In 1996, as part of my M.Sc., I did a work placement at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN) in Russell Square, London. I had to develop a Windows application to display medical data on patients. All the data was being stored but it was very hard for clinicians to access. I had to learn a new language, Delphi, and build an application which allowed users to click their way through to access the relevant data for each patient. It might sound complicated but it was actually very easy, if a bit time consuming. I succeeded in completing the project but I don’t think it was ever used.
This was the last part of a one year course which was designed to help graduates in non-I.T. subjects get work. I had to pay the course fees myself – or rather I had to ask my parents to pay the course fees for me. This seemed outrageous to me as I had had my tuition fees paid for me all the way through my degree course. Nowadays of course, it’s just what everyone does. There were 35 of us on the course and there was a pretty good feeling amongst us all. I was aged 41 when the course started but I wasn’t the oldest person on the course. Most people were in their 20s.
Roo and I were renting a small house in Falmer at the time and to get to London it was straightforward for me to drive to Hassocks, park the car in the station car park and get a train from there. This was easier than getting a train from Falmer to Brighton and changing. I had never been to Hassocks before but soon after the course ended, Roo and I moved to Hassocks and we have lived in the same house ever since. While I was working at the NHNN, I made a lot of the arrangements for the move. In fact I spent so much time on the phone sorting things out that I got a rap on the knuckles from my boss about the exorbitant phone bill I had rung up. Working in an office was a complete change for me compared with teaching. When teaching a class, if I wasn’t doing it properly, I got immediate feedback. This was normally shown by a child misbehaving or simply telling me that my lesson was boring. In the office at the NHNN, if I wasn’t doing my job properly, nobody seemed to care. It was very odd but also quite unfulfilling. A graph showing how much job satisfaction I was getting in teaching would be up and down VVVVVVVVV – and this could be in the course of just one lesson, let alone in a day or over a week. The good bits were very rewarding, the bad bits were frustrating and induced feelings of anger, disappointment and self recrimination. In an IT office a graph showing job satisfaction would be very level ——-. One day was very much like the other. A bit like being in lockdown I guess.
What made the placement at NHNN so pleasant was the company of Steve Reeve. As well as having a brilliantly alliterative name, he was a great guy. He lived in Brighton, he was on the same course and he was also on placement at the NHNN. He and I got the train to London every morning, sat opposite each other in the office, spent our lunchtimes together and travelled home together. He was a quiet guy and very funny and very friendly. He and I were always making lists which is obviously a very male way of forming a friendship. Top 5 football games we had seen. Top 5 favourite students on our course. When I invited him to our wedding reception and told him that he had to turn left just past Budgens, he asked me what my Top 5 Budgens were.
When we got onto our Top 5 records, I obviously said “Astral Weeks”, “Starsailor”, “Sgt. Pepper”, “Revolver” and “Blonde On Blonde”. He quickly listed all The Smiths studio records plus “Hatful Of Hollow”. Steve Reeve was a huge Smith fan. When he told me that, I suddenly realised why he had a rather pronounced quiff. I wasn’t a huge fan but I did have the first record (“The Smiths”) and “Hatful Of Hollow” and I loved them both. I’m not exactly sure why I had these records but I had some great clips of them on “Top Of The Pops” and “The Tube” on VHS tapes. I really liked the early singles and particularly liked the first track on “The Smiths” which is called “Reel Around The Fountain.”
It’s very interesting that Steve Reeve and I became very good friends for a short period of time. I don’t know how or why we lost touch and it’s a shame that we did but for that brief period of time we had a lot in common. It was especially important for us that we were able to discuss music and the fact that I was able to talk a little about his favourite group and also recall their appearance on “The Tube” in 1984 meant that we could bond over shared musical appreciation. The fact that he was little more than half my age was irrelevant.
This morning, Peter and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours discussing “And Nothing Hurt” by Spiritualized. I’m sure we would still be great friends if we didn’t share musical tastes but it adds to our friendship as it does with most of my friends. In these days of lockdown, it’s such a welcome change to have a chat about something that isn’t to do with Covid-19. A bit like when Andy and I discuss cricket teams every Wednesday. Having something specific to talk about is essential. Ideally I would be doing something (going to football with Dave or Peter; cricket with Andy; a gig with Richard; snooker with Pete) but in the absence of that, having something specific to talk about is essential. Because Steve Reeve and I could chat about The Smiths, it meant that we became closer.
This is a remarkable debut record. It contains two very well known singles “Hand In Glove” and “What Difference Does It Make”. My favourite song is the first song, “Reel Around The Fountain.” There are several references on the internet to the fact (opinion?) that the phrase “reel around the fountain” means licking around the side of a penis until ejaculation. The first lines of the song are “Its time the tale were told of how you took a child and you made him old.” Several tabloids ran a story claiming that this showed that Morrisey was celebrating child abuse. He himself has said that the song is about “loss of innocence; that until one has a physical commitment with another person, there’s something childlike about the soul.” The lyric, “I dreamt about you last night, and I fell out of bed twice,” is lifted from Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play, “A Taste Of Honey.”
The guitar work of Johnny Marr is a fundamental part of The Smiths’ excellence. He described how he composed the music for this song. “‘Reel Around The Fountain’ was my interpretation of Jimmy Jones’ version of ‘Handy Man’. It came from one of mine and Joe Moss’ marathon R&B record sessions one morning. We went from listening to The Platters, which I wasn’t really getting behind, to Jimmy Jones. I remembered hearing the track from when I was a kid, ‘cos one of me aunties or somebody used to play it. So I remembered the melody of ‘Handy Man’ but then when I tried to play it myself I got it all wrong, which was useful really. I was trying to do a classic melodic pop tune, and it had the worst kind of surface prettiness to it. But at the same time, Joy Division was influencing everybody in England. That dark element – it wasn’t that I wanted to be like them, but they brought out something in the darkness of the overall track.”
AJ Ramirez wrote about this record. “The emergence of the Smiths signaled the start of a new era in British music. Their callbacks to pre-psychedelic guitar pop and their disdain of synthesizers and modern studio trickery set them apart from the still-thriving post-punk movement, even as they swam in the same independent label waters. The group’s pronounced ordinariness, literate lyrics, and thoroughly un-macho stance were potent symbols that a generation of maligned youth could rally around. Alienation, mistreatment, rejection, and longing: the themes that would reoccur throughout singer Morrissey’s career are fully accounted for on “The Smiths”, where they are rendered all the more piercing by Johnny Marr’s delicate guitar-picking and John Porter’s stark production.”
Steven Erlewine wrote “Arriving in an era dominated by synth pop and gloomy post-punk, The Smiths’ debut was the bracing beginning of a new era. On the surface, their sound wasn’t radically different from traditional British guitar pop – Johnny Marr’s ringing, layered guitars were catchy and melodic — but it was actually an astonishing subversion of the form, turning the structure inside out. Very few of the songs followed conventional verse-chorus structure, yet they were quite melodic within their own right. Johnny Marr’s inventive songwriting was made all the more original and innovative by Morrisey’s crooning and lyrics. Writing about unconventional topics, from homosexuality to murder, he had a distinctively ironic, witty, and literate viewpoint whose strangeness was accentuated by his off-kilter voice, which would move from a croon to a yelp in a matter of seconds. While the production of “The Smiths” is a little pristine, the songs are vital and alive, developing a new, unique voice within pop music.”
I haven’t played this record in a long time but it’s even longer since I lost contact with Steve Reeve.