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Background Hell

Background Hell

I confess to being one of those weird people who actually like background music and have even been known to enjoy the occasional elevator ride, but I am finding myself increasingly irritated by music which far from being in the background, smacks me in the face like a bucket of wet quavers.

When Shakespeare wrote the immortal words “if music is the food of love,” I feel confident in saying he didn’t have the likes of Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. African warriors played menacing drum beats all through the night before an attack in order to instil terror into their enemies. Just how terrified would the enemy have been if those same Africans charged at them doing the Viennese Waltz? My point is, when music is played in public, it should be the right music for the right occasion.

As a professional musician, I always thought of music as a tool that can manipulate an atmosphere. In a restaurant, I played relaxing music quietly so people could talk and enjoy their meal. They might not like the music I played, but they would subconsciously enjoy the atmosphere that it created. Sometimes even in the most sophisticated of restaurants, I would sense the audience becoming animated, so I changed the music to suit the mood. If I was playing in a pub, I waited until the audience was warmed up before ripping into something like We Will Rock You at full volume. It was important to use the right tool for the job because trying to force an atmosphere on an audience that is not ready or willing can ruin their evening.

The problem I have with background music is when it is used in inexperienced or uncaring hands. I have lost count of the number of restaurant meals I have had which were spoilt by music which was inappropriate or too loud. I remember taking my parents to lunch to an almost empty restaurant where the owner insisted on playing 70’s disco music. When I asked him to play something more appropriate, he refused, saying it was the kind of music his customers liked. I pointed out that apart from one other elderly table that agreed with me, there were no customers. His only concession was to turn the volume down a little. I suspect that during an evening session, he played 70’s disco to a crowded restaurant, and it created a great atmosphere, so he decided that disco was essential in creating a good atmosphere.

Sometimes employees are left to play the music they like rather than what is appropriate. Many years ago, I owned an Italian restaurant, and had the greatest difficulty in getting my staff to play Italian music. Every time I dropped in unexpectedly, I was greeted by Michael Jackson at a volume so loud it made the Pizzas curdle. Worst of all are venues that out of laziness play the radio all day so not only do you have to listen to inappropriate music but also adverts.

We live near Dubrovnik in Croatia and opposite the old town is a wonderful little island called Lokrum that we visit regularly. It has an old monastery and is where Game of Thrones was filmed. Last year we went and immediately on getting out of the boat we were greeted by a loud boom, boom, boom of techno music coming from the café at the entrance. As we walked across the island to the other side, even when the music could no longer be heard, there was still the constant boom, boom of the bass drum like someone was hammering on the roof of your house. By the time we got to the other side of the island, techno music was playing in another bar. During lunch, we had to endure a singer playing old standards at high volume with the boom, boom of a bass drum in the background. In one place, I was able to hear three different sources of music at the same time, and it was bedlam. The whole day was really unpleasant.

So if you are responsible for selecting background music in a public place, please consider what is most appropriate for all of your customers and not for your own or your staff’s personal taste. I don’t suppose in the history of the world anyone has refused to return to a restaurant because the music was too soft, but there are plenty who won’t return because the music ruined their dining experience.

And don’t get me started on televisions in restaurants!

Cooking with Nemo James

Since the publication of my book “Just A Few Seconds,” several people have emailed me to ask whether my cooking has improved since the chapter entitled “A Recipe For Shoestrings.” In it I wrote how during a very difficult time in my life I was living on a budget of £1 a day for food. Some people are able to do wonders with £1 spent wisely on ingredients but I am definitely not one of them. I was not only on a shoestring budget my meals actually tasted like shoestrings.

Since then, I met and married Federika, who specialising in dishes from all corners of the globe but particularly from Peru where she grew up. I am never going to win any awards for my cooking but she has taught me a lot and in particular shared that secret that all you crafty cooks have been keeping to yourselves: The Kitchen Timer.

Until I discovered the kitchen timer I used to rely on the smoke alarm which is a method I am told experienced cooks frown upon. In a terraced house in the UK, it was not a problem as I would always put the smoke alarm within easy reach so I could turn it off quickly. But one day while I was living in Los Angeles I was heating a chocolate muffin for my breakfast when the phone rang with a call from a prospective agent. I completely forgot about the muffin until the smoke alarm went off but being accustomed to this event I continued talking to the agent whilst removing the muffin from the oven and jumping up and down on a chair trying to blow cold air onto the alarm. As most of the buildings in L.A. are made of wood everyone is paranoid about fire so just as I thought I had everything under control and had the agent interested, the building manager started banging on my door and screaming at me to let him in. I never realised cooking could be so difficult. Here are a few more tips that I have discovered that I would like to pass on:

  • Keeping the kitchen floor clean from grease saves you from having to wear a crash helmet when you cook.
  • A baguette is not a small shopping bag
  • Using an apron means that cooking doesn’t always require a change of clothes
  • Crab apple is not a seafood
  • Putting a box of elastoplasts near the cutting board not only saves time searching for them but means no more mopping blood from the floor.
  • The oil you use for cooking is a different to the type you use in your car
  • Oven gloves save a lot of pain.
  • When breaking an egg it is better to use the edge of a knife rather than a hammer.
  • Chicken shit is not a substitute for Guinea fowl.
  • You don’t get black eyed beans by punching ordinary beans
  • You can’t make white sugar go brown by leaving it in the sun all day
  • Hitting a halibut with a hammer doesn’t make it a flatfish
  • You can’t scald pasta by telling it off.
  • Milkshakes were not invented by Arabic dairy farmers
  • Molasses are not moles’ bottoms.
  • Strong currents in Muesli are not dangerous to swimmers
  • Rigatoni is a kind of pasta, not the rigid state of a deceased Italian ice cream seller.
  • If you are running short of Tofu for that special dinner party try adding half a litre of water to a roll of toilet paper and blend in with one large packet of wallpaper paste. No one will ever know the difference.

If you have a cooking tip you would like to share with others please send them in.

A Hero Unknown

I am sure I am not alone in having had a father that managed to turn almost any conversation into an anecdote from his time as a soldier in the second world war. As he got older, he started to repeat those anecdotes more frequently, but there was always one that I never grew tired of hearing. Even sixty years after the event, there were still tears in his eyes when he told it.

My father took part in the liberation of Italy in 1945. The captain of his division was a man called Timothy O’Brien, and never was an officer more loved and respected. One dark night they were sheltering terrified in a trench while German mortars fell all around them. From a distance, O’Brien saw what was happening, and with no thought to his own safety, he ran over and shouted, “if you move from that trench, some of you will be killed; if you stay there, you will all be killed.” They moved, and shortly after, mortars destroyed the trench. Dad used to say that being a religious man, O’Brien was “touched by God” as he seemed to know instinctively what was going to happen.

One day towards the end of the war, their regiment was holding a position at Monti Casino when O’Brien noticed two of his men walking along the skyline. He stood up and shouted at them to get down but was himself shot and fatally wounded by a sniper.

O’Brien held a special place in my father’s heart, and there was no doubt in his mind that if it were not for O’Brian, he would never have survived the war, which means I also owe him my life. Like many ex-soldiers, my father spent the rest of his life feeling guilty for leading a long and happy life when such great men like O’Brien were killed, and his family left without a father.
No one has ever heard of O’Brien. He was not awarded any medals for valour, and he was buried in a military grave in Faenza in Italy. It is a shame that for every hero that is acknowledged, there are many that die without anyone knowing of their bravery.

It was always my father’s greatest wish to contact the relatives of Timothy O’Brien and tell them what a great man their grandfather was, but despite a great deal of effort, I have been unable to trace them. Since my father passed away in 2013 aged ninety-three, I have made some headway by applying for his service records, but as his wife’s name was redacted, I hit a dead end. So I would like to make a public appeal for information about this fallen hero. His details are as follows:

Name: Timothy Joseph O’Brien
Born 15th January 1917 in Ireland
Died 25th October 1944 in Italy
Father – Dennis O’Brien, Adrigole, Bantry Cork
Mother – Margaret
Brother – Desmond
Wife – Mrs E.M. O’brien
Married 27th October 194
Children: One known child
Uncle Henry Wills 4805 Ave. M Brooklyn, New Jersey
Profession: Labourer
Previous Address – 46 Portfield Avenue, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire

Grave: Faenza War Cemetery
Regiment: West Kent Regiment (The Buffs)
Rank: Lieutenant (acting captain)
Service number: 294236

Please email and share this article with your friends and help me find the descendants of Timothy O’Brian.

Dancing With Nemo James

I was one of the most dedicated musicians that ever lived and practised to the point where I could play any piece of music put in front of me. The problem was most of the music put in front of me could have been played by first-year guitar students. It is like mastering calculus, and the only job you can get is copying out the times table. The one consolation (apart from the money, of course) was that whilst playing, I got to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes, watching people dance.

You can tell a lot about people by the way they dance, and I am surprised psychiatrists waste so much time talking to patients when all they need to do is put on some music and study their moves. Here are some types of dancers I discovered over the years.

1. The Alcoholic
He will interrupt his dancing and say something in his wife’s ear before walking towards the toilets. At the last minute, he takes a detour to the bar and knocks back a couple of whiskies before returning to his wife via the toilets.

2. The Farter
His friends know he has a problem with flatulence, and any nasty smells are likely to have emanated from him, so his wife has given him strict instructions to control himself. Easily recognisable by clenched buttocks and a reluctance to make any sudden movement.

3. The Exhibitionist
The dancer will be continually be looking around to see if she is being watched. When they catch someone’s attention, they will make a funny face and wave their arms effectively, saying, “look at me, I’m a real party animal.” If they can’t get anyone’s attention within ten minutes, they will return to their table.

4. The Show Off
Thinks he’s John Travolta but looks more like John the pole vaulter.

5. The Tight-arse
He will spend most of the time on the dance floor and return to his table just after someone has bought a round of drinks.

6. The Professional
Serious but boring couples often found shouting at each other because one of them made a move that wasn’t rehearsed.

7. The Martial Artist
Usually a lower grade karate student who is desperate to let people know he does karate and has superhuman powers. You can predict the exact grade of a student by how subtly they blend punching or kicking into the dance. The more obvious the karate movements, the lower the grade.

8. The Self Conscious
They are convinced that all 500 people at the venue are making judgments about their dancing.

9. The Press Ganged
Always male. He moves with short movements from side to side and hands in front of him like he is using a really wide keyboard. He hates dancing and only does it to please his wife.

10. The Flirt
They will skillfully dance with their partner whilst giving the eye to someone else. The trick is to wait until their partner looks away, wiggle to the side, give the smile to her target and then spin around to face her partner again without them noticing. Advanced users of this method can even be seen giving out phone numbers to lip readers.

11. The Fashion Conscious
Usually found in heels so high that dancing is almost impossible. Easy to spot as they are continually grimacing with pain. I have seen women actually fall off their shoes while dancing and even know one woman who broke her ankle.

12. The Gifted
This is a rare species, and I have fond memories of their dance movements decades after watching them. They have a true love of dancing and have movements that are entirely unique to them. They have a look of pure joy on their faces as if music is the most important thing in the world.

So which one are you?

How to be a good audience

As far as I am aware, no formal instructions have ever been offered to audiences on how to behave in public so I thought I would use this opportunity to point out a few things which really get up musicians’ noses.  Most of the following points may seem blatantly obvious but any gigging musician will tell you they are all regular occurrences.

Singers are not ventriloquists
It always amazed me how musicians develop the ability to play an instrument and hold a conversation at the same time. People often came up to me while I was playing to either request a song or just for a general chat and while that could be irritating it was so common in the end I accepted it as part of my job. What was extraordinary though was the number of people who wanted me to talk to them at the same time as I was singing. When this happened I would try to ignore them until I had finished the song but some were so persistent I had to stop and announce to the audience “sorry to interrupt this song but I have someone here who is desperate to ask me something.” The place would go deathly quite and everyone would look up to see who it was that was bothering me. They never did it a second time.

Requesting Songs
Most musicians welcome requests but please bear the following in mind:

  1. Singers and musicians don’t know every tune that was ever written so don’t start complaining when you are told they can’t play your request.
  2. If the singer doesn’t know your request it is highly unlikely that they will know it if you ask them again in 10 minutes. Asking for the same unknown song 10 times in one night is also unlikely to improve your chances of getting it played.
  3. If your song is being played don’t stop the singer in the middle of it to request something else.
  4. If your song is being played, do the singer the courtesy of listening to it. I have lost count of the times I played a request for someone only to have them talk to their friends non stop through it and later complain that I hadn’t played their request.
  5. If everyone is in a party mood with people dancing on the tables don’t request something slow, especially if it is a country song involving a dead dog. Likewise, don’t request A Bat Out of Hell while dinner is being served.

Getting up to sing
Some singers don’t mind if you get up and sing a song but it can be a minefield so don’t complain if the singer doesn’t allow it. It is hard to compete against someone who has all his mates in the bar cheering him on and harder to get people off the stage. Sometime mates of the guest singer join in and the evening degenerates into a rowdy free for all. If you want to get up and sing, go to a karaoke bar otherwise let the band or entertainer do their job.

If you go to a restaurant or pub which has a live band take it for granted that they will play too loudly. If you want to sit and chat quietly to your friends then go somewhere else. It is difficult for a band to control it’s volume considering each musician has their own volume control and each feels they should be heard above the others.

Buying a Drink
It seems to be the custom that rather than musicians being given tips they are bought drinks. Musicians appreciate the offer of a drink but if you see one with 10 pints of beer lined up behind him then don’t be offended when they turn your offer down. Several times I almost got into fights after declining a drink and I don’t know how many gallons of beer I have poured down the sink at the end of the night when refusals was ignored.

Don’t ask if you can play a musician’s instrument even if you are sober. It’s like someone asking you if they can take your brand new Jaguar around the block a few times.

If you are really drunk and want to talk to one of the band members, take it for granted that you will be irritating. You will keep repeating yourself and generally talk a load of rubbish. Remember they will probably be sober so will not be as eager to listen to you as the others at your table who have also been drinking. Just enjoy the night and accept that the singer probably doesn’t care that your mate Fred is a brilliant guitarist and plays Apache better than Hank Marvin.

If you are enjoying what the band is playing don’t wait for someone else to applaud, be brave and lead the way. Many time I spent hours playing without any audience reaction until someone claps at the end of a song and then everyone joins in and starts having a good time.

If any other musician has any pet hates please click the “submit comment” button below and send them in.


The Man Behind the Name

A lot of people ask where I got my name Nemo James from so here is the spooky story behind the name.

In 1991, at a time when I was starting to promote myself as a singer songwriter rather than a session musician I knew I had to change my name to something more catchy. Although my songwriting had become prolific I couldn’t for the life of me think of a stage name. Then one day I was chatting to my father who is not the most creative of men but he surprised me as parents so often do:

“Why not use Nemo. That was your grandfather’s nickname.”

I loved the name and the idea of finally inheriting something from my grandfather but I was still stuck for a surname when a few seconds later the name James came into my head. I didn’t know anyone called James and hadn’t been watching a TV program about one, it just came out of nowhere but I knew instantly it was the name I wanted. The spooky bit came when a couple of weeks later my father said:

“Do you know your grandfather was one of eight children and the eldest was called James … and he was poet.”

If that wasn’t spooky enough a few months later someone pointed out what Nemo spelt backwards. After that I wanted to know more about my grandfather as he died many years before I was born and was rarely talked about in my family, so I started interrogating my father and aunt.

Grandfather Nemo (real name Herbert Edwin Newark) was born into a wealthy family and his father owned a thriving bookbinding shop. He had a very strict upbringing and every night when he was young he was made to stand outside the dining room with his seven brothers and sisters and sing hymns while his parents ate their dinner. This was strange enough in itself but more so because his parents weren’t in the least bit religious. It was because of this authoritarian upbringing that my grandfather  developed an intense dislike for authority and rejected convention of any kind although being a man who hated conflict the closest he got to rattling the establishment was to make a loud cock a doodle do sound every time he left the house.

All he ever asked for from life was to remain anonymous and play cards and that is exactly what he did. Every afternoon he went to a whist drive and then straight onto a solo drive at night. Whist is like bridge without the bidding and solo is like bridge with the bidding except you don’t play in pairs. No I don’t understand either. An entrance fee was paid and the winners took whatever was in the pot. With his desire to remain anonymous he always gave his name as Nemo and in the working class environment of those places no one would have known that Nemo was Latin for nobody. At the end of every night he returned home to eat a raw onion and a piece of cheese and then go to bed.

Nemo inherited the bookbinding shop from his father and was himself a highly skilled bookbinder but he only ever did just enough to pay for his card playing. Even that became too much for him after a while so slowly he started selling the stock until he got to the point where even if someone gave him a book to repair he was unable to do it because of a lack of materials. He gave very little to his wife to bring up their five children and so my father was brought up in a slum. He didn’t drink but he did chain smoke and developed the ability to open a new packet of cigarettes while they were still in his pocket, take out a cigarette and light it while no one was looking so he didn’t have to offer them around. With all the stock gone and his shop closed down he spent the rest of his life waiting for small legacies from wealthy relatives and the occasional win at a whist drive. My grandmother got by with some help from her parents and a small income from restoring old prams. You might wonder how Nemo was able to pay the general household bills and the answer to that is that he didn’t. His favourite saying when anyone from authority approached him was “lock me up” and that is what they did. Every couple of years he would get a demand for unpaid property tax which he refused to pay so they put him in prison for a few weeks. He referred to those periods as his visits to the health farm as while there he was unable to smoke, ate much better food than he did at home and still got to play cards all day. When he was released, his debt was written off. His only concession to responsibility was when things were desperate he went to the local charity to collect a box of food. His only real worry in life was if he didn’t have enough money to pay his entrance fee to a whist drive and on those occasions his daughter Doris was happy to give it to him despite having none herself.

He was a very attractive man and there was always women chasing him although he was never interested as it would have been far too much effort to respond. When he first met my grandmother she was already engaged but she dumped her fiancé to marry him and spent the rest of their married life telling him what a big mistake she had made. He was infamous for his bad habits although my father could only tell me two of them. One was spitting into the fire (which he frequently missed) and the other was that he seemed to be incapable of closing his trouser fly. It is not surprised that eventually my grandmother kicked him out so his son Cyril built him a shed in the garden where he lived for years in the hope of my grandmother taking him back but she never did.

Towards the end of his life he was fortunate in being offered a job by a rich Jewish man called Mr Dent who owned an extensive book collection and had an apartment above a dairy in the Strand, London. If anyone has information about this Mr Dent I would love to hear it. It was Nemo’s job to restore precious old books and make others appear older than they really were in return for living at the unoccupied apartment rent free.

In 1937 Nemo died at age of 70 with the cause on the death certificate being bronchitis and pneumonia, no doubt caused by his chain smoking. Ironically the only family heirloom that has been handed down from him is a battered old cigarette case which still smells of tobacco.

One thing that surprises me is that none of his children seemed to hold any resentment towards him for depriving them of what should have been a healthy inheritance. In fact my father always talks about him with great affection and admiration of his free spirit. I also suspect that considering Nemo was an extremely popular character in the area, my father might actually have been proud of that popularity. They all went to the funeral and it was his elderly son that made up the rhyme “he died as he lived the poor old sod, even his funeral was on the nod”  (on the nod meaning on credit.) The funeral was arranged by his daughter Doris who in honour of her father’s memory never paid the bill. I am happy to say my father inherited none of Nemo’s character flaws but developed a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility ensuring that his family was always safe and secure. The only good character trait my father inherited was Nemo’s razor sharp wit.

So at the age of 91 my father has always considered his father as being a likable but selfish and  irresponsible waster who avoided life and conflict of any kind but last year I heard something about Nemo which just shows we never really know anyone. A distant cousin of mine living in Canada is an expert in genealogy and purely by chance came across a court case in which Grandfather Nemo appeared as a witness in 1898 in a murder case at the Old Bailey. In his evidence he said he heard gunshots and saw a man running away from the scene with a gun in his hand. He chased the gunman down the street until he caught him, threw him to the floor and held him while bystanders seized the gun and during the struggle two more shots were fired. When I told this to my father he refused to believe it even though I showed him the Official Old Bailey Court Transcripts where several other witness collaborated Nemo’s evidence. You would think like most fathers, Nemo would have spent the rest of his life telling his children how he wrestled a desperate gunman to the floor but it seems he kept the whole thing to himself as no one in the family ever knew about it.

Now the final irony is having spent his life in anonymity, 81 years after Granddad Nemo’s death I am putting his short biography on the internet for the whole world to see. I have a feeling if he is up there somewhere reading this his only reaction would be to shrug his shoulder and say “lock me up.”

Herbert Edwin Newark aka  “Nemo”

Are things really that bad?

Although war is undeniably hell it has to be said that for my father World War 2 was the best thing that ever happened to him. He was bought up in a slum in South London and until he joined the army his life was a disaster and in his own words he was “the most horrible child that ever lived.” This was due to a doting mother that disliked her daughters but treated her sons like Gods and my father being the youngest was Head God. When his call up papers came he was excited at the prospect of adventure and found that for the first time his life had a purpose.

Although he refers to the house he grew up in as a slum where the closest thing to a bathroom was a kitchen with one water pipe sticking out of the ground they did at least have their own tap. He still has nightmares about a nearby estate where they had to share an outside tap and toilet amongst eight households. Those houses had one room upstairs and one downstairs and the only way to get from one room to the other was up and down a stepladder. People on that estate regarded my father as being well off. It is no wonder that due to the poverty he grew up in he became a committed socialist and the greatest dream during his time in the army was that when the war was over social injustice would be a thing of the past. The army brought people from all walks of life together and getting on so well with his comrades there was no reason to think it would not always be like that. When the war ended he returned to London and was devastated to find the class system re-establishing itself but at least he found himself a secure job in the post office and was able to support his family without the fear of us ever having to live in the conditions he grew up in.

With my father’s love of talking combined with his strong political views I spent a lot of my life discussing the problems of society with him and in common with most children I always took the opposite view. Despite his disillusionment with the Labour Party he still holds the same views like a broken record and in particular the extraordinary conviction that things are so much worse now than they were in his day. He knows it is illogical but justifies his opinion by saying  that “at least we had hope in those days.”

My mother was born in what was a small village called Piove Di Sacco near Padova in Italy. When she was seven years old owing to extreme poverty in the area her family moved to Milan where my grandfather found a job as a welder in an aircraft factory. After marrying my father she followed him to England where although life was extremely difficult it was still far easier than it had been in Italy. I am interested in genealogy and was frustrated that my mother knew virtually nothing about her history and didn’t even know the names of either of her grandfathers. Thanks to the internet I was able to find someone with her maiden name in Piove Di Sacco and last year on a tour of Italy with my wife we stopped off and met relatives from both sides of her family. I went from knowing virtually nothing about my Italian connection to being given family trees going back to the 1700’s complete with more than our fair share of scandal. I was driven around what is now a large town by a distant cousin with a flashy car and met many other relatives all of whom had good jobs and seem to be comfortably off.

So where is all this going? On our last day in Piove Di Sacco we went to a large supermarket and that’s when the reality of life today really sank home. I would have liked to have set the clock back 65 years and sat my father down in what was a small poverty stricken village and asked him to clarify exactly what was it that he hoped for. To use his own favourite expression in his wildest dreams he would have hoped for a huge shop which had an abundance of affordable food and where no one starved; a free health service, education and decent living conditions for all and an income when people got old or were unable to work. Despite the fact that nearly everything he would have hoped for has come true he still can’t let go of the idea that life was better back then because they had hope.

The world will always be far from perfect but all I can say is I am glad to be alive now rather than in the pre war years living in slums with no hope and the only salvation being a call to war. As for the horrors of the first world war I don’t even want to think about it.

13 Things I survived

I was browsing through a bookshop the other day and came across a book about guardian angels, which I found intriguing. I didn’t buy the book because although I have no trouble believing in guardian angels, ghosts or even two-headed pixies, I do have trouble in believing that someone would write this kind of a book without making up at least some of the stories. If guardian angels do exist, there is no doubt that they are not all created equal, and judging by my survival rate below, it looks like mine has been doing a pretty good job.

1. Italian Food
Anyone who has ever visited Italian relatives is aware of the danger of death by eating. You are given the biggest lunch you have ever seen, which includes two starters, one of which is a big plate of pasta. Around 5 p.m. someone presents you with a neatly wrapped package of pastries that was bought especially in your honour. A couple of hours later, just as you feel you might survive, they present you with the biggest pizza you have ever seen and look offended when you turn down the tiramisu.

2. My Tricycle
This was my pride and joy when I was six, but I was unable to accept it was not a Formula One racing car. Had I not lived at the top of a steep hill, it might not have been such a big problem. It took me several serious crashes before I discovered it was not possible to take a sharp bend at high speeds, and lamp posts don’t move out of the way no matter how much you shout at them.

3.The Pink Panther
The series of films starring Peter Sellers. During the scene where he is using the parallel bars and jumps off and lands at the bottom of the stairwell, I actually thought I was going to die laughing.

4. The Champ
A great film with Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway. I love a good tear-jerker but refuse to cry in front of others, so for a while, I was genuinely scared I was going to explode.

5. Chicken Vindaloo
I have never eaten hot curries, so I have no idea why I accepted a bet to finish off a plate of Vindaloo, especially when I spent more on toilet paper than I won on the bet.

6. Skiing
I was working in Gstaad in Switzerland when my friend Paolo and I thought we’d have a go at skiing. We edged our way fifty metres up the mountain, turned to face downhill and started sliding nervously downhill until we reached the flat bit at the bottom, where we came to a stop. Wondering why anyone would waste money on lessons when it was so easy, we jumped on a T Bar. We fell off halfway up the slope, and Paolo sliced open my leg with the edge of his ski to leave a scar on my leg that I still have to this day. We made our way across waist-deep snow to the slope and pointed downhill the same as before, only this time when I reached 200 miles an hour, I realised even if I did manage to stay on my feet, by the time I reached flat ground I would be travelling so fast I would end up skiing through the middle of a restaurant and two chalets before firmly entrenching myself head first up a cow’s arse. I crashed badly and continued to crash at least a hundred that day before limping back to my room.

7. My Cooking
It is legendary in some circles, although it has got better since someone advised me to replace my smoke alarm with a kitchen timer.

8. The Birdy Song
Also known in the USA as The Chicken Song. Ok, it might well be fun, but for serious musicians who are forced to play it, it is like being thrown into a pit of man-eating ants.

9. School
I was eleven when I first heard the phrase “dying of boredom” and thought for a while it was an actual cause of death. I was scared to go to school for ages until I discovered it was just an expression.

10. Y2K
Something we all survived. The real danger of this was not the widespread chaos predicted to occur when the new millennium started but the cost. What other industry could get away with charging us a fortune to fix a problem that didn’t exist, and even if it did, it was one they created in the first place. Computers are God’s gift to the unscrupulous.
11. Parsnips
In my childhood, I was convinced that parsnips were the work of the devil. The problem was, my mother used to hide them amongst the roast potatoes, so Sunday roast dinners were an obstacle course of dangerous vegetables.

12. Rugby
I have done a lot of contact sports, including boxing, karate and squash and if you think squash is not a contact sport, try having a racquet smashed in your face or stopping a ball travelling at 100 mph with your arse. Despite all this, the only sport that really scared me was rugby. Unlike a scrum, at least in karate and boxing, you know where the punches are coming from.

13. Rejection
I claim to have the biggest and most varied collection of rejection letters in history, or I would have if I had kept them all. Most of them I just shrugged off, but there were some that were very hard to take. These days I really don’t give a shit. It took me years to learn that rejections are like school bullies. Look them in the eye, tell them you’re not scared of them, and they never bother you again. I have now reached a time in my life when I am more concerned about the effect on my heart if I receive an acceptance letter.

The Magic Cellar

My father used to cycle five miles through the busy London streets every day to work, and during the forty years he made this journey he was never able to pass an object without stopping and picking it up in case it came in handy one day. It could be a nut or bolt, a piece of rope or even just a piece of twisted metal. When we were young, my brother and I used to laugh and call him “the squirrel,” but during the never-ending battle to keep my first car on the road, there were countless occasions when I was desperate for something to help with the job, and I always found it in what my father called his “magic cellar.” Decades later, while I was doing repairs in my parent’s house, his magic cellar often got me out of trouble when I needed a short piece of pipe, an outdated bolt or, as happened recently, the metal frame from an old rucksack hanging unused on a wall for the last thirty years.

It occurs to me that life is a process of us picking up bits and pieces as we go along and calling on the most obscure experience to get us out of trouble. The only problem is when we collect so much that we forgot what we have and so often miss the opportunity to solve a problem, unaware that the part we so desperately need is there waiting to be used.

What surprises me most is how sometimes things happen to us which at the time appear to be disastrous or insignificant but later become invaluable. Never was this more clear to me recently when having been advised that the best thing to promote myself and my new book was with Youtube videos. The problem was, despite working for thirty the music business, I didn’t have a single video of me playing live.

In 1992 I had just released my first album, Touch The Moon, with my record company assuring me they would back it with “full promotion.” Because of my past connection to the city of Derby, the local radio station asked me to do a radio interview, and so a concert was organised on the back of it. The interview was cancelled at the last minute and the “full promotion” turned out to be one poster at the entrance of the concert hall. The result was that in a hall that seated around 350 people, I managed to draw an audience of seven, five of whom were friends and family.

My brother David and his wife were in the audience, and as always, they were very supportive and made the two-hour drive after work not only to watch the concert but to make a video recording of it. Despite the lack of an audience, I played my heart out and finished to the kind of rapturous applause only an audience of seven can give. It was difficult to see how such a disastrous event could ever have a positive effect on my life, and so when David sent me the video, I took a quick look at it but found it too depressing to watch and so threw it into a box and forgot about it.
Twenty many years later, I published my autobiography and updated my website, but I was still no nearer to a presence on Youtube. I cursed myself for not having made videos of me playing my songs and, in particular, my acoustic guitar solos, which are a unique blend of ragtime and classical guitar and not having picked up a guitar in ten years, there was no chance of me playing them without months of practice. The only video I could think of was the one David made in Derby, but apart from having no idea where it was, I assumed that being recorded on a domestic camcorder. the video would be worthless. After searching every inch of our large house and giving up three times, I eventually found the video in a box full of old tools. I suppose you could say it was my own magic cellar. I was surprised to find that the quality of the recording was just about acceptable, so I split it into songs and uploaded them to Youtube. The response and positive comments on my youtube channel were overwhelming, and one video production company liked my song The Poet so much they produced a video of it.

So maybe Voltaire was right after all: everything does happen for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and every object and experience has its own place in that world.