Combat Trousers

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Today I want to talk about fashion. Oh if you could see me now, you’d know just how unqualified I am to do such a thing. “Why is a bearded unkempt white man in his thirties who’s wearing a generic jean and jumper combo talking to us about fashion?” you would all collectively say… but I’m going to anyway, as it wasn’t always like this.

This week I’ve finally got around to sorting out all the old toys and documents at my Mother’s house that have been stored there ever since my Brother and I left home. Stuffed into cupboards and the attic, Mum has been on at me for years to do this, and finally, out of the goodness of my heart (and the approach of Christmas without any paid work)  I’ve decided to eBay the lot.

Well, not the lot, obviously. Part of the problem with attempting this task (as I’ve done in the past) is the nostalgia. It’s like a barrage of memories, hitting you repeatedly in the mind. For example, I found an old picture of me from the late 90s and whether I liked it or not, memories flooded back about that time in my life, my hopes and dreams, my  loves won and lost, and my combat trousers.

Yes, combat trousers, the fashion item reserved for IT technicians and me when I was 17. I’m not sure exactly what it is that qualifies them as ‘combat’ trousers. Certainly they resemble the style of regular army trousers (not territorial army trousers, oh no, they are completely different), but by the token of not actually being worn by someone in the actual army, can they really be referred to as ‘combat’ trousers?

I mean, they’re not like guns for example, with their own latent destructive force no matter who wields them. Even in untrained hands a gun is dangerous, perhaps more dangerous. Combat trousers however are no more deadly on the legs of a trained soldier than they are on the legs of a trained Sandwich artist.

Unless that is, all it takes for something to be classified as ‘combat ready’ is the addition of multiple buttoned pockets, several unnecessary tightening straps, and being a shade of green, in which case most subscribers of Country Life must be heading to war each time they go out for a ramble.

Or maybe I’m mistaken? Maybe they do have a latent destructive force in and of themselves that I’m not aware of? For all the years I wore them, maybe I just never stumbled on the right combination to unlock the devastating forces trapped within? Yes I said it, the devastating forces trapped within my trousers.

Perhaps, who knows, the zip down, left pocket inverted, shin pockets closed from left to right and ankle straps simultaneously clicked together and BOOM!.. They’ve turned in to a bazooka. Brilliant! Or instead, zip up, top button undone, all pockets open and the inner back pocket sealed and POW!.. They become a tank. Or better still, zip down, top button undone, pulled down to ankles and KAPOW!.. Inhumane treatment of prisoners of war during an illegal invasion.

There’s another possibility though. What if the ‘combat’ label of these trousers does not relate to human affairs at all, and actually stems from some ancient trouser civil war, when a previously peaceful and pacifistic group of trousers had an argument with some denim? The introduction of seemingly extraneous pockets and straps eventually ostracising the new breed of trousers from their kin, leading them to be shunned and mistrusted by the likes of the corduroy and the tracksuit? They had no choice but to fight for their place on the mannequin of life, and having succeeded in their vengeful and bloody liberation, they forever now carry the legend of ‘combat’ with them?

I might be over speculating. But clothes can and do carry with them anxieties, otherwise we wouldn’t have a fashion industry designed to magnify those anxieties and sell us the tailored antidotes. Nowadays for instance, I sometimes wear one of those old-style German army shirts when I perform on stage with my band, but even that causes me trouble.

I stand there, singing into the microphone, playing my guitar, wearing my long green, shoulder strapped shirt with a small German flag stitched to the upper arm, and being blonde haired and blue eyed, I think to myself ‘I wonder if anyone here thinks I’m German?’. Then I dismiss that thought, as I launch into another powerful verse of socially astute lyrical rampage, I dismiss that thought thinking, ‘well I’m not talking or singing with a German accent’ and carry on. But then, as my band reaches the intricate, driving, catchy yet subversive and melodically enlightening middle eight of our latest masterpiece, I think, ‘but that makes it worse, maybe they think I’m a German with a back-story? Maybe they think I’m half German?’

As we launch into our rousing finale, I start to wonder, ‘but what if they’re also thinking that if I’m simply half German, they should have detected but the slightest hint of an accent from the influence of my German parent? So, maybe, they think, he’s the love child of an absentee German father whom he has never met, and his abandonment issues and desire to reconnect with his German background, despite the pleas of his Mother (who holds some dark secret no doubt), are reflected in his choice of attire and attitudes to life? Putting himself on stage, wearing a German jacket, without a discernible German accent, as if to say… I am searching for my German-ness! I want to reconnect with my mainland heritage! Help me! Help me!’.

So I’m thinking all this as we finish taking our audience through a half hour of musical arousal, leaving an indelible memory of a unique yet ultimately marketable blend of rock-punk, foot-tapping commentary on modern life, and I exit the stage. There, waiting for me, is a beautiful, starry eyed girl. She flicks her hair teasingly over her shoulder, strokes the tricolour flag on my shirt softly and smiles before asking me, “Are you German?”, to which I reply, “No. I bought it in a charity shop.”  And she leaves, which is fine, because I’m not single anyway or a character from a sit-com who feels they have to weave an increasingly complex web of lies in order to try and impress a series of flaky and mono-dimensional potential mates. My imagined German past remains just that and my clothes anxiety is dissipated by the brutal realism that the three people my band just played to are only there due to a contractual obligation with the establishment we just performed in.

But then, there was a time when I was single and something similar happened. It was at a festival. I was wearing a red t-shirt with a yellow star in the middle. A gorgeous girl walked over to me, randomly out of the crowd, twiddled her beaded hair in her fingers, looked up at me with big brown eyes, pointed to my t-shirt and asked, “Have you been to Vietnam?”, and I looked back at her, held her in my gaze, and with a knowing smile I said, “No. I bought it from a charity shop”. She quickly walked away back into the crowd. And you know why? Because I’m not a sit-com character with truth issues willing to propel myself into inextricable depths of deceit in order to obtain sex, employment or perpetuate an amusing situation in such an obvious and formulaic way that would interest the commissioners of BBC3 or apparently any other independent production houses.

But then, as I lost sight of the girl in the massive crowd, I found high ground, inverted my right pocket, strapped in my left ankle strap, unzipped my fly and POW!.. My combat trousers turned into a powerful set of binoculars, and I was able to locate the girl with the beads in her hair, and explain to her that although I hadn’t been to Vietnam, I was the love child of an absentee German father, but was wearing the wrong shirt. She felt sympathy for me, and we talked for hours under the moonlight, and if it hadn’t have been for the fact that I was now wearing no trousers, and my tale of German abandonment jarred with my pointless Vietnam referencing t-shirt, I may even have got somewhere. But I didn’t. Because in the end, I found, I was a character in a sit-com, and characters in sit-coms rarely get what they want, trapped forever in farcical and descending spirals of dishonesty, destined to live episodically from one half hourly predictable outcome to the next.

And then, the credits rolled, and that was my story about fashion.

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Sit Down Stand Up #1 Spontaneity

Blog warning:

To ease you into this, if you are so good as to read it, I should explain a little here about my influences and reasons. I recently went to watch the brilliant Stewart Lee in Buxton perform his ‘Much-a-Stew-about-nothing’ show (http://www.stewartlee.co.uk/) and it reconnected me to the notions of narrative in stand-up comedy and the power of comedy and narrative in general. I was very fortunate to follow this up with a chance encounter with a friend who lent me one of Lee’s books with transcripts of his previous live shows including foot-notes on his technique and inspirations. Now, I have no interest in doing stand-up comedy myself, and it’s only recently with my writing credits on Radio BBC4 Extra’s ‘Newsjack’ that I’ve written anything purposefully comedic at all. This blog, as I say in the ‘About Me’ section is intended for trying things out, for things that don’t slot easily anywhere else, and shameless self promotion. This specific blog therefore is totally the result of having immersed myself in alternative comedy for a month or so and wanting to try my hand at writing the kind of narrative that experts like Lee have so brilliantly crafted. I liked reading the transcribed shows, they worked on the page, so I figured, having no interest in actually standing up and saying these things into a microphone, I would try and write a brief narrative and put a ‘stand-up’ spin on it. I don’t really care if it smacks of influence or emulation – that’s why I’ve done it, to try and find out a bit of how this works for myself, even if it is only to conclude that it doesn’t work at all.

Not surprisingly, the very subject of not wanting to ever do stand-up and an embarrassing attempt I once made at making a joke on stage has formed the theme of this experiment. Also, like most comedy narratives, it is an exaggerated account of a true story, with some not true things thrown in.

With that said, I hope you can forgive me if you don’t either a) find it funny or b) even finish reading it. I also hope you can forgive me for my apologetic introduction. I would be interested to hear what you think so please leave a comment here or anywhere I might see it – but preferably not attached to a brick through my window.

***

So I was thinking about Stand-up comedy. Not actually doing it. No way. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. Actually I can, I can think of lots of things more terrifying, like crawling into a small hole under a tree and then realising I’m stuck there forever. What I mean is, I can’t think of anything more terrifying within the realm of public performance, except perhaps some kind of performance arts piece involving testicles and leeches. What I mean is, I just don’t like the idea of doing stand up comedy, which is interesting seeing as I’m no stranger to taking to the stage. I sing in a band, I sometimes even talk (a bit) between songs. Granted it is usually only to state the name of the next song and say thank you for the applause from the last (regardless if any actually happened), but it’s still talking into a microphone in front of other people all the same.

I think I may have shocked myself out of trying to riff funny back at my Dad’s wedding some years ago now. I was performing with my Brother and a make-shift band for the evening. It got to the point where my Dad and my Step Mum where trying to encourage dancing as most of the guests had spent much of the first half of our set in another room. Not coincidentally, the room with the buffet. Ah, the buffet, it always wins in the end. No manner of art can win against the lure of cheese & pineapple on sticks. Maybe that’s the ultimate aim of all art – to become a credible challenger to the dominating presence of a buffet?

Anyway, we had pretty much already played our set to the few people who could resist the lure of questionable coleslaw, and now the others had all filled their stomachs with cherry tomatoes and breaded bits of chicken, they were ready to be entertained (I like buffet’s, but am always suspicious now of anything in breadcrumbs having once accidentally eaten a miserable fish goujon thinking it was going to be chicken. It seems to me that in one sense, covering something with breadcrumbs is as good as disguising it in something neutral and bland for fear that its true identity will be discovered, a bit like when Jim Davidson hosted Big-Break). It didn’t seem to matter much to the quiche stuffed revellers that we had already been playing for an hour, but it was my Dad’s wedding, so we carried on.

About half way through the set, while the crowd of cold-chicken-leg fuelled party-goers sat watching and talking amongst themselves, my Dad and my Step Mum braved the dance floor. It wasn’t a ‘first dance’ kind of thing as I remember – well it was, in the sense that no one else was dancing, as they were all probably too full of limp salad and tiny sausages, but it wasn’t the first dance. It was just a dance, I think calculated by my Dad to try and encourage others to do the same. I picked up on this vibe in an almost Jedi like moment of mental connection, I knew what he was trying to do, and I liked it. By this time, my older brother (who has always had a more natural disposition on stage and a greater ability than I to say things coherently in general), had already cracked a joke to rapturous laughter at some earlier stage. I think it was about eating, drinking and being Mary… I can’t remember, or it was about three nuns in a boat. Either way, I had the notion that if there was ever a time to try my hand at saying something spontaneous though a microphone, it was now, in the bosom of my extended family and friends who would accept me out of (if nothing else) politeness to my Father.

So something was sparking in my mind, my Dad was dancing (a rare and unwieldy sight) and in the ether, from somewhere beyond, I could hear a voice saying, “It’s ok son, it’s ok, this is the time to make a joke about my bad dancing in order to get the other people dancing, even though they are struggling against the weight of many, many mini sausage rolls, now is the time. Look, I am your Father.” (That last joke only works if you pronounce ‘look’ in the same way as ‘fluke’ – which people in Staffordshire do, even though none of my family are actually from Staffordshire, but that doesn’t matter, as this disembodied voice of my Father encouraging me to talk on the microphone didn’t actually happen, and if it did, only I could hear it, so I would have got the Star Wars / Stokey accent reference anyway, so there.)

And I thought, yes! Yes, there is a joke in there somewhere… There is some vague notion of my Dad dancing and not being very good at it, and other people not dancing, who presumably can only be as bad, but probably better. I admit, I hadn’t really nailed it at this stage, but sweating, drunk and exhausted from being nearly two hours into a live set, I walked up to the microphone and looked out at the expectant faces in the large function room, my Father and my new Step Mum still standing alone in the centre of the dance floor, looking at me as if to say “now is the time! You can do it! Improvise!” and I said something along the lines of:

“They say that before people decide whether to dance or not they judge this by the least ability of the people already on the dance floor and so if my Dad is dancing, then you all should be too…”

It was a scene reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday speech in the Lord of the Rings where he declares “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve” and the crowd looks on in confusion while they try and deconstruct the meaning and whether or not it was an insult. I say it was reminiscent of that, because in another way, it was nothing like that all, having none of the wit, charm or craftsmanship that Tolkien possessed in unfair quantities. The only bit that was similar, was the crowd looking back at me in confused indifference, trying to work out what I’d just said, and if it made any sense. Which, it didn’t.

I mean it could have done. In hindsight. Oh yes, in hindsight, given the 15 years or so since this happened and my development as a writer, I can look at this sentence and edit it down to the following: “If my Dad’s dancing, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have a dance.” Which isn’t really that funny either, but as light banter, would have been more succinct and may have raised a titter. It also has the added benefit of letting the audience fill in the blanks for themselves. It is implied that it is about ability, rather than force-fed, showing respect to their intelligence. To give credit to my Dad, he seemed to get the intent behind my garbled declaration and gave a pantomime look to the crowd as if to say “he’s right you know!”, although this may have actually been to say “I don’t know either… Maybe if you just come up and dance he won’t try and speak again.”

I was lucky really that no one took me to task on my comment. Thank God there were no hecklers at my Dad’s wedding. It wouldn’t have taken much. The first comment that springs to mind is, “Who says that?” as in, “Who says that before people decide to dance they judge the least ability of other people on the dance floor?” To which I would have had to reply, “I don’t know, just people, old wise people on a mountain somewhere…” and they may have said, “Why do they say that?” to which I could retort, “because I asked them – I anticipated that you would all spend more time inhaling bread sticks and tiramisu then you would listening to my band play for several hours at my own Dad’s wedding, and then come in here and sit watching us play it all again without even attempting to dance, and as such, I travelled to a wise man in Mongolia, yeah, Mongolia because it sounds mysterious and that’s where wise men on mountains live, and I found the wisest man, on the highest mountain, and I said to him – why is that people don’t dance sometimes? And he told me why. But to be sure, I went to the next highest mountain and found the next wisest man, and asked him the same, and he gave me the same answer. I repeated this exercise several times to make sure I had a consensus of opinion from multiple sources, hence why I referred to the plural ‘they’ in my rendering of this Eastern wisdom. It wasn’t just my panicking mind reaching desperately for an elusive third party with which to frame my witticism, it was the result of many months of hard travel and research.”

Of course, the next rebuke may have been, “but what does it mean? The order of the words you chose to speak, doesn’t really make sense does it Garry? They ‘judge the least ability’? Did you mean, they judge the ability of others dancing, and if they deem themselves to be similar or better, they may feel more comfortable and participate in the awkward social situation without fear of embarrassment?” to wit I would have to concede, “Yes, that’s basically what I meant, but as demonstrated by your lengthy interpretation of my intended observation, that doesn’t make for much of a snappy one liner to say between songs does it? So all I knew, was that I wanted to say something that meant the same as what you just said, but had to be shorter, which in my current heightened, adrenalin and alcohol fuelled mindset, I couldn’t quite achieve. I only hope that this protracted conversation with you, the imaginary heckler, has clarified this point to all the other guests here and we can move on from this unfortunate and ill conceived attempt at spontaneity and enjoy the rest of the evening…”

And I looked up from this exchange, feeling I had vindicated myself from any embarrassment or misunderstanding only to find that the room was now empty, the crowd, impatient as they were for me to stop talking to myself retrospectively from the future, had slinked off back to the next room, because a waiter had just brought out some more, hot, unidentifiable breaded goods that someone suspected was garlic mushrooms… And we all like garlic mushrooms don’t we? Except for those people who don’t. In fact, they say that those people who aren’t sure about breaded goods on a buffet judge themselves by the least ability of others to decide whether or not to eat them, don’t they? Yeah they do. That’s what ‘they’ say, and I know that because I went to Mongolia to ask them.

THE END.