Corduroy & Cabbage 4 – The New Boy

I was 10 years old, about halfway through Primary School, when I first met Luke. He’d just started at our school after moving into the area and was seated at a desk near me. He was a stocky, slightly chubby, boy with wavy brown hair and brown eyes. He wore glasses, which gave him a serious, studious demeanour, as well as gray school slacks and jumper, unlike the rest of us, who were dressed in the rag-tag fashion of 10 year olds of the time.

Everything about Luke was different to me or my other friends. He was born in Australia, while almost everyone else I knew was born in the UK. We lived in Ingle Farm, a young, still developing suburb of uniform housing, new lawns and immigrant families. Luke lived in Valley View, which lay on the ‘other side’ of Wright Road, where every house was different, and there were hills, trees and a meandering creek.

Luke had older siblings, while I had three younger sisters. His parents were older than mine too. An older family might have accounted for the calmer, much more pleasant atmosphere at his house. Compared to the chaos of our house, with four squabbling children, and a menagerie of pets, Luke’s house seemed almost tranquil.

His family lived in a new house on a sharply sloping block. His father was always working in the garden when I visited, and there was usually a mound of dirt, sand or gravel waiting to be shoveled or wheelbarrowed. Luke and I turned these giant sandpits into vast cities, complete with roads, skyscrapers and dams. Our imaginations seemed to spark when we were together, and our games would invariably become more fantastic and elaborate the longer we played.

Our creative collaborations soon included writing and drawing, and we began to put together a series of little ‘books’ (made from A4 pages folded in half and stapled in the middle) called ‘Parade Of Monsters’. It was more like an encyclopedia than a set of stories, as each book introduced a new group of ‘monsters’, and described their habits and habitat. They generally lived on islands with odd names – Stinkyshoe Island, Anklebone Island – and had names like Pupo or Blotto.

After the completion of ‘Parade Of Monsters’, Luke wrote stories about new characters – the Cheapsteaks (each one named after an American state), Bing Bong of the Mark Patrol, Nosey Parker, Mr Manta and others. Meanwhile, I started work on an epic three-part ‘novel’ called ‘Tale Of The Ring’. As can be guessed from the title, I was a big Tolkien fan. I also loved CS Lewis and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, and the ‘Tale Of The Ring’ included elements of all these influences. The central characters were Mungy (who looked suspiciously like a Marshwiggle) and a little dragon called Mingie.

Luke and I then expanded our invented universes to entire planets. I called my planet Sapphire, while Luke settled on Bauxite. We designed every element of these worlds – cities, animals, vegetation, transportation, even water and power supplies. We filled books with maps, designs and diagrams.

Our teacher that year was a grim disciplinarian called Miss Barker; a short, bulldog-like figure renown for her habit of spitting while she spoke, and using a megaphone unnecessarily during recess and lunch (e.g. when you were right in front of her). I don’t think she smiled the entire time we were in her class. She certainly didn’t like our extra-curricular activities, sneering at our ‘silly books’, and even confiscating them if she caught us working on them in class. Miss Barker’s opposition to our projects didn’t deter us; in fact, it seemed to spur us on to even more elaborate projects.

The following year, Luke and I said goodbye to Miss Barker. We were also put in different classes and, as is so often the case with childhood friendships, we drifted apart and found new friends. Years later, towards the end of High School, we became friends again, and we are friends still, but there was a period of six or seven years during which we had little or no contact. It was during this period of separation that we each destroyed the books we had written as children, as well as all the maps and drawings. They were just too embarrassing for young boys entering their teenage years.

I did manage to save my two ‘epics’ – ‘Tale Of The Ring’ and ‘Invasion Of The Coobah Monsters’ (which was never completed). I don’t recall how or why they escaped the incinerator, but I’m glad they did. They are like strange relics from another age, written by someone familiar, yet unfamiliar.

And sometimes, when leafing through the yellowed pages of these books, memories and sensations from years ago will pop into my mind – a Saturday afternoon playing in Luke’s backyard, meeting him before school to swap the latest stories, or staying up late in my room with a pile of maps and drawings, imagining a new and exciting world.

For a glimpse of some of the drawings from these early books click on this link.

A Chicken at my Window

Early one morning, in that blissful pre-alarm semi-sleep state, I heard a clucking outside my window. For a moment I thought I had dreamt the sound, but I opened my eyes, rolled over, and the sound persisted. The window is an arm’s length away from my bed; so I dragged myself towards it, propped myself up on my pillow, and poked open the Venetian blind with my fingertips. Now there wasn’t any doubt. There was a chicken in my front yard. It clucked away happily to itself while scratching through bark chips and under bushes. It was a small red bantam hen, its feathers an almost metallic bronze in the morning sun.

When my cat discovered the chicken, it scrambled up to the window and forced its way through the blind, leaving its rear legs and twitching tail on my side, while salivating against the glass. Meanwhile, I ate breakfast, showered and dressed for work. By the time I walked out to the car, the chicken was nowhere to be seen. It was almost as if I had dreamt it.

But the next morning it was back again, clucking and scratching just outside my bedroom window. I discovered that after its morning feed, the chicken would climb into a nearby bush, where it would roost on the higher branches for the rest of the day. I began to worry that it wasn’t getting enough to eat, and began leaving breadcrumbs on the ground around the bush where it hid. My daughter, L, built a hutch out of boxes and left it near the bush in the hope that the bird would crawl inside to keep warm.

The chicken was still outside my window on the weekend, so L and I set about trying to find its home. We each took a different street and began knocking on doors. I didn’t think that the question – “Do you keep chickens, or do you know of anyone who does?” – was that weird, but judging by the looks and responses I got, I may have been mistaken. One woman looked at me with the kind of face one would reserve for someone from another planet.

L had similar experiences, however, at her third house, she got lucky. She was told that an old man in the adjoining street kept bantams. She found the house, knocked on the door, and was greeted by an elderly man who moved stiffly with the aid of a walking stick. It was, indeed, his hen, although he hadn’t noticed it missing, nor did he display any gratitude that we had found it. He explained to L that he was crippled and could not come to collect the hen. He asked that we catch and return it to him.

I was relieved to find the chicken’s home, but less than enthused by its owner’s response. Nevertheless, we set out to try and capture the bird. Our first attempt failed miserably, and the chicken simply flew into a nearby tree and refused to come down until we’d left. We then developed strategies involving boxes, blankets and a variety of disguises, but the chicken was too quick for us, and we only succeeded in scaring it into an adjoining yard. This arrangement suited me fine, but L was not impressed. “We can’t just leave it there,” she whined. She needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes it was back in our garden.

A new week started, and the chicken was still living in the bush outside my window. Every morning I would wake to its silly clucking. I would get up, feed the cat, and then shuffle outside to feed the chicken. It came to expect me, and would wait on the doorstep, do a little dance when I opened the door, then dash back to its hiding place in the bush, until I’d left its food and gone back inside. Begrudgingly, I grew to like the chicken, and looked forward to saying “hello” to it when I came home from work each day, and when I got up in the morning.

Some mornings it would climb up on my windowsill and peer in at me. This would excite our cat greatly and it would climb up and press its nose against the window. The chicken didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it almost seemed to be taunting the cat.

On Wednesday, the weather changed for the worse, and dark clouds blew in, along with a chilly wind. The chicken spent less time in the open, and more time in the shelter of its bush. I could see its football-shaped silhouette in the half-light of evening, perched on a branch in the middle of the bush, its little head bobbing nervously.

The following morning it did not greet me at the door, nor the morning after that. But I could still see it hiding in the bush. I’d bought some proper chicken food at a local pet store and left a pile of it on a sheltered patch of dry ground. The chicken eyed me cautiously from its hiding place. It seemed thinner than it had when it first arrived a week earlier. I hoped I was just imagining things. I really didn’t want to chicken to die.

It’s now early Saturday evening. The chicken is still out there. I can see a dark chicken-shape in the bush. I wonder if it’s cold or lonely. I wonder if it’s hungry. I worry about the wind and the rain. I worry that the chicken might not make it through the night.

All of a sudden the chicken is the most important thing in the world.

Just like the Fambly Cat – a Review

With the release of their album ‘The Sophtware Slump’ in 2000, Grandaddy were hailed as part of a group of bands (along with Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips) rewriting the American songbook for the 21st Century. The band’s preoccupation with human/machine relationships and societal decay even drew comparisons with the likes of Radiohead. But the follow up, 2003’s ‘Sumday’, disappointed many, with its repetitive song structures and limited sonic palette. Given the promise suggested by ‘The Sophtware Slump’ the album seemed a sideways, if not backward step.

Three years on, and we have the latest, and last, Grandaddy album. The forthcoming release of ‘Just like the Fambly Cat’ was announced at the same time as the band’s dissolution. After 14 years of recording and touring it was felt that the band had simply run its course. Unfortunately, there is some evidence of that here. It is not surprising, given the circumstances, that the album has a fragmented, incomplete feel, but there is also an unhealthy serving of filler.

That’s not to say that the album is all bad – it’s not. There is, in fact, a far greater variety of sound and mood on this release than ‘Sumday’. It’s just that there are also a greater number of less-than-satisfying songs here. Two of the best (almost) bookend the album – ‘Summer…It’s Gone’ and ‘This Is How It Always Start’. Both songs are concerned with loss and dissolution:

Summer…it’s gone,
I don’t know where everyone went or where I’ll go
Summer…it’s gone
Now it’s clear that no one is showing up here.


This is how it always starts
Order falls apart
Things were stable yesterday
But now they’re blown away.

Given the band’s decision to call it a day, the lyrics are especially poignant.

Elsewhere, Grandaddy demonstrate their more playful side while still addressing issues such as alienation and loneliness. The narrator of ‘Where I’m Anymore’ is lost in suburbia amid garage sales, ice cream trucks and exercise equipment. While low-fi rocker ‘Jeez Louise’ details a failed teenage romance where ‘your mom always hated me’.

One of the album highlights, ‘Elevate Myself’, opens with a Devo-esque riff before plunging into a stream of synth bubbles and electronic gurgles, over which Jason Lytle sings:

I don’t want to be a part of all the quality that falls apart these days
I’d rather make an honest sound, watch it fly around, and then be on my way

It’s a rejection of modern pop culture that cleverly employs a host of modern pop sounds.

Other tracks are not so successful. The largely instrumental ‘Rear View Mirror’ and ‘Skateboarding Saves Me Twice’ sound like sketches rather than fully developed songs, while ‘The Animal World’ is a repetitive drone. ‘Guide Down Denied’ is also dreary and repetitious, outstaying its welcome well before the track’s six-minute running time. And it’s not just this song that is guilty of running over time. The album as a whole drags on beyond the one-hour mark. The shedding of some of these lesser songs would have only been an improvement.

In the future, when we talk of Grandaddy, and their brand of quirky indie pop, we will refer to ‘The Sophtware Slump’ or ‘Under The Western Highway’, not ‘Just like the Fambly Cat’. But the new album is probably a fitting conclusion to their career. It’s jumbled, strange, scruffy, sad, sweet, patchy, moving, fuzzy, frustrating and funny – just like the band really…