Soaps? Never watch ’em, but …

It must be, ooh, fifty years since I saw any soaps.

But on Friday, channel-hopping before the showdown between Chinese, My Kun Chi Plei and North Korean, So Dark Dung in the Leeds International Piano Competition, I happened across Hollyoaks on Channel 4/7+1 OD.

I stuck with it to see what I’d been missing. Over the next half hour a gay trio, Brendan, Eoghan and Ste, exchanged longing looks and bitchy threats, and cafe owner Tony was extremely nice to customers as fiancée Cindy, to whom he’d been married before, was having it away in the cafe toilet with Rhys, whose girlfriend Jacqui McQueen was upstairs having her sixth baby in two years alongside sister Theresa having her fifth.

When that was all over, the entire cast attended the funeral of Lynsey (who’d been murdered earlier), except for Mercedes, who was in care and watched the hearse go by from an upstairs window in the psychiatric unit, cackling as she saw the funeral cortege blocked in the narrow street by a broken down car being beaten over the bonnet by its driver with a dead branch.

The whole episode was overlaid by a James Blunt loop, though I’m not sure if this was to match the mood or because the programme had been reinvented as Hollyoaks – the Musical since I was away.

Toying with the remote again, I found an episode of Emmerdale just starting on ITV2+1+8=11Plus. For a rural community there was a disappointing absence of livestock, but I decided to see it through. In the ten minutes before the ads Cain Dingle put a crowbar to every glass in the Woolpack, Georgia demonstrated why it’s never a good idea having mother to stay, and Debbie Dingle squared up to four other women saying,

‘You think I’m upset? You ain’t seen nothing yet.’

In the second half things warmed up. Flat-nosed Jimmy King rushed into the glassless Woolpack to say three bodies had been found in the landfill, followed by a stranger in a beanie hat claiming he’d struck gold in the sheepless hills at the edge of the village. Half the customers dashed off to the landfill, and the rest to the gold mine where they found a makeshift notice from David Cameron saying it had already been sequestered for the Big Society, but that they were welcome to look around. While they were up there, Sainsbury’s built a new superstore where the shop had been, Lisa Dingle browsed through the Bible to choose a name for her fifteenth child, due at 7.22, while Zak, who was standing at the window nonchalantly reading a letter saying the Dingles had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, screamed helplessly as a school bus tore past, clearly out of control, and embedded itself in the entrance to the gold mine, exploding on impact and trapping the would-be prospectors inside – a bold move by the producers since the episode was going out live to mark the programme’s hundred and twenty fifth year.

This was thirsty work. But making a cuppa before the Piano Competition was a mistake, if only because I didn’t switch to BBC4+SkyPlus+3 (where x=y) before I left the room. Instead, I found ITV2+1+8=11Plus had already tripped into Coronation Street, or Corrie as everyone now calls it, and I was teased into following for the next twenty five minutes.

In that time, Norris, dressed as a waitress, served Greek food at a theme night in Roy’s Rolls Cafe, and in the Rovers Return Tracy Barlow told seven different men that she was pregnant by them, whereupon they all gladly proposed only to have their worlds fall apart when she told them she was joking, while Ken and Deirdre sat looking old, and Lewis (typecast Nigel Havers) chatted up three Mancunian bar assistants with the telling line, ‘Does every woman in Manchester have an orange face?’ before going back to Audrey’s and taking her on the kitchen table.

The hiatus after the ads – when a group of old ladies with mauve hair and pacamacs on a Granada Studios Tour failed to hear the guide’s instruction to pretend they were extras, and not point umbrellas or make faces at the camera – was soon overcome by a camp guy in the factory ‘oohing and aahing’ like Kenny Everett, and Steve and Michelle dumping each other twice, leading to Steve taking out Sophie Webster for an evening that was going swimmingly until the infatuated girl stepped in front of a passing car, unaware that her garage-owning dad Kevin was at that very moment sat in a customer’s 4×4 ending it all and had only been saved when a Boeing 737 mistook the railway track for Manchester Airport runway and demolished the viaduct, the resonance from which dislodged the hose leading to his exhaust.

A nice extra touch to celebrate ninety nine years of the programme was having the cast and mauve-haired ladies seen at all times enjoying a Mr Whippy 99; no surprise that Cadbury’s were sponsoring the episode, which was being streamed live.

At last I was ready to relax with whatever was left of some quality piano playing. But just as I was switching over to BBC4+Skyplus+3 (where x=y) my front door flew open and Phil Mitchell barged in with a production team and six cast from East Enders.

‘Sorted,’ he said, blatantly dropping his ‘t’. ‘Nah shut it – right!’

‘Right,’ I whispered, closing the door as asked.

It seemed that to celebrate two hundred years of the programme, all week they’d been transmitting the East Enders Roadshow live on RedButtonDave+2, and my house had been randomly selected to host Friday’s episode. Once they’d covered my Ikea furnishings with grey tarpaulin, Phil threw Sharon across a small formica-top table in the centre of the living room with such force that, through a handily placed mike, you could hear the air rushing out of her like a collapsing balloon.

‘Is this what yer want, is it? Is this what yer want?’ he yelled.

‘No, Phil, no,’ she squealed.

‘Yer dad’d turn in his grave, yer slut,’ he said, polishing the table with her tangled, yellow hair.

I wasn’t sure exactly what she’d done, but it must have been bad to get such harsh treatment.

The staircase was a good vantage point for all three sets. In my kitchen, which had been darkened to camouflage the orange Le Creuset Ovenware, I could see Max Branning counting money at a second formica table.

‘Look, son,’ he said to protégé, Joey. ‘A monkey. Lemon squeezy. That’s how yer do it. Keep yer eyes open, son. Take yer chances.’

I couldn’t see a monkey, but there was a lot of money. A few days later I discovered that as soon as he arrived, Max had sold a motor with a bad oil leak and no MOT to the elderly lady at number 5.

Meanwhile, in the small, spotlit gravel garden at the back, they’d thrown green netting over my choice pots, and forced the six Polish neighbours to hang around as unpaid extras.

‘You sure you got the right immigration papers, son?’ the producer had said when a skinny Pole objected. ‘It’d only take one phone call, yer know.’

As the cameras rolled, Ian Beale emerged from the shadows and head-butted Alfie Moon who was having a quiet fag.

‘Think it’s funny, do yer? Think it’s funny?’ he said, landing a blinding blow at the top of Alfie’s nose, with the Poles muttering away in the background.

‘Nah, but this is,’ said Alfie, pulling an eight inch blade from his back pocket and taking Ian out with two swift thrusts. ‘You ’ad it coming to yer,’ he said, as the camera zoomed in on him hiding the crimson-stained knife in my pink hollyhocks.

I was frightened by the chasm between their unsmiling world and my happy one. Only five minutes in, and my home was a battlefield. Powerless to respond to victims or perpetrators, and sensing the enormity of the social issues facing Walford, I felt myself being dragged lower and lower …

*

I was kept under observation in Hereford Hospital, but tests showed I’d not ingested enough paracetamol and dihydrocodeine to cause lasting damage. I thought it a bit harsh that they discharged me on the condition I never tried watching East Enders again. I mean, I hadn’t invited them in, and it was Max Branning who’d kindly called the ambulance when he spotted me swigging from the pill bottle. And after all, I had landed myself a cameo role in a live broadcast.

A few days later I watched So Dark Dung steal the show with a moody rendition of Tchaikovsy’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in a repeat showing of the Competition on Dave Really+1+7HD I Player Ja Vu. All the while my finger was twitching over the ITV1+5 button to check how many passers-by Cain Dingle had given a good seeing-to since my last visit. I resisted. But I can always go back in fifty years to catch up.

Paul Costello © October 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8

Postcard from Shrewsbury

Dear Auntie Paula

I could tell they were a sporty lot the moment I arrived.

The exits at Shrewsbury station had been turned into starting stalls like at a racecourse, and passengers were queuing to watch. With all exits showing red crosses, I saw five staff – ticket collectors, litter pickers and a Pumpkin person – champing at the paddles, as the barriers are called. A sixth person, acting as judge, switched the red crosses simultaneously to green ticks, freeing the contestants to gallop fifty yards to the plate glass doors and back, with the judge declaring the winner.

No wonder it gripped the assembled crowd – such an innovative use of Arriva facilities, and a great way for employees to pass an idle moment, I thought.

I spent much of my afternoon by the River Severn which, unlike the picture, is in full flood. Leaning on the railings by Welsh Bridge (an inappropriate name I’ve often thought since it’s clearly not Welsh and the authorities shouldn’t encourage them to lay claim to it), I was fascinated by the wood and weed flotsam bobbing downstream in the swirling current, probably from miles away. The debris was piling up against the arches, leaving ever tighter spaces for water to funnel through.

Large items stood little chance, so when I saw a cow approaching I feared the worst. It wasn’t what you might think, Auntie Paula, a corpse, but a very much alive and aware cow, floating majestically on her back, legs pointing neatly skywards and head turning from side to side to get her bearings. Using the trailing tail as a rudder, and stabilised by a full udder spread evenly down her flanks, she steered carefully towards the highest arch and just squeezed through.

Intrigued, I followed her downstream into The Quarry, Shrewsbury’s beautifully landscaped park, where she made for the slower current on my side of the meandering river.

‘That doesn’t look much fun,’ I called out, as she came alongside.

‘It’s always the same,’ the cow said. ‘They know-oo it’s going to happen, but leave us on the flood plain at Welshpool until it’s too-oo late.’

‘What will you do now?’ I said.

‘I’ll eventually run aground and someone will pho-oo-ne the number on my udder.’

‘Oh-oo,’ I said, slipping into her parlance.’ At least you’ll be safe.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but last time, five of us were washed up together in Frankwell car park, and the lo-oo-cals used us as bicycle racks for three days before the farmer came.’

I left her to it, and wandered up to The Dingle Garden, where in summer you’re guaranteed a dazzling display of bedding plants around the lake. The solitary heron was standing, peering, as if it hadn’t moved since I was last there five years ago. Leaves were blowing about, and the empty beds were being planted with bulbs by a workforce of twenty.

There was something unusual about the bulbs; they were chunky and long, a bit artificial looking. The man in charge told me that with cutbacks Shrewsbury Town Council had reappraised their planting, and this was a one-off exercise to make huge savings over fifteen years.

The bulbs were plastic and each contained a microchip. At the touch of a button on his remote control a newly-planted bed came to life with green sprouts like young daffodil leaves. Another touch and they grew a further inch. It was amazing! When he held the button down the daffodils shot up to their full ten inches and yellow petals opened up to expose bright orange interiors. Each bed had different bulbs, and they’d ordered ‘bedding plants’ for the summer to make further savings. No more annual planting or clearing out; no watering or dead-heading; just a little weeding from time to time. He reckoned it would save two hundred pounds a year.

You’d have loved them, Auntie Paula; and having symmetrical plants is surely a small price to pay in these hard times. I do admire the imagination of local Councils, always coming up with enterprising ideas.

On my way back through the town centre, I was struck by how quiet it was. Pride Hill Arcade felt eerily empty as I browsed for Christmas presents and sat alone in a small cafe for tea and an Eccles cake. But Mcdonald’s was busy, as was Greggs where I queued a long time for a Fatty Melt, my treat on the return journey to Hereford. The reason for the hold-up became clear. As with so many retailers, the customer assistants were more intent on asking if you wanted ‘anything else’ than serving what you wanted. It must be so you spend more, but I find it irritating. Greggs are past masters; as I approached the counter I thought,

‘No, no, please don’t say it!’

But too late. Before I could speak, the assistant called out,

‘Anything else?’

‘No, please not that,’ I said. ‘Please may I have a Fatty Melt?’

‘Anything else?’ she asked.

‘No, really – just a Fatty Melt.’

‘Anything else?’ she said, staring blankly over my shoulder.

‘Okay, can I have one Anything Else please?’ I said, thinking this might fox her into giving me a Fatty Melt. Instead it got worse, as an assistant at the ovens spotted the bull’s-eye on my forehead and joined in.

‘Anything else?’ she called. ‘Anything else?’

‘Anything else?’ said the first assistant.

‘Anything else?’ called a third lady from behind the cake counter.

To this intimidating echo I left the shop, foodless, wondering how Greggs did so well. But escape wasn’t simple. As I made off towards the station I turned to see a gaggle of hair-netted assistants exiting the shop in my direction, the original three in the vanguard, then another trio who’d presumably been buttering bread out the back, followed by a fresh hatching of fully fifteen, intonating their mantra in the same menacing voice as the gas-masked schoolchildren in Doctor Who chanting : ‘Where’s my mummy? I want my mummy.’

‘Anything else? Anything else? Anything else? …’

I ran as fast as I could, and I tell you, Auntie, I was glad the train left on time because I could just see hairnets appearing on the stairs up to platform 7b. Even now on the train, I’m looking over my shoulder.

Anyway, see you soon, and say hello to Prince Benjamin of Beijing. I do like Pekinese.

Love Paul

Paul Costello © October 2012

w: www.paulcostello.me/

t: @PaulCostello8

 

Postcard from Albufeira

Dear Uncle Ian

‘Feelings, wo-o-o feelings,
Wo-o-o, feel you – again in my arms.’

When I first heard pan pipes echoing through the tunnel from the beach I thought,

‘Shit, shit – not that – please! Birmingham, Cheltenham or even Ledbury sometimes – but not Albufeira. And no, I don’t want a CD for 10 Euros.’

‘… feelings – like I’ve never lost you …’

Peruvian guy in coloured gear and headdress – been here all week. Presumably from Mashu Poteetu since that’s the only place ever talked about.

But yesterday it took an interesting turn. A coachload of white-hairs on a Saga day trip from along the coast, who’d stopped for tea and tiramisu at the Esplanado do Tunel Restaurant, were nodding and miming along happily when an overweight man with pebble glasses got up and started jigging around.

At first I thought, ‘Why bring ‘em here? Tiresome git!’, and that it would only be a matter of time before he started that hissy whistle-speak Saga language, like,

‘Come on lads-s-s and lass-s-s-es. Let’s-s-s danc-c-e!’

I needn’t have worried, because at what seemed a pre-arranged signal the music changed, dramatically. The Peruvian boosted the bass and started puffing out a rap beat, no mean feat on pan pipes. Meanwhile the fat geezer donned a pair of giant, sponge hands like you see at soccer matches, and with perfect enunciation and a great deal of emotion started banging out his own lyrics, synthetic fingers pointing down to the ‘feelings’ he wanted to share with one of the old girls drinking tea. The chorus went something like:

‘You ain’t never gonna leave me ’cause 

believe me, I ain’t waitin’ while

you playin’ wid my mind, this time

it’s me who calls the shots, and what’s

the point in hanging round, you’ll drop

before you leave me gal, I’ll see

to that, you know I will.

Just like that Buster Rhymes I told you about. It was really emotional, Uncle Ian. The message got nasty at times, but a sweet old lady who spoke just with her lower lip reassured me,

‘Nothing to be frightened of, dear. He does it wherever he goes – in the name of performance, so he says.’

And get this! The shape of the sponge fingers perfectly matched that of the pan pipes – a clever touch I thought.

*

I nearly didn’t get here. Two hundred of us were sat an hour on this Air Explore jet at Birmingham, welded together across each row with chunky North Face jackets atop ten layers of pocket-laden clothing to keep hand luggage below the prescribed ten kilos, when the head steward announced,

‘Unfortunately, due to operational difficulties we must ask you to de-load.’

We gathered from a man near the front that the person appointed to fly us safely to Portugal, a Captain Icarus, had failed a breathalyser, which explained the police presence as we transferred to a Monarch plane; I thought the guns were a bit over the top, but I suppose the crew were Slovakian. Even then we waited another hour while they transferred luggage, then unloaded the hold again to find the medicine of a passenger who’d been taken poorly – I mean, for God’s sake, I bet she put it in the hold to keep her hand luggage underweight!  Selfish.

I can tell you I was ready for those Bombay Sapphire and tonics, although it was hard pouring them with eleven layers of clothing and tray tables that wouldn’t fold down properly with only ten inches between rows. The fat Saga bloke would have stood no chance drinking or eating – which I suppose would have been a good thing. As for getting in the brace position …

*

Apart from the first night, I’ve had some fabulous food. Local specialities include rabbit stew and cataplan, a medley of seafood, chicken or vegetables. I’ve been eating slowly. This is partly for my Mindfulness regime, where chewing every grain of food for several minutes absorbs spiritual as well as nutritional goodness, but also because of a hammering the Euro is taking on financial markets. Making a meal last four or five hours instead of an hour saves me 5 to 10 Cents with Santander by the time they convert my Visa payment. An hour and a half of mouse-like nibbles at an almond tart alone gains me 3 cents. Of course hot dishes can go cold, but to mitigate this I keep telling the waiter,

‘I’m not quite ready to order. Can I have a few more minutes, please?’

Or I choose something like sardines and say,

‘Tell the chef to take his time, oh and with the sardines, could he pop out and catch some absolutely fresh ones, please.’

But on the first night I had to eat down The Strip. This is where hen and stag parties hang out and Glaswegian drunks want to be your friend – a narrow street with restaurants and bars blasting out music that drowns the football commentary on giant TVs which neither the women in matching pink fluffy antlers, nor the men with cowboy hats and tattoos who clap appreciatively each time a woman goes past, are watching anyway.

Competition between bars is intense, and pretty girls try to hook you in at each doorway. It’s hard enough fighting off hookers who are waving a menu in your face, but that’s not what trapped me. Unimpressed with the eating choices, I made to leave at the far end of the street only to find a massive trawling net thrown around me from an upper floor, much like they catch a sick giraffe on the African savanna in Wild at Heart.  I managed to extricate myself and head back to the other end of the street, whereupon the same thing happened.

Following a decline in the local fishing industry, enterprising Pescadores, as they’re called, have diversified into tourist-related activity using whatever resources are to hand and clubbing together with Bar owners to form a captive market. Once in the street, you have to show a meal receipt before the net is raised to let you out. With the limited menus tailored to typical Strip visitors, and not fancying kebab and chips, I had to make do with a rather late Full English Breakfast. I can tell you, Uncle, I’ve not been down there again at night!

‘Teardrops – rolling down on my face,
Trying to forget my – feelings of love.’

I’d better go. The Peruvian’s back and another Saga coach is pulling up. Anything could happen! Hope you’re not missing Auntie Fifi too much.

Love Paul

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8


Cuckoos Over the Weald

Extract

Bill Tipping shot for goal. Holding off a lanky Italian defender, he took two short steps and caught the round flint perfectly on his instep. On darker mornings he might have seen sparks for his effort, but not at this time of year. Game over, as the stone escaped into thick swathes of cow parsley lining the narrow lane.

          Bill loved his walk to the small country station. Nearly forty years and he had no intention of packing it up, enjoying the routine, happy in a community which thrived on familiar faces and warm welcomes. A woman driving her children to school hooted and slowed to edge past on the narrow lane; Bill glared, until he recognised her from the cul-de-sac development at the edge of Heddingly, and waved back.

A cuckoo called from one of the coppices dotting the Sussex Weald, the same bird, he thought, that led the morning chorus he’d listened to from bed earlier. Blackbirds and sparrows foraged for grubs under the high hawthorn hedges. Bill pictured their unguarded chicks as prey for cackling magpies in search of an easy meal. How he hated that sound.

His tinny pocket radio had promised another fine June day. The sun was already high and he felt overdressed in a fleece, but with fickle British weather it was best to be sure. Strapped across his chest, he carried a beige, army-style haversack. Inside were the Coach and Bus magazine, a sticky bottle of sun cream wrapped in clingfilm, and his Tupperware lunch box containing sandwiches, a banana and a chocolate bar.