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…!

Home Again

‘One is a lonely number…’
not, as you may be thinking, another half-baked philosophical statement from yours truly, but actually the title of the first track on the latest Edwyn Collins album ‘Home Again’. I purchased the aforesaid CD when I was back in the UK in the summer, and… no, lets save it for later. I promise we will return to Edwyn shortly, but let us first catch up on the second part of our summer holiday adventures. After the minor hell of our return journey to the UK we had a week or so more of enjoying the English summer. Prior to the U.S.A trip we had enjoyed some quintessentially English moments, visiting summer fetes, watching cricket on the green, feeding ducks in the mill pond, that sort of thing. As a Scotsman, and coming from a family who have its fair share of intensely patriotic members I do find it strange how I am inexorably drawn to a particular notion, or sense, of ‘Englishness’. I blame this on an inordinate fondness for the Kinks, early Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and many others who jumped into the spaces created by those very significant footprints. Records on the Harvest label seemed to imbue this character almost naturally. I recall many a chilly northern night spent lying with my head between the speakers (my primitive version of headphones) of my portable stereo listening to ‘Grantchester Meadows’ off ‘Ummagumma’, or ‘Fat Old Sun’ from ‘Atom Heart Mother’, or ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ and immersing myself in the hazy warmth of the sounds emanating from the straining speaker cones…

In the middle distance, the muffled murmuring of the traffic gave way to the sonorous clang of the church bells and the gentle rustling of the leaves in the honey-thick breeze. The world was revolving slowly and lazily in the sticky warmth of this sunny afternoon.
‘More tea, Vicar?’
“Oh, splendid, Miss Jones,a capital idea, I must say. My goodness, your muffins are extraordinary…’
‘Oh Vicar, you are such a card…’
Sorry. Drifting off again. Let me get back on track.

Yes, summer holiday memories. Many of them from this year involve the continually evolving wonder that is our son. Little O attempting to adapt his funky Khmer style of dance to the strains of a brass band performing Abba songs; his joy at visiting a country park …very wide open spaces where he could simply run and run and run with what must have seemed to him as no boundaries; feeding ducks and swans with O doing his ‘one for you, one for me’ routine; a miniature train journey, O and Granddad together – who was most excited by that…? I wonder…; blowing bubbles in the garden, sheer naked enjoyment, O running around and around in circles laughing gleefully; feeding times, characterised by the infinite patience of Nana, with accompaniment from Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy; a visit to Swindon Mela, with so many familiar colours, shapes, sounds, smells and tastes – and time for some more O-type dancing, this time to familiar rhythms…; having the time and space to see the wonderful bond between O and mummy growing every day…
These are just some of the memories I have of this summer, there are many, many others that will come to me in the future, to make the good times better and to help me to smile during the hard times… summers are wonderful, magical things that re-awaken the child within us all, and we should cherish each and every moment of them…

My goodness, that was a bit Sunday Post-ish, wasn’t it? What has happened to my tireless cynicism? I confess I really don’t know, I’m sure it was here a minute ago… I must have temporarily mislaid it…

The other night, performing the increasingly difficult wrestling match that is getting O into his ‘jammies’ at bedtime I got to thinking about how much the vintage cowboy print thereon reminded me of the old Postcard Records label design. Ah, ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’… memories swept into my synapses, of those mysterious cardboard boxes from Fast Distribution that would arrive in Thurso Music Shop on a Saturday afternoon or Monday morning and be eagerly ripped upon to reveal their contents… would the eagerly awaited ‘1 only cat no PC-80-6 Orange Juice ‘Simply Thrilled, Honey’ 7” single’ in its cowboy bedecked sleeve be in there? Yes!! In stock! Mine! Those were exciting times, and many of us (hello Messrs Gavin Duncan and Ian Begg – where are you now?) felt such musical affinity with Orange Juice in particular, as their melodic gifts were really, really strong but tempered with some willfully unkempt, ragged yet glorious performances. I only knew (and if truth be told, still do) three chords, and hadn’t really mastered any of that barré chord stuff, so it was a joy to have it reinforced that traditional skill wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite of making exciting, clamorous, glamorous music. The Fire Engines were another band who shared that rowdy charabanc to pop success, music that sounded all over the place, spiky and fuzzy, but absolutely imbued with a total sense of fun. ‘Candyskin’ comes on like a Scottish Salvation Army playgroup that has had just a wee drop too much acid in their Irn Bru… wonderful stuff which even now brings a smile to my face as I type this.

‘Englishness’, ‘Scottishness’… I’m not sure how I got here, but the moving fingers type, and having typed, move on… or rather back, back to Edwyn Collins. He’s grown up now, has Edwyn. Life has dealt him some pretty bad cards in the last couple of years – he’s suffered two strokes, but has fought back and has been on tour, performing again this summer in a few festivals. I finally got round to listening to ‘Home Again’ a few nights ago, and I am so happy to tell you that it is an absolutely magnificent album, his best since ‘Gorgeous George’. He’s still wry, still sonically adventurous, still making records that sound like ‘records’, but his recent brushes with the fragility of existence seem to permeate his music (although amazingly, given some of the lyrics, most of this was written before he suffered his successive strokes) and give it a strikingly unusual cast, that of the man-child facing the enormity of life and the natural and un-natural challenges it throws against us all. The title track is quite simply awesome, a meditation on the redemptive and healing power of music that is almost overwhelmingly emotional in its evocation of that feeling of being truly at ‘home’ that music can bring. The Bearsden Blues, no less. As the late, great, Stuart Henry would have said, ‘I can’t recommend this album highly enough, my friends.’

Oh well, I’m off now to slip into my sandals and fringed buckskin jacket and nip round to Roddy’s house to see if he can show me how to play that augmented 7th chord… you coming? No? OK, catch you later, man…

Next episode – the return to a post-election Phnom Penh and all that entailed.
This episode was brought to you borne on the angel wings of Edwyn Collins ‘Home Again’ on Heavenly Records, remembrances of Postcard Records – the Sound of Young Scotland, ‘ Long Way Down’ on BBC DVD (Ben, it’s the same two guys, McGregor and Boorman, biking from John ‘o’ Groats in Scotland to Capetown, South Africa. Let me know if you want me to get you a copy my friend), and is dedicated to all those who hung around on a Friday, Saturday or Monday in the Music Shop, Thurso, waiting for the boxes of new releases…’there’s only one copy… and it’s mine!!’

Rene and Georgette Magritte, with their dog, after the war.


Hmmm, nice.

A bit like Jazz.

Delicious hot, disgusting cold.

Paul Simon has a beautiful and elegantly understated song on the subject, ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog, after the war.’ which nimbly evokes in its musical structure and lyrics the strangely calm yet disquieting effect that much of the masters work has upon the observer. Sometimes our life in Phnom Penh echoes that song (although we have never come home to find our personal possessions inextricably entwined) as on occasion, dear reader, we encounter what to us is deeply surreal, yet to others is presumably the normal. One such encounter took place last Saturday morning. Before I get to that, however, do please allow me to get out my (virtual) Rolf Harris paintbrush and tin of paint and just fill in a little – um diddah dah – background – oom chickah wah – for you here. Can you guess what it is yet? Let me just splash a bit – ooh chuckah doo doo – of colour over there, and a couple of lines… yes, that’s absolutely right, it’s a group of people setting up a pre-school… let me grab my wobble board and sing you a little ditty about that… you can join in if you like… ‘oom diddy dum doo… oh if you go down, in Phnom Penh town, I really ought to warn you, where ‘ere you go, well don’t you know, there’s a pre-school on every corner…’

O’s future is of course very important to us, but we are generally very happy for him to meander along for a bit just being, well, just being what he is – a beautiful, mischievous, gregarious, happy little boy child. However, the Modern World, and particularly this Modern virtual expat World (try singing that, Paul Weller…) which exists in Phnom Penh and which we engage with from time to time seems to delight in pushing all parents towards getting their young chap or chapette signed up for teeny boot camp, sorry, that should have read pre-school, almost before they have had their cord snipped and bottom smacked by the midwife (oh, I know they don’t do that anymore, I’m being metaphorically facetious. They don’t hang them upside down by the ankles either any more, do they? Never did me any harm, though… just ask my therapist…). There are multifarious groups of parents out there to be targeted, mainly dripping with expat cash (or if Cambodian, the spoils of you-know-what…) and the desire to get the small ones signed up and into… well, something, that will ensure they are adequately prepared for, em, something else seems to run rampant through their ranks. There are, of course, many lovely and well-meaning parent-type-people out there (stand up and be counted!), but they are balanced out by such as the self righteous crazies who believe that ending up like the David Walliams ‘bitty’ obsessed adult from ‘Little Britain’ is actually the way to go in positive parenting. Come to think of it, maybe they have a point… or two…

So, in a blizzard of virtual publicity along came the latest expensive option to get the little blighters out from under the feet of the overworked and underpaid domestics and into some kind of pre-education, following on from the horrendously overpriced ‘turn them into Mini-Mozart’s’ scheme which we had forced O to endure for one session. If he could have strung a coherent sentence or two in English together at the time I’m sure he would have said ‘Why is this woman shoving a tuning fork in my earhole? I only want to sing ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes.’… oh, I wish I was back in Mhate’s Room…’ (Mhate’s Room is actually a really good playgroup (can I still call it that?) run by a lovely Thai man who takes the time-honoured Brian Cant/Ralph McTell ‘Playschool’ approach to children and music. O loves going there. Wonderful stuff, and highly recommended. All together now, ‘row,row,row your boat…’) The pre-school mentioned above, which is not actually open yet, although premises appear to be ‘promised’ for August (how virtual can one get), has an arboreal theme going on in its nomenclature. I suppose I have a subconscious fear of litigation which prevents me from naming them directly, although having said that, litigation in Cambodia iappears to be often bypassed in favour of the more immediate response offered by the AK47. Just imagine that, being gunned down by a gang of winsome female pre-school teachers… there seem to be some very surreal scenarios emerging in this particular blog…

So, to avoid an ignominious and bullet-riddled end at the hands of vigilante female teachers, an event which would have certainly inspired the likes of Russ Meyer to previously unheard of heights of gore-drenched celluloid excess (I can see it now, emblazoned on cinema marquees across the nation – ‘Kindergarten Killers – Schoolma’ams with Machine Guns!’), I shall refer to it (the pre-school) obliquely as ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’. That should bring back some terrifying memories of dwarves, scary bears and giant fish for those who grew up in 1960’s Britain, for the rest of you, look it up on the internet. I rather think that personally I might have overly enjoyed a pre-school experience featuring the above, being an imaginative little chap who was equally fascinated by and afraid of pretty much everything, particularly large wooden bedroom furniture and garden sheds full of waterlogged corpses (a tale for the telling another time, me hearties…!) but of course that sort of thing didn’t exist when I were a nipper, our long suffering parents had to put up with us little blighters running around crushing their cigarette packets, swallowing their Valium and draining the dregs from their Sweetheart Stout bottles until we were at least five years old.

Curiosity not only killed the cat, but also aroused the interest of this old dog, so on last Saturday morning the family collective found themselves gathered in a hot and stuffy living room somewhere in downtown Phnom Penh to witness a presentation from the aforesaid ‘Singing Ringing Tree’ I have to say that it was not what one would term a brilliant presentation, somewhat under-rehearsed, but it was overshadowed easily by the behaviour of the scarily enthusiastic teachers who walked a very unusual line that reminded me somewhat of a gaggle of Pamela Stephenson’s doing her gauche ‘Not The Nine O’ Clock News’ routines crossed with ‘The Walton’s’ and ‘The Stepford Wives’ and the bad dancers from the Cambodia Karaoke Channel. Yes, their choreography of thought, deed and action was pretty impressive. Or maybe I simply have an overactive imagination. As A and I were ‘enjoying’ the floor show, O meanwhile had been spirited away to another room where some equally scarily enthusiastic teaching assistants were encouraging ‘boy’ to draw all over himself with indelible magic marker. After the question and very few answers session, we managed to liberate O, who now resembled a disgruntled Maori warrior, from the clutches of the TA’s and made our escape from the flawless grins of the ‘Singing Ringing Tree’ staff. A decision had pretty much been made on the spot – we will send O to pre-school, but in our inestimably weird logic and to strike a blow for reverse pretentiousness we will probably send our precious little chap to a French pre-school – ‘Vive La Difference!’ We decanted the little man into his buggy where he slumped with a slightly surly expression on his painted face and as we stumbled out of the door into the sunshine in search of a very late breakfast little did we suspect, dear reader, that this was where Saturday would begin to move into the territory of the extra surreal…

The plan had been to go to CALM (Commé a la Maison) to passively enjoy inhaling Gauloise smoke whilst enjoying some ‘oeufs sur pain’ (impressively bad command of French, what!) or something similar. As we passed along a far from well trodden side street en route, however, my eyes alighted upon a neon sign that I had previously imagined I had glimpsed briefly whilst passing the week before heading home from a particularly arduous ‘Strategic Workshop’ being held nearby…. It was real! And it really did say ‘The Carole King Jazz Café’ !!! Outside this (externally) modest little establishment, a middle-aged Korean man was sweeping the pavement whilst inhaling deeply from a cigarette. I’m not sure if it was a ‘jazz’ cigarette, but given the ensuing behaviour of said gentleman, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

I strolled over to him and asked if his establishment was open. The following conversation took place in the middle of the street
Him (very excitedly) ‘Yes, yes please! Two days!’
Me ‘Do you sell food?’ (puzzled look) ‘Something to eat?’
Him ‘Ah, fast food! Yes!’
Me ‘do you have a menu?’
Him ‘ham sandwich, yes, yes!’
I turned to A with raised eyebrows. Should we venture in? I was certainly up for it, and the bemused smile she gave to me suggested that a bit of an adventure was certainly something she approved of. O continued to slouch in his buggy, with an expression that seemed to say ‘come on folks, just get on with it…’
I gestured to the door in a quizzical manner, and Mr. Cho (he very thoughtfully gave us business cards before we left) dropped his brush and ushered us in with welcoming gestures and much smiling. As we entered I asked him if he was a fan of Carole King. ‘Oh yes, very good singer, very popular, good jazz…’. However, the dulcet tones emanating from the discreetly hidden speakers within were clearly those of Karen Carpenter, who I suppose if you screw your eyes up and push your fingers slightly into your ears might bear a passing resemblance to Ms King. ‘The Carpenters?’ I said ‘yes, yes, Carole King.’ was the reply…

How to describe the interior…? Kitsch simply does not do it justice… it was truly a magnificent monument to a taste that transcended good or bad, but simply existed. The hanging gardens festooning the front room gave way through a dividing central tree (!) to the large wooden bar and multicoloured disco lights of the back room. A dado rail of wallpaper inscribed with the legend ‘Carole King’ snaked around the entire premises and the walls were decorated with… well, not with pictures of Carole King, that’s for sure. UK readers will be aware of the 99p store, those wonderful places where the occasional genuine bargain nestles amongst an ocean of genuine rubbish, and will have no doubt flicked rapidly through the many tastefully tasteless tackily framed prints usually on sale therein of big haired 1980’s women sipping cocktails next to greasy coiffed tuxedoed lotharios in a low grade approximation of a Jack Vettriano painting (or a paparazzi shot of Bryan Ferry on a night out in Newcastle) whilst pensively pondering on who actually buys these things. Well, ponder no more, as he resides in Phnom Penh and is the proud proprietor of ‘The Carole King Jazz Café.’

I have to say, we absolutely adored the place. Loved it. And I also have to say that Mr. Cho was an absolutely impeccable host. Once he had resettled us in the air-conditioned part to the rear of his establishment, we began negotiating refreshments. ‘Do you have Lime Soda?’ ‘Lime Soda? Sorry, no Lime Soda..’ ‘Coke light?’ ‘Sorry’ ‘Sprite?’ ‘Sorry’ ‘7-up?’ ‘Sorry’ ‘orange juice?’ ‘Ah, yes, orange juice. Sorry, only open two days – please wait!’ and with that he disappeared into the back. It sounded as if alchemy was taking place, with the sounds of pouring liquids and much stirring going on, and then Mr. C emerged with two glasses of reconstituted and well-sugared orange juice in his grasp. He disappeared again and returned with another, for little O who had by now slipped his fabric bindings and was tottering inquisitively around, no doubt overawed by the breadth of imagination displayed in the interior design. Once he had glugged his down, hyperactivity kicked in and off he went to investigate the karaoke machine set up beside the bar. Mr. C sat beside us briefly, smiling and nodding, before he again leapt to his feet and rushed through the back. He re-emerged bearing a large white platter ‘Snacks!’ he pronounced, and laid a veritable feast of onion rings, crisps, prawn crackers and savoury biscuits before us. This prompted us to push the boat out big style. ‘Excuse me. Do you have any beer?’ ‘Beer?’ ‘Beer.’ ‘Ah yes… Heineken?’ “That would be lovely.’
He darted through the back once more and returned with two chilled bottles of Heineken and a bottle opener which he placed on the table before, yes, you’ve guessed it, disappearing through the back again. We waited for a bit, then as he did not appear to be in any hurry to return, opened our beers, raised them to our lips and… ‘Excuse me! Some fruit for you.’ Mr. C. placed an even larger platter of freshly sliced fruits in front of us, and then delivered his customer satisfaction ‘coup de grace’. ‘Madame, please, I was given these by some Korean friends and do not use, so please I want you to have.’ He then solemnly handed A a diverse selection of very good quality cosmetics…

So what can we say? Where lie the borders between the real and the surreal? If you live in, or ever visit, Phnom Penh, please, please pop in to Mr.C’s establishment just around the corner from Wat Lanka near the Independence Monument. He’ll be very, very happy to see you. You might get a ham sandwich out of it (one of the few things we didn’t get) and possibly even a drink of your choice (but be prepared to have multiple options ready). I cannot promise cosmetics, unfortunately, but you will certainly get the world’s most attentive service to the strains of, well, probably not Carole King, I have to say.

We rescued O from the arms of our new friend, thanked him profusely for what had been a hugely enjoyable and slightly bemusing experience, and promised him we would spread the word. If you do go, just tell him the two barangs with the baby who disturbed his Saturday afternoon sent you… for him, we were probably the surreal experience…

LISTENING TO – Paul Weller ’22 Dreams’ – at last! end to end brilliance from the grumpy changingman
The Who – ‘By Numbers’ and ‘Live at Leeds’ – bless them, Keith Moon was SUCH a great drummer
Don Drummond – ‘Jazz Ska Attack 1964’ – fabulous stuff from the second greatest Jamaican trombonist
Elvis Costello – ‘Momofuku’ – another grumpy makes a goodie
Tinariwen – ‘Amassakoul’ – cannae beat that Tuareg groove…

The Soul of my Suit

There seems to be a bit of a fashion note creeping into these missives of late, and indeed this particular bunch of virtual scribblings will be no exception, as we proceed through the sickly events of this past week up to your humble correspondents encounter on Saturday last with…
The tailors of Ambre!!!

The pained coughs, wheezes, snorts, splutters et al that accompanied our family visit to Siem Reap to celebrate my birthday (and were compounded by our otherwise lovely driver Socheath’s attempts to cryogenically freeze the lot of us with his state of the art AC on the way back) carried blithely over into the following week, rendering the entire family prostrate at one point, somewhat resembling the Fort Knox gassing scene in ‘Goldfinger’, and effectively knocking Ani and myself completely out of action for a few days.

Poor Ani had to stumble back to school for the latter part of the week, where to compound her already overwhelming miseries a caring parent decided to celebrate their little darling’s birthday with a cake. Not just any cake, but a Durian cake. No, for those reading this in western parts, that’s not a misprint, the parent was not a major fan of dodgy 80’s blow dried Diana -gawd-rest–‘er-soul favourites Duran Duran (of whom more later – can you wait? Please don’t expire from excitement!), but rather a fan of the so called (around these parts anyhow) King of Fruit, the Durian. The Durian is a fruit which is, and here I will steal wholesale from Wikipedia, ‘distinctive for its large size, unique odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk.’ The part that should concern us regarding this particular application of the fruit, is the ‘unique odour’. What can I say? The majority of expats I have talked with on the subject seem to agree that the closest verbal approximation of this olfactory experience would be the stench of extremely ripe, cheesy and smelly socks… to be honest, I personally don’t find the smell too offensive, just slightly reminiscent of the boys changing room in Thurso High School circa 1969… but that’s another story…

Meanwhile, back at the classroom, there was a bit of a scenario going on. The Durian smell and taste had combined with the wonderful creation of a cream-and-icing-sugar horses head surmounting the cake to induce both hyperactive behaviour and projectile vomiting in many of the children who had wolfishly consumed this ‘treat’… ah, the sad lot of the early years teacher… I was glad to be at home, completely inert in bed, unable to even summon the strength to rotate the click wheel on my I-pod… yes, that’s how ill I was…

As we’ve just touched on the subject, we’ll briefly pause here for this week’s music recommendation, which is a double album of staggering wonderfullness called ‘Nigerian Rock Special – Psychedelic Afro-Rock and Fuzz Funk in 1970’s Nigeria’, which is on the Soundway label and is absolutely everything the title implies and more… simply loonpantfully magnificent! Do check it out if you yearn for the past joys of a well trodden wah-wah… ok, ad break over, back to the blog…

Saturday dawned, and we decided that although still hacking and sputtering, we would venture forth into the balmy Phnom Penh day and do a bit of shopping. In July we are going to decant briefly to New York, to attend a reunion and celebration of the Indian branch of our family tree, and of course the big question that hangs around this event, looming ominously and even larger than ‘where are we going to stay’ is ‘WHAT ARE WE GOING TO WEAR?’. Now, in my mind that had translated into ‘what are Ani and little O going to wear’, as I had already mentally commited to the universal ‘trousers and shirt, any colour’ for the formal, and ‘jeans and t-shirt, any colour’ for the informal aspects of this family gathering, hoping against hope that no-one would remember I was Scottish and attempt to force me into kilted garb… but lets face it, I’m not really built for a kilt, leaning more toward the Russ Abbott than the Mel Gibson (good Scotsmen both, eh?). However, a sneaking suspicion lingered that perhaps I might just have to make a bit more of an effort on the formal wear front…

So Saturday afternoon it was into the good Chairman Mao’s black wrestling-sticker bedecked Tuk-Tuk, first stop the Russian Market, to buy some material to construct (is that the appropriate word?) a suitable garment for Otis. We spared him the excitement of the market, though truthfully we actually spared the market the ‘excitement’ of the young Oti. He’s fifteen months old now, and at the stage where everything is in reach, by fair means or foul, and equally everything must be investigated fully and tested, tasted, prodded, pulled, poked, stretched, bent, bounced… you get the picture, I’m sure. He is, I have to say, generally very well-behaved in public, indeed a veritable charmer, but in the warren-like confines of the market where an inopportune tug could cause the very fabric of the building to collapse upon itself it’s best not to take any risks. We sweated and haggled, and came away with some very nice white linen and also some very wonderful yet bizarre material which combined skulls, swords and flamingos to startlingly weird effect… should make a very nice waistcoat for the wee chap and a talking point for the nannies…. We left the market in cheerful spirits, then Ani announced that she wanted to visit Ambre.

Ambre is an incredibly stylish designer fashion shop located in a beautiful town house in Phnom Penh. Here one can marvel not only at the rainbow-hued glamorous designs of the stunning Ms Romyda Keth, but also greatly marvel at how she can possibly stand, let alone walk, in her incredibly high heels, and indeed further marvel at the attempts of the manifold western women who are trying to squeeze into designs which are plainly targeted at the delicate sylph-like lines of the asian female form. I firmly believe that a survey would reveal the most oft-quoted line the staff in Ambre hear would be ‘do you have that in a bigger size?’. We were sheperded in, shielded from the by now driving rain by umbrellas, and entered this urbane and urbane oasis of cool. As Ani looked around the many rooms in search of inspiration I sat there feeling even shabbier and scruffier than usual as vertical feet Romyda and her team whisked and fussed around their clientele looking impossibly chic, though I was cheered that unlike the other western men there at that time at least I wasn’t garbed in the appalling uniform of long shorts and shapeless t-shirt. Ani came back to find me sitting disconsolate outside the changing rooms (that sounds bad, doesn’t it, but the truth is that this place is so chic I didn’t even realise I was sitting outside the changing rooms – none of that M&S ‘only four items at a time and thousands of coat hangers lying around’ malarkey here). ‘OK, lets go’ I ventured, gearing up for a sprint downstairs and out the door as fast as my fake Birkenstocks would take me. It was not to be.

‘why don’t we have a look at the men’s stuff’ she said.
Somewhere in the distance a muffled bell tolled. A door slammed, and a lone tumbleweed bounced forlornly past, small eddies of dust following in its wake. The silence seemed to last for an eternity. Without looking up, I replied.
‘come on’ said Ani, ‘don’t be silly. Just a quick look, then we can go.’
I should have just wriggled away from those ensnaring words and leapt the finely-wrought bannister to freedom, but I did not. I grudgingly followed her down the steps to the mens department, trying to remain hovering just outside the door but ultimately failing and being drawn inexorably into a world of immaculately tailored suits and shirts.

Her eyes had already alighted upon a white suit racked near the door, and almost before I set foot inside had whisked it from its hanger to proffer before me… I had no time to splutter my usual stream of negatives before a tiny and pristine Cambodian man in a beautifully fitted pink shirt and white pencil thin trousers appeared, apparently from nowhere, in what to me was an eerie echo of Mr Benn’s shopkeeper. What bizarre adventure was I going to be hurled into?, I pondered as he expertly fed my unwilling arms into the crisp white sleeves. In my feverish imagination I was now firmly in the stereotyped domain of ‘The Fast Show’, of “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width’, the ‘Rag Trade’, Grace Brother’s menswear department and every other camp cliché abounding around mens tailoring, fully expecting to now hear Khmer variations on ‘oooh, suits you sir’, ‘which side does sir dress??’, ‘let me just warm my tape measure…’ et al. What I actually received was a ruthlessly efficient fitting, interrupted briefly by a French man(ager?) who had been watching from the door and momentarily imposed his views on how to stick pins into me upon efficient pinkshirtman. In these situations, where I am clearly out of my depth and have no control whatsoever over unfolding events, I sink to using puerile humour to (mainly) reassure myself. This was no exception. Everything from mirror based attempts at humour (“you looking at me? Who you lookin’ at then?”), to every tenuous white suit related association I could muster (“haven’t you watched any Ealing films? Look what happened to Alec Guiness! Just call me scarface… Hi, I’m Tony, Tony Manero… ch’wanna dance? ‘Her name is Rio, and she dances on the sand…’, ‘lets all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born…’, the name is Bond…Basildon Bond… I was very, very drunk at the time…). Yes, I acknowledge that Simon Le Bon wasn’t actually wearing a white suit in the video for Rio, but he should have been, shouldn’t he? Fitting almost completed, and if truth be told now feeling slightly pleased with how the suit looked expertly cossetting my elderly frame, it was clearly time to try on some shirts. A striped b & w effort suggested by Ani just didn’t feel right, and pinkshirtman re-iterated this somewhat brutally as he snatched it from my fumbling grasp… ‘Tsk tsk! Too young!’. Eventually a plain black silk number was deemed appropriate by all, and what had appeared initially to me to be an ordeal a thousand times more agonising than the comfy chair of the Spanish Inquisition was fast drawing to a good humoured close. Suit and shirt would be ready in one week, and then I would be free to do my John Lennon Abbey Road impersonation (minus the hair and talent) as much as I wanted. Yay!! All the stereotypes flitting around the dusty attics of my brain department had long vanished, and it was with an unusually cocky swagger that I made my way toward the door. As he turned from folding the garment to say goodbye, pinkshirtman smiled and provided the icing on the proverbial cake…
‘ I must say sir, you know when you wear that suit, it make you look really…’

… Cool? Dashing? Manly? Debonair?


‘… it make you look really cute…’

Exit. Stage left.