Archives for category: Essex

It was the message on Twitter and curiosity that bought me out to Colchester’s Lion Walk on a drizzly Thursday afternoon. “X Factor mobile auditions in Lion Walk finish at 2.30pm”. Well I thought I’d better give it a look. I had a cheque to pay in at the bank and some Funny Farm posters to put up. It certainly wasn’t a dream and I hadn’t spent hours rehearsing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush, tennis racket or personal massager. In fact I hadn’t really figured out what I was going to sing. Not that it mattered, I knew I didn’t have a chance after all I have a voice that’s good enough for pantomime (“a strong singing voice” no less), but hardly superstar material. I’d also woken up feeling grotty and full of cold with a swollen face and a coldsore. Nice. Additionally, since I’ve quit smoking for some reason my voice has sounded like Tom Waits with TB gargling Calgon. Plus I’m 40, short and fat.

Lion Walk looked quite ghostly given the circumstances when I arrived to have a nosey. Two ominous black tents sat in the space outside the church, with a queue snaking around the little wall, but ending after only about 20 metres at most.

The hordes assemble for the X Factor audition. Colchester 1.30pm

It soon became clear that most people were simply rubber necking, although a few like me were dithering over whether to take part and wondering where the actual queue started. Some people were just your typical flotsam that float round Lion Walk on any given weekday afternoon. And then there were your obvious contenders, pimply youths, with low trousers, warbling like adolescent songbirds, gorgeous teenage divas preening each other, smackheads. Eventually I snuck round to what appeared to be a queue and lounged casually at the end. I didn’t have to take part after all. I wondered idly what criteria was on the producers bit of paper making the whole concept of auditions a technical sham once they ticked it off. Would it be bubbly Essex girl, or drop dead gorgeous blonde teenager. At that moment a producer ambled over and gave a drop dead gorgous blonde teenage girl a wristband before leading her over the wall and into the tent. Her friends gasped excitedly “She hadn’t even come along to sing!”

“Is this the queue?” a breathy wide-eyed middle aged brunette asked. “Yes” came the chorus in front of me. Then an X-Factor lackey with a clip board and a strip of plain wristbands (every expense spared). He eyed me and my middle-aged queue-mate dubiously after giving young girls ahead of us brown paper bracelets. “Do you want wristbands?” “Do you not want me to?” I asked curiously, but no it was fine and I soon wore my bangle of shame with pride which apparently guaranteed that we would be auditioned as we were in the queue before 2.30pm.

Behold! The power amulet of the mighty Sycos. I promised never to take it off. I lied.

We all ended up chatting and I hoped nobody would notice my sneaky attempts to do vocal exercises whilst passing it off as a coughing fit. Middle aged brunette was Lena who introduced herself as a funeral singer (she also does weddings, you can probably get a special deal on the double) and busy housewife. In front of me sat nervously on the wall trying to learn the lyrics to Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” from a rapidly dying iPhone was Heidi, a bag of nerves in her 30s who had forgotten to arrange for her kids to be picked up, forgotten her umbrella, forgotten to eat and forgotten any money to buy some with. I gave her £2 to go to Danny’s Bakers which we were standing outside (she agreed to pay me back with interest if she want through. She didn’t get through so the cow now owes me. Just kidding Heidi) and we all advised her to avoid anything too stodgy and cheesy.

Heidi. Smiling prior to her ritual humiliation.

Heidi came back from the bakers with an ice cream and a bag of chipsticks. I’m not sure whether all the greats actually swear by this combo to help the voice (Pavorotti could have) but it seemed a bit insane. And where was my change. As I held my umbrella over her she ate what wasn’t dripping everywhere from the icecream (until Danny the baker took pity on her and ran out with a napkin) then she borrowed my pen and paper to transcribe her lyrics onto paper before her phone finally gave up the ghost.Paul the sweetly crazy Colcestrian busker (he’s usually by Sainsburys or in Lion Walk putting his heart and soul into gently murdering music) passed by and I tried to encourage him to audition, but he was a bit put off by the idea of queuing. Not so crazy then. Every so often someone got a yellow bit of card meaning they would be called for a second unaccompanied audition. When they did there was a frenzied whooping and squealing from them and their friends. I tried to encourage my queue neighbours that we should do this anyhow if we didn’t get through just to spread a little confusion. The cool older lady a couple of places ahead of us agreed energetically. She wasn’t there to sing but to offer moral support to her daughter Georgina ,a button cute 17 year old with a fluffy affro who sort of looked like she could sing. We all held each others places in line while we popped to the lion walk loos, chatted and gossiped and chivvied each other up as the queue got shorter and bums started squeaking. What was inside that tent? Was it the eye of Sauron?  Or Olly Murs? My throat tightened and my nose got runnier as the tent of reckoning drew near, and I almost hoped my final loo break would mean that I missed my chance, not that I really had a chance. Did I mention I was fat, short and 40. However when I got back to where my place was held (some bloke taking himself FAR too seriously shouting “Jump in front why don’t you?”) I barely had time to take a few pictures of Heidi at her behest and it was time for Georgina to go in, her mum crouching vigil outside with her ears to the black canvas making thumbs up signs. Georgina however left without a golden ticket and Lena was stunned. Clearly the man with the piece of paper had ticked off his quota of cute ethnic teenagers. A producer called “Next”, pulling the tent flaps enticingly open, and I hesitated, not sure if it was my turn before bouncing self consciously into the unzipped tent which closed up behind me surrounding me with blackness.

The tents of doom.

The interior was dingy aside from a seated figure, it’s curly heard almost silhouetted by the dim white light behind him. When my eyes focused he looked like Seth Rogan only younger, chubbier and hairier. He looked like his name might be Barnaby. He asked my name, age (ouch), what I do and why I had applied (I gabbled that I thought I maybe had the X-Factor but I wasn’t quite sure what in). Sadly there were no questions related to personal tragedy and dead relatives, as I’d have been quids in there. I knew I should have learned a Coldplay number. What are you singing he queried? Now was crunch time. In the queue I’d written a version of New York New York (Lion Walk Lion Walk) with localised lyrics, reckoning that if I couldn’t sing at least I could be entertaining. But hearing the lovely voices floating through from the tents made me feel cheap for taking the mickey out of the process. I’d tried to think of other (clean) songs I could remember. “Yesterday” was a possibility, as was “Lady is a Tramp” or “Queen Bee” (Streisand in “A Star is Born” if you must know). Either that or Radiohead’s “Creep” (as I usually get Singstar on it after a few glasses too many of red wine). Wow what an arsenal of contemporary beats I’d amassed during my hour in the drizzle. “Lion Walk Lion Walk” I said, knowing I sounded stupid and oddly relishing it. “Go on then – give me a verse and a chorus” he demanded and I began. It’s a shame I couldn’t have rehearsed as finding the right key to start in would have been marginally less excruciating – as going too low with a sore throat made me sound like that bloke with the voice box out of Alan Partridge (“Dr No Vocal Chords”). Knowing I’d fucked it already by virtue of being 40 and croaking like a dehydrated frog I decided to give it some well. He laughed a couple of times. Once from the line “I want to wake up on an Essex pedestrianised street”, later when the lungs started working and I belted out the last bits like Shirley Bassey’s rape alarm – even waggling a finger in time, a massive grin on my face. There may even have been jazz hands. Surely this would qualify me as at the very least the mental of the day. I finished – arms akimbo and he smiled gently before saying that this time it would have to be a “No”. I smiled and thanked him, saying I hoped he’d enjoyed it (What was I on?) before unzipping the tent and skipping out, where at least my little bevvy of friends I’d picked up on the day greeted me with cheers and applause. Bless.

We listened to Lena’s beautiful, clear voice drifting out her number, then she joined us in our little huddle of fail (yes she can sing. But she’s 43 for sods sake – unless she’s a nutter she’s not getting on telly). Heidi was still seething about the ageism factor, adding that only blonde 16 year olds were being selected to soothe poor Georgina’s feelings. A wonderful Whitney-esqe warble escaped the tent flap and we all turned to admire it. “She’s going through” hissed Heidi. Surprisingly the willowy blonde teenager in possession of the voice didn’t get a yes either, so as she mooched away with her two male friends we all stopped to congratulate her on her singing and commiserate on the decision-making process. “Let’s set fire to the tent!” I suggested enthusiastically. Everyone laughed. One of the blokes looked half heartedly for his lighter.

We all exchanged contact details and good luck wishes for the future before eventually melting in different directions into the streets of Colchester. So in conclusion, is the X Factor cyncial, shallow, fixed and ageist? Of course it is (although if I had been what they were looking for visually I would still have sounded crap for the first 10 seconds of my audition), but hey it keeps Simon Cowell in yachts to lounge about on being all butch. My advice would be if you’re talented use that talent and if you’re young, cute and can warble go and audition (I wouldn’t bother travelling for it or waiting more than an hour though), just don’t get disheartened if you don’t fit the bill – it’s probably not you, it’s them. Anyhow, I wasn’t too put out and meeting the other prospective talents was great fun (Lena’s promised to sing at my funeral if I snuff it first, although she hinted that it would be less morbid to do it at my wedding) and they all seemed pretty grounded about not getting through, even Georgina who apparently plays piano and sings, so hopefully she will make something of her talent without relying on the whims of a production company’s fictional narrative or the fickle Great British Public. As she laughed stoically “I didn’t want to go on TV anyway”. Plus I got two laughs from the “judge” – which is more than I can get in a whole night of MCing the Funny Farm!

No dreams were smashed in the making of this blog.

(This was going to be my “View from the Funny Farm” for Colchester 101 in January 2012 – but for good reason it couldn’t be published – probably just as well given the lazy writing)

When I look back on the year 2011, my vision is accompanied by flashing lights and a burly cop bellowing “Nothing to see here”. Having launched unprepared into the maelstrom that was last year, I felt moved to use the services of local psychic Elsie Deadpeople (think Nostradamus on brandy and babycham) to provide the following helpful guide to surviving 2012:



Michael McIntyre plays Wivenhoe Funny Farm delighting comedy fans with his cheeky brand of observation and head nodding. You should have been there, it was great.



Nothing good ever happens in February.



Rupert Murdoch’s empire finally crumbles when it is revealed that he sanctioned hacking of the private conversations of tiny innocent children using string and yoghurt pots. Comedy Promoter faces criminal charges for misinforming public.



Ed Milliband is revealed to be a slow burning April Fool prank.



Wivenhoe May Fair a success despite tactical nuclear strike.



Little Mix headline Glastonbury prompting a boom for Claire’s Accessories. The Queen gets into the spirit of austerity by celebrating her Argos Elizabeth Arden Cubic Zirconia Jubilee. Wimbledon delights the nation as Andy Murray finally smiles, but it’s later revealed to only be “wind”.



Meteorologists warn of the “end of days” as it fails to rain for an entire week. Boris Johnson proudly unveils his new sport for the London Olympics; the 100 metre bumble. Bus drivers in Colchester go on strike. Nobody notices.



The Late August bank holiday is abolished half way through the day itself as an excuse to sack 2 million public sector workers.



Colchester Firstsite fend off criticism of their controversial new installation: Tracey Emin’s “Oops I done a swear”.



The entire cast of “The Only Way is Essex” tragically die in a mass vajazzling pact. Essex University justify charging new students £50,000 fees by blowing up Clingoe Hill. With its citizens deprived of access to Waitrose, famine hits Wivenhoe.



The coalition government finally stop blaming “Labour’s legacy” for us all having to survive on a diet of dust and vitriol.



A regular Colchester 101 contributor is warned that they won’t get away with churning out “shoddy fake psychic” copy for January 2013’s edition in order to reduce her workload, no matter how many sodding mince pies she has to bake.


The next Funny Farm is on Thursday 23rd February with headliner Mark Rough and support from Mike Belgrave and Caroline Mabey. Details and booking via


It’s a year since I started writing “View From The Funny Farm” for Colchester 101, here’s a selection (funnily enough the less column inches I get – the easier it is to read).

You can read more from Colchester 101 by clicking here.













I went to Colchester’s controversial  and attention grabbing “FirstSite”, the new name for our long awaited Visual Arts Facility or VAF (I preferred to call it the Visual Arts Gallery – but the acronym boffins turned that down) for lunch today, my first visit since getting shown round in my hard-hat and steel toe-caps by a hunky builder back in February. It really hasn’t changed that much, but sadly the builder was nowhere to be seen.

I like what they’ve done with “Vomit Alley” which now offers one of several clear approaches to the sweeping golden curves of the building, past some nice looking but randomly located mosaic benches (outside the outreach centre). However once you get close you can feel vaguely exposed, caught in the shadows and reflections from the looming glassy Glencoe of the front windows.

Firstsite felt proud to be crowned winner of "Robot Wars".

The entrance lobby is neat and unfussy, what you’d expect, although on a much smaller level, from a modern art gallery. I particularly like how the shop is subtly hidden away in a corner rather than being sprung upon you like they normally do in these places. Sadly they’ll probably get wise to this and block the entrance with a table full of key fobs and mugs.

As you follow the curves, past the pokily discreet toilets which are in front of what I recall being a cramped “auditorium” with no stage space (missed an opportunity for lunchtime music concerts there – although they can show “art films” which sound fun), you pass my favourite part of the building, the Berryfield Roman mosaic re-assembled underneath a pane of reinforced glass.

Berryfield Mosaic - the best time on the tiles Colchester has to offer.

It’s designed so people can walk over it, but everyone is being respectful and nice; gathering at the edges for a good look.  Further on you reach the cafe (serving a couple of cakes) and the restaurant (which isn’t particularly well signalled, but I guess if you can afford to eat there you already know where to sit), overlooking a pleasant landscaped area as opposed to the greasy misery of the soon to be defunct (allegedly) bus station. At the back there’s more conference facilities and a two room learning area.

I still can’t get used to the curves, and feel a little dizzy, especially when viewing the only slightly smug photographs of Colchester’s Great and Good (including some fun shots of Damon & Graham from Blur back when they still had acne and had to carry their own kit) on the way towards the cafe, which are hung at a 65 degree angle. I can only reason that this method of viewing is designed with the sarcastic denizen of Essex in mind, as people in these parts do tend to tilt their heads to one side when they’re not convinced by something.

A sarcastic Essex child considers the art on the sloping walls of Firstsite.

And what of the art? Well, tagged onto an exhibition celebrating Colchester’s historical heritage (Camulodunum), there’s several large’ish sculptures (giant fingers (apparently a representation of the shattered hand of the Statue of Liberty – I liked it, although it wasn’t as fun as Cloverfield ), bicycles stuck together, buckets, tripods), some of which smack massively of the Imperial Wardrobe, as though the curator was inspired by a stroll in a Belgian Park.

Bike-cows - which is how you get Pannier cheese allegedly.

There’s also a nice selection of early printed work, but nothing with that “Wow” factor (like Louis Bourgeois’s giant spider in Tate Modern) that would befit the opening of such a shiny statement of a building. Maybe that’s the point, and you should stand outside to enjoy Firstsite at it’s finest, because whilst inside it’s pleasant, it just doesn’t have the size or clever use of space that it needs. There are pictures of nude women with paint on their norks though, so some people will be happy.

I went to the shop as I was hoping to find a nice card for my boss’s engagement, and it tells you what you need to know about Firstsite’s ambitions and values. There was only a very small collection of ironic (non art related) greetings cards amongst the random science museum gifts. There were a couple of art books (OK books with the world “Art” upon them, there can be a difference) and some expensive ceramics for sale (with no connection to the exhibitions). Heart-breakingly there were NO postcards of artwork available (the only thing I buy at galleries) – and the cheapest items for sale were £1.50 “I heart Firstsite” pins. It may be a free facility but browsers on a budget need not even bother opening their wallet unless they’re prepared to advertise the brand is the message.

On the way back, I strolled through Minories Love Bistro lovely welcoming gardens, browsed the card selection and checked out the exhibitions. There’s very little real difference in terms of interest and inspiration within the humble Minories  galleries (in fact I must just plug that from 25th October the very lovely Pam Dan from Wivenhoe will be exhibiting new works inspired by the reedbeds of East Anglia there – which is well worth checking out).

Given the statement Firstsite is making, is it wrong to expect a little more of a difference? Hopefully they’ll find their feet and make the most of the building, and it won’t end up just being a very posh little conference centre.

Having said that, I did meet a friend next to the Statue of Liberty’s crumpled hand who I hadn’t seen for ages – so nice one Firstsite!

First published 5th June 2006 on

As part of marital therapy I got the hubby to take me to Gnome Magic (anyone who knows the A12 will have seen those beguiling brown signs just outside Colchester and wondered “Just what in tarnation goes on there? I expect it involves gnomes, but where is the magic?”). I’d become even more tantalised when I caught a glimpse of an oversized gnome perched on a pole – apparently fishing whilst nowhere near a lake. It had to be done. Hubby and I arrived to an empty car park and our erstwhile bravado deserted us, so we had a calming fag – during which time two carloads of families arrived so we took the plunge and went through the alley of dreams to find a very nice cafe full of fabulous cakes run by a very friendly lady who asked if we just wanted drinks there or whether we wanted to pay to go into the garden. So there was a choice! Wow! And considering there’s a lot of gnomes in the cafe too – it seems like a bargain introduction to the world of gnome. However we’d come so far already and so we paid for the garden experience – but not before chatting to our charming hostess about the place (she said a lot of people like us had just popped in out of curiosity – had they ever left??!!!) – and letting her show us the gnomes she made for local schoolchildren to paint – including a rather cool terminator gnome.

The gardens were absolutely gorgeous and there were little labels to say which plants were which – so had I been a gardening geek the £4 entry fee would have been worth it already. There’s over 4 acres land there – so it’s a nice stroll, although when you enter the woodland you enter the domain of the gnomes.(Less scary than the shambling gardener bloke we kept bumping into).

Of which there are all sorts – some rather randomly placed, some naff (I liked the flying supergnome) some with bizarre badly worded faux political messages displayed near them (apparently gnome land is ruled by some sort of facist dictator and the tired labourers are close to revolution – one caption near some gnome gardeners bizarrely read “Chancellor’s New Strategy ‘Work until you drop'”- these gnomes aren’t happy). The “Teddy Blair’s picnic” consisted of a bunch of Rupert Bear gnomes sitting around what appeared to be an old ludo board. There were armies of pixies with their leaders sitting on mushrooms looking stoned. Gnomes riding pigs. Gnome perverts hiding in the bushes with binoculars. All this and lots of little wendy houses too – I felt like I’d found my spiritual home in some respects. I did ask the nice lady why they didn’t advertise the fact that people could just use the cafe – but it seemed like they didn’t want TOO much publicity (presumably it would disturb the inhabitants of the wood) – and were content to keep their custom to the occasional weirdo and gawker.

So if you ever see that sign off the A12 and feel curious – go for it – it’s definitely worth it. As the sign outside says “Gardens! Gnomes in Woodland! Refreshments! Gnome sales!” And it does what it says on the tin.