Sunday, March 19, 2017

Adele plus Ed minus Amy

Adele Laurie Blue Adkins and Amy Winehouse were both born in the 1980s in North London. Amy was a fine jazz singer who wrote her own original songs with personality and passion. She gave us two albums then tragically died aged 27. Adele grew up being influenced by Amy Winehouse, as well as The Spice Girls, and writes and sings banal crap which sells by the truckload.

In my local Co-op and Sainsbury's the only two CDs I can buy are Adelle's 25 and Ed Sheeran's new album, ÷ (Divide). Never has there been a more apt title, with the album breaking chart records around the world whilst receiving terrible critical reviews – two out of five in the Guardian, and a 2.8 (out of 10) from Pitchfork. Neither album is actually music. Positioned next to the till, they are the equivalent of sweets and chocolate, to be grabbed in a moment of weakness and hopefully eventual regret.

In the Guardian's review of Adele's 25, released in December last year, though gaining one more star than ÷, the reviewer is lamentful at the lack of interest in critical opinion – as is the reviewer of ÷ (both perhaps worried about the point of their jobs); like with Fifty Shades of Grey (book and film), huge commercial success for both Adele and Ed is a foregone conclusion despite completely mediocre material.

The unimaginative mathematical album titles of Ed (+, x, ÷) and Adele (19, 21, 25) is no accident. 19 + 21 x 25 = a lot of $$$. Indeed, it's a formula. This is music by numbers; slick, sentimental songs written for Radio 1 and 2 (Sheenan himself admits as much in the Guardian review); likewise with Adele's 25. Both albums are anti-music. The death of music.

19, 21, 25... you have the feeling that, say, 30, 45 and 67 are going to sound exactly the same. And Ed's going to produce his mathematical symbols to ∞ (that's infinity).

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Recent random film reviews

ELLE (Paul Verhoeven, 2016, France)
I saw this months ago and it's only just out at the cinemas! Ha. Seriously though – how is Isabelle Huppert still hot after all these years (just as Catherine Denevue and Meryl Streep still are)? She was just as hot when she was making films a year after my birth – and now it's, er, 45 years later and she's still got it. Proper serious though – it's a fucked up film. No surprise, then, that Paul Verhoeven directed it; the man who bought us fucked up tripe like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, but it should also be remembered that he directed the fine Black Book, his early Dutch films are pretty good and Robocop and Starship Troopers are great. Huppert was in the equally deranged The Piano Teacher, but I'll always remember her best in Maurice Pialat's Loulou.
– 4/5 

PHOENIX (Christian Petzold, 2014, Germany)
Once you forgive the film's central conceit that a husband doesn't recognise his wife, even if her face has been reconstructed, a fine film shot in muted colours, suspenseful and with a great climax. Unusual to see a film set in post-war Germany (though here's some more). The opening scenes reminded me of Franju's brilliant Eyes Without a Face, with the bandaged woman wandering alone in an empty flat; and the entire film has a similar concept to both Seconds and Vertigo.
Sill got a few weeks to watch it on the BBC iPlayer.
– 4/5

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013, France)
I did think this film was Russian, probably because on the train from St Petersberg to Helsinki two Russian lesbians were sitting near us, and they reminded me of the girls from Blue is the Warmest Colour (not having seen the film at the time, only the poster). They were the only ones questioned in our train carriage and have their belongings searched (on another train journey on the Eurostar to Paris we were also sitting opposite two lesbians who were snogging all the way to Paris – we didn't know where to look!). Anyway, of course the film is French. White wine and oysters? Check. Smoking indoors? Check. Terrible music? Check. Teenagers discussing Schiele, Klimt, Satre, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and M. de Marivaux? Check. A teenage girl having sex with a guy one day and a chick the next? Check. There's some serious lesbian action in the film but it's no hot (or warm) blue movie. The camera adores Adèle Exarchopoulos, following her constantly and barely leaving her face – and her hair, body, sweat, tears, laughter – for three hours.
– 5/5

EXHIBITION (Joanna Hogg, 2013, UK)
Take Blue is the Warmest Colour and take away the joie de vivre, the warmth, the passion, the conversation – but keep the art and the sex, and you've got Exhibition. The film chronicles the every day ennui of two artists in a relationship working from home every day – from cleaning the oven to practising performance art to sex in the afternoon. Imagine Mike Leigh doing conceptual art.
Even though most of the film takes place in a large modernist house in Kensington (recently on the market for £8m, the Daily Mail informs us), I can't remember seeing a film that so captures London; not just the smarmy estate agents (one played by Tom Hiddleston), The Big Issue seller and the arguments over parking spaces, but the sounds – of ambulances, road works and arguments in the street; the film captures it brilliantly.

It's hard to believe the mild and meek 'D' is played by post-punk icon Viv Albertine (from the band The Slits); her partner, 'H', is Liam Gillick, a conceptual artist. In other words, both unprofessional actors, which works in this case. The acting often feels improvised as the filming style is calm with long static takes. The house is the third character in the film, often seeming to have more character than the humans inhabiting the huge rooms.
– 4/5

THE PHONE BOX (Antonio Mercero, 1972, Spain)
Take a large dose of late Bunuel (in particular The Exterminating Angel, where the guests inexplicably find themselves unable to leave the dining room), combined with the economy of style of Polanski's early black and white shorts, add atmospherics from 1970s European horror movies, and you have Phone Box, a 1972, half hour Spanish made for TV movie. The premise is simple: a man walks into a newly installed phone box to make a phone call – then can't get out. Passersby gather around him, he is ridiculed and laughed at. Various people try to prise open the door but to no avail. The man, played by veteran Spanish actor José Luis López Vázquez (who spoofed himself in the role in a Spanish phone advert made in the 1990s), runs the gauntlet of emotions from anger to boredom to terror. Eventually the phone company come to take the phone box away with the man still inside it, and... well, watch it here.

(Not to be confused with Phone Booth, a 2002 American thriller with Colin Farrell in the phone box, unable to leave for different reasons. The idea was originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock by B-movie auteur Larry Cohen in the 1960s; they couldn't agree on a reason why the protagonist would stay in the phone box for the length of the film – Cohen revisited the idea in the 1990s and hit upon the idea of a sniper.)
– 5/5

KINDERGARTEN COP (Ivan Reitman, 1990, USA)
I saw this recently on a windy evening in Newquay. You know what? I don't think I'd ever seen it before, or not the entire film anyway. I didn't see it all this time, either. And okay, I know it's an 1990s Schwarzenegger film, but nevertheless, compared to a lot of European efforts, most American films to me just seem to lack any depth or originality. Still, half way enjoyable.
– 2/5

Previously on Barnflakes:
Random Film Reviews

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Notes on Cornish fiction

Cornwall is a popular place to set novels, with its wild country, lovely beaches, hidden coves and tales of smuggling; according to one blog 'it's a literary feast for the senses'. But from Daphne du Maurier to Michael Murpurgo, the majority of Cornish literature seems to be about ghosts, myths and legends; and if it's not set in the past, it involves an idyllic family/romantic holiday. Nothing focuses on the reality that is Cornwall; as beautiful as it is, it has huge unemployment and drug problems, none of which is addressed in literature, whether it be for children or adults (Liz Fenwick's novels all seem to have Cornwall in the title; The Cornish House poses the question 'Can a house heal a broken heart?).

Thanks to my daughter, I've read a few children's books set in Cornwall. The Ingo series, by Helen Dunmore, features the underwater world of Mers (mermaids and mermen). Dunmore also writes adult fiction, one of which is set in Cornwall: Zennor in Darkness features DH Lawrence and his German wife, who lived in Zennor for two years during the first world war, until he was accused of spying and given three days to leave the county. Lawrence didn't exactly ingratiate himself with the Cornish, describing them "like insects gone cold, living only for money, for dirt. They are foul in this. They ought all to die".

Zennor is a tiny hamlet on the rugged Atlantic coast; aside from the incredible views of the ocean, it's famous for its Mermaid of Zennor, a wooden carving on the side of a chair in the local church, said to date back to the fifteenth century. The mermaid has inspired countless poems and folklore tales, including the Ingo series. The hugely popular Michael Murpugo has also used Zennor as a setting for his short story The White Horse of Zennor, where myths brush against reality. For such a tiny place, it's received a lot of literary attention.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) is arguably Cornwall's most famous author; she lived most of her life in the county and based much of her fiction there. Most of it ticks Cornwall's literary tradition – Historical? Yup. Smuggling? Yup. Romance and historical? Tick – but her last novel, the satirical Rule Britannia, is strangely prescient, post-Brexit, concerning as it does the UK leaving Europe and joining the United States to become USUK.

David John Moore Cornwell, known more commonly by his nom de plume John Le Carré, has lived in St Buryan, Cornwall for 40-odd years. Though born in Dorset, with his original surname it was presumably inevitable for him to live in the county. Shame his surname wasn't Maldives.

However, due to the recent BBC production, Poldark is currently Cornwall's most famous literary export, surpassing du Maurier and Murpurgo. The twelve historical (naturally) novels by Winston Graham, who lived in Cornwall for 40 years, were published from 1945-1953 and then 1973-2002 (he then died). Anyway, no one's read them, they're probably not any good, and all you want to see anyway is Aidan Turner get his kit off. 

Will there ever be a Cornish Irvine Welsh? Doubtful.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

London through its charity shops #34: Marylebone W1

Ah, mythical minted Marylebone High Street – its fabled charity shops are always in lists of best charity shops in London (such as Time Out and the Evening Standard). I was in the area anyway, and decided to check out Daunt Books too. I'd not ever been there but seen every other female hipster toting a Daunt Books tote bag (what great, free advertising). A lovely book shop with a great travel section.

But onto the charity shops: Oxfam is large, spacious, posh and pricey. Stacks of records and books at the back but people come for the bargain designer clothes, apparently. As they do at Cancer Research, a little further along. Mainly clothes with a boutique feel, it's not really my kind of place. But if you want cut-price Dior or Miu Miu, this is the place for you.

That's it for the High Street, but just off it on George Street is Barnado's. Again, mainly clothes with a small book and CD section. Best of all, though, and not just because the chatty Scottish lady working there complimented me on my jacket and my shoes, is Geranium, on the other side of the road to Barnado's. A fraction of the size of the other charity shops in the area, it feels like an Aladdin's cave. Lots of bric-a-brac, art books and auction art catalogues, an old accordion (£199) and a great leather jacket (£69) which the Scots lady proceeded to try on and model for me.

No barngains today (when you can't even afford charity shops, you know something's wrong) but the previous weekend I'd got some good vinyl: King Crimson's Discipline in Octavia Barnes and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here in Cancer Research Clapham Junction (£5 a piece).

Previously on Barnflakes:
London through its charity shops

Friday, February 10, 2017

Start of Basic Income for the Finnish

Previously my interest in Finland was limited to Moonins and the filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki. Now, however, with Finland recently becoming the first country in Europe to launch a Universal Basic Income pilot (Switzerland had a referendum on the issue last year – though it was rejected, 22% of voters were in favour of every citizen receiving £1,755 per month regardless of whether they work or not), I'm thinking of moving there. Admittedly the project is only available to two thousand unemployed folk, and they only receive £480 a month (it's called Basic for a reason), but it's a start. France and the Netherlands have run similar pilots recently, and Scotland is to run a trial over the next few years.

Being paid to do what we want to do (even if that's nothing!) in life is such an obvious and natural yet radical idea, and yet, capitalism – that most unfair and utterly pointless of systems – still bizarrely seems popular.

(The nutter eco-warrior who's threatened me a few times would earn £30K for picking up our rubbish; someone else would earn £30K for watching bad YouTube films all day; someone else might want to work in an office and would still get the £30K on top of their office earnings; someone else would travel and take photos. There may even be some people who would want to work in offices.)

(Or how about we're all paid the same amount as our age? So, if you're 18, you're paid £18,000; if you're 57, yup, you're paid £57,000. It's that simple. Why not? The wage system is so unfair. We're all doing essentially the same thing in an office (ie we're all in an office, staring at screens all day). I know people paid £120K a year, and others on £22K a year. They're essentially doing the same thing (giving up their precious time to work for a faceless corporation); they're of the same intelligence and capability as each other, yet the gulf in pay is horrific.)

Previously on Barnflakes:
The dream of Basic Income for everyone

Monday, February 06, 2017

See it. Say it. Sod it

Late last year the trite 'See it. Say it. Sorted' campaign was launched to encourage train passengers to report any unusual items or activity on major railway stations. Thankfully, the ads have already been banned but the announcements at stations are constant, and for some reason drive me crazy. Spoken by a slightly common, possibly regional, annoying female voice, the sort of woman who works in HR and doesn’t allow you that extra day’s holiday as it’s against company policy, and if she did it for you she’d have to do it for everybody, it comes across in a slightly condescending manner as if she's telling the message to children. "Now, if you see something that doesn't look right..." Like what? Litter on the ground? Trains so over-crowded trains I can't even open my Michel Houellebecq book? Broken toilets? Late or cancelled trains? Oh sorry, something that doesn't look right. You mean like a clean, empty train running on time? Gotcha.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sartorial sexism

(or Gender bender II)

Within reason, women can wear what they like to the office in all seasons. In spring and summer it's skirts, dresses and sandals; in the autumn it's black leggings; come winter it's fur-lined boots and hooded coats with (perhaps) pink fluffy fur inside. Men have a raw deal – all year round, it's shirt, tie, suit and shoes (so we're sweating in the summer and freezing in the winter). All of which are either grey, black, blue or brown. Even men's umbrellas are always black whereas women's can be a riot of colour and pattern. Generally, women's office attire reflects the seasons of nature; men's reflects lack of imagination – his only means of expression is via tie, socks, pants and facial hair.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Top ten most boring Instagram photo subjects

1. Sunsets
Sometimes it's just about being in the moment, why ruin it trying to get that perfect sunset shot, which invariably turns out too dark or too light. All sunsets look the same anyway – sunrises are usually far more interesting.
2. Selfies
3. Beaches
Yes it's fun when you're on them but we don't want to know about it.
4. Marketing/products
Should be banned.
5. Landscapes
What looks wonderful to the eye, and perhaps even exhilarating to the spirit and body, looks rather flat and boring on a camera phone. At 2x2", rather pointless too.
6. Pets
7. Food
8. Flowers
9. Babies
10. Filters
Barnflakes on Instagram here.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Buxom girl in Luxembourg

Spending warm summer days indoors
Writing frightening verse
To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg

– The Smiths, Ask

For thirty years I've thought Morrissey was writing frightening verse to a buxom girl in Luxembourg. The evening before we left, we played the song – literally, the only cultural reference to Luxembourg we could think of – and I heard buck-tooth girl for the very first time. I was pretty disappointed.

'Discover the unexpected Luxembourg' the tourism ads at the airport told us but we had no idea what to discover expectantly let alone unexpectedly. We'd failed to locate a guidebook or city map. We didn't know anyone who had been there. All we did know was a quick Wikipedia search: a tiny, mainly rural, country (1,000 square miles) with a tiny population of 500,000 landlocked in between Belgium, Germany and France. A Portuguese work colleague told me 16% of the population was Portuguese. We knew Luxembourg City, the capital, was a centre for the EU and business (no corporation tax for a start). That was it. We were going simply because we hadn't been there.

With flight time less than an hour from London (that day it had taken us over two hours to get into central London to see an exhibition, a distance of seven miles; a combination of cancelled trains and broken buses ensured it being a painful and time-consuming journey) it's a perfect place for a weekend getaway. We knew it was going to be a good trip as soon as we saw the officials at passport control, laid back and laughing. Laughing! When have you ever seen passport control laughing?

Our hotel was near the airport and after snacking in the buffet – I had two helpings of cold meats and fish followed by eight desserts and a cheese platter – we went to bed early to wake up early to explore Luxembourg City. The hotel receptionist informed us buses were free on Saturday, but for us they were free every day. Attempts to pay – including rehearsing in French 'Je voudrais un billet pour le jour s'il vous plait' – were met with a cursory wave of the hand by bus drivers, so we hopped on and off without paying all weekend.

Buses full of Turkish refugees sped past us as our bus drove past roadworks, construction sites, banks and office blocks into the city. Was this the unexpected or the expected Luxembourg? We weren't sure. Once in the city itself, this is what we were expecting: churches and turrets, coffee shops and ancient bridges. We soon unexpectedly came across a large gorge where the UNESCO World Heritage old city nestles amongst the two rivers that run through it. The rocky medieval fortifications of the gorge surround the town with walls, ramparts and caves where once the old fortress stood (before it was demolished).

Every step of the way we couldn't help comparing the city unfavourably with London. From the clean air, spaciousness and ultra-efficiency of the city; to the buildings designed with people and pleasure in mind rather than business and money; to everything running on time; to the people being polite and friendly; to the old buildings tastefully blending with modern extensions (in other words, the mix of old and new actually working); to the beautifully designed free magazines in all the civilised cafes serving perfect coffee and lovely cakes; to the skate park and the pedestrianised roads; it all seemed to be there for people. Everything was easy – transport, buildings, art. it was all there for people to enjoy, relax, be at peace.

(I know, I know, we were on holiday and Luxembourg is the second richest country in the world with a tiny population; London has 9 million people but, even so, London feels like a dirty machine. Its purpose is to make money, and we're all making it, and toiling and striving to make it every day but – it's for other people. Other people, businesses, corporations, governments are making the money, not us. Nothing's built for pleasure – or if it is, it's controlled and contrived and a corporation is making money from it.)

Most of all, we loved walking and adventuring – and did it twelve hours a day. It's a great city for exploring, from the underground caves and viaduct with the skate park below it, to the museums, art galleries and beautiful buildings, old and new. We loved Picasso's hiboux (that's French for owls) in the free exhibition of his animal art at the L'Institut français du Luxembourg – jugs, plates, etchings, collages. We loved the Christmas market and the pedestrianised streets (complete with unexpected homeless people). We loved gate-crashing a gallery opening in an abandoned building and ordering the free wine in French. We loved that design was thought about here, that form followed fuction, that nature – trees, water – were close by and abundant.

Towards evening, wandering around the old town we noticed numerous young people carrying musical instruments, from drums to clarinets. Then we started hearing sounds all around the valley: the lone wail of a trumpet, the reedy caressing of a clarinet. Drummers lined up along the river. Saxophone players appeared in a rose garden. Trumpeters in the caves of the valley. It was a (classical, experimental) rock concert, of sorts, in the rocks, on my birthday (my girlfriend's last birthday funnily enough also involved a rock concert – of sorts: a free classical musical concert at Helsinki's famous rock church, Temppeliaukio – literally, a church chiseled out of rock), performed by students of the local music college as a rehearsal.

If we hadn't been staying out of town we probably wouldn't have known anything about the Kirchberg area. As it was we passed it every day on the bus and decided to explore the area in the evening, and then the following morning. Although predominately a slightly sterile business and residential area, it also contains the Philharmonie concert hall, the Mudam museum of modern art (showing Wim Delvoye, our new favourite artist we'd never heard of) and Fort Thungen; all extraordinary buildings definitely worth a visit. At night it felt like walking on the set of a sci-fi film, but not an apocalyptic or dystopian one, rather a pleasant one, and nicely lit. And inside the concert hall – again, it's using space and light in a creative, relaxing way so it doesn't feel cramped or busy. All in all, a breath of fresh air.

Photos on Flickr here

Previously on Barnflakes:
Mishearing Dylan

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

My daughter’s top ten films (aged 10)

1. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton, 2016)
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)
3. Nine Lives (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2016)
4. Star Wars: Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016)
5. Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne, John Stevenson, 2008)
6. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore, 2014)
7. My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
8. Jurassic World (Colin Tervorrow, 2015)
9. Zootropolis (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, 2016)
10. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)

Previously on Barnflakes:
Notes on Harry Potter

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Notes on Lordship Lane, East Dulwich SE22

I'd walked up and down the once-rural thoroughfare Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, also prosaically known as the A2216, a few times and found it long and uninspiring. Though there is a nice part of it, with cool gift shops, bars and restaurants, as well as a lovely new Dulwich Picture House (£7 a film on a Monday; still not as cheap as the Peckhamplex, but a more pleasant experience), I found myself naturally gravitating towards the other end of the Lane (where the Horniman in Forest Hill is). Here I found some interesting buildings and curios.

At 539 Lordship Lane, the unusual Grade-II listed so-called Concrete House is possibly England's earliest surviving example of, well, a house made of concrete. Dating back to the 19th century, it was derelict for years but has now been converted into flats.

Further down, past the lovely Dulwich library is a blue plaque above a hardware shop signifying the birthplace of children's writer Enid Blyton. Another blue plaque but obviously unofficial and homemade lies at the bottom of a wall on Overhill Road, just off Lordship Lane, where AC DC singer and lyricist Bon Scott died in a parked car of alcohol poisoning and 'death by misadventure', aged 33, in 1980.

A slight detour: two roads along on the right off Lordship Lane, Upland Road turns into Dunstans Road and up a wooded hill is Dawson Heights, a striking-looking housing estate built 1964-72. The 20th Century Society call Dawson Heights 'an important but little-known postwar housing estate in East Dulwich' which has so far been turned down for listing status. Designed by Kate Macintosh, who was only 26 at the time she started designing the building, the tranquil setting of the estate, on top of a hill surrounded by woods, gives it the feeling of a castle made of Lego (though the 20th Century Society's description of it as having 'evocative associations with ancient cities and Italian hill towns' may be pushing things a tad). But there's no denying its undulating soft, yet brutalist, form. (I struggle to write about architecture and music successfully: try these two blog posts, here and here, on the estate if you're interested.)

There used to be lots of prefab houses on Lordship Lane but only one remains now, at number 238. We chatted to the lovely gentleman who owns the house, who is understandably very proud of his flower garden. But the future of the house is far from secure; there are new developments surrounding the house, and it looks like it'll be next on the chopping list.

We popped into The Yard, a converted family home with work studios and a courtyard, just off Lordship Lane as part of Open House weekend recently.

Onwards there are numerous gift and furniture shops, restaurants and bars. And a good charity shop.

Thanks to James for directing me to several of these buildings.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Gender bender

This year in the press there’s been a lot of coverage of the gender pay gap; from the boardroom to the tennis court women still earn a lot less than men. This isn’t the case in my experience at all, where I only seem to know women half my age earning twice as much as me for doing I have no idea what.

Women are obviously the main victims of domestic violence, but there is also a lot more men being abused by women than is thought, which is hardly reported at all, mainly not by the men abused, who are understandably embarrassed or ashamed by being mistreated by their spouses. Remember Rebekaha Brooks being arrested for physically assaulting her then-husband Ross Kemp in 2005? It seemed absurd for a beefy guy like Kemp to be beaten-up by a woman but aside from that it's not always physical, it can be psychological as well.

In the space of one hour travelling on a train I witnessed two conversations between two couples, in both cases the man in the relationship being belittled, undermined and generally embarrassed in public by his girlfriend. I felt sorry for both men.

Up until the 1940s, boys wore pink and girls wore blue. Pink was felt to be a more male colour, closer to red, a 'stronger' colour (in England at the time, soldiers apparently wore red uniforms) and blue a feminine colour. Aside from a brief period in the 1970s when unisex clothing was all the rage, it was retailers and manufacturers who decided that blue would be for boys and pink for girls. There's nothing psychological about the difference; just something we're taught.

Metrosexuals are just homosexuals in disguise. Men look at men more than women; women look at women more than men. We noticed one can still buy a 'Bender in a Bun' in the Wimpy Bar. We found it hilarious.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Rebekah Brooks resigns over her name

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Silk Cut anagrams

Cuts Kil
Sik Cult
Lik Cuts
Tucks Li
Slut Kic
Luck Sit
Lit Suck

Clit Suk

Previously on Barnflakes:
Surreal Silk Cut cigarette ads

Friday, September 30, 2016

Notes on New Orleans, Louisiana

It’s the names that do it for me: Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, conjuring up countless songs and movies. Somehow English place names – Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Sunderland or Liverpool – just don’t cut it. But, talking on the subject, an American friend had said to me: “What are you talking about, man? Liverpool, what the hell’s that, a pool of livers? That’s crazy, man.”

Anyway, Europe may have the buildings and the history, but the U.S.A. has the place names, the landscapes, the movies, the songs and the people. Its cities are exciting, dangerous, dynamic, always awake and always crazy.

I drifted down to New Orleans originally planning to stay just a week but ending up there for two and a half months, intoxicated by the sultry heat, spicy crawfish, coffee, sleaziness, romance, danger and irony of it all. There’s no need for crack when you can eat six raw oysters, down them with a Bud’ and walk around the French Quarter at 4am feeling like there’s no where else in the world. It’s said New Orleans has a strange pulling power, people come down for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest and never leave. It’s a city to hang out in, do nothing in, listen to jazz or be a murderer and get away with it.

But The Big Easy isn’t big and it’s not easy.

My heart beat fast for my first two weeks there: I couldn’t relax. It may have been the copious amounts of coffee and chicory consumed (either at Café du Monde, where the waiters are either gay, drug addicts, alcoholics, murderers, child molesters or old Vietnamese colonels – New Orleans East has a Vietnam village), or Kaldi’s, just up the road, where homeless kids on acid hang out along with gays, goths and freaks). It may have been the headlines every day in the Times Picayune of at least five people having been shot the day before.

Or was the smell of coffee mixing with the smell of danger on every dimly lit street corner, mingling with the live music coming from every direction, twenty-four-seven. It didn’t calm me knowing New Orleans had just recently slipped to becoming murder capital number two of the U.S.A., pipped to the post by Gary, Indiana.

If only I had stayed just a week: I would have gone home with the city’s superficial impression as a non-stop party (there was a bar in New Orleans before there was a church). Seemingly always happening on Bourbon Street, that addictive neon vision of hell with its blaring bars, strip joints, pushers and hookers, tourists are adventurous if they leave the street, let alone the touristy French Quarter which is relatively safe, and white.

The French Quarter is stiflingly small, humid, crowded and claustrophobic, consisting of one square mile (the population of New Orleans is only 475,000, a tiny city with no hills, perfect for a bike), the streets arranged in a confusing (at first) grid structure of similar looking buildings: French-style apartments with wooden shutters, iron-laced balconies with hanging plants and plastic Mardi Gras necklaces, tacky tourist art galleries, voodoo and witchcraft shops, restaurants and gallons of bars. It has a heady charm and its buildings are well looked after, but there’s never any breeze and its sidewalks are smelly and dirty. Barely two hundred years old, for the tourists it’s called New Orleans historical district, and that’s all they need. Armed with cameras, camcorders and a plastic cup of $1 beer, tourists record the beautiful history-laden quarter, editing out any blacks, beggars or freaks who might accidentally get in the way. But what they don’t get is that the city is the people, not the buildings.

But if wasn’t for the tourists New Orleans would surely sink back into the swamps from whence it came, and Louisiana is the second poorest state in the US, after Mississippi. Yet ask any local what they hate most about the city and before they mention the crime, the violence, the housing projects or the police corruption they will emphatically say: ‘the tourists’.

I wonder how American cities survive with their mass of contradictions and ironies. I love you, I hate you. The mood of New Orleans can change so quickly, so drastically. The city has the power to change people too, if they stay there for long enough. From virgin to whore, pacifist to murderer, teetotaller to alcoholic, sane to crazy, innocence to experience, or indeed vice versa. But the seediest, most decadent, often uncaring, murderous city in the US is often strangely spiritual and magical. And it has very little to do with voodoo, witches or Anne Rice.

It can be intense, nasty and unfeeling or it can be beautiful, warm, relaxing, friendly and caring, a community spirit rising from the poverty. I watch the sun rise over the Mississippi river with a beautiful black eighteen-year-old girl on the River Walk, we’re surrounded by the homeless sleeping on the grassy bank (you can be homeless and happy here), an accordion player with a blank look in her eyes plays the accordion badly, then an old black dude passes us and says we make a pretty couple and it’s like a dream.

Or we’re at the Joy cinema on Canal Street which only shows ‘black’ films and every other black guy asks me for a quarter and I get the dirtiest looks and they say things to me I can’t understand but I’m sure they’re wondering what this skinny white guy is doing with this beautiful black girl.

But I think I leave New Orleans less sexist and racist than I’ve ever been. I visit some friends who live near the railway track on North Rampart Street, maybe a mile out of the Quarter. Black kids are playing in the street, a water hydrant explodes water to cool them down and they’re laughing and playing without a care in the world. I pass old black dudes smoking on their verandas on a Sunday afternoon and we greet each other as you do in the English countryside. I think to myself this place has always been here, always been the same. Untouched and decaying beautifully. Buildings and signs from the thirties and forties, left alone to rust and decay. In late spring the moss growing along the telegraph wires, plants creeping up the wooden houses, as if it’s in tune with nature.

But New Orleans is either a living dream or a living nightmare. The housing projects are definitely not on any tourist agenda. Coming up Basin Street from Canal Street, on your left is the Iberville housing project, on the outskirts of the French Quarter (a drunken tourist makes a wrong turn and risks death), a little further up the Louis #1 cemetery, a tourist stop off point, but only in packs because Iberville surrounds it and a little plague advises to enter at your own risk. It’s opposite a police station.

Desire is the biggest housing project in New Orleans. It goes on for miles, never ending, modelled after German concentration camps, I’m told. 100% black with only half the ‘units’ occupied, the other half burnt down or boarded up. This is where the killings happen – black on black, in the housing projects. The projects aren’t talked about. The people in them are left alone to kill each other. The streets which intersect Desire are like a bad joke: Piety, Annunciation, Benefit and Charity.

Beside the Florida housing project is a church, a liquor store and a huge billboard, black lettering on white: THOU SHALT NOT KILL, the NOT underlined in case you had read THOU SHALT KILL by mistake. In the space of a block you can go from housing project to mansions, good neighbourhood to bad and it makes no sense.

Behind Café du Monde, late at night, are held monthly dogfights, organised by the cooks who work at the café. The losing dog gets a bullet in the head, delivered by one of the cops, who are there to watch and bet.

New Orleans: I love you and hate you, and I know you love and hate me too.

– 1996; submitted and rejected for a Time Out travel writing competition.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tuna Tunis

The Saturday in London had been a beautiful autumn day – a last shock of sun. The Sunday was cold and raining and when we arrived in Tunisia that night, it was likewise. Sunday in London engineering work had cancelled trains, so we had to catch a replacement bus from Putney to Kew Bridge, then a train to Feltham, and finally another bus to Heathrow. A three-hour wait at Heathrow, a delayed plane, and by nine 'o'clock, local time, we arrived in the rain of Tunis.

M said our hotel was like the movie Cocoon. More like The Shining, I quipped. A thousand shades of pastel, old people ready to die, inedible western buffet food. Coffee like mud, tea like rusted metal. All Tunisian food seems to come with tuna sprinkled on top – which led M to speculate maybe that was the reason Tunisia got its name – because of the tuna. It seemed possible. But then she had made me once believe the Boer War was fought over feather boas.

I woke on my birthday the next morning feeling like shit with flu, cold and cough and eyes that wouldn't open properly. The night before we'd gone to a little cafe round the corner from our hotel to get a coffee and gateau. The first question asked, inevitably, was how many camels I wanted for M. The second inevitable question was whether I wanted some hash. I took out my liquorice Rizlas to make a roll-up. Everyone in the cafe looked at them, then wanted a couple of leaves. I knew I should have bought more packs with me.

So far – we're in Sousse – the buildings are great. Old tumbling down French ones – but lots of new, funky, post-modern ones too. Buildings are going up everywhere, new roads too. Tunisia feels quite affluent, liberal and modern. At least compared to its neighbours Morocco and Egypt.

The hotels are like palaces and (in the tourist area) Sousse feels like a second-rate Vegas. Caribbean casino, restaurants, nightclubs, all neon-lit. Hotels line the beach front. The whole town feels like hotels and hassles.

No dogs but hundreds of skinny little dying cats everywhere. I want to do something to save the cats. As a gesture I take some fish out to the black cat by the pool area – only to be bombarded by about eight cats all screeching and fighting and the fish is gone in less than a second.

I thought I finished a roll of film then realised I hadn't loaded the film. Monday, wake up ill, again. Sousse all day. Tuesday, Kairouan. Wednesday – waiting for a very late bus most of the day. Arrived in El-Jem with ten minutes left to see the impressive amphitheatre – we get in half price but have to make way for a car advert being filmed in the middle of it.

The next day on a first class train carriage to Gabés. Everyone, aside from the shabby tourists, looks so well-groomed, affluent, proper. The landscape remains the same. Half the sky lit by the sun, half by the moon and in the middle, cloud. The lighter the skin, the more affluent the people. On Tunisian TV, everyone has light skin. On the first class carriage, everyone has light skin. Finally approaching Gabés. A two-mile stream of palm trees and industrial factories, chimneys spewing yellow smoke, carrots from the ground a luminous orange. I thought we were going the wrong way on the train for a while.

Taxi to Matmata nouvelle – stalling – going back. Another taxi – Matmata (old town). Pulled over by the police. It feels like a pilgrimage going to where Star Wars was filmed. Star Wars full of Muslim architecture and costume. We chatted and laughed with a restaurant owner then ate in his restaurant. We were overcharged; we didn't say anything but it left a sour taste.

Back at the hotel, the pensioners are dancing to instrumental versions of My Way... When I Fall in Love... John Denver. Pensioners on parade – it's not a bad life.

George Harrison died today: 30th November 2001. I thought I'd given up smoking, but felt light-headed and had to go buy a pack. One shop had sold out of cigarettes – it took me half an hour to buy a pack in all. When I came back his death was there on the news. Yesterday we'd talked about him; one of his songs had been in my head all day (My Sweet Lord). We're half an hour from where The Life of Brian was filmed – George Harrison's Handmade Films produced it.

It being Ramadan, there's a feverish rush about fourish, and by five everything is empty – the medina, the nouvelle ville – because everyone is inside eating. We tuck into our Briks – a thin pastry with a whole fried egg built into it filled with tuna (of course), onion, harissa and parsley – with gusto.

Of course, it's only on our last day that we find in our hotel complex: sauna, shops, table tennis, indoor swimming pool and gym. Not that we would have used any of them anyway. But still.

Sousse, Tunisia, 2001