Monday, 24 March 2014


This post comes with a warning – This piece is possibly the most difficult and personal thing I've ever written. It contains possible tear-inducing sentimentality and very personal memories. Avoid if you are likely to blub like a big girl’s blouse.

Also, apologies to JC for posting this less than a week after he featured one of these records on the (new) vinyl villain just last week. This just happens to be the right time to publish this part of my story.

[UPDATE (Sep 2014): JC posted a very kind tribute to this blog back in July in which he replicated this article in full. I remain seriously touched by his gesture. See it here.]

I suppose if you want to blame anyone for kickstarting my interest in all things music it would probably be my mum. Personally, I could never thank her enough. It was her records that I first picked up and listened to and it was she who bought me many of my earliest singles as I started to develop my own taste. And while she may have hollered at me to “turn it down” on more than a few occasions, she never once even suggested that I might be spending a little too much time listening to records in my bedroom and that I should be out doing something more constructive.

My earliest memories of my mum’s musical influence on me I’ve already documented but perhaps my fondest memories, as well as one or two of the saddest, come much later on.

The weeks that followed my first gig, the Wedding Present at Exeter Uni in 1988, involved me playing Wedding Present records often and loudly. Every so often, mum would pass by the bedroom door and remark: “They played that one, didn’t they.” Apparently, she heard the last 20 minutes of the show from the car park while waiting for us to come out. Not only that – she took in every tune and could identify them weeks afterwards! Not bad for a Frankie Vaughan fan, I thought.

Mum was never shy to offer her opinion when she felt the need:

 “I think that record’s smashing.”
 “I like his voice.”
 “He’s a lovely looking chap.”

Those latter two were directed towards Tim Booth, enigmatic frontman of James, while the first statement was used to refer to the original version of their single Sit Down. (She was also known to remark “What a bleddy racket” about all sorts of things, but that’s another story!)

Sit Down was first released in 1989 when the band was in a sort of limbo state. They had been dropped by Sire records but not yet picked up by Fontana. The band released two singles on Rough Trade in this intervening period, the other being Come Home. Neither were hits at the time, but both were later re-released by Fontana and catapulted James to stardom.

I bought that original 12" of Sit Down. It contained the extended 8 minute version[1] with the lengthy instrumental ‘dub’ segment and it became one of my most played records. Because of this, it was inevitable that mum would become exposed to it at some point. When she was, she was immediately hooked.

Mum liked a good song, a proper song; a good strong melody, meaningful lyrics and no faffing about. Sit Down ticked all those boxes, plus in Tim Booth, it had a singer who could properly communicate the song. He’s one of those rare performers who sounds so perfectly genuine, even in his more obscure, arty moments. This wasn’t lost on mum. She was drawn to Tim Booth by his vocal expressions, the way he sang as much as what he sang.

Sit Down became our song and I always think of mum whenever I hear it, whatever version is played, and I smile because I’m reminded of how happy it made her feel.

  “Those who feel the breath of sadness
  Sit down next to me.” – ‘Sit Down’ by James

Another song that reminds me of mum, for entirely different reasons, is This Is How It Feels by Inspiral Carpets. Now there’s another band who knew how to write a decent tune, a prime example of a superb singles band (though their albums got progressively better; ‘Revenge Of The Goldfish’ is certainly worthy of a critical reappraisal). This Is How It Feels was released in 1990 as the lead single from the band’s debut album ‘Life’. The single and album versions had slightly different lyrics, but one particular line, present in both, still resonates with me and makes me think of mum.

In the 12-18 months leading up to that point, mum had started to become ill. There were no visible symptoms, but it started when she keeled over in the street for no apparent reason one afternoon. At the time she laughed it off as just clumsiness. Mum laughed all the time, and she was as stoical as the day is long. No fuss and nonsense for her, just laugh at your misfortunes and get on with it – that was her way.

But then, a week or two later, it happened again. Then again. That’s when she began thinking something was wrong. The next few months consisted of increasing visits to the family doctor, followed by misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis. Cancer was ruled out, multiple sclerosis was in, then out, until eventually we were told it was Motor Neurone Disease[2]. The problem was, none of us knew anything about MND, and even our GP admitted he had never seen a case of it himself. Often the unknowns are far worse than the knowns.

Looking back, it’s easy to reflect on how terrified mum must have been. She would, in all likelihood, have been told her condition was terminal, but the lack of information available in those pre-internet days would have only served to stoke the fear and worry she must have felt. I know pretty much for certain her biggest concern would have been her boys and what would happen to us when she wasn’t here.

Meanwhile I just carried on as normal. It was like some form of denial I suppose, but at the time I refused to let what was happening affect my life. I’ve torn myself up over this ever since, but accept the guilt I feel as deserved punishment for the way I acted in the face of this catastrophic event.

Amidst all of this however, the one abiding memory I have is something my mum said to me as she passed my bedroom one evening. I was, as usual, playing records. On this occasion it was This Is How it Feels. It’s not a happy song, rather it evokes the feelings of helplessness, despair and turmoil in the face of domestic trials such as unemployment and depression. Mum heard a line which particularly resonated with her:

  “Kids don’t know what’s wrong with mum
  She can’t say, they can’t see
  Putting it down to another bad day.” 

“That’s like us,” she said. “Kids don’t know what’s wrong with mum, putting it down to another bad day.”

That’s all she said, but it’s all she needed to say. She understood. She couldn’t fully explain what was happening, and she knew I had to cope with it in my own way. Her citing of this lyric showed her empathy, compassion and warmth along with her own regret that she didn’t feel she could really tell us how she felt. I’ve thought about that an awful lot in the intervening years. I still carry the guilt but gain some comfort from that one moment. Of course, it also showed how she knew music was the one way she could truly communicate with me.

Things didn’t improve. Mum’s condition got progressively worse. She became wheelchair-bound, unable to dress herself, feed herself or go to the toilet by herself. She even lost the ability to speak. Her dignity and pride gradually ebbed away along with her capability to control her own life. Even worse, her mind was intact. She was fully aware of everything and everyone, but was unable to do or say anything. And all the while I just carried on regardless.

She passed away in a hospital bed one evening. I wasn’t there. I think I was watching TV. Arthur, our closest family friend who had recently become engaged to mum, was at her side. But I wasn’t. That remains the single biggest regret of my life. I can never change it. I hate that so much.

All I can do now is remember with fondness the way mum connected with me through music. She would probably hate that I can’t forgive myself for how I behaved back then, but that’s the sort of person she was. “Let’s just put it down to another bad day,” she would be telling me now. “Come and sit down next to me.”


[1] Unofficially known as the ‘Lester Piggot version’ owing to the slightly bizarre reprise at the very end.
[2] For more info on MND, see and


  1. I smiled about your tear-warning when I read the first lines. In fact I shouldn't have ignored it so easily .... I'm moved by your words and I'm jealous about your mum's understanding for your passion as well: all I ever heard was that "turn that racket down now" - bit.

  2. so sad to lose your mum that way, my mam's mind went within the space of a year so she never knew a thing that was happening, still your post made me blub and brought back some great memories, thanks ( i really mean that ), gordon

  3. I’m a bit late: I’ve had a lot to do in the last few days so I haven’t been able to check posts regularly. Just wanted to say that there is not a ‘good’ way to deal with the illness and loss of someone that close: we just have to make do with the cards that’s been dealt.
    Unfortunately I’ve had similar experiences. My mother died when I was 17 after a year and a half of battling with cancer, and I’ve come through those very same phases as you, first denial of what was happening, then regret about the time I could’ve spent with her instead. In the end I realized that those were just self-defense mechanisms, and it was somewhat inevitable that I needed to employ a certain degree of selfishness in order to carry on with my own life. It also taught me that I had to preserve myself, my strength and integrity if I wanted to be helpful to others, and if I had to be self-centered to obtain that, then so be it: guilt and self-pity is a luxury we can not always afford.
    What it taught me to be absolutely wrong was the old adage which goes: ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. That’s total bullshit: if what happened didn’t break me was because it was simply not enough to do that, I just can pray that nothing ever happens to that effect, but that’s completely beyond my control.
    Thanks for sharing your memories and take care.

  4. Thank you Dirk, Gordon, Luca. It's comments like these that remind me I'm not alone. Luca especially - wise words, my friend. I'll come back to them when I'm at a low ebb. I really mean that.