A Toastmasters Halloween

P1000494To celebrate Halloween, here’s a six-minute spooky speech I delivered last night at a Toastmasters meeting. (Yes, that’s really me, dressed as a ‘skellington’.) Imagine dramatic pauses and gestures, vocal variety and scary (ish) facial expressions. Tale Number Three will have you reaching for the smelling salts; it’s a true story…

“Mr Toastmaster, Fellow Toastmasters, PREPARE to be scared. You will hear three blood-curdling tales this evening, each more CHILLING than the last. We will crescendo through the spookiness spectrum, culminating in the truly TERRIFYING tale of the BELARUSSIAN BALLBREAKER.

By the time I finish, you will rather stab needles in your eyes than hear another syllable.

P1000495Tale 1. We’re going back in time – to a bygone age when Blockbuster still rented videos. Wooooo. It was 1993, I was a student, and EVIL was afoot. An unseen ethereal force was at work in my kitchen. Perhaps the Devil himself.

Darkness swelled like a hushed tsunami on that fateful late October evening, as I fed bread, cheese and LETTUCE into the freezer. These were to be my sandwiches for the rest of term.  Finishing the second loaf, I sat down to watch ARACHNOPHOBIA, a chiller killer spider movie.

The kitchen door creaked ajar. Aah! Who said that? My nerves were taut as piano wire. But I thought nothing of the sound at the time. Yet the next time I went to the freezer for sandwiches, the lettuce had been turned BLACK AS PITCH.

The cucumber sandwiches had also been ruined by the same mysterious hand. As far as I know, that freezer in South London is still haunted to this day.

Tale No. 2 – the tale of Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber of Fleet Street. But did you know that he once lived…in Hastings? Number 32 High Street, now an elegant bridal shop, has a dark and murky past. This was Harris the Butcher’s shop.

P1000492As a fourteen-year-old boy, in 1762, Sweeney Todd left the dirt and grime of London and came to Hastings in search of work. Mr Harris was delighted to have found such a…willing and eager apprentice.

Sweeney Todd was also delighted. In fact, doubly delighted, as Harris had a young and beautiful daughter, whom Sweeney planned to marry. After 6 months of employment, Sweeney plucked up the courage to propose to Miss Harris…but she turned him down.

He hadn’t expected this refusal and it changed his personality FOREVER. He felt a terrible desire to slit Miss Harris’s throat, so that she could not tell anyone about his proposal. One night, he crept into the upstairs room of the butcher’s shop and found Miss Harris doing some paperwork. She was all alone as her father had gone out for the evening.

He seized his chance and, with one stroke of the knife, she was dead. He dragged her body downstairs, cut it up, and, it is said, made it into pies and sausages to sell in the shop.

But Sweeney Todd is only the Radio 3 of horror, a mere grace note. You will now hear a tale so terrible, so haunting that a shiver runs up my spine just to think of it. It’s a tale seared into my brain as though stamped with a branding iron. It was the night I was lured – LURED, I say – into a Polish hotel room by the BELARUSSIAN BALLBREAKER. Dun dun dunnn!

P1000490This 20-something from Minsk had toyed with her hair, playing the coquette in the bar. But her eyes, earlier shining bewitchingly like aquamarine in a mine, had now taken on a sinister, basilisk quality. She was the Narnian ice queen, so CHILLING that she could turn man to stone.

She was clothed in nothing but black hold-ups, her fine, coltish limbs enveloping me; her thighs assumed a vice-like grip; her talons RIPPED into the flesh on my back.

It was then that she PURRED her blood-curdling demand, a demand so horrifying that I stifled a scream. She said, ‘You give me souvenir? I want your baby.’ Agh!…Mr Toastmaster.”

Toastmasters is a fantastic way to improve your speaking skills and confidence. If this sounds like something you’d like to know more about, seek out your nearest club. You can go along as a guest – a tryout, if you like – and you’ll be warmly welcomed with open arms. What have you got to lose?

Remembering Lou Reed

IMG_2748Lou Reed died yesterday. As I was lucky enough to work on the Berlin Tour – in the summers of both 2007 and 2008 – I’d like to relive some of the happy memories and pay my respects.

‘We were in a cafe, you could hear the guitars play. It was very nice. It was paradise.’ These are lyrics from Berlin, and they sum up this Lou Reed tour beautifully. This was how I spent my afternoons on that tour: enjoying the sunshine, forging friendships that I still cherish, and listening to the sound checks.

Lady Day

Lisbon's Bullring
Lisbon’s Bullring

The venues we played were unusual, venues that few rockstars venture to. For example,we did shows in Copenhagen’s Opera House, Lisbon’s Bullring and also various Roman amphitheatres around Italy and southern France.

We even ventured down to Cagliari in Sardinia on the 2007 leg. The amphitheatre there is incredible –  hewn in the second century AD, it’s built almost entirely into the sloping rock and would have been used for gladiatorial games and public executions. Thank you, Lou Reed. Great music; great venues; great company.

One particularly memorable show, however, was in Arezzo, Central Italy. My grandfather, then still alive, lived nearby, and he’d asked if I could deliver some water butts. (For some reason he said he couldn’t buy them in Italy.) I’d carried the blasted things in the trailer for several shows beforehand and now finally my grandfather had come to collect them.

Sad Song

IMG_2492‘You must be unloading at the stadium,’ he said. ‘Anywhere else in Arezzo will be impossible. It’s a bit tight in the centre as a pedestrian, let alone with a truck.’ Well, we like to see problems as challenges, don’t we? ‘Fuck that,’ said Namibian, driving the second truck. He didn’t at all like the sound of driving up to the Piazza Grande. And you’ll see why.

A motorcycle police escort led us up a pedestrianised area…to a slippery, flagstoned street. The incline must have been 20 per cent. To make matters even scarier, we had to be doing a certain speed at the top when turning left – in order to roll the trailers over some steps (which had a metal plate covering them).

But not so fast that the trailers would rock and tip over. Then it was just a two hundred yard reverse into the Piazza Grande. Piece of cake.

Men of Good Fortune

Namibian in Paris
Namibian in Paris

But when we came back at night to load up the equipment again, it was even more difficult. No weight in the trucks; not enough traction. Namibian went up first and hadn’t given it enough gas. ‘Fuck, wank, fuck,’ he cried in typical Etruscan manner, trying to reverse back down and have another attempt.

His steering, however, was a little…over-zealous, shall we say. Consequently, the trailer was getting a bit close to a fourteenth century balcony, and the front of the trailer was doing the same. Whoopsydaisies. He couldn’t go backwards, and he couldn’t get any purchase forwards. Tee hee.

The fire brigade had to be summoned. Wending their way to the top of the hill by an alternative route, they winched Namibian straight…and then he had to start all over again!

Great memories, Lou Reed. Adventures aplenty. RIP.

Slayer Play Finland…

P1100545What a tour schedule! A Slayer show in Oulu (northern Finland); the next night in Oslo; the next in Derbyshire, UK. Now for all you Americans that “do” Europe in a weekend, pay attention. These are huge distances and there is water in between.

Doable by road? Nope. Even a Porsche would be snookered, let alone an eighteen-wheeler; you’d have more success copulating with a grasshopper than driving gear between these three shows. But the Slayer concerts had already been sold. What happens in these situations?

The only solution is to have three sets of equipment: three trucks heading separately to each venue. And to make matters even more expensive, scheduled flights were unavailable, too. Chartered planes; three commercial vehicles; and a nest of hotel rooms for the crew: the bill was adding up.

Northern Lights

P1100558Of the three concerts, I was lucky enough to choose Oulu – a city that seems to catch fire with alarming regularity; a city home to the world’s northernmost symphony orchestra; a city populated by corseted matrons and thigh-booted minxes. Yes, you know what the Finns are like. The first pub I walk in, I’m faced with ‘I love you,’ and a woman offering up her lips.

Anyway, on the way up there – a five day journey of fruitless cogitation – I was hoping to catch a glimpse of an elk. Or a reindeer. Any idea what the difference is? The latter produces a better steak, perhaps?

‘I don’t know the difference,’ said the girl in the Northern Ostrobothnia Museum. Now bear in mind there’s actually a stuffed reindeer upstairs in this museum, so she ought to have done. ‘Tut tut, rustle me up a blueberry Daiquiri instead then, Poppet,’ I replied dismissively. However, she did have gorgeous nails, so I’m prepared, on this occasion, to let her off.

Road Accidents

‘If you drive over an elk, it will probably kill you,’ said a young blond man, stepping in and representing the museum properly. He had a wispy, nascent moustache and seemed a mine of information.

P1100546He went on to tell me that walloping elks with car windscreens is a leading cause of fatality in Finland. (People, not elks, that is. I daresay the elk would utter a gauche gasp, swat your written-off Volvo as though a mosquito, and continue with its amble.)

He blinked and stroked one of his three facial hairs. (The blond man, not the elk.) ‘Bet you don’t know the only time a democracy declared war on a democracy,’ he continued unprompted, master of the non sequitur. I didn’t. ‘It was Britain on Finland in World War Two. And how do I know this? QI with Stephen Fry.’

More on these igloo-building, ice-fishing anarchists soon. But to answer my own question in a nutshell, elks are bigger.