Monday 26 April 2010

The Paul Weller Story

Paul Weller has been much in the news these last weeks, since he has a new record out. I've been enjoying his previous album, 22 Dreams, and will be looking out for the new one. Apart from a rather good compilation, tracing his entire career from The Jam through The Style Council and the solo stuff, that's about all I own by him, which isn't much when you consider the scope of his recorded output. He's very much part of the rock establishment now, of course - the "Modfather", in his early fifties. Melllowing too, by all accounts - he used to be notoriously prickly. But there are a handful of Jam songs that I think are absolutely wonderful - Eton Rifles, Going Underground, the usual ones, in other words. But while I like the fact of Weller, and I suppose I'm sort of a fan of the recent stuff, I wasn't a fan in any sense of the word in 1994, merely enough of a rock nerd to be aware of Weller's place in the pantheon, and respecting him on that level.

It was the end of the summer of that year. My wife and I (we weren't married at the time, but let's keep it simple) were on our way to LA - she'd spent a lot of time there before we'd met, but it was my first trip to that side of the States. We were on our way to stay with friends - she an actual detective in the LAPD, he heavily involved on the production side of what was then one of the highest rated US sitcoms - he's now a producer on another high-rating sitcom. They're still great friends of ours and we get to see them whenever we can, which is typically every four years or so.

I was really excited about going to LA. I'd been to New York a couple of times, Washington and Boston as well, but LA promised to be another universe. But this isn't about LA; it's about a close encounter with rock greatness. For as we were checking in late in Heathrow (our connecting flight had been delayed, and there was a mad, sweaty rush to get to the gate) I realised that the other passenger, also in the same predicament as my wife and I, was a proper rock star, someone who'd come to prominence in the seventies but whose career had stretched well into the following decade. This was 1994, though, and I wasn't really sure what - if anything - this man was now up to.

That man was ... not Paul Weller. It was in fact Midge Ure, him out of Ultravox. Properly pleased with that, I was. Not wanting to embarrass him - we were standing right next to him as our boarding passes were processed, late for the soon to be closing gate - I waited until my wife and I were seated on the 747 before mentioning how close we'd been standing to Midge Ure out of Ultravox. Actually, I'm not sure my wife was all that impressed. She didn't know much about Ultravox, but did at least remember that "Do They Know it's Christmas" song. Midge Ure co-wrote that, I told her. And I was thrilled; I know the purists say Ultravox was better in the John Foxx era, but it's what was in the charts that I remember, and those were the Ure hits - Vienna, Reap the Wild Wind, The Voice. Cracking early eighties synth-pop, and let no man say otherwise. This isn't about Midge Ure, though. It's about Paul Weller.

We landed in LA, and found our way to the line for the immigration control. As usual, it was about a million miles long. It was then that I noticed that the guy in front of us, immediately in front, was none other than Weller. He's pretty unmistakeable, really - I just knew it was him, even though I hadn't really been following his career all that closely. His hair was long, Mod-cut, not too different from the way he looks now, except with a bit less grey. Tall and skinny, though, and well dressed. Looked a lot sharper than I did, after a long-haul flight. But no doubt he was just as keen to get through the immigration crap, get his bags and get the hell out of Dodge.

So, anyway. Again, I don't want to embarrass the rock god, so I don't say anything out loud, although I may have nudged and whispered to my wife a bit. Eventually Weller and his travelling companion (his daughter, I believe) went to one of the desks and we waited our turn. I was getting a bit nervous at this point. I'd had enough experience of entering the States to fear the process. The general surliness of the immigration officials, the awful, illogical layout of the Visa-waiver cards, which seem engineered to encourage mistakes ... just thinking about all that was enough to make me feel shifty and semi-criminal. And that was setting aside any worries about our bags not showing up, and how long we were keeping our friends waiting on the other side of customs. Thank God it all got so much friendlier and more traveller-friendly in recent years.

But in due course we get allocated to a desk, and - although it didn't have to be - it turns out to be the same one that Weller went through.  And this, more or less, is what happened.

The guy takes my passport. He's not even really looking at, just flicking through it in a semi-distracted manner. He's a young man and not too unfriendly.

"You guys just come off the London flight?" he asks.

I nod nervously and answer him. "Yes, sir."

"You see who else was on that plane, just ahead of you?"

At this point, stupidly, I say "Midge Ure" - which is sort of true, although I haven't seen the Ultravox frontman since leaving the plane.

"Midge who?" the guy on the desk asks. "No, I'm talking about that guy who just came through."

"Oh," I say. "You mean, Paul Weller?"

He looks really pleased. "Yeah, Paul Weller, man!" At this point, he's just stamping my passport on autopilot. Then he says: "I'm a big Paul Weller fan."

I say: "Oh." (I'm thinking: yeah, I kind of like him as well - Eton Rifles, Going Underground etc).

He says: "No, I mean - I'm a BIG Paul Weller fan. I'm maybe his biggest fan in the whole world! I even own one of his old guitars!"

He told me this; I have no idea whether it's true or not - although I've always liked to think it was. But the guy goes on to explain that he's massively into Weller, has all the stuff, rarities etc - he's not bluffing, no sirree. And, mainly, I think he's just absolutely thrilled that he can unload this onto someone else who sort of grasps Weller's significance. I'm more than happy to go along with it, of course - I realise, for the first time (and last, as it would transpire) I'm dealing with an immigration official who is possibly more flustered, sweaty and over-excited than me.

Then comes the kicker. After telling me all this stuff, he says: "But I froze. I couldn't look him in the eye, couldn't acknowledge I knew who he was. I just stamped his documents and sent him on his way."

I don't know what to say. I can understand where he's coming from, but he's just blown possibly the one chance in his life to tell his idol what he thinks of his music. My wife and I make sympathetic noises.

Then the immigration guy pulls himself together. "But I've got a second chance!" he tells us, winningly.  "I know what flight he's going out on! I'm going to pull my shift and make sure I'm on the desk when he goes through again - and then I'm really going to do it, I'm going to say hello to Paul Weller!"

We wish him well. There's a lot of handshaking and general niceness. I really, truly hope that he did get to work his shifts and meet Weller, and that the exchange went well for both of them. I've had a few pleasant chats with immigration people since then, but (alas) more than a few less than pleasant ones, but I always try to remember the LA guy, the Paul Weller fan who couldn't bring himself to make eye contact.

And that's (almost) my Paul Weller story ... except for this. A few months later, we're somewhere else, collecting our bags from the carousel. My wife nudges me and points to another passenger waiting for their luggage. "Isn't that ..." she begins. I squint and can't quite believe it. It's Weller, again. We've been on the same flight, twice.

I don't bother him, but I rather wish I had, that time. I should have asked him if he remembered the LA official, and if not, I should have told him my side of the story. That was sixteen years ago, of course - and to the best of my knowledge I've never been on a plane with Paul Weller again. Mungo Jerry, yes. Joni Mitchell - possibly. But not Weller.

If there's ever a third time, I will ask him. I think he'd like it. He's mellower now, they say ...

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Nice while it lasted

Actually, I like planes. Here's Alain de Botton, via Stuart Jeffries in this week's Guardian:

"How we would admire planes if they were no longer there to frighten and bore us. We would stroke their steel dolphin-like bodies in museums, and honour them as symbols of a daunting technical intelligence and a prodigious wealth."

Full article here.

De Botton's quote (which I agree with) also reminds me of a rather lovely lyric from a song by The Church, The Dead Man's Dream:

Once I had a name, forgotten now
I breathed the air in a century of wonder
I can hear it now in the darkness of the earth
Gorgeous machines, the sound they made like thunder

And here's a gorgeous machine that flew over my house earlier today:


Tuesday 20 April 2010

Look mummy, there's an aeroplane up in the sky

After a while, he noticed that some people had gathered at the bow of the boat, pressing against the railings. They were pointing up, into the sky. Some of them had pulled out phones.

‘There’s something going on,’ Mick said.

‘I can see it,’ Andrea answered. She touched the side of his face, steering his view until he was craning up as far as his neck would allow. ‘It’s an aeroplane.’

Mick waited until the glasses picked out the tiny, moving speck of the plane etching a pale contrail in its wake. He felt a twinge of resentment towards anyone still having the freedom to fly, when the rest of humanity was denied that right. It had been a nice dream while it lasted, flying. He had no idea what political or military purpose the plane was serving, but it would be an easy matter to find out, were he that interested. The news would be in all the papers by the afternoon. The plane wouldn’t just be overflying this version of Cardiff, but his as well. That had been one of the hardest things to take since Andrea’s death. The world at large steamrolled on, its course undeflected by that single human tragedy. Andrea had died in the accident in his world, she’d survived unscathed in this one, and that plane’s course wouldn’t have changed in any measurable way (in either reality).

‘I love seeing aeroplanes,’ Andrea said. ‘It reminds me of what things were like before the moratorium. Don’t you?’

‘Actually,’ Mick said, ‘they make me a bit sad.’

(excerpt from Signal to Noise, copyright 2006)

Monday 19 April 2010

Chasm City

Fred (and my American editor) kindly drew my attention to this; it's mentioned in the comments to the previous post but worth linking to from here, I think:

(It's a web comic that mentions CC; more or less worksafe I'd say, other than that it's a COMIC and therefore not likely to be strictly work-related ... unless you work in comics, of course.) I am, of course, enormously chuffed by this sort of thing and encourage more of it.

Other than that, and my continuous, pathetic attempts to "get up to date with email", there's not a vast amount to report. Chugging onward with the new novel, basically, which is going pretty well, and feels (thus far) fairly unlike anything I've ever done before, even though the surface props - spacecraft, robots, colonies etc - are perhaps what I'm mainly known for. It's not space opera, though, which I think is the key thing. Hard SF set in space (just the solar system, in this book), with a mildly thrillerish plot engine, but that in itself does not space opera make. And I'm trying to keep it "realistic" - plausible extrapolation of current political and economic systems (China's still there, so is India), bits of early 21st century tech and culture still hanging around on the margins - Cessnas, jeeps, electric guitars - but at the same time throwing enough offhand weirdness into the thing (merpeople, giant battling robot worms on the Moon, etc) to make the world (counter-intuitively, it seems to me) believable. That's a longstanding hobbyhorse of mine, of course - scruple to keep things rigorously plausible and you don't end up with a plausible-seeming future. But at least in this book I'm not putting any weird or made-up science into the stew ... yet.

Thursday 8 April 2010


I've been waiting for the dust to settle for posting my thoughts on Eastercon, but if I keep waiting, we'll be here to Christmas. It was, in short, a very, very good convention. Very well organised and run, from what I could tell - and I didn't hear a great deal of grumbling from any quarters. The thing that struck me, on arrival, was that it looked busy - the lobby was packed, the hallways were packed, the stairs were packed, and I gather from chatting to one or two dealers that business wasn't at all bad. 1200 attendees was the last figure I heard, which is pretty damned good.

Most encouragingly, the various program items I saw were very well attended - including the single program item I managed to get to in which I wasn't a participant. That was my one regret, really: not being able to just sit and take in panels and discussions as part of the audience, because I do genuinely enjoy just sitting back and hearing interesting and opinionated people talk passionately about the stuff that matters to them. Knitting. Real ale. Cats. No - SF and F, of course! As it was, I was either preparing for an item, on my way from one, trying to grab some nourishment, or signing books. Mainly, it was signing books. There was no formal signing session, so people who wanted their books signed were obliged to track me down between program items. There's a Pythonesque scene in Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia where a Soviet-style queue forms entirely spontaneously, and that's how it started to feel at times: it only took one person to whip out a book, and within seconds an impromptu line would begin to form. I sound like I'm whingeing here, but really I'm not; it was just weird the way it kept happening. I was genuinely grateful for the attention.

It was also good to catch up with friends old and new, although as always there were people I meant to chat to that I only spotted in fleeting, espionage-style glimpses, from across a crowded lobby. Also, because it was located near That London, I got the feeling that a lot of the Smoke-based writers and SF people only popped in for specific items. Really, though, a fantastically enjoyable experience. Onward to the next Eastercon, and - even more so - to the London Worldcon bid for 2014. I fully intend to be at both.