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MY NEW LIFE AS A SENTIMENTAL, RACIST GLUTTON* September 27, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics.
52 comments

                       * For punishment?

It’s been a funny old few weeks since I last scribbled, involving a complete change of career – if such I ever really had – which has prompted both astonishment and ridicule in some quarters. Behind this is my enduring affection for my home town of Presteigne and  associated dismay at the decline of localism that threatens not just it, but similar locations throughout Britain – a topic I’ve railed about several times here. In the current economic climate the might of the big supermarket chains, the decline of postal services (and consequent small post office-cum-village shop closures) and the collapse of small-scale manufacturing has augured the demise of many local retailers and pubs and the subtle but ultimately deleterious effect this has on local cultures.

Some argue that this an inevitable outcome of economic change in a digital world, where commercial interests are consolidated into a few big players who nonetheless supply what society needs – or is persuaded to think it needs – in a cost-effective if often unregulated manner. And, furthermore, that the social consequences should not be feared or condemned, and perhaps even embraced as stepping stones to some brave new world. In which case I would refer them to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian and now rather prescient novel of the same name.

One or two locals dismiss my verbal hand-wringing over this as mere sentimental twaddle, arguing that our town would be better off with a Tesco or Morrisons feeding its increasingly unemployed and impoverished citizens, if only to save them the cost of driving to towns nearby where they already exist. That this would take money, and possibly even more jobs out of the local economy isn’t something they wish to debate, but even these naysayers had to think twice when a small chain of Indian takeaway restaurants recently offered to buy The Hat Shop.

Owned by three good friends (and good friends of mine), one of whom – the main chef – wished to retire from the hard slog of maintaining The Hat Shop as a local high street institution these past 22 years. The menu is ever-changing, seasonal, globally eclectic and though not cheap, excellent value, and the place has become something of a social hub where we hold our parties, entertain friends and over the years held musical events, themed culinary evenings and regular art exhibitions. Needless to say its atmosphere, due as much to the cheery nature of the women who run it as it is to its cosy décor, is elemental to its popularity and the owners had hoped that it might be bought by someone, possibly a chef and front-of-house couple, who would at least maintain its social value, if not its menu. But when the Indian company made an offer within days of The Hat Shop going on the market, and then upped it again a few hours after it was rejected, the horns of a dilemma arose.

There were those who said that the town could actually use an Indian takeaway, even though we already have a Chinese, a fish’n’chip shop which inevitably does burgers, kebabs and occasionally, curries, and a café selling takeaway pizzas. It would, they vociferously claimed, mean cheaper eating for the mass of folk who didn’t patronise the Hat Shop anyway, and provide a welcome addition to the culinary scene for those that did. No matter that we have Indian outlets in towns a very few miles away, and no matter that Presteigne would then be without any restaurant offering fresh and freshly cooked ingredients, many of them produced locally.

Moreover, a little light research revealed that the prospective buyers’ strategy is to re-heat food cooked in a Birmingham factory and bus in staff from that same burgh, thus removing jobs as well as revenue for local suppliers. To cut a not very long but rather vexatious and, after at least one accusation of culinary racism, occasionally acrimonious story short, I decided quite literally to put my money where my mouth had often been. And my offer to buy the Hat Shop, slightly higher than the Indians’, has since been accepted, and I’ve now embarked on the steep learning curve of a neophyte restaurateur.

As hiring an outsider would’ve been a risk not relished, to my huge relief in this I’m aided by the three chefs who, now not about to be displaced by Brummie factory workers, will be maintaining the traditions if not the exact menu of yore. So after a bit of a re-fit, the Hat Shop will re-open in 2012 with a new lease of life and the vigorous but hopefully appropriate marketing campaign it never really had.

Downsides? Well of course, and particularly in the currently grim economic climate, I might screw it up and lose my shirt, because the money I was saving to buy a house and start a small publishing venture in the new year is now virtually all spoken for. But then again I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find an affordable, ideal home for almost three years and after so many false dawns, who’s to say if yet another of my fanciful schemes to recover my aforementioned career would ever get off the ground.

But if the worst come to the worst, or even the würst, at least I’ll have eaten well during my little adventure. See www.thehatshoprestaurant.co.uk

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IT WAS TOM HIBBERT’S WORLD, AND WE’LL MISS IT September 8, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.
4 comments

Sometimes it’s impossible not to write in clichés, and this is one of them: There have been too many deaths recently and the years advance, that is of course inevitable. But with every discovery that some old friend has passed on, in too many cases the sadness is exacerbated by the realisation that we had not spent much time together in the years before fate took its final turn.

Such thoughts don’t only attend me when a death is announced for I often find myself wistfully remembering those who I long ago spent as much time with as I do with the close friends I have now, but of course there are only so many hours, days and weeks in the year and geography and careers and new lovers and the raising of families – the latter not in my case, obviously – conspire to punctuate and invariably puncture or re-shape those relationships, just as an ebbing tide turn the pebbles on a beach into new and different patterns.

Preparing a eulogy for a friend who was still a regular part of my social life until last autumn, I found myself re-evaluating the impact she’d had on my life and considering the ‘what-ifs’ that attended the various stages of our relationship: the missed opportunities; the misjudged assumptions; the lazy failures to be as supportive as one might’ve been. But I also remembered the fantastic fun and the huge benefits I enjoyed from what scraps of life we had together. And with some slight embarrassment as I delivered that eulogy, I found myself declaring feelings for her that perhaps I hadn’t fully realised during the forty odd years we’d been friends. Which is I guess is the basis of such post-traumatic regrets.

Mr Hibbert in characteristically enigmatic pose

With Tom Hibbert, who died last week aged just 59, it was different. Ours was a friendship born out of journalism, he a writer, mine at the time an editor. In 1980 the same company that published Smash Hits hired me to edit a low-budget crack at the nostalgia market which now supports weighty journals such as Mojo and Classic Rock, and I knew Tom as author of some of the whacky pop poster mags produced by Bunch Assoc., the post-underground press outfit I also worked for. Tom, then mainly if incongruously wrote for a DIY magazine, as someone who could throw together a feature about almost anyone at short notice. Despite our best efforts, it would be nice to say that Greatest Hits was just too far ahead of its time, but by current standards it was actually pretty awful.

Although Greatest Hits fell over at the starting gate, Tom went to work for a successful partwork called History of Rock, but we had friends in common who became closer and greater in number and we drank, took copious quantities of whizz together and generally had a very good time indeed.  Much of this revolved around our mutual love of obscure and invariably psychedelic bands, anorak fixations that prompted outbursts of “Pop quiz, pop quiz” when we would challenge each other to name Big Star’s first drummer or the composer of ‘My Friend Jack Eats Sugar Lumps’, often fabricating the answer with a vicious certainty that brooked no dispute. But indisputably, Tom was a brilliant writer whose world-class mordancy was tempered by a mischievous humour , and when I launched New Music News in 1981, he really got into his stride. NMN was unleashed at a week’s notice after IPC’s Melody Maker (for whom I was a columnist and features scribbler) and New Musical Express fell victims of a union dispute and it was a mad, sleep-deprived attempt to inject some levity into a weekly press that took itself far too seriously… and of course, cop the advertising revenue that suddenly had nowhere else to go.

With a constant succession of Marlboros burning holes in his desk and esoteric outwear, and a glass of his favourite, quite disgusting but comfortingly cheap Hanky Bannister scotch never far away, Tom would churn out features and reviews with an insouciant ease, although not always on time. Well rarely on time, actually. And because we needed readers’ letters but barely had any readers, he simply made them up, usually on wildly off-message topics and often referencing imaginary acts with improbable names. Along with Mark Ellen – the two would later work together to even greater effect on the real Smash Hits and then Q, where he honed irreverent interviewing into an art form  – Tom would write also bizarre captions, e.g. ‘Anna Ford gives Wavis O’Shave’s bum a good kicking’, which I doubt anyone except me and the other Mark found amusing, but it didn’t matter.

And that, I now realise, was what I loved about Tom. Anything he did, wrote and  sometimes even said, didn’t really matter in the great scheme of things. For example, he was actually a pretty good guitarist and songwriter, but seemed to find the whole business of performing a bit of an aimless lark deliberately using the cheapest equipment, whether it was with the prophetically-named Tired of Living (whose jaunty vinyl excursion ‘You’ve Got To Kiss A Lot of Frogs’ I recklessly financed to coincide with Charles and Di’s wedding) or the slightly more professional Love Trousers (with fellow plank-spanker, Mark Ellen).

And because he didn’t really care about food – for a long time he dined almost exclusively at Notting Hill’s Spud-U-Like – or the effects that umpteen Marlboros and everything else he imbibed might have on him, he soon eventually succumbed to serious illness, first pancreatitis, which nearly killed him, and later complications as a result of diabetes, which did.

To those friends who as we all got older cautioned Tom to rein back on the drink and the gaspers, he would just shrug us off with a wry smirk and a “Yes, yes, of course” as he pulled another Red Stripe from the carrier bag that was his perennial briefcase.

As with others now lost to me, I hadn’t seen Tom in far too many years – geography being my main, but ultimately empty justification – but his departure does underline the frailty of relationships that once were so special and for which, in this age of instant digital communication, there is perhaps no real excuse. Given his playful nihilism Tom, of course, might disagree.

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