Nearly caught by the scam

November 7, 2010

There you are, minding your business on a Saturday morning. You’re intelligent, or like to think you are, and you know what you’re doing, you think. You aren’t going to be caught out by the world beyond your computer, which is a bit slow, but hey that’s life.

The phone rings. It is an associate of Microsoft calling you, because his company, a partner of Microsoft, has been asked to contact customers who have a fault on their computer. He can prove who he is, and he gives you a number to call (02032867078) and an address, too, 119/121 Westbourne Grove, London W2 4UP.  He is called ‘John Abraham’. He has an accent somewhere from the Indian sub-continent, and he directs you to various entries in your registry which say ‘Warning’ or ‘Error’. ‘More than 20, oh dear, oh dear.’ His company is the one who made the faulty part and has undertaken to fix them for their partners, Microsoft.

He has my address.

This is the kind of alarming image you are shown when you search ‘eventvwr’. It is in fact absolutely normal:

Help, my computer is dying (not)


I am asked to go to There are banner headings, one of which reads Hello! We are professional team of Software designers and we would like to share our with you! (sic) But I don’t spot this until later, of course. John Abraham is speaking very quickly, and sometimes incomprehensibly. He also fails to connect me to his site, because (the machine says) my firewall is blocking it. He calls his supervisor. His supervisor gets me to use Firefox. Bingo. I can give him access to my machine (his supervisor is speaking even more speedily), and he can fix the error, which a virus has made endemic in the whole world. It’s Saturday and I am tired. They are going to take forty minutes to fix my machine, but we’ve only just managed to connect.

Hello, what’s this? It’s a payment screen. All I have to do is to pay them £169. Incredulously, I ask them if they’re joking. But they’re not. They can fix in 40 minutes what local agents will take hours and shedloads of cash to solve.

I ring off and contact The Geek Squad. They may be partners with Carphone Warehouse (hmmm) but they are by far the best support network there is. ‘It’s a scam,’ they say.

It would be irresponsible of me to ask you to ring John Abraham (see above) and give him a piece of my mind.


Newcastle 5 Sunderland 1

November 2, 2010

“Niall Quinn said that the team “owes its people” following the dreadful display at St James’ Park, which saw Sunderland tumble to their heaviest Tyne-Wear reverse for nearly a quarter of a century”  (Newcastle Journal)

Is it me, or is this an over-reaction? Also, is it a quarter of a century, or ‘since 1955’ (BBC Radio Newcastle)?

I decided to spend Mourning Sunday not listening to the game, so I could watch the game on TV later on. I did not look at my brother’s text (surely news of a hat-trick by Sunderland’s Darren Bent?) But you can’t escape. I made the mistake of logging on to look at an email, and found that Steve Bruce (Sunderland’s manager) had already emailed me his profound apologies via the SAFC web-site.

By chance I’d also (rare event) had my hair cut on the Saturday, the first time outside the South-West. But you can’t travel to Devon just because you like the person who cuts your hair. The new trim passed off without tears.

Monday morning at work in Gateshead. There are four Sunderland supporters out of 70 staff at work, one of whom is in denial. There is a handful who don’t go in for football. That left me vulnerable to about 50-55 others. It started on the ground floor (‘I’m only talking to you out of pity’), and continued up through the other two. Suggestions that my hair cut in penance were rife. ‘Wait for the replay: you’ll look like Yul Brynner,’ added another.

But the winning jibe? ‘You support Sunderland? No wonder you’re a creative writer.’

I love it up here.

P.S. But Steve Bruce should be replaced by Martin O’Neill asap.

The Steve Miller Band (Manchester Apollo)

October 10, 2010

It is true that I was a diehard Eric Burdon fan until about 1968, but after that, my attention switched to Steve Miller. He had a fairish cult following in the UK, small enough to make you feel you were in on a secret. (It is a nerdy truth that when not only Miller but his erstwhile co-guitarist and ex-schoolmate, Boz Scaggs, both popped up in the hit parade in the mid- to late 1970s, I was very fed up.)

Nerds don’t change. Well, I don’t. Here are some facts. Miller is now 67, and his band hasn’t released a studio album for 17 years (there was a live album with a DVD released five years ago). He hasn’t toured England (and only two dates this time), I don’t think, for 28 years – or perhaps he meant that 1982 was the last time he was in Manchester, where I saw him last Friday. His new arguably eighteenth album (Bingo!) consists of fourteen rhythm-and-blues covers, including the best version of Come On, Let The Good Times Roll since Hendrix worked it over in 1968. He tours in the USA (about fifty or so dates a year), and has done for years. So to get a chance to see him again was a treat.

I’ve seen him twice – in 1972, in London, when some of the equipment gave up the ghost (smoke came out of the organ), and in 1975, when he was the main support act to Pink Floyd at Knebworth (the first outing of Wish You Were Here). There was a good reason why he was the main support act: his first complete album, in 1967, had an extended instrumental with sound effects and voices off (‘The Beauty Of Time Is That It’s Snowing’), which anticipated anything Waters and Gilmour could think up by a good couple of years. The production was also immaculate, complex, subtle. And that was the great contradiction in Miller, as well as his appeal – part of him was straight-down-the-middle rhythm’n’blues, like ‘Mercury Blues’,  a number he has been playing since 1966 and probably earlier (there is a very obscure film soundtrack called ‘Revolution’, which included three pre-first-album tracks from Miller, including ‘Mercury Blues’ – do I have it? Of course I do! Did I see the film? No: did anybody?). The other part of him was capable of dreamy, extended and just-this-side-of-psychedelic material. He has a high, sweet voice, clear and clean and fond of harmonies. In a sense, he was born with a fantastic advantage: his godfather was the late Les Paul, and his parents were Les Paul and Mary Ford’s best man and woman. T-Bone Walker was a friend of his father’s. He surely gets his interest in the sonic quality of his music from Les Paul (his father was also a recording engineer).

Miller has a curiously cheerful and familiar face. If you put him in a line-up with Jeff Bridges and the late Carl Wilson (the Beach Boys), you might well say they were related. He is also an excellent guitar player: but the oddest thing about him is that he has often been content to let other guitarists hang out with his band and take the solos. At Knebworth, he was one of four – but he stuck to rhythm, and left the solos to the much under-rated Les Dudek, who is still playing on the margins. But the band he brought to Manchester had only one guitarist: Miller himself. It was the kind of revelation a fan could only hope for. They played about twenty numbers, and in most cases, it was Miller in full flight. His extended version of ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ was a tour-de-force.

Steve Miller, 2010, blurred but in action at Manchester

Miller still isn’t taking all the credit. Three or so years ago, he handed a spot in his band to a second singer, Sonny Charles, who sings as well as – and in much the same way as – one of Miller’s idols, Sam Cooke. One of the other great revivals on the new album is the Otis Redding/Carla Thomas hit, ‘Tramp’ – a duet for braggarts, really cleverly belted out.

The Apollo advertised a support act. I wasn’t the only one in the audience dreading it. But the curtain rose to reveal Miller, Charles and the more regular sidekicks, Joseph Wooten, Gordy Knudtson and Billy Peterson (keyboards, drums, bass). And off they set – about twenty songs, including ‘Mercury Blues’, and three from his second and third albums, before a raid on his eighth, tenth, eleventh (I was counting …) and four from the new one.

He looked great, sounded great. I guess that will be the last time I’ll see him. Somebody bring me a cheeseburger! (The throwaway line from his ironic song ‘Living In The USA’, 42 years old and still in great shape, and a lot less bombastic than Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’. I wasn’t the only one shouting it out, I am happy to say.) What a great night.

Whitby in rain

October 2, 2010

‘Fish and six’, my father said, when he meant ‘fish and chips’. I am fairly sure that this is a North-east phrase, but I am happy to be corrected. Phrases you grow up with sound natural: you don’t question their provenance or origin. (Another one is ‘six and two threes’. I used this in Milton Keynes with three non North-Easterners, and they fell silent. ‘Don’t you mean “Six of one and half a dozen of the other”?’ said one of them. But I’ve been saying ‘six and two threes’ all my life without thinking. A colleague from South Shields, indicating she had no preference, said ‘six and two threes’ to me the other week. I realise that this too really must be local.)

It was a rainy day yesterday. My daughter, visiting the North-East, was up for a trip to Whitby, which I have either never been to, or (more likely) went to a very long time ago. Its scale surprised me: I had expected something on the lines of (say) Gorranhaven, not a sizeable place. Whitby has cannily adapted to extend its season from the summer months to include a late October and also spring festival of Goths, drawn by the fact that the place has a Bram Stoker connection – I am almost tempted to go there in four weeks to see Goths in four figures wandering the streets. Perhaps they will include a new breed, ‘steampunks’, a pair of whom I saw in Birmingham two weeks ago. They’re Goths, but they wear cod-Victorian clothes, including stovepipe hats (males only).

But Whitby is also famous as the fish-and-chip capital of the country. Quite a number of the fish-and-chip places claimed to be the most famous purveyors of the edible pair, but I had been tipped off that the Royal Fisheries in Baxtergate was the business. Channel Four lists it in its Top Ten. I’m not actually a huge fish-and-six fan, but we gave it a shot, and it was great – no grease whatsoever, and colossal amounts. It was one of the first times my daughter and I had had an afternoon out together since she was a pre-teen (the dread ‘access weekends’, which actually I think back to being some of the happiest days of my life). We even indulged in a bit of tat-hunting in second-hand shops, which is hard, as the charity shops are far better organised and well-lit than most first-hand shops these days.

Like many people, my daughter was foxed by the local geography. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘are they talking in Yorkshire accents and not Geordie ones?’

‘Because we are in Yorkshire.’


Daughter, cod - and curry sauce

So farewell then, Devon (1)

September 23, 2010

For the first time since 1973, I stopped at midday today being a citizen in any way, shape or formlessness, of Devon. House sold. Wife on way. No Devon address whatever. Thirty-seven years is a long time to have links with a place I went to in specific search of an independent identity. It was quite consciously done. After years of private schools, I wanted to find somewhere where I could be me and not the son of my parents, somewhere I could settle in and say ‘I have roots’. It didn’t work. For most of those years, I have been wanting to get back to the North-East, and I’ve managed that since December last year. But the clincher – selling the house – makes it all finally real. What is really ironic is that it took my mother’s death to kick-start the process: most days I think how frustrating it is that I can’t tell her I’m back. But it was the sale of her house that allowed me to move with ease – her house bought mine. I was incredibly lucky.

Devon didn’t let go easily. Mid-Devon insisted that I wasa a full-time resident, liable to full council tax etc. The North-East took a different view. The local authority said I lived here (which I do).

Lots of people are incredulous that I have moved North: as if it is counter-intuitive, as if I am moving beyond the pale, or the known world. I am moving from the land of retirement to the land of work: that’s how they see it. Everyone else is either travelling in the other direction, or aspiring to move. Devon is sun/sand/shopping and so on. I have a very uneasy relationship with Devon now. It seems to me far-off and curious: perhaps more so since, for the last decade or so, I have lived in the heart of the Devon countryside (not a million miles, in fact, about five, from where Plath found the place depressing and depressive, although she had a bit more to complain about than I did, I think).

Almost any attempt to say what a place and its people are like is infringing a stereotype (hope that makes sense). Devonians (as against Devonians of recent provenance, like me and a million more) are quite slow to accept you. It’s not quite true that you have to have three generations in the graveyard (and possibly be in it yourself) before you are considered at home, but it does take a while. The farming Devonians still live a kind of hard but carelessly slow life, and they seem unfathomable when actually, they’re preoccupied. They like what they know, and aren’t especially curious about what they don’t. Often they are not bothered if you don’t pay a bill, and surprised if you do. I bought £40 worth of logs from a man called Jim in 1998, and I tried to pay him cash. More than once. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, as if this was a breach of etiquette. They don’t like you to live on tick, but they want you to get round to it in a few years, not days. They’re also very trusting: they leave their doors ajar, and the theft figures outside the towns are insignificant. My insurance company sent me a cheque when I moved to the sticks – money back for being in a safe place (not sure that would happen now!)

The incuriousness about Devonians can drive you mad, but it is attractive, too. Many of the students I taught had no consciousness of anywhere north of Taunton or Bristol (and were horrified when I said it took me six or more hours to visit my parents, because that was a whole day). North-easterners, on the other hand, are very curious about the rest of the country. They consider visiting it. They might not go, but they’d be willing. Devonians would rather stay at home, and are not fussed about what happens elsewhere. They’re also less loud, less intentionally witty, and far less extravagant with emotion. Banter is not second nature to them. Whereas here, people are driven and generally ready to spill their life-stories.

That’s enough for one posting. I’ll think about it (a very Devonian state of mind).

Like getting up in the morning

September 3, 2010

“What a thing to celebrate – birth! Like getting up in the morning …” says Goldberg, the vicious bully in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957), still my favourite of his full-length plays, perhaps because I taught it so often, and despite it being his first (it must be galling to have your first work constantly praised, but it seems to happen quite frequently. Pinter’s skill was to maintain the high level of brilliance of his early work, although I don’t think he ever surpassed it). Goldberg’s speech is not exactly a jolly paean to birthdays, mind you, ending, as it does, with the rhetorical question “What are you but a corpse, waiting to be washed?”

But I do like birthdays, just as I like Septembers (it’s my birthday, if you hadn’t guessed). The first one I remember was my third. We were a well-off family and we’d moved to the not-quite-Sunderland-not-quite-South-Shields ‘village’ of Cleadon earlier that year (1955). My mother arranged a party, and I was given a wigwam. But I have absolutely no idea what the other children did, because I had also been given a set of plastic gardening tools, and I spent – and I can remember doing it – the entire (sunny) afternoon digging in a small patch of soil with a brightly-coloured trowel and fork, and refusing to speak to anyone. Anyone who knows me at all will find two things about that strange – if there is one thing I don’t have any interest in, it’s gardening, and if there’s one thing I won’t do, it’s shut up. My teachers at school called me William The Silent, and were very pleased with their command of irony.

The funny thing about birthdays, unless of course you are a twin, is that you do tend to regard it as your day, whereas statistically, you share it with millions (I forget what the tipping point is, statistically, before the odds are that, in a given group, two people will have the same birthday, but it’s quite low – something like 25 people before there is a 50% chance). One of my colleagues at the Open University and I were discussing a schedule of deadlines when we first met, and I said, “Oh, I see the first main deadline is on my birthday.”

“Which deadline?” he said.

“September 3rd.”

“That’s MY birthday,” he replied, very proprietorially; and I knew just how he felt. Having said that, I’ve never met anyone born on the same day exactly. (Although I have met another Bill Greenwell, and I know of a couple of others: and I once had a student who went from having me as a tutor to what was then Cambridge College of Arts and Technology aka CAT, only to find that her new English tutor was also called Bill Greenwell.) And on the first occasion I ever plucked up the nerve to ask a girl to dance – I was 12, and it was on a ‘school cruise’ – the jigging about lasted only one round, before I was retired, and I only obtained the girl’s name, and the curious information that she had the same birthday. About seven or eight years later, at a party in Oxford, a light-switch went on in my head when I was talking to someone, and I found myself saying ‘”Your birthday is September 3rd”. It was the same girl. Something in my memory banks tripped a switch. She couldn’t remember me, and I am not sure how I remembered her. But yes, she had been on the same school cruise. I remember the moment, but I had forgotten all about it until sorting through some of my mother’s possessions this year, and came across a long letter I’d written her, in which I mentioned the coincidence. The mind is a curious repository of Stuff.

On with the day.

Serious embarrassment

August 31, 2010

All of us – I hope it’s all of us, and not just me – have recollections of moments when we said or did something which we flush, freeze or blush to remember. I have a stack of them, although the moment when, aged five, I told a chiropodist that my mum had only taken me to him because ‘the good one was away’, cannot really be counted. I can still recall the squeeze of her sharpened nails in my palm, though.

In the early 1980s, I wrote reviews for a great magazine called The Fiction Magazine, a monthly edited by Judy Cooke – callow reviews, really, which concentrated a bit too much on being witty, and not enough on the books. The Fiction Magazine coincided with the first ‘Best of British’  list of young novelists which also gave Granta a leg up.  (Both of them were thriving in the aftermath of the TLS having been shut down by Murdoch for a year. Granta survives, but, alas, The Fiction Magazine didn’t.)

The Fiction Magazine had a fifth birthday party, at which a fair few of the twenty best of British YNs were in evidence. I was just over thirty, and just a little bit starstruck for my own good. There were plenty of stars in the room (for some reason, they included Robin Day, who, like many people on the TV, was smaller than expected – like Ant and Dec, who are actually only three and two inches high respectively …). In a corridor, looking private and moody, was the novelist Graham Swift. To the left were Ian Hislop (then very newly appointed editor of Private Eye), together with Christopher Logue. Near them, the poet George MacBeth, and his then wife, Lisa St Aubin de Teran (with whose sister I taught, years later). I didn’t actually do too well with her either, riskily asking her if her novels were to be found under S, A, D or T. I cringe a bit at that, though I promise you worse is to come.

Before treading back where I don’t want to go, there was one amazing, to-be-treasured moment. I had recently reviewed a re-issue of a James Hanley novel from the early fifties – his was not a name I knew, and I discovered and read about fifteen of his novels on the strength of the re-issue (Against the Stream, originally published under a pseudonym). I urge you to look him up in a local library. They’ll all be hidden in the stack: you will be amazed.

Painting of James Hanley

 Hanley was himself at the party, in his eighties (there is a dispute over his year of birth, thought to be 1897 and not 1901 as often cited, but I see that we have the same birthday, as does Caryl Churchill), and he said he was pleased with my review. So I can’t have been all bad.

However, at this point, I met two more of the twenty Best Ofs, Clive Sinclair and Kazuo Ishiguro. I had recently reviewed a collection of short stories by Sinclair, and compared them unfavourably with Ian McEwan, which he said was a shameless thing to have done (and he was right). Once he had bitten the biter, he was very charming, luckily. So too was Ishiguro (I think he’d only published his first novel at that stage).

Here we go … “So,” I said, the drink overcoming all my sense, “how does it feel to be the Great White Hope of The Novel?”

Kazuo Ishiguro fixed me with an impish glee. “Yellow, I think you mean,” he said.