The Voltarol Years by Half Man Half Biscuit

2022

At the end of the last episode of “In My Skin”, 18 year old Bethyn says a tearful farewell to her Mum and gets on a coach to London, escaping the drama of her home town that has been portrayed in the previous 12 episodes. As the coach crosses over the Severn Bridge, she starts writing in her notebook. “My name is Bethan Gwyndaf. My Mum is mentally ill and my Dad is an abusive alcoholic. I’ve seen things I shouldn’t have seen. I’ve known fear, deep fear, that’s sunk into my bones. I’ve felt shame but I’ve also felt incredible love. I’ve been wrapped up and saved by people’s kindness and friendship, by a Mum who did everything she possibly could to give me a good life. And now today I feel proud. I am so incredibly proud of myself.” A piano theme increases in intensity, Bethan looks out of the window and then turns to the camera and smiles. The shot fades to black, the music continues and the credits come up. Even now, having watched the episode a few times, I gaze at the names of the actors and the dedication from the writer, Kayleigh Llewellyn, “For my mum, Janet Llewellyn. Thank you for everything.” This is important time for me when watching the end of an emotional film. I need some moments of reflection, to process my emotions.

What I don’t need, and thankfully what I didn’t get when watching “In My Skin” is a continuity announcer passing comment. “Wow! Emotional stuff there. Next on BBC1, can Graham Norton get an emotion from the miserable Jack Dee? Stay tuned to find out”.

So, no, I don’t need a continuity announcer and Nigel Blackwell, songwriter and lead singer of Half Man Half Biscuit, agrees. “In A Suffolk Ditch” is a rollicking indie-pop song in which he lists the things he’d like to put in a ditch. These include the odd-job man who never got back to him, ukuleles outside Sports Direct, coats hanging on a newel post, installations along with Kelvin MacKenzie and Nicholas Witchell. And a continuity announcer, of course. There’s also a great pun involving Timothy grass and St. Augustine grass.

In “Grafting Haddock In The George”, the singer’s brother saw a monkey in a safari park which was holding a banana and a tin opener. His brother shouted out that he didn’t need a tin opener for a banana. The monkey shouted back, “it’s for the custard, dickhead”.

“Midnight Mass Murder” uses the tune of “Guide Thee O Great Redeemer” to express Nigel Blackwell’s hatred of gormless football chants. He likens going to football to going to church and finishes by telling those he doesn’t like to “take your chips and fuck off home”.

So far, so brilliantly comedic or boringly predictable, depending upon your preconceived notions about Britain’s greatest folk band (according to Andy Kershaw). However, there are several songs on the album with a more serious and sombre theme.

“Big Man Up Front” describes a man driving his SUV at speed, knocking over and killing a lonely woman. In “Rogation Sunday’s Here Again” the singer wakes up to find a note about the garden (“the greater knapweed near the mugwort by the buckthorn tree is dying”) punctuated by “P.S. Yes, I have left you”. “I’m Getting Buried In The Morning” is sung by a man awaiting execution by electrocution. “Tess Of The Dormobiles” recounts a failed marriage between two people who have ended up dying in the same hospital. In “Beneath This Broken Headstone (There Lies A Broken Heart), the singer visits the cemetery where a Welsh country singer is buried.

“Slipping The Escort” describes the difficulties a woman has living with a husband suffering from Alzheimer’s. “The days she feared are here. The easy years are gone”

The final song, “Oblong Of Dreams”, is one of the greatest songs they have ever recorded. The singer takes a walk around the Wirral. He sees people giving medical attention to a man who has died. He was on a nodding acquaintance with this man. “I could never work out if he was heading for a food bank or a pharmacy. A field path or indecency.” The singer continues his walk and gives precise directions. So precise that the deep digging pedants on the Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics page have mapped the route.

A six hour walk

The singer is happy to escape boring people such as Telepudlian Paul, who claims to be a huge football fan but only ever watches games on TV. There’s also Janet from Accounts who is constantly “banging on about turmeric”. The great thing about this song is the celebration of the beauty that the singer finds in the walk. “And now I’m in Paradise or that’s how it seems. Where Spring has sprung in this Oblong of Dreams”.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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