Frivolous Monsters

The Usual Characters

One of my none-fiction writing heroes came to town the other day although I didn’t make the effort to go and see him; partly because £16 a ticket is too rich for my blood, but mostly as he was here to talk about his new film Frank.frank2

Jon Ronson is the author of such works that include Them, The Psychopath Test, and The Men Who Stare at Goats: the latter of which was made into a rubbish film by George Clooney.

Frank is a film loosely based on the life of our local character Frank Sidebottom and as he was a close personal friend, well I once gave him a withering look in a Manchester bar, I’m not sure I can get behind such a liberty-taking fictional pastiche.

For those who do watch the film they might be surprised to know that it is based on a real person who hailed from Timperley in Altrincham. It’s not that he never took his false head off, as I know that at one point he upgraded from papier-mâché to fibreglass, but when he died in 2012 I remember the only picture obituaries could find of the creature that lay within heralded from the seventies. Sidebottom has since been immortalised with a public bronze statue in Timperley.Frank3

But despite my film misgivings I hold Ronson’s writing on a pedestal and so as I knew he was in town I went out celebrity hunting. He wasn’t arriving at the interchange. He wasn’t shooting the breeze outside the theatre. And he wasn’t touring our world famous market. He also wasn’t hanging about inside the building society where I went to visit the last bastion of my savings.

They probably expect boring people in there, but as I’ve been keeping up with the local news and had been following the recent robbery I opened up to the woman behind the glass with: “I see you’ve been done over again… for a third time”.

You’ve been counting?” she retorted.

Well what do you think?

After previously being alarmed upon discovering that their door was no longer locked, when it swept open before me, I’d pressed the woman behind the glass on why they’d given up on the draconian security measures that involved having to negotiate entry through an intercom by answering a riddle. She mumbled something about it not helping on either occasion… I pushed her to be told that the first time they weren’t impeded by the locked door at all as they smashed the window instead. The second time they just knocked first.

I had previously gathered information on the second heist in 2012 after the local paper had reported in stunning detail that “police are unable to say if any cash was stolen”. You would have thought this was preposterous, but then I have come to consider that the local paper’s ethos is that if you have to leave your desk to investigate a story then it isn’t worth investigating.

My own research turned up that the Police had caught all four of them after the staff activated their Smoke Cloak which is a security system that, when activated, fills the building with an impenetrable cloying fog within seconds. I think it’s a fair bet to assume that in that time they couldn’t have got their hands on much more than the rack of leaflets on tax-free ISAs and that, that day, I got away with more money than the robbers did.

I recounted theses details of the previous heists to the woman behind the glass and questioned how this time the felon, No. 3, got away with cash without them deploying their Smoke Cloak. As they’ve been held up so many times now that I also accused the woman of probably sitting there with a trembling finger on the button at all times.

However it turns out that they’re now protected by “Smoke Cloak AND Smart Water,” she boasted proudly.

Smart Water?” I said.

Smart Water!” she said.

She turned to her male colleague in the corner looking for conformation: “Smart Water?

He looked panicked and just rumbled a conversation quelling: “Oooohhh…

The conversation baton back with her and the “careless talk” penny drooped. She got the hint and uttered: “Aaaahhh…

Oh,” said I, after an uncomfortable silence, “Smart Water”.

A third staff voice chimed in from behind that I did sound mightily suspicious.

If I was now planning the fourth heist then my first mistake would have been in that I’d already handed over my passport as they’re still so security conscious with the money these days that the only way to get any out of them is with photo IDs and with space age ultraviolet handwriting. Either that or just putting on a mime act and handing over a note – GIVE ME YOUR MONEY. I HAVE A GUN – just like No. 3 did.

Two grand they gave him to just go away without shooting anybody with his imaginary gun. He straight away jumped in a taxi which took him home. It took Police ten minutes to catch the fool. It shows you how much they value my custom as all they’d give me was five hundred – in cash – which meant I had to run down the high street to deposit it.

As a departed I wished them better luck with the locals. Jon Ronson also wasn’t in the bank when I paid the money in. He also wasn’t shopping in Asda. And he still wasn’t shooting the breeze outside the theatre when I went around for a second pass. Celebrities, eh? They live in a different world to the rest of us.


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24 thoughts on “The Usual Characters

  1. Your writing is wonderful! And we seem to like similar things and have the same sense of the ridiculous kinda outlook on life. Thanks for liking my post too x

  2. You’ve made me google both Frank Sidebottom and Smart Water, and both are completely interesting.

    I agree with you that the Men Who Stare At Goats film was crap. I haven’t read the book, but I bet it was good.

    • Frank Sidebottom is definitely interesting. He’s one of those things you miss when they’re gone. Now, with a better understanding of his story, I admire someone so crazy and devoted to the character that he wouldn’t take the head off in public for decades. Even on the radio, I believe.

      I am not alone as he died broke and was heading for a pauper’s grave. An appeal was put out and so many people held him in high regard that a fortune poured in, within days.

      I’ve put the trailer for the new film above now. It may be of interest to you as it seems to be set in Texas. That’s a long way from Timperley. The real Frank had a nasally voice and I don’t like the film head with it’s none-round eyes.

      I’ve only seen The Men Who Stare At Goats once and thought it was wacky compared to the more serious investigation in the book. Roson’s best books, in my opinion, are ‘Them’, where he tracks down all the extremist groups around the world who are all waiting (with guns) for society to crumble, and The Psychopath Test.

  3. Well, Frank seems to have completely passed me by – I don’t remember him or the Freshies. Why is his statue somewhere that looks like it is either being knocked down or newly built? He looks very perturbed by his surroundings. I did Google him and found a Christmas song he apparently did in the 80s which was re-released in 2010 in the hope of it becoming the Christmas No.1. I suppose stranger things have happened.
    As for bumping into celebrities – perhaps you should try shopping in Waitrose.

    • Frank Sidebottom sort-of passed me by too. He appeared on all sorts of programmes without being famous for any particular programme, I think. I know he had his own programme on digital, before digital was accessible.

      I will track his statue down, but that was the clearest picture I could find on the internet. I’m assuming it is before it was installed.

      I think his Christmas song is his most famous work. I saw a lot of the others today on Spotify. Not sure there’s many hits there, but he has a back catalogue.

      And as I couldn’t afford £16 a ticket I don’t suppose I could afford to shop in Waitrose. I have found out today that Ronson appeared, giving a more general talk about Sidebottom, for just £12 in Manchester. I wish I’d gone to that now. Ah, regret.

  4. Brilliant!….on lotsfof levels. I am in awe!

    Denise….Love from California. . ( no im not on the run with my bank job gains, sadly)

  5. I’m all for celebrity hunting though I find paying for a ticket the best way to insure that you’ll actually see said famous person.
    As for the movie, I’d watch it- it has that up and coming lad Domhnall Gleeson in it.
    I can’t understand your bank situation though. My husband used to work for banks years ago and all they had was an alarm button and those dye packs you put in with the money.
    I think someone was pulling your leg about smart water…

    • I would have liked to have gone now, seeing as I gather he was talking about his history with Sidebottom (Ronson was in his band, before they were all famous) as opposed to the film which I guess is very modern and different. However, I have to weigh up what I can afford these days.

      I’m sure the film is very watchable, about a wonderful extreme character, as long as you don’t bring baggage along to watch with you.

      And I’ve looked Smart Water up. It does exist, although I’m still not clear what it is. The company say it should act as a deterrent, though, so I guess they should be telling people.

  6. sarahinguangzhou on said:

    I never realized there was a person behind Frank Sidebottom. I long ago dismissed it as ‘a boy thing’ and didn’t take any notice. I dismiss a lot of stuff like that. Well there’s only so much time available to waste isn’t there?

    • It wasn’t Ronson behind Frank Sidebottom – if I’ve given that impression, although he wrote the film – but a man called Chris Sievey. Ronson was in his band along with Mark Radcliffe and Chris Evans. I think in Ronson’s account in one of his books he mentions how they opened for Bros on one of their tours. Didn’t go down well.

      You see I dismissed it too which is why upon seeing him down the other end of a crowded bar in Manchester a few years ago I gave him a withering look. I never knew then that there was an ethos behind the character. Only so much time, but now I applaud someone, an artist, who stood firm against other people’s notions of what is and isn’t good music.

  7. I have a copy, bought at the Virgin megastore in Manchester’s Arndale Centre, of I’m in Love with a Girl… But I didn’t know of Sievey’s alta ego. Thanks

    • I just looked that up on YouTube and when I saw the full title I recognised it. I think I’ve heard it played on the radio up here. I didn’t know it was the Freshies though. The video has pictures of the band, although I couldn’t say who Frank was, or would be.

      Sadly Virgin and Manchester don’t have a good history. I’m not sure I can say I remember the coming of the Virgin Megastore in Manchester but I sure can remember when Branson closed it down (in the nineties?) and in it’s place opened up a tiny little “V Shop” which was ideal if you wanted ten copies of Michael Jackson’s Bad. I think they sold Virgin wedding dresses or Virgin insurance upstairs.

      I still resent Branson for selling us out. Later he reopened the Manchester Virgin Megastore in the newly-built Arndale Centre after the IRA bomb (1996) allowed developers to get developing. It was a terrible place as the music in there was so loud. Then Branson (I assume he’s still running it) sold us out again and the store was taken over by Zavvi who quickly went out of business. I think we have two HMVs now.

      So not even the fame garnered from this song could save the store.

      • Two HMVs? That’s wealth. The one on London’s Oxford Street closed a while ago. The days of browsing in music stores belongs to another era.

    • I am out of date. You set me searching and it wasn’t easy to track down the answer. I don’t get to Manchester much, but I was there just the other day. I did not notice this with the crowds and I must have walked right past it. You are right in that we no longer have two HMVs as the closed the big one down in January. Apparently we still have one, I think.

      Just in the news today I find that the old one is being turned into one of the biggest pound shops in Britain. Progress?

  8. Came to this site after doing a quick search for Ronson’s Psychopath book (which I bought at a browsing-friendly indie bookstore in Naperville, IL, last year). The cover caught my eye much like a chick walking by with one boob sticking out from atop a loose-fitting halter. Kinda had to grab the thing off the shelf after that. (The book, not the boob. Come on now, we may be psychopaths, but we know the difference between copping a figurative feel via literary allusions from literal illusions, don’t we?) So all this to say that I wanted to find the Ronson site to link to in an email to a nice woman who contacted me from a social singles group in my county, saying I seemed really cool and nice and all and we should get together. Not a bad way to start a Sunday morning, I’d say. Off course, all these delusions of grandeur could dissolve into niceties of nothingness once we do actually meet. We’ll see. Now the ugly editor’s head rears itself and makes himself an ass, but I am going to do it. Please correct the “there” to their in the “My own research” paragraph. I hear what you’re saying about living within your means, struggle with that every day. Of course I could have taken every last shilling (see how I tailor/cater to my British-English audience?) of my tax refund I just saw in my checking account the other day. The good fiscal angel on my shoulder nearly begging me to do it, to pay off as much of my consumer debt as I could, and I did with most of the moneys, but the “in the red” financial demon on my other shoulder (and probably with a hand on my cinnamon scones readying a tight-fisted squeeze) persuaded me to take a small sum-yum-yum and get an Asian massage. Which I have to say may have caused some fiscal regret (discounted for a first-time customer, so $65 for the hour, and a $15 tip to my precious gem of a petite Chinese masseusse, Ruby) but no pain in the pleasure department!

  9. The film looks interesting, but I don’t know if I could put up with Frank Sidebottom speaking American – last time I heard him he had a pretty strong Manchester accent. Most of his work passed me by, but I remember seeing and hearing about him now and again, wondering what he was all about, and finding that head rather disconcerting, or even scary.

    • Is that American? I don’t know. I always assumed Fassbender to be British as he was in lots of UK TV like the Devil’s Whore, but I see his background is a bit more complicated.

      As for Sidebottom’s voice I’d describe it more as a high-pitched comedy voice rather than Mancunian, but what do I know? But as for the head; disconcerting, probably, scary, definitely.

  10. I’m not sure Frank should have an American accent, but then 1.5 hours of an approximation of his “real” voice might be a bit wearing. What no Little Frank? 😦

    • I am confused as I thought Michael Fassbender was English, as he was in Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore years ago, and from the trailer just assumed they went to America in the film. However I’ve since heard that it is set completely in America, and just looked Fassbender up to see he’s German.

      I’m guessing there’s no Little Frank, but I’m more concerned about his soulless eyes on the film Frank head. It makes you realise how genius Frank’s creation was as even though it’s a unmoving head, with that glint in his eye, it does look warm and full of emotion.

      • Yes, you’re right about the eyes. There’s also that little chink of disturbing wrongness about the eyes and hair combination that changes the whole thing – it’s not just a cheesy gimmicky performance – there’s something a bit unsettling about it. It was a genius creation and Frank kind of worked in pretty much any entertainment context, I thought.

        Disappointingly, the film’s main joke seems to be seeing Frank fighting people with his “head on”. I suspect there will be none of the melancholy, the sweet determination, or the impatience of the original performance.

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