmed down to the front of the stage to jump around like much younger people.
     On Sunday, it was up to Leigh-On-Sea for their free folk festival. I missed my train by about ten seconds so I had to wait on the platform for another half an hour for the next one; entirely my fault, of course, but annoying enough to make me curse God for letting it happen anyway. I always find things a little strange when I venture outside of London. The people look different – they seem to be an odd mixture of those who clearly do not care how they look and those who have tried very hard to look a certain way and failed spectacularly. And they don’t walk along quickly, barging you out of the way with a contemptuous / murderous expression. Strange. Anyway, I stayed by the stage outside a pub called The Ship where my friend Simon Onions (pic 3) was playing. Simon is a highly skilled guitarist who plays psych folk and blues on a 12 string. It sounds amazing in a place with good acoustics but was a little dissipated in the breezy back yard of The Ship. I also saw Deferred Sucess (pic 4), who deliberately spell their name wrong which is a little annoying as I feel I have to point it out rather than be taken for a halfwit. They had previously played at one of my Dogfishtrombone nights and are a sort of anarchic skiffle punk band with a lot of energy and enthusiasm which totally won the crowd over. Later on, I saw The Lucky Strikes (pic 5), an excellent five-piece rock band with folk and Americana influences who play a wide variety of instruments – definitely a band I want to see again.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Will Scott (record review)

Will Scott
Keystone Crossing
Weather-Tone Records
Will Scott is a Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter and guitarist who combines elements of gospel, blues, soul and country to create his own unique take on Americana. His previous album, Gnawbone, was an astonishingly assured debut produced and co-written by alt-blues wizard Preacher Boy, who also played on most of the tracks. This time out, Preacher Boy is absent apart from one co-write, and has been replaced by a gentleman by the name of Scrote. The mysterious Mr Scrote is apparently based in Los Angeles and has previously worked with Daniel Johnston and a number of artists better known in the States. He certainly turns out to be a fine substitute for Preacher Boy and has given these recordings an agreeably uncluttered production which makes every note count and leaves the songs with plenty of room to breathe.
     The album opens with White River Rising, a song about a community which has lost everything in a flood. As the record continues, we hear about other tragedies, large and small. It’s not easy to pick highlights from such a strong collection, but the most haunting track here is certainly Broken Arrow, the lament of a man whose dreams went down the drain a long time ago. Although the record rarely gets very cheerful, it’s to Mr Scott’s great credit that he writes songs of real substance and emotional depth. The other thing which really marks this artist stand out as someone special is that immense, rafter-shaking voice of his; he knows how to use it too, never sounding  for a second like he’s showing off, but always like he’s genuinely feeling it. That’s true soul for you.  ( )

            Martin Dowsing

A Curious Ghost (record review)

A Curious Ghost
Part 1
Denver, Colorado resident George Inai released a remarkable album a couple of years ago entitled This Foolish Music. At the time I described it as sounding like Chris Isaak running off to join the circus with Calexico. Now he’s back with an Oscar Wilde haircut and a new name - “A Curious Ghost”. The music has changed too.
    This 4-track EP opens with the appropriately haunting instrumental “False Memory”, a track which suggests that Mr Inai could have a promising future ahead of him as a film composer if he so chose. This is followed by “Piano Lesson”, a track which sounds, believe it or not, like a curious (and mischievous) ghost interrupting a piano lesson by blowing raspberries and then walking up some creaky stairs to play with a clockwork toy. It's mad but I love it. It seems a bold move that it is not until track three, “Serenade to a Satellite”, that we finally get to hear Mr Inai’s voice. Of all the tracks on the EP, this sounds closest to something off of This Foolish Music, but is none the worse for that. There's something a little bit English about the closer, “Things Fall From The Sky”. It sounds like a 78 from the 30s, and made me think of a brylcreemed crooner backed by a slightly mental hotel lounge band (a description the artist liked so much he is now using himself!).
    All in all, the work of A Curious Ghost seems a truly unique vision which deserves an audience – Tom Waits’ audience, perhaps. This reviewer, for one, has never heard anything else quite like it and can't wait to hear more... (  
Martin Dowsing