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?

Yours Is No Disgrace


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last night, I listened again to Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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