I can’t concentrate like I used to. I used to be quite happy watching a two hour session of a Test Match or an entire football match without feeling a need to keep myself otherwise occupied. The worst thing I own is my mobile phone. A ball goes out for a throw in and I think I’ll just check my mail. Jimmy Anderson is in the middle of another tight maiden over and I think it’s time I had a quick game of FreeCell. I’ve missed a large number of goals recently whilst playing Tetris instead of looking at the game.
Of course, the phone is a wonderful thing. Keeping in touch with friends via WhatsApp has been brilliant, especially since the pandemic kicked in. Sharing silly pictures of Boris Johnson or appalling stories about the government’s dithering is a great way of staying connected. Listening to podcasts on the phone while walking Bruno, checking my bank account or keeping a calendar up to date – these are all good things.
I suppose one of the additionally useful things about a phone is its ability to make a phone call from anywhere. I think, but I’m not sure, that Martin got me a ticket to see England v Spain in the quarter finals of Euro 96 when England drew 0-0 with Spain, only to win on penalties. For some reason, I decided to drive to Balham tube station and get the Underground to Wembley. There may have been disruption to the trains, I can’t remember. I vastly underestimated how long it would take to get to Wembley, arriving over an hour after our agreed time. Amazingly, Martin was still waiting for me. I hadn’t been able to let him know I would be late and I wouldn’t have been annoyed if he had given up and assumed I wasn’t coming.
Then there was the time that Roo and I arranged to visit a work colleague of mine who lived in Luton and the directions we had were woeful. We spent ages trying to find a phone box and got more directions which were equally poor. Three phone boxes later, we finally arrived about ninety minutes late.
One Friday in 1982, I drove to see friends of mine who lived in Chesham which was a fifty mile drive from Harlow. We were going to go out for a meal and a beer or two and I intended to come back on Saturday morning. I had a green Hillman Hunter; it was a decent car and up until that day it had been reliable. As I drove past a village called Hertingfordbury, the road went up a hill but the car did not. As I barely knew how to change the oil, there was no point in opening the bonnet and gazing wistfully at the engine, hoping I could persuade it to work by sheer force of personality. I was a member of the AA so I looked for a phone box. I hadn’t seen one on the road behind me so I carried on walking up the hill. After half a mile, there was a sharp left hand turn which led back to the village on a road that was nearly parallel to the one I had just walked along. In another half a mile, I walked into a village and, hurrah!, there was a phone box. I summoned help and realised that a quicker way back to the car was to carry on as I could see the bottom of the hill in the distance. After a few minutes, I saw an AA van driving towards my car. I assumed that the driver would find my car and seeing no one with it, would move on to his next job. I started running towards it. I have to say that in 1982, I was not at the peak of my physical powers. I could sprint 22 yards between two sets of stumps but to sprint three quarters of a mile and possibly overtake a van travelling at 40 mph was a trifle optimistic. Luckily, when I finally arrived at my car, puffing, and red faced, the driver had a sense of humour and a commitment to customer satisfaction. My car was beyond hope, he hooked me to the back of his van and he drove me home. I had to stay in my car and steer it behind him since he was in a van, not a pickup. I switched on the radio and the first song that came on the radio was “Fantastic Day” by Haircut 100. It wasn’t a fantastic day. My evening plans were ruined, I needed a new car and I had not been able to get in touch with my friends to explain my non-appearance. Of course, I could have phoned them from that phone box but I was too concerned to get back to my car in time. I phoned them when I got home, two hours late. If only I’d had a mobile.
(That car remained where the driver left it on the road outside someone’s house for about three months. When I finally sold it to Lee, a school refuser who lived upstairs from me in Conyers, for £5, someone came out of the house and gave me abuse for parking in his space. I apologised and explained that I hadn’t realised that he owned that part of the road. Obviously, he appreciated my sarcasm. I think that was a look of appreciation, anyway).
The point is, although my mobile phone is a constant source of temptation, there were many problems before their invention. This got me to thinking about my favourite song about phone calls and it’s on an album by Loudon Wainwright III which contains many fantastic songs.
In the mid 1980’s, Loudon Wainwright was living in London and had a weekly spot on Jasper Carrot’s Saturday night TV show, “Carrot Confidential”. He was being managed by Asgard Promotions who also managed Richard Thompson at the time. “More Love Songs” was produced by Richard Thompson who persuaded many stars of the British folk-rock scene to appear on the album including Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Danny Thompson and Dave Mattacks. To my mind, many of the recordings here are over produced. I prefer to hear Loudon Wainwright with just his own guitar as a musical accompaniment but his career has, in my opinion, been plagued by the idea that his songs could become more widely appreciated if they include drums, trumpets and saxophones. For example, “Hard Day On The Planet” is a brilliant song describing how grim things are in the world (in 1986! Try writing the song in 2021). As always there are some killer lines, for example, he worries that Bob Geldof is looking a bit thin. The version from “Whistle Test” is really good but on the album, Danny Thompson’s bass turns the song into a jazz/blues number with Loudon Wainwright scat singing.
There are many bizarre aspects to the Wainwright dynasty. On this album, there is a beautiful song called “Your Mother And I” which is addressed to one of his children, explaining that he is not going to live with his child’s mother any more. Loudon Wainwright has four children and has not lived with the mother of any of them for more than a few years at a time. One of his children is Martha Wainwright, who is an excellent singer (and who once wrote a song about her father called “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”). Here she is, singing “Your Mother And I” although she has modified the lyrics slightly. It’s very odd to hear the child of a broken marriage singing a song written by her father apologising to herself about leaving her. A convoluted sentence for a convoluted situation.
Equally strange is “Unhappy Anniversary” which ‘celebrates’ one year since Loudon Wainwright split from his partner. When Dave, Gay and I saw him perform this in Basingstoke, Martha Wainwright came on stage to sing the song with him while the audience joined in for the chorus. I always imagined Loudon Wainwright’s psychoanalyst standing in the wings, banging his head against a wall at this point. It is a great melody, the lyrics are very clever, the brass band instrumentation is unusually appropriate, it’s easy to sing along with it but it’s yet another desperately sad song. The tears of a clown.
“Man’s World” is really excellent. It’s a song that defies full understanding but it appears to be addressed to either one or several women about the barriers erected by men to prevent females from succeeding in the world. There are five verses and each verse indicates one way of succeeding either by making money, dressing sexily, assuming a male dominant persona, or emphasising the weaknesses of men. The final verse, sarcastically explains that it’s easy for women to infiltrate the man’s world: all she has to do is to raise a family, pursue a successful career and show love to all your family. I think it’s a song that doesn’t patronise women and is sympathetic to women’s rights. However, as always, with Loudon Wainwright, when he points out his own frailties, he can be easily misunderstood as a misogynist. Especially by Roo.
Let’s get back to phone calls. As I said, Loudon Wainwright was living in London at this time and “Overseas Call” is a song about the problems of making a call from the U.K. to the U.S.A. It’s another very sad song, over four minutes long, and it’s main theme is that it’s very difficult to maintain a relationship over a long distance in a different time zone. He wonders if he should write a letter but they take too long and a postcard would be “trite”. As time goes on, he is starting to forget about his loved one: “I remember your body but I forget your face”. He tries to phone but when he does, he sometimes gets the time difference wrong – he woke her up the last time he phoned and although “the connection was good, we didn’t connect”. He hopes she is at home, he hopes she’s awake and he hopes that she loves him. The best is saved to the last as he ponders the fish in the ocean as they swim around the transatlantic phone cable. In the depths of the ocean “they will fathom the sound of a lost human voice”. It’s wonderful. As is my mobile phone.
That’s all for now. My best score at Tetris can be beaten, I’m sure.