I Travel

It’s been quite a week in the world, one way or another. Colleagues of mine have lost close friends, former colleagues have lost family members in tragic circumstances, others have been caught up in political turmoil in Honduras, the death of Michael Jackson continues to dominate the Asian media, swine flu has struck Cambodia with a vengeance and news has just broken of a huge explosion in the Prime Minister’s private compound.

I shouldn’t, therefore, have been unduly surprised to come home from work last Friday, settle down outside in the orange glow of impending sunset with my book and then gradually realize after a few minutes that what was tickling my exposed big toe was not, as I had thought, a wind-blown dry leaf but the front claw of a scorpion.

Oh dear.

These creatures I have only encountered previously a) in movies, b) behind glass in a zoo or c) pinned to a wall display in Kuala Lumpur and no longer animate, but now a rather large black version of the species possessing what could be clearly seen as a particularly vicious looking stinger was showing what to me was an inordinate amount of interest in my big toe…

I remained still. Absolutely still. As did the scorpion. I’ve no idea exactly how long we faced off (or should that be ‘footed’ off?), but it felt like a very long time indeed. Eventually it turned away from my foot. I inched my foot slowly out of my sandal and tucked it underneath me in the chair. The scorpion was in no hurry… minutes more passed and then eventually it ambled off in the fading light into the undergrowth and disappeared.

I have no idea just how toxic my little chum was… I’m sure at the very least he could have inflicted a very painful sting upon yours truly. I guess we never know what surprises, pleasant or unpleasant await us, so the trick is to enjoy as much of life as you can before you get surprised by it. The book I was reading at the time (or re-reading, to tell the truth) was ‘The Art of Travel’, by Alain de Botton, a philosophical treatise on… surprise, surprise, travel! I had been using an old boarding pass as a bookmark, one from a trip to Bologna to attend a film festival some years ago, and the combination of this well-used souvenir, the content of the book and the scorpion incident conspired to set the old grey matter swirling and eddying, and the wheels within wheels to be set in motion. Bologna is just one of the amazing places I have been fortunate to visit and experience over the last few years. My horizons have broadened so much in that time, and entirely thanks to one person who set the wheels of travel in motion for me and who has been my long suffering companion on many of those journeys, my dear wife.

She has had to endure my rampant serial killer paranoia in Venice (what normal person is wandering around the streets inviting backpacking strangers into his house at two in the morning, I ask you?), my deaths door dysentery melodramas in Cuba (crawling on hands and knees into the clinic for a vitamin shot), my horror of undercooked pork in Paris…actually undercooked everything in Paris… yes, the griping list is endless, but although her experience of me as a travelling companion is coloured by my far from endearing grumpy old man-ness, the experiences I have had, the people I have met, the places I have seen, they are etched indelibly and wondrously on my soul and entirely thanks to her. So many unforgettable moments… drinks at sunset on the terrace of the Galle Face hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a crowded train journey in the company of merry pilgrims in India, residing in the very same hotel room as the Beatles did in Barcelona, drenched to the skin in the new year celebrations in Yangon, upgraded to jet set class in Taormina, Sicily, fireworks around the Eiffel Tower to herald a new year in Paris, the overwhelming emotion of coming face to face with a favourite Magritte painting in Peggy Guggenheims house in Venice, a birthday waltz around the Palazzo Bonaparte in San Miniato, Tuscany… and more, so many, many more…magical experiences all, these simply cherry-picked from a tree full of such experiences, and more to come which we can now share with our wonderful little boy. Thank you, A.

In his book, de Botton dissects the whole modern concept of travel, of setting oneself off onto adventures where one might experience the new, the exotic, the different, yet also acknowledges that sometimes we don’t realize that those very things we seek through travel can also be around us in our everyday lives. Take time to look… the travel we generally do in those everyday lives of ours becomes a chore, a necessary way of getting from A to B, from home to work, home to shop, work to home…. either on foot or trapped inside a moving metal box with other necessary travelers… if we start to see it differently, look at the detail in the world going on around us, ponder thoughtfully on the actions of those we watch,notice the un-noticed, pick up on the detail, analyse the surrounding architecture and the space it occupies then another whole world of wonder can leap out to enrich our daily lives. Carpe Diem, indeed. Make every minute count of this wonderful life, savour every single moment you are a living, breathing person…

As that other great philosopher (!), Ian Fleming once wrote, paraphrasing a wise man from the past

‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive…’

A further note on the explosion mentioned in paragraph one above – it appears to have been a truck full of rockets bound for the Thai-Cambodian temple stand-off in Preah Vihear. It was being refueled in the Prime Ministers private compound (?). One of the drivers wanted to do a visual check on how much fuel was in the tank, and as it was getting dark and difficult for him to see, he bent down over the gas tank and flipped open his lighter….

…not recommended….

Keep on Running

Do you recall Worzel Gummidge? He was a scarecrow, a walking, talking, living, breathing scarecrow, portrayed with admirable joie-de-vivre on Sunday afternoon children’s TV during the late 70s and early 80s in a metaphysical and sartorial about-turn by the former Dr. Who, the late Jon Pertwee. Worzel had the unique facility of being able to switch his heads around to suit his requirements, so, for example, he could change his usual ‘mischievous’ head for his ‘thinking’ head as and when the occasion demanded. As he grows older and wiser in the ways of this world, little O also seems to be developing that facility, albeit with slightly more variance than dear old Worzel managed.

Saturday last he had his ‘Roger Bannister’ head firmly in place. The International School of Phnom Penh were holding their annual sponsored Landmines Fun Run (sounds ever so slightly wrong, doesn’t it?), to raise awareness of the continuing blight caused to this country by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmines, and to raise funds to support the Cambodian volleyball team whose members include many survivors of these deadly legacies of conflict. We had put little O’s name down for the elementary fun run, assuming that he could be escorted by yours truly at a sedate pace around the dusty pebble-strewn track for the duration of one quarter kilometer lap. The big day dawned, and with it a gnawing sense of unease churning in the stomachs of all participants. Not caused by the worry of impending physical exercise, or indeed a dodgy roadside snack from the night before, but the real foreboding generated by the revelation, for the first time in public in Cambodia outwith a swimming pool, of your humble correspondents stick-like, white and hairy lower appendages… yes, I too had dressed for the occasion, baggy t-shirt, shorts and trendy black converse hi-tops in place…well, brothers, sisters, we don’t need this fasttrack groove thang…, oh no. Once the murmurs of distaste and ripples of barely suppressed laughter had subsided, all were called to order and lined up at the start line. A barely noticed countdown and we were off, in clouds of billowing dust, jogging along to the strains of Alice Cooper ‘School’s Out’ (Mostly ‘good’ music all morning, I have to say. Congrats to the compiler!). Little O, who was the youngest participant, waved to all around him and seemed really into this idea of trotting around trying to keep up with the big kids. The cheering and encouraging announcements must have spurred him on, for as eventually the end of lap one loomed with mummy cheerfully and excitedly waving him into the pits, the O decided that he wasn’t going to stop. ‘One more’ he said, and carried on trotting…
This was repeated FIVE times, until we put a stop to it after six laps and dragged him protesting into the sidelines, along with yours truly who was by now completely hot, dust-covered, sweaty and exhausted from keeping up with the little chap…

The mischievous head was firmly in place at a colleagues wedding this week. We had endured almost an hour stuck in a tuk-tuk in horrendous traffic to get to the venue, arriving there to marvel once more at the feats of cosmetic engineering conducted upon hapless Khmer brides by the beauticians of this fair country. I have sat beside my colleague for nearly two years now, but I completely failed to recognise her when we entered the reception, wondering to myself who was this glittering vision, who looked like a tiny alabaster version of one of the Roman Goddesses, hair piled in Medusan coils and eyes framed by the darkest thickest lashes, mascara’ed beyond even the wildest imaginings of Dusty Springfield. She seems to know me… who is it? Then realization dawned, this was indeed her, trapped like a frightened bird under the layers of the beauticians craft. It does look wonderful in the photoshopped marvels that pass for wedding albums round these parts, though…

My other female colleagues from work had also gone into unrecognizably glamorous overload, and from the make-up, hair and clothes you would have thought that we were actually attending an Oscar ceremony from the 1960s where all females present had entered into an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest. Comfortingly, the men mostly resembled extras from a black and white 1960s British kitchen sink drama, Cambodian Tom Courtenay’s all, looking as if they had just come in from the allotment, wiped their faces on their sleeves, splashed themselves very briefly with ‘The Great Smell of Brut ©’, then got stuck straight into the minced pig entrails and greasy scrawny chicken on offer with considerable gusto accompanied by copious amounts of liquid lubrication (‘Cold Guinness… Number One!’ as our waiter rather enthusiastically informed me). I felt very much the barang exception in my white Ambre suit and black shirt, but I imagined that most of the Khmer guests thought I was a very important foreign gangster, so nobody really commented for fear of going for a concrete-booted paddle in the Mekong.

O was the very modicum of stoic calmness during the first hour that we waited for our table to fill up and food to be served, he even ventured with me on a couple of occasions to view the band, who boasted a completely electronic drum kit, a jazz-thrash noodling lead guitarist, a PA system adequate for a small stadium and a baffling number of lead vocalists, including one man who was absolutely from the oh-so-smooth Andy Williams white loafer school which fitted in wonderfully with the whole Elizabeth Taylor imagined scenario going on in my brain…

Although the arrival of other guests (including some foreign women who were clearly and scarily misinformed that this was a Tammy Wynette look-alike event – thank the lord for A and her beautiful, simple little polka dot dress!) en masse to our table meant that the food had also arrived, O was by now well bored, and despite the tasty distractions of whole deep fried fish, mischievous head kicked in. He smashed some cutlery and stole the chopsticks off the woman sitting next to him, so we decanted him hastily from the premises, pausing briefly so he could have his picture snapped on the red carpet with my colleagues three year old cousin (who had obviously done this sort of thing before – she posed furiously for all she was worth as O remained clutched in her grasp with an expression of abject terror etched on his face) and then back into the tuk-tuk for a considerably faster trundle home. Once home, little O put his (and our) favourite head on, that of the wonderful, funny, sweet little chap that he is, and went off to bed with the story of The Gruffalo’s Child lulling him into the land of Nod from his stereo…

… and along with The Gruffalo’s Child, Robert Fripp now enters the picture. Not such a leap of the imagination as it may at first seem (what’s he talking about now? Robert Fripp? Isn’t he that Dorset guy who plays guitar, made a weird record with Eno and married Toyah? Yes, that’s the one.). I’ve recently been recording bedtime stories for the little chap using Garageband software on our Macbook, which has been enormous fun for yours truly and, it seems to date, enormously enjoyed by our little O. Whilst searching for suitable snippets of soundtrack music, I have rediscovered King Crimson. This has been a real joy to me, as regular readers will know that in addition to my love of rock, jazz, indie, punk, soul, latin, pyschedelia, country, folk, ambient, electronica, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, blah, blah, blah, I have an abiding and unwholesome fondness for Progressive Rock, or ‘Prog’ as it now seems to be known to the subterranean denizens of the vast and bewildering world of music. I think I’ve mentioned in these blogs before of balmy and not-so-balmy evenings spent appreciating each others record collections in the homes of Eric Law, Colin Morrison, Steven Beaton, Michael Houston, John Farquhar, Donald McIntosh and many others from that particular hall of infamy. Thurso High School record club and the redoubtable Leon ‘do you think I look like Ian Anderson? Great!’ Volwerk must also figure hugely in these formative years of my musical appreciation. Mr. Volwerk, Eric and Colin were big on Prog, as indeed I was, and one of my all-time favourites from that era when dinosaurs still roamed the earth with impunity was (and still is) ‘Lizard’ by King Crimson. It’s funny that listening to it now with the benefit of hindsight (or should that be hindhearing?) it’s actually pretty much jazz-rock fusion with a soupcon of classical influences thrown in. There’s even a guest vocal from helium lunged Accrington born astral elf Jon Anderson of Yes and the atonal piano dribbling of Keith Tippett burbling all over the place. It is however, in the grand tradition of all things Prog, majestic, moving, bafflingly dexterous in both scope and execution and, of course, supremely, wonderfully silly. It’s also full of Mellotron, that amazing Heath Robinson-esque instrument that added the mystery to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the menace to ‘We Love You’… ah, the Beatles and the Stones, they sucked the marrow out of bones…(’House of Love’… remember them?). Mellotron gives a gloriously wonky orchestral feel to many of the tracks, and adds to the slightly creepy sensibility which pervades the album. The Beatles link continues with the track ‘Happy Families’ where Pete Sinfield’s occasionally obscure lyrics on the album clarify into a surreal discursion on the breakup of the Fab Four (‘Nasty Jonah grew a wife, Judas drew his pruning knife…’).

Colin Morrison used to particularly despair of my attitude towards much of the music he enjoyed, but as I recall ‘Lizard’ seemed to be a common ground between us. Colin and I used to get into some fairly heated arguments, particularly about jazz-rock, and sometimes his taste seemed to me to be bafflingly obtuse – sorry to bring this up again Colin, but Jukka Tolonen…? – but I really miss the overall over-intellectualised and frequently smarmy silliness that used to pass between us during our ‘appreciation’ evenings… these might, for example, include lengthy discussions about the stunning left-handed bass technique of another Colin, Mr. Hodgkinson of Back Door. I’ve mentioned them before in a blog, but just to recap they were an early 70s Yorkshire bred jazz-rock trio of sax, bass and drums with a punk attitude and by ‘eck bloomin’ good they were, too. I bet you really wish now that you had been part of those music appreciation evenings, don’t you, eh? I hope that you’re still out there in the land of the musical avant-garde, Colin (Morrison that is – Mr. H is still a very active musician and has recently put together a new combo based on the Back Door sound), baffling your neighbours with Jukka and the rest. If you should happen to stumble upon this, please do get in touch… the same goes for you, Robert Fripp… I’m sure your well developed sense of the absurd will be tickled by the thought that snippets of your meisterwork ‘Lizard’ are now adorning my renditions of ‘The Selfish Crocodile’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’.

I wonder too if my dear little tousle-haired O will grow up to mumble incoherently from behind a curtain of shoulder length hair, wear an ex-Navy greatcoat, 26-inch loon pants and desert boots and waste many evenings of his teenage years earnestly debating with his long-suffering friends something earth-shattering such as the nuances of style that differentiate Steve Howe’s picking technique from that of Robert Fripp …

… or perhaps maybe, just maybe, unlike his father, he will actually get a life!

life on mars…?

As i sit before my wife’s parents PC (‘evening all… mind how you go…’ – no, not that kind of PC… though one would be forgiven for thinking so, as the yUK is gripped firmly at the neck by security insecurity at the moment)and begin to do the one finger dance on the keyboard that others more skilled than I call typing, I realise that it has been eleven days since I last wrote something on my blog… frankly disgraceful, and I aplologise to all my regular readers unreservedly for depriving both of you of my deprecating blatherings for so long… however, I’m sure that my protracted absence from cyberspace has, in reality, somewhat enriched your lives. I did write a couple of paragraphs en route to the yUK, one in Phnom Penh airport and one in Suvanaboombangabang airport in Bangkok (name changed to protect the innocent (or stupid people who do not actually know how to write/pronounce it – stand up the author)), but they were miserable rantings about how much I hate hanging around in airports, and how much I hate people like me who pull Macbooks from their backpacks and start to write about how much they hate hanging around in airports.I am becoming, or have become,without any doubt, a grumpy old man, which horrifies and amuses me in equal measure.
Anyway, a quick update – I am back in the moist and tepid yUK, reunited with my lovely wife (even more beautiful and kind than I remember) and son (bigger, cheekier and also very regularly visited by the wonderfuls and the beautifuls), am very happy about that, and will write some more about what we have been up to (including a brief visit to Barcelona for our Ani-versary, really exciting – even more so as we stayed in the very hotel room which the fabulous Beatles whom we all know and love etc etc had stayed in during a visit to the city in the 60’s – yay!!)in the near future. I feel quite dislocated from the yUK now, more like an external observer from another world than a genuine living and breathing yUK citizen (with all the perks that brings with it), compounded by watching/catching up with the truly wonderful Beeb series ‘life on mars’, whose protagonist, DC Simms, is suffering from a similar sense of dislocation to that I feel, albeit in a temporal mode…
It’s with a sense of relief that I realise that British television can still pull off these exciting and thought provoking dramas from time to time which helps allay the general media led malaise that can seem to grip the country to the dismay of the outside world (me). I gaze horrified at the blank television stares of the many nonentities that populate the small screen and proliferate on the glossy covers of the magazines and garish tabloids in the newsagents and muse ‘where did it all go wrong?’.
Is Chris Moyles really the epitome of the modern British male? Jade Goody really the girl next door?
God, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva, Buddah and Gaia help us…

‘look at those cavemen go, it’s the freakiest show…

…is there life on Mars?’

‘you’re nicked, sunshine’

It was a good day…

Our good friend Ben wandered across to our house gate to get his usual early morning taxi to work the other day. I was at the gate, son in hand (or more precisely, in arm), fending off the jibes from the passing schoolkids. (Maybe they’re not jibes – maybe they say nice things like ‘oh, what a caring father – look how he tends his son in an unselfish manner’ – somehow, I don’t think so… ‘ Look at the fat old barang kidnapping that poor baby ‘ is probably more accurate) Ben is as cool as hell, a lanky, laconic Tucson dude who knows Joey Burns from Calexico personally (now how cool is that!), with a laid back manner but a righteously fiery interior that does not suffer fools gladly, so of course I surreptitiously eye the bag of paperback books he is carrying, as they will be, without any doubt and at the very least, interesting. I guess that he is going to give these away, so I need to scan them discreetly and think of a good reason to score any good reads from this undoubtedly tasteful grab-bag. At this point, the taxi approaches and Ben pulls a well-thumbed volume from the bag – ‘ have you read this –?‘ it’s by Jeff Chang, called ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – a History of the Hip-Hop Generation’. My mouth goes, ‘no, I haven’t’ whilst my brain is going  ‘now why the hell would I want to read that?’ which is probably much the same reaction Ben had to his birthday present from us, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One. So, I make the right noises, take it thankfully, go inside and get ready for work. That evening I make myself begin to read it…

You’ve probably guessed what’s coming next, and believe me it’s hard to admit this. Hip Hop has largely passed me by, mainly through my choice – maybe it’s an age thing, probably in the main a culture thing, but I am amazed to report that I am COMPLETELY consumed by Chang’s book at the moment. I am about a tenth of the way in to its 546 pages, and I am so thoroughly gripped by its spell that I really don’t want to put it down. I’ve also been re-reading passages again and again, going with the flow of his words and the wisdom of his analysis, but most importantly he has ignited within me that spark of really wanting to hear the music, really listen to all the component parts in the same way that I can submerge myself in the layers of sound when listening to the Velvets or the Byrds or the Beatles or a thousand other skinny white kids with guitars…

 

At the age of 51, I am so excited that another period of discovery is upon me…

 

Thanks Ben…

 

Right Now Listening To – Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry  – Reggae Greats

                                           Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line

                                           Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5.55

                                           Wilco – everything (they sound like honey tastes…)

 

 

Reading – Jeff Chang – ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – A History of the Hip-Hop Generation’ (Picador)

 

still crazy after all these years