Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Watching You

Hero worship. Not something I’ve particularly done, or, to be fair, not something I’ve been terribly good at. I think the first famous person I remember meeting was black Yorkshire comedian Charlie Williams, at the Tesco Superstore at Weston Favell back in the mid-1970s. I remember very little about that, but I do have vivid memories of the next time I met someone really famous.

I was 16 and I was working as a Saturday lad at the same Tesco. I’d been there a couple of months and I wasn’t doing very well – I was in charge of the pre-packed bacon counter – and was forever being pulled up for chatting my female colleagues up. I was due to go and see Genesis at Knebworth, with my brother, on a Saturday in late June, so I put in a request to have the day off. Everything seemed fine. But, despite not being the best employee, I got offered two extra evenings a week – Thursdays and Fridays and the idea of an extra £10 in my pocket was too good to turn down. So I agreed to do them and therefore my line manager was happy for me to have the Saturday off…

I was sitting in the living room of my parents home the Thursday before Knebworth and my brother Steve turns up, dressed in his work suit, “What are you doing?” I was doing nothing. “Want to drive down to Knebworth and watch the Genesis sound check?” Was the pope catholic? We jumped into his little yellow Vauxhall Chevette and headed down Stevenage way. We got there in no time whatsoever and had zero trouble getting into the grounds and walking right up to the stage. Within 20 minutes there was activity on the stage and amongst loads of technicians stood Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks – the remaining members of my favourite band. I was made up.

They performed a track called The Eleventh Earl of Mar as their sound check and me, my brother and three other guys were the only people standing in a field that could hold 200,000 people, watching one of the biggest bands in the world playing solely to us. I was definitely made up. Then they finished, but instead of leaving the stage, a bunch of different people turned up, with television cameras, sound equipment and lots of people running about busily. I looked at Steve and we wondered what was going on. Suddenly this bloke wanders over to us, “We’re about to do some shooting for Nationwide and the boys are going to be filming some footage for their new single. You guys can hang around and watch if you want?” We did.

Twenty minutes later, the same bloke comes over to me and asks if I can take the clapperboard up to the main stage and give it to the guy who was going to be doing this seemingly pointless task (in my opinion). I ran off to the stage, up the ramp and onto a Knebworth stage that had been graced by legends. I stood there about ten feet from some of my heroes and another guy says to me, “do the honours, chief”, I looked at him puzzled. “You see them guys over there?” He said pointing at the camera crew standing about another 50 yards behind my brother and the three rockers. I nodded. “Clap the board, son, they’re waiting to start filming.” So I did. Did I tell you how made up I was?

I exited the stage and returned to standing next to my brother. I had longish hair at the time, my brother’s short. He had a suit on, I had that late 70s all denim look – we were a quite incredible juxtaposition. The following night on the now defunct Nationwide current affairs show, you could see the back of me and my brother in the long shots of the band sound checking on the stage – except they weren’t sound checking, they had done that already, they were now miming to Many Too Many, the new single. But it didn’t stop the fact that I was on TV with my brother, almost alone in a rock arena watching Genesis. (I searched UTube for the clip and found parts 1 and 3 of the documentary, but not part 2, the bit I was in...) Pretty good stuff, but it was to get better…

Next thing we knew the three band members walked off stage and out into the field. They came over to us and started chatting to us. This was something unbelievable. Phil, Mike and Tony were grateful we’d come to watch the rehearsal, they asked us a few questions and all I could think was – I haven’t got a pen or paper! Then it went a bit wrong and I really only had my age to blame. Phil Collins turned to me and said, “Looking forward to the show at the weekend?” I nodded. “Anything you want to hear?” I nodded again and uttered the infamous words, “I really like Vancouver, off the new single, it would be great if you could play that.” Suddenly there was awkward silence; Phil Collins looked like I’d just punched him in the mouth, Mike Rutherford coughed and looked away and Tony Banks turned to me and said, “I don’t think we’ve even listened to that track since we recorded it, so I don’t think we’ll be doing that.” And with that they thanked us again and disappeared. I looked at my brother, he in turn looked at me – we were both a bit puzzled. What had I said?

Vancouver was written by Phil Collins shortly after he split up with his first wife and she moved to the West Coast of Canada with their two children. It was a deeply personal song (aren’t all of his songs?) that I had no idea had such a profound effect on him. It may have been they were running late on their schedule, but I think I just inadvertently touched a raw nerve.

Then the Gods of poo conspired to throw a spanner in the works. Travelling back up the M1, after getting on at Luton, we got as far as the midway point between Flitwick and Milton Keynes/Bedford, when Steve’s Chevette gave up the ghost and died in the middle lane of the motorway. We found our way to the hard shoulder and sat. Of course, this was 1978, this was a good decade before the mobile phone and as Steve wasn’t in the AA or RAC it hardly mattered. We used the emergency phones along the carriageway to call for help and were towed to a garage just off the M1 on the Bedford to MK road; there was a phone box, I called my mum, told her what was happening and asked her to phone Tesco to tell them what had happened.

We got home after 9pm and the day hadn’t really been blighted. The following evening, I turned up for work and got on with things as usual – that basically meant moving bacon around and chatting up the girls. The clock ticked round to 10pm and my shift finished; I went up to the lockers, got my stuff and told my manager that I’d see him the following Thursday. He looked at me puzzled. “Tomorrow at 7.30 you mean?” I frowned and reminded him that I’d booked the day off to go to Knebworth. “Saturday staff can’t book days off, if you don’t come in tomorrow, don’t bother coming in next week.” I wasn’t up for an argument and went home. I told my mum, who used to work as a supervisor at Tesco and she was appalled and really angry. Monday was a school day – I think I was on exam leave at the time – and while I was there, my mum phoned the manager of the store and gave him a right earful. I never did get my job back, but I received the equivalent of 12 shifts – a month’s work – in my severance pay packet.

The rather deflating experiences with a hero of mine and the subsequent crap that followed somewhat changed my approach and feelings towards so-called celebrities – like me and the Queen; they all take a shit at least once a day. So, whenever I meet someone who is/was vaguely famous I treat them like I would treat you.

The 1980s, when I spent a lot of time surrounded by semi-famous musicians; or in the 90s when I met just about every comicbook writer or artist who had ever made an impression on me – I treated them all like they were just someone I knew (with one notable exception, who we will come to eventually). I remember having the job of chaperoning Simon Pegg at the Bristol Comics thing back around the turn of the century – he wasn’t as big as he is now, but he was still pretty much a famous bloke thanks to Spaced. To be fair, he was a nice guy and we got on well, but I wasn’t overawed by his presence and in fact, when my good friend Jay Eales collared him at the Awards Dinner and the two started to talk relentlessly about 2000AD, I was slightly relieved. Great bloke, but a bit dull in the conversation stakes when you’re not talking about comics, fantasy or TV.

The only person I’ve met in the last 30 years that has taken my breath away and made me feel like a six year old was the day I met Stan Lee. He was a guest at one of the last UKCACs and I’d caught a glimpse of him a few times, but he was surrounded by an entourage of Marvel employees and what seemed to be minders. My then employer, an old acquaintance of Lee’s had promised me he’d introduce the two of us, but he was as pissed as a fart by late afternoon and I figured it would be less embarrassing for everyone if I did it myself. The wife had returned from her day of doing the museums and was itching to either get drunk or go home – the thought of spending more time than necessary with odorous comics nerds was too much for her. I turned to her and said, “Will you do me a favour?” She frowned, but nodded. “Will you come over and meet Stan Lee with me, I don’t know if I can do it on my own.” She smiled, grabbed my hand and walked me over to the Lee entourage. Everything seemed to part – like the Red Sea and Moses – and there a foot away was my real superhero.

“Stan? I have to say that one of my biggest ambitions has been to shake your hand.” I was trembling, but Stan, ever the showman, smiled and grasped my hand in a firm shake that belied his advancing years. “Who are you then son?” He asked and I suddenly realised that I had an opportunity to actually have a conversation with him. “I’m Phil Hall, I work for one of your protégés.” He smiled and remember when I said how made up I was at Knebworth? Well, this made that seem like a ripple on a pond. “You’re the news editor at Comics International; you work for Dez.” He. Knew. Who. I. Was!

To be honest, I can’t remember anything about the rest of the conversation, but it lasted about ten minutes and could have lasted longer, but I got this overwhelming urge not to outstay my welcome. We shook hands again and he told me to keep in touch. I haven’t, but that’s not the point.

Oddly enough, the man who replaced Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, was someone I met in 1994. I spent best part of an evening talking to him about his wife’s small furry animals and how best to groom a guinea pig. We’ve spoken several times over the last 16 years, comics have never been uttered.

Oddly enough, at around the same time, I met Jonathon Frakes – he of Ryker and Star Trek: Next Generation fame. We talked for about an hour about Morris Minors and the hassle of transporting one from the UK to the USA and the logistics of a 6’7” man driving one. Star Trek was never mentioned. Someone said to me after that Frakes would probably remember me should I ever bump into him again. Why? Because I talked to him like he was a normal bloke and not like he was some megastar.

So, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that I’m human about most celebrities. I don’t crave or pander; I don’t follow blindly and I don’t tend to get involved in groups or fixations about them; not even the people involved in music and film that I thoroughly respect and love…

Facebook makes friend suggestions; some of them are people you know, but a lot of the time they’re people that someone you know knows. So imagine my surprise when one of the friends I was offered was Stephen King. Now, I might not think he’s the greatest writer any more, but I like Stephen King. I like reading his stuff and like the Dali Lama he is someone I’d like to sit down and talk to. If we met, I might even get a bit fan boyish around him, because we all have questions we want answering – however nerdy or insignificant they might seem. But Facebook is something a bit different and when I saw ‘add Stephen King as a friend’, I thought, “why not?”

“This User has Too Many Friends” was the rejection reason. I tried several times over several days and got the same response every time. Stephen King has too many friends!? Is this even possible? I’ve been meaning to see if the Pope has a Facebook page…

Speaking of the Pope – are you aware that the Vatican is mega-rich? It’s possibly one of the richest ‘countries’ in the world. Guess who’s paying for the Pope’s visit to the UK later this year? That’s right, we are, even if we aren’t Catholic… Or paedophile priests.

Moving on…

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Good news isn’t that common. Good news about my shoulder has been very thin on the ground. I seem to recall that I have, on a number of occasions, stated that I believe the operation on my shoulder corrected one problem and that another was overlooked. Mr Biswas confirmed this theory when I put it too him on Wednesday evening. He said it was more than possible that the calcifying of my tendons might have started long before the operation and would explain why it is there – making it not so unique.

At the end of the examination, Mr Biswas declared that he didn’t want to see me again. The X-rays showed that the three calcium build ups had dissolved sufficiently to make my life a pleasure again. In fact, one of them had gone and the other two were smaller and a shadow of their former selves. The injection had worked and it would continue to clear up. There is a small chance it might reoccur, but it is very rare and for once, I’m thinking it won’t happen to me, not this time.

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Having just saved myself nearly £30 a month by changing my mobile phone tariff; my money saving exercises continued by finally getting rid of Virgin Media, saving us another £25 a month; this was counterbalanced by my mate Dave telling me that my computer, a 2001 P3 with ½ meg of ram, is essentially a little like using an abacus in a Casio factory. However, when my PC was purchased, it was top of the line and cost me about a grand; now I can buy a base unit that would seem positively futuristic for less than £200. For £1000 I could probably buy a computer that can turn my dogs invisible.

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I actually wrote most of this before Easter Sunday, when I developed a really painful ear infection; subsequently the last few days have not been as good as they could have been…

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