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!

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I think it’s going to rain today

‘human kindness, it’s only blindness…and I think it’s going to rain today…’
Randy Newman

Tuesday. It has rained for most of the day. Eric Olthwaite would have been in his element in Phnom Penh today. Precipitation has precipitated pretty much from dawn to dusk and beyond. That in itself is a little uncommon. Certainly here in the city the pattern during rainy season is normally one daily tumultuous downpour that lasts at most a couple of hours, not the incessant mise and rain we are currently experiencing. Consequently, everything seemed a little grey and drab and miserable today, despite the proliferation of brightly coloured plastic raincoats favoured by the motodops. There are also many sniffles and coughs doing the rounds at work, many cases of ‘mice in the throat’ (Khmer version of frog, I suppose) and here at home young master O is still suffering from coughing fits and what mummy terms ‘candlesticks’, a frankly overly flattering term for the twin greenish streams emanating from his nasal cavities. He is still young and naïve enough to enjoy the sensation (surely not the taste?) of jutting out his lower jaw and sucking these foul rivulets into his mouth before I can sweep them away with a well-aimed paper tissue. Or indeed The Aspirator. No, not the comeback movie from Governor Schwarzenegger, but rather a fiendish Cambodian device that resembles a small turkey baster and is used to literally siphon the snot from your little ones tiny nostrils. You may well grimace at the thought, but isn’t it slightly more civilized than the approach many rural mums still take, that is, to clamp their mouth firmly over the child’s proboscis and suck hard…?

Post-election Phnom Penh is still strangely quiet, although I sense a distinct but unfathomable difference in the city I left in July to the one I returned to in August. Maybe that’s just me… on the surface things seem to meander by in much the same haphazardly disorganized way as they used to do… prices are still creeping up (22% inflation during July… ulp!), cars are still encroaching more and more upon the formerly two and three wheeled domains (a Rolls Royce was spotted the other day – Saints Alive!!), apartment blocks and estates with names like ‘Happiness City’ are springing fully-formed almost overnight from the toothless gaps in the infrastructure where once wooden houses and family businesses stood… yes, business as usual for the developers. I grumble about these changes at work, but I am politely reminded by my Khmer colleagues that this is what people want, they want a 21st century city with all that that entails. They gaze kindly at me, smile and shake their heads as I launch into yet another rant about the destruction of communities for supposed economic gain, but this is now literally a young nation with a haunting legacy that it is no surprise many want to obliterate from their consciousness.

The recent border dispute with Thailand over the temple in Preah Vihear has also stoked the fires of nationalistic pride in a manner which I must confess shocked me a little at first. However, once again I have come to realize that the failed obliteration of the historical past rings heavy in the reaction of people to what is seen as one more unwanted and unwarranted encroachment by a powerful aggressor.

This all sounds a bit gloomy, doesn’t it? I’m sorry to give that impression, for really things aren’t all ‘trouble at t’ mill’ , oh no. We, the Space Family Orbison, as I shall dub us for the time being, have had a pretty hard time of late, with much unrest in the ranks mainly through the actions of someone with, as Rod Stewart so succinctly paraphrased it, ‘a lot more money than sense’. However, we have come through this particular asteroid belt of challenges and are now looking to the stars again with engines set on warp factor 8, if not hyperdrive. I’m pretty sure the Dilithium crystals will also hold, Mr. Scott.

Way back when the universe began… well, ok, when I commenced this blog, I referenced the title as being lost in the virtual space of the Internet… I’m pretty sure now it was actually a more than subconscious homage to the marvellous Lost in Space TV series of the 1960’s, and its three enduring characters, Will Robinson (whom little O bears an often uncanny resemblance to), the long suffering Robot, and Dr. Zachary Smith. Dr. Smith remains something of an (anti) hero of mine to this day, played on TV with arch camp impeccability and irascibility by the wonderful Jonathan Harris. The good doctor (he is a Colonel in the earlier episodes, and considerably darker a character in those also…) is one of life’s devious shirkers, a conniving, backstabbing, all-round bad egg who somehow manages to embroil both honest but gullible Will and the hapless Robot into one of his cunningly evolved wicked plans on a weekly basis. The weekly show, brainchild of the prescient TV genius Irwin Allen (Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants), spawned many wonderful catchphrases (‘oh the pain, the pain’, ‘danger, Will Robinson, danger!’) and insults, usually directed at the Robot (‘you nickel plated nincompoop!’, ‘begone, you monstrous metallurgical meddler!’,) and a hideous movie remake in the 1990’s, but the 60’s original is by far the best, and along with Dr. Who was a staple of my formative years (so that’s what’s to blame, I hear you mumble). As I glance somewhat furtively around at the global political scene at the moment, I can only reflect that we really do seem to be Lost in Space… there are far too many Dr. Zachary Smiths out there running countries, and not enough Robots to keep a watchful eye upon all us Will Robinsons…

Wednesday/Thursday. Rained again. It were always raining in Phnom Penh. Even when it were dry it were a bit moist round t’ edges. Average precipitation were around 10mm. Must buy a shovel. Useful things, shovels.

Friday. Aye. Rained again.

But not such a boring day, one way or t’other.

O greeted us in his usual cheery manner but with the added bonus of a cotful of dried vomit this morning. Closer inspection by CSI Phnom Penh deduced that the little chap has been fridge raiding, in particular targeting red grapes which he appears to have been ingesting whole, stalks and seeds included. We presume he is doing this when nanny and mummy and daddy’s collective backs are turned, either that or he is clambering out of his cot and nipping downstairs in the night for a midnight feast. Part of me is inclined toward the latter explanation, for his development seems to be taking place in quantum leaps. He sat on the sofa beside me tonight and asked if I preferred earlier protest-era Dylan, the ‘jagged acoustic troubadour’, as he put it, to the electric and post electric phases of his career. Staggering, eh? I had absolutely no idea that he watched The Magic Roundabout, let alone had an opinion on it.

Today also brought us the unexpected, and, if truth be told, unwanted, bonus of a free fireworks display when the power cables outside our house exploded at 1.00pm, sending flames dancing into the sky and sparks showering over the vast crowd of gawping onlookers who quickly assembled below. As usual, many people stood around and did nothing but watch others do nothing. Attempts to call the electricity company were met by baffled expressions, then explanations that 1) it was still lunchtime, so no-one would be around until at least 2.00pm. 2) it was threatening more rain, so no-one would come out if that was the case 3) they shut for the weekend at 4.00pm anyway, so we might as well forget it until Monday. Resigned to a powerless (and waterless – the pumps also ceased to operate, so… ) weekend, I headed back to work. 3.00pm, Bang! The electricity ceased to flow. Not only at work, but also throughout the entire district of Chamkarmon. After about an hour of sitting around and giggling a great deal, it was clear that power was not going to return in the near future, so everyone trickled home. A is away for a few days, so I am in sole charge of little O. I have to admit to struggling more than a little to cook dinner on the gas stove under the febrile glow of tea lights whilst keeping a more than watchful eye on Fridge Raider, but mid flow I was interrupted by Chairman Mao who asked if I was willing to pay $10 to have electricity restored. Oh yes, said I, more than willing… so O and I went out in the fast fading light, and joined the crowd of watchers observing a man shinning up the electricity pole, then perching precariously at the top armed only with a pair of wire strippers and conducting a miraculous repair job under non-existent lighting conditions. He shinned back down, then had a big discussion with all our new friends in the crowd about who could speak English and who might ask me to cough up the tenner prior to the restoration of power. Eventually one woman pressed forward and shyly relayed the request, I paid the guy and a muffled cheer and lots of ‘Arkun Charans’ rose from the crowd. O and I went back in to the house and waited. And waited. And waited. Then, just as I was becoming resigned to the loss of power, water and $10, the lights came on! Then went off again. Then about five minutes later, came back on again… and so far, it’s holding up. And we also have water again. What a Friday! I can only wonder in a kind of wondrous manner what the rest of the weekend holds in store for the dynamic yet feckless duo of dad and O… lumme!!


On the stereo – Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice, Epic45, Elbow, James Blackshaw, Death Cab for Cutie and Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. On DVD, The Outer Limits (1960’s season one – in French…Encore? Pretentious? Moi?) Looking forward to the new Calexico, and enjoying Josh Rouse Bedroom Classics podcast. Hello to Tosh, good to hear from you… and when I think about it, I’m sure you gave me my Pink Fairies album back as a birthday present a few years ago… or maybe I dreamed that?

Identity

‘Once upon a time there was a lonely girl who lived all alone, except for her nameless cat’

I’m paraphrasing, for sure, because my memory is most definitely not what it used to be, and of course I am absolutely unable to remember what it used to be, although it must have been better than it is (I think), but George Peppard’s character Paul types something vaguely similar when he is writing his book and describing Miss Holiday Golightly in the movie of Truman Capote’s wonderful novella,‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. It doesn’t really matter what I think of the movie – I could list ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ until the metaphorical cows and pigeons come home, but there is no doubt it is a flawed (the seriously miscast Mickey Rooney leaps to mind), yet strangely moving and uplifting creature – not unlike the character of Holly Golightly herself. Of course, she is not at all what she appears to be; she has come from somewhere else to re-invent herself, but is still trapped by that re-invention …

‘I-den-ti-ty!!’ Oh thank you, Poly Styrene, sometimes it does need to be screamed at the top of your lungs against a barrage of noise… if not X-ray Spex then it’s the outer world that sends the needles on the dials spinning into the red on the db meters of our lives as we repeatedly ask the question ‘ Who am I?’

Otis was unusually reluctant to eat any porridge this morning, and a throwaway humourous comment from Ani on how un-Scottish that was set the cogs in motion within my ever diminishing grey matter. When I lived in Scotland I believe I felt ‘Scottish’, whatever that was, although not conforming to many of the clichéd assumptions that allegedly define masculine ‘Scottishness’. For example, I do not like Whiskey, Football or Haggis. Whiskey and Haggis because they physically disagree with me. Whiskey makes my inner demons rise from their slumber, Haggis brings heartburn and indigestion. Football I dislike because my dad was a football referee. Many times in my childhood I had to endure hearing the torrents of verbal abuse directed at him, and, as I grew older and more visible lurking in his car parked by the touchline, at me. The fact that I wore spectacles made it even worse (I was going to append ‘in the eyes of the crowd’ there, but that would probably be just too much …). References to blindness accompanied by bursts of often inspired profanity meant that the Highland League and all its far-flung venues were an equivalent to one of the circles of hell for the skinny, pale and unduly sensitive Scottish boy I was back then. Then Charles Atlas made a man of me, and I went back to every piss-ant football ground in every drizzle-drenched crookit little village slumbering in every grey and tragic misty glen and penalty-kicked the living daylights out of my tormentors. In reality, no… in my head, yes. So, football mostly stirs a seething cauldron of far from pleasant memories for me. Throughout my Scottish life, many friends (yes, at one time I had many friends…and many non-friends) referred to me as ‘peep’, or ‘peep junior’. The logic behind this? My dad was called Robert. Robert = Bob. Bob becomes, through the liberal use of his referee’s whistle and a corruption of the nursery rhyme, Bob-peep. Hence ‘peep junior’. I accepted it, as mostly there was no real malice behind it, but I did not like it. Something similar has happened here in Cambodia. Amongst colleagues and others involved in mine action here and in the UK I am known as ‘Jamie’. I grudgingly accept this for three reasons, one being that I still feel like I am an actor playing a role (‘Jamie’) in my life, as I (James) regularly have to pinch myself even now to believe that I really am a) living in Cambodia and b) working in mine action, and the second being because I liked the character Jamie (Frazer Hines) who was an early companion of Dr. Who (and a bit of a cliché of dour Scottish manhood, if truth be told… ‘och, Doctor, it’s only a wee Dalek – dinnae worry, one whack wi’ ma caber and he’ll be as much use as a chocolate fireguard!’). Number three, and perhaps the most surprising, is because it does sound, well, a little… Scottish. So I suppose what I am trying to convey here is that I believe we all appear to others, at any one time, just constructs of our environments, both physical and emotional, yet given that, we still have at our core who we really are (or really believe we are) and where we have really come from. And perhaps, just perhaps, we actually do know where we’re going. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, my huckleberry friend…

All the above has woven a tangled web around the point of this particular missive, which now follows.
I would really like to say I am very sorry to anyone I may have offended (now or in the past) by assuming that my self-centered interpretation of your construct is really who you are, because only you truly know who you are.

And me?

I’m neither Peep, nor Jamie…

I’m Lula Mae Barnes…

I think…