Gas Holder Four

Featured

We are on the edge, aren’t we? It’ll be gone soon. Slowly dismantled, one piece of Victorian iron and steel at a time. The peregrine falcons helped for a bit: as they nestled in for a while, it felt like they were silently protesting themselves. Those birds granted us one last summer.

Many won’t care, won’t mind. Some will think it an eyesore that’s ready to go. Some would say that progress is progress, that in a town like Reading we need housing and the only way to build is up. This might all be true, in its way, but I’ll miss the Victorian beacon of New Town.

In the summer I was out and about with my partner taking photographs. We ventured around the old cemetery at the junction and then down onto Cumberland Road, where the sun was beating down onto the street and the light was lovely. We both snapped pictures of the gas holder and one passing resident said “make the most of that, it’ll be gone soon.” Whether you like it or not, Reading’s last gas holder is a piece of history. A piece of New Town.

Gas holder four, as seen from New Town’s Cumberland Road, summer 2021.

I think nostalgia can be a lovely thing. It carries a silent currency, it makes us feel things. Never has that been more prevalent and powerful in society than it is right now. But nostalgia can also forever tether you to the past. It tethers you to a forgotten place that, in your minds eye, was better. But if you relived those days today, would you feel the same way?

What is it about looking back that makes us smile and makes us sad? Is it that we see our past selves as people with opportunities and pathways not yet closed off? That we look back and see friendships that thrived, not knowing that they would fall away? Or, at its most fragile, is it that we are reminded of the people we loved and who are no longer here, and that we miss them?

It’s powerful, nostalgia. It should come with a polite warning: be careful not to let this reminiscing   ruin your day, or how you feel about the present.

Gas holder four was the backdrop to many a summer bike ride with my dad and my sisters, bike rides that also gave my mum some well-earned peace and quiet. Sometimes my dad would do wheelies along the stretch of grass by Thames Valley Park. Sometimes my little sister would come flying off the back seat. And sometimes we’d ride with a boy called Darren whose garden backed onto ours, because he loved his bike and he didn’t have a dad.

We’d ride into Reading along the cycle path from Woodley, and to spot gas holder four was to know that we weren’t far from a pit stop at the Fisherman’s Cottage for a packet of Brannigan’s crisps and a bottle of Coke. Nostalgia, you see: it’s powerful stuff.

Reading had several gas holders, and gas holder four is the last one standing. It fuelled New Town, kept the lights on and the space alive. Gas holder four is our last remaining relic of that particular piece of Victoriana. I’ve posted many photos of it over the years on Instagram. A recent comment on one of them called it“Reading’s majestic crown”. I love that.

Christopher Costelloe, the director of the Victorian Society, is a leader in the campaign to preserve the gasometers. He said this, which I think sums it up wonderfully: “Gasometers, by their very size and structure, cannot help but become landmarks. [They] are singularly dramatic structures for all their emptiness.”

As I grew up, I zipped in and out of Woodley on the bus or by foot. I seldom used the canal as a walking route, until I got together with a boyfriend who happened to live on Coventry Road, in the heart of New Town. That was the summer of 2006, and I spent a lot of it in his company. I remember sleeping so well, after a year where I’d barely slept at all.

I’d hear the hum of the railway tracks and it never bothered me, just as I doubt it bothers anybody in New Town. I’d walk the canal into town and once again I’d see gas holder four as I slipped past New Town Primary School. I remember wondering why it didn’t move much anymore: I remembered its rusty hues as a child, but I hadn’t realised that it was decommissioned now.

Nostalgia has its limits. I’m definitely not here to say that things shouldn’t change and develop and move on: I understand that you can’t save everything. But wouldn’t it have been nice to have seen some vision, seen something that brings the past and the future together? Couldn’t we have tried harder: couldn’t a developer have made something brilliant out of it? Something that celebrated the now while holding on to our Victorian heritage: sustainable housing, for example, powered by green energy. The framework of the old holding up something made with the technology of the present. 

I imagine it would cost too much, and no developer in this country would want to do it. But wouldn’t that have been nice.

It was beautiful and sunny this afternoon. I’m all too aware that the evenings are drawing in quickly, that it’s a matter of weeks before those clocks go back. I felt a real need to rush home from work, drop my bag off and rush straight back out to do a loop of Palmer Park, to catch the remaining warmth of the sun. 

As I walked parallel to St Bartholomew’s Road I turned out of the park and decided that I’d take a route to the canal instead. I knew the time had come for gas holder four, and I half expected to see it missing a piece of its frame but to my surprise, it wasn’t. It was still intact, there for another sunset. I took one last photo.

Gas holder four, as seen from Kennet Side, October 2021.

It will be so strange to walk down Cumberland Road in the future and not have it there, staring back at me. I wonder if it will be like a phantom limb, that I’ll turn the corner of Cholmeley Road, down to the canal and still see it in my mind’s eye.

And I know what I’m like, and what I’ll do. I’ll tell others that it was there. I’ll walk with my niece one day in the heat of the summer sunshine and I’ll say “there used to be this massive gas holder over there, near where your mum used to live.” I’ll show her a picture, and she’ll probably ask me innocently what a gas holder is. And I’ll realise that I can’t even really explain that myself, not in any meaningful detail. But it won’t matter, because we’ll have nearly reached the Fisherman’s Cottage, where we’ll take a breather for a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke.

For the love of Mad Men

Featured

Last night was the end of an era: the end of the second time I watched Mad Men from start to finish. For the uninitiated, it’s an American TV drama, set throughout the 1960s, which follows the lives of people working for a New York advertising agency. Take it from me, it is brilliant television.

The first time I watched Mad Men, I watched it as it came out, one season and year at a time, and in honesty I think it is better watched in one go to fully appreciate its gradual shifts in tempo and temperament. The fashions and style tweak gradually, with central character Don Draper barely changing at all. He looks timeless in many ways, then oddly out of time, before being back in sync, but in a classic sense.

I persuaded my other half to give it another try because the first season, with its plodding pace and slow hum of a story arch, felt – for him – like he was walking backwards. I don’t think that interspersing season one with chop-chop, walk-and-talk West Wing had helped matters either. However, once that was put to bed, Mad Men took him on the same journey it took me on years ago.

I was working at HMV when the first season was released over here in 2009. I liked the artwork, and I liked what I read on the back of the box but it hadn’t sold particularly well and I packed the copies away and didn’t think about it again. But my ex-husband (back then my newly-engaged fiancé) was a massive TV enthusiast and always on the look out for something new and it took him no time to say “we should give this a go.” And so we did.

Watching it season by season, back then, took several years. It also followed the shifting shape of our own relationship: our moving in together; our contentment; our squabbles; our marriage; our failings. To watch it all again, in a very different place in my life, was still just as rich an experience.

I cannot overstate what a masterful piece of television it is – ninety-two episodes of rich, thought-provoking and revealing, almost filmic stuff. Mad Men is shot in a decade I never knew, but with the signs of the decades to come just around the corner.

Those that love it do so for many reasons. At its most simple, it is beautifully framed and the actors are perfectly cast. The first time around, I remember thinking that none of the characters were particularly likeable, and yet I still wanted to know more. I was intrigued and completely invested and I promise you, my opinion changed.

You want Don Draper to be a good man. You’re frustrated when he falls short time and again, but you forgive him because of his brilliance and because of what you learn about him. You forgive him, as it transpires he is living with multiple traumas and still learning himself, if not always from his mistakes.

You learn that Don never understands the youth culture of the 1960s – having never been allowed to be young himself – and there are points where he is a man out of time. He is renowned for selling an aspirational lifestyle (or purchasable elements of it) but almost overnight he no longer understands the lifestyle choices of others. His relationship with the character Megan acts as a youthful crutch but his dismissal of The Beatles’ Revolver signals that it’s just not for him. He knows he should be able to connect, but he simply can’t.

Mad Men finishes in late 1970, where you feel a glimpse of an accelerated information technology age ahead. As the viewer, you know the political, social and economic upturns and downturns to come. You watch Mad Men knowing that the people who will shape these years beyond the show, have already seen so much unprecedented change, mostly shaped by events and themes they had no control over.

This theme is namely war: it underpins the disposition and resilience, weaknesses and insecurities of almost every male character in the show, for better or for worse. You witness the pivot point and the movement from a country believing in its well-oiled American dream, to a cruel realisation that it is chained by the ankles to its own global choices and that any wrong move could be check-mate.

There are moments of anger and frustration too. The infuriating treatment of women living and working in this era (also impacted by the fallout of multiple wars) leaves the viewer exasperated but also realistic that there is still so much work to do.

There is the Civil Rights Movement: watching Mad Men for a second time, I felt genuine anxiety when I couldn’t remember whether Dawn, Don’s black secretary, gets sacked for something she never did, but expects to take the blame for.

The people behind Mad Men have managed to balance careful nuance on culturally significant events through, arguably, America’s most significant decade: one where it started to lose its way but couldn’t work out why.

As the viewer you are truly introduced to those dramatic twists and turns as if experiencing them in real-time (which is why I really like its overall slower pace): the death of Marilyn Monroe, of John F Kennedy, of Martin Luther King jr.

Then there is the arms race, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and the Moon landings. You watch a group of people who were raised in the aftermath of WW1 and the Great Depression, experience things that feel like magic in one sense, lunacy on the other and all in all as if they’re happening to somebody else. When Don takes his children to see where he grew up (in an impoverished former brothel), there is disbelief. Even Don’s face asks: how did things change so quickly?

Towards the end, there is a meeting set in a boardroom full of executives and creatives. There is a brilliant shot of all the ball-point pens and acetate-covered briefing papers on the table – all moving in sync, all turning pages in time, all representing the herd. Only Don doesn’t follow. He knows it suddenly all feels wrong. He feels uncomfortable, but he doesn’t know why. It’s more than suddenly being a small fish in a big pond, he is dry of inspiration and he knows that to meet his true potential he needs to find some – and quickly. And so he does what he always does: he chooses his own path.

Don may not understand youth but he understands nostalgia, and he now understands himself well enough to know that he isn’t alone in looking for enlightenment. He’s been looking for answers, holding down and holding back anger over the past – something he couldn’t control. And he’s tried ignoring it, tried pushing it down, tried drinking through it, but ultimately tried and failed. Only honesty can set him free.

Like many brilliant TV dramas, there are moments of sadness and tear-inducing poignance. The curve that a marriage breakdown takes, for example. Anger, sadness, jealousy and envy, littered with broken promises and ruined vows. And, particularly if you had kids and had to somehow make it work afterwards, finding a settled ground, accepting that you still made something wonderful, divorce in place or not.

There are the moments Don realises he is too late: falling back in love just in time for Betty to disconnect. There is a scene where they dance, Don’s eyes searching Betty’s face for a reciprocated love that he knows he neglected so badly and for so long. Betty’s mind now belongs elsewhere, leaving Don knowing he can’t do anything about it.

When I saw that scene for the first time, I thought of that wonderful line from Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind, where he sadly sings “I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.” Watching it for a second time, it came straight back to me again.

In the last season there is a scene in the kitchen between Don and Betty, where a simple display of affection signals a completion of a peace process that has taken seasons to work through. It feels at once both sweet and unfulfilled.

David Hockney said that when folk wax lyrical about his work, especially the ones he painted from a photograph, the observer gets to see more of that moment in which the photograph was taken, than he ever did in the second he shot it. We interpret things and reflect on them for a much greater time than the moment ever expected us to. With Mad Men, I feel a similar way.

It is often hindsight, reflection and interpretation that allow us to decide how significant a time in history is. With so much time elapsed between the 1960s and the present day, what Mad Men depicts so well is that there have always been fires, dramas, upset and turmoil. All of the events it spans were not only massive then, but the fallout went on to shape the years ahead, just like the wars of the early twentieth century shaped Mad Men’s characters leading the way into the 1960s.

I watched Mad Men this time through a very different lens. This time, I was aware that we have an innate need to find meaning in our lives: a belief that you can contribute something good and positive to somebody and be loved back in an honest way, and to make peace with yourself and your past. It was once again a significant watch for me.

This time around I was far less naive: not everybody’s marriage turns out how they think it will. Sometimes that’s for the best. I watched it knowing how easy it is to make mistakes and how small those indiscretions can be at the beginning. I also know how hard it is to take responsibility for them. I watched it again understanding that my second chance is very much alive and well, and flourishes because of the honesty I was too afraid to share the first time around.

Mad Men may twist and turn and take you on the rollercoaster that was the 1960s, but the relevance of its themes are felt in the present day. The parallel lines to these historical events are the relationships they impact along the way, and a realisation that you too, will have lived and breathed many of those emotions. It is a masterstroke of television, something to be watched and thought about more than once.

Featured

Tough love and tough luck: It’s time to get brave and speak up.

The murder of Sarah Everard strikes hard. We’ve all walked home from a friend’s house in the dark. All of us women will have made that journey and been consciously aware of what is happening around us, because that is what we do even though we shouldn’t have to. We know that murders like this are rare, but it doesn’t stop the fear. The outpouring of people at Sarah’s vigil, the volume of posts around this that I have seen online tell me that this has been the final straw for a lot of women.

Over the past week I have read of so many awful and difficult experiences at the hands of men. If you’re in the camp of “well, it’s not all men” – yeah, we get that. But hear me out.

Women know that not all men behave inappropriately but, just like 99.9% of white people have stood by and not called out a racial slur, joke, meme or micro-aggression, or haven’t been an ally to those marginalised in our society, the same apathy and lack of action goes for 99.9% of men when it comes to casual sexism, misogyny and all the other stuff. You’ll have watched your friend make the joke, or slap the arse of a women who never asked for it, while they were pissed up in the pub. We have all been there, and we have all been guilty of not speaking up when we should have. Perhaps we consider following up with our mate the next day, but the moment passes and it never feels right and we don’t. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future – and how we respond in future.

I am the eldest of three sisters. Weirdly, we’ve only ever scratched the surface of each other’s experiences at the hands of men. We’d brush those experiences off as in the past, choosing to push them to the back of our minds. In honesty, we’re too embarrassed to admit that it’s happened to us. That’s half the problem.

We’ve been raised to be “strong” women, all of us very independent, a bit gobby and all just shy of six feet tall. I’ve wondered whether that’s been a biological layer of protection that has helped us deal with some of society’s difficult men over the years? If so, it didn’t protect us entirely.

I was 16 years old in the year 2000, a millennial born right in the first portion of the Generation Y era. Sometimes to have been born then feels like a gift: I understand analogue and digital, Thatcher and Blair, the schools crumbling to dust and being rebuilt for the future, the advent of the internet. But I also remember the post-feminist rampant lad culture. I came of age as that era came alive with a ferocious pace. I worked in WH Smith as a student where I sold Nuts and Zoo and countless adult magazines – and whist the newspapers were no longer obsessed with Charlotte Church’s virginity, now they stalked her instead. The magazines we consumed like Heat and Closer did nothing for female body image. It wasn’t right – it still isn’t right – but so many of us were so passive to it. From now on, I’ll call it out for what it is.

At school I had a brilliant group of close girlfriends: we’re still close today. All of us experienced bad behaviour at the hands of boys. One boy bullied my friend and I endlessly after she rejected his advances, until I threw his Air Max trainers out of a classroom window and into the school pond. The teacher did nothing and said nothing: he had watched this build for months on end. The bully apologised on the last day of school, as if his appalling behaviour and disrespect for girls across five years of school could be erased in a moment. I was so angry I told him to do one. I still think of that experience as shaping my preference for wanting face to face confrontation, spoiling for a fight. I don’t like that streak in me, but it’s there.

In the same classroom another boy would drop his pencil underneath my desk and ask me to pick it up for him. As I went under to pick it up, he’d have his penis out. I mean, what thirteen year old wants to see that?

I had little or no relationships with boys through this time, just a bag of tasteless stories like these. I didn’t want anything to do with boys, and I trusted none of them. And here’s the other thing: I would have never told you, at the time, that I thought the boys I went to school with were bad. I didn’t think that they were. But the behaviour of some of them was dreadful. And who knows where some of it led, because I know this much: it’s a slippery slope. It was normalised for these kind of things to happen and for the perpetrators not to be challenged for it.

When you’re a tubby teenager getting nothing but shit from boys at school, you never think anybody would find you attractive. With two younger sisters, I was still more interested in playing with Sindy and Barbie than wanting to find a boyfriend. I spent my time making mixtapes, playing my Gameboy or out on my bike doing laps of the estate. I seldom thought about boys, unless it was Leonard Di Caprio.

But even then things could be weird. I once walked home from the precinct, to find that a car had pulled up ahead but nobody had got out. I thought that was odd. As I walked nearer, my curiosity got the better of me and I peered through the window. A man dressed in a shirt and tie, jacket on, but no trousers, was sitting inside, masturbating while all the time holding up a cardboard sign. It said “wave to me”. I legged it home.

The awful irony is that I reflect upon that time as a genuine age of innocence. Perhaps every generation thinks that way. Generation Alpha (who are ten years old now), will, unless seriously protected by their parents – my generation – sleepwalk into the same rude awakening, the same prejudices, the same misogyny. Every one of us has a duty to educate the younger generations now. Our bodies are ours to own, and nobody else’s to infringe upon.

In the world of work, I initially fared better than school. I worked in a little candle shop with a manager called Mark who behaved impeccably. But my next job gave me a crash course in awful male behaviour. I worked for several music retailers over many years and I want to stress, I loved the job. But I know I won’t be alone in having dealt with some very difficult experiences at the hands of men in a very male-heavy environment that largely stood silent in the face of misconduct. And again, it was by no means all men. It was some men. But I didn’t see a huge amount of action from all men, pulling up those some men on their behaviour. This is what has to change, because it isn’t right and it isn’t good enough.

Patrick (not his real name, I’ve changed most names in this piece) was a nightmare. Pervy Patrick was his nickname because – guess what? – he was a pervert at best and at worst, a fully-fledged abuser. He was 27 and my new boss when I was 16 years old. A really nice girl called Fi, who worked weekends with me, warned me on my very first day that he was weird. Even two boys I worked with did the same. But, naively, I didn’t think anything would actually happen to me.

But it did. And not just to me, but to Fi too, and to another girl there. I worked with another woman called Claire, years later, and she had had similar experiences with Patrick. They didn’t work together, but she had the misfortune to meet him just once at a house party. She barely knew him, but he was inappropriate towards her too. After a couple of weeks of working with Patrick, of rejecting his advances, I went to see my old boss Mark. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about this: I felt embarrassed by the whole thing but I trusted Mark. I told him about Patrick’s behaviour: about Patrick touching my hand every time I used the computer, Patrick standing behind me at the counter and rubbing himself against me, Patrick whispering in my ear things he wanted to do to me, Patrick asking me to snog him in the back office, Patrick repeatedly asking me out. He was engaged.

I told Mark about the endless staring, the grabbing my face because “I just want to look at you closely”. I hated being left alone with him. We all did.

Mark was furious. He wanted to go and have words with Patrick. I wouldn’t let him: I wish I had. I was mortified and scared that I would lose my job. I’ll never forget what Mark said to me: “I have worked with teams of women for years and you have to be careful as a man and treat people fairly. Let’s say I held a meeting, and there’s a group of you ladies all there looking at me running this meeting. I would make sure I looked at all of you for equal amounts of time, never fixing my eyes on just one of you because I wouldn’t ever want to make you feel uncomfortable. You have to be careful. This bloke sounds like a bloody pervert.”

Things with Patrick escalated over the course of a year. Many female team members came and went, all of them on the receiving end of his behaviour. I look back now and wish I had just called the area manager, told them everything from the off. But it took me a year to work up the courage to speak up. In that time, there were a couple more occasions where I had to physically fight Patrick off. It remains the single worst experience I have had with any man, and I was furious about how it made me feel towards men in the years that followed. I didn’t want to let any of them near me, or let them close enough to know me. I have no doubt that I was a difficult partner to handle because of these experiences.

Here are some little realities of being a woman. I’ve always ensured that I had £20 to get a cab home and I’ve always texted my mum, my partner or my housemate when I’ve got into the cab. I’ve always make a note of the registration number. I’ve walked home via the brightly lit roads and avoided the dark streets. I’ve never left my drink unattended in a bar or club. A boyfriend told me to put my door keys between my fingers to use as a weapon, so that’s what I did. My dad told me to lock the inside of my car as soon as I shut the door.

These learnt behaviours are sadly necessary for women: how sad that, in 2021, we are still here. How dreadful it is that a young woman lost her life when she was just walking home after seeing a friend. How harrowing to hear Jess Phillips in the House of Commons, reading out a list of names of all the women killed by their partners and ex-partners in the last twelve months alone. I know that murderers are a very small minority within our society. I know that the pool of sex offenders is also a minority. But they are nearly always men. We have to be honest about the percentage of men who cross the line. We all have a responsibility to call out inappropriate behaviour when we see it.

At 24, working for another very male dominated music retailer, I did begin to challenge this behaviour. We hired a lot of women in the time I was at the store, and I loved having more of us around. There is an absolute safety in numbers and suddenly the lewd remarks and cheap shots were no longer quite so amusing when men risked being torn a new one for it.

We hired one young woman from a disadvantaged background – she had foster parents. She loved classical music, so we hired her to work with us on that section of the store. Anybody who spent any time with her would have known that she was still vulnerable, the anguish written all over her face. Phil, one of the department managers, should have known that. He was cocksure, outspoken, crass, and nearly 30: old enough to behave better. I was walking past the classical section one afternoon to see Phil standing right up against the back of this young employee, his hand brushing the hair away from her face, whispering something in her ear.

She looked incredibly uncomfortable and I snapped. I called his name out across the shop floor and asked him what he thought he was doing. He was stunned to be called out. I told him to leave her alone. We argued all the way to the office of my boss – Phil was desperate to get there first, to say that I was making a fuss over nothing. My boss agreed with me and gave Phil a very strong talking to. Phil didn’t go near her again.

My colleague spoke to me afterwards and thanked me for intervening. She told me that Phil had been making remarks to her for weeks. She said that he made her feel uncomfortable every time they shared the lift. She was 17 years old. My memories of my own experiences, when I was her age, meant I simply couldn’t stand by and watch it happening to somebody else.

Today, our voices are louder. We all have to speak up when we see this kind of behaviour. It is not OK, and it has to be stamped out. Do it for your nieces, for your children and to educate boys and men for the future, so we can stop anybody else experiencing this kind of inappropriate behaviour.

Now, let’s quickly talk through what I call the peripheral crap. We’ve all faced it as women. The men that yell at you from their cars when you’re out on a run. They call you a slag, a bitch, a fat slag, a fat bitch.

The men that sidle up to you when you’re walking and they’re on a bicycle and ask you where you’re going (I’m clearly not going to tell you), what you’re doing (trying to walk in peace) and who you’re going out with (please sod off).

There’s the bloke who thought he was flattering you by asking if you had any kids and when you said no, he winked and said “would you like some, darlin’?”

There are the groups of lads who barged past you from a football match and grabbed your arse on the way, whooping and shouting as they did so. There are the men who stand too close, so you put your foot out to create space and they just step over it, or on top of it. As it happens, you think to yourself “here we go”, yet again.

There’s the chap you worked with that never liked you for whatever reason, so when he walks past you he just mutters the word “slag” under his breath. Every. Single. Time.

There’s the very senior manager within the company you used to work for who asks you “as a woman, will you be able to cope this Christmas with it being so busy?” In that instance I retorted “no of course not, I was planning on having a period and crying about it.” But I was so furious.

There are laddish Facebook groups that play the chord of “it’s all just a laugh and a joke, it’s satire” while they repeatedly take the piss out of women, out of struggles faced by women, and perpetuate an online language that says it’s absolutely fine to play with stereotypes. Because it’s a joke, you know, a joke like on Top Gear that, as Stewart Lee would say, “just happens to be what I actually think.” The mob mentality of these groups descend into full on misogynistic waffle. But nobody bats an eyelid, and the stereotypes live on.

There are of course, good men. My pal Dan always walked me home, on one occasion being beaten up himself on the walk back to his own gaff. I have had plenty of decent male bosses who have moved with the times and recognised where they needed to challenge their own behaviours and bias.

For the most part, the men in my life are decent men. They’ve been taught better than to behave in the ways I’ve described above. But would they stand up to their friends who might behave badly? Have they spoken out at every opportunity to correct the behaviour of a peer? Of course the answer to that would be no, just as I hardly have a spotless record myself when it comes to challenging crappy behaviour. I haven’t been good enough, either.

These behaviours can feel hard to challenge: the stereotypes and cultural fault lines in our society are so well trodden that it can feel like suddenly proclaiming that the earth is flat. It shouldn’t feel that way in 2021. Sometimes the poor behaviour happens in plain sight and it’s so shocking nobody knows how to react. But we have to challenge this, and we have to change.

Did the pandemic give us time to sit back and wake up to the prejudices all around us? Did the time on our hands and our eyes on the internet finally shift into sync so we saw things for how they truly are? All of this is awfully punctuated by the crimes committed against Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Sarah Everard. It often takes an event of some kind, a really bad one, to start the conversation. Generation Z have started that conversation. They started it on the environment. They are calling it on race, on women’s experiences and calling it on the prejudices faced by trans people. They are political – and thank goodness they are. They may have started the conversation, but we all have a responsibility – not only to keep it going, keep it alive, but also to commit to changes.

It feels, more and more, that we find ourselves at a cultural and class-ridden crossroads. At once, we can see where we are, where we want to be and where we should be, given our intelligence as a species, our ingenuity and the opportunities afforded us. I can’t control what went before: none of us can. But we can all contribute to what happens next. We can all be positive voices. So it’s time to find our courage – to be brave, and to begin calling things out for what they really are.

Featured

How masking up made me face a reality.

It’s amazing how we all write our own narratives and sometimes figure things out later than everybody else. Sometimes friends, family and loved ones try to tell you something for years, and yet you go on unabated until reality hits you between the eyes and you can no longer ignore a truth. And this is in an age where the truth doesn’t feel like it counts for much anymore.

I’m a bit deaf. Actually, I’m really quite deaf. Or to use the more polite phrasing, I am officially very hard of hearing. When I can’t hear something (which is a lot of the time) I ask the person to repeat themselves and try and soften this by saying “sorry, it’s just that I’m a bit deaf.” I’ve seen copious memes that depict an individual smiling blankly after asking somebody to repeat themselves for the third time and STILL not hearing the answer.

Why do I feel that need to apologise? In honesty it’s probably a reflection on my own lack of patience when I have had to repeat myself for others. And that’s the guilt-inducing first recognition: true empathy for another’s disability only comes when it is thrust upon us, or where it is physically obvious. I respect those badges that say “I have a hidden disability” – I don’t own one, but I appreciate the people that wear them, giving me the heads up to not be impatient, and a kindly reminder that things might not always be as they seem.

I had perfect pitch as a child. As I write that sentence I am aware it makes me sound like a dick, but it is true. I could play music by ear, could always sing in tune and could mimic others’ voices, accents and impressions very well. I could hear the signal start up on the old analogue television upstairs in our house, when my sisters swore blind I was making it up. I wasn’t. I think my hearing was just very sensitive.

I have always loved music, and I adored my Walkman, and then my Minidisc player, then my iPod and yes, I probably played them all a bit too loud.

And then I lost my hearing. You know how you get that ringing in the ears after a night in the club or a loud bar? I used to get that, like everybody else. However, then I went to a gig in London in 2002 and the ringing in my ears afterwards was immense. I remember the gig being especially loud, but the ringing was so intense when I left the venue that I could barely hear my companion. I remember lying in bed and thinking “bloody hell, I hope this stops by the morning.”

It never did: it gradually got a bit quieter, but the ringing always remained. I remember being annoyed by it, but it didn’t stop there. The damage done led to a slow and gradual decline in my ability to hear. I never went to the doctor about it, which wasn’t very wise.

One night a couple of years later, I was sat in bed listening to Duran Duran (obsessed with the Eighties, even then) on my new iPod Mini and I pulled out the headphone jack, thinking that it must have been broken because there seemed to be chunks of the music production missing: particular layers of the track Planet Earth – which I knew inside out, but couldn’t hear. I started the track again, plugged in a different pair of headphones. The same thing happened again. And that was when I realised that it wasn’t the headphones or the earphones, or a weird remix of the track: I just couldn’t hear the higher pitches anymore. I could remember them and I knew where they had been, but that was all.

I was in denial, just hoping it would resolve itself. On a trip to Berlin in 2012, my pal repeated herself endlessly. I now understand it must have driven her absolutely nuts. My parents and siblings also told me to go and get it sorted out. I finally went for a hearing test in 2015, a mere 13 years after the gig that caused it.

Why didn’t I go sooner? It was part apathy and part denial. I’m incredibly self-reliant and hate asking others for help. I’m getting over that these days, but back then I just knew it wouldn’t be great news and I didn’t want to hear it, no pun intended. I finally made a New Year’s Resolution in 2015 to go and sort it out and I trundled off to Specsavers for a free hearing test. It was obvious very quickly, as I sat in the booth trying to hear things that I couldn’t, that the results would be bad.

I stepped out of the soundproof booth resigned to my fate and the woman running the test just looked at me aghast.

“How long has it been like this?” she asked.

“Umm, it’s been getting worse since 2002.” Saying that out loud made me realise how ridiculous this all was. She referred me to a doctor, who referred me to the hospital for a brain scan – because the hearing loss was so bad for someone my age – which thankfully came back all good. And then it was time to get some hearing aids.

As I waited for my appointment to come round, I reflected on how I’d managed to navigate all these years being this deaf. What I realised was that I had become an excellent lip reader. When I ran on a treadmill in the gym, they had big televisions suspended from the ceiling, often with BBC News playing with no subtitles (helpful!), and I realised I could watch it quite comfortably and could work out most of what was being said.

When I was in meetings, I strategically placed myself at the table where I could see everybody. I often repeated things back to people to clarify that I had heard them correctly. These were coping mechanisms that meant I had hidden my deafness for a long time, but deep down I knew that the only person I was really trying to hide it from was myself. I just could not imagine being a person walking around wearing hearing aids. I was stupidly embarrassed by even the thought of it and then felt guilty and ashamed for feeling that way when there were so many people out there with much more life changing disabilities than this.

The chap who helped tune my hearing aids was a peculiar fella, but very experienced and I am so glad he helped me. He was based at the old Bristol Infirmary, and we met three times trying them on and getting the right fit and pitch. He gave me great advice: build up slowly, a few hours here and there. When he switched them on for the first time it was immense. He scrunched up a piece of plastic wrap that was on the table before throwing it in the bin and it was really loud. I realised I hadn’t heard the sound of any carrier bag being scrunched for years. It might sound silly but it was emotional in a way: not the bloody carrier bag, but the realisation of how much I had missed in the interim years. How many conversations I had misheard or not heard at all, the jokes I hadn’t heard the punchlines of, and god knows what else.

Later that week I drove my then husband to work. It was an early spring day and warm. I had the windows down and as I sat at the traffic lights all I could hear was birdsong. Again, something I had not been able to hear for years. These highs of hearing again were wonderful, but it didn’t mean the journey was over or settled.

I wore my hearing aids gradually and realised there were now certain scenarios where they were an absolute blessing: any loud social situation in a pub, restaurant, beer festival, work. They were vital and made a massive difference. They helped correct my speech and stop what was becoming a slight slur in how I talked.

So why did I stop wearing them so frequently?

I blamed struggling to get into the habit of wearing them consistently on wanting to listen to music on my way into work and then also having to wear a radio headset at work which wasn’t hearing aid compatible. This was all true – but in hindsight I should have prioritised my hearing and sacked off the radio.

I think deep down I was still struggling with accepting my deafness as official. It took meeting my new partner and him gently challenging me around it – and me getting really upset about it many times – to start to accept that I just had a problem accepting help and accepting that something in my body just didn’t work anymore. Why was I more comfortable struggling than not? Why was I also comfortable asking my friends and loved ones to repeat themselves all day and night because I wouldn’t wear what we now all referred to as my “ears”?

It has been a journey but things came to a head this year. Good old 2020: this pandemic and mandatory mask wearing at work meant that my old reliable ability to lip read disappeared overnight. Plus, I couldn’t hear people as clearly because they were also talking through a mask. I went to find my hearing aids one night, after a few days of not wearing them again, and realised I didn’t know where they were. And I soon realised what I’d done. I’d kept them “safe” in a piece of tissue, in the pocket of my denim jacket, and then emptied those pockets straight into the bin when I’d got home.

I was really sad and ashamed with myself. This incident led to one final showdown of me throwing my toys out the pram and being upset, crying away my obsessive self-reliance and finally accepting a truth. I am deaf. In fact, I’m deaf as fuck and I need to bloody wear my hearing aids if I am to protect what’s left of my hearing for the rest of my life, and if I want to engage in conversation and laugh like normal people do.

The hospital, in the midst of lockdown, were still brilliant. They issued me a new set of hearing aids the next day and told me to be careful and not do it again. Since then, I have worn them a lot of the time, got used to it, and it is now just what I do.

This all said, and I’m sure others who wear hearing aids understand this too, there is something quite nice about pulling them out at the end of a day. The world is a very loud place, and for 13 years I had got used to it gradually tuning downwards into a slow and steady burr of low-pitched comfort noise.

My hearing aids awoke the whole world – with its pings and text messaging tones, its sirens, the crying of young ones, the bin day screech of the refuse van, the traffic, the echoed noise of a busy shopping mall, the clatter of a canteen. It was a lot to adjust to and, to be honest, I didn’t really like all of it. But, all said and done, I would rather be able to hear what my other half says, not miss the punchline of a joke amongst friends, await the knowing quip of my dad’s well-rehearsed family running jokes than miss any of that.

The pandemic has meant I’ve got more used to wearing my hearing aids consistently and I have finally made it a habit. I’ve accepted that I don’t listen to music on my way to work and that it isn’t the end of the world: there is always music playing in my house anyhow. I listen to the roads and the birds, the espresso machines in the cafés doing their job, the cars and the chatter of other people instead: something I hadn’t been able to hear for many, many years.

Now Playing: Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 1980s. 180-171.

Featured

Music is the soundtrack to our lives, even to unsuspecting souls not that bothered in the first place. I have witnessed the power music has for memory jerking moments whilst watching the nostalgia-fest that is Top Of The Pops on BBC Four every week and following its legions of fans on Twitter.

Music also has a habit of bringing people and couples together. I saw this during my time working for various music retailers. Relationships blossomed over a shared love of particular recording artists, bands and albums. Years later, I wondered whether this was all a bit teenage and a bit clichêd? Did it really matter? Was it that important to me?

My ex-husband and I met at HMV and shared some key musical connections that remained strong in our time together: Kate Bush, The Smiths, Def Leppard (yep!) and Daft Punk to name a few. I gave him Peter Gabriel, Japan (and inevitably David Sylvian), Ryan Adams – before he was exposed as a manipulative bell – and Kraftwerk. He never quite took to Depeche Mode, denouncing them as “a bunch of old perverts.” Regardless, he gave me Death Cab For Cutie, Explosions In The Sky, Johan Johannson and Max Richter. I’m forever grateful for those exchanges.

When I got together with my current partner, I would never have guessed that music was a big thing for him because there was little evidence of this on his social media. He knew music was big for me: he’d seen the relentless Top Of The Pops tweets as the replays flew through the Eighties. He told me he loved music, but perhaps I just didn’t believe him? That all said, once we started talking about it, I quickly realised he meant business.

We listen in different ways: he listens to full albums and knows them almost word for word in a way that I used to, up until getting an iPod. I’m the millennial track and shuffle type which is why a project like this has been so enjoyable for me. I have introduced him to singles and tracks that I love and he has introduced me to whole swathes of quite niche artists and albums, picked up from his ingrained habit of reading about music releases every morning online. His passion for music finally got me to appreciate the likes of Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Joni Mitchell in a way I didn’t know I could.

We discovered a shared love of The Drums, The Sundays, Crowded House, Suzanne Vega and Prefab Sprout, but there have been so many more since. Music is always playing in the house, with a speaker in every room. I wouldn’t have it any other way and I love how often we discover new songs, albums and artists through one another’s listening habits. It brings me so much joy.

One of the fun things about ploughing through the records on this list is that I never know which ones will appear next. My partner has looked through the entire list ahead, and asked me to write down specific numbers which I’ve kept in a note on my phone. These numbers represent a record that he likes very much. One of those, 178, will crop up here, so bring it on.

180. 808 State: 90 (1989)

Whenever I think of 808 State, I think of my old boss at OurPrice, a chap named Graham (nickname Porkchop.) One quiet Monday afternoon Porkchop gave me one of his music lectures about the 808 synthesiser and how important it had been to rave culture and dance music. It was dead as a doornail in the shop that afternoon, so he just played me records and examples. I loved those chats. This album is one that Porkchop loves and Magical Dream kicks this record off with sounds eerily familiar and in the vein of Thieves Like Us by New Order.

On comes Pacific 202 or Pacific State as I first knew of it from various dance compilations. It is an exquisite piece of music where the ear naturally tunes into the beautiful sax solo over the top of the squelchy and heavy synths that drive the track. I’m sure for millions of people this piece of music reminds them of some place or time. It’s accompanied endless holidays and nights out for me. An all time favourite.

Donkey Doctor feels heavy but is a fast paced and enjoyable listen. It’s what I would call data music: the perfect musical accompaniment to sharpen the mind when doing a really monotonous task. It borrows the wonderful string sample from Pacific 202 (you’ll hear it) but it soon dives back into its heavy thundering sound. The droplet sounds that sit over the tracks sound very much like they were used in a 90s dance tracks which I adore, which is Kinetic by Golden Girls – one of my all time favourite ever songs.

808080808 is another intense and heavy track but more modern sounding for its time. One of my favourite records from recent years has been Leftfield’s Universal Everything and I can hear a lot of that album across this record. It is also clear to me that the Chemical Brothers owe a lot to this record too.

Key Tracks: Magical Dream, Pacific 202, Donkey Doctor.

179. Liliput: Liliput (1982)

Not on Apple Music.

Key Tracks: n/a

178. Joe Jackson: Night And Day (1982)

So here is 178, the first album on the list that my partner is very excited by. He loves Joe Jackson. Before meeting him, I only knew a handful of tracks, with Steppin’ Out being one which happens to feature here. My partner plays a lot of Joe Jackson in the house, so I’ve subconsciously picked up on Jackson’s sound: the way his voice moves over his songs and how different the style of his writing and production can be from track to track, let alone album to album. So, what of Night And Day?

Opener Another World is sophisticated, smart and keeps a tidy time and score allowing Jackson’s detailed percussion arrangements to build. If you were to only listen to a handful of his greatest compositions, I’m confident you would come away and ask why he wasn’t better known. Chinatown is effortlessly eased into without a break, and with very 1982 synth sounds, some I recognise from Shabooh Shoobah, the INXS record of the same year. It’s all percussion and filmic crescendos here.

T.V. Age is another track where there is no traditional break in the music. New wave influence is all over this album, from the use of particular backing vocals, the style of percussion and the snappy production. It also encapsulates something wonderful: It sounds like where it was made, which is New York. It’s both sparkly, decadent and polished whilst being simultaneously gritty, dive bar influenced and ready to spin off in at multiple angles at any moment. I’m not sure I’ve heard anything like it. The nearest is David Byrne who Jackson even appears to imitate vocally at points.

By the time you get to Steppin’ Out, which would have been the last track on side one of the record, you are reminded of what a talent Jackson is. Without a doubt ahead of its time, unique and with a build of soul and pace, Steppin’ Out really is the finest of his popular works. It’s the song I would hum as a youngster without ever knowing who it was by. At just over four minutes it is never long enough.

Side two starts with a slower pace and Breaking Us In Two which is a great example of where I would often confuse Jackson’s voice with that of Elvis Costello. Cancer is a bit too jazzy for me, but I know that this record is in part a tribute to Cole Porter. Real Men however is a track of which I am extremely fond. I first heard this via Tori Amos who covered it about twenty years ago on her Strange Little Girls covers record. I loved her version, so hearing it here is wonderful.

Key Tracks: Another World, T.V. Age, Steppin’ Out, Real Men

177. Queen Latifah: All Hail The Queen (1989)

I’ve never listened to Queen Latifah’s music so I’m looking forward to this. The opener is Dance For Me which features a sample of Sly And The Family Stone’s Dance To The Music. De La Soul feature on the next track, Mama Gave Birth To The Soul Children and it has them all over it from the beats and breaks to the pace and rhythm. Come Into My House is a banger and follow up Latifah’s Law is equally as arresting with it’s light sax sound over the top of the vocals.

The Pros has a touch of the Ini Kamoze about it, and I know that now because of this project! It’s shaping up to be a very good record with a sound of baggy clothing and relaxed moves, of pre-sexualised females in rap music. It’s also worth noting Latifah’s contemporaries and I thought about TLC’s Crazy Sexy Cool and how that is a mere five years away at this point in 1989. Things changed a lot in that time, but it is clear to me that Latifah made her mark.

Ladies First sounds ahead of its time, as does A King And Queen Creation, which seems to put us squarely into the Nineties. A track that caught me off guard is The Evils That Men Do: Latifah’s call to arms for togetherness, compassion and rights for women in a world squarely built by men. Quiz time: if you listen to this on Apple Music, the bonus Ultimatum Mix of Dance For Me includes a prominent sample from The The’s Sweet Bird Of Truth. I wasn’t expecting that!

Key Tracks: Come Into My House, Latifah’s Law, The Pros, The Evils That Men Do

176. Psychic TV: Dreams Less Sweet (1983)

This is an “alternative” album from 1983, so I assumed metal, but I also assumed wrong. What I got was a gentle and choral opening that felt like church and it was called Hymn 23. The next track, The Orchids is a gentle Magnetic Fields-esque composition, that feels blended with fellow early Eighties band Freur’s single Doot Doot: a single released the same year that this album came out.

There’s a swift change of direction with Botanica. I do a little Google. Ah, Alex Ferguson was in Throbbing Gristle so this is all starting to make sense now. It’s quickly back to church with the simplicity of Always Is Always.

It carries on in bonkers-ville for a while. The track Medmenham features layered vocals that sound (intentionally I’m guessing) like a swam of flies. Ancient Lights sounds like something Matt Johnson might have considered the inspiration for Sweet Bird of Truth. In honesty this is all a bit mad and lacking in melody for me, although I can hear its influential impact and what has influenced it. A good example is Eden 1 – the second time while doing this project that I’ve found Daniel Miller’s Warm Leatherette being a keen influence.

Anything slightly churchy and I am all over it, so Eden 2 goes down nicely but I’ll be honest and say that I struggled with the majority of this album.

Key Tracks: Hymn 23, The Orchids, Eden 2.

175. Godflesh: Streetcleaner (1989)

I know that this is officially metal, and I know that I’m primed to not really like it, but I promise that I do approach these things with an open mind. Like Rats is our opener here. I do feel as if I’ve been transported back to the stockroom of HMV or Virgin or any other record shop for that matter.

Vocally it’s shouty and musically its all heavy drums and big bass. Moving on, Christbait Rising is also industrially loud and that’s when it strikes me: this is industrial metal, innit. Of course! A couple of old pals were big into this, and I realise its very reminiscent of Fear Factory, a band that one of them made me listen to regularly. I’m presuming that Godflesh were an influence.

Pulp is a whole lot of repetitive drums stuck on a loop. They like to make a big deal of the intros with these metal tracks don’t they? I’m afraid nothing on this record is really doing it for me but I can hear how it has influenced so much that came afterwards. I do a Google again. Godflesh are an English band from Birmingham. I would never have known, and yet it sounds like their influence reached far and wide.

174. Ornette Coleman: In All Languages (1987)

Not on Apple Music, a real shame as I bloody love the cover photo!

Key Tracks:

173. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (1984)

Potentially the comeback album of the decade, smartly produced and with that signature Tina vocal. Opener I Might Have Been Queen is perfect for her beautifully gritty voice. The record is 1984 modern: all synths, squelch and chorus. I needed to hear this album. I have never heard it before but suspected it might be a belter. It’s a touch Steve Miller in places, but Tina has her thread throughout and makes every track inexplicably hers.

Show Some Respect is a straight up banger, as is her cover of I Can’t Stand The Rain – I’m a big fan of the disco version of this track by Eruption. This incarnation is quite something with its electronic funk and slick production. And if that wasn’t good enough, we slide into Private Dancer without any fuss of fanfare. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable listen so far. And the hits keep rolling with Lets Stay Together up next.

Steel Claw sounds like Meat Loaf got a hold of it because it really is Dead Ringer For Love in disguise. This album moves quickly and it’s killer over filler throughout. In many respects it could be seen as a compilation of the sounds of 1984. Private Dancer had several producers, songwriters and singing styles by Tina to make it the record it is: a greatest hits in its own right.

Key Tracks: I Might Have Been Queen, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Show Some Respect,

172. Duran Duran: Rio (1982)

I bought this in Oxfam on vinyl because it was the cheapest way to quickly build my record collection as a teenager. I later discovered my mum already owned a copy, so I framed one for the wall, the artwork always strikingly good regardless of where in the house I placed it.

Rio was a delight to see on the list, although perhaps I expected to find it further up the list. This is Pitchfork I guess, and my partner did warn me of that! This album is so synonymous with the Eighties for me, yet it came out early in the decade. It’s impossible to hear this record and not picture Le Bon on that bloody yacht.

Rio opens an album delicately threaded between complex pop, softer melodies and ballads. My Own Way (the album’s lead single that I never knew was a single) has a lovely disco dimension to it and is a song I’m very fond of. Lonely In Your Nightmare presents that signature – nearly flat – Le Bon vocal. The album balances the new-fangled technology of the decade well against a backdrop of confident songwriting, careful production that refuses to overdo it, and all the influences of glam and Seventies innovation that Nick Rhodes could throw at it.

There are big hit singles on this record: Hungry Like The Wolf being the next one I hear. As an album it manages to escape the curse of every track sounding too alike. Just. New Religion has enough Bowie-Wazawara era in it to keep things interesting, and this is the album track I always really liked.

Last Chance On The Stairway oozes a melody that wraps around the vocal creating a wonderful piece of songwriting. Save A Prayer is another slice of perfect ballad-pop. It is only last track The Chauffeur which I always thought was a bit peculiar. I wonder if Duran Duran felt they had to add something else on to make the record nine tracks? I say that, but I also know people who herald this track as another slice of Duran genius. An accomplished album and the best they ever put out.

Key Tracks: Rio, My Own Way, Last Chance On The Stairway, Save A Prayer

171. Scritti Politti: Cupid And Psyche 85 (1985)

Did you know that Cupid & Psyche was a huge departure for Scritti Politti? Original band member and songwriter, Green Gartside decided that success was alluding them because they were not pop enough. They had trodden the post punk and new wave routes for a long time, fiercely staying independent and only releasing through Rough Trade. Gartside was afraid of selling out. The change of direction came when Gartside recovered from severe stage fright and anxiety at home for several months. This record, specifically geared towards making hits, worked.

I had previously struggled with this album, caught right smack bang in the middle of the Eighties, the point my pal Richard always said was where things took a turn for the worse. The record is produced within an inch of its life. I had found it a little too polished and precise and a little too grating but I struggled to articulate why. My partner has always liked it, and as it appears here, it is time for a fresh listen.

Opener is The Word Girl which I now remember more fondly. It is a polished record but second track Small Talk is great and much better than I remember. My favourite single from this record, Absolute, is still clean and fresh and full of funk. You can hear the echoes of disco across this track, the music Gartside spent time listening to when recuperating.

From here, we are at the slow ballad of A Little Knowledge and it’s alright but it feels like filler. Don’t Work That Hard is a return to the pace this record deserves. One thing I’m probably more aware of now than I used to be is the musical complexity of this album: it’s like a stack of Howard Jones albums all pouring through the speakers simultaneously. Scritti Politti really did cram it all into this record.

Towards the end is the excellent Wood Beez. As a youngster I had found it hard work. Now I appreciate its sophistication. It stands head and shoulders above the tracks leading towards it. It’s been really lovely to revisit this record and, in the words of George Michael, listen without prejudice.

Key Tracks: Small Talk, Absolute, Don’t Work That Hard, Wood Beez

Featured

Now Playing: Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 1980s. 190-181.

What records of the Eighties are your favourites? Why? Was it the time that you heard it in your life? Or, was it the people in your life at the time that made it count?

Personally speaking, to love an album, I really want to enjoy every track. And yet, in an age where we listen differently, it can be just a handful of songs, or even a single track that make the cut into a playlist you’re making. I’m conscious that I listen differently now, but I’m not sure anything beats the thread of an amazing record.

There are wonderful albums scattered throughout the Eighties for me. I’ll save my full thoughts on my favourites until I’ve listened to all 200 of these recommendations first, but I’ll share this one. I listened to it again recently and I very much doubt it will make an appearance here in the Pitchfork list, and I’m prepared to get a ribbing for it!

Yes, China Crisis. Working With Fire And Steel – Possible Pop Songs Volume II. Now, it is obviously a ridiculous name for a record but I couldn’t help but admire its confidence when I first laid eyes on it. I picked up the vinyl when I was about 18 from a charity shop because of those Brutalist cooling towers on the cover. I didn’t listen to it for a while because nearer the top of my stack in 2002, were The Strokes, PJ Harvey and some electro and ‘futurist’ compilations.

A couple of years later a friend made me a compilation CD which featured the wonderful African And White, the very first single by China Crisis, put out a couple of years before this album. This made me sit up and dig this record back out. I’ll be honest, it’s terribly dated in that signature Eighties electronica way but if you’re reading this you probably don’t mind that.

From the cover to the focus on melodies, I personally love this album and the tunes within it. The opener, Working With Fire And Steel, is a little tinny on the ears being full to the brim of 1983’s latest tech sounds and gizmos. If the Human League had got a hold of these fine melodies, they’d have put a rocket up the backside of them, giving them a a lot more oomph.

I once told a friend that I felt the first side of this record was one of the melodically strongest of any pop album of the Eighties. I was probably just being a bit of a pretentious prick at the time, but listen to When The Piper Calls and tell me I’m wrong: even now, I still think it’s a beautiful track.

China Crisis were never dressed for success: they were not an overtly sexual Frankie Goes To Hollywood, a dirty indie and angsty Teardrop Explodes or carrying the dark moodiness of Echo and the Bunnymen, all three bands cited as local contemporaries. They were just themselves: into Brian Eno and technology, and writing tunes that veered on the side of quaint and pretty.

Hanna Hanna tells you all you need to know about how their delicate melodies were perfectly wrapped pop, but I’m not sure they were ever afforded the success they deserved. In a decade where looks and visuals counted, China Crisis were a little too beige and a little too innocent. Both Animals In Jungles (bonkers but brilliant) and Here Comes A Raincloud finish off side one of the record. In my opinion, it is brilliant.

When I hear this record now, I am back in my bedroom in Woodley, sat on the floor with the sleeve out and the record spinning, and with my Eighties pop reference guide book next to me. If you have Apple Music, I dare you to give it a whirl. Anyway, here is 190-181.

190. Ini Kamoze: Ini Kamoze (1984)

This record is a mere six tracks long, but opener Trouble You A Trouble Me is a great place to start and sets the tone. It’s fresh reggae with the clicker-clatter and production that is sparse but thoughtful. The pace here is reminiscent of Carly Simon’s Why?, but the song is punctuated with on-point percussion, which is all electronic because it’s 1984.

While listening to World A Music, I was convinced I had heard this before, and a little Google told me that Damian Marly’s 2005 hit Welcome To Jamrock sampled the track. Give it a listen: it’s essentially the same song. Similarly, Wings With Me is so familiar that it’s driven me nuts for a week. It is definitely sampled on a track I know but I Googled and Googled to no avail. Please, somebody, listen and tell me the answer!

In short, this record is packed with influential songs and packs a punch for an album so short. It’s all killer, no filler: that’s what I meant to say.

Key tracks: Trouble You A Trouble Me, World-a-Music, General, Wings With Me.

189. Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician (1987)

Where to begin?

It’s like being taken on a rollercoaster ride of almost all modern musical genres and unceremoniously spat out at the end. It has a scratchy sound which reminds me of the soundtracks to Richard Lowenstein’s Australian cult movie Dogs In Space: it is constantly messy, distorted and weird. 

I know that the Butthole Surfers are considered pretty influential (I can hear very modern band Big Black Delta’s hit Huggin and Kissin right here amongst the noise), but I sense even Kurt Cobain might have winced at this.

By Pittsburgh To Lebanon we are again in the land of noise and bugger all melody. It’s distortionville and reminds me of the grimy rock club that always smells bad. It is the complete antithesis of Bon Jovi who are storming the charts at this very point in time. When you contextualise its place in time and history, this record is properly different to anything else I have heard from 1987. It is in a galaxy of its own.

With Human Cannonball, I’m transported to the time I tried to give The Slits a go in the stockroom at Virgin only to be grossly disappointed. It sounds all very punk to me. Vocally there is a hint of Joe Jackson. I’m not kidding. Meanwhile, Kuntz sounds like a track from a different era, a different band and different genre. It’s properly bending. This band just made the music they wanted to, didn’t they?

22 going on 23 uses a real-life sample from a phone call made by a sexual assault survivor and I’m not really sure how I even felt about it. This record has taught me one thing: the boys I knew at Reading College who studied music technology definitely listened to this record, because every record they ever recorded there sounded like this. The bands were called things like Scraggly Thorn (I still have the CDs) and the tracks included gems such as Random Shit and – just in case – Random Shit 2. Ahhh, 2001.

Key tracks: Human Cannonball, Kuntz

188. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (1981)

This record is not on Apple Music, but I did find it on YouTube to give it a listen. This was recorded shortly after John Lennon’s death and opener Goodbye Sadness is quite something in its cheerful tone and beautiful sax solo. Yoko’s voice dances cleanly and delicately across the melody, a lullaby of goodbye. Mindweaver finds you listening into a telephone call which felt oddly personal before a sudden Avalon-era Roxy Music slow and sweeping track takes hold. Even When You’re far Away is luscious and melodic, and there is a beautiful and simple undercurrent of melody that makes it feel almost dreamlike. I Don’t Know Why is sparse, beautiful and simple – it becomes my favourite track on this record.

The second side of Season Of Glass is an altogether different affair. It’s buoyant, loud and re-affirming. She Gets Down On Her Knees feels ABBA-esque, but it’s no outlier on this very different side two. Toyboat sees the calm return but finisher Walking On Thin Ice sees a hypnotic dance track finish off the record.

This is an album of grief and how it feels. It swings between juxtaposed periods of sweetness and fond memories and an obvious underlying despair, peppered with highs and distraction disco. It is impossible to separate this record from its timeframe and the tragic event that went before it.

Key Tracks: Goodbye Sadness, Even When You’re Far Away, I Don’t Know Why, She Gets Down On Her Knees

187. Tom Tom Club: Tom Tom Club (1981)

In 2004 I was at university in Cardiff and working at Virgin Megastores when a great release of Eighties compilation CDs came out. 12” 80s featured many singles that were not available elsewhere. iTunes was still in its infancy, and many twelve inch mixes – if at all available – were poor quality.

Unless you had the original dusty vinyls (which I was trying in earnest to collect but without much luck), it was game over. These compilations were – and still are – fantastic because they brought so many of those twelve inch mixes back to life, introducing them to a new audience like me, and they were polished up with much better sound quality.

I first heard of Tom Tom Club because of that first 12” 80s compilation: Genius Of Love was on it and of course I thought ‘well this is that Mariah Carey sample thing’. I had no idea that Tom Tom Club were a breakaway branch of Talking Heads, something that percussionwise, and being a big fan of Remain in Light (in particular the track Born Under Punches), I should have spotted.  

Despite loving Genius Of Love and Wordy Rappinghood I have never listened to the whole record, so hello Apple Music and this Pitchfork list! Once again I am in awe of the innovation here for 1981. It’s a record that makes you want to move your backside more than I’m used to.

L Elephant sounds timeless, it is not identikit Eighties by any means, there is something a bit David Bowie about it.  There are songs here which are just Talking Heads through and through and Lorelei is definitely one of those.

There’s a project somewhere in identifying great side projects. On On On On… is part disco, part chant, part reimagined teenage angst and probably part filler. Vocally it’s very Go-Gos and new wave. Booming and Looming felt a bit B52s and at bit bonkers. Finisher Under The Boardwalk is the cover version I’m not sure anybody needed to hear, but I think Bananarama may have done so, because it sounds spookily like they sung it.

Key Tracks: Wordy Rappinghood, Genius of Love, L Elephant

186. Paul McCartney: McCartney II (1980)

My friend Anders adores Lennon and McCartney. When I told him that this record had cropped up on the list, he told me that Temporary Secretary was “absolutely crazy mate.”

I like The Beatles very much, but this is the first time I have listened to one of McCartney’s solo efforts all the way through so more fool me, perhaps?  Coming Up is a slice of delight and I immediately feel guilty for writing McCartney off as fuddy-duddy by the Eighties. The rhythm section and guitars give this a funk edge and vocally I’m not even sure it sounds that much like McCartney.

There’s no hint of punk here, but there are drops of new wave and Anders was right, Temporary Secretary is brilliantly mad – you can feel the heat build in the track. It also doesn’t surprise me to read afterwards that McCartney admired what Talking Heads were doing.

On The Way feels like a return to McCartney in the more conventional sense, but this is a blues track at heart and has a very Clapton feel about it. Waterfalls is a slow number and brings the record to a more gentle pace, but Nobody Knows turns that on its head by bringing the record to a stomping and almost glam climax for what would have been the end of side one.

It’s a big warm welcome to Krautrock and Kraftwerk on Front Parlour and I don’t think anybody listening to this would guess it was McCartney at all.

Frozen Jap (yes), picks up the German synthesiser rule book and creates a perfectly pretty pop tune that would have easily sat beside anything on Computer Love. This is certainly a side of McCartney I have never heard before, and it’s not at all bad. I found follow up Bogey Music bloody hard work though. Darkroom is a slice of slow but burning funk which gradually builds up. Again, I don’t think you’d ever know this was McCartney: you’d run the Shazam app again to double check it was correct.

Finisher One Of These Days is a beautiful, simple and classic McCartney composition, proving that for all the new wave influences, synthesisers, reverb and vocoders, this simple masterclass in songwriting shows the backbone of what makes him Paul McCartney.

Key Tracks: Coming Up, Temporary Secretary, Frozen Jap, One Of These Days

185. Too Short: Life Is…Too Short (1988)

The opener here is Life Is Too Short and it sets the tone for what would have been side one of this record. Lovely Wikipedia says that this west coast rapper focusses his work around ‘pimping, promiscuity, drug culture, street survival’, and so he does. The pace is similar throughout the next few tracks and it’s smartly produced.

I Ain’t Trippin’ is a brilliantly engaging track, and from the beginning my ears were prepared for Keep on Movin’ by Soul II Soul to kick in at any moment. The record as a whole passed by very quickly: cleanly produced, neatly figured out and almost mathematical in precision. Nobody Does It Better drives a similar baseline to I Ain’t Trippin’, whereas Oakland feels like a welcome break from the heavier side of things so far.

Most of the explicit lyrics are saved for side two. Cuss Words is a slap across the face for nearly eight minutes! Give the lyrics a once over if you can – they’re full on but I’m partial to the tune they sit over.

City Of Dope sounds like Sign of the Times-era Prince, with its own tale of drug use to match. It’s more melodic and easier on the ear than the previous tracks and one that I find myself saving to the playlist. Pimp The Ho is next up and again, it’s proper catchy. In fact, this record does something almost all other records don’t: its banging tunes and straight up floor fillers are at the back end of the record.

Key Tracks: Life Is Too Short, Oakland, City Of Dope, Pimp The Ho

184. Change: The Glow Of Love (1980)

I need to be honest. The moment I heard the baseline kick in at the very beginning of opener A Lover’s Holiday I started smiling. I really love disco. And funk. And Chic. And this sounds like a record written by Chic. It wasn’t, but it’s as good and as tight and a joy on the ears.

How has nobody every recommended me this record before? Perhaps they had never heard of it either. This is why I like projects like this: you never know what you will discover. It’s all funky and bass led rhythm that has an urgency and screams top rank disco. It’s A Girls Affair has a delicious counter harmony and echo to the vocals which is a delight. I’m sure ABC’s Martin Fry listened to this record, and if he didn’t, Trevor Horn certainly did. Angel In My Pocket is another track that starts with a beautiful full sound and driving energy. I bopped throughout.

The Glow Of Love features the wonderful vocals of Luther Vandross and from start to finish it is a beautiful track which is soulful and subtle while being true to its disco roots. Vandross stays around for the next track too, the Lynx-esque Searching, which is fabulous. Appropriately titled The End is a sci-fi sounding soundscape with a Georgio Moroder gloss across the top. There are various remixes available on the additional track listing, but as a record, this is a tight, six track wonder. I will listen to it again and there are countless artists out there that owe a lot to this record. Incredibly of its time while also demonstrating a polish afforded albums released much later than 1980.

Key Tracks: Lovers Holiday, The Glow Of Love, Searching

183. The B-52’s Wild Planet (1980)

We all know Love Shack don’t we? How much other stuff by the B-52’s do you know? For me, Rock Lobster about finishes me off. In fact, I really dislike that song. Somebody who had worked at OurPrice before my time had been a massive fan of the B-52s. There was a huge wooden painting of their debut self-titled album cover on the office wall. On the opposite wall was a huge painting of the cover art to Meat Is Murder by the Smiths. I felt like I only had room for one in my life and I got into the Smiths big time, leaving the B-52’s for dust.

I didn’t know what to expect from this album. Party Out Of Bounds is the fast paced new wave opener. First and foremost it is a smarter and cleaner record than anything of the Rock Lobster territory and yet this record was released a mere 12 months later. Dirty Back Road is a great song and quickly finds itself added to the playlist I have been building. The harmonies between Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson are already right on the money. I do a little google of the producer, Rhett Davies, because there are bits of this that feel a bit early Roxy Music to me. It turns out he was involved with them in the Seventies. Davies also produced Eno’s solo work and Phil Manzenera’s (a big fan of new wave), so this proves little surprise.

Give Me Back My Man is a song sung with urgency and desire. If you’re a fan of uptempo early Eighties rock and pop, then – don’t shoot me – a good comparison here is the Steve Lillywhite produced Boy by U2. Apple Music identifies Private Idaho as a signature track and it builds well with those harmonies smoothing out the hard voice of Fred Schneider.

Devil In My Car is another slice of great new wave pop. Many of these tracks start similarly, and perhaps that is why some might struggle to pull out the singles, but what I found was the more you listened as the songs progressed, they find their identity towards the end and you end up thinking “actually, that was good.”

Quiche Lorraine has Fred on lead vocals and I wasn’t expecting too much but it’s a great track with an almost Blues Brothers baseline but sped up just right. The harmonies across the chorus are quite something. There’s a particular sound here that reminds me of The The, and boy do I love The The. Closer 53 Miles From Home is a perfect way to see out the record, combining their talents neatly in a few minutes.

A proper welcome to the Eighties: another record ahead of its time, like so many on this list so far. I’m very glad it appeared here, and that I had my hand forced and gave this the chance it deserved. It’s really very good.

Key Tracks: Dirty Back Road, Private Idaho, Quiche Lorraine

182. Abba: The Visitors (1980)

True story: I’ve never listened to any ABBA albums before. I’ve whizzed through the greatest hits record. Or rather, I’ve felt subjected to the greatest hits record at Christmas times in HMV or Virgin. I remember dancing to Dancing Queen when I was indeed 17 in the AfterDark Club in Reading. I was never fussed for ABBA but in that moment it felt like it was written just for me.

So, what of The Visitors? My goodness, the opening track of the same name is fantastic. From 1981, it’s full of the pace and urgency that Duran Duran’s Planet Earth was. “It’s very ahead of its time” says my other half, and he’s not wrong. But isn’t that ABBA all over? They created music that sounded simultaneously ahead of its time and like nothing else out there. It’s only when you saw Britain’s cut price imitation in Brotherhood Of Man that you realise our interpretation was to simply send everybody back twenty years, trying to please your grandparents in the process by being twee. 

Head Over Heels is again, timeless. Would I know it’s ABBA unless somebody or Shazam told me? Probably not. The harmonies are unmissable once things ramp up with a touch of Supertramp. When All Is Said And Done is a track that’s written IN BIG: it’s loud and crashing and unmistakenly ABBA, but it’s also modern. Soldiers slows the pace down to reveal a beautiful track. One Of Us, a slowie that clearly inspired Land Of Make Believe by Buck’s Fizz is another faultless piece of songwriting and Slipping Through My Fingers strikes you as a song Elaine Paige wishes she had sung. 

All through this record is a masterclass in songwriting. As the record progresses it moves away from the more radical Eighties sounds and becomes more (feels sad to say it) the standard ABBA we know so well. But it’s more than ‘standard’ when the standard we are talking about is so high. 

Cassandra has a touch of Fernando about it but there’s no Alan Partridge joke to be made here. It’s big in sound and production but with yearning vocals. Under Attack takes us back to a more modern sounding Eighties, before the wonderful The Day Before You Came comes along to take us on a weird and wonderful journey. It’s a song I am familiar with only because there is a little bar in Bruges, called T’Brugsch Bieratelier, that has a penchant for Abba, and I heard it there on a couple of separate occasions, finding it strangely entrancing. It’s wonderful (and so is that little Belgium bar.)

Key Tracks: The Visitors, When All Is Said Done, Cassandra, Under Attack, The Day Before You Came

181. Nuno Canavarro: Plux Quba (1988)

I have never heard of Nuno Canavarro, or this record. I have no memory of ever selling a copy at any of the record stores I worked in, and I have no recollection of anybody EVER asking me about it (this was the best way to learn you see, for me anyway).

The opener is a track simply listed as Untitled, and it’s 90 seconds long. There are several more tracks here also called Untitled. It’s all very gentle and all very ambient. I decide it’s time to have a Google. Nuno Cannavaro is a Portugese composer who has scored music for films, but his background was in architecture and I find that quite fascinating. The music is incredibly filmic and I do think for some composers there is an absolute crossover when it comes to matters of space and sound. The nearest thing I can compare this record to, that I own anyway, is Cliff Martinez’s score for Sex, Lies And Videotape, which I love and often refer back to when I want to listen to something Eighties but ambient.

This record is cited as being a big influence on the electronica to come in the Nineties, and I can see why. Think of Cafe del Mar and the barrage of chilled out dance compilations scattered across the late Nineties and beyond. God, we sold a lot of those.

‘What is this?’ asks my other half. Quite. Where do you even begin to explain? Untitled 4:21 becomes slowly beautiful with the odd moments of what sounds like an electronic-penny whistle tooting away, but there are luscious string arrangements that remind me of John Barry. These moments are punctuated further by Aphex Twin style distortion and it’s at this point that I can see why it is a record that will be revered in the years ahead.

Wask brings what sounds like a harp into the mix and it’s not unpleasant at all. Wolfie though, was so bonkers I had no choice but to skip it before I punched myself in the face. No regrets. Crimine, perhaps Portuguese for crime, starts like an assault on the ears that is just nuts, and all over the place. I’m so vanilla, that’s my conclusion: it’s me, not the record, that’s the problem.

Bruma is the first track to have vocals. They’re distorted, obviously, because that’s what they do on this record, but it works and the backing melody is lovely. Untitled 2:43 closes out the album and it’s beautiful. Gentle, subtle, captivating and sparse. This record was a journey in every sense of the word.

Key Tracks: Untitled 4:21, Wask, Untitled 2:43

Featured

Now Playing: Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 1980s. 200-191.

I distinctly remember sitting in a classroom in the spring of 1990, at the age of five, learning how to spell my newborn little sister’s name. She had been named Kayleigh, after that Marillion song. It was a sunny spring afternoon and the radio was on in the background. On came It Must Have Been Love by Roxette and I remember my inner voice saying ‘this is ok…but I think I’ll always like 80s music more.’ I unknowingly created my own self-fulfilling prophecy, right there in that moment.

We got cable a few years later and I was enthralled by MTV and VH1: music videos galore. However, it was just before Britpop properly took hold and it was all Michael Jackson and Madonna (neither of them at their best) or grunge, which I rolled my eyes at and decided I didn’t like. And so, I spent my time recording the radio, listening relentlessly each week and then reading about 80s music wherever I could. I read the liner notes of every record my parents owned. I read and re-read all the music books and magazines in the house until I knew them word for word. As soon as I earned my own money, I bought music like there was no tomorrow.

And of course my tastes widened, but whenever I had a “this is amazing” moment, the track was usually from the Eighties. It happened the first time I heard Uncertain Smile by The The, aged 15, in my local nightclub, where I scrambled to get the DJ to write it down for me on an old receipt. It also happened the first time my ears pricked up to the wonderful and haunting saxophone of Mirror In The Bathroom by The Beat. It definitely happened when I heard the Lotus Eaters’ First Picture of You, and when I first heard Jane Wiedlin’s Rush Hour on the radio one Sunday afternoon. I got goosebumps the first time I heard New Year’s Day by U2. The same thing happened when a friend played me The Smiths’ How Soon is Now? I’ll never forget the first time I heard A Night Like This by The Cure, a record that will always remind me of the halls of residence at Cardiff University. And I don’t think I have ever got over the grand sweep of The Working Hour by Tears for Fears, a song I adore so much that iTunes tells me I have listened to it over 200 times.

At pub quizzes, especially in my younger years, I was a dab hand at any music round. And if it happened to be specifically Eighties focussed, I could nail it time and again.

Having said all that, I don’t and couldn’t possibly know everything and I always want to learn, discover and understand more. I was sent the link to Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums of the 1980s and I thought “I want to listen to them all.” Then lockdown happened, so it turns out the time to do that is probably now.

I haven’t even looked through the whole list yet: I’m only looking one record at a time. And I’m going to listen and share my thoughts, because I just want to. I’ll share ten at a time and it will probably take me bloody ages. But I hope to discover some real gems on the way and perhaps it will push me beyond my pop/rock comfort zone somewhat. Who knows?

I’ve also created an Apple Music playlist and as I discover tracks I love, from these records, I’ll drop them into it. It should build nicely week by week.

Here goes.

200. Malcolm McLaren: Duck Rock (1982)

Duck Rock – A great way to kick off the top 200.

This is a good way to begin, because it is excellent. How is this at number 200? I knew Double Dutch, obviously but not Jive My Baby. This is a joyous record and sounds like you’re walking urban and busy streets and listening to radio excerpts blaring from passing stores. There are early hints of the Art of Noise influence here, particularly their classic Moments In Love, clearly inspired by Legba. It’s just a pick-n-mix of joy and beat. Also, I never drew the connection between Neneh Cherry and Tim Simenon’s Buffalo Stance and McLaren’s Buffalo Girls. It is painfully obvious now, but I told you this would be a voyage.

Bearing in mind that this was released in 1982, it’s surprisingly polished for something that sounds so rough around the edges. But it is clever and light years ahead of its time. I now know why Rachael, my line manager at Virgin Megastore, used to regularly spin this record on the shop floor.

Key tracks: Buffalo Girls, Double Dutch, Soweto.

199. Tenor Saw: Fever (1986)

Tenor Saw: a musician I had never heard of before doing this.

Reggae isn’t massively my thing, but ever since a fabulous and regular club night called ‘Juju Beats’ at the Gwdihw bar in Cardiff, I saw it in a new light. It transpired I could dance to reggae, funk and soul completely chemically unaided until the early hours. Shirley Jones is an absolute delight. Recorded in a style that makes it sound completely sung live, a bit rushed, and a bit rough, it’s still fresh today. It’s sad that Clive Bright, aka Tenor Saw himself, passed away only a few years later. This record’s dancehall sound is like a comfort blanket. Pumpkin Belly is just great: its hypnotic driving bass sound system is clearly influential. I could hear echoes of William Orbit’s late Nineties signature production sound here. Eni Meeni Mini Mo has a similar sound but weirdly the track I felt it reminded me of (and potentially influenced?) is the Happy Mondays’ Wrote for Luck. The best-known track here – although completely unknown to me until I did this – is Roll Call: it’s a cheery ditty.

Key tracks: Shirley Jones, Eni Meeni Mini Mo, Roll Call, Pumpkin Belly.

198. Mercyful Fate: Don’t Break The Oath (1984)

The second album from this Copenhagen band.

Oh, it’s metal, which isn’t one of my natural leanings. Merciful Fate hailed from Copenhagen, and were part of the ‘first wave of black metal’ according to good old Wikipedia. They were considered a big influence on the metal acts of the 1990s. It’s not something I’d choose to listen to, but having friends who have been into metal over the years, I’m sure they probably know and revere this record. I wish I knew what it was that rock and metal fans hear: I just seem deaf to it when it comes to music like this. It’s well recorded but there’s clearly something here I find impossible to appreciate. Sorry about that. The second track, Nightmare does exactly what it says on the tin, but over the space of six minutes. I am thankful to move on to track three. Or am I? No, it turns out, I’m not. I’m still not cut out for metal, all these years later.

Key tracks: N/A.

197. Whodini: Escape (1984)

Whodini: they did good and influenced scores of people after this.

The opening track Five Minutes Of Funk is an absolute banger. I’m wondering how I sat through all these Top of the Pops re-runs and Wikipedia/YouTube research rabbit holes without once discovering this track or this group. There are strong and classic 1984 synth bass lines and sounds here: it foreshadows Cameo, and their hit Candy in particular. It’s a hybrid of hip-hop and electronica, years before Derrick May takes on the dance floor.

On Freaks Come Out At Night, there’s a touch of Stevie Nicks’ Edge Of Seventeen and you can hear that their contemporaries are Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five. The producer, Larry Smith, a bass player who also produced Run-D.M.C., brings the funk to this record. Earlier records by Whodini were produced by Thomas Dolby, cementing the clear love of electronica.

The final track We Are Whodini is another banger of a tune: catchy as they come, making me want to hit a dance floor and not leave for hours. This is a really good record: thank god for Apple Music, because it’s long out of print.

Key tracks: Five Minutes of Funk, Friends, We Are Whodini.

196. Virgo: Virgo (1989) – out of print and not on Apple Music

As soon as it’s available, I’ll be listening. Genuinely intrigued.

195. Cecil Taylor: For Olim (1987)

Cecil Taylor’s, ‘For Olim’ – I think you need to already like jazz to cope with this. Sorry.

Jazz is traditionally something I struggle with. A school friend of mine had a terrible ex-boyfriend who took it upon himself to play an hour of the stuff at her 21st birthday party; it was such a turn off that the only person on the dance floor was David himself, with his cigarette.

When I travelled to Chicago, I was thrown into jazz clubs galore and actually, performed live, it is great fun. I enjoyed seeing the construction of the pieces and the talent of the musicians in full flow. I’m partial to the jazz I’ve heard out there in popular culture, but otherwise I know bugger all about it. And then up crops this little record on the Pitchfork list.

The first track, Olim, is a mere eighteen minutes long and forgive me, but that is about fourteen and a half minutes too long for me. Jazz enthusiasts would bemoan my lack of patience and understanding, because I’ve spent the first four minutes of Olim wishing it to get properly started (in that traditional pop sense). Disclaimer: it never does get “properly” started.

Living (Dedicated To Julian Beck) starts more promisingly in pace but the lower piano notes remind me of a N64 Super Mario game (I can’t place which part of Bowser’s castle I was navigating at the time.) That said, I like this track. Knowing so little about jazz, I’m listening and say out loud ‘so this must be free jazz?’ – I do a little Wikipedia search, note that Cecil passed away only a short while ago, but indeed he was a pioneer of free jazz.

British jazz writer Val Wilmer described Taylor’s style on the piano as treating the keys as ‘eighty-eight tuned drums.’ I’d say that it is definitely a physical and bombarding affair. Mirror And Water Gazing passes in a flash. For The Death starts with urgency and doesn’t stop to come up for air but it’s a bridging track of just over a minute. Feel The Rabbit (no comment) is a bit of an assault on the ears, but I have no doubt that for free jazz enthusiasts this record is quite something. I can only apologise for my ignorance.

Key tracks: Living (Dedicated To Julian Beck)

194. Patrice Rushen: Straight from the Heart (1982)

Patrice Rushen: one very talented lady.

When I was about seven, I watched the film Big for the first time and loved it. I loved Tom Hanks very much. Splash made a big impression on me too, but I really loved Big. I loved the airy loft space that Josh rents and the scene where he unceremoniously drags Susan onto his massive trampoline (as you do) before the amazing Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen kicks in.

It’s such a great disco, funk and pop track. As a seven year old I had no idea who sung it or where I could find it. It never cropped up on the radio (and god knows I listened out for it), but its melody was sampled in the mid 90s by George Michael for Fastlove and again by Will Smith for Men In Black lead single. I still couldn’t find who wrote the original. Years later, with the help of the Internet and Allmusic.com, I worked it out.

Well, what a delight it is to listen to the whole album. I Was Tired Of Being Alone is another stomper of a track with a tight disco-infused rhythm section. The quick comparisons and contemporaries would be Melba Moore and Shalamar (who should be revered for so much more than A Night to Remember).

Patrice sings her heart out on All We Need and again that rhythm section is spot on. The great thing about this record is that it was eight years in the making: Rushen was immensely talented and had been putting out records since 1974. She wrote, played and produced this album. Forget Me Nots was her only big hit, but it looked after her for years.

Instrumental tracks such as Number One highlight the brilliance of the composition and craft in Patrice’s songwriting. I really enjoyed listening to this record and can see that Patrice was much more than just the single for which she is best known.

Key tracks: Forget Me Nots, I Was Tired Of Being Alone, Remind Me

193. Flipper: Album – Generic Flipper (1982)

Generic Flipper: putting a bit of sass and P.I.L into everything they do.

What to make of this noisy post punk affair? Its grey and fuzzy background reverb sounds like the Cramps but the lyrics shout that this really is primitive post-punk/new wave shit. The first track, Ever, is a pinpoint introduction to what you’re going to hear for about 30 minutes.

The second track Life Is Cheap sounds familiar and I realise it has an eeriness much like Daniel Miller’s Warm Leatherette – it’s just missing the synths and instead has hardcore guitars from every angle. By track three I’ve had enough really, but Shed No Tears isn’t actually too bad. Nor is Way Of The World.

For 1982, Flipper were definitely more sophisticated than punk but probably too ahead of their time to be appreciated openly by the punk and grunge scene to come out of the late 80s.

Living For The Depression is a track which may or may not have inspired Lightning Bolt by Jake Bugg. But I’m probably talking shit now, because I’m fed up of listening to this album. How the last track Sex Bomb is the track they are best known for is beyond me. It’s absolute gash and I suspect it was the word sex in the title that made it stand out. Anyway, on the subject of sex, thank fuck it’s over.

Key tracks: N/A

192. Salt-N-Pepa: Hot, Cool and Vicious (1986)

Salt-N-Pepa: packing a punch.

A staple of the 90s school disco, I think I’d wrongly presumed that Push It, the lead single and opening track, was released later than it was. Listen to it, remind yourself that it was actually released in 1986 and you might well feel surprised.

I’ve been watching #totp re-runs on BBC Four and last year we reached September 1986. It showed me a single I’d otherwise not have heard which is Love Can’t Turn Around by Farley Jackmaster Funk and Jesse Saunders. I said to my partner “this is possibly the first ‘house’ track I’ve heard on Top of the Pops.” He agreed. And now, I listen Salt-N-Pepa’s record and it’s scattered with house references. I think this makes them incredible pioneers: I wasn’t expecting that.

Tramp is definitely ripe for a game of name the sample. Interestingly, Push It was originally the B-side to Tramp before it underwent the remix we all know and love. I’ll Take Your Man has a cracking sample of Yes’ Owner Of A Lonely Heart. Who knew? It’s a proper belter of a track.

Next up is It’s Alright which sounds as if Jazzy B has somehow got hold of the sound system. I’m having to remind myself this is 1986. IT’S 1986 I TELL YOU! We find the Pointer Sisters creeping into the sample line up on How Long (Betcha Gotta Chick On The Side) which is a proper pop-funk fest. And before I know it Aerosmith’s 1975 single Walk this Way finds itself sampled in I Desire.

I find the technology used to sample, and the era when all this was being discovered, fascinating. There are some cracking tracks here but it is zero surprise that Push It is the one that everybody knows and the radio loves.

Key tracks: Push It, How Long (Betcha Gotta Chick on the Side), I’ll Take Your Man.

191. Bronski Beat: Age of Consent (1984)

Bronski Beat: a record of politics and dancing.

I have been looking forward to reviewing this one, because I have never listened to this record in its entirety. The stomper of an opening, Why? is as good now as I remember from the chamber of Cardiff’s Clwb Ivor Bach where a great 80s night, The Breakfast Club, regularly played it and I would dance until my feet begged me to stop. It Ain’t Necessarily So shows off Somerville’s voice to perfection. It gets a bit ballad central with both Screaming and No More War but Love And Money ups the tempo and leads us beautifully into Smalltown Boy.

It is a record of two halves. Perfect pop songs transcend generations and production styles, they will always be just right. Junk is a great track with the saxophone just accenting the song perfectly. Need A Man Blues has a wonderful Kraftwerk-esque driving rhythm throughout, that unwittingly leads you to the end of the record.

The last track I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me is just divine and a perfect way to close out this album. The Age of Consent is a record of its time more than most from 1984; the social and political context pours out of every track. Undoubtedly this was the album that the band needed to make: half protest songs about decriminalising legislation, the other half perfect pop and disco to get you through the times anyway. I loved it.

Key tracks: Love And Money, Smalltown Boy, Need a Man Blues, I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me

Featured

Keeping it LocAle in lockdown – Part Two – updated January 2021.

Reading Beer & Cider Festival, 2019. Maybe next year, eh?

When I first started working with the Reading and Mid-Berks CAMRA branch, local beer and ale (LocAle) became a keen interest of mine. In an increasingly globalised world, attempting to keep purchases local and from independent producers can have huge benefits to the local community.

Last week I shared my list of our better-known local breweries and suppliers that fall within our branch i.e. within 25 miles of the Queen Victoria statue on Friar Street (you can find that list here).

I do just want to mention the Berkshire Beer Box briefly. Set up at the tail end of 2019, this scheme ensures you are supporting buying locally and the man behind the business, Jymi, is passionate about locale beer, having reviewed and blogged about it for years with the help of his friend. He has built some great partnerships utilising many of the breweries featured in this list and the prior one, so this is a great place to start if you’re new to local breweries. Take a look when you can.

Reviewing the full official list for our branch, it’s quite amazing that so many producers are based in this area. In this post, I share the details of breweries and producers who are perhaps lesser known, but who are very much active. I have also included a couple of cider producers because we’re fortunate to have some great ones nearby. I hope you find it helpful. It’s a rather large list, so get those notepads at the ready.

Berkshire / West Berkshire 

Bond Brews – Wokingham, Berkshire – @bondbrews

My colleague Jake put me onto this brewery after having a fantastic brewery tour from the owner. A selection of beers are available including their award-winning Bengal Tiger, and they sell casks, bottles and growlers. You can pre-order over the phone / online and pick up on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – and for those self-isolating in the local area, home delivery is free.

Butts – Hungerford, Berkshire – @buttsbrewery

Butts, established in 1994, is the only organic brewery on this list. Their website is very primitive, but it’s had some updates recently and you can now order online, with delivery by national courier.Mixed cases are available. You can also buy their beer from Waitrose and specialist farm shops and I’ve been impressed with the brews that I have tried, especially the Green Lager.

Crazy Dave Cider– Holyport, Berkshire – @crazydavecider

Crazy Dave has been producing cider in Holyport since 2013. The website is user friendly and clearly shows you their story and what they’re all about. They sell a range of ciders including their CAMRA winner Katy which is medium sweet. In May 2020, they bottled their new ‘Mazing Mulberry. To place an order, it’s a case of ‘Hello Dave’ via the phone. Delivery is free with super reasonable minimum order spends of £15 / £25 depending on your location.

Dolphin Brewery – Woodley, Berkshire – @BreweryDolphin

Dolphin Brewery is the newest brewery on this list, launched in 2020 by husband and wife duo Laura Dolphin and Andy Barnes. Dolphin has had a brilliant start, building a big support network of keen customers over a short space of time. They communicate all their online sales via twitter and instagram, or if you subscribe to their mailing list, you’ll get a helpful heads up. They also sell their beer at the Reading Farmers Market. After a busy year in 2020, expect a quieter start to 2021, but keep an eye out for their return.

Indigenous – Chaddleworth, Berkshire – @indigenousbrew

This microbrewery has been creating beer since 2011, and the AMMO Belle American Pale Ale won ‘Beer of the Festival’ at Reading in 2016. Beer can be bought in various sizes, from bottles to pint carriers and beyond. You need to call ahead to order: brews are also regularly stocked in the Grumpy Goat and Inn at Home.

Delphic – Thatcham, West Berkshire – @delphicbrew

Thatcham’s Delphic brewery will deliver their beer to you with free delivery to anyone within ten miles of RG19, as long as the minimum order requirement of £15 is met. Delphic have a greta selection of their beer available now online, and gift packs and even some Pang Valley cider, talking of which…

Pang Valley – Cold Ash,  West Berkshire – @Pangvalleycider

Heralded for its Royal County medium sparking cider (currently unavailable: sad face), Pang Valley has increasingly raised its profile and gained support locally this year. I first tried the Royal County at Newbury’s Catherine Wheel and it blew me away. Pang Valley encourages everybody to #rethinkcider. Stock is limited right now, and you can contact them via info@pangvalleycider.co.uk. Their other signature cider is the Abbey Gold, and new ciders are apparently in the offing soon. Even if you’re not a cider drinker by nature, you really should have this producer on your radar.

Stardust– White Waltham, Berkshire – @stardustbrewery

Over in White Waltham is Stardust Brewery which has been brewing since 2016. There is an online shop and a case of six bottles will set you back around £10. Single bottles are available, so you can create a mixed box. Orders over £50 qualify for free delivery, and courier elsewhere is a very reasonable £6.

Swamp Bog – Enborne, Berkshire – @SwampBogBrewery

Swamp Bog is definitely worth a follow on Twitter, because I see the legendary Tim Thomas of Newbury has been sharing his love for their beer on there. There is no online store, so you contact the brewery direct but stock is available at the Two Cocks Brewery. Moreover, how can you resist a brewery with brew names such as Bottom Biter and Swamp Bog Pixie Piss? Crumbs.

Two Cocks – Enborne, Berkshire – @TwoCocksBrewery

Established back in 2011, Two Cocks has gradually built a solid reputation for their quality beer. It has an online store and can deliver locally: outside the area, delivery is via UPS. Beer is available in mini kegs, bottles or two, four and six pint containers. A mixed case of a dozen of their signature brews is £34 and includes the golden ale, bitter and stout. I really love the Puritan stout and Jymi at Berkshire Beer Box tells me that the Viscount golden ale is one of the best he’s ever had.

Hampshire:

Andwell –  Andwell, Hampshire – @AndwellBrewery

Established in 2008, Andwell’s selection of ales, bitters and lager (including gluten free options) is available to buy online. Their catalogue is worth a look, as it also includes a selection of groceries and, of all things, compost! Deliveries are restricted to Hampshire, but you are otherwise welcome to pick up on-site.

Longdog Brewery – Basingstoke, Hampshire – @Longdog_Brewery

Lovely Longdog is a family-run brewery which is still able to deliver in the Basingstoke area for a minuscule £3. Longdog speak openly online about the impact the current situation is having on them, so really need support from those of you out that way. I still remember their Centennial Single Hop with much enthusiasm. Beer is cask-conditioned but available in bottles or bag in box: they are currently selling a couple of bitters, a pale ale and a London porter. 

Triple fff– Four Marks, Hampshire – @TriplefffBrewer

Established back in 1997, Triple fff is one of the most experienced breweries on this list and has previously won the Supreme CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain back in 2008 for Alton’s Pride (available in polypin). Delivery is kept local right now, within 10 miles, but it is free when you spend £20. The website is well worth a look: there is a fantastic selection of craft beers from other local breweries too. They also sell wines, spirits and cider available and they’ll create a mixed box for you if you let them know your budget.

Oxfordshire:

Amwell Springs – Cholsey, Oxfordshire – no twitter.

Amwell Springs’ brews can be bought direct or through Craftibeer (an independent drinks specialist who deliver) and their stock includes an English ale, amber, pale and IPA. You can purchase a mixed case through Craftibeer, and shipping is £8.99.

Barn Owl – Gozzard’s Ford, Oxfordshire – no twitter.

Based at an old farmhouse in Oxfordshire in 2016, Barn Owl sells three beers: a best bitter, a golden and a dark ale. It’s a case of contacting them to order by the litre and delivery depends on how far out you are.

Loose Cannon– Abingdon, Oxfordshire – @LooseCannonBeer

Loose Cannon is focussed on home delivery within a 10 mile radius of their brewery. So if you’re in Oxford, Wantage, Wallingford or Didcot, you’re in luck. There is stock available of their signature and award-winning Gunners Gold session beer.

LoveBeer – Milton, Oxfordshire – @Lovebeerbrewery

Based in Milton, LoveBeer names its brews after the owner’s dogs. It’s probably best suited to those located nearby, as it doesn’t look like delivery is an option right now. They sell beer in bottles, boxes, firkins and more, and all orders go to owner Jim Southy direct.

Lovibonds – Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire – @Lovibonds

Possibly one of this list’s better known breweries, Lovibonds has been brewing American style beers since 2005. The website is brilliant, with frequent updates and a great online store. Free deliveries are restricted to RG4, RG5, RG9 and RG10 postcodes (good news for Caversham residents) but UK mainland delivery is an option too. You can build your own mixed box of 12 beers for just over £20. 

Philsters – Milton, Oxfordshire – no twitter.

Philster’s ales feature in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. Current availability includes the golden, red and pale ale and the seasonal beers include the highly regarded Darkside porter. They are currently delivering free within the local area, with a minimum order of just six bottles. 

Buckinghamshire:

Chiltern – Terrick, Buckinghamshire – @ChilternBrewery

Strictly outside our radius but a must mention, Chiltern Brewery has been in the business for over 40 years. Chiltern’s website and social media are smart and the selection is brilliant. Orders are free when you spend over £50, which considering they also stock wine and their own small batch gin in different varieties, is good value for money. Many beers are gluten free, and others have won various accolades over the years.

Malt – Prestwood, Buckinghamshire – @Maltthebrewery

Also on the edge of our branch radius is Malt. They are currently only delivering locally in kegs and cases of 12, but if you live out that way, it’s worth a look. They also stock a brilliant selection of gin online, as well as crackers and snacks.

Surrey:

Ascot Brewing Company – Camberley, Surrey – @ascotbrewing

This brewery is on the edge of our radius over in Camberley but they are also a must mention. Ascot has a wonderful selection online. There is also the addition of Disruption is Brewing, the brewery’s new craft beer arm. It’s free delivery if you spend over £30 and live within 15 miles of the brewery, but even if you don’t live nearby shipping is very good value.  It’s worth a peruse because their 10th Anniversary imperial breakfast stout was outstanding last year. On site right now is the new Like Father like Son imperial packs – they will be something to cherish.

Craft Brews UK – Frensham, Surrey – @CraftBrewsUK

Surrey’s Craft Brews has a selection of its beer available for takeaway only, pre-ordered over the phone. Beers are available in 1-20 litre containers. Craft Brews is also hosting virtual quiz nights which you can register for online. 

Thames Side – Staines, Surrey – @thamessidebrew

Making great use of twitter, Thames Side Brewery regularly communicate exactly what is available on site for pickup. The brewery can also deliver locally if you are self-isolating. No online store, so you need to ring them to order. Top beers from Thames Side include the Black Swan Porter (can you tell I’m still very much in a dark beers phase over here?)

I hope this presents some further options during this odd period of social isolation, virtual pubs and perhaps venturing into trying new beers and new breweries. So, as you plan your payday purchases it is well worth keeping these beloved local breweries and producers in mind: they could really do with our support.

Again, do let me know how you get on.

Zoë

Siren Craft Brew.

Featured

This piece originally featured in our local Reading and Mid Berks CAMRA branch magazine, Mine’s a Pint (issue 53). Of course, so much has changed in such a short space of time, but some of Andy Nowlan’s insights into what has been happening at Siren, now and in the future, are really interesting. I send heartfelt best wishes to all our local breweries and the people and teams involved at this challenging time, and to all those people personally affected by this horrid virus.

Zoë

It was a combination of three things that converted me to craft beer. I’d been visiting the beer festivals for several years in an almost constant hunt for a ‘banana’ flavoured beer (I’ve got over that now). Then I lived in Bristol where the beer scene was incredible, and I made great friends with some very keen beer enthusiasts. Finally, I moved back to Reading and a colleague of mine put me onto Siren Craft’s Liquid Mistress. They sold it at Bluegrass, and they sold Calypso at the Oakford. I liked them both and I soon became aware that in terms of 21st century craft beer, Siren were the ones to beat. There was a polish with Siren that I hadn’t found elsewhere.

Siren Craft are based in Finchampstead, Wokingham. They have had an amazing success story. They were formed in 2013 with a genuine obsession over creating brilliant beer and introducing it ‘to as many people as possible.’  When you look through their website, and consider the things they have achieved in such a short space of time, it is quite remarkable. Within two years Siren won Rate Beer’s ‘Best Brewery in Britain’ award.

Siren refer to themselves as having four ‘sirens’ – four key beers, so to speak. There’s the aforementioned Calypso, a 4%  dry-hopped sour. There’s also their best selling beer Soundwave, and IPA, session pale ale, Yu Lu and the wonderful – and CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain award-winning – Broken Dream (a breakfast stout). Outside of this, there is their craft lager Santo: it’s not a Siren, but it is available all year, like the wonderfully sour Pompelmocello. Siren don’t believe in cutting corners, or cost. If an ingredient is deemed the right one, so be it. There has also been the fantastic Rainbow Project which saw collaboration with other UK breweries. Siren have now handed that cap to Left Handed Giant in Bristol to develop further.

Like many breweries, Siren have used crowdfunding to help propel them forward to the next stage. They successfully smashed their £750,000 target in 2019 (raising £1.2m), allowing them to purchase a new canning line and re-brand their product.

Talking of which, the branding is clever, and artistically draws the eye in. It is consistent across packaging, product, Siren apparel and the website. Siren have a key following of enthusiasts who have supported them from the off with a passion that is palpable. Siren have featured at Craft Theory, for the past few years at South Street, but also been far and wide across the country and the globe.

The breakaway projects such as ‘Project Barista’ (if you ever got the chance to try the amazing Affogato, you probably still think about it. I know I do) and ‘Seasonal Brews’ have been vast, with a huge brewing schedule on the go. For the beer enthusiast it can become a personal ambition to try all these one-off brews. I haven’t managed it despite giving it a good go.

The setup over at the brewery is organised and compact, but looks are deceiving. What was one unit is now four. It’s incredible to think that this once small brewery is now making rather large waves nationally. The taproom (in the barrel store) is small but inviting, with regular events in place. Pizzas are served to your drinking bench, and everyone is friendly and welcoming. There is  a regular quiz, and the website shows many other events in the lineup too. Over the weekends, and in better weather, you can also sit outside where there is plenty of room, and there are regularly food traders present. 

Siren Craft Brew, inside the taproom – January 2020.

Finally, there’s plenty of Siren swag and beer to take home, with fridges full of gift packs, new brews and more. The taproom is open Wednesday to Sunday, with the only challenge being getting there (especially when the buses are playing up). However, I’m sure the rest of the time this isn’t a problem, and If you’re in a group, you could minibus it between you for about the same money.  

I’ve been in touch with Siren’s marketing Manager, Andy Nowlan, to find out a little more about what’s coming up. 

How long have you worked with Siren, and what drew you in?

I’ve been at Siren for around 5 years now, which seems pretty crazy to say out loud. I had fairly recently moved to Reading at the time, and with a passion for the burgeoning beer scene it didn’t take too long to discover a brewery making some of the best beer in the UK based just down the road. I was looking for a project that I really believed in to get stuck into, and it was the quality of the beer, the ambitious ethos and the passion of the people there that made it a great fit at the right time.

The Siren website is quite amazing: theres always something new to read. How do you constantly make things fresh?

Thank you! Right from day one, Siren has been about telling the stories behind the beer. Whether it’s the provenance of ingredients, the history of a certain beer style, equipment, processes or recipes, tales from our barrel-ageing project or exciting collaborations from in or out of the beer world, we are never short of things to talk about. Perhaps the more challenging bit is choosing which stories to tell, and making sure we do them – and all the people involved, hard work and end products – justice with the way we present things. Luckily I have some help on that front in the form of Tim, whose main priority is to make sure our output across the board looks great and is interesting to read.

Siren were the first new local brewery I became aware of back in 2015, how have things changed since then?

I think things have changed drastically and to a point of no return. In many ways this is hugely positive. As beer drinkers we certainly do have more choice and more access to great beer than we did in 2015, with a host of fantastic new breweries and tap rooms on offer, incredible ranges in our favourite pubs, and beyond that, craft beer making its way into more and more restaurants, mainstream bars, music festivals, supermarket shelves, football stadiums and so on. On the flip side, the reaction in recent years from ‘big beer’ has been forceful and effective, in particular through aggressive acquisition of breweries and the knock-on impact this has in tying up routes to market. Small, independent brewers like us are under a lot of pressure in an incredibly competitive space, as indeed are many pubs. We all have to be at the top of our games to keep growing in a considered, sustainable way that keeps the beer the priority.

Siren have a huge brewing schedule, as the marketing manager, how do you tackle promoting these?

We’ve always aimed to keep a good balance between reliable, flavour-forward, go-to flagship beers available all year round and a prolific range of one-off, collaborative or seasonal brews that people love to try. We also try to keep a range of styles, formats and price points. In practice this means we’re in a constant cycle of working on new ideas, new recipes, new artwork, new events and everything else that goes along with it (obviously including the hardest thing of all – new beer names). It would be impossible, and frankly super annoying for customers if we get too ‘loud’ about every single beer that comes out of tank. So our approach is to try to prioritise certain projects throughout the year for a nice ebb and flow, while making sure consistent, accurate and engaging information is always available all year round about everything we’re doing for people to dive in and out of.

Whats coming up that youre really excited about? 

So much! To name just a few things… our 7th Anniversary is just around the corner, which means the return of Maiden, our celebration barrel-aged, blended barley wine. That will be joined by two very special beers this year, inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins & Heavenly Virtues. Stay tuned for that. Personally I can’t wait to bring Project Barista back in May, we team up once a year with different independent roasters to push the boundaries of how beer and coffee can work together in four different coffee beers. It’s always a treat to be involved in and always a great event at the brewery. Locally, we’re all excited for the return of Down at the Abbey festival later this year, which was a superb event in 2019.

You currently have a range of fourSirens, so to speak, how does the team decide what makes the cut, and what might be the next?

In general, I suppose for a beer to join our flagship Sirens it has to tick a lot of boxes for us. Do we love the beer? Does it make sense in the range? Does it represent us as a brewery? Is it something that we want to dedicate precious brew slots to on a regular basis? Does it have a great story that can resonate? Can we do this just because we like drinking it? Just kidding, that last question never comes up 😉 There will be a new Siren this year and it’s going to be a very important beer for us. We’re trialling recipes now under a different guise and the early feedback has been very encouraging. Hopefully we’ll have more news on this in the spring, as the project has literally just kicked off this month.

At the bar.

Will Siren be making an appearance at Craft Theory and the Beer Festival this year?

Absolutely! Anne-Marie has done an incredible job building Craft Theory (of course, along with the Grumpy Goat that has been a crucial pillar in the Reading beer scene for a long time) and we’ve been proud to support it since day one. It’s a nailed-on date in the calendar for us. The CAMRA festival is one of the best of its kind and we always do our best to sneak in and get involved where we can.

What beer trends do you see on the horizon?

Right now there is a real surge in low and no-alcohol. Whether that’s something we can take on and add value to, with a ‘Siren’ interpretation, is a little bit undecided at the moment. Gluten free beers have also been very popular and we’re keen to build on the success of ‘Futurist’ – our 4.8% Gluten Free Session IPA. Modern takes on traditional styles is something I think we’ll continue to see more of. Aside from that, we’re still seeing lots of demand for soft crushable session beers, full of flavour, with just a hint of bitterness to balance things up. We’re also blessed right now with some amazing new projects starting up in the UK concentrated on wild/farmhouse/mixed ferm. Exciting.

Siren hold regular events and get a host of local food traders in on site, how far have you had customers travel in from? 

Brewery parties have been great for us over the years, and opening our on-site Tap Yard in 2017 has allowed us to build on that on a regular basis. It always blows my mind how far people travel from. To be honest, it’s a bit of a pilgrimage to Finchampstead, even if you’re local! At the end of 2018 we raised £1.2m in crowdfunding, and now have around 1,500 investors on board based all over the world. We’ve already had visitors from the US, Hong Kong, Australia and all over Europe. It’s humbling and hugely appreciated.

What has been your biggest learns since working for Siren?

Far too many to list! Perhaps not to underestimate what a team of talented, dedicated people can achieve when they have the freedom and trust to do their thing. Also – don’t organise an anniversary party/festival when Beast From The East II is kicking off. Although the incredible response we had from customers that day will stay with me for a long time!

What other brewery, over the past year, have you all talked about? And why?

That’s a tough one, we’re always meeting other great breweries and trying beers from all over on a regular basis. Burning Sky immediately springs to mind though, an incredible example of a brewer and brewery with a vision, doing things the right way and producing some of the best beer in the world. Stouts from the likes of Cycle and Cigar City are always held in high regard, along with a lot of chat about lambic at all times.

Aside from the team you work with, whos the nicest person in the beer world that youve met?

Aside from the people I work with, who are all terrible, we’re incredibly lucky to work in this industry which is full of passionate, collaborative, like-minded people. Mostly though, the local scene is genuinely exciting right now. It’s almost a cliche at this point to namecheck Andy Parker of Elusive fame. He’s officially the nicest guy in brewing™ and makes some exceptional beer from a brewery I can see from our office. Not bad! Likewise where I live in West Reading, Mike & Luci are great people building something really special at Double-Barrelled that I feel very lucky to have on the doorstep, along with Jody, Lola and the team and regulars at The Nags Head which is an absolute gem of a pub.

What has been your favourite Siren and non-Siren beer of the past 12 months?

This is a killer question! I could give you a different answer every day. Right now I’m going to pick something super fresh from Siren, an IPA called Hard Rollin’ brewed in collaboration with Denmark’s Dry & Bitter that’s definitely worth checking out. Non-Siren, it really could be so many beers. It may be a cop out but I’ll go for something tried again in the past week, Hill Farmstead – Arthur. Flawless.

Team Siren: after the Champion Beer of Britain win for Broken Dream, Siren’s breakfast stout.
Featured

Double Barrelled Brewery

Double Barrelled Brewery – MAP – November 2019 – Zoë Andrews

I was recently looking back through some old emails and exchanges around all things beer. I found my old LocAle piece, for the MAP, from three years ago. I wrote about how lucky we were to have an array of local taprooms and breweries on our doorstep and in the surrounding areas of Reading.

Little did I know in 2016, just how much things would have developed in the few short years since. In almost no time, we have seen Siren Craft really push ahead into the consciousness of people well outside of Berkshire. Elusive Brewing are also heading for taproom land with daily updates on their twitter feed now. Wild Weather opened the Weather Station as its flagship taproom a few weeks ago (previously the long suffering Eldon Arms).

Binghams had a tap room open over the summer as part of Emma’s kitchen. West Berkshire has an incredible setup over towards Newbury, the only challenge being getting there. There’s a new brewery and taproom heading over to Vastern Road in Reading imminently, though I’ve heard a mixture of excitement and odd suspicion around that. And then, there is the almost out of nowhere quick success of Double Barrelled Brewery.

I was working the key-keg stand at the Reading Beer & Cider Festival, when I first met Luci and Mike, the owners of the Reading based brewery. Luci had come over to scope out whether their beer had been put on yet. ‘What’s the name of the brewery?’ I asked. ‘It’s Double Barrelled’, said Luci and we then entered into a big and enjoyable conversation about how her and Mike were married and had travelled the world to taste and try as many beers as they could handle (disclaimer: they could handle a lot). Their home-brewed and first beer to feature at the beer festival was ‘Two Storey Bungalow’, an American IPA. I checked that beer into trusty Untappd and had really liked it. I remember thinking that their enthusiasm was infectious, so I was excited to see what lie ahead.

Luci and Mike are lovely. Warm, informed, interested and interesting: they had been so excited to see their brand new home-brewed beers hit the key-keg stand in 2018, that I distinctly remember thinking ‘I hope they do well’, because I liked them so much.

In the months that followed, I heard more and more about Double Barrelled. My beer aficionado friends mentioned them frequently. Ken, a lovely chap I work with and a keen member of the home brewing club, was practically running out the door from work when he heard that the Grumpy Goat had some of their cans available (‘Red Jungle Fowl’ and ‘Parka’, both of which I loved and the latter of which was also on draft at The Dairy). I was an hour behind Ken, and then dragging my carrier bag back into work too, full of the good stuff.

Everything, from the off, had felt so clean, so well done, so organised, so well branded and so well thought out. How had Luci and Mike managed to build this in a mere 18 months? And it’s not just that: it’s the breadth of the beer varieties they have put out too. 

I recently tried ‘Shark in my Roof’, a porter that was incredibly boozy and on par with a De Struise ‘Pannepot.’ It blew my socks off. There have been sour gose-style beers such as  ‘Pocket Money’, an American stout in ‘Wiffle Ball’, a sour berliner weisse (which was amazing) called ‘Summer Sessions: Peach’. And if that wasn’t enough, there has been an array of IPA’s: ‘Basic Needs’, ‘Three Storey Bungalow’ (a personal favourite), and ‘Yelling at Clouds’, amongst many others still on my wish list. Luci and Mike have been working and grafting all year.

I saw the photos appear online for the opening of their tap-room and brewery, and I was in awe at how amazing it looked. Reading has never seen anything quite like it, so near town, and so easy to get to. It took me a few months to finally get down there (the perils of a retail job) but it was  very much worth the wait.

For an industrial unit, it is a warm and welcoming place (and considerably more warm now the lovely heating unit has arrived). There is attention to detail. Luci, Mike and the team want you to have a good time: do you need another table, or some additional benches for your group? If you do, they are on the case. The team Luci and Mike have built around them are polite, friendly and want to talk beer with you. 

The Double-Barrelled taproom, October 2019.

On Friday 8th and Saturday 9th of November 2019, Double Barrelled celebrated their first birthday, and in true spirit, they have thrown a ticketed party, which took about five minutes to sell out. 

There has been a huge amount of work over the past three years, to get to this point. They have employees now who they feel responsible for. They want to brew more often. They want their beer to reach further out places. They know they should partake in more beer festivals but can’t be in 20 places at once. It’s going to be gradual and steady focus on expansion and conscientious movement towards perfecting their healthy and ambitious beer line up. 

In classic surprise style, Double Barrelled presented a new birthday beer at their party: the Absolute Unit. Presumably, a tribute to Adam Kozary’s viral tweet for the Museum of English Rural Life, of a rather large Ram. And, the beer is indeed a unit: it’s several units in fact. ‘Absolute Unit’ is an 11.5% triple IPA which I can’t wait to get my hands on at some point in the near future.

I have been lucky enough to ask Luci and Mike some questions about their wonderful brewery and business. I know just how busy they have been over the past few weeks. As I type this now, they have just celebrated their aforementioned anniversary, AND they picked up the Pride of Reading award for best entrepreneurs, which is thoroughly well deserved. Back when I was first thinking about LocAle beer and breweries, I did say that for me the most important thing a local business could do was be itself, be involved in the community and support other like-minded souls in their midst. Double Barrelled have done this consistently. 

Double Barrelled attend the beer festivals in the town, they invite local independent food traders to cook at their brewery on the weekends, they love nothing more than a pint down their local in Caversham. Luci and Mike have embraced social media, become so well connected across twitter and that level of good will becomes a mirror: you get back what you give out. When they have had a tough day (I’m yet to meet people from a brewery that haven’t), the good will from the town has been there. When they were packed across weekends they never expected to be, nobody loved them any less. There’s an honesty, sincerity and openness to learn in Luci and Mike, that tells you they are giving it their very best. They have the support of Reading and far beyond.

I hope you all find the following Q&A with Luci (with Mike’s input, too!) interesting, and an insight into where their energy and focus is right now. 

It’s your first birthday party next week, how does that make you feel?

Incredibly excited, contemplative and focused on the future. We spent a long time planning our first year, and in many ways and at many times we didn’t think we’d make it to this point. It has flown by (but also not, at the same time!), but now we’ve done it. Now, we have to really focus on the future and work out where we go from here. 

What’s on the agenda for the next few months? 

We have recently hired a new Sales Manager, a part-time Taproom Supervisor and an Office Manager, so we have grown a lot quicker than we expected to this year. We just need to keep driving forward, expanding sales to pubs, bars, restaurants and bottle shops both in Berkshire but also further afield. We are looking to do more events and street food at our taproom, especially after having installed a new heater, which opens the opportunity for people to come in winter a bit more, which is great. 

How’s the canning machine coming along?

Great thanks! Hiring a brewer with canning experience this year, has been an incredible asset. The line was manufactured in the UK too, which helps with any teething issues. We now plan to put everything we brew into can or bottle for some of the specials, which will help improve the availability of our beers to take away from the taproom, as well as getting further afield into bars and bottle shops. 

Your first year felt very organised from an outside perspective, the level of work that’s gone in is clear for all to see. How have you done it?

Thank you! There was just over three years of planning and an epic amount of research. Also, whilst Mike and I weren’t in the brewing industry when we established the idea, our jobs did have transferable skills. Mike had been working as a logistics consultant, and I was working as a Brand Manager for a food and beverage company. I think this, combined with the brewery specific research, have helped us have the foresight of what we might need in both the future and how to be as professional as possible in our approach.

Having said that, behind the scenes, it’s been a heck of a lot of fighting fires and a real rollercoaster and there are countless things that we would have done differently already if we were to do it all again. We just don’t post the bad days so much on social media! 

You spent a year travelling the world trying beers before you set up Double Barrelled. What were the beers that really stood out to you?

Some of the barrel-aged imperial stouts that we tried in America were some of our favourites. And, some of the more interesting sours. Different countries are, of course, known for different things: in Germany we loved the Rauchbier but that sort of thing doesn’t sell huge amounts in the UK, well not from a new brewery anyway! Once we are more established and can take risks on our beer a bit more, we’d love to do more experimentation, and increase our focus on barrel-ageing.  

When did you decide to start up the brewery? 

It was a few months after our wedding. We had done our first “Double-Barrelled” beer together as our wedding favour, and whilst we were going back to work the idea of a brewery just kept on playing around in our heads. We did a “how to start a craft brewery course” up in Newcastle, as much as desk research as possible, and we talked to our friends and family and then decided to make the leap. We were told countless times that we’d regret it more if we didn’t at least try. 

What inspires you when it comes to creating beer?

We have lots of sources of inspiration. Sometimes it’s trying to replicate a certain flavour in a beer without using additives, like our rhubarb and custard gose. That beer actually uses a Jamie Oliver stewed rhubarb recipe as inspiration. Sometimes it’s more to showcase the character of a hop that we have access to, like the super pineapple notes in Bru-1. We have a weekly discussion about the styles of beer that we want to create, what’s available seasonally, and then we plan that in. 

How important has social media been for you?

Social media has been really, really key to be honest. It’s quite a lot of work to manage it properly, but as long as your are authentic, engaging and the information you are sharing is relevant to the audience, people seem interested enough to engage with it, which is great. We have just launched a new one specific to the DB taproom on Instagram to help improve the frequency of messages specific about what’s going on there. We hope that will be more relevant to our local audience verses the things we are doing nationally with Double-Barrelled as a whole. 

I remember your beers featuring on CAMRA’s first ever key-keg stand at the 2018 Reading Beer & Cider Festival and you both being so excited to see your beers going on. Has that buzz changed at all?

When those beers were on in Reading we were still in our garage, so now I think the biggest change is we are just a bit more knackered haha! The buzz doesn’t die: it just changes. You find yourself constantly ticking off “firsts”: the same buzz that we had for Reading, we got when our beers were listed for the first time at the GBBF in London this year. When people ask us to be involved in their festivals, it’s a great feeling: there are over 2500 breweries in the UK right now, so you could very easily not choose us. 

A year from now, what would you have liked to achieve? 

We are still at that stage where I will say, “to still be in business”. To stay alive, we need to keep on growing, and to do that we need to keep on getting Double-Barrelled beers in to more peoples hands. I hope we will have added more fermenters to our brewery and maybe an additional team member or two. That would be great. 

What beer trends do you see currently and/or are you thinking about for the future? 

There’s a definite resurgence of lower ABV and no-alcohol beers done well. There’s always going to be a trend for hazy juicy IPAs, but maybe the West Coast bitterness will pop back more. Overall, I think because there’s so many breweries now and the market will change with things like Brexit, a focus on quality, inventiveness and consistency will be key. 

In the space of a few years, Reading (and the nearer surrounding areas) has been fortunate with several excellent and local breweries nearby. What do you think has driven this love for beer and breweries? 

I think when people start to taste good locally made beer, it’s exciting and people become hugely passionate about it, loving to sing the praises of their local brewer, for example. And, they don’t tend to switch back to mass market stuff when they can avoid it. I actually think that, in Reading, the CAMRA Beer Festival has had a lot to answer for: it’s a great showcase of beer that attracts a wider audience of people than just CAMRA members or avid beer drinkers, because it’s also a great day out in its own right. 

Who are the other brewers you find yourself in touch with and speaking to the most?

I think I have almost weekly chats with Miranda from Duration Brewing who are setting up an amazing farmhouse brewery in Norfolk. Whilst her brewery project is far more ambitious and elaborate than ours, we have a mutual respect of our individual challenges and are learning together. It’s really useful to have an ally, and especially great to have a female one in this traditionally male dominated environment. Our local breweries have all been incredibly supportive of our journey. The beer industry is unusual in that as long as people respect what you are doing and you are authentic in how you do it, you aren’t seen as competition. We are all in this together, all realise how much hard work it is behind the scenes, and in the end we are just trying to make good beer and have a good time whilst doing. 

What was the best bit of advice you were given when setting out on this journey?

Certainly, from most of the brewers we spoke to, the never give up attitude. It’s incredibly hard work, and it’s very easy to lose focus of the goals when the going gets tough. It’s quite a mental strain running your own manufacturing business, and very easy to get bogged down in the negatives. Alongside that, my parents used to run their own business, so my Dad is full of pearls of business wisdom, my favourite being “turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”. He calls me every Monday without fail to see how sales are doing and is probably Double-Barrelled’s biggest fan, despite being 82. He knocks a bit of commercial sense back into me at times. He is a great inspiration for me as he started a successful business from absolutely nothing, just a single product he’d invented. 

Where can we expect to be able to buy your beer next? 

Locally, we are just about to start selling to a new beer bar in Marlow called the Crafty Taproom which is great. Sadly, around Reading there aren’t an abundance of places that have non-tied keg lines but we are always looking for new opportunities. Our next big focus is working with a distributor into Manchester and Leeds and increasing our distribution into London. 

Aside from your own, what’s been your favourite local beer of the past year?

I’ve really enjoyed the new stuff that’s being coming out of Loddon #NotVeryLoddon. It’s great to see a traditional brewery doing some interesting things and moving with the changing market, while allowing their new brewer Jake to influence what they are brewing. But you are right, we have such a huge amount of great breweries locally and I think Siren has really lead the way in that regard. They set the bar high, so if you want to succeed, you have to try and at least match them, otherwise people will just (rightly) buy Siren beers instead!

Double Barrelled Brewery, Unit 20 Stadium Way, Reading, RG30 6BX. 01189 428390. doublebarrelled.co.uk
Instagram: @doublebarrelledbrewery & @dbbrewerytap for taproom specific business.
Twitter: @DBBrewery

Featured

A panegyric to Martijn Gilbert: previous CEO of Reading Buses. The leader we never knew we had.

I hadn’t lived in Reading properly since 2010, when I moved back in 2015. Throughout university in Cardiff, I regularly came home. One of the comfort blankets of home was the buses. I lived in both Cardiff and Bristol between my spells of being back in the ‘ding, and I can tell you something categorically: we have a very good bus service in comparison to elsewhere.

If you spend any time in Bristol, you would wince at the rudeness of some of the drivers. You would scorn at the frustration of the First Buses sewn-up monopoly and you would step on a bus and wonder if it had ever seen a mop and bucket. Add to that, a really chaotic traffic system and it’s just a big mess. We might have our own congestion in Reading but we seldom have to contend with dirty buses anymore, but this hasn’t always been the case.

‘Reading Buses’ are a council supported and public limited company. It is a monopoly really, but one with a very high customer satisfaction rating, almost unparalleled within the industry. It is also worth noting that the success of Reading Buses isn’t without rhyme or reason: a lot of hard graft has gone in.

I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to transport and Reading Buses. I am openly preoccupied with the mass transportation of people and love nothing more than waffling on about the “Backbone of Reading” number 17. I see the movement of people as a huge part of the connections we make as human beings: how we get to work, how we begin a night out and how we get home. I love it, and I always have.

When I permanently moved back to Reading, I wanted to reconnect with my town. I jump-started my almost unused twitter account and searched the #rdguk hashtag. I noted that Reading Buses had massively upped their social media game and amongst this, I discovered Martijn Gilbert, the CEO of Reading Buses.

Martijn wasn’t only tweeting about his day job, he was also tweeting about the stuff he loved: he was tweeting about new transport initiatives, about buses, trains and coaches. Martijn was tweeting about local businesses and the food he loved in Reading. Martijn tweeted about his team of drivers and those making him and the company proud: those on the rail replacement services, those staying late, those out fixing a bus that had broken down etc, etc. Just from the small snapshot of tweets I happened upon that afternoon, I knew one thing: Martijn understood the power of social media, and how to engage people. Guess what? Martijn still does this now, but in the North East of England, for Go North East.

Martijn was clearly somebody in love with his job. I remember thinking we were lucky to have this individual at the helm of our bus service. Martijn, it was clear to me, was an innovator and a leader.

This bit is crucial: Martijn wasn’t a leader because he was CEO, and he wasn’t a leader because he had the keys to the depot. Martijn was a leader because he innovated, he loved what he did – and – he believed in it.

People and teams will buy into sincerity. Martijn loves transport systems and connecting people to that framework. Martijn is satisfied by getting a person from A to B and building a community that love and use their network of buses. Martijn loves having a team of drivers who are respected for delivering a public service.

A classic Bristol VR 1976 bus, owned by Wayne Ball, that featured at the open day, painted into original livery.

I remember Reading Buses as a child, and with my bus bias aside for a moment, I was aware of one thing, even then: Reading had a really old fleet in the nineties. That is not to say that the rest of the country didn’t, because I’m sure they did too and I’ll spare you the political rant about that.

I’d sit on the bus and take in the smell of the old Leyland fleet that trundled along the number 63 to Woodley. I remember seeing the Optare fleet start to arrive around 1994 and I remember being impressed by how clean and new it was. True story: those old Optare buses are still in operation in Bristol now. It can be slow times in bus-land.

As technology enveloped us as a nation, and as we signed up to dodgy dial up and then broadband, things changed at Reading Buses, too. The Reading Mainline retired and it was a goodbye to the Routemasters. The Bristol VR designed fleet that had flooded most winters were removed from service. The fleet was updated, with the old centre exits removed. A website arrived, a hopper was fitted to each bus where no change was given (oh the fuss on the bus the first Monday that began). There were route changes and colourful branding and an app.

Martijn arrived at Reading Buses in 2014 and he would tell you that James Freeman before him made a huge amount of headway there. Within 12 months, the team won Bus Operator of the year.  I noted at the time that the map of the Reading routes looked similar to Henry Beck’s London tube map: still the blueprint of customer understanding and the perfect union of design and user experience. 

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to meet Martijn for an evening. I discovered that one of his first roles was for TFL as a timetable and route planner for London Underground. Martijn was 20 years old at the time. Next stop was work for Arriva Trains Wales, which was no small feat and anybody who has used that service would understand why.

Martijn’s move to Reading Buses had, he tells me, felt like a ‘sideways step’, but it soon transpired that there was a lot to do and a lot to enjoy doing. “I always thought I would spend more time in rail, over bus” he told me. It turns out, this isn’t the case so far.

Martijn realised that he, with his team, could add impact to Reading Buses almost immediately. “We had such an opportunity with comms.” I had seen Martijn grow frustrated on Twitter when finding himself stuck on a train out of Paddington with no driver and no communication as to why: “…and that station (Paddington) has all the resource, there is absolutely no excuse” he told me.

When the CEO of Reading buses can’t get home after a night out in London, I felt somewhat vindicated. I felt that if Martijn had been in charge of GWR, it might have been different. “What I will say, though, is that rail is a very different beast, to bus. The two need to be able to work more closely together.” “But how difficult is it to just communicate?” I asked him, “The truth is, it’s not” was his reply.

I drew up a list of questions to ask him. The news had just broken that he would be leaving Reading Buses to go and look after Go North East. I viewed the meeting as an opportunity for Martijn to have a reflective send off.

What had been Martijn’s vision? What had frustrated him? It turns out the answer to the latter was simple: “traffic.” And, what was he most proud of in his tenure? Martijn’s answer here was enlightening: “the team, it has to be the team. Our comms have got better and better, the buses are better, the visual standards are better. I love the charity work we have done and how we have innovated.”

Martijn’s leadership style is quite something. There is a real amalgamation of broader vision, values and principles that meet an eye for detail and sound awareness of what’s happening on the ground, keeping the wider team on their toes. It is quite remarkable to watch.

I had a feeling that Martijn viewed Reading as zone seven on the TFL map, so it didn’t surprise me when he said “You know, many people living in Reading do work in London of course, and it’s important that the transport set up feels smooth…. I really feel like Reading misses out by not having a bus station. Most towns and cities have one. People step off a train and out the front of a station and expect to find a bus station there. Imagine you don’t know the town, where do you go next?”

A week after our meeting, I was very lucky to get a tour of Reading Buses HQ on their open day (their eleventh one at the time) with Martijn and my partner. The comms set up blew me away, with big screens of various twitter threads and access to Reading’s traffic CCTV. “Sometimes, a tweet will come in and it will be ahead of anything else, in telling us about a potential issue. Twitter is an invaluable tool for us” said Martijn.

It was here, at the depot on a scorching hot July day, that I learned the most about Martijn Gilbert. Martijn is never off duty and never away from coupling vision and detail. I expect a CEO to be able to espouse vision, but all of the detail? Isn’t that usually delegated to somebody else?

Yours truly, with my name on a bus: a dream come true for a transport enthusiast.

He talked us through the importance of visual standards and ‘wheels Wednesday’ – the day of the week all the bus wheels are cleaned. Interestingly, Martijn said “I think they should be cleaned everyday actually, but we’ll get there.”

As Martijn led us through the forecourt with the tables decorated in bunting and transport memorabilia, food and tombolas, there wasn’t a soul there that he didn’t know by name. There were countless drivers eagerly approaching him to introduce their partners and young families to their boss. Martijn was as gracious as could be. On one of the stands there was a chap selling bus books – somebody who Martijn had known from years before. The gentleman had put together a book on Reading Buses specific fleet and it had, of course, sold out. “I knew he’d come good with that book” Martijn told us.

Reading Buses had been supporting an Autism charity for the past year or so, and Martijn was open about why. “A lot of people that are really into this transport stuff, may also have Autism. We know this, it made sense to bring that together and it’s been a great partnership.”

There was a moment where I was kindly introduced to a couple of young lads who were putting peoples names up electronically on the front of a bus. One of them was learning how to timetable, and the other was working in an operational career experience. To say I was excited to have my name up on the bus is an understatement: This is part of the brilliance of somebody like Martijn.

Martijn knows his own people, he knows what it is to be a transport enthusiast because first and foremost, he is still in love with it himself, and he wants to celebrate that.

Martijn Gilbert’s own open-decked Routemaster, ready to ride passengers at the 2018 Reading Buses open day.

At the event that day, Martijn’s very own open decked Routemaster was present, immaculate and ready to take people for rides around Reading town. “Are you going to take your bus with you to Newcastle?” I asked. “I have been lucky and I have a friend who is kindly going to look after it for me down here” he said.

As we walked through the offices, a young lad ran up to Martijn to ask to have his bus book signed with an autograph. It was the most joyous thing. Martijn will remember the excitement of wanting to get his hands on all things rail and bus, and that enthusiasm was right there. There was huge sense of community and camaraderie that afternoon at the depot.

Our expectations as customers have evolved with the times too. We expect more now than we did in the nineties, and so we should. Technology has us all expecting things to just work. Martijn has taken a very manual and blue-collar industry and been at the helm of moving it into the 21st Century in this town, complementing the work of James Freeman before him. Communication had being right at the centre, inviting the public to join in the conversation and collaborate.

What time is it? It’s joke O’Clock. Good humour abounds in the reception of Reading Buses.

From the outside, and to the public, Martijn and the team he worked with at Reading Buses had made things look and feel very simple. The innovations had worked so well, that there had been room for the fun stuff.

There’s been a sense of joy for running Fernanda, the opened decked bus, on the 17 routes during the summer. There’s been space for Reading to trial the red ‘Boris’ bus to gauge whether it was worth a go here. There’s been room to allow drivers to dress up as Father Christmas in December if they’re up for it.

But don’t be fooled: there was also laser focus on rewards for positive behaviours celebrated through public social media. There have been awards for careful drivers, awards for not scuffing your bus on the curb stones, overtime for those who want it paid at premium rates, communication to teams in forms of newsletters galore in house.

At its core, Martijn only wanted to run a bus company if it was in good shape and was one he could put his name too: on time, honest, strong at communication, clean, customer friendly and team focussed.

I asked Martijn what would be the challenges for the next boss. “The relationship with the council…there are challenges there with traffic and signalling, some of it is really basic, like traffic light patterns and sequencing. Getting the utilities to communicate what they are doing and when, and talk to one another, the impact this has on us is huge.”

While I knew that all of the above was true, the one thing Martijn would have never mentioned – because of his humility – was the one thing that I couldn’t help but feel was staring us all in the face. The biggest challenge was whether the next boss could carry on what Martijn had started and built: a team that was proud to work for Reading Buses, proud of the innovation and proud of their standards. So much of how this came to be, is because of who Martijn is as a person, and that is a rare thing.

It has been nearly 16 months since we bid farewell to Martijn Gilbert as CEO. We’ve had his successor with us since, and Robert Williams seems like a nice enough chap. He responds to my tweets that are probably a bit on the moany side of things, he tweets about the buses in increasing regularity, he posts pictures with his colleagues when they reach and accomplish particular awards, he’s a local boy and he’s really experienced. He recently celebrated his one year anniversary and was reflective in doing so. You’re waiting for the ‘but’ though, aren’t you?

There is an assumption that to be a leader or a CEO, you’re meant to be brimming with charisma. That weird and tangible personality-thing that lurks and only captures the lucky few. The assumption says, that as the leader, you should know all the answers and everybody should look to you as being the one and only person who can save the organisation.

It’s a myth though. You do not have to be charismatic to be a successful leader, but you do have to be dynamic and able to spot opportunities, and you have to innovate. At its most basic, you have to set expectations and standards, and stand by them. If you can do all of the aforementioned, the chances are, you’ll have something about you. 

It has felt like a quiet year since Martijn departed. There have been awards and accolades and rightly so. I didn’t particularly or immediately notice a change in how things felt. But for the past six months, I have. And this is where Robert has to pay attention, because things add up and they matter and he might be more introverted than Martijn, but he’s still head and face of that business.

I had hoped that I almost wouldn’t notice the departure of Martijn. I hoped that I could almost bury my head in the sand and wish for the best. That dream was dashed when in October 2018 I took what should have been a pink-branded 25 to Peppard Common on what I now refer to as ‘one of Bob’s blue-blunderbuses.’ I know it’s a bit mean, but so is being made to breathe in petrol fumes at 9am.

Attention to detail matters. Communication matters. Dirty buses matter. Old fleet stock and football buses running on what were carefully branded lines, matter. Old buses on the wrong lines that smell of petrol, matter. Not communicating this stuff openly ahead of time, matters. Re-painting things but denying its a U-turn on line branding is foolish when we can all see it happening around us. Do you know what? I could forgive most of this if I felt there was some honesty.

Reading Buses has, at its core a great established team, fleet, social media setup and experience. It doesn’t need a carbon copy of Martijn (I believe different people can bring different and useful perspectives), but it does need a leader who can talk to people, push for dynamism and innovation, communicate effectively and celebrate without feeling embarrassed to do so. It also needs a leader that doesn’t assume everybody knows what the expectation is, because when people can get away with caring less, the standards drop and we end up in a vicious cycle.

Running a bus operator isn’t an easy job and there are challenges in this town that many would try and shy away from. I have no doubt that Robert faces some real practical, financial and political challenges. These can’t be solved solo: he needs to listen and then follow up with the team he has around him. Engage with them, set goals, follow up, celebrate success and share and tell us what’s happening.

Following Martijn was always going to be a tough gig, we all knew that. Robert, this is for you: we love your company, we have been so proud of it, and we are on your side. Don’t let a drop in standards be the first step back in time. Nobody wants that.

LocAle – Celebrating Local Success Stories

Featured

Over the past 15 years or so there has been a gradual acceptance and shift towards celebrating all that is local. At risk of sounding like Edward from the League of Gentlemen, it is a theme that hasn’t gone away and it weathered the recession. Local produce has been the focus of many campaigns by big brands, retailers and businesses which all hope to attract a more environmentally conscious consumer and, in this case, drinker. When we buy local, we help the locality. We curb our carbon footprint, we support and reinvest in the local environment. 

I came across CAMRA via the usual route, I guess: the Beer Festival. First it was in my hometown of Reading and, later, Cardiff, where I studied. At one of those festivals in Reading, I was lured past the Morris dancers and hog roast, towards the CAMRA stall, and there and then, I signed up to the membership. I can’t remember what made me do it. Perhaps there was a free beer guide? I liked the idea of understanding more about one of my favourite pastimes, which just so happens to be: drinking. What I loved about the Beer Festivals was the idea of trying something different; trying something you’d never had before, trying something local, getting friendly recommendations by those in the know. 

Living in Cardiff, I was there when Newport’s Tiny Rebel Brewery opened the Urban Tap House. I loved it. It had energy, was creative and was well thought out, and again the team members knew their stuff. It was probably the first bar I’d been to that had that – now stereotypical of the 2010’s – industrial, stripped back interior design. A year later, living in Bristol, I was introduced to a plethora of great bars celebrating beers of the world and local delights. Wiper and True were now commanding tap takeovers in the Beer Emporium but only a few years before had been selling their wares at the Christmas Market along Bristol’s Broadmead high street. My fellow friend and beer obsessive, Anders Fehon, described Michael Wiper as an ‘entrepreneurial inspiration’ and would proudly talk about the brewery being a success before they had even sourced their bottle labels. In the time I lived there, I saw Left Handed Giant open Small Bar which became a regular haunt. Even small back street pubs, such as Narrow Weir’s The Bridge Inn, regularly held local draft and cask taps.

When I moved back to Reading in the summer of 2015, I reached out to the local CAMRA branch officer and offered my support. In October I attended the AGM and put my name forward to look after LocAle for CAMRA Reading and West Berkshire.

From there, I went on a steep learning curve, with much support from Quinno and Phil Gill (editor to Mine’s a Pint), in particular. I was no expert at LocAle and in all honesty, despite a pretty solid understanding three years later, and full respect to all the CAMRA volunteers I know, I simply couldn’t commit the time to do that role the justice it deserved. However, I will waffle on from time to time in the Mine’s A Pint magazine about beer and breweries and I’ll be doing a lot more of that in the months ahead.

But here is the thing: LocAle has solved the problem it once faced, itself. Timing is everything, and actually several things all came together at once. Good local pubs with interested landlords became more adventurous with what they stocked and more consistently held a LocAle beer on board. Social media for the brewers and pubs and Untappd came of age together. Some enthusiastic landlords voted with their feet and ran tap takeovers, many by our own local breweries. Even the Wetherspoon’s stock local beers more consistently now.

In this branch we are fortunate to have some fantastic pubs who stock a variety of locally produced beer and ale. We also have a well-established independent beer shop in the Grumpy Goat. More than this, other local restaurants make a point of stocking local and Fidget & Bob and Clays Hydrabadi Kitchen spring to mind. We should all be proud of the product that comes from this CAMRA branch, the 30 mile radius of Queen Victoria statue in Reading. If you want to know the better places to drink in Reading, see the handy reviews by Quaffable Reading.

The exciting part is that new breweries are appearing all the time, but with a greater online presence they are better able to reach a bigger audience. In the three years since I first wrote this, consider how much the beer-scene has exploded in this town and everywhere else. Wherever the focus of LocAle heads in the future, I hope it continues to be a two-way relationship that CAMRA is open to. As drinkers we get to try unique and local drinks that we can be proud of, and the breweries get to employ passionate people who love this product as much as we do. 

Not long after moving home to Reading in the summer of 2015, a colleague of mine told me to check out the then new ‘Bluegrass Smokehouse’ by the Oracle. I was in my local beer infancy and very much belgium-centric at the time. He recommended Bluegrass, not just because the food was ‘alright’, but because they sold this lovely little bottled beer named the ‘Liquid mistress.’ Lo and behold that bottled gem was by our LocAle brewery, Siren Craft, of course. I think of that as the beginning of my LocAle understanding. Word of mouth, even in a digital age, to a beer explorer, will still go a long way. So, if you’ve tried something you loved, share it and talk about it, as you never know may it might take you and others.

First published in Mine’s a Pint issue 41, January 2017, updated October 2019.

Featured

Reflections on: Reading Beer and Cider Festival 2019

Welcome to the Good Place.

It felt like there was a bit of a sea change when it came to the annual Reading Beer Festival this year, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this was. 

I volunteered through the Thursday trade and evening session, followed by a jolly good knees up with my friends on the Friday. I realised that the sea change was a plethora of little developments that had all come together at once – and – for the better. All of them were a step in the right direction. 

In 2018, the team that ran the Reading Beer Festival Games really started to drive social media. They were all over Instagram and building engagement in a way I haven’t seen CAMRA in Reading and Mid-Berks do before. They utilised Instagram Stories, which love or loathe, made it pretty clear what was happening on site. They can be found on Instagram under ‘rbfgames’.

Crucially, they didn’t stop after the beer festival of 2018. They continued to post content and photos all year which acted as a small reminder that the beer festival was coming. And, they are still drip-feeding photos onto their Instagram feed right now, using all the right hashtags to be found by the local communities of the area who like beer and using Instagram. In the long term, CAMRA need to embrace this approach to engagement of a younger audience.

As we got nearer to show time in May, the output from ‘rbfgames’ crescendoed. The presence on social from Reading and Mid Berks proper, also stepped up, particularly on Facebook. There is a big opportunity with Twitter. Culture-vulture Reading folk are big on the twitter side of things. The account is there but it isn’t used enough to share what’s happening pub and beer wise in the area in my opinion, which is an opportunity for the year ahead.

Then there was card payments. Hurrah! One of the bar managers told me that the festival had acquired CAMRAS entire collection of handheld PDQ machines and said “we haven’t gone out there and massively pushed that we can take card this year because we need to stress test it.” Now we know it works, and can work in Christchurch Meadows without signal issues etc, pushing this next year as part of the marketing materials has to be key. For many customers, it removes another barrier.

Finally, the beer. There was a shift towards brand ownership for our more local breweries this year. This is something I have seen elsewhere, thanks to other events such as Craft Theory, BCBF in Bristol and many others.

Allocating a separate area within the tent for Siren, West Berkshire, Elusive, New Wharf and Double Barrelled made perfect sense. It was the right thing to do, to allow these growing and developing breweries to be in a position to own what they do and how they do it. It allows them scope to engage beer lovers, tell the stories behind the brews, mingle, give support and encouragement to the countless home brewers out there who want to be in that very spot that the forever cheerful Andy Parker is stood. They did need a few more volunteers with them at points and I’m not sure whether that expectation fell to them or to CAMRA but it’s worth bearing in mind for 2020. 

Those benches we all revere when we’re sat on the grass.

When you’re stood there looking at these very local and very community driven breweries it makes you feel incredibly proud to be from Berkshire. These businesses give back, and they engage and welcome customers to their tap rooms. The fact that we now have several great quality tap rooms in our branch is great progress to celebrate. Moreover, these businesses pay it forward by often welcoming local food traders on site too. I worked my way through these local breweries in a methodical manner, trying almost everything that was put on up until Friday night. Elusive’s ‘Time and Magik’  was one of my favourites, followed by another Elusive brew which was ‘Punch Out Round 1: Citra and Nelson’ – my friends and I came back several times for this. Double Barrelled introduced me to other favourites: ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ and the ‘Summer Session: Pineapple’ which is one I await for Luci and Mike to put into can form.

New Wharf at the sectioned off locAle area for craft beers which also featured Double Barrelled, Elusive & West Berkshire Brewery.

I had loved working the key-keg stand in 2018 but it felt like a huge responsibility to look after these more sensitive brews, and ensure we were doing them justice at pour. I worked key-keg again this year and what CAMRA did right, was bring volunteers into that area who had worked it previously and were passionate about it. My favourite beers from key-keg this year were Simcoe Simon by Beer Hut Brewing Co, the Organic Cucumber and Grape Gose by All Day Brewing Company, Hazy Shade of Winter by Padstow Brewing Company and Skoda War, a Belgium quad by Brew York which blew my socks off.  

Another first for Foreign Beer this year: De Molen who also featured with their own stand at Craft Theory 2019.

On the foreign beers this year, there were some subtle changes too. Some excellent breweries were added to the line up. Two of significant note were De Kromme Herring and Der Molen. Both of these breweries have been stocked regularly by the Grumpy Goat. De Kromme came to Reading last year as part of the 2018 Craft Theory, and Der Molen were there and present this year. I’m always impressed with the ordering of the foreign beer. It’s no mean feat to pick and curate a selection that can attract such a diverse audience, but I think they nailed it this year. They were some staple classics which are crucial for beer lovers on their journey and tick box exercise of trying those signature brews, but it was fantastic to see the likes of Alvinne Brewery be stocked with several lines this year. 

Another first for the Foreign Beer stand, De Kromme Haring Brewery with this cider-like ditty.

Onto cask, the backbone of CAMRA. I’m always ready for a great recommendation, and this year I was not disappointed. The standout (and the one beer I keep thinking about, even now) is Old Chimneys Brewery whose ‘Good King Henry’, a Russian imperial stout, was incredible. I’m not a stout person by nature but perhaps my foray into coffee this past twelve month served me well. I went back several times for Good King Henry and it was gone by midday Friday which says it all. The ‘Plymouth Plum Mild’ by Cullercoats Brewery was a lovely tipple too, as was (another stout) ‘Flapjack Marmalade’ by Hop Kettle Brewing Co. One of my finishers for the Friday evening was the Turning Point Brewery’s ‘Trapped Under A Cow’ – I had highlighted this one on my list and it didn’t let me down. 

I’m always in awe at how smoothly the beer festival runs when you recognise how many people it must take to organise it. On a personal note, it’s genuinely my Christmas each year. I love it and I kind of live for it. I love working behind the bar and never fail to enjoy seeing so many familiar faces appearing from the beer woodwork. Some of these faces I only ever see at the festival, and some of those volunteers are like those good friends you have but you seldom see. You find you can pick your conversation straight back up from where you left off, giggling along the way. I’m grateful and thankful to every organiser and CAMRA member and volunteer behind the scenes making things happen, putting in their own time to keep the wheel spinning. And, I’m grateful for every member who pushes for change: small changes that when stacked up make a big change. ‘Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection’ – that was Mark Twain, but I felt a sense of change this year, for the better.   

A final note and piece of gratitude. The team that pull the beer lists together: I know that this is no small task and yet every year I absolutely love going through those lists and deciding what I’ll try. I’ve been known to export them and print them out and colour code them with an array of highlighter pens. Oh yes. However, I didn’t need to do that this year because local beer blogger Quaffable Reading took the pain out of the excel spreadsheet and created a mobile friendly version which he shared with many of us online. It was great.

Quaffable Reading’s handy spreadsheet for all your box-ticking beer goals.

That was another piece of innovation which made the user experience better than it was before. I’m pretty sure that having a good experience is what we all want, and what CAMRA would aspire to. All of the above made 2019 a stellar year. Bring on 2020.

Featured

Thank you for the music: a goodbye to HMV Oracle, Reading. 1999-2019

I remember it being one of those afternoons that spat with rain, and I was very windswept and a bit annoyed about it as I waited for the bus into town with my friends. I hated the rain then; I still do. I’d been in orchestra for the past hour playing my violin and prodding a boy called Mark in the back with my bow. It was Thursday 23rd September 1999, and the reason my friends and I were Reading bound was because the long awaited Oracle Shopping Centre had opened that very morning.

I felt like I had waited a lifetime for the Oracle to open. We’d had leaflets through the door at home about it for years. My dad would get us traipsing from what was the ‘bomb site car park’ into town and this once vacant spot was now a major shopping development. My biggest excitement, however, was that there was going to be a big, bright and sparkly HMV in the centre. I’d heard a rumour that it would have a classical room. I’d heard that it might be selling sheet music. I’d heard that it had loads of listening posts.

I remember walking in from the front (known as ‘Yield’ to those of us who worked there) and just staring at the enormity of it. The last time I had walked into a record store this big was on Oxford Street in London, or it was the Virgin at Piccadilly Circus, or the Tower Records over the road from there. 

Music, you see, was a language that I just got. I am absolutely rubbish with all modern languages. Any deep dive into my written English would have you wanting to strangle me with my own syntax. But music… music, I just got it and I got it from a young age with almost all of my formative and early memories being soundtracked by one thing or another. I really wanted to work in this HMV. I would revere the staff who did. I thought they were really cool and it turned out that they were: I got to know a few of them in those early years and by pure chance and good fortune, I have worked with many of them since. I’d order CD singles through that team back in 1999.

And then, after several not so successful applications to work for them, I was hired by Branson’s version of events, after passing the ‘name ten Bob Dylan albums’ test. I cut my teeth at Virgin and I could write a passionate piece about my time there too but it is currently scattered across five years of diaries.

I think back now to that opening day of HMV in 1999, in those pre-broadband days (we didn’t even have dial-up), and I remember the carpeted floor, the glass walled classical room, the stacks of VHS blanks, the growing abundance of this thing called DVD, the books and then of course, the CDs. All the CDs. The compact discs I had obsessed over since my parents bought their first one in 1989 (it was ‘A New Flame’ by Simply Red). I’d read the inside linear notes from cover to cover and take in the words. Who produced this record? Who was the engineer? What studio recorded it?

I remember with fondness the ‘3 for £20’ offer which felt like a bargain at the time. On one lunch break, I bought Garbage’s ‘Version 2.0’, David Gray’s ‘Sell, Sell, Sell’ and – probably the most personally pivotal – Depeche Mode’s ‘The Singles 86-98.’ Going home and really listening to my music haul was something I did whether I was high, low, or some place in between. I’d shut the bedroom door, put that disc in the player, lie on my bed and just stare at the ceiling. Nobody could get me here. 

In May 2008, I was post-uni and post a spell at travelling the United States. I decided, despite my dad telling me that leaving the bank was a bit shortsighted (“that’s a job for life, that one”), that I would head back into retailing and preferably somewhere where I could get away with wearing jeans and trainers for a bit longer. I had missed retail. I had missed the public. I had missed that every day was different. I had missed the product and the exposure to the new and the history of the old. I had missed passionate people waffling on about it all.

I was offered a job back at the newly branded Zavvi, but the prospect of working with an ex-beau proved too challenging an idea to face. I walked into HMV in the Oracle, as I had many times. I approached a lady called Rachel and enquired about the cash office job they were advertising in the window. I was hired the next day and put straight on the counter where I was possibly the happiest cashier you could meet. I was so made up. My old friend at Virgin told me ‘you know, when I was offered the job here, I actually really wanted to work for HMV’ – I was just so proud that I would get the chance.

The boss at the Oracle, a chap called James, was (and still is) quite the character. On meeting him for the first time he said “Alright? I’m James, I hope you’re settling in… umm one thing, we don’t have any twats here and if we do, we ask them to leave.’ I liked his philosophy because if there was one thing I couldn’t stand, it was dickheads. James later told me he’d been banished to Swindon for five years for not being a yes man and this further endeared me to him and his particular way of working.

James was one of the most delightful people I have ever worked for and with; I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as much as I did working with him. When I joined my current employer, I was encouraged to write a letter of thanks to the person who had professionally helped me the most: my letter was written to James.

I worked with James and his affable assistant manager, Andy Timms (also known as Shandy Pimms – the boy could drink), for a mere 16 months before moving stores and it was the best time I’d had in years. In hindsight, the year after I graduated had been thoroughly depressing. I came alive in HMV’s environment and it was if somebody gradually turned up the dimmer switch on my life.

HMV was work hard and play hard. It was peel these fucking stickers until your fingers bled. It was fighting over who was going to play the next CD on the sound system. It was arguing about who had to change the chart wall at the ‘Minster’ end of the shop because it was so cold you’d get frostbite. It was laughing when some plonker ordered 100 copies of a Tinto Brass movie by accident. It was great conversations with customers where you would recommended them all manner of things. It was greeting your new release junkies every Monday morning. It was hiding secret stashes of the stuff you wanted to buy but were waiting for payday to afford.

It was littered with amazing nights out with personalities so big others would wince at the noise. It was a place where so many people I know met their future partners and this was no surprise. It was taking on a work experience kid or a temp and seeing them flourish and develop into this really cool and well-adjusted human, because HMV was a nurturing and safe place. It was a place where the line between workers and friends was so blurred that you realised you were actually a family.

It was a place where Thursdays meant waiting for the new release to come into the stockroom and we’d all want a look and a nosy at it. It was a place where you’d stay until midnight blowing up balloons ready for the big summer sale. It was a place where your manager did a floor walk whilst eating a Twix. It was a place where your area manager was feared but you were nice as pie when they turned up. It was the place that after a good visit, you’d go out and get shit-faced. It was a place that cared.

It was a place that when the queues were huge at the counter, you’d stick Madonna’s ‘Immaculate collection’ on and see the whole queue bop to ‘Holiday.’ It was a place where stock takes took a fucking age and the loss prevention team would have a heart attack each time. It was a place where on the days before Christmas you’d cross the £140k sales mark for the day and then realise how many units you’d shifted in order to do that. It was teamwork all the way. It was a company I was incredibly proud to work for.

It was hard graft, but you did it because you loved it and it gave you something back. It gave you self-worth and friends. It gave you anecdotes and crying with laughter until your ribs hurt. It gave you hangovers like no-where else – but you’d show up and work through it, even if it killed you.

The biggest hangover of all, will be felt by all of those who saw their stores close on Tuesday and suddenly face a realisation that this was it. I feel that pain with every person affected because it is one thing to choose to go like I did, but quite another to have your hand forced, especially when it’s a job you love. The talented souls that lost their jobs on Tuesday, will feel this for some time yet. Whatever happens next, they will be OK. If nothing else, they’ve proven a resilience through some real ups and downs in the past decade.

I hope that I can offer a little comfort here.

Having music and media in your bones never goes away and it never leaves you. When you have worked for years surrounded by other people’s creative outputs and built relationships with a team of incredibly creative people yourself, you worry that perhaps this defines you. You’ll think, ‘what do I do now?’ Well, it does define you in a way, but you never stop growing and changing and developing. The truth is, you need to take a bit of time, and you start to think about the places you like to spend your time. What do you like to do when you are not at work?

When my time at HMV came to an end, I did worry that I would miss it too much, particularly the product talk and the banter. In hindsight, the thing I had loved the most was being surrounded by interesting people. Thankfully, there are places out there with an abundance of those. Keep an open mind. When I left HMV, I actually struggled to listen to music properly for a while. I’m not sure why but I think I was burnt out by the end of my tenure. When it came back, it came back strong.

It might sound a bit melodramatic but it was Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer Love’ that was my first foray back to what I loved. I remember lying on the floor of my lounge with my headphones on, just taking it all in and feeling rather tearful at the experience. I’d worked in record shops for nine years, all in. It was a massive part of my growing up. I built confidence and self-esteem in those HMV treasure troves. I learnt to converse with boys for one (I wasn’t going to pull by harping on about buses and trains, that’s for sure).

Here is something anyone who worked for HMV can be proud of: I certainly am. We were part of HMV: the UK’s most successful music and media retailer with its roots in Edward Elgar. We were all part of that brand, with Nipper the dog, the in-store album signings, the rush of new release, the manic Christmas weeks, the launch of consoles. How many thousands of people did we serve and sell records to? Every one will have genuinely changed how that person felt by the end of the day. Music has more medicinal value, to my mind, than any concoction of alcohol could.

I have always been proud that I spent time working for HMV. It changed me as a person and it changed my life, almost overnight. Whatever the next steps are, it will be OK. So, farewell to my favourite HMV. You were the store that took a chance on 23 year old me. You made me happy. And guess what? I still wear jeans and trainers to work, even today.

Wyrd Sisters at Progress Theatre

We are greeted at the Progress Theatre by a smiley and welcoming Chris Moran, director of this production, Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters. Chris is a Progress veteran. The Director’s notes in the programme are in tune with how she is in person: full of enthusiasm and love for theatre and up for a challenge. As we are talking I realise that I recognise her voice and my other half kindly points out that she played Joyce in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. Of course she did, and she was excellent in it.

Chris talks about the challenge of such a large cast of characters in such a small space, but this is something she has made look easy to the audience. Chris is also a big fan of Terry Pratchett, having previously directed another three of his Discworld series. 

Confession number one: I don’t really ‘do’ theatre and I have never written about it before. However, I have seen a couple of other shows here in the past 12 months: notably the excellent Hangmen and the aforementioned Top Girls. I recognise some familiar faces this evening as I settle in to watch the performance. Confession number two: I have never read a Terry Pratchett book. So, I am genuinely going into this cold, but I suspect Chris is no fool: she has picked this story because it’s accessible and fun, and the script is funny and easy to follow. I learn this much within the first ten minutes.

The set is impressive and versatile, created and designed by Chris’ husband Aidan: it is absolutely medieval, with torch-like lighting running the perimeter of the theatre. I am always impressed by the staging delivered by Progress: with the sound and lighting also being spot on throughout. I liked how the cast didn’t hide the set moves between scenes and the innovative design meant it was incredibly smooth.

Wyrd Sisters is the sixth novel in Pratchett’s Discworld series and borrows liberally (and affectionately) from King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth. Wicked Lord Felmet has killed Verence, King of Lancre and taken over the throne, raising taxes in the process. The three witches (the eponymous Wryd Sisters) have rescued Verence’s infant heir, but should they intervene and reveal the truth? So the fun begins.

The actors playing Nanny Ogg (Liz Carroll) and Granny Weatherwax (Melanie Sherwood) do a superb job. They have both played these roles before in Maskerade, another of Chris Moran’s directions of Pratchett’s work. Both ladies have beautiful and characterful voices that carry the room, bouncing off one another with ease. They share a trusting rapport (symptomatic of having worked together before), and much like a harmony, their comic timing is perfectly in tune as they explore these funny lines in their northern accents.

On the other side of the performance is the witch in training Magrat Garlick chosen by the late Goodie Whemper (may-she-rest-in-peace) and thrust into the lives of the aforementioned duo, to learn her witchcraft. Played by Yvonne Newton, Garlick develops a slow burning relationship with Dean Stephenson’s Fool: both deliver their parts in a perfect tip-toe around emotions and coming of age. Ali Carroll plays Lady Felmet by design: domineering, power-hungry and somebody who’s answer to every problem is executing somebody else. You watch in hope that she will get her just desserts.

For me, another real delight was George Prové’s performance as the Demon. He delivers this with real charisma, springing out of nowhere and lighting up the room with comedic charm and knowing glances while dealing with interrogation by the three witches, pinging back silly riddles at their questions. He also does an excellent job as TomJon who may, or may not, be the rightful heir to the throne. 

I also enjoyed Trevor Dale in funny and fine form as the ghost of King Verence. Watching him, I wondered if he had modelled the role on Bungle from Rainbow, and I promise this is no bad thing: it was very funny, but the vocal tone was pure Bungle-bonce to the point of delight, and once I had made that connection I couldn’t clear it from my mind. Finally, a special note to Maddie Udale-Clark who plays various roles in Wyrd Sisters, but who is a bright young lady.

During the interval it struck me that theatre people are happy people: they are almost always upbeat, striving for perfection, wanting things to be just right, but willing to experiment with their own spin. I must say, it is very infectious and you will them on, wanting them to succeed. 

In the second act, the production gathers pace as it heads towards its conclusion, but the lines don’t let up and neither does the comedy. It’s a funny and thoroughly entertaining show throughout: kudos goes to the whole cast who do a great job in relaxing into the performance and letting the comedy play out onstage.

Progress consistently put out really good theatre. Wyrd Sisters is no exception and I genuinely enjoyed it, a two hour ride of laughter, witty dialogue, and excellent direction by Chris Moran and wonderful characterful performances. It brought me joy. All of you, who were sensible and booked tickets will not be disappointed: it is a crowd-pleasing joyride of irreverent humour, Shakespearian references (complete with OCD handwashing) and classic comic timing. Just what you need on a cold January evening.

Wyrd Sisters was on at Progress Theatre from 16th-25th of January, 2020.