On: Meeting your idols

I’ll start by making a bold statement, I Am Kloot are the best band you’ve probably never heard of.

Unfairly passed over for the Mercury prize in 2010, losing out to one hit wonders “The xx”, I Am Kloot have been steadily releasing classics since 2001. The songs ooze personality and kinship, the musical talents of Peter Jobson (bass) and Andy Hargreaves (drums) fit John Bramwell’s lyrics, vocals and guitar to a tee.

I was introduced to I Am Kloot in 2009 by an ex-girlfriend, at the now defunct Cardiff Barfly when John Bramwell played a solo gig, as he regularly does between albums. Before the gig started we were smoking outside and she pointed out to me – after he had gone back inside — that the guy who had been enjoying a fag a metre from us was he who we had come to see tonight.

I Am Kloot were the 3rd most listened to band, 2011-2013 . 2,726 listens.— Last.fm, @charmingman

Since then the band has been a staple on my iPod, Spotify and have spent many drunk nights contemplating, commiserating and crying to. It’s perhaps ironic that the music somebody introduced me to also helped me through a lot of what I went through because of the relationship with that person.

So in December ‘13 John Bramwell announces another solo tour, a few dates dotted around the country at a leisurely pace, I get my tickets for Cardiff and Bristol — Bristol in February ‘14, Cardiff in March. I look forward to them mightily.

Finally the Bristol date comes along, I get on a train and make the hour journey there, to my second city. I had never been to the venue before, The Louisiana. As I walk there from the train station it starts to piss down, I run the final 200 metres. I get to the venue and taking cover from the rain, famililarly smoking a cigarette is John Bramwell. Smiling like a goon I say “Hey!”, he says “Hello” back and retreats inside, I caught him right at the letters.

The venue is small, 200 people or less. John and his support artist have to fight through the tightly packed crowd to get to the stage. For the first half I position myself as closely to the front of the stage as I can get. Did I forget to mention I went alone. It’s too much of a personal experience to take anybody who doesn’t know the music.

The second half starts late, I know my train home is at 11pm and the gig is supposed to finish at 1030. The songs keep coming, I’m entranced, it overruns, it’s 1030, I try to decide whether it’s best to be responsible and leave or stay and be gratified futher. I choose the latter.

I’m all caught up in a one man brawl

He comes off stage at 11pm. I’ve missed my ride home, but I have options, so I decide to wait until the 130am service back to Wales. John has a big queue of people waiting to sign albums, t-shirts and have photos taken with him. I stand at the bar drinking, just watching the queue disperse, watching how he interacts with fellow fans — a lot of them have met him before, talk about previous gigs, have their photos taken and leave the venue.

I buy my fourth pint and retreat to the outside, benches on the main road, to smoke and read, just passing the time until I can get home to my bed.

It’s coming up to midnight, closing time, I buy my fifth pint of cider and smoke what must be my 400th cigarette. I’m drunk enough now to talk to other people about what a great gig it was, the venue is emptying now, only about five people left. The Louisiana finally closes and John Bramwell emerges from the main doors. He lights a cigarette and says “Hello” to the small group I’m stood talking to, consisiting of a male/female couple and a drunk Bristol uni student originally from Manchester.

John and his manager join our group and get involved in our conversation, I think we’re talking about local venues and how they’ve been strangled, John agrees and talks about some of the brilliant, tiny places he’s played over the years. I offer him a cigarette. He fumbles around with the packet for a few seconds, takes one and I offer him a light.

He starts to talk about the gig, how well it went and the rain is “so pissing depressing”. The next 45 minutes pass quickly, we’re laughing and joking, John tells anecdotes about famous rock stars and poets — some which start with a disclaimer “Don’t put this on the internet! If this ends up on the internet I know where it’s come from!” to which I put my hands up and give him my word I will not repeat.

His songs are personal to him, but resonate with me. He puts to words what I feel but could never describe, and he does so with character and style, and now we’re laughing and joking like mates.

I finally succumb to the sixth pint, but I feel like it’s okay because he’s pissed too. I say “Your music has seen me through some shit, thanks”. He replies modestly and we move on quickly, for I am embarassed and we are men. I ask one question that had been burning, “How did you film the video “Over my shoulder” to which he gave an excellent answer — “I stood on a spinning platform in front of a green screen all day, feeling like a prick”.

It was coming up to 1am, we’d been talking, smoking and drinking for nearly an hour. The rain was screaming down, the bar was closed and I was dying for a piss. But I couldn’t leave. When would I get this opportunity again? I offer him another Marlboro red, he takes one and lights it up, thanking me on passing the pack back.

The owner of The Louisiana popped his head out of the door, John shouted at him “Can we get some wine to take back to the hotel?” and who could deny him? Wine was provided.

We talked some more, about music politics, bastard record companies, asshole music press and who are some of the best and worst “stars” to come into contact with.

Since John is from “oop north” and I am a massive Morrissey/The Smiths fan I decide to bung this into the foray. To my delight he tells an excellent story of being at one of the first Morrissey solo gigs in 1988, and agrees that despite sometimes being a bit of a cock, Morrissey is true musical royalty.

It’s 120am, we’ve been chatting for too long, if I miss this train I’ll have to spend 80 quid on a hotel — reluctantly I say my goodbyes, he says he has to leave too. I step into the rain, put my hood up and run to the train station with the biggest grin that has ever graced my face and he gets into his manager’s car.

I fell asleep on the train and almost missed my stop. I didn’t care.

Stop thinking it over and stick your suitcase in the van.

Originally published on Medium

Being “Daddy”

Me and Tristan at Cefn Mably Farm Park, September 2013.

First, some background. If you dig through the archives you’ll notice that there were some posts a few years ago about me having acquired a family. They’re here and here. They were written in 2010 and a lot has changed since then. We’re no longer a family; me and Tristan’s mother are both single parents as of a year ago. I moved out of the house we all shared and since then I have been on some kind of journey to discover what the fuck I’m doing and how to be the best dad that I can be, basically.

I’m not going to go into anything to do with the relationship, why it ended or how it’s been since then as I feel this is mostly irrelevant, but I will say that trying to start a new life when you have to see that person (almost) every single day muddies things quite a bit, to the point where sometimes I wish there was a network of pipes that we could package the kiddo into and he just plops on to my living room sofa.

The very first arrangement that we made was custody, and that we share as close to 50/50 as we could, so a plan was formed that we each have him every other evening, and weekends are alternated. A part-time dad was never what I wanted to be, but this was making the best of a bad situation; I get him Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Friday and Saturday or else on Sunday.

I’ve learned a lot about life as a single parent in the past 12 months, the biggest thing was that you need two bedrooms if you have a child over the age of two. I got my first apartment, it was very urban twenty-something year old with one bedroom and a lounge/kitchen. Perfect for the new bachelor. A pain for the father to a toddler. Tristan had to sleep with me, and he wouldn’t go to sleep without me in there with him, so that meant me having the same bed time as a 2-year-old every other day for 10 months.
We’ve just moved into a two bedroom house and everything is infinitely easier.
Sometimes he comes to stay while I’m working (I work from home), so we can’t go out, but with his own space he doesn’t demand all of my attention, he’s happy to play with his toys in his room while I get on with my business.

Finally, Tristan has his own room at my house.

I know that we have quite a unique situation, so working out my parenting style has been part of what I’ve been going through too. All parents I know that have split up seem to have an arrangement where mum takes full responsibility and dad pops in every now and again, mostly on weekends. I think that going the way that we did is the best for Tristan, but I get that it’s not available to everyone. I have however met a few that don’t think our agreement is a very good one. Some people (who I might add, don’t have children) think that being at two different houses throughout the week has the potential destabilise him and that it isn’t a long-term solution. The long-term part, only time will tell, but right now I can tell you that Tristan is happy, healthy and enjoys his time with both of us. There are no fits when it’s time to for him to go to his mother’s house, and I haven’t heard of any when he’s coming my way. He’s confident and comfortable when he’s at my house, even the new one. He’ll go to his bedroom or the living room to play, go to the bathroom to pee (he’s potty training), and he’ll go to the fridge to ask for something to eat/drink when he wants something. He isn’t shy, and doesn’t appear to feel he’s in unfamiliar surroundings.

For me, I’ll admit that having him around as often as he is has made things a little more difficult, particularly that part about working out what my new trajectory in life should be, and going through all the emotions a break-up brings; as well as moving out, moving in, and all while trying to keep everything else together. I’m lucky that my job has been very flexible, and that I don’t have to go to the office in Bristol any more. Dating is difficult, and Facebook appears to think that I should be dating other single mums. I won’t lay the blame on having a child for dating being difficult, as easy as that would be, I think that lies quite firmly in my corner, and being a difficult person. As for the social life, I now appreciate the times that I get to be with friends and to do things. Overall, this year has gained me new friendships, showed me who my real friends are and I’ve had experiences that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, all while keeping a healthy relationship with my son.

I look forward to when it’s time for us to be together, everything else stops and we hang out, it’s quality time unlike we had when we lived together. We go places, we do things; we walk in the park, we go for lunch at the pub, we go to soft-play, we go to the bookshop and the toy shop, and we just hang out at home playing with the great toy collection we’ve built up in the past year. I think we have a great relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever been mad at him, but I’m definitely not too soft on him, no way is he having Kinder Bueno before dinner and I’m not tidying up his toys on my own. Getting to watch him grow up from close proximity is something I’m thankful for.

Goofing around, as we do, October 2013.

Don’t waste this wireless opportunity

Miraflores in Lima, Peru has free Wi-Fi in all public spaces.

Miraflores in Lima, Peru has free Wi-Fi in all public spaces.

Simple offering = higher usage = benefits for the area

With any new public project there is the potential to get it very right, or very very wrong, and with Cardiff council’s announcement of their intention to roll out free Wi-Fi throughout the city centre and Cardiff Bay they have the opportunity for it to be amazingly useful, or amazingly useless.

Free public Wi-Fi would mainly appeal to three groups; business users, tourists and casual users. It would be very important not to target, or exclude, any one group.

As an “anywhere worker” I use free Wi-Fi regularly, mostly provided at coffee shops, bars and restaurants where the connection is unlimited and unrestricted.  They’re usually protected by WPA (encryption), so you just ask for the password, or at bigger chains like Starbucks it’s connect and go.

Having free Wi-Fi or not is a deciding factor on where I spend my mornings/afternoons working. For example, I spend more time at Caffe Nero than I do at Coffee#1 because Nero has free Wi-Fi and Coffee#1 do not, however when I’m not working I prefer Coffee#1. Caffe Nero therefore get about £10 a day out of me while I sit there for the life of my laptop battery and work.

Free Wi-Fi is also a bonus for tourism – I recently visited Lima, Peru and one of the districts, Miraflores, has a big public Wi-Fi initiative and has connected all their public spaces. People sit on benches surfing on their iPads and kids peer over their friends shoulders laughing at pictures on Facebook. There is no registration, you connect to the hotspot and go.
For me, being abroad and with mobile data turned off on my phone, free public Wi-Fi drew me to the parks to sit and catch up with news, email, and friends on social media. It is also a talking point between tourists, as it’s a unique feature. The result is a lot more people in public spaces, because there is more to do there.

Bringing people to the area is the main aim of a project like this. The idea is that if people gravitate somewhere for this service then they will spend more time there and spend more with the businesses in the area, or it could be used to fill up public spaces that may currently be underused.

Here are some “features” that could be thrown in that would kill it, and make it wholly undesirable:

Compulsory log-in/registration
Requiring a user to register for a service like this is pointless. The service cannot be tailored to the user with any real benefit. Details cannot be verified so to cite taking user details for “security purposes” would be fruitless; who is going to register using their real details and then commit crimes online, seriously? The only purpose for registration with a free Wi-Fi service, as you have with The Cloud and other providers, is to collect data which is later sold for profit. Cardiff’s free Wi-Fi offering should be connect and go.

Time limitations
Why? The cost of the service to the council will not vary based on how many minutes somebody is connected, or how many megabytes they send and receive, so why limit their online time? The point of the service is to draw people to the areas that it is available, why only keep them there for 30 minutes?

It’s a simple concept really – set up lots of hotspots with good range to get good coverage, set it up to be click and connect (perhaps a welcome screen with a “connect” button could be tolerated), and have no limitation on how much of it you can use.

Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent 28 years on your trail

The Smiths

30 years is a long time. I haven’t been alive 30 years yet, though I have been exposed to a band for almost that entire time. My father bought a first edition vinyl in 1984, 6 months before I was born, of a band that were relatively unknown at the time. He wasn’t prospecting – I don’t think- he just bought a lot of albums, a hell of a lot of albums.

The record was the self-titled debut from The Smiths, a quirky northern band fronted by a bespectacled, gladioli waving boy with a distinguishable voice. Their style was very different for the time – jingly jangly guitar riffs, heavy drums padding the background and bass solos to wrap songs about the moors murders and yearly fairs in Rusholme, an inner city area of Manchester. By contrast at that time Duran Duran were on boats with synthesisers singing about some Brazilian girl and Spandau Ballet were putting out an ode to a precious metal.

I now have this record, and I daren’t play it. Although it’s been played before, I stick to Spotify or the MP3 recordings I made of it through a USB turntable (the only time I’ve played it). I don’t want it to scratch or crack, I want to pass it on to my son one day, so he can get the same enjoyment out of it that I did, and still get – that is of course if record players can still be found in 15 years’ time anywhere other than on the landfill heap.

It’s said that the best things are the shortest lived, and this can be vouched for with examples like the TV show Fawlty Towers (only 13 episodes, but a world renowned classic) or the movie career of James Dean (3 movies, but forever immortalised). The Smiths were only together for 4 years, and in that time put out 4 albums, but they are culturally one of the best known bands and widely sourced as “inspirational”, and Morrissey voted 2nd “Greatest living icon” in a 2006 BBC Culture Show poll.

People that grab on to the media tagging of The Smiths – and Morrissey in particular – as “miserable”, “depressing” or “sombre” have clearly not listened to more than a few tracks, as in their short history they managed to produce songs that covered the entire emotional spectrum.

There’s a track for every mood. If you’re happy, The Boy with a thorn in his side; depressed, Asleep; feel like dancing, This Charming Man; silly, Vicar in a Tutu; anti-establishment, The Queen is dead – I could go on.

I will concede that The Smiths did put out a good dose of depressing, upsetting or just plain sad songs, but they managed to disguise a few of them well by mixing high noted guitar riffs with particularly unhappy lyrics, Girlfriend in a coma & Unhappy birthday.

But seriously, Frankly Mr Shankly – which is an attack song – is one of the happiest and funniest of the mid 1980’s (and since); without The Smiths my world, and the world in its entirety would be a much gloomier place.

The post title is a lyric from the song Half a Person

How your convenience could be killing small businesses

It’s a well known fact that credit card companies are greedy. They appear nice, loaning you money whenever you need it, just by handing over your card whenever you need a quick cash fix, but when the bill comes in you quickly see why. Extortionate interest rates are not the only way that they make their money though, they have their cake and they eat it too. When you use your card, a percentage of the total transaction is also payable to the card issuer by the retailer.

Actually, a portion of the total is payable not just to the card issuer, but also to the payment processor. In fact, when you make a card payment there are a whole bunch of different companies benefiting, out of the money that had you paid cash, would all have gone to the retailer.

Although costs do vary between providers, on average a retailer will pay around 4% of the total transaction value on a card payment to the payment processor. There are often monthly costs associated too, and then there can be an amount payable to rent any chip & pin machines. Accepting cards can be very costly.

If this is so, then why do so many small businesses choose to accept cards? Well, simply because they have to. Over the past 30 years, the past 15 especially, paying by card has become the norm. Card issuer Maestro even had a campaign in 2007-2008 telling us that “cash is dead”, which is totally in their interest to do, since for every payment made with their card instead of cash, they make a healthy profit. There is very much the perception now that if you don’t accept debit or credit cards, then your customers will go elsewhere.

When I ran a retail business, the profit margin was very low since we were trying to compete in a very hostile industry. The profit margin we worked between was generally 6-10% over cost price. It was an online business, so we had no choice but to find a payment processor and accept debit & credit cards. After some shopping around, we had to settle with a provider that charged a £15/month fee and 4% on every transaction – this was the best we could find, and there were big limitations. All of a sudden our profit margin fell from 6-10% to 2-6%, a mighty drop when you consider how little we were making anyway. You won’t be surprised to learn then that this business is now defunct.

Another drawback is payment times; again, terms vary, but the time between you making the transaction and the beneficiary receiving the money can be up to three months. In fact, that’s how long most have to wait for the funds to be sent to them. This is generally to do with fraud; giving time for fraudulent use to be reported and investigated.

But what do you care? Well, you shouldn’t really have to. What I’m getting at is this; there’s a lot of talk about supporting local businesses, and a lot of us are. Shopping with independent supermarkets or snubbing Starbucks and going to a local coffee house.

Your local deli, coffee shop or corner shop probably survives profit margins similar to those in the case above, meagre amounts, and although they may have the chip and pin machine for you to pay with, they’re secretly scowling every time that you do, because that split second decision between cash or card can make one heck of a difference to them and their survival. So choosing to hand over the wonga will go some way to making sure they’re still there next week, next month or next year. Think of it like “Gift Aid“, would you leave that box unchecked if you didn’t have to?

tl;dr: Try to pay by cash with small business, especially for small amounts, because credit card companies take a big chunk of their profits.