1999 – River of Orchids, XTC


Hasn’t a clue

‘With arms stretched wide’

George doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life; he doesn’t even know what he wants to be doing tomorrow. I’m the same, I’ve never known what direction I was going in. The difference between George and me is that he’s a dog and I’m not. You know how it goes, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’. That’s easy when you’re a kid, ‘Astronaut’, ‘Engine Driver’, ‘Ninja Assassin’. When you ask George the same question he just looks at you as though he’s giving the question serious thought, but that’s as far as it goes – silence (add the word walk or dinner and you get a more positive response. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and I’m sixty three! Some people seem to know, they appear to have their lives all mapped out – school, university, career. Me, I never had a clue. Oh I knew what I didn’t want to be – boring, insane, accountant, insurance man – and I’ve done pretty well at avoiding three out of four (Guess!). But as to careers and long-term plans, no idea.

Just as an aside, about twenty years ago I wrote a song about insurance men; at least it’s called ‘Insurance Men’. I’ve no idea what it’s really about and I know that some people find it a bit disturbing; even I find it a bit disturbing. Have a listen, see what you think. Maybe after you’ve listened to it (I’ve cut it down as the whole song is over nine minutes long), you’ll have a better chance at guessing which of those four things I didn’t manage to avoid! By the way, the song, along with most of the other stuff I’ve done, was recorded and mixed by my best friend Steve (of cellar fame) at his studio, ‘The Mill’ in Blackburn. So ‘Insurance Men’ is a ‘Run of the Mill’ production. I’ll say more about ‘The Mill’ in a future post.


Anyway, on to the ostensible subject of this post. It’s 1999 and there I am, fifty years old, bored, sitting in the back of a shop in the West End of Morecambe with a mug of coffee and a Mars bar, waiting for it to be time to open the door so that people who are not really interested can come in and sign up for courses they don’t really want to do. Talk about fulfillment! It’s the latest in a long line of jobs I’ve had since I left school – shop assistant (fired), trainee work-study engineer (failed), bonus clerk (bored), casualty porter (blood phobia didn’t help), slot-machine-arcade manager (failed miserably, lasted one and a half days), security guard (how did I end up doing that?), office manager (for Steve, in his other role as designer and manufacturer of hand-carved pine furniture) and now, College Education Shop Manager. So how did it happen that someone who is reasonably intelligent and fairly creative ended up doing this?

One word – chance. One thing that distinguishes us from the animals (and me from my dog, George, who doesn’t even realise there is such a thing as ‘the future’) is the ability to imagine possible tomorrows and then think of ways to turn our imaginings into reality – “Wouldn’t it be nice to be lying on a beach in Spain. I know, I’ll put some money in a savings account every week so that next year I’ll be able to afford to do it”. It’s called planning, forward thinking. Well I’m no good at that, never have been. Many years ago I had a dream of owning a Gibson J200, that’s a big, jumbo acoustic guitar much favoured by country musicians (and some rock musicians). So I found a big glass jar and stuck a photo of a J200 on it to motivate me to put money into it.
1999 - River of Orchids, XTC
I don’t remember how long it sat there on that shelf but I don’t think it ever had more than a couple of pounds in it and that was no doubt taken out as soon as I needed some fags. The only time I ever played a J200 was in a music shop in Preston. They had one hanging from the ceiling and I asked if I could have a go. “Help yourself”, I was told. I managed to bang it into another guitar taking it down (nobody noticed but I don’t think I did any damage – fortunate as they cost a couple of thousand pounds, or they did then). It was nice to finally have a go but I wasn’t over-impressed with the sound, though I was amazed by how light it was – it seemed as though it would blow away in a strong wind. So I never did get my own J200, but I do have a jumbo guitar, a Freshman FA400FBJ which I have had for about six years.d0ea5-fa400fbj002

It’s really nice but I’ve hardly touched it for the last few months (too busy reading my new Kindle!). Anyway, now I’ve learned how to put songs onto this blog I’ll probably include some of the things I wrote on my Freshman. Don’t worry, most of them are less weird than Insurance Men!

By the way, when I say that I’m not good at forward thinking, I am very good at forward worrying (I suppose that’s the only sort of worrying that’s of any use, backward worrying would probably be a bit of a waste of time). I’m good at worrying about all the worst things that might happen – nuclear war and cancer and global warming – but planning for it, forget it.

One of the things I did when I was sitting around in the college shop waiting for customers to come in was listen to music. I’d got into the habit of buying Uncut and listening to the cover CD at the shop before putting it on a shelf and forgetting it. How many cover CDs have you never listened to? Or listened to once then forgotten about? I had long forgotten what else was on this particular CD apart from one song, but one of the wonders of the Web is that you can go onto Google and find nearly anything, including the cover of the CD I am talking about. What’s the world coming to? How long will it be before you can type in ‘Where have I left my keys?’ and it will tell you? Anyway, one of the songs on it was ‘River of Orchids’ by XTC, a band I had liked for years but had lost touch with. The song was very different from the things I remembered – ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, ‘When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty’. Instead of angular guitars and fractured narratives this song was a dreamy, beautiful ecological ballad, slowly building up , almost like a classical piece. It took me right out of the shop and off to somewhere beautiful and calm (across Morecambe Bay to the Lake District on a warm, sunny afternoon – okay there aren’t many warm, sunny afternoons in this part of the world but I can dream!) So what did I do but play it in the shop to anyone who would listen, including my co-worker and a guy called Cal who had started popping in for help with filling out various forms but ended up spending hours talking to me about music and recording and guitars and whatever else we were both interested in. Incidentally, a few years later Cal joined me, my wife and family and a group of friends on a camping holiday in Gloucestershire, which ended up being the wettest, muddiest and windiest ten days I’ve ever spent. But heck, that’s camping in Britain.

I realise that I’ve got to the end of this post and, not only have I said very little about XTC and ‘River of Orchids’, but I’ve also meandered all over the place. Perhaps I can convince myself that incoherence is a virtue – perhaps I could have that  printed on a tee-shirt.

Let me know what you think about ‘Insurance Men’. Whatever you think, I won’t be offended. Honest.

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