Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Cribbins Factor

It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’ve just dumped my bag on my desk and before heading to make myself a much-needed cup of coffee I nip to use the facilities.

The “facilities” here are in the shape of separate cubicles inside a small corridor at the back of the building not far from where I sit. As I opened the door to the cleaning lady with the Afro hairstyle greets me with a smile and says “good morning”

I return the smile and ask if she managed to get home on time yesterday: this not being our first meeting. She tells me again about her 2nd job that she has taken on to help pay her daughters way through college, meaning that for the next couple of years she is working 15 hour days.  I commiserate and tell her not to overdo it.

I go back to the coffee making area and the chap with the moustache who somehow knows my name (despite the fact that I have no idea of his) says “good morning Pixie” before I get involved in a conversation with crazy eyelash lady who is under the weather at the moment with a combination of a cold and a pulled back muscle. I recommend Lemon & Ginger tea with honey over Lemsip (full of sugar – yuck)

This, in short, is my life: people seem to see something in me that makes them want to tell me their entire life story at the drop of a hat

People of all shapes and sizes just seem to befriend me: from the chap at the train station, who regularly tells me about the workings of the local railway, to this security guard with a hearty laugh who greets me with a fist bump whenever I’m in the building, to the variety of people around the office that I regularly stop and chat to – some of whom I know who they are and some of whom I have only the vaguest idea.

Perhaps it is because I’m quite quiet and I’m usually happy to listen, perhaps it is because I make no distinctions in life – a cleaner, to me, is just as important and worth my time as a senior manager and I try to treat both the same. Perhaps it is because I take things quite lightly and am usually ready with a silly comment: though personally I attribute it to what you might call The Cribbins Factor

Now I accept that at this point I’m probably going to lose some of my readers – if not all of you: because I don’t know how I can possibly explain Bernard Cribbins to a global audience.

Bernard Cribbins is what you might call a National Treasure: the something that I’ve always wondered about. There are plenty of celebrities who are referred to as national treasures, but I wonder what this really means. For instance: do they have to open themselves up to the public on bank holidays?

Mr Cribbins is an actor, most known for his work in light comedy and children’s entertainment. He has been in such films as The Railway Children, Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., Casino Royale (the 60s spoof, not the Daniel Craig one) and been the voice-over for classic animation series like The Wombles (essentially a bunch of creatures that live on Wimbledon Common and collect rubbish).

He was also a regular presenter on Jackanory – which was a 70s/80s TV show where minor celebrities of the time read children’s stories episodically over a week and for me, as a result of this last programme, he will always also be the quintessential Bilbo Baggins.

More recently he made several appearances in the revamped Doctor Who as Donna Noble’s grandfather and he is also known for a series of comic songs in the 70s including “Right Said Fred”

None of which, I suspect, will make you any the wiser if you live outside of the UK

However: when a friend of mine recently described me as having “the air of affable approach-ability of Bernard Cribbins” I was oddly pleased – as he has always struck me as somebody who would be extremely down-to-earth and, should you ever meet him, would turn out to be extremely pleasant and generous with his time.

Not that I will be having one, because they are so expensive now, but if the best thing they can find to say about me on my tombstone is “he had the affable approachability of Bernard Cribbins” I shall not consider my time to have been wasted – after all what is so wrong with spending a life being nice to people and spreading a little affability around?

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Keep Below The Parapet

It can be small wonder that we British never managed to invent Jazz – or much else in the way of music come to that.

We seem to have been hanging on the coattails of other countries musically for several hundred years – all the great composers were German or Swiss apart from Elgar; Blues and Country both came from the colonies and it’s hard to think how something as tropical but relaxed as reggae could ever have originated on a cold November night in West Dulwich.

In fact about the only thing we can claim any sort of heritage with musically is folk music – which is largely people in Arran jumpers wearing ginger beards you could hide a ferret in, sticking one finger in their ear, screwing up their eyes and singing about how much better everything was 500 years ago – but even this largely comes from Scotland, Ireland or in cider growing country or wherever miners chose to frequent.

With our famous Stiff Upper Lip, no-nonsense view of the world and strict adherence to queueing for everything it’s hard to imagine what Brits must have thought when we first heard Jazz: which is largely people plinking around randomly on a piano in search of a tune. (NB I should probably say at this point that my image of Jazz as a child is largely garnered from brief performances by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth as she scat sang her way through hour after interminable hour that made me want to bury my ears in concrete with every shoobie-do-do-do-wah)

About 4 or 5 years ago now I started learning to play the saxophone – in truth it was something I had thought about doing about 10 years previously and then never followed up on. The saxophone, when played correctly, can be a beautiful instrument that produces a lot of emotion despite its connection to cheesy 1980s pop songs and the inevitable image those bring of a man on a beach without a shirt on. However – it does have inevitably strong links to Jazz, having largely been invented the purpose of playing that particular ilk of music.

Which is probably why I still struggle with the blasted thing: particularly when it comes to improvisation.

Douglas Adams once wrote that his character Arthur Dent could contrive to feel self-conscious if left alone with a pot plant for long enough, let alone with other people and I know exactly what he meant: when you improvise you are awfully exposed and bringing attention to yourself, inevitably inviting other people to comment on what you have just done – when, in my case at least, all you have done is to go up and down the scales in a largely formulaic manner.

I should mention at this point that I never dance in public unless there is a large crowd of people in which I can hide – and that when I do, very rarely, dance attempt to do what I call an “embarrassed boxer shuffle” where I sort of jiggle on the spot with my fists clenched looking at the ground for a shorter period of time as I can politely manage before considering it safe to go and sit on the sidelines and watch everybody else move with abandon – or preferably just go home and read a book. This is a similar experience to trying to improvise because it makes you acutely aware of your failings, particularly when you don’t have a great deal of confidence in what you’re doing in the first place.

Since October last year for a number of reasons I haven’t really played my saxophone and when I first picked it up after quite a long break I found that I had forgotten some of the few scales I had previously managed to remember and become rusty on the others. I’ve also stopped going to my lessons partially at frustration that none of it seemed to be sinking in, partially because I simply wasn't able to go and partially as increasingly large parts of the lesson focus around improvisation.

Since this is something I don’t feel comfortable with in the first place I find that I don’t enjoy the process and that this disinclines me from practising improv outside of the lesson, which presumably only adds to the problem. I feel that I somehow lack the imagination and spontaneity required. I just can ‘t seem to get past that sense of being pointed out in the crowd that we Brits fear so much.

Maybe I should just give up, buy a big woolly jumper, dye my beard ginger and go wassailing in the merry month of May…

…but somehow I doubt I’d manage two streets before I died of embarrassment.