Category Archives: Alcohol

The Retcon Files

In which The Author needs a memory upgrade

You won’t be familiar with the word ‘Retcon’ unless you’re a fan of the sadly discontinued SF series Torchwood – or, latterly, Doctor Who, where it got an unexpected namecheck in ‘Face the Raven’ a few weeks ago. For the uninitiated, Retcon is a drug which Captain Jack Harkness and his pals administer to the unwitting victims of extraterrestrial contact. It’s part sedative and part memory wipe, and it leaves the people of Cardiff with no memory of their close encounters.
I used to think that Retcon would be a great idea, personally. A few years ago I wrote a piece called ‘Memory Dump‘. I speculated about the real-life applications of the Mierzwiak Procedure, the selective memory erasure at the centre of Michel Gondry’s terrific (and terrifying) 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I could free myself from my traumatic childhood memories, wipe out at least one sort-of ex-girlfriend, and get rid of all sorts of crap I remember from the book trade and will never draw on if I live to be a hundred. It was a choice between the Mierzwiak Procedure (non-invasive but still dangerous brain surgery), or a little white pill to add to my nightly cocktail of Things Beginning With M. With no pun intended, it seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
However, to judge from a number of recent conversations, I seem to have been spiked with Retcon quite a few times already. Over the last year or so, I’ve lost count of the number of apparent strangers who’ve started talking to me like old friends. In fact, it’s reached the point where it’s embarrassing.
I used to put it down to the fact that I worked in a city centre shop with a very large catchment. Consequently I met a couple of hundred of people (at least) every week. It was hardly surprising if I couldn’t remember everyone. Oddly enough, when I was in Cardiff before Xmas, literally the first person I bumped into on my way from the station was one of the shop regulars. I groped around my neural archives for his name and came up with Neil. It’s actually Nick. Two letters out of four isn’t bad, though – especially after nearly seven years away from the place.
If I hadn’t met people in the shop, I might have met them on the train, where the same people tend to cross paths fairly regularly. If you don’t believe me, have a quick look at the daily feature in Metro, where lovestruck commuters can invite their fellow passengers out for coffee – or whatever else comes to mind. (My own commuting crush kinda paid off one evening, when I woke Shanara the Dippy Bint in Aberdare and rescued her from an unplanned journey back to Cardiff.)
The third place where I might have struck up a conversation with a random stranger is, of course, the pub. After all, who needs Retcon when there’s beer on tap? If you can’t even remember leaving the place – never mind who you were with, what you were talking about, or what karaoke songs you inflicted on the rest of the punters – then everyone’s favourite legal amnesia drug has obviously had the desired effect.
On Boxing Day afternoon I called into the Lighthouse for a pint, and ended up staying until the early evening. There was a cracking live duo playing there: The Shakes, from Swansea. They’re two middle-aged guitarists who’ve been doing session work for years, and now play gigs and small festivals across South Wales. I had a chat with them while they were setting their gear up, and stayed for the first half of their set. They managed to get through forty minutes without touching anything from the Kings of Leon’s or Stereophonics’ backlists, so that was a good sign. When they stopped for a break, I explained that I had another gig to go to. For once, I wasn’t just making my excuses and leaving.
The other gig was at Aberdare Rugby Club, and featured my friends Replaced By Robots (see ‘Robot Invasion of Earth (Phase II)‘) as the headline act.
[A digression: There wasn’t much competition, to be honest. On my way into town on 23 December, I passed the Constitutional Club, a huge place on the corner opposite the library. For well over a month they’d been advertising a show band (a guy and two women) for Boxing Night, with large full-colour posters in the windows. I know these agency photos are always touched up before they hit the streets, but the women both looked pretty tasty. If the tickets hadn’t been seven quid a throw – and if it hadn’t been in the Con Club – I might have been tempted to check them out myself. On 23 December, though, I noticed this:


I posted this photo on Twitter and added the message, ‘Now you know what happens when everyone in Aberdare will be Replaced By Robots on Boxing Night.’ Andrew L. (one of the keyboard players and vocalists in the band) added the comment ‘Oh dear!’ I just hope everyone who had tickets for the Con Club gig got their money back.]
Anyway, when I got to the Rugby Club the boys were still setting up, so I went into the bar and checked out the price list. Call me old-fashioned, but three quid a pint (in a club, for Goddess’s sake) is almost Cardiff prices. I bought a glass of Coke and killed some time with the big FT crossword until it was time to go upstairs.
The place was filling up nicely when I got into the big room, so I grabbed a chair and staked out a place at the back. I’ve previously mentioned Tug Wilson, who used to come to the Carpenters for the Thursday night gigs. He was well into his eighties, and would have a whale of a time grooving with the youngsters who frequented the place.
Well, on Boxing Night, I knew exactly how Tug must have felt when he was surrounded by people at least half his age. I checked with a couple of other people, and was reassured to find that I was officially the oldest person in the room.
I decided to stay on the soft drinks, mainly because I begrudge paying three quid for a pint and having to wait over five minutes to be served. It wasn’t all bad news, though. The boys played a cracking set; there were lots of attractive female punters in the room; there was a great atmosphere and a good crowd. Gareth L. came in and we attempted to have a chat before admitting defeat. I didn’t see him leave, but when I went to get my final drink there was no sign of him.
This was the point when the Retcon must have kicked in. I was on my way back from the bar when an attractive dark-haired woman started talking to me. She knew my name, and knew that I used to work in Waterstones. Her other half knew me too. A fortnight later I still have no idea how, or from where, though.
The three of us chatted for ages, and we decided to head to Thereisnospoon for a late(-ish) drink. The conversation continued until closing time, covering a wide range of topics. It turned out that she was interested in having a website for her business. I said I’d get in touch with Chris D., who’s sorting out the websites for the Lighthouse and Alwyn’s artwork, and put them in contact with each other.
This was the really awkward part. I simply could not remember her name – if I’d ever known it to begin with. Fortunately for me, my phone battery had died a couple of hours earlier, so I was spared the horror of asking her name when I was saving her number. She took my number, though (that was the easy part) and promised to get in touch when the Xmas and New Year nonsense had died down. Later on, her other half mentioned her first name, so I was halfway out of the dark. Halfway …
We went our separate ways and I walked home, racking my brains to recall how we knew each other. Over the next few days I spent quite a while wondering exactly where the hell we’d met in the first place. I’m still none the wiser.
All I knew for sure was that my new/old friend’s first name was Linda. That doesn’t really narrow it down. (On the other hand, I’ve absolutely no idea what her other half’s name is.) I wondered whether I could track her down via Facebook, but with only a first name it’s a very long shot. I didn’t even have the first letter of her surname, which might have narrowed a billion or so people down to a few million. It crossed my mind to ask my Facebook friends (many of whom were out that night) if they could fill in the missing information. The snag was that there was no guarantee anyone else would remember either – it had been a long few days, after all.
The whole affair reminded me of the time when Jeffrey Bernard was approached to write his autobiography. He famously wrote a letter to the New Statesman, asking, ‘Can anyone tell me what I was doing between 1960 and 1974?’
Michael Molloy, the editor of the Daily Mirror, replied, ‘On a certain evening in September 1969 you rang my mother to inform her that you were going to murder her only son.’
Next time I can’t think of anything to blog about, I’m going to get one of my friends to post the message ‘Steve O’Gorman is unwell.’
I was in Lidl on Wednesday evening when the woman in front of me at the checkout struck up a conversation with me. Once again, I was totally unable to place her. I knew her face, and I was sure I’d known her for a long time, but her name simply wouldn’t come to mind.
I’ve had to adopt a crafty tactic to cover up my Retcon phases: if I’m chatting to a guy, I call him ‘mate’; if I’m chatting to a woman, I can usually get away with ‘babe’ or ‘chick’.
I once bluffed my way through an entire sub with a book trade rep I’d known for years, by calling him ‘mate’ throughout the appointment. At the end I reached for the diary, flipped it open to that day, saw his name on the page, thought, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, of course it is!’ and said, ‘Right then, Dave, when are you in town next?’ Nicely saved, even if I say so myself.
I managed to hold a fair conversation with my friend at the checkout, all the time trying to remember her bloody name. She left before I did, and headed for her car. That saved me from digging an even deeper hole for myself.
Anyway, I was walking up Gadlys Road when – joy of joys – I bumped into Linda herself. It was perfect timing. I grabbed my pen and scribbled her number on my hand, to make sure I had it when the time came to store it in my phone. Just to complicate matters, it turns out she’s Lynda with a y – yet another Doctor Who reference, folks. Unlike me, though, the Doctor has the enviable gift of being able to remember everyone he ever meets.
It was only when I got home that I realised who the woman at the checkout was. Her name’s Liz. She grew up about half a dozen doors away from me. Not counting my cousins, I think she’s the woman I’ve known for the longest period in my entire life. Even worse – she used to be my local Plaid Cymru councillor, and her husband is the branch secretary! I’d seen him less than twenty-four hours earlier, when he’d given me a lift home from the meeting. Ridiculous!
When a computer runs short of memory, you can either delete some unneeded files or upgrade the hard drive. In fifty years’ time it might be possible to do the same thing with the human brain – plugging in extra storage as and when required. Until then, unfortunately, we’re all in the same position as the schoolboy in Gary Larson’s cartoon, asking to be excused because his brain is full. (Of course, the cybernetic memory add-on could be an uncomfortable affair, because human beings have only a limited number of expansion slots.)
If I’m like this now, a couple of months short of my fiftieth birthday, can you imagine what I’ll be like when I’m in my eighties? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Even Tug managed to remember people’s names on the odd occasion. Scary prospect, isn’t it?

A Tale of Two Singers

In which The Author stays in the pub

I hadn’t intended to stay out last night. As things turned out, I called into the Lighthouse at lunchtime for ‘just the one’ (in the words of Jeffrey Bernard) and crawled home at closing time.
When I say ‘crawled’, that’s something of an understatement. I was helping to prop up the side of the Coliseum when a young couple came along and offered me considerable moral and physical support during the (normally short) journey as far as my front door. I might have known their names last night, but I have more recall of my codeine-fuelled dreams than I have of getting home.
Consider that only a couple of months ago I made sure my friend Neil J. got home safely after a fair scoop. I think the lad and his girlfriend who made sure I got home safely must subscribe to the ‘pay it forward’ school of thought. (Or, quite possibly, pay it backwards. I still haven’t decided.) If they’re reading this by some quirk of fate, I owe them a big one.
Anyway, I was in the Lighthouse when the first of the evening’s professional karaoke singers turned up. He was a large gentleman in his mid-thirties, wearing a scruffy T-shirt and a pair of jeans. To be frank, when he came in with a speaker on one shoulder, I assumed he was the singer’s roadie/minder/boyfriend/whatever. I was expecting a slender bleached Valleys sunbed clone to walk in behind him. No such luck – he was the singer.
I don’t know his name. Mark doesn’t put posters up, so the poor buggers who ‘entertain’ us at weekends don’t even merit free publicity. However, if you’ve seen The Big Bang Theory, you’ll probably be familiar with the minor character ‘Captain Sweatpants’. Now try and visualize him standing on a very slightly raised area at the back of a Valleys pub. Got it? Good – you’re with me.
I was expecting him to lug his gear in, then vanish into the gents’ and emerge wearing something a bit more audience-friendly. When Sam and I were travelling back on the ferry from Ireland in 1996 (and that’s a whole entry in itself), we were the unintended victims of a professional karaoke duo. After they’d set up their kit, they vanished for a while. I said (half-jokingly) that they must have gone to change into their stage outfits. As things turned out, I was right – on that occasion, at least. Captain Sweatpants was already wearing his stage outfit.
I decided to try and track his set, with half an eye to working on my Bar Band Bingo idea. That plan went out of the window from the start. I’ve transcribed my notes (as best I can) from last night. This process hasn’t been made any easier by a) my illegible handwriting, b) the fact that most of Captain Sweatpants’ set doesn’t feature on Ken Bruce’s playlist, Sounds of the Sixties and/or Late Junction, and c) the fact that I dropped my notes while cooling my fevered brow against the glass door of the Coliseum at stupid o’clock. Amazingly, they were still there when I walked past this afternoon. (They weren’t any easier to read, but they were still there.)
  • Soundcheck (?) No idea
  • 1 Still no idea
  • 2 ‘Keep on Loving You’ (Foreigner?)
  • 3 ‘Just Looking’ – bloody ‘Phonics
  • 4 Not ‘Drops of Jupiter’ – Train (‘Hey Soul Sister’)
  • 5 ‘Babylon’ – David Gray
  • 6 Pass
  • 7 ‘New Jeans’
  • 8 No idea
  • 9 REM (?)
  • 10 ‘I Believe’ – Australian Guy (actually Affirmation by the guy out of Savage Garden whose name I can’t be arsed to Google in case he thinks I’m a fan)
  • 11 ‘I Got a Feeling’ – Black Eyed Peas
  • 12 The song that goes Wooo!
  • 13 ‘Budapest’ – George Ezra (information courtesy of Lee M.)
  • 14 Some ska thing
  • 15 ‘Drops of Jupiter’ – Train
At which point my mate Rob J. and his wife came in, so I started chatting to them and lost whatever remaining interest I still had in Captain Sweatpants. (Les and Katie had come in earlier, but they escaped before he started. Wise move, both!)
You get the measure of the set, though. It was overwhelmingly modern stuff, with a token MOR ballad for good measure, and the obligatory Stereophonics number just because they’re almost from Aberdare. There was nothing you could dance to, assuming there was enough room in the pub to dance anyway. It was the sort of music which Paul Gambaccini once described as ‘the triumph of rhythm over melody’. I wouldn’t give any of it house room, personally.
No sooner had Captain Sweatpants departed than the second singer came in. He was tall, slim, dark of hair and complexion, and amazingly handsome. (If I were gay, I definitely would!) After he set up his gear he changed into a crisp white shirt, black tie, smart trousers, shiny shoes and a dark waistcoat. My friend Adrian T. sings professionally under the name Tony Royale, and wears a suit on stage. He sings the standards (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, that sort of material) and looks the part on stage. Singer Number Two looked the part, too.
Then he started his set.
He introduced himself to us, thanked us for coming, and launched straight into ‘Cry Me a River’. Not the Justin Timberlake song, but the beautiful power ballad made famous by Julie London. And he blew us away. He had the presence, the range, and the charisma to carry the song off. After that, he went into ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’.
He was firmly in Tony Royale territory. It’s the stuff I grew up listening to, between Dad’s and Mother’s (admittedly limited) record collections and daytime Radio 2 (before they discovered The Beatles). It’s timeless music. ‘Drops of Jupiter’ might be a staple of Radio 2 now, but will they still be playing it in 2065? Personally, I doubt it – but the superb pop songs and arrangements of the Rat Pack’s repertoire will be played as long as the music of Beethoven and Bach.
When he launched into ‘Beyond the Sea’ (the Bobby Darin version, of course) Gaz and Billy came in, so I stopped writing and chatted to them. All the while, the singer kept ploughing through a remarkably wide range of material, covering all bases from big band standards to fairly modern pop (Sting, Queen, The Beatles). In between songs he talked to us, telling us what he was going to sing next, and remarking on people in the crowd. Whereas Captain Sweatpants was about as interactive as a teenage girl singing into a hairbrush in her bedroom mirror, Mr Big Band actually realized that he had an audience. We’re all victims of technology, of course. One of his backing tracks misfired, and we got the first few seconds of a (fairly) early David Bowie song. (When a long and distinguished musical career stretches over fifty years, even ‘Ashes to Ashes’ probably counts as Early David Bowie, after all.)
I nipped across to him and said, ‘Oh, go on, sing it – you know you want to.’ He laughed and shook my hand.
‘Maybe next time,’ he grinned.
‘I’ll be here,’ I said.
And I will be. I don’t care if he thinks I’m a stalker. He was a welcome breath of fresh air in a stale and tired Valleys entertainment scene, and I hope he goes on to great things. He deserves to. So does Tony Royale, come to that – but when the ‘average’ punter would rather pay good money to watch some three-chord flash in the pan than take the time to appreciate decent music, I fear that they’ll be condemned to the pro karaoke circuit for the rest of their lives.