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…

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?

Surreal things

I returned to the world of landmines today.

I had been asked to provide the narration for a documentary being shown at the opening ceremony of the 11th States Parties to the Ottawa Treaty, being held in Phnom Penh at the end of this month.

It was slightly surreal to be simultaneously back in two worlds which had once been so familiar and were now quite unusual to me, those of mine action and the recording studio.

Amazing also how easily I slipped back into the language of both worlds.

Equally amazing how I managed to resist doing my bad Sean Connery impersonation, or indeed to stand up, and with right leg twitching in a Jaggeresque manner, hands over headphones, enquire ‘ …’oy, can I get some more level in me cans, please?’.

Sureal indeed to watch playback and listen intently and critically to my voice, suddenly aware again of that old feeling… ‘Is that really me? Is that what I sound like?’

If you are one of the thousand plus delegates I do hope you will watch, listen and… well I guess ‘enjoy’ is the wrong word… be enlightened?

It’s on after the Ballet and just before the Prime Minister’s speech…

Recording over, it was back to work to meet a Japanese millionairess.

Surreal things…

Breakfast of champions

It’s breakfast time in an unnaturally quiet Phnom Penh. Unnaturally, as it is Water Festival which normally brings milling throngs in their millions to the city from the provinces, but this year the spectacular boat races pivotal to the festival have been cancelled as the countryside is still reeling under the impact of the floods. Maybe some echoes of last year’s tragedy at Koh Pichhave also added to the sense of quiet contemplation that seems to have settled over the city. Even the fireworks of yesterday evening seemed almost perfunctory and embarrassed to be breaking the calm. However, it’s not so quiet in our street.


After a long and noisy period of deconstruction, construction work has now begun opposite us, and as this is a mid-scale job (probably a high-rise apartment block), the lack of safety precautions taken by the construction team is frankly alarming to behold. I have already watched one worker place his head directly under a jackhammer which seconds before had been pounding relentlessly away (no hard hats either, which of course wouldn’t really have made any difference) and another, a teenage boy, swinging from the hook of a crane by one arm, about 15m off the ground. Meanwhile the local kids are playing in and around the site, which has no safety barriers or warning signs of any kind in evidence…


So, breakfast time… ah, yes, it makes me think fondly of orange juice (you poor old soul, you!) and fond thoughts of orange juice lead on to even fonder thoughts of the chieftain of OJ, the inestimable Sir Edwyn Collins. His remarkable journey back from his debilitating illness continues, and the latest evidence can be found right here on ‘Down the Line’, a brand new track from his forthcoming album. It will be released next year on the rather wonderful AED Records (Analogue Enhanced Digital – Todays Technology Now!), a label to cherish, with some excellent acts joining Edwyn in keeping the spirit of independent music alive, whilst simultaneously falling and laughing…


Halloween is here…

Feeling spooky?


It’s Halloween, so dig out those Cramps and Roky Erickson albums and get into a bloody hammer-goo goo muck-green fuzz kinda vibe…

And if you do go and walk with a zombie, remember…

don’t eat stuff off the sidewalk.

'ah, the children of the night...'

Willie and the Poor Boys

The late August rains are lashing the streets of Phnom Penh with daily downpours, the deluge ensuring that the streets still flood with almost reassuring regularity as the jagged teeth of the concrete skyline continue to push ever upwards, Gold Tower 42 now almost scraping the low grey clouds that scud across the precipitating skies. There are times it almost feels like I am back in (an admittedly much warmer) UK. More specifically in the dreich northern parts from whence I sprang more than fifty four summers ago…

That was pretty poetic, wasn’t it? Yes, it was a tad Sunday Post-ish, but no bad, eh? I’ve been thinking a great deal about my place of birth recently. I returned there in July, and it was still there, Thurso in all its glory, nestling under slate-coloured skies, drizzled with intermittent squalls of rain interspersed with sudden bursts of watery sunshine. In a word, summer! I had travelled north from Edinburgh on the early Sunday morning bus, briefly attempting to while the hours away by doing some work without reckoning on the cramped conditions and the parlous state of the battery on my Macbook rendering this ambition almost completely useless. I briefly felt one of those passing tingles of ‘Scottishness’ I experience from time to time as I mused that it was very appropriate to be using a Macbook here in Scotland, home of the ‘Mac(intosh – useful for rain (see ‘Scotland’))’. I pondered would it ever achieve and hold the same cultural significance as say a ‘See you Jimmy’ tam ‘o’ shanter and fiery red wig do in delineating outwardly that elusive quality that defines the Scot. Hmmm. I took another large bite out of my Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer and a swig of Irn Bru and thought, maybe not. Giant leaps of intellectual cogitation over, the remainder of the journey to Inverness was spent in a semi-conscious reverie gazing at the scenery whizzing past the coach and marvelling at the number of pictures of hills, braes, hillocks, scree and occasionally sheep that the couple seated in front of me were taking. This reverie was only interrupted by falling asleep and completely missing Aviemore. Damn. Since watching Aviemore hosting ‘It’s a Knockout’ in glorious monochrome on my Nana’s tiny TV set back in the heady early 70’s (I think…or may have been late 60’s??) the place has always held an allure to me comparable to say, oh I don’t know, let’s say Las Vegas. Or maybe Blackpool. But this time I missed it completely, waking just as we entered Inverness. I do like Inverness. Technically I suppose I still actually live there. But I literally had only two minutes on this occasion to elbow my way through a gaggle of American cruisers (that is, from a cruise ship, not predatory nighthawks in search of illicit thrills… although a few did look 1970’s type big moustache and baseball jacket threatening…) and catch the bus north, to the land beyond the split stane, to the craggy cliffs of Dunnet Head, scorries wheeling in a big sky over peat bog and ancient cairn, to the enchanted realm of Top Joe’s and the Commercial Hotel….

What I really did not anticipate on the trip north were the waves of nostalgia I experienced as we passed through my old stomping ground from my days as a semi-pro musician, and even further back to recall trips undertaken with my dad and mum, sisters and brother… incidents, memories, events from the past sprang unbidden into my mind, forgotten friends suddenly remembered, hours of travel in various forms of transport and in varying states of comfort suddenly remembered, fond thoughts of places and people flooding through me and suffusing me with a warm glow… a bit like Scott’s Porridge Oats actually…

The truth is that I actually enjoyed the trip very much, smiling like a mad chiel at all the memories pouring out, most joyous, some tinged with sadness, but all part and parcel of my experience of life. These places, the Golspie’s, Brora’s, Dunbeath’s, Helmsdale’s, they were all part of me…goodness, even Portgower, where I swear I have never ever seen a living soul during five decades of travelling through it… HP Lovecraft would have absolutely adored it. I even felt some minor feelings of something (possibly sympathy?) when I passed through Wick. Please don’t tell anyone that. This general feeling of warmth and well-being continued when I eventually got to Thurso… walking to my eldest son’s house that night I stopped in my tracks in the small alleyway beside a somewhat nondescript harled bungalow and its detached garage lurking on the cusp of the forebodingly stonily-monikered Granville Crescent. In the annals of my personal history this seemingly undistinguished abode was of a similar stature to the KaiserKellar in Hamburg, or the Wardour Street Marquee in London…. for this was Michael Houston’s old house, and in that very garage I had taken some of the first faltering steps in my life long obsession with punishing the human race through the power of song. I entered Michael’s garage as a 15 year-old speccy geek, and emerged from its nurturing chrysalis mere weeks afterward as a 15 year-old speccy geek who thought he was a hybrid of all the best bits of Marc Bolan, John Fogerty and Ray Davies…

As I stood there on that warm(ish) July evening, the years fell away, and I remembered a myriad of things that I hadn’t thought of in many, many moons…. The ‘Eagle’ DIY kit amplifiers from a mail order catalogue that powered our first forays into electrified rock, the sheer size and gut rumbling power of Steven Beaton’s bass rig (a 15 watt WEM…wow!), Michaels mum’s impressive shortwave radio doubling as our first PA system and their standard lamp as an impromptu microphone stand, Perce’s groovy poster adorning his bass drum skin (Stonehenge, I think…? We were Spinal Tap before they were Spinal Tap!)… the songbooks that provided our first repertoire (Best of The Kinks was one…probably worth a small fortune now on e-bay, my Marc Bolan book with the amazing George Underwood illustrations and all the impossible dots and boxes and swirls crawling across the pages that would translate into mystical music, if only I knew the code)… initial rehearsals in the front room in the house, and then as it dawned on Norma and Sinclair (Michael’s parents) that perhaps this wasn’t simply a passing fad, promotion to the rock ‘n’ roll nirvana of the garage.

My memory is not brilliant, so I can’t exactly verify the sequence of events following – perhaps some kind chap (Michael?) with less frazzled brain cells can provide a more accurate picture of events, but as I recall the core of the ‘band’ initially was myself on vocals (as no one else wanted the job), Michael on guitar and Steven on bass. Once he had established that we were indeed serious, one of our other friends, James Simpson, joined as second guitarist, spending his paper round money on a red Stratocaster copy and performing the extremely impressive feat of proving that Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in A Day’ guitar tutor did actually work… in fact, James proved it could be done in an evening…. oldest member (by a couple of years) Perce and his drum kit toddled along slightly later, but his influence on the band was infinitely greater than his rudimentary drumming – he introduced us to the wonders of John C Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR stuff was insanely catchy, pretty cool and, crucially, mostly fairly easy to play, in our estimation. The bulk of the first set we worked up were mainly ‘three chord wonders’, CCR, Kinks, T.Rex and I believe Black Sabbath and Chuck Berry were in there also. Michael also owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I seem to recall some early rehearsals being taped, and also vaguely recall hearing them some years later and wincing at how awful I actually sounded… in my head I may have been Bolan, Fogerty and Davies, but Larry the Lamb crossed with a strangulated Bryan Ferry better described the diminutive bleat that was my trademark at that time. At this juncture I have to point out the very real dangers inherent in being a T.Rex fan in Thurso at that time. Young heterosexual men in small town Scotland in the early 70’s were mostly cheerfully misogynist, racist and homophobic, truly ignorant of the importance of addressing these issues in forging tolerance and understanding for all. You can imagine then the reaction to a diminutive cross-dressing corkscrew haired pouting and glitter-enhanced pop star.



Neil Barclay’s parents house bore witness to this upsurge of anger the night after Bolan and T.Rex performed ‘Hot Love’ on Top of the Pops, the bopping elf cementing his androgynous appearance with glitter smeared on his cheeks and under his eyes by his managers wife, Chelita Secunda, seconds before they rocked into millions of homes in the UK. Next night, Neil’s parents were away, so cue teenage party mayhem in the Barclay household. A certain local musician got so angry during a discussion on the merits of glam rock, and in particular on Mr Bolan’s make-up, that he punched a hole clean through the stairwell wall… I didn’t say much for the remainder of that night, I was rather keen on keeping all my teeth and my face intact…

So, let us pause at this point, dear reader, so you can catch your breath. Memories from those who were there in those heady times are more than welcome, real or imagined… part two, in which our heroes venture forth from the garage, blinking and wide-eyed into the cruel world of entertainment, will be along shortly…

Thought for the day

“… the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”

(Charles Shaar Murray, writing of The Clash live experience, 1977)

Mind Games

The Asian media is still completely saturated with coverage of Michael Jackson, more than a week after his somewhat unexpected demise from a cardiac arrest. The pundits, former friends and employees, doctors, nurses, people who took his garbage away… they’re all queuing up to place their tuppence worth into the media frenzy surrounding the death of a very strange and singular person. The truth is that nobody really does know the truth, and the only person who could give the answers to the complexities of that particular screwed-up life has passed on to whatever (if anything) lies beyond.

From despair to where… the performing arts, and in particular the field of music, seem to have more than their fair share of troubled geniuses… the Syd Barrett’s, Richie Edwards’ of this world whose thoughts are simply too big for their minds to cope with and end up either shutting that part of their life out completely or ending that life to silence the demons within… perhaps as public figures they feel extra stresses and strains that so-called ‘normal’ people are not subject to. Having said that, let me qualify – I really don’t believe Michael Jackson was remotely a genius – he was a professional entertainer, but as a human being he was not conforming to anything like the parameters set down for normalcy… and in his quest to remake and remodel himself, he clearly exhibited symptoms of mental distress.

Mental illness is a funny thing. I mean it’s not usually a ‘funny’ thing in the hahaha sense of the word (although it does have its moments…), but in the sense of ‘funny’ as peculiar. Of course it’s a huge spectrum of syndromes and symptoms to delineate all too simply with the catch-all term ‘mental illness’, but the general description is of a ‘disease of the mind’ – the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the American Psychiatric Association’s standard reference for psychiatry, includes over 400 different definitions of mental disorders. Wow! That hurts the brain….

What is definitely not funny in any sense is the very real mental torment being exhibited by the survivors of S-21, Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, who are currently giving evidence in the case against the former head of the prison, Duch. Three survivors have been testifying this week, all have broken down during their testimony and all have admitted to suffering mental illness as a result of their brutal treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I receive trial transcripts at work, and one of the most astonishing things is the complete lack of sympathy or understanding exhibited by the Cambodian judiciary toward the witnesses and civil parties – their illness is very obviously seen as a weakness that lessens them as human beings in this society. Perhaps that goes some way toward explaining how people can live with the legacy of genocide… anguish becomes internalized, seething away inside but never allowed to break through the tolerant smiles given to the questioning foreigner…

What follows will of course have little bearing on the tormented souls reliving their own hells in the chambers of the ECCC, or for the tens of thousands others in this country living and struggling with the things they have seen or done, but for the privileged foreigner who has ready access to help if they want it these words of advice may give some comfort or a spur to make some change. Having some experience of mental illness is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, one just wants to sweep the dust back under the carpet, put the files back in the cabinet and lock the drawer and throw the key away when one has come through a particularly dark period. Particularly true when, as I do, you come from a community where usually the kindest word you hear about sufferers is ‘nutter’. On the other hand, discussing it openly may help others who are feeling unable to cope with their own situation. However, when I am feeling good the last thing I want to do is talk about ‘my problem’, indeed often I refuse to acknowledge the fact that there was (and is) a problem, because the demons (shall we call them that – small red creatures with horns and tridents… mean, mean reds…) never really disappear, they hang around nipping at my ankles until they think the way is clear for them to clamber up and nest once more inside my head. I don’t really know how long they’ve been there either… the turn of the last century saw their worst manifestation, when I seriously lost the plot for a good while.

However I’m still around, and back on track now, so I guess what I’m trying to say here is do not go it alone – acknowledge, if the signs are there (and if you can’t see them, then often those you love and who love you can), admit you need help and do something about it. I absolutely loathe and detest taking medication, but it clearly helps me, so I do it. Talk to someone, preferably a professional who doesn’t carry the emotional connection that a friend or family member might, and that too will help. Always try and look outside of yourself – many sufferers pour everything inwards until they explode, often again at the expense of their loved ones who are around when the eruption takes place. Equally, don’t become numb, don’t shut down or shut yourself off from life. If you have something that gives you a release and a relief from the internal struggle, do it! Write a book, learn to fly, sing a song, paint a picture, go cloudgazing … all positive therapies…

We have such a limited time on this amazing planet that it’s such a waste to spend it all in the dark alleyways of the sidestreets. We can help ourselves into the light of day, and we can share with others, who may also be suffering, ways to beat their demons. There is an amazing Kurosawa film in which a dying civil servant, who has spent his entire life shuffling paper around, struggles to do something meaningful before he dies.

The film is called ‘Ikuru’

The word means “to live.”

Stop shuffling that paper now…!