The consul at sunset

Graythorpe stepped down from the covered shelter of the gangplank and into the midday furnace, blinking the sweat from his eyes as he struggled to set down his bulky leather portmanteau whilst rummaging in sundry pockets for the crumpled rag he termed his handkerchief. The dense wall of heat was suffocating, and he panted for breath as he searched frantically for the cotton square to mop the stinging liquid from his eyes and face.

Found! A triumphant flourish and flick, off with his wire-rimmed spectacles and then he buried his sweat-streaked visage in the grubby off-white material, gasping, snuffling, snorting, before emerging ruddy cheeked and surprised moments later.

Surprised…

Surprised at the tall thin shadow that now stood between him and the blazing shimmer of the sun, its edges seeming to blur and undulate like the rippling outline of a mirage. One bead of sweat burned unchecked into his eyeball and as he winced in acute discomfort the shadow stepped forward and took form. Blinking rapidly, Graythorpe stared nervously up at the immaculately dressed gentleman before him.

‘You are, I presume, Mr. Graythorpe?’ The voice was peculiar, not deep, nor fluting, but pitched between. To Graythorpe it seemed… well… almost natural. Natural in the sense of nature, as of the bubble and gossip of a stream over pebbles, or the busy rustling of crisp autumn leaves in a swirling eddy of wind. These fleeting thoughts briefly comforted him in the baking swelter of that dockside, and then almost as soon as they slipped from his mind he became aware that he was now in shade. The tall man had opened a large bright yellow umbrella which he held delicately in his white bony fingers above them. Graythorpe was astonished that time now seemed stilled, and that an inordinate amount of it had passed without a reply from him to the tall man’s question.

He cleared his throat and spoke ‘I – I am indeed. And you sir?’
“I, sir, am the Count’s aide. He has sent me here to assist you in your passage. Welcome to Cambodia. Now, if you would please come with me…’

Graythorpe felt himself move forward as if he were doing so outwith his own control. He picked up his portmanteau easily, and flowed alongside the tall man in the direction of a black motor taxi parked a few metres from the dockside. The umbrella seemed to shield them from much more than the intense heat of the noon sun. It seemed to create a vortex around them, and Graythorpe realized he had not been aware of his surroundings or the few people moving through the stifling day as everything seemed blurred or distorted, as if in a peculiar drunken haze.

In the cool of the taxi he took stock of his surroundings and in particular of his strange companion. He had not even been aware of his portmanteau being placed in the boot of the vehicle, and he puzzled further that the air in this rear compartment, shielded from the driver by darkened glass, was chill. There came no sound or indication of ventilation device…

The tall gentleman was stooped slightly in his seat, and the manner in which he inclined his head toward Graythorpe made his appearance more angular than he had first noticed. The man’s face was pale – deathly pale, Graythorpe realized, giving an involuntary shudder as he did so. The man turned his limpid gaze on Graythorpe and spoke again.

‘ I trust you have the information the Count requested?’
‘My dear sir, please be assured that I have all the Count requested with me and It will be my pleasure to convey this to him in person. Pray tell me, what manner of man is your employer?’

The tall man seemed to laugh as he replied. “Manner of man? Manner of man indeed… that you will find out in time enough and you may well regret the asking. He is a very busy man, Mr. Graythorpe. He is a family man, which occupies much of his time, and he has divers additional interests… you are familiar with the I-Pod?’

The question took Graythorpe by surprise. ‘Why, yes of course I am sir. A boon to the traveler and a great solace to the lover of music. Your employer has one such device?’

“He has… my employer is very old, and he was a young man in the age of vinyl…’

Graythorpe felt an unaccountable terror seize at his heart as he heard these words. Now he began to sweat again, but this was a cold sweat. The man continued. ‘Now he wishes to be more acquaint with this wondrous digital age. He spends much time in his room…’ here he paused, and leaned toward his now terrified companion, so that the spectrally aqualine face almost touched him. ‘… downloading…’

At that word, Graythorpe felt the compartment begin to spin, his vision blurring and his consciousness slipping away into a swirling darkness he had never before known. As he slumped into the seat, the last sound he heard was the tall man rapping on the darkened glass and ordering the driver to take them ‘home’… but via Lucky Market…

Sorry for the protracted absence, dear reader, but I have been as busy as the Count with life, family and work. Oh, and ‘downloading’. I will try to be a better blogger, honest I will, but please forgive my occasional abstention. In the interim, the little O has now become a walkin’ talkin’ drummin’ BIG O (breaking the hearts of toddling baby girls all over Phnom Penh), poor Ani has had to become much more patient with both of us, the cost of living has shot through the pointy pagoda-style roof, the days are getting hotter, I played at being James Burke for the children of the International School, Easter was a welter of chocolate, Dave has returned to Cambodge and the Tuesday quiz, and coming up we have a Ukranian food and Vodka party (!), a flea market, I’m off to Laos to see UXO and things for a week with my boss, and then la famille Sutherland-Mathur are jetting off to Sri Lanka for a bit of a break over Khmer New Year. Whew! Keep watching the skies, and (this Lost in) Space. Hope you are all well and happy, it’s good to be back!

Listening to – The Word Podcast (men of a certain age will find this hugely entertaining and very funny); The Divine Comedy ‘Promenade’ (Hannon’s best, methinks); Goldfrapp new album (very Wicker-mannish); Jack Bruce ‘the consul at sunset’ (great song); Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 (aye caramba!) and tons of other things.

Got slightly tipsy in the relocated Zeppelin Rock Bar last night (with Dave) and was delighted that owner Jun played Deep Purple ‘Flight of the Rat’ just for me. He even talked me into agreeing to play a solo gig there (ulp! Better start some serious practicing…). When I was about 16 that would have been my fantasy… over 1,000 vinyl LP’s and MY VERY OWN BAR to play them in… come to think of it, that still is my fantasy…

Goodnight, Vienna…

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Yours Is No Disgrace

(WARNING – THIS BLOG CONTAINS REFERENCES TO PROGRESSIVE ROCK-READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED)

Warily yet wearily the four bedraggled little students made their way down the steep and leafy incline of Paterson’s Lane, their spirits lifting as they spied the multi-coloured brickwork of John’s house in the middle distance. John was John Farquhar, or as pronounced in the ‘ness, ‘Fracher’, and within that house was a wondrous loud stereophonic record player, upon which he would soon place his new-bought hallowed treasure. He would carefully place the dust bug in its required position, switch on electrical power to the unit then rotate the ivory bakelite dial to indicate 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, before carefully lifting the playhead into position, lowering the compatible stereo cartridge (perchance a Goldring G800?) onto the shellac disc rotating on the Garrard SP25 MkII record deck. Then the four would agree, yes, this will be worth skipping school for, before lying back in the semi-darkness of that room, deep within the bowels of that quaint split-level house, and allowing the music to flood over them in waves of sonic bliss, signals arcing from speaker to speaker, a mélange of guitars (lap steel! Stratocasters!) of bass, of keyboard washes, pounding tom-tom rolls, human heartbeats, Moog synthesizers, found voices and finally the eerie, weary, ennui filled tones of David Gilmour… “Breathe, breathe in the air…”

It really was like that. Today’s pop kids will never experience anything similar, oh no. There really was (still is, I fervently hope) a John Farquhar. And a Donald (Danny) Farquhar (his cousin, I think…). And a Donald McIntosh (‘Tosh, where are you now?). And a me. And we had skipped off school because John had bought ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and his mum and dad were out, and they had a really good stereo system, and…

Guess what? I love music. For much of my life, child and adult, I have lived, eaten, slept and breathed music. I have even tormented countless thousands over the years with my attempts to perform music. To you, I now apologize unreservedly. However, the strongest attraction for me is still the recorded medium. Even now, a man who is over a half-century old, I become obsessed with particular bands or artists, labels or even sleeve artists. Ani bought me an I –Pod for Christmas. She jokingly (I hope) remarked the other night that it was the worst thing she could have bought me. Probably as I was completely immersed at that point in trawling the internet (do you think that’s why we say ‘trawling’, because it’s a ‘net’? I wonder…) to find jpegs of artists and record sleeves to upload to my pod (behold! I have the jargon!) for those tricky one-off or compilation things. Music is pretty much everywhere now, and is used to sell everything under the sun. I’ve now given up getting enormously annoyed at the hijacking of a classic track to sell soap powder or whatever, so it is good for me to reminisce about a time when that wasn’t quite the case, and ‘the man’ had not, like, completely turned us into, like, breadheads or worse…

The Famous Four music appreciation saga unfolded in the opening paragraph was by no means an isolated occurrence. Oh no. Group appreciation was one if the joys of being into music. Informal record clubs of all sorts proliferated amongst the wet flagstone streets of slumbery Thurso in the early part of the 1970’s. Occasionally these were simply evenings where one took it in turns to host a friend (or friends) to play them your choice of music, along with a guest spot for the album they would have brought with them. Much snobbery around the type of record deck/speakers/cartridges/stylus/dust removing paraphernalia used would take place (‘Oh. A Calotherm cloth. Hmmm. Personally I find that it can sometimes cause surface marking…’) Techniques for removing records from paper (or, god forbid, poly-lined – simply encourages static build up and therefore dust attraction!) sleeves without touching the playing surface would be appraised. The sleeves would themselves be studied as if ancient dusty tomes from the bowels of the National Library, carefully scrutinized for the meaning of the cover art, and how it linked to the music locked in the grooves… and then the music… protocol dictated listening in silence for at least one side, no matter how jarring or boring the experience was, before passing measured judgement upon the piece and its performers.

Colin Morrison, where are you now? Visits to Colin’s house were always interesting. He wasn’t really into pop music, he was much more cerebral. I had an extremely catholic taste in music, but sometimes Colin’s choices would stretch my tolerance level more than a little… Jukka Tolonen, anyone? However, thank you Colin for making me listen to Back Door. In these post-Morphine days I can appreciate much more a pre-punk instrumental Jazz-rock trio of bass, drums and saxophone. And his mum made a nice cup of tea. As did Eric Law’s. Nothing like a hot strong cuppa to help the synapses adjust to Aamon Duul, Tangerine Dream, Kevin Coyne, Van der Graaf Generator, Hatfield and the North… that sort of thing. You get the picture.. Eric was also probably the first person in the world to own a copy of Tubular Bells. I find it amazing now to reflect on how cutting edge we all (The navy greatcoat and mumbling brigade that is… not my skinhead friends, I have to say.) thought it was. His dad was an incredibly nice man who would often pop his head cheerily round the door to enquire after my health during the particularly grim passages of ‘dance of the lemmings’ or some such thing. Alan McPherson has previously received credit in this blog for his impact upon my life, but there’s no harm in another mention, is there Perce? Thank you for introducing me to Creedence and the 70’s Who, in particular. Then there were those who shared a particular obsession. Steven Beaton, David Moore and I were the three T.Rex fans in our High School class. That was a very dangerous thing to be in the early formative years of Glam Rock, as most chaps favoured the uncouth laddish glam of Slade. Kenny Cameron, a meenisters son, no less, used to give me an incredibly hard time about my obsession with hermaphrodite-hot-pants Bolan (©Record Mirror and Disc). Steven also favoured Welsh weed gobblers Man, for some truly unfathomable reason, and seemed to be the only person in Thurso with a John Kongos album.David and I would regularly quake in fear of being found by his dad using his incredibly state-of-the-art gramophone unit to play Tyrannosaurus Rex records on. It apparently was only designed to accept and play real music, i.e. classical. What untold damage did we cause to the valves and tubes by placing the woodland warbles of the bopping elf on its hallowed turntable…? David went on to have one of the coolest jobs in the entire world, senior lighting engineer for Top of the Pops…

Mr. Leon Volwerk was a history teacher who ran the Record Club at Thurso High school. Once a week we would gather in the upstairs music room to hear the chosen ones, the albums he had selected from those proffered by the spotty male longhairs who were the majority of attendees. Being able to only afford maybe one album a month at most, this was the opportunity to actually hear those things that one had read about and could only imagine in the days before decent radio signals reached Thurso. Black Sabbath ‘Master of Reality’, Deep Purple ‘In Rock’ (so exciting I actually ordered it from my mum’s clubbie book!) and the collected works of Jethro Tull, as Leon Volwerk, bless him, not only looked uncannily like Ian Anderson but also obsessed over him in much the same way I did over Marc Bolan. He never really liked my Pink Fairies ‘What a Bunch of Sweeties’ album much, ‘though…

It’s good for me to reminisce about what the world was like before punk, because to be honest the music that gets pigeon-holed into that pre-punk era of the 1970’s is often very unfairly done by. Every era has its bores (dare I say… no, I’d better whisper… Coldplay?) , but much of it was just as wild, wacky, out-there and funny as the tidal wave that swept through British music in the late 70’s. Its confession time now. Bless me Father, for I have sinned, it’s been a long time since I last confessed to this sin, Father…

Last night, a DJ saved my life. Ha Ha. Only joking. I’m afraid it’s worse than that.

Last night, I listened again to Yes.

Those of you who haven’t logged off in utter disgust by now, thank you for your continued support. I could blame the I-Pod (‘oh, you know it’s that shuffle feature. One never knows what will come up from that obscure compilation one downloaded months ago!’), but the sad truth is that I downloaded four tracks in the full knowledge that they were by Yes, and with the deliberate intention of listening to them. Which I did, last night.
The truth? I really, really enjoyed them, as I had done in the early 70’s. But where I (and John Farquhar, Perce, Steven… I’m not going down alone, you know…) had once scoured each subsequent Yes release for the cosmic portent invariably locked within, I now realized that that had been only part of the appeal of this much maligned band. They were so good because they were simply completely and utterly bonkers, out of their trees, tripping on Vishnu and vegetarianism, so far round the proverbial bend or corner that they were meeting themselves. Why play one note when you can fit ten in? Why should a guitar sound like a guitar? Why shouldn’t you sing lyrics that only a gnome that had received a serious blow to the medulla oblongata could decipher in a voice that suggested your favourite pastime was inhaling helium? Why not play your bass through a broken speaker so it sounds like a large over-amplified rubber band? Why bother with 4/4 time? Four technically staggering musicians and a crazy lad from Accrington invented this complex sound universe that does sound like they had been blindfolded and thrown into a big bag full of instruments and told to play as fast and as complex as they could because not only their lives, but the entire fate of the universe depended upon then achieving cosmic Nirvana. And by heck, they nearly made it. I truly believe that some Yes moments do stand alongside such wonders as the glacial distance of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, the sound and fury of the Pistols in their prime, the eerie otherworldliness of the Only Ones, the righteous fire of the Clash…

The earphones hurt my tired ears, but by closing my eyes I can drift back into the last century, the years sliding away, ten, twenty, thirty… more… and I am back in John Farquhar’s house, in the curtained semi-darkness of the listening room, marveling at the sound of Steve Howe flicking his guitar pick against the strings behind the bridge of his Gibson, and how the sound hops through the air from speaker to speaker… track one of the Yes Album, ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’… then to end side one, the incredible build up to the closing part of ‘Starship Trooper’, ‘Wurm’ , an unfolding behemoth of sound that gets louder and louder before exploding into stereo tripping, guitar again leaping from left to right… to ‘Fragile’, and the architectural precision of ‘ Long Distance Runaround’, complex patterns fire off against each other with the rubberband bass of Chris Squire pulling the disparate components together… and finally… ‘Roundabout’. All hands on deck in dazzling form, and containing one of, if not the greatest, Hammond organ solos of all time. Rick Wakeman’s finest three minutes, pausing briefly to spar with the guitar before dancing to a conclusion where it almost sounds like he is cascading across the keys like a dazzling beer-blonde waterfall…

Pseuds corner may beckon, but dammit I still like Yes. And I’m glad I do. I will no longer hide how I feel about them, I now know that really I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Some wit once wrote a review of a Yes album which said, in its entirety,
‘Yes. No.’

I would have to disagree, with a double affirmative, on the rock – ‘Yes. YES!’

‘On a sailing ship to nowhere, leaving anyplace, if the summer turn to winter, yours is no, yours is no disgrace…’

Come on over to my house, I’ve a Gnidrolog album I really think you ought to hear…