Robyn Hitchcock 17 Norwich 0

When I win a large amount of money on the Premium Bonds and the biographical film of my life comes to be made, many of the best bits of the soundtrack will be to the music of Robyn Hitchcock who has provided much of the soundtrack to my adult life.  When my good friend Mr Goold told me therefore that Robyn would be performing at Norwich Puppet Theatre, a venue a mere 24 kilometres from Mr Goold’s abode, I was obviously quick, well in truth not that quick, to buy a ticket (£18, plus £2.30 to anonymous middle men) and invite myself to sleep on my good friend’s floor for the night.  My other good friend Pete decided he would also like to come along on what his consumption of American popular culture and resultant outlook on life told him would be a road trip in the style of Hunter S Thompson.

It’s a dreamy drive through the Norfolk countryside on a September evening in Mr Goold’s golden 2004 Nissan Micra, the sun is setting to our left casting long shadows.  Reaching Norwich, having been driven for the first time in my life through Poringland, I am struck by how much like a proper city Norwich is, from its riverside roadways, medieval cathedral and monumental County Council building to its elevated four lane highway; a pity about its football club. Mr Goold’s Nissan Micra comes to rest in Magdalen car park in the shadow of a concrete flyover, our ultimate destination less than 200 metres away.  We walk through the fading light to the 15th/16th century church of St James the Less, now re-purposed as the Norwich Puppet Theatre.  I muse on St James the Less being appropriate given that puppets are like miniature people. At my behest ⁹Pete poses with the cathedral as a backdrop; I photograph him but fail to make the spire give him the appearance of a man wearing a tall, pointed hat; I can’t helping thinking that it’s an opportunity missed.  My life is full of regrets.

Inside the theatre we drink at the bar, Mr Goold drinks coffee, Pete drinks Adnams Ghostship, I down Adnam’s Broadside. We check out our fellow audience members; people in late middle age like us, Norwich’s arty set and younger people dragged along by their elders against their will. I make assumptions about people.  Eager to get ‘good seats’, when we see the first people departing the room we follow, hoping we’re not just pursuing them into the toilet. The auditorium has been dropped neatly into the nave of the church, and the interweb tells me it has over 150 seats, my eyes tell me these are split either side of a central gangway; it is steep giving a good view of the stage.

At 8 o’clock the support act, Jessica Lee Morgan and Christian Thomas play a set of unfortunately forgettable songs very competently indeed and they seem very nice.  Jessica is the daughter of Mary Hopkin and Tony Visconti and she tells us so in case we didn’t know.  After the set, as we wait for Robyn Hitchcock to appear I tell Mr Goold that from now on I might be begin telling people that my mother is Daphne Brooks and Reg Brooks was my father.  In spite of the snidey implications of the previous sentence the support act are alright.

At nine o’clock Robyn Hitchcock appears, being helped onto the stage and to a seat at a Clavinova digital piano, a product of the Yamaha company.  Robyn explains that the previous evening he fell over and whilst not damaged in terms of breakages to bone and sinew, he is clearly in pain and standing up and moving about is a problem for him.  In an unfortunate way however, this is a good thing for his paying audience as we receive the rare treat of hearing Robyn playing piano and sounding not unlike the Plastic Ono band.  I can’t now wholly remember which four songs are played, but ‘Ted, Woody and Junior’, a song about three men lathering each other with soap is one, and by way of an apparent insight into this song Robyn tells us about his grandma’s Ray-Bans, which were comparable in a competitive way to those owned by Andy Warhol, and how her wearing them at home on the Isle of Wight was concomitant to and therefore related to the meeting of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Brian Jones in New York.  Many of Robyn’s songs are about moments in time such as this.

After four songs on the piano, Robyn shuffles out from behind it to a stool, where he is handed his acoustic guitar by Chris Thomas of the support act who has been pressed into the role, hopefully only temporarily, of carer.   Again, the audience is in luck as a less than satisfactory pick-up on the guitar causes Robyn to come to the very front of the stage to perform un-plugged and un-miked.

The first of five songs Robyn plays on his acoustic guitar is ‘I’ve got the hots for you’, a tune dating back to 1980 when Robyn existed in a previous incarnation as member of the Soft Boys, but still wrote excellent songs.     ‘Hots’ as I have stupidly decided to call it here for the sake of brevity, although these words of explanation have of course taken longer to type and read than the full title is on the life-enhancing LP ‘Underwater Moonlight’, and is a song of which I have always been especially fond. My fondness for ‘Hots’ is in a good part due its reference near the end of the song to “a piece of Hake”.  I have always enjoyed this lyric, ‘Hake’ being such a fine word and few artists ever mention fish in their songs. Tonight this song has extra poignancy as I have recently returned from Brittany where I had a particularly good time watching FC Lorient, a football team who call themselves Les Merlus, and have a mascot called Merlux; Merlu is the French word for Hake and Merlux therefore translates approximately as Hakey.  Incidentally, Lorient beat FC Nantes, a team known as the Canaries just like the local team in Norwich. I don’t think Robyn has any knowledge whatsoever of football or its mascots, but it’s as if he knew. It’s a situation not unlike that of Andy Warhol and Robyn’s grandmother.

Also within the acoustic set, Robyn plays a new song entitled ‘I am this thing’, a song which has appeared on-line but is so new it has not been played live before.  Robyn tells us that this song has been requested this evening and after the show Mr Goold tells Pete and me how he was particularly taken with the track when hearing it on-line, and it was he who had asked that Robyn play it tonight. Whilst secretly grateful to Mr Goold, we don’t let on too much and I admit to thinking the song sounds a bit like another of Robyn’s songs, although typically I can’t remember which one, but obviously it’s a good one.

After the five acoustic tunes, Robyn hobbles back to be handed his electric guitar on which he plays four more songs including a reverberating version of ‘I often dream of trains’ and the almost-title track from his new album Shufflemania, which is entitled ‘The Shuffleman’.  Robyn remarks how his fall has resulted in his becoming the Shuffleman himself, although alternatively, given the venue, his movements could be said to be puppet-like , as if Thunderbirds had had a member of the International Rescue team who just sat about and rescued people by playing groovy music.

The final quarter of the gig sees Robyn joined on stage by Jessica and Chris for another four songs, with Robyn managing to stand up to play his electric guitar. After a beautiful rendition of ‘Queen of Eyes’, which almost brings a tear to my eye as it again takes me back to 1980 and my lost youth, Robyn advises that these songs are the encores, which whilst disappointing is understandable unless Robyn can somehow be magically lifted up from the stage and then set down on it again like some sort of over age Peter Pan.  The ‘encore’ also comprises the stonking ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’ which includes the lyric “Please don’t call me Reg, It’s not my name”, the galloping ‘Oceanside’ and finally ‘Airscape’, probably a favourite of Robyn himself.  

Applause for Robyn and his band is not thunderous, because there aren’t enough of us in the puppet theatre for that, but it is heartfelt and enthusiastic and barely ends before the lights go up confirming that that was indeed the encore. It has been a fabulous evening and possibly a unique one, what with Robyn both playing piano and going doubly unplugged.

As a final act before departing the puppet theatre, which has been an excellent venue, I purchase a copy of a seven-inch single entitled ‘Mr President’, which I like for the picture on the cover of Robyn on the telephone against a back drop of overhead trolleybus or tram wires.  Such records and CDs along with his weekly shows on-line will now have to suffice until we can see Robyn play live again, and driving back to Mr Goold’s abode our happy reminiscences of the evening inspire us to resolve to get tickets for Robyn’s seventieth birthday concert at the Alexandra Palace next February. 

Ipswich Town 0 Cardiff City 1

 

Tonight I am looking forward to going to the football at Portman Road despite the pall of gloom that hangs over the place; a gloom which deepened on Sunday when a Norwich City goal in the last seven seconds of added on time fooled many Ipswich fans into thinking a decent result was a terrible one.   There’s a lot of blame and a lot of disinterest weighing the place down.  But what do I care, it’s five o’clock and one of the best things in life is to leave work and go directly to the pub and that’s exactly what I am doing, along with my accomplice for the first part of the evening Roly.

Darkness is imperceptibly surrounding us as we head along Constantine Road, Sir Alf Ramsey Way and Portman Road towards St Jude’s Tavern.  It’s cold and through the eerieOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA half-light a few tiny specks of very light sleet drift and fall and sparkle in a car headlight beam.  There is activity in the football ground as stewards arrive and are detailed off for their evening duties; Zero the sniffer dog arrives at the Constantine Road gate to the ground with his handler; Zero is sans-lead, which I guess for a working dog like him is like being in civvies.  I like to think of him having his own dressing room where he changes into collar and lead and perhaps prepares for the evening with a few exercises to clear his sinuses. In Portman Road the hot food stands set up a while ago and early diners stand nearby in ones and twos, basking in the beautiful, enticing fluorescent light, which falls out into the street and as ever make me think of the paintings of Edward Hopper.

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It’s not yet 5:20 when we rock up at Jude’s and there aren’t many drinkers here yet, just the few who are seemingly always here and think they are characters in Cheers.  Roly gets me a pint of Bearstown Best Bitter (£3.20) and has a pint of Priory Mild (£3.20) himself.  We sit in a corner near the door, a location Roly chooses, perhaps because of the tilting leather-bound chair which allows him to lean back and pose questions in the manner of a TV chat show host.  Roly has a show on Ipswich Community Radio and is used to audiences of less than ten. We talk a variety of nonsense, although Roly does most of the talking because he’s nothing if not loquacious, which is perhaps why he is on the wireless.  As we finish our pints and are about to get more beer and a pie each, who should walk in to the pub but ever-present Phil who never misses a match.  Attracted by tales of the Match Day Special (£2.50) in this very blog, Phil has decided to eschew the delights of the fanzone tonight and sample cheap beer in a proper pub where none of the beer, rather than all of it, bears the name Greene King.

After introductions and an explanation of Phil’s claim to fame, I eventually fetch a pie and a pint (£5.00) each for Roly and me. I have a pint of Nethergate Suffolk Bitter and a mince and onion pie, Roly has more Priory Mild and a steak and kidney pie; I tear open a sachet of red sauce, Roly has no sauce.  I return to our table to find Roly talking at length to Phil about the 1993/94 season, which could be the last time Phil missed a game, I don’t really know.  Time passes and I have a further pint, this time the Match Day Special (£2.50), which is St Jude’s Gainsborough.  Phil leaves for the ground before Roly and I, but by and by we also head to Portman Road; Roly is meeting a friend called Andrew, a public sector worker who lives in Bury St Edmunds.

Outside, the night time now surrounds us, but it’s very cold and the chill night air feels damp.  A fine mist shrouds the Portman Road floodlights creating a scene and an atmosphere far too spectacular and evocative for this mundane second division fixture, for which only 13,205 people will bother to leave their homes.  Roly, Andrew and I meet close to the statue of Sir Alf and try hard to be humourous.  I say that if we see a game half as good as the goalless draw against Burton Albion last Saturday week, I will be happy; how we laugh.  Roly and Andrew depart for the expensive seats in the East of England Co-operative stand leaving me to saunter down Portman Road and bask in the variety of light that shines from street lamps and windows, from over doorways and from the little white programme kiosks.

 

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There are two orange plastic cones behind the statue of Sir Bobby Robson, which in the shadows deceive the eye and look like there is cloth hanging off the back of his plinth.  Why are they there? Does Sir Bobby get down off his plinth in the middle of the night and dance around joyously with one on his head as he remembers victories under floodlights over St Etienne, FC Koln, Real Madrid and Norwich?

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I am not searched as I enter the ground, although I carry a bag displaying the yellow stars of the European Union, perhaps I have diplomatic immunity.  Near the turnstiles just inside the ground a notice warns of high voltage electricity, seemingly just behind a locked door, and the sign advises that one should contact the stadium manger to gain access; I make a mental note just in case I’m feeling suicidal at half-time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I use the toilet facilities and advance through the undercroft of the stand where there are now very few people at all; there aren’t many more in the stand and swathes of empty blue seats  greet the teams, cheering and singing just like regular Ipswich fans.  The teams are ready to kick-off as I select a seat just along from Phil.   Ipswich are playing towards me, Phil and the empty seats of ‘Churchmans’, now known as the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand.  Cardiff kick-off and are wearing the most garish, unpleasant kit I have ever seen in my entire football watching life.   Cardiff’s shirts are day-glo green and their shorts are blue; it’s a kit inspired by the heads and hands of Edward Lear’s Jumblies and “Happen what may it’s extremely wrong”.

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It takes the Cardiff City supporters of whom there are 371, just eight minutes to enquire as to whether Portman Road is a library;

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their question is met with the characteristic stony silence as if no one heard them; just once I would like 13,000 odd Ipswich supporters to put their fingers to their lips and go  SShhhh!   The first half is not surprisingly a quiet affair; Cardiff dominate in the first ten or fifteen minutes without really looking like they know what they’re doing, but then Ipswich get back at them and create openings that almost lead to something that might result in a goal; corners, crosses, shots and the like.  The most notable feature of the game however, apart from Cardiff’s hideously coloured shirts, is the size of the Cardiff players, they are to a man enormous; it’s like a team of Neanderthals against a team of Australopithicus.  Who knew Neanderthals had such poor taste in shirts?  Any way, it’s not too bad a game and Ipswich seem every bit as good as Cardiff, just shorter and better dressed.  Surely there’s more to Cardiff City’s being second in the league table than this?

Half-time brings a visit to the toilet and a then a chat with a couple of women who used to travel to away games, as I did, on a coach hired by the Clacton branch of the supporters club. I also talk to Dee and Pete with whom I used to work and then Ray, another public sector employee and former colleague, who once appeared in an Anglian Water advertisement.  Ray went to see Ipswich play at Norwich; I ask him if he has come into some money; tickets for that game cost £40. £40! I’d expect to see a World Cup final for that.  We chat and are surprised to hear America’s 1971 recording ‘Horse With No Name’ playing over the PA system, but on reflection it is an appropriately dreary  and pessimistic song for Portman Road and its passionless supporters.

The second half begins and Cardiff City are still wearing those repulsive green shirts with blue shorts; why hasn’t the little bald referee Mr Davies told them? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But then, why would the Football League let a man called Davies referee a Cardiff City match?   I have heard talk of the Welsh Mafia, or Tafia and tonight we are seeing it in action.  There is no way Ipswich will win this game.

Ipswich aren’t quite as ‘good’ as they were at the end of the first half and get a bit fed up.  When a disputed throw-in is awarded to Cardiff, Ipswich captain Luke Chambers gives a frustrated little skip and beats his arms against his sides like a petulant school girl.  Behind the thrower an advert reads ‘Ginster’s Pasties, Fill your boots’, which would make a good alternative to the half-time penalty shoot-out; how many pasties can you stuff into your shoe?  Above my head a buddleia still grows on the roof of the stand.

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When the attendance figure is announced, the Cardiff fans sing “ You’re only here for the Cardiff” , which given that it’s the lowest gate of the season isn’t saying much; if only they knew, but perhaps it was just the next song on their playlist.   But the Welsh clearly caught the late 60s early 70’s vibe of ‘Horse With No Name’ at half-time and reprise it with a blast of the Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance, singing “ All we are saying is give us a goal” .  Three minutes later, a Cardiff free-kick drops in the Ipswich penalty area, a bloke in a nasty green shirt seems to fall on top of it, possibly handling it, before standing up and kicking it in an ungainly manner into the corner of the Ipswich goal; his name is Kenneth.  It’s a crappy goal, one of the crappiest, but we know something of Mr Davies’ taste in music.

The Ipswich supporters react as usual to their team going behind with a deafening wall of silence as they contemplate how they might become any less passionate and supportive of their team. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As the game enters its final fifteen minutes however, some voices briefly stir in the North Stand as the drum up the corner is occasionally heard and that old favourite “Sloop John B” is employed to celebrate that Luke Hyam is the only player in the team to have emerged from the Ipswich Town ‘Academy’: “He’s one of our own, He’s one of our own, Luke Hyam, He’s one of our own”.    Phil satirically sings “We’ve got him on loan, we’ve got him on loan, perm any one from Carter-Vickers, Callum Connolly or Bersant Celina, we’ve got him on loan”.

Having scored just twice in their last six home matches, Ipswich inevitably go one better to make it two goals in seven matches.  Equally inevitably, I hear the fading sound of boos as I skip out of the ground and run to the railway station to catch the ‘early’ train to Colchester, which I succeed in doing only to find my connecting train is cancelled.

It’s not been a terrible night’s football, some small parts of it were even quite good.  But overall it was what I believe in modern parlance is described as ‘meh’.  But I enjoyed going to the pub and seeing the pretty lights and speaking to lots of people and hearing the occasional Welsh accent, so there’s lots to be thankful for. I’ll probably come again.

Coggeshall Town 1 Stowmarket Town 2

An evening in late March and a chill breeze blows along the valley of the River Blackwater. Individuals and people in small groups stride purposefully in the diminishing light through the quiet streets of Coggeshall and across open meadows. At the edge of the town along West Street, the floodlit turf of ‘The Crops’ football ground, draws them in.

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Tonight is a big night in the Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League First Division. Tonight Coggeshall Town (3rd in the league table) play Stowmarket Town (top of the league) in a re-match after their initial encounter was controversially abandoned well into the second half as one of the linesman complained of not being able to keep his footing on the frosty pitch; Coggeshall had been 2-0 up at the time.

The Crops is a great name for a football ground, particularly for one in a small country town like Coggeshall (pop. 4,727 in the 2011 census), with its half-timbered houses and fully-timbered medieval tithe barn. Just to over-do the bucolic-ness of it all the football team are nicknamed the Seed Growers too. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Crops is dug into the side of a field that slopes down from West Street towards the winding narrow river. The path from the turnstiles to the club house and changing rooms runs behind and above the low main stand with its four rows of seats, characterful uneven fascia and dark corrugated iron roof. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the front of the stand a large sign reads ‘Chelmsford Plastic Warehouse’; I like to think this is an actual thing, like plastic flowers or the Plastic Ono Band. Either side of the stand a steep-ish grassy slope runs down to the pitch-side. The changing rooms occupy a dark wooden building with steps leading down to onto a corner of the pitch. Dug into the ground behind the goal at the clubhouse end is a long low covered terraced with a corrugated tin roof like a utilitarian municipal tram shelter. You can stand behind this ‘tram shelter’, rest your beer on the roof and get a good view of most of the pitch, though you can’t see the near goal-line or a large part of the goal come to that.

For an evening match it’s possible to get to Coggeshall on the number 70 bus from Colchester, but it’s not possible to get back again. Coggeshall has no train station and never has done, so with no lights on my bike, tonight I must make use of the large car park at the side of the ground;OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA it’s almost completely full but could be fuller if people had smaller cars or didn’t indulge in ‘greed parking’, taking up more space than they need. According to Parking News (genuine trade paper of the parking industry) this has become more prevalent due to increased levels of obesity. Fat bastards. Entry to the ground is a bargain £4 tonight, the admission reduced because over 200 people had already paid to the see the first match on 21st January, which was never completed. The small but colourful and glossy programme costs £1.00.

The teams take the field, Coggeshall in red and black stripes like AC Milan, Stowmarket in yellow shirts so pale they are almost beige, and red shorts, like a washed out Watford. The Stowmarket shirts bear the Nike logo, but with their insipid colour they look like they’re from Primark. Both teams are clearly tense and the game begins with fouls and squabbles, protests and pleas, and the referee quickly needs to take control. The confident Stowmarket No5 sneers at Coggeshall’s diminutive No8 and insults him, “What’s up midget-boy?” he asks. Rude. These are two well organised and committed sides and what develops is an opera of constant shouts and calls, curses and oaths combined with a ballet of runs and leaps and turns. Under the floodlights it’s a sporting son et lumiere, but with a hint of surreal comedy as a giant cartoon cockerel watches impassively from the sidelines; OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAit’s Rocky the Rooster, the Coggeshall mascot.

Goalless at half-time, in the second half the match becomes a drama as with an hour gone Stowmarket score a penalty; but Coggeshall quickly equalise with a goal of beautiful simplicity, grace and speed. Their fleet of foot No 7, frizzy hair buffeted by the breeze, runs at the defence then threads through a perfect pass for the number 9 to chase and poke past the Stowmarket guardian. Coggeshall hopes are reborn, but the drama builds as with the game entering its final ten minutes hesitancy in the Coggeshall defence allows Stowmarket to score again. All the time this drama is played out before a tiny chorus, the Stowmarket six, a group of visiting supporters who chant and shout from within the tram shelter, their cat calls amplified by its tinny echo. “He’s got his IQ on his shirt, He’s got his IQ on his shirt” they sing to or about someone, it’s not obvious who. As Coggeshall strive to equalise a final twist turns the play into a tragedy as a poor tackle fells the Seed Growers’ Matt Southall; he’s too badly hurt to move immediately and there is a ten minute hiatus as a host of people in big coats run on and off the pitch and concern mounts. Some of the 310 strong crowd leave. Eventually Matt leaves the field to applause, but on a stretcher; his ankle is damaged and a long evening in A & E awaits.

The remaining five minutes produce half chances at both ends, the netting behind the goals does its job in catching stray shots and Stowmarket use up the time doing nothing whenever they can. But this tale has run its course and the game ends to scenes of gay abandon amongst the Stowmarket camp who may well win the league championship now, whilst Coggeshall’s disappointment is tangible, it’s clear this game mattered a bit more than most of the others.