What I said back then:
I have hinted along the way about the various jobs I did which I wasn’t very good at. Mostly they involved driving around Scotland trying to persuade people who I’d rather not have had any dealings with to buy first books, and latterly chocolates from me. I am not a natural salesman – indeed, I remain staggered to this day that I achieved any kind of success in either job – in both environments, I managed to get myself promoted to do something I hated less, and ultimately in my current incarnation, to a job I actually quite enjoy (and, I flatter myself, am actually quite good at). And along the way there was an awful lot of driving. I thrashed a succession of Astra estates up and down the A roads of northern Scotland; I spent more time than was good for me driving the notorious A9 at night (at one time, my kindly employer decided that team meetings were to be held in the evenings – yes we had team meetings; yes they’re as bad as they sound – my team met in Perth, I lived outside Inverness. I used to get home around 2am, and get up for work at 6 the next morning.) I graduated to a lovely Ford Orion Ghia, which I flung around corners too fast for a year or so, then I was out of work for a while (the company collapsed. I don’t think it was my fault.), and when I took up selling (technically, I was a ‘Marketing Promoter’, but it was selling) chocolates, I had a ‘burgundy’ ( = brown) Escort estate. With a radio cassette player – hey, 1989, folks – no CDs yet…
So I lived in Perth now, but the team meetings had moved to Rickmansworth. By the time I move south, of course, I’m expected to go to meetings in Edinburgh, but we’ll let that pass. My journey plan was constructed by someone who had never been further north than Watford, so included all sorts of eccentricities; including one day a fortnight driving all the way to Stranraer in the morning, doing about £15 worth of business, driving to Dumfries in the afternoon, doing around £25 worth of business, then going home. A round trip of some 300 or so miles for virtually no purpose at all, except to subject me to hours of inane pop radio. Eventually I crack, and start buying cassette tapes to keep me sane. And I accidentally bought a TMBG tape – I might have intended to buy something else, but the selection in Stranraer was extremely limited, if you didn’t like Daniel O’Donnell. Fortunately, these two guys operate on exactly the same insane level as the more subconscious parts of my brain, and they have a bucketload of great tunes. Profoundly silly at first hearing, these songs start to stick little barbs in your brain, until you are quite capable of saying things like ‘If I were a carpenter I’d / Hammer on my piglet, I’d / Collect the seven dollars and I’d / Buy a big prosthetic forehead / And wear it on my real head’ and finding some meaning in them. The two TMBG tapes I own are forever associated with that long, dreary in places, drive to the edge of Scotland every second Tuesday – surprisingly, I am still fond of the songs. Which just goes to prove that the devil certainly doesn’t have all the best tunes…
What I think now:
I think I undersold these two guys. That memory is a strong one, and I still smile to remember the utter pointlessness of it; I could have had the same effect with ten minutes of phone calls. However, that memory has been overshadowed by a more recent one, in which I get to moan about being an international jet-setter…
Sometimes, when people ask me what I used to do, I tell them the truth – I was project managing the UK arm of a massive SAP implementation; it involved having meetings in places like Warsaw and Luxembourg, one memorable trip to a strange little town in southern Germany (which appears, disguised, in ‘Going Back’, tenuous link fans), and regular trips between my normal place of work in Watford and the delightful medieval town of Alba in the Piemonte hills.
And when they ask me what on earth possessed me to give it all up, I smile and think of They Might Be Giants.
Which, I grant you, night not be most people’s first thought.
At one point, as the project reached its live date, I was travelling over about every two weeks. I was partly doing it in place of my late lamented friend and colleague Andrea, who was battling the cancer which would take him way too soon; he would probably have accomplished all I did in slightly less time, and with much more style, but the puzzled and assorted Italians and Germans I was dealing with were stuck with me, a succession of bizarre rented cars, and my inability to remember which language I was supposed to be working in at any one time.
So it sounds glamorous; here’s how it usually went:
I’d get to work at my own desk at my usual 7am; work through to 3, then make the mad dash to Heathrow through the varied and always thrilling traffic on the M25; run for the bus from the more expensive car park (I was never early enough to park further away in the cheaper ones; the people who queried my expenses were usually the same ones who had made me late in the first place)
I was shuffled through the cramped and definitely unlamented Terminal 2, crash in the lounge if I was lucky, and be herded onto the Alitalia plane with moments to spare, be fed an indigestible ‘Alisnack’, be shunted through security at Malpensa, be offered an entirely random hire car ( we ordered the same thing every time; every time I was given something different – once, on my own, I was upgraded to something fast and luxurious; whenever I had someone with me, we’d get a taxi or a clown car)
Thanks to the hour change, it would by now only be 8pm, and I’d have to drive 2 hours on some terrible roads (and, let’s be fair, some brilliantly fast ones) to Alba, barrelling past Autogrills in the dark, singing along to something loud and hairy from my youth, or trying to follow the football commentary on the radio – the night the Champions’ League Milan derby was abandoned was particularly puzzling…
I’d get to Alba about 10pm, and then go out to eat.
Yes, yes, I’m getting to the bit with They Might Be Giants in it.
Then, after two or three days during which I’d only see the inside of the factory, the inside of some decent restaurants (lunch is a Big Deal in Italy), and the inside of my eyelids, I’d do the whole journey in reverse, not leaving Alba until 5pm, and getting home – thanks to the reverse hour change – somewhere around midnight. Ususally this was a Friday night, which set me up perfectly for the weekend, as you can imagine.
(I’ll spare you the full details of the time I was pulling into the driveway at home when I got a phone call to tell me that the backup had failed. At midnight. On a Friday. When I’d been out of the country most of the week. But I was stupid enough to answer the phone, I suppose.)
Anyway, it’s the return flight which I remember most. It was on Alitalia, it was late, I was tired, and it was always delayed, and usually shunted around two or three gates as I waited. There was duty free shopping, which was mildly entertaining the first couple of times, there was tomato-free pizza, which I always enjoyed, and there was the thrill of a glamorous international airport, which seemed to have been designed by putting the needs of the passenger last.
How did I stay sane through it all? I had an mp3 player and I had on it ‘Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants’. Every trip home was made bearable by the two Johns having the best time of their lives playing ‘Man, It’s So Loud In Here’ or ‘Meet James Ensor’, or ‘Exquisite Dead Guy’. Every song on the album is certified genius, and I could get through more or less anything as long as I had the earphones jammed in, and songs about Doctor Worm or Particle Man keeping me reassured that there is always someone slightly less sane than me out there.
The album is over two hours long, so I very rarely ran out of songs completely, what with all the stuff you have to do which involves taking the earphones out to listen to someone talking to you in Italian, and that meant that the last few songs got much less airplay than the early ones. On my last trip, however, shattered and in a strange mental place, given what was going on in my life, I found myself down at the end of the playlist – ‘Boat of Car’ spooked me, but made some kind of sense, while ‘The End Of The Tour’ could have been written for me in that place and at that time:
“It’s old and it’s over now; I can see myself at the end of the tour…”
I look back with gratitude for having had that opportunity at that point in my life, but I think of TMBG with more gratitude for helping me feel that it really was time to give it up and go and do something different now.