‘Now before I quit Calais,’ a travel writer would say, ‘it would not be amiss to give some account of it’. Now I think it very much amiss that a man cannot go quietly through a town and let it alone when it does not meddle with him, but that he must be turning about and drawing his pen at every kennel he crosses over.
‘Let’s get physical, physical’, suggests Olivia Newton John, piping through some small speakers at a tasteful volume while I stand at the urinal.
I can’t imagine how anyone thought it would enhance the experience of being in service station toilets.
We had stopped for the umpteenth time. Each one offers a posh supermarket outlet, a Smiths, a child-baiting fast food place and an uppity overpriced cafeteria designated something like FOOD or BITE in a shouty modern font.
When I was little I used to find these places terribly exciting, mainly because my parents often used to insist on ‘beating the traffic’ by covering ungodly distances at ungodly hours.
I especially liked those that had bridges from one side of the motorway to the other. You could be above the traffic and not in it for a while and, if they only had Burger King on the one side you could still get a Burger King.
They had arcade games with toy machine guns, and smelt of chip salt and soap rather than car upholstery and boiled sweets. There was one near Hungerford that had a mural of a battle from the English civil war painted on the ceiling. If we stopped in a mere lay-by with a burger van, or pulled over so that my sister could be sick, I always felt cheated. Nowadays I would prefer it.
‘Let me hear your body talk, body talk,’ Olivia cooed, while I tinkled gaily into the porcelain.
I appreciate that it wasn’t entirely her choice, and that I am often accused of having a problem with intimacy, but I still think it was all a little over familiar.
The van had a careworn, shabby retro charm and a laissez-faire approach to motion. Neil seemed very at home in it.
Looking through tinted glass is like turning the brightness down and the contrast up.
Once we got past Birmingham the light got a little kinder, and the view a little prettier. The afternoon sun played kindly on Neil and Jack, and on Nick and Rhiannon playing mum and dad in the front. I thought they all might pass for being in an aspirational cider advert where boho metropolitan types go smug in the country.
In Manchester we spent an interminable period circling the venue, like a really shit vulture. The van and the narrow streets took a severe toll on all the wrong turns we took. About 3 people simultaneously used GPS on their phones to determine that we were a bit lost.
I can’t stand conflict, even if it is only with an inadequate set of directions printed off from the internet, so went to Neil’s bottle of brandy for solace.
The promoter was smiley and nice despite the sparse attendance, and Manchester itself seemed remarkably quiet in any case. We played well I think, Jack especially, and sold a lot of CDs relative to the numbers attending.
The beer was more expensive than the Macbeth in Hoxton. We were billed as The Monroe Trigger.
Afterwards at the Travelodge I kept everyone amused with my ceaselessly diverting and varied Carlsberg and brandy-based repartee, before everyone retired to sleep lest I entertain them too much.
Neil and I decided it would be best to get a drink. We sat in the Travelodge bar while “Robert Webb’s Shit Bloopers” played on the tv.
We ordered the devil’s own pizza from a long-suffering night attendant, and it then took us 20 minutes to find our way back to the room. Jack was still awake, and we spent a while debating the merits of Neil burning the room down. The ‘nos’ to the left had it in the end, but it seemed to take an awfully long time to get there. I woke up on the sofa, modelling one of the more appealing confections in my underwear stable.
Things were promising when we arrived. It’s a nice little venue, and beside a couple of local philosophers nursing super strength lager there was an ultra friendly chap working as location manager for a BBC shoot taking place that evening. He sorted us out with somewhere to park. We gave him a CD. He thought it was a little slow, but still seemed pleased.
I had a very brief walk around before soundcheck. The pigeons had delivered a scatological critique on the legacy of Aneurin Bevan, although I thought that, for a socialist and founder of the NHS, having one’s statue plonked in such a crapulous vista of chainstores and happy hour bars might be more galling.
I think I was a little tired from the night before, as I developed a vague foreboding that some barrel-chested patriot might leap on me if I did anything too ostentatiously English or Londonish.
Things took a further spiral when the promoter arrived at Clwb Ifor Bach in a little collapsible car with square wheels.
We asked if we could play a little later than 7.15, seeing as the door time advertised on the poster was 7.30, and that our name was spelt wrong. Again. (“The Monroe Transfer Bill”)
‘I can’t believe I’ve booked four bands when there’s a curfew’ he reiterated over and over, shuffling from oversized shoe to oversized shoe, looking to the middle distance for consolation.
His demeanour implied that it would probably have been better if we hadn’t driven 200 miles in the heat and through shitloads of traffic to be there.
The soundman suggested we start at 8 and cut the support slots down to 20 minutes.
‘We’ll have to start at 8 and cut the support slots down to 20 minutes,’ the promoter concluded gravely, squirting water out of the plastic flower in his lapel.
That meant we had to squeeze in a 25 minute piece so, naturally, we played most of it slower than usual. I was feeling nauseous and shaky, and struggling with a coquettish little impulse to stop playing altogether and return to the al-fresco section of the Wetherspoons over the road. I think the brandy was playing its final hand upon my body.
I was feeling better by the time we got to the ending, which we seemed to use to vent our collective frustration. When I looked over great chunks of dust were streaming out of Nick’s bow and swirling around him in the spotlight. It was like he was playing in a high-res photograph.
Behind him, Neil and Nicole were pulling their impossible trick of playing with total commitment and too-cool-for-school detachment at the same time – a skill that I imagine must be the chief benefit of a classical training. We got a lovely hand.
HNIC were also bowel-compromisingly loud, to the bafflement on some early runners for the indie disco that followed.
Some of us stayed for this. Apparently I was one of them. No doubt I was tremendous company. I do remember getting stuck in the bathroom at the hotel, unable to either locate the light switch or the doorhandle.
I woke up beside a half drunk, half spilt bottle of coke, a chicken salad that I had sourced from a local vending machine and Neil. Luckily, I was still drunk so the headaches and self-loathing would have to wait for an hour or two.
In fact, after noting and sampling the affront to taste and decency that constituted many of my colleagues’ service station breakfasts, I felt that my salad and the decision-making skills that lay behind it had came out rather well.
Neil had acquired a glossy, almost pellucid slab of versatile looking matter that was doing a comic turn as a Cumberland sausage. It was somewhat without taste and completely without texture.
We got to Leicester early enough to have a look round. Neil bought a smashing shirt and Nicole and Rhiannon some lovely dresses. There was a pleasant quarter of independent shops. It included an enormous and rather old-fashioned party store that said it wouldn’t admit ‘people in hoods and groups’, so I couldn’t in all conscience go in.
There was also a market that sells actual produce rather than various specimens of overpriced artisan cutseyness.
The venue (Firebug) was great. They gave us food for free that wasn’t in any way pellucid.
Despite what seemed an underwhelming reaction when we finished, there was a flurry of sales and some very giddy compliments. There were even rumours of a woman crying, but in a good way. This is a sentence that I don’t get to use nearly enough.
We had to leave straightaway. I got home at 2.45am, covered in sweat and knackered from lugging my stuff up Telegraph Hill. My biorhythms felt thoroughly compromised, even a little violated.
This doesn’t count as “tour” I don’t think, as some of us came from work and, for my part, I spent the day tidying up my poor little flat and buying lots of healthy, non-vending machine sourced food. It was our own show, under the GFK banner, at the Luminaire, which is like lots of other places in London except infinitely better.
Nicolette Corcoran did some witty, elegant, clever things with loops and lullabies and Yeats that brightened me up no end. Amid a healthy turnout, there was a substantial gaggle of parents in tow. I think we played ok.
Towards the end, my mother gave me some green beans and tomatoes from the garden in a little bag.
This somewhat punctured the air of stubbly, bacchanalian recklessness that I had been cultivating for the past few days. But, really, it was ok. I had a bit of a sore throat and wanted to go home.