Monster Mash

14717179_10154372406435617_6721422502376419717_nIt’s that time of year again…

Less makeup necessary for me as the years go by. This year’s Halloween Tuk Tuk Trick-or-Treating seemed a little less fun. Maybe we’re all getting a little too old for it. Or maybe it would be more fun dookin’ for apples, or catching treacle scones on strings?

Only the Shadow knows…


I’m Only Sleeping

I am slowly and fuzzily emerging from several days of viral infection which has, quite frankly, knocked me for six. To be honest, I imagined at one point that I actually had sleeping sickness, as I was endlessly tired, but I don’t think that the Tsetse Fly is endemic to Cambodia – or is it? Anyway, I appear to be gradually on the mend now. Still sleeping a great deal though. And dreaming. Some very unusual dreams indeed. The sleep of reason may well produce monsters, but dreams about pitching songs to Liam Gallagher??? Very strange…

Sleeping is popular in Cambodia. Well of course it is, it’s a global phenomena, innit? Cambodians are really good at it though. Motodops, for example, who stretch out, perfectly balanced, along their bike in the heat of the mid-day sun. Our inestimable Chairman Mao, tuk-tuk driver extraordinaire, is an absolute expert who can literally sleep anywhere, and in any position, at the drop of a hat. Others are quite extraordinary too, in particular staff of shops/restaurants/cinemas, and during working hours. A and I have encountered sleeping staff in many establishments we have visited over the years, often in fairly precarious positions in the remotest corners of the establishment, or in the toilets. I’ve seen men and women sleeping in supermarket aisles, on supermarket shelves, draped over exercise machines, in between giant stuffed animals, slumped over bannisters, even once in the corner of a lift. I did check the last one as I wasn’t sure if she was actually alive, and got some withering looks and dark mutterings for my trouble.

‘Please, don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me
Leave me where I am, I’m only sleeping…’

Last week Oti and I went to Iron Man at one of the local 3D cinemas and it was so goshdarned exciting that we had to visit the toilet about 30 minutes before the end. Every cubicle was occupied, with the unmistakable sound of snoring emanating from two, and the unmistakable sound of a teenage cellphone conversation emanating from the other…

Iron Man. Ah yes, always my favourite… the films are pretty good, and Charlie Chaplin makes a pretty good iron fist of wisecracking Tony Stark, but they will never match up to the comics in my opinion. My relationship with Iron Man began back in 1967, and was nurtured through a comic called ‘Fantastic’. Believe me, it was. Alongside ‘TV Century 21’, the Gerry Anderson spin-off comic, it was the next significant step up from the Beezer and Beano and Eagle. The first issue (oh how I wish I had kept them all!) featured the origin of Iron Man (and Thor) and was so exciting that I immediately cancelled all my other comics just to ensure I could get it every week – they were 3d each (Thats 3d, not 3D. Three old pence… ask an old British person for clarification – they can help with the lyric above too… seems so distant now) and ‘Fantastic’ was 9d.
A particular Christmas highlight from a few years back was receiving an early Iron Man anthology as a present from A… wish I had that here right now and I could bore Oti to tears reading it to him… although I rather suspect he would actually enjoy it. We are pretty similar in many ways, I have to say… both fascinated by the Fantastic-al!

Hong Kong Garden

Darling A mentioned to me last night that perhaps I might consider booking somewhere for dinner for tonight to avoid us ‘faffing around’ as usual. What exactly, I hear you mutter, does he mean by faffing around? I shall explain by virtue of this conversation, repeated practically verbatim every Saturday night we are in Phnom Penh.
A (or J – doesn’t really matter, quite interchangeable in fact) – ‘where do you want to eat?’
J – ‘dunno’
A- ‘what do you want to eat?’
J – ‘um… dunno’
A – ‘when do you want to eat?’
Can you guess the response? The soundtrack to this exchange ought to be Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ (Byrds version please, if you don’t mind), as that is normally what we are in real danger of doing, as eating habits among the expat fraternity seem to have changed considerably over the last few years. In the mid to high range eateries that we frequent on a Saturday evening (it’s our only treat, right?) there has been an alarming increase in the number of formal reservations being made. Used to be you could stroll in off the street, plonk yourself down, a quick howdy-doo-dee to the owner and voila! , dinner was served. Not any more, oh no. Now it’s ‘You have a reservation? No? Oh, I’m sorry, we are fully booked… my apologies.’ What’s he moaning about then, you may well ask, if they’re booked that’s it, end of story… well no, because we have another phenomenon in play here, namely The Great Phnom Penh Reservation Mystery!

The (presumably unwritten) law among the Phnom Penh restaurant fraternity is that reservation is sacrosanct. One example – the FCC. Foreign Correspondents Club, one of the legendary eating and drinking places of the city (although it has precious little to do with foreign correspondents, and actually never has. You’ll find most of them, particularly the ones who never made it back, downing Tequila in Cantina, just down the block…) has these balcony tables, which appear to be constantly reserved. Come in, say at 5pm for a happy hour drink, go to sit by the balcony and you’ll be given short shrift – ask politely and you’ll be told this table is reserved, so no, you can’t sit there until the reservee turns up. An hour and a half later, by which time you if you’ve stuck around to mire yourself deeper in the overpriced delights (but it is happy hour… go on, one more G ‘n’ T) of the drinks card you will have observed around a half dozen others being shooed away, the customer who reserved the table finally turns up. This scenario is repeated all over town…

Myself and A are early eaters. We normally dine just after 6 on a Saturday evening. This is because we have both got abnormally large stomachs and digestive tracts, and only eat once a week, so we spend a great deal of time swallowing and digesting large amounts of food to ensure we will not suffer any hunger pangs from Sunday to Friday. We’re a bit like those snakes you see on National Geographic Channel, crushing then slowly engulfing and devouring their prey, usually (for ultimate televisual shock value) a large and startled rat. Of course we don’t do anything like that in a restaurant. The closest would be shelling prawns I suppose.

Yes, the above is indeed a complete and utter lie. We eat early because we are too old to stay out late (anytime after 8pm is ‘late’ for us). But we too stand in completely empty restaurants at 6pm to be told ‘sorry, fully booked’ and marvel at how completely crazy they are to turn us away when we’d be in and out in under an hour, long before their other customers would turn up…
Tonight will be different though. Tonight I am going to block book every upmarket restaurant in Phnom Penh under a multiplicity of assumed names from a plethora of phone booths across the city… we shall have drinks in one, starter in another, main course elsewhere, dessert somewhere else, coffee… who knows? …and in each we will call the maitre d’ over and puzzle together with them over where the hell exactly everybody is tonight…???

Or maybe not. But where to go indeed? In truth, we are spoiled for choice… ‘Armands’, to watch ever so slightly tetchy owner Armand theatrically flambe steaks and desserts? No, went there last week… ‘Yumi’, for Japanese cuisine cooked marvellously by a chef from that well known Japanese prefecture, London? Maybe, but one place you definitely need to book… ‘Deco’, the latest hot dining spot? Ditto as per ‘Yumi’. ‘La Marmite’, hearty French food located next door to a pole dancing club (mmm… wonder why our Tuk-Tuk driver the good Chairman Mao always waits for us outside? Everywhere else he heads off home to await a call…). Perhaps. What about ‘Zino’s’, new kid on the block, a wine bar plus restaurant with an Orcadian chef? Yes, you did hear me right – Phnom Penh is nothing if not cosmoplitan now… ‘Dolce Italia’, Giorgio (Pop Cafe’s) delightful (and truly delicious) pizza restaurant, staffed by the cast of Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’ video? Come to think of it, that video seems to have had a profound influence on the uniforms sported by staff in the upmarket wining and dining spots of the Penh. They must all be owned or run by men of a certain age, I surmise…

Choices, choices…

Perhaps we’ll just get on the blower and order a number 23, chicken chow mein and chop suey from the Hong Kong Garden takeaway…

Oh hang on a minute, we’re not in Chiselhurst anymore… are we?

The Kids Are Alright?

What do you really know about orphanages in Cambodia?
Please take a little time to read this.
When I arrived in Cambodia over five years ago I knew very, very little. So little, in fact, that I was actually inclined to think that perhaps they were a good thing… a refuge for homeless or abandoned children… a place of safety and security, where the kindness of strangers helped to ease the suffering of the little ones… perhaps a childhood where I had been regularly exposed to The Alexander Brothers maudlin rendition of ‘Nobody’s Child’, the song of the forgotten orphan, had coloured my view of these institutions. Ha ha. Very funny. Except it’s not. In reality, I actually knew nothing.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, and a little over three years ago the bliss ended and reality bit.


My wife and I and our baby son were returning from my birthday celebration in Kep. En route we stopped off in Kampong Speu to say hello to some friends of ours who were volunteering in an orphanage there. These young women were just out of secondary school in the UK and had paid an organization there around $6,000 each to come to Cambodia and ‘make a difference’. They had never had any formal training in childcare, education or health.

The orphanage was run by a Cambodian man and an English businesswoman who lived in Phnom Penh.

They had many high profile supporters and fundraisers from overseas, including a very famous British comedian and TV personality.

I remember many things about that day.

I remember a pristine new school building, lying empty. No teachers. The volunteers were meant to include classes amongst the daily mass of tasks they had to complete, which was proving difficult to say the least.

A brand new clinic and dispensary, full of medicines but locked up and unused as there were no trained medical staff there.

A huge, deep and very dangerous hole directly behind the main building, full of stagnant water, where some other ‘development’ was going to take place.

Khmer staff, all looking tired and overworked…

Many, many grubby children, all desperately smiling and clutching at us throughout the visit.

Babies, up to three to a cot, huddled under shabby mosquito nets in a fly-filled room.

But most of all I remember Dominic – of course not his real name, as he was a Cambodian child, but given to him by the foreign volunteers. 18 months old but smaller than my four month old son. A sick little boy, HIV positive, with no drugs or qualified medical care to help him, only the love of the staff and their blind belief that two eighteen year old foreign girls would work some kind of magic for them as they waited for the owner to come down from the city for her one trip a week and perhaps take him back to hospital in Phnom Penh for treatment…

But it was too late for Dominic.

He died there, in his overcrowded cot, right in front of us as we stood and watched helplessly, my own healthy son cradled in my arms…

A little later Dominic’s tiny body was wrapped in a mat and take to the local Pagoda for cremation by one of the volunteers.

There are too many Dominic’s in Cambodia. Too many orphanages full of children who more often than not simply should not be there. Most children in orphanages in Cambodia have a living parent. Precious few orphanages actually know what they are doing and offer a loving, supportive, regulated, monitored and nurturing environment for children for whom alternative care should actually be the last resort. The overwhelming majority have no child protection policies, no standards of practice, staff and volunteers who lack the necessary training and these institutions either cannot cope with their burden of care, or cynically exploit the children they are supposed to care for to generate income for the business.

You don’t believe me?

You will.

In the coming months the full glare of the world’s media will focus on Cambodia and it’s orphanages. You will read reports from the Government and concerned organizations that will shock you, of children treated like market commodities, of multiple abuses of their human rights taking place, of families being destroyed by the greed of others, including foreigners.

If you are, or were, thinking of visiting or supporting orphanages in Cambodia go to where you will find some information that may help you in your decision. Click on tip number four to find out more. One thing I will say is that these institutions are not zoos, they are, for better or worse, the home that those children know at that time. Orphanage tourism is really bad for the children, and it’s bad for us as well as we are often (albeit in ignorance, as in my own situation – but you can change that by seeking out information.) supporting systems that simply don’t work or are engaged in exploiting misery for gain. But that’s my opinion (and UNICEF’s, and Save the Children, and more…), get the facts and make up your own mind.

I guess that it’s going to be a long struggle for hearts and minds in the coming years, to change people’s perceptions of orphanages as places that must be supported to help the ‘poor kids’, to stop these places exploiting children under the guise of caring for them, to divert the millions that pour in from overseas funders into transforming those that have the will into genuine community based alternative care centres, and primarily into investing time, money, resources and expertise into supporting families to stay together rather than them being pressured into giving up their children for economic or health or other reasons…

Yes, it’s going to be a long, long struggle, but it will be worth it.

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!

S’cool Days

‘Today I learned about the sea and ‘bout someone in history
well, ain’t that cool
they taught me how to square a cube and put a fly into a tube
well, ain’t that cool…’

the above lines are lifted from the very wonderful 45 ‘S’cool days’ by Stanley Frank. I can’t quite remember when it was released (late 70s? early 80s?), and I can tell you very little about Mr. Frank, but other than coming enclosed in a particularly nasty orange sleeve it was one of those great one-off new wave non-hits that proliferated around that time. I’m sorry, perhaps some of you would be puzzled by the ‘45’ reference in the opening sentence. Nowadays they would call it a 7-inch vinyl. Those exciting little slabs of plastic generally revolve around the turntable at 45rpm, hence the abbreviation, most commonly used in the 60s and 70s. It’s extremely heartening that whatever you choose to call it, the good old single record is still around.

Can you remember the first one you bought with your own pocket money? Mine was ‘Lady Madonna/The Inner light’ by The Beatles, 6/11d from the Music Shop, Thurso… I can still recall the smell of the vinyl as I removed it from its black paper sleeve and the sheer joy and anticipation of placing it over the spindle of my Aunt Catherine’s Dansette record player…

I was certainly no stranger to the wonders of the 7-inch record at that point, as my collecting habit had been kick started by my mum and dad many years before with ‘The Old Chisum Trail/Red River Valley’ by Roy Rogers, which was the first record I had bought for me. It was actually a red vinyl 78rpm with a magnificent picture of Roy and his trusty white steed Trigger adorning the front. He stuffed him, you know. Stop sniggering at the back, it’s true. When his four-legged friend passed on to the great pasture in the sky, Roy had him stuffed and placed in the Roy Rogers museum. I wonder if a similar thought flitted across the mind of Roy’s wife Dale when the singing cowboy joined the ranks of the ghost riders in the sky… doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it…

My mum and dad both loved music, so we had plenty of records around the house. My Aunt Catherine also had a great love of music, and, being single, a bit more in the way of disposable income so she had a pretty awesome collection mostly stored at my nana’s house, where the aforesaid Dansette also resided. My nana was another music lover, her tastes mainly being for ballad singers. She was particularly fond of Ken Dodd (he actually had a very ‘country’ style catch in his voice… ‘Tears’ showcases that to great effect. Bet you never thought I’d admit to being a bit of a Ken Dodd connoisseur, eh?) and Englebert Humperdinck, whose name she steadfastly pretended she could not pronounce. “J, would you please put that lovely Dinglebert record on.” she would ask, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and D.J. J would oblige, and then pretend to do the Last Waltz with his nana around the tiny sitting room.

That selfsame tiny sitting room (we actually always called it the living room) in a remote northern Scottish town was the scene of many Saturday afternoon rave-ups, when my sisters, cousins, nana and I would enjoy the latest discs bought by my Aunt by frugging enthusiastically around the tiny space to them before inevitably collapsing in a heap when the needle hit the run-out groove. The best collapsing in a heap record was undoubtedly ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ by Georgie Fame, where we would all re-enact the bullet-riddled end of the doomed lovers in a gloriously over the top manner which William Penn’s gore fest movie could only hint at…

Writing this the memories are coming thick and fast… working in the music business for over twenty five years had somewhat dulled my visceral reaction to music, but it’s been a long time and now with the benefit of some hindsight I can clearly recall the thrill engendered by those black circles of plastic, the differing weights, smells, some in picture sleeves, some Extended Plays (the four track E.P.’s) in their heavy laminated sleeves, like mini-albums, the band names, which seemed to precisely invoke the music lurking in the spiral groove… space rock from The Tornados, psychedelic music hall from The Kinks, the jazz tinged cool of Manfred Mann… I could go on and on and on, and I will, but… later!

As I grew older, DJ’ing took precedence over dancing, and I began to really notice the elements of a record that excited me, the beat, the bass line, the sound of the voices and instruments – particularly guitar, the melody, harmony… the best 45’s were an encapsulation of feelings that could be sadness, joy, happiness, loneliness or anything else, delivered in a sonic mélange that took you on a whirlwind rollercoaster ride of emotions, a journey that lasted from the moment the needle dropped into the vinyl until the click of the tone arm moving back into place, ready for the next one… S’cool days, indeed…

During my late teens and early twenties, on visits to Edinburgh I would frequent the ‘Hot Licks’ record shop in Cockburn Street, a very ‘studenty’ cobbled wynd near the castle. In addition to having the world’s coolest carrier bags (the Stones tongue logo) they often stocked limited copies of obscure US import singles, LP’s and other cool stuff, and it was there that I bought such essential items as copies of ‘Punk’ and ‘Trouser Press’ magazines, ‘Go Girl Crazy’ by the Dictators, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ by Television, ‘The Summer Sun EP’ by Chris Stamey and the absolutely bonkers but truly wonderful ‘Bangkok’ by Alex Chilton. I also bought ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, Bruce Springsteen, on the day of its release from Hot Licks, and I recall how sombre and low key Bruce appeared on the sleeve, a bleary eyed leather-jacketed Al Pacino look-alike, tired and bruised from the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune had sent his way since the success of ‘Born to Run’. It very quickly became my favourite Springsteen album, and has remained in that lofty position (albeit challenged by ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ from time to time) until now.

The surprise challenger is the new Bruce album, ‘Working on a Dream.’ It’s his best collection of pop songs in a long time, emerging from the dark post 9-11 clouds that have weighed heavy on his last few albums, choosing instead to be funny, happy, joyous, just a little bit serious, and, for Bruce, pretty experimental with the sonic palette. In feel, it touches base with the exuberant and untrammeled early works, ‘Greetings…’ and ‘The Wild, the Innocent…’ and his recent ‘Night with the Jersey Devil’ Halloween freebie whilst also letting a great deal of very Brian Wilson style light into his arrangements, which have in the past been occasionally just a little too dense for their own good. It’s also, on occasion, as pleasingly daft as a semi-psychedelic brush. Which is also good. Very good. Try the bizarre eight-minute opening epic ‘Outlaw Pete’ (‘…at six months old he’d done three months in jail…’)or ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ with its killer pay-off line for a taster of some of the new directions (whistling and backwards guitars?) followed by The Boss…

The Other Boss, little O, has also been making his musical mark lately. Daddy finally got around to buying and putting strings onto his customized mini-guitar (with retro Cowboy illustrations… yippee-ay-yeh! The influence of a John Fogerty video makes itself felt…), so the O is now happily thrashing away and experimenting with his six-string sidekick. He seems at the moment to be partial to the Syd Barrett/Blixa Bargeld school of using various implements to modify the sonic output and of course he has a somewhat maverick approach to the niceties of tuning, but, hey, he’s only two… Hopefully he’ll soon be confident enough to pop a couple of doors up and jam with our new neighbour in Villa Domino (the very Bond-like residence which has sprung up in our street recently), who adds a wonderful dream-like ambience to our hot weekend days by sitting up on his balcony as the late afternoon sun brings a fuzzy orange glow to the surrounding buildings and tootles away on what sounds like a tenor sax. His repertoire is limited but appropriate, and it often adds just the right amount of mellow to an already laid back day…

Tuesday night A and I managed to have a quiet, civilized and entirely uninterrupted evening repast in the oasis of calm that is Commé a la Maison. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, the little O was back home, safely causing havoc with his ever patient Aunt Packdey. Dear A wisely went home after our leisurely meal, leaving yours truly to venture out again with a colleague from Laos in search of LOUD ROCK MUSIC. During the course of a lengthy evening that did indeed lead to LOUD ROCK MUSIC (namely Zeppelin Rock Bar, where Jun, who never ceases to amaze me with his musical selections, played some Rick Derringer! Yay! Then on to Memphis (bar, not city) where, fortified with copious amounts of my good friend San Miguel I assaulted the sensitive ears of the hardy few with renditions of ‘classic’ rock tunes accompanied by the house band. My head and throat really hurt the next day…) we visited the Meta House gallery where we bumped into Tim Page, the iconic war (and peace) photographer. Well, to be honest, we didn’t really ‘bump’ into him, we kind of stalked him. Tim is a patron of the organisation I work for, and on guessing he might well be in town to attend the opening of an exhibition of his work we thought we could pin him down to ask him for some favours. Ever the gentleman, he duly obliged, and we spent an hour or so chatting to him. He now feels closer than ever to finally solving the riddles surrounding the disappearance of his close friends Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, and is returning to Cambodia next week to continue his quest for the truth, with, he hopes, some resolution and closure in sight. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, but he’s a remarkable man, in many ways the Keith Richards of photojournalism, yet infinitely humble though charged with an intense inner flame, whose pictures of the mayhem and destruction wreaked by war are a frozen reminder of the insanity that humans continually perpetuate seemingly without ever learning that it is really not a good thing…

Time for a change of subject… let us muse briefly on tropical torpor. We are definitely moving into the hot season now, the temperature is rising and life is moving ever so slightly slower than it did before. Weddings are on the increase (we have been invited to three in the last two weeks) and so is the prevalence of that massively popular Khmer outdoor sport, spot squeezing. On every corner one can expect to see someone, more often than not a Tuk-Tuk or moto driver, bent in intense concentration in front of a wing mirror, squeezing and popping for all they are worth… ah, life’s small pleasures. Nose-picking, nit-picking, zit zapping, spitting, urination and spot squeezing are all publicly paraded on the thoroughfares of this fair city. Still, better out than in, as my dad used to say…
… and so the days crawl by here in the Kingdom of Cambodia, counting slowly down to the summer holidays in a lazy haze. I venture that Ray Davies would love it here, given how many Kinks songs mention either sitting, or the sun, or both… perhaps I ought to rechristen my current domicile the Kinkdom of Cambodia?

Now there’s a thought…

‘I’m just sittin’ in the midday sun
Just soaking up that currant bun
With no particular purpose or reason
Just sittin’ in the midday sun.’

‘Sitting in the Midday Sun’ The Kinks

ciao, bambinos