Thursday, November 25, 2010


On Thursday afternoon I received a cheery phone call from the Mercedes dealership in town. The winter tyres I’d ordered weeks ago, in a quite untypical moment of advance planning, have finally arrived. Unfortunately I now can’t drive my car through the snow to have them fitted, as it doesn’t have winter tyres.

I’m resigned to leaving the wretched vehicle incarcerated in its white overcoat, like last year, until the first thaws of spring.

Enduring Northumbrian winters is like having children. The first is exciting, surprising and unbelievably beautiful. The second is just as attractive but, thanks to the experience you’ve gained from the first, rather more manageable. The third is, to be frank, just a bore and far too exhausting to enjoy: you just want it to do its thing and get to the next season as soon as possible.

This particular infant is about a month premature yet, far from being a meagre little weakling, is a big, bouncing avalanche. I can't remember the last time we had snow this early, certainly not to such an extreme degree. 8 inches landed on our drive on Wednesday night. It began falling shortly after I'd asked Jo to remind me to order some road salt from the builders' merchant. I guess they will have run out by now.

At first Izzy couldn't believe her wonderful new surroundings. She rushed round the garden kicking up white clouds and screaming "no!. no!" – she’s not very good at consonants yet. Now she's not so sure - after another ten inches dumped themselves on us last night, the snow is up to her waist.

The dogs are still excited, though I spend hours prising iceballs out of their ears. I've also been trying unsuccessfully to hack a path out for the oil lorry – we’re in danger of running out of fuel.

Meanwhile my Facebook wall is full of entries from excited friends in London swapping snowflake sightings. Their kids can’t wait to clean off their rusty toboggans and build snowmen: I just want to be able to drive to Waitrose without having to be dug out of a ditch by a tractor.

Within minutes of the first flakes’ arrival I demonstrated the typical demeanour of any Brit facing the first snows of winter: panic. Having to be in London for two important meetings, I watched the weather forecast with sinking heart and decided to fly down the night before. I knew I’d be OK, because I’d driven by the airport a couple of times and the snow wasn’t that deep.

Newcastle Airport responded by doing what airports do: closing down unexpectedly and telling its passengers nothing. So, having been summoned to the departure gate at the appointed hour, with a British Airways plane conveniently parked at the end of the jetty, we all sat down and waited to board. After an age somebody spotted that the plane in front of us was already full of passengers – it was the previous flight that had been waiting two hours for the runway to open. Our plane had apparently been circling patiently over our heads, but eventually gave up and landed in Teesside – neither plane flew anywhere that night.

Quite why the runway was shut on Wednesday afternoon remains a mystery – the weathermen had given us days of warning. I guess they must have been the wrong sort of snowflakes. It wasn’t a very good few days for Newcastle Airport as the following night a plane nearly skidded off the end of the runway. Maybe like me they’d forgotten to order their road salt. I took the train.

I felt sorry for the BBC Breakfast reporter the following morning. Sent out to report on the chaos up north, he parked his satellite truck by a busy roundabout and waited for cars to start spinning out of control. Every time they cut to him, instead of the carnage his journalistic instincts demanded, you could sense his disappointment when he could only film an orderly line of cars confidently steering through the slush. I guess they must all have had their winter tyres on.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Old Rockers and the Rockaholix

Muddy Stardust doesn’t look like a traditional music teacher. With his wild hair and enormous sunglasses, he towers over his tiny charges, who listen rapt as he regales them with stories of wild times and roadies.

These are the Rockaholix, the youngest rock band in Los Angeles. Max is only 9, and can barely see over the top of his full size drum kit; the others, two girls and a boy, are just 11. They all want to be rock and roll stars and their parents have hired Muddy, who has played with bands like Burning Tree and Lost Angels, to help mold them into real musicians.

The tiny rockers have already played in famous L.A. music venues like House of Blues and The Roxy, have been interviewed on national radio and are now being courted by television companies. That’s why I’m in Hollywood, shooting a taster tape for a reality series with the band. The Rockaholix are auditioning for a new lead singer, and I’m filming a succession of nervous wannabes, who’ve been dragged along by ambitious, camera-clutching parents.

“She’s borderline tone-deaf,” says lead guitarist Edan, describing one 8-year-old candidate. Tiny Max screams with laughter and holds up a picture he’s drawn of someone barfing into a toilet. Simon Cowell couldn’t be more cutting. They rush over to their instruments and launch into an improvised song called “You Stink”: after listening to more than 60 candidates the kids are getting stir crazy.

Then Muddy brings in a friend, Slim Jim Phantom, drummer of the legendary Stray Cats. He’s a real celebrity: the Stray Cats started the rockabilly revival in the 1980s. Slim survived 8 years of marriage to Britt Ekland, with whom he has a son who’s also a drummer, and he owns the Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard.

Slim Jim watches little Max, who's exactly half his height, hammering out “Don’t Stop Believing”: he can’t work out how the left-handed child is managing to play so well on a right-handed drum kit. “It takes professional drummers years to learn how to be ambidextrous like that,” he marvels. Slim is left-handed too.

At the age of nearly 50, he looks just as trim and youthful as when we first met some 25 years ago. That was a night neither of us will forget: it was on a television show I directed called Blue Suede Shoes: A Rockabilly Session, which is revered by rock aficionados to this day.

Carl Perkins, the godfather of rockabilly, had attracted a lineup that included George Harrison, Ringo Starr (playing with George for the first time since the Beatles’ split), Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, Roseanne Cash and Slim Jim with his fellow Stray Cat Lee Rocker. It ended with an extended jam session in which Slim and Ringo played tambourines on each other’s heads – the DVD of the show still gets 5 stars on Amazon. That was the first programme I made with my newly formed company Mentorn: it was 1985, and I'd been hired by an American producer called Stephanie Bennett. Now here I am with another new production company, filming baby rockers at the very start of their careers.

Muddy introduces another friend: Tracii Guns, who founded Guns N’ Roses with Axl Rose, and now has the band L.A. Guns. With a skinful of tattoos and far more than a lifetime’s experience on the road, Tracii gently and patiently gives The Rockaholix an hour-long masterclass that any professional musician would envy. With his quiet temperament and amazing depth of knowledge, the band visibly improves as he teaches them.

Afterwards, over a chinese takeaway, the wild goateed glam guitarist tells me he has finally been tamed by fatherhood. Like me, he has a two-year old child who’s now the epicentre of his life. “That’s why I keep touring,” he said, “I need the money.” I can relate to that.

As a result, Tracii is shredding his way to Europe and comes to Newcastle at the beginning of December, performing with his L.A. Guns in the tiniest of bars.

I promised Tracii I’d be there. But first I have to find some ripped jeans and a biker jacket. Offers anyone?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Don't Poke The Queen

Tomorrow morning I was rather hoping to give The Queen a little poke, but apparently she won’t let me. She won’t even let me be her friend. I’m not sure Her Majesty gets the point of Facebook, but at 8am she launches her very own page.

Just a few years behind the times (Facebook has been around since 2004, and now has 500 million regular users – one fourteenth of the population of the entire planet), I guess the “British Monarchy” page will be full of interesting press releases about what the royal family is doing and where it’s going next. It could soon match The Times’ Court Circular for excitement. It will allow you to leave a message on its royal “Wall”, but not grafitti, though I doubt the royal face will actually peruse it.

In fact there are already some Queen pages on Facebook. One has 5,700,000 followers, but it is for the rock band. Another, called simply The Queen, has just 14,000 supporters and is an unofficial fan club for our monarch. It lists the Queen’s interests as “hunting, fishing and being god blessed”.

I love some of the comments. David helpfully informs Her Majesty that “we’ve got loads of queens in Manchester” and Kenny offers discount rates for royalty “if ever you need a taxi around the Wye Valley”. I particularly like the lady who enquires if she has “a spare room as my son is moving to London with his work”, or Steve Wall’s rather desperate supplication: “Any chance you could get my wife beheaded?”

One young girl describes the Queen as “mint”; another asks if she plays Farmville, the virtual game played by one tenth of all Facebook users, where you run your own farm, feeding livestock and growing crops. I suspect Her Majesty has enough real farms of her own, though if Farmville installs a pheasant shoot, perhaps she could be persuaded to bag a few virtual brace.

When Mark Zuckerberg set it up from his Harvard bedroom, Facebook was a sort of private networking club for rich college students and it quickly spread to other exclusive universities. The idea was that you could add “friends” to enhance your social status: it was effectively a posh dating club.

Since then its function has scarcely changed. I can’t actually fill in most of my “profile” because the questions don’t really fit me. It asks if I’m “interested in Men or Women”. Being happily married, I have naturally ticked neither box, although being quite interested in almost everyone I meet is a consequence of being a journalist.

It then demands to know “what I’m looking for: Friendship, Dating, A Relationship, or Networking”. Unfortunately that list doesn’t include The Meaning Of Life, How to Pay Off My Mortgage, My Spectacles and Car Keys or any of the other things I’m usually seeking. As a result I tend to use Facebook to find out what my children have been doing and whom they’ve befriended: that makes pretty terrifying reading.

On Facebook you’re either a friend, or not: there are no degrees of fraternity. So my social network includes heads of television networks, old school friends and 12-year-old nephews. As a result, I never know quite what tone to take. This weekend I’d like to tell all my real friends about a particularly nice beef fillet I cooked for a friend’s birthday party; or Izzy’s ability to say “toes”, “pizza” and “bellybutton”. I don’t think either comment would interest the majority of those on my list, so instead I tried, Obama-like, to persuade them all to vote for my son’s entry in a short film festival.

But I’ve got a plan. I’m going to start the world’s first antisocial networking site for the over fifties. I’m calling it “FaceliftBook”. I wonder if I can persuade Her Majesty to join?