Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road by Half Man Half Biscuit

1997

After Gary Carey called me “a fat ****” as I sent him out of class in 1995, I was ready to change careers. When Roo saw a job as a Ward Sister in Brighton, I encouraged her to apply. She got the job and I enrolled in a M.Sc. course in Information Systems at The University of Brighton. At the end of the course, I had a placement at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and they offered me a short term contract after my course ended. I subsequently got a job in the I.T. department back at The University of Brighton. This was not a happy time for me. I had previously been told by friends that I could earn a fortune in I.T. but I proved them all wrong and I was useless in this particular job. I lasted for four months until I got another job with a small startup company in Surrey.

When I left the job at The University of Brighton, my boss told me that he thought I lacked initiative. I can see why he thought that although it’s not something I would have said about the other jobs I’ve had. In this case, I was floundering from the first day until the last day and didn’t have a clue what I should be doing. Whether this was due to a lack of initiative on my behalf or poor management by him is a moot point. It’s hard to show initiative when you don’t understand what you should be doing. There’s only so many times in a day you can ask other people in the office how to do something. If you do this too much, it doesn’t show a lack of initiative, it shows a lack of intelligence. Maybe I was too proud to ask for help too much but at the time, I thought I was being fairly honest with everyone. Who knows? After a bit, I told people that I was going to the University library to carry out some learning and I just went for coffee, cake and The Guardian. Nobody seemed to mind that I was gone for over an hour.

My boss worked in his own office separated from the rest of us. There were five other people working there, one of whom was in a management position. I can’t remember her exact title – something like office manager. I shall call her Karen. She was clearly intelligent and had all the knowledge and understanding that I needed. I asked for help a lot and she always came over to show me what to do but I seem to remember that that is exactly what she did – she showed me what to do but didn’t really teach me how to do it for myself. Anyway, she had more important things to do – she was going to get married in six months and it was going to be on a Caribbean beach. I reckon that she made about six phone calls a day to arrange her wedding and this was in an open plan office so everybody else in the office was aware of the intricate details of her dress, the cake, the guests, the speeches etc etc etc. It was annoying. Very annoying.

One day, the conversation in the office turned to music. At last, here was something I knew a little about. Other people liked good quality and highly popular artists such as Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Queen etc. When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned Half Man Half Biscuit and Karen suddenly became interested in something I had to say. She asked if I had heard a new song by HMHB which she had heard on the John Peel show called “Paintball’s Coming Home”? I hadn’t heard it and it had yet to be released on an album. Karen and I ended up swapping albums – I loaned her the first four HMHB albums and she loaned me four albums by Pavement which, as it happens, I didn’t particularly like. On the other hand, Karen showed some good taste and I think our music conversation fostered a little more mutual respect.

What impressed me more about Karen is that although, at the time, I never thought she had much of a sense of humour, her enthusiasm for “Paintball’s Coming Home” betrayed quite a lot of self deprecation. It’s a song about ghastly people who show off their new conservatory, go on “The Crystal Maze”, own “The Joy Of Sex” video, drink champagne in a hot air balloon and “have nothing but total respect for Annie Lennox”. Most telling of all, these people were getting “married on a Caribbean beach” which is exactly what Karen was planning.

Ten years later, when I was working at Oakmeeds, all Year Nine students had a mental arithmetic test as part of their “Key Stage 3 Assessments”. This took the form of a cassette tape which was sent to schools which we had to play them under test conditions. There were thirty mental arithmetic questions on the tape. In order to practice for this test, I recorded a series of questions myself which I circulated to everybody in the department so that all two hundred students could practice. For reasons which seem unfathomable to me now, at the end of the tape, after the test was over, I recorded “Paintball’s Coming Home”. I guess I did it to lighten the mood and to give the students a bit of fun after a ghastly test. I would say that this was one of the more popular things I’ve done. The recording was used for about five years in a row which means that out there, in Burgess Hill, there are about one thousand people, who are now in their twenties, who heard “Paintball’s Coming Home” as a fourteen year old. That makes me quite proud really. (?)

After yesterday’s blog about the importance of lyrics, in today’s blog I’m taking pretty much the opposite stance. Although the music and sound of Half Man Half Biscuit songs is fine (although not everyone agrees on this), the songs would be nothing, absolutely nothing, without the words.

“Eno Collaboration” is fantastic, taking the piss out of anyone who thinks that making music with Brian Eno is going to enhance their reputation. In order to establish his credentials, the singer went “from the Andies to the Indies in my undies“.

One of the many admirable things about Half Man Half Biscuit is the ability of Nigel Blackwell to not only write humourous lyrics but also to intersperse them with the occasional attempt at doom laden poetry. In “Bad Review”, the singer of a band is complaining about a bad review that “Jeff Dreadnought” has written about his band’s gig at “Deptford Abyss“. “Ooooh oooh what’s to do? It’s a bad review“. He starts thinking about “The fearsome hollow boom of the older boys in the deep end. The green shoots of recovery shrivelled up in harsh tomorrows left to pick dry sticks and mumble to myself ‘a melancholy emblem of parish cruelty’.” The occasional use of pathos to contrast with a deadpan sense of humour works incredibly well.

There’s no humour in “Dead Men Don’t Need Season Tickets”. The singer’s friend “Graham” has died and he goes to comfort his wife. “I said to his wife ‘Don’t give in to grieving cliche and turn his side of the room into a shrine. It just doesn’t work’“. The final line is “Dead men don’t need season tickets in a mortuary.” Yes, exactly.

I’m sure that Mr. Mitchell, my English teacher, would disagree with me but I firmly believe that Nigel Blackwell writes poetry that scans beautifully. Try this from “Tonight Matthew, I’m Going To Be With Jesus” “I’ve been up to no good/I’ve been dissed in the ‘hood/I’ve been locked in the Rock City, Notts/I got stars in my eyes/I told thousands of lies/When arrested at Cowes robbing yachts.”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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