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.
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.
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.
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.
There are various explanations for the origins of the British phrase ‘Going for a cheeky Nando’s’. Usually it dates back to someone on social media sometime in 2011 posting he was ‘going for a cheeky Nando’s with the lads’.
But there’s no explanation as to why it’s cheeky. My theory is it’s because they charge over £10 for a small piece of dry, burnt chicken and coat it in a hot sauce to disguise the fact that it’s completely tasteless. Combined with chips and coleslaw, you’re not looking at much change out of £20, for what is essentially the same as the chicken and chips you get at Chicken Cottage for less than £5. Great marketing, Nando’s. But pretty cheeky.
Lists of top ten Jeff Bridges films tend to focus on his performances, rather than the films, hence Rolling Stone has The Contender and The Door in the Floor in their top ten, two films I haven't even heard of let alone seen. Even recent films such as True Grit and Crazy Heart feature great performances from Bridges but aren't great films. Film critics have such short memories. I'm focusing on the films themselves; his run of films in the 1970s – from The Last Picture Show to Cutter's Way (1981, but signifying the end of the 70s) – is almost unparallelled in modern cinema (De Niro's trilogy of films, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, feel self-conscious and laboured compared to Bridges' laid back performances). Jeff Bridges is currently featuring in the well-received Hell or High Water (De Niro has almost completely erased his performances in The Deer Hunter and The Godfather Part II et al by years of terrible comedies).
1. Fat City (1972) 2. The Last Picture Show (1971) 3. Cutter's Way (1981) 4. Bad Company (1972) 5. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) 6. The Big Lebowski (1998) 7. The Fisher King (1991) 8. Winter Kills (1979) 9. Star Man (1984) 10. Fearless (1993)
Mark Kermode, reviewing Captain Fantastic in the Guardian, makes the link between the film and the Elton John album of the same name, released in 1975. Though there were references throughout to high culture, from Glenn Gould to Noam Chomsky, I must admit I felt the spirit of Bob Dylan permeate the film and was surprised at no mention of the man – until the final credits, when a lovely cover version of I Shall be Released (sung by Kirk Ross) is played over the letterpress-style end credits.
The film, in its rejection of consumer culture and retreating into the wilderness, reminded me of Bob Dylan circa. 1967-1970, the period after his infamous motorcycle crash when he vanishes from public view and retreats to his house in bucolic Woodstock, NY. Here he produces albums tinged with the pastoral, the spiritual and nature: The Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and New Morning.
Other music in the film includes a snippet from Glenn Gould's famous Goldberg Variations. Linking to this and perhaps more relevant, Gould's Solitude Trilogy is a fascinating series of hour-long radio shows he produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Service between 1967-77. Reflecting the theme of 'withdrawal from the world', the first show looks at the Idea of North, specifically the North Canadian wilderness. Experimental in style, with over-lapping voices (nurse, sociologist, anthropologist, prospector) sometimes speaking at once, as well as music and the rumbling of trains, it creates a unique collage of sound. Quotes from it, such as 'it's easier to be against something than for something' and the battle 'not against mother nature but human nature' could almost come the film.
The second part, The Latecomers, looks at Newfoundland. Recorded in 1969, with the sound of crashing waves roars continually over the soundtrack and a male voice declaring presciently ‘we’re all victims of technology’ and in the future we will pay people to be idle. An alternative to work will have to be found, and we need to find a fulfilling life without having to punch a clock every morning. It was hoped that the next generation would be able to combine material and spiritual life.
The third episode, Quiet in the Land, deals with the Mennonite community of Red River, Manitoba. Janis Joplin's anti-consumerism song Mercedes Benz (recorded three days before she died) plays over the voices. It questions the American Dream, and looks at alternatives to consumerism. The Mennonite community at the time were moving to the cities and becoming more materialistic. Solitude and isolation are the main themes of the trilogy; Gould himself was a bit of a hermit.
Viggo Mortensen's character (Ben Cash) in Captain Fantastic reminded
me of my brother – everything from the beard to his way of life (though
not the six kids). But by the end of the film, Ben has let go his rather extreme existence, and reached a happily compromise –
something I mentioned in my recent Peru post, where I'd been looking fruitlessly
for a happy medium between travelling (fun) and working (boring) for twenty years.
The film has had mixed reviews, but for me (and my girlfriend) it was pure joy and inspiration.
'Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane* I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
They say Spain is pretty though I've never been Well Daniel says it's the best place that he's ever seen Oh and he should know, he's been there enough Lord I miss Daniel, oh I miss him so much**
Daniel my brother you are older than me*** Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal Your eyes have died but you see more than I Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky'
– Elton John, Daniel
**Let's not get carried away
***Actually he's younger
The opening sequence of Werner Herzog's classic film Aguirre, Wrath of God (in my recent top ten dialogue-free opening film sequences) has always beguiled me, with its moodily misty mountains shrouded in clouds, and the camera cutting closer and closer until it reveals a motley band of conquistadors descending the mountain. The soundtrack by Popol Vul adds to the mystery of the scene and the sense of man dwarfed by nature. I recognised the mountain, Huayna Picchu, from opposite Macchu Picchu (but not until I got home and watched the film again). We were meant to see another classic Herzog location – the 340 ton steam boat from Fitzcarraldo that gets dragged over the hill in the Peruvian jungle, but could only find on maps the boat of the actual rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald that the film was inspired by, which wasn't the same at all, and isn't much to look at anymore.
On the long flight over to Lima (which for delayed for an hour at Heathrow, a foretaste of all internal flights in Peru, of which there were numerous), I was able to catch up on films I'd been meaning to see for six months: The Jungle Book, Miles Ahead, Midnight Special, The Revenant, Everybody Wants Some!! and Anomalisa – if you've ever wanted to see a Plasticine man perform cunnilingus to a Plasticine woman, this is the film for you.
All I knew about Peru was Paddington bear, pan pipes and 4,000 varieties of potato (apparently true). My main observation on arriving in Peru: no one smokes. Anywhere. I couldn't believe it. After a few days in Lima, where we searched endlessly for meals that weren't chicken and chips, and my mum got robbed of her handbag on a crowded bus (and we spent an hour looking at CCTV footage, communicating with the security guards via Google translation, and eventually identifying the thief), we took a taxi to the airport. Halfway there, my dad suddenly thinks he's left his raincoat at the hotel. He tells the taxi driver to stop, who takes him as his word, and stops in the middle of the motorway. "Well, I didn't mean here", dad mumbles. But he gets out, checks in his bag in the boot; his raincoat is there. He seemed more concerned about leaving his budget raincoat in the hotel than my mum being robbed.
My parents and I flew to Cusco to meet my brother Daniel, who I hadn't seen for three years. It was to be our first family holiday together for many years. Cusco, centre of Inca civilisation (though the Spanish demolished most of it, using Inca temples as
quarries for the stone for their churches) is 3,399 metres above sea level – the high altitude means it's chilly in the mornings and nights but lovely and sunny during the day. Altitude sickness affects many people – not me or my brother – but quite definitely my parents, who staggered around the city like drunkards when they weren't in bed trying to recuperate. So Daniel and I wondered around drinking coffee and eating brownies in the hip San Blas district, with its narrow alleyways, white-washed walls and blue shutters, hippies selling their jewellery. Daniel has cycled halfway across the world in the last few years, before settling in New Zealand to live and work. When his seasonal work ends, he sets off again cycling around the globe – this time Peru.
I sometimes envied Daniel's freedom; the places he's been and amazing sights he'd seen, but it comes with a price – loneliness, lack of a family, friends and community. I'm certain he didn't envy me – mortgage, dull office job and horrendous commute every day (though I have my plus points – a fantastic daughter, girlfriend and flat). I've been looking for a balance between travel and real life for about twenty years but never found one. In fact, I haven't been a traveller for about twenty years – I've been a tourist whenever I've been abroad.
Cusco is full of tourists (some hippies, but most wearing cool, expensive hiking brands like Haflofs and RAB; my brother successfully straddled both looks), stray dogs, and constant hassles from hawkers selling alpaca hats and socks, tacky paintings and souvenirs, women in brightly-coloured traditional garb, holding lambs or beautiful children (Peruvians are generally quite beautiful; strong features and dark skin: beside them tourists look pasty and overweight) for stupid tourists to take photos of with. Massive whole roasted guinea pigs were to be found in the market and we heard pan pipe versions of The Sounds of Silence all the time – and prayed for silence after hearing it one too many times. Loud disco
music thudded through the hotel walls until 4am. I lay there, unable to sleep, imagined myself
getting up, stomping next door, turning off the sound system, and
exclaiming ‘It’s a week night!’ but I didn’t.
After being a month in Peru already, Daniel would walk around like a local, speaking Spanish, buying street food (which obviously we were suspect of) and drinks, in particular the tasty chicha morada, made from purple corn and herbs (which also we're suspect of – what if it's made from tap water? No, it's boiled. Even so... oh, okay), sort of a spicy Ribena. We indulge and are soon eating cakes, pasties and ice creams (made with ice, but, oh sod it) from street stalls. I'd had one taste of the famous Inca Kola (owned by Coca-Cola; tastes of cream soda) and that was enough. Daniel was hooked on a Nestle chocolate bar, Sublime, which pretty much tasted as its name suggests.
Jungle Brothers/Monkeys in the Mist
The view from the plane changes abruptly from mountains to jungle – green everywhere like forests of florets of broccoli, with small brown snakes, the silty rivers, winding their way through the landscape. We land in Puerto Maldonado, the town founded by Carlos Fitzcarrald in the Madre de Dios region.
Chris, from Brighton, travelling with his sister, asks me for a light,
then we board a boat along the river, stopping along the way to look at
the numerous caimans (similar to alligators) on the muddy banks, including a rare black caiman (a massive thing), and the beautiful butterflies licking the salt from their tears
(they 'cry' because they need to lubricate their eyes after being out of water for long periods).
In the evening, we all settled down to a gin and tonic on the chairs outside the bar.
My brother and I both had the same thought at the same time – George
Orwell's Burmese Days, with the colonialists being served gin and tonics
by the natives in the balmy evenings of the last days of the Empire. W
Somerset Maugham's short stories, which I'd been reading, covers similar
territory in the South Seas and Borneo, and I wonder if colonalism still continues. The Tambopata Eco Lodge, where we are staying, is owned by Canadians. Peru is poor yet abundant with natural resources (gold has recently taken over from cocaine as its biggest export), most of which get exported and used by the west.
The itinerary advised to bring raincoats, so I did and was wearing it on our first walk in the jungle, which involved a boat ride on a lake, and feeding crackers to the piranhas. It was hot, I had no hat. Only just making it back to the lodge, I collapsed in a cold sweat for the rest of the day, unable to walk or eat. By the next day I was better – my brother's fail-safe Moroccan recipe of a hot oregano drink may have had something to do with it, but my usual diet of coffee and cigarettes was never a good idea in the tropics (I started drinking herbal tea for a few days). Having only just recovered from altitude sickness, the parent's got jungle fever and were bed-ridden once again.
Our guide, Joselo, is with us all the time – breakfast, lunch, dinner, all day, and talks non-stop about the jungle. He knows his stuff – the wildlife, plants, trees. I remember nothing he said. The days start early at 6, when the mist is still over the river, and it gets dark at 9, so we go to bed. Though we were promised much – in terms of wildlife – we were delivered relatively little. There were fleeting glimpses of small owl and squirrel monkeys, parrots, parakeets (we see more in South London), macaws, toucans and humming birds. There were footprints of a tapir. There was no jaguar. But there were caimans, beautiful butterflies, lizards, tarantulas (teased out by the guides), weaver birds and more besides. There were plenty of shy capybaras (large rodents, similar to guinea pigs) around the lodge, often monkeys in the trees and birds flying around. In fact, being right in the jungle, there was little need to walk at all. The parents spent a day sitting on the veranda of their lodge and probably saw more than Daniel and I walking all day.
Just being in the jungle is an amazing experience, the sights, smells and sounds. The morning jungle feels different to the evening jungle; sounds and smells differ. Some birds sound like car alarms, video games and mobile phone rings. Early one morning a gigantic crashing sound punctuated the silence; I imagined it was an elephant stomping through the jungle (or the eerie sound the black mist made in the TV series Lost). Apparently it was a tree falling down.
We go on walks with fellow tourists; Chris and his quiet sister; a Dutch couple who engage in conversation with us on the seats outside the bar. What starts off being light and superficial ends with them walking off when Daniel starts talking of Islam and freedom. I don't think we spoke to them again. Most of the conversation on walks or in the bar revolve around Brexit and Donald Trump. Other people come to stay, including a laid back, bland American from North Carolina, who everyone instantly likes. Within five minutes he's high-fiving the guides, joking and playing football with them.
Next to us outside the bar a black domestic cat was always laying asleep on a chair. It didn't move for days. It was an odd sight in the jungle. It looked too lazy to hunt, but in a place filled with far bigger cats than him – jaguars were a common sight – it looked far too relaxed seeing as it would be the hunted rather than the hunter. Each day it would be a fascinating subject of conversation: "Look, the
cat hasn't moved for one/two/three/four days." I saw it move seat once.
One night we go for a boat ride along the river, searching for caimans with a spotlight – the guides know exactly where they'll be and spot them from fifty metres away. But the best thing was the stars. At one point, they cut the engine of the boat and turn off the torches and we all look up and stare at them.
It was the bland American's last day and the guides wanted to know what he wanted to see. On the 13km walk it was just myself, Daniel, the American and two guides, Joselo and Louis. We stopped at a big lake and got on a small boat. We rowed past bats who live on the lake; tiny little things who line up next to each other when they sleep to make them look bigger. Then we rowed to a swampy part of the lake where there was a narrow stretch. Another boat with tourists appeared, there was some talk between the guides on both boats; suddenly it looked like a race to get through the narrow part of the lake. We couldn't understand why the two boats were both trying to get through at the same time. Then suddenly we did; our boat got through first and we stopped. Louis pointed to something in some foiage – and there it was, a seven metre long anaconda, yellow with a brown pattern on it, coiled up. It uncoiled itself and slid under the water. Then it was gone – the other boat hadn't seen a thing. We stopped for lunch just a few metres away. "It's not like the film" said Louis. There was a young guy from near Glasgow who'd only seen the trail where an anaconda had been – and that had scared him enough. He had the piss taken out of him for days afterwards.
The bland American quotes Churchill to me: 'The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter', and I quote Twain back at him (which I'd heard from Chris): 'If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it'. The guides had taken us to the anaconda because it was what the American most wanted to see. I liked the bland American, but obviously I didn't want to.
At the airport, the flight was delayed, we had a few hours spare. Daniel and I ventured out the airport and found a restaurant full of tuk-tuk drivers where we ate and drank heartily. Next to us was one of the guides (not ours) who sat on his own, saw us but ignored us. This was someone who, when in guide mode, was the life and soul of the party, always laughing and joking with the white people. Fair enough, we figured, he's not at work now so why would he say a word to us?
The Cisco (Sour) Kid
Back in the same hotel in Cusco, I started chatting to the pleasant
hotel receptionist, who informed me that, to her, Inca and Spanish
culture were as important as each other. It's hard to believe. Daniel
reminded me of the story in the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared
Diamond, which I'd read years ago, of conquistador Francisco Pizarro
who, in 1532, and with just 150 men massacred thousands of unarmed and
unsuspecting Incas. After that he caught and executed the Inca ruler
Atahualpa, took as his mistress Atahualpa's ten year-old wife, Cuxirimay
Ocllo, and had two children with her. That was just the start of the
Spanish conquest of Peru.
When antelopes are attached
by a lion, they all run away together in a herd rather than overwhelm
the lion with their numbers. Herd mentality also kicks in with humans in
times of fear or ignorance, for example, and especially when being a tourist.
There's something about tourists, in an alien country for the first
time, that is totally moronic.
I'd been worried that we'd been in Peru almost a fortnight and hadn't
seen an Inca stone let alone a citadel. This changed when we saw Sacsayhuaman (big citadel; more or less pronounced 'sexy woman'), and I'd inwardly scoffed at all the tours there; we'd made it there on our own (with a taxi but without a guide),
and Daniel and I walked back – I'd noticed a shortcut back to town; understandably Daniel was weary (my shortcuts have often ended in disaster) but after he confirmed my instincts by asking two locals for directions, we walked down into town via a designated bike route (strange for a bike route as it was all cobbles, until Daniel said it was a no bikes allowed route). Along this path we bumped Chris from the jungle, looking the Cusco hippie with his yoga mat and guitar; having
ditched his sister he wisely had a dishy Italian in her place, who he didn't introduce us to.
We got our taste of tour guides the following day, when we went on an all-day tour of some Inca ruins, including Picac and Ollantaytambo, along the Sacred Valley. It was so ludicrous it was funny. On the tour bus our guide would blare over the microphone a minute-by-minute account of our itinerary: "In three minutes time we will be stopping at a market where you can purchase souvenirs. We will stop for 20 minutes. You will have two minutes to use the toilet facilities." And: "In nine to nine and a half minutes we will be arriving at Picac, where we will look around for thirty minutes. There will then be an opportunity for purchasing silver jewellery afterwards, for which you will have twenty minutes." It was like this all day. Is this what guided tours were like? I may have been on one or two in my time but none as regimented as this. Everyone seemed to be on guided tours; I was amazed tourists could step out of their hotels without a guide at hand.
tours only show you what they want you to see, which is obvious, as
we'd paid to see the Inca temples, but it's like everything else is
blotted out, doesn't exist. I was actually more interested in
hand-painted signs on shops and brightly-coloured churches, but there
was no tour for those. I would have liked a day in a small town in the
mountains in the middle of nowhere, with no tourist attractions or tourists, no Inca
temples, and wander around, drinking coffee, chatting, taking photos of doorways (which Daniel and I both fond of doing).
The train journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu “provides one of the
finest mountain train journeys in the world” according to the Rough
Guide to Peru, going through jungle and following the river through the Sacred Valley. We had to take their word for it, as we travelled by night on
the way there from Ollantaytambo to the town of Machu Picchu, only built in the 1950s. However, it ran on time, unlike my daily commute, and the smart women in uniform served us free drinks and muffins.
Every evening at 9pm, channel 30 showed an American film
not dubbed into Spanish. Usually a Tom Hanks film, so over a week I watched a bit of
Groundhog Day, a bit of The Terminal, and some of the truly terrible
You’ve Got Mail. The film neatly highlights everything
wrong with modern life. Watching it now, it’s like being at the birth of
everything terrible we now take for granted: multinationals taking over
independents; people staring into laptops in coffee shops, email, faceless relationships and falling in love over the internet,
which usually involves lying and deception. The seeds of our destruction, it's all there. I wish it would all go away.
Lost in Machu Picchu
We woke at a hideous hour to stand in a queue in the dark for hours to get a bus up the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu to witness the glorious sunrise. Only there was no sun but lots of clouds and a smattering of rain. We had a guided tour for a few hours then we were left to our own devices. The guide talked non-stop and it goes in one ear and out the other (usually when it's trying to convince us that a rock is in the shape of an Inca Priest, or an eagle, or a puma). At
least I stand there pretending to listen, Daniel just walks off. The rain was getting heavier. We had left our suitcases at the hotel in Cusco and been advised to bring a small rucksack for an overnight stay at Machu Picchu. I put in the rucksack a change of pants, toothbrush and book, and that's it. So, in the jungle I had my raincoat, and on Machu Picchu, I didn't. And
it started raining, lightly at first, then torrentially, and the clouds
and mist closed in.
The parents went back to town; Daniel and I wanted to walk to the famous Sun Gate for the classic view of Machu Picchu. By now I was soaked; I toyed with getting a poncho for a dollar but I couldn't really get any wetter – or so I thought – and besides they looked uncool. So we walked the narrow, uneven, stony path to the Sun Gate, as the rain grew heavier, the mist and cloud heavier and the view became non-existent.
We arrive at the Sun Gate and all we can see is white. We stand around in the rain for a bit, then as we're walking back, there's a shift in the clouds and Machu Picchu can be glimpsed. I tell Daniel I'm going back to the Sun Gate; he goes on ahead. By the time I get back it's gone again. Daniel's way ahead. I race back, overtaking about a hundred hobbling tourists and slipping over once. Even with a map, I'm lost back in Machu Picchu; all I can see is brightly coloured ponchos and white mist. After asking two people the way to the exit I eventually get out of Machu Picchu and find Daniel – and a mile long queue for the bus. If I thought I couldn't get any wetter, I was wrong. We wait an hour in the pouring rain for a bus back to town. Back in town neither of us have any clothes to change into, dad kindly lent me his budget raincoat, and we dry ourselves next to a pizza oven in a restaurant, shivering and clutching hot chocolates.
On the train on the way back to Ollantaytambo it was actually daylight so we enjoyed the scenery of jungles and mountains whilst enjoying the free drinks and snacks. I'd seen a tourist teenage girl had taken a selfie of herself walking along the train platform; on the train journey she didn’t look up from her mobile once. I wanted to get up and tell her this is one of the finest mountain train journeys in the world! At Ollantaytambo, a pretty town surrounded by mountains and Inca temples, we get on a bus back to Cusco; we arrive back when it's late and dark. Daniel and I are still cold and wet. The parents get the altitude sickness again.
Next morning we're up at 4am to go to Cusco aiport. But due to bad weather – though to us it looks like a clear, sunny day – Cusco airport is closed; all planes are delayed and we'll miss our connection at Lima to Quito. So we have to take a later flight to Lima, wait hours, get a plane to Bogata, wait hours, then a plane to Quito. We leave Daniel at Cusco; we were spending another week on the Galapagos
Islands; Daniel disapproved of the environmental impact of tourism on
the islands, and besides hated organised tours. He goes off to cycle the dirt tracks of Peru for another few months.
After a long taxi ride from Quito airport, we arrive at the Hilton Colon at about 1am. There's not much time to enjoy it and relax – we wake up at 5am, shattered, to get a shuttle bus back to Quito airport. (Travelling – like working in professions such as film, photography, music and
fashion – seems impossibly glamorous and exotic but is in fact mostly boring, with
probably 80% waiting around, and 20% exhilaration. It's almost worth it.)
At least we see a bit of Quito during the day: mountains
surround the city, including the famous Cotopaxi volcano, usually shrouded in mist and only clearly visible July to August. We stopped on the side of the motorway to take photos of it and it looked like the Paramount film logo.
ON THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Finally, after five flights (including two from Quito) and three hours sleep in the Hilton Colon in Quito, we reach the Galapagos Islands, "A little world within itself", according to Darwin, who only spent a few weeks there in his five-year voyage around the world.
It wasn’t until the evening in the town along the promenade: the
evening, balmy and romantic, and then the following day, on the clear
turquoise sea and golden white sand beach, absolute paradise (for 40
minutes only, though) – that I realised how much I missed my girlfriend
and daughter, and how I wished they were here with us. Paradise is a
person, not a place. And after two weeks with various illnesses – altitude sickness, jungle fever, diarrhea – we are all feeling pretty healthy at last.
Luckily we're shepherded around like children by various guides, so
we don't have to think for ourselves at all, but with Daniel gone we
still feel a bit lost and helpless. Indeed, we actually get lost in the
two-street town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (which reminds me of Havana, though I've never been there) on San Cristóbal island and have to get a taxi back
to our hotel ($1 to go anywhere in town). Well, it was night and looks
different. In the morning we realise we were two minutes' walk from the hotel.
I thought we were staying on a road called 'una dia'; only days later,
in Quito, did it dawn upon me that 'una dia' meant 'one way'. (Worryingly, with no Daniel I had become the main map reader. I get lost
with Google Maps. I get lost coming back from Sainsbury's. When I was young I remember holidays with the parents
driving all over France with an actual physical map; they made it look so easy. They're older now, and have lost their bearings a bit.)
In the morning we board the boat – the Xavier – we're to spend the next four days on, with the tourists we're to spend the next four days with. There's Tony and his daughter Madeleine, who we've already bumped into a few times, and a young Dutch couple, Jens and Marie. Later a bunch of other people come on board; an older Irish couple, a lesbian couple, some others. Around sixteen altogether.
The guide is a pirate called Alberto. On the first evening there's an awkward introduction of all the men working on the boat, from captain to cook, all in their sailor whites, about a dozen of them. They all introduce themselves in Spanish. Then we have to do the same (in English). My dad goes first and says virtually nothing except grumbling he's from London. The Dutch couple go just before me. They announce they'd got engaged on Machu Picchu, and there's smiles and claps. A hard act to follow. In this kind of situation (ie feels like school) I'd usually stutter and mumble – this time I rambled a kind of monologue. I was quite pleased with myself.
In the Peruvian jungle there were glimpses of wildlife in the distance,
footprints and tracks – but here it's all on a plate, often literally (there were some lovely fish dinners on board). It soon becomes commonplace to see sea lions everywhere we look – on the
dock, on the deck of our boat, on the beach, and even in the sea. We're constantly told about the amount of endemic species on the islands. There are giant tortoises (Galapagos means tortoise), marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, penguins and Sally lightfoot crabs (my personal favourite). And that's just above the ocean.
The days pass as if in a dream. We relax on deckchairs on the deck as our boat meanders through the ocean, slowly passing islands as frigate birds follow us, forever floating overhead. The volcanic archipelago is like a tropical version of the Scilly Isles (once you reach a certain age, and you've been around a bit, everywhere reminds you of somewhere else).
On the arid, desolate North Seymour island live the blue-footed boobies and the male frigate birds who blow up their chests to reveal bright red pouches, like balloons, to attract females. The biggest,
boldest, brightest pouch gets the female of the species. No different to humans then.
The males sit on the ground, displaying their pouch, awaiting a female
to swoop down. It looks very clown-like and uncomfortable. Everything is about reproduction, attraction, continuing the species. The fittest survive, adapt or die. Oh yes, The Origin of Species, I make a mental note to read it one day. And learn to swim and speak Spanish. There are birds nests dotted all over the island with mother's sitting on their eggs; and eggs just hatched; and fluffy baby birds. There are no predators on the islands, so the animals have no fear, not even us, as we walk up to them and shove a zoom lens in their beaks.
At breakfast and dinner times on the Xavier, there's never-ending stilted and awkward small
talk with the other guests – flight times, routes, jobs (never lasts long),
where we’re from, where we’re going.
Endless talks about flight times is so dreary Oh, if only she was near me.
spend days with each other seeing amazing sights and sounds and yet it counts for
nothing – no emotional or collective bond or attachment is formed; just days of small talk. Of
course it’s great if couples or friends are on the boat but when
it’s strangers it’s hard to get beyond the superficial. I get on well with Madeline; both of us here with parents. Her father, Tony, is rather stern and sullen, but Madeleine, who was going to be named Isis, is cheerful and open. Though from Brisbane, she was born in Camden Town, where Tony was a doctor. I've never seen so close a relationship between a father and a daughter in her twenties. She adored him – I can only hope my daughter feels the same about me at that age.
I'm up early at six to take photos of the sunrise. Two women are doing tai-chi on deck. I spot the dark and unmistakable silhouette of a shark circling us in the water. Some islands are lush and fertile, others are like the moon or Mars, desolate and locations for a sci-fi film. We go to see some penguins first, then explore the lunar, black lava
landscape of Santiago island. The names for the lava types are Hawaiian: a'a has rough, broken surface, and pahoehoe is smooth and unbroken and looks like ropes. On
the lunar landscape, I have the conversation I have with every Irish man: how much better
Guinness tastes in Ireland. He tells me about the tour he went on around the Guinness
Later we climb the 400 steps on the island of Bartolomé to one of the
most beautiful views I have ever seen. A huge school of fish rise to the
top of the ocean to feed, forming a big white circle, then vanish again, only
to rise in a line, vanish and rise again and again, forming either a
circle or a line.
On our last evening, the crew came to us again in their full whites, but it's even more awkward this time: we are given two envelopes each (one for the guide, one for the rest of the crew) to put tips in (a handy printed guide tells us $20 a day is the average). We had a break for ten minutes, not realising we were meant to fill the envelopes. We regroup in the lounge and bar – everyone else has filled up their envelopes but us. We hastily do so.
Sitting on the deck, looking out to an island in the distance, lost in thoughts of a
convoluted sexual fantasy, my mother jogs me out of my reverie. The sun
sets fast at six, plunging the islands into silhouettes. The clouds and
sky are vast; the sea turns an inky dark blue. Mosquitos start to appear. The moon is upside down and I see a shooting star.
We leave early to go on a short trip to see some giant tortoises. Wisely, most of them are still asleep. Then it's bus–boat–bus–plane to Quito. These tours, whether in the jungle or on the islands, advertise themselves as adventures and pitch us as travellers – as if there’s danger and independence involved but there’s not. It's all on a plate. I have more adventure and sense of danger trying to cross a road in London.
IN QUITO, ECUADOR
If it's quite a shock to be back in the city from days in the islands, I don’t dislike it. If the actual jungle reminded me of the urban jungle, now it's the opposite – the urban jungle reminded me of the actual jungle; the sound of the traffic lights reminded me of a bird from the jungle. We still bumped into our fellow travellers from time to time; mainly Tony and Madeleine – in a lift, a restaurant, outside a gift shop. It happened so much she called out to me: "You're chasing us!" and I quipped back, "No, you're chasing us!" We never met again after that; I never said goodbye to any of the people we spent days with in paradise.
I had a late breakfast in the Hilton. The buffet had enough food to feed an Ecuadorian family for a month. Middle-aged American males were sitting around me, wearing brightly-coloured polo shirts and smart haircuts, talking into their phones in American Spanish. I was trying to listen to the Elton John song playing, the classic Your Song:
I hope you don't mind I hope you don't mind That I put down in words How wonderful life is while you're in the world
Inexplicably, tears welled up in my eyes. I was a traveller, not a tourist. It was a state of mind. I rushed out of the hotel and into the busy street. We wondered the old town until early afternoon – the churches, the tumbling down colonial buildings, the shock of garish modern architecture sitting next to the old, the street hawkers, the black pollution of the buses, the shoe shiners, the prostitutes brazen in broad daylight, the babies always wrapped up on their mother's backs (we didn't see any pushchairs), and a juggler, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator and a man with two life-size skeletons attached to himself with a sound system, all performing in the traffic to make a few coins from the driver's waiting at the traffic lights.
Wandering around Quito actually felt more like travelling than the jungle, Inca ruins or island tours, which are as far removed from understanding a country as is possible (okay, it’s understanding a certain part of the country: tourism). From the plane we're picked up at airport, shuttlebussed to our hotels, eating in 'recommended' restaurants, then taken on the tours by the guides. It’s like we’re children being mollycoddled. And only shown what they want us to see. (I know there are alternative tours – the favelas in Brazil, say, or the communist bloc council estates in Poland). Still, it had been amazing, and I mean that. A trip of a lifetime, or, as my mum corrected me, one of many trips of a lifetime.
In the three weeks we were away there's a new PM in the UK, Boris is foreign secretary (apparently without irony), Wimbledon tennis, the Nice massacres, military coup in Turkey, Brexit stuff, a new Avalanches album (their first for 16 years)... life goes on without us; I didn't care about any of it.
Further viewing: Film Embrace of the Serpent Beautiful film shot in black and white, with nods to Herzog and Apocalypse Now. Filmed in Colombia in 2015. Aguirre, Wrath of God The Herzog classic #1. Fitzcarraldo The Herzog classic #2. Touching the Void Took place in the Andes, near Huarez. I've videotaped Joe Simpson doing a motivational speech. The Motorcycle Diaries Has a scene on Machu Picchu. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Partly takes place in Peru. Anaconda Mostly filmed in Brazil; directed by a Peruvian. Piranha Joe Dante's 1978 horror comedy. Romancing the Stone Filmed in Colombia. Apocalyso Mel Gibson's thrilling adventure film; the dialogue is entirely in Yucatec Maya. Set in 16th century Mexico, just before the arrival of Europeans. Avatar Apparently inspired by James Cameron going on a jungle trek in Columbia. Master and Commander Was partly filmed on the Galapagos Islands.
White Sands by Geoff Dyer Not really related to Peru at all, except mentioning in the first story, where he tracks the footsteps of Paul Gaugain in French Polynesia, that Gaugain's father was Peruvian and the family moved there when Paul was young; he lived in Lima until he was seven and the culture influenced some of his later paintings.
The book came out when I was in Peru and I got it from the library when I came back. I'd been reading the short stories of W Somerset Maugham at the time, where, coincidentally, many of the stories are also set in the Pacific Islands. I'd been wondering what a Mother Hubbard was, and, repeatedly forgetting to Google it, Geoff Dyer explains it in White Sands: "a shapeless and not very flattering frock", introduced, naturally (but unnaturally), by missionaries appalled by the natives' skimpy clothing. Maugham's famous book the Moon and Sixpence is based on the life of Paul Gaugain.
The book explores the idea of why we travel. Years ago, I'd loved his book Yoga for People who Don't Know How to do it (of which White Sands is a follow up to), been to a talk by him, and given him a copy of my travel book. I never heard back from him. I like Geoff Dyer because his travel books are full of mishaps and stuff he didn't do rather than did do. I like him because his writing is funny and smart, he's been to some places I've been to, lived in Brixton like I have, missed seeing the Northern Lights like I did, and now lives in California, like I always wanted to. Like David Mitchell (the writer), Geoff Dyer looks a bit like me – that's probably the real reason I like them both.
According to the Urban Dictionary, most Caroline's have a fine booty. I don't think I've ever fancied a Caroline but I have a friend who seems to have only dated Carolines. Even when he dated a German girl, that was a Carolyn. Caroline is the feminine form of Carl. No idea why it's been the subject of so many songs.
1. Sweet Caroline Neil Diamond 2. Caroline No The Beach Boys 3. Caroline Says IILou Reed 4. Caroline Says ILou Reed 5. Roses Outkast 6. O Caroline Matching Mole 7. Does Caroline know? Talk Talk 8. King and Caroline Guided by Voices 9. Caroline Fleetwood Mac 10. Caroline Aminé
Recent research conducted by scientists has led to the discovery that, even with 353,000 babies being born today (UNICEF's estimated daily average), 99.9% of the world's population will be dead 100 years from right now. That is, the population of the world will be completely different a century from now. Miraculously, the next population will do pretty much exactly the same things as the previous population. This sobering, yet somehow inspiring discovery, has sent shock waves across the scientific community, with some scientists wondering what the point of it all is, and others figuring it's actually quite exciting, and a great opportunity to fuck up the world as much as possible until the next lot come along. The current population of the planet is just over 7 billion; there will be a lot more when the next batch comes along, in 100 years time. So far, 108 billion people have existed on planet earth; presumably, most of them have died at some point in the last 200,000 years.
This comes hot off the heels of scientists declaring – somewhat late in the day – a new geological epoch, the Anthoprocene, which they want to backdate to the 1950s. So for the past sixty-odd years we've all been happily existing in the Holocene epoch (or 'recent' – it began 9,700 years BCE), oblivious to the fact that we've actually been living in the Anthropocene epoch, or 'new age of man'.
1. RipleyAlien 2. Scarlett O'Hara Gone with the Wind 3. Varla Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill 4. Sally The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 5. Dorothy The Wizard of Oz 6. Princess Leia Star Wars 7. Sarah Connor Terminator 8. Mary Poppins Mary Poppins 9. Mrs Robinson The Graduate 10. Annie Hall Annie Hall
1. The River Bruce Springsteen 2. River Man Nick Drake 3. Many Rivers to Cross Jimmy Cliff 4. Take me to the River Talking Heads 5. The River Tim Buckley 6. River Joni Mitchell 7. Ballad of Easy Rider Roger McGuinn 8. Watching the River Flow Bob Dylan 9. Down by the River Neil Young 10. Moon River Mancini and Mercer
Recently The Guardian, that online database of breathtakingly important Apple news, published an article on how Apple has lost its sense of simplicity. This is what Steve Jobs was all about and why we all loved the brand, its products, its adverts.
The lack of simplicity has emerged in recent years with each update of its computers, phones and tablets. It now steers too close for comfort to Microsoft, where clicking on one window leads you onto another... then another; where sub menus have sub menus. I can't even just click 'no updates' anymore – I've got to go a step further and say when I want an update (Later? Tonight? Tomorrow at 8am?). As each new OS on the computers have sought to emulate the phone iOS, it's become more fiddly and annoying, with notifications popping up all over the place like it was made for children (I know, probably was. I know also, you can turn off the notifications, but it took me two years to find out how).
The Notes app on the iPhone is a good example of an app which started simple then got unnecessarily complicated. Back in the early days of iPhone, Notes was simply for writing notes – as simple as a pen and paper. Then there's two kinds of notes – Google notes and Apple notes. And folders. And synced via iCloud. Then they naturally added a pen, paintbrush and eraser. And formatting – titles, heading, body copy, colours. And then inserting photos and videos too of course. Before you know it it's bloody Microsoft Word.
The interesting thing about office life is there's nothing remotely
interesting about office life. In over four years in the same office I could count the
interesting things that have happened on one hand. And here they are:
1. The office Christmas party
In the lead up to Christmas there is magic in the air; people are
more social; barriers come down; fun is to be had. By New Year, and back
at work, the spell is broken. It was spoken about
for months after but even by the Monday after the Friday office party just before Christmas, even the people who were there were unsure about who sat on whose lap, whose
pocket her flicked gold chocolate coin had miraculously landed in, who put out whose cigarette with the fire extinguisher.
other words, details were hazy two days after the event, let alone eight months. Seemingly insignificant events assumed massive proportions. Who threw the first cherry tomato? Was Steve really levitated? Did I really juggle with lemons? Details were hazy.
evening did not bode well. For a start the company was down to thirteen
members of staff. It had been double that six months ago. By
the time bingo, musical chairs and musical statues had finished (I'd come second in the last two; story of my life), and Secret Santa's opened, it was 5:30pm, and several people went home on the
dot. Nothing more was expected to happen. They'd been nibbles and a few
drinks. No one was feeling very merry. There was eight of us left. We toyed with going to the pub, but with booze, food and music in the office, we decided to stay.
We all started drinking and dancing. The two MDs of the company (both women), another three women and three guys, including me. One guy was too cool to dance, he just leaned against a post, stroking his beard. It was down to me, Amy, Steve and Laura to do the moves. Suddenly, a cherry tomato comes flying my way – and hits me on the arm. And that signals the start of the food fight. Tomatoes, carrots, apples, oranges, lemons, scotch eggs, crisps, cup cakes and chicken legs all go flying around the office. I'm pretty sure I juggled with the lemons.
At some point, one of the MDs opened the floodgates by smoking a cigarette in the office. It felt very naughty and decadent indeed. So others followed suit, even Steve, who hadn't had a cigarette for years, though I'm sure it was him who then let off the fire extinguisher. By now we were all pretty drunk, and started playing the shopping list memory game, 'I went to the shops and bought...' Traditionally a children's game, we played the adult version with an assortment of sexual toys in the basket, only some of which I'd actually heard of. I did quite well nevertheless.
Next the MD suggested levitation, something I used to play at school, where a group of us would put a couple of fingers underneath someone lying down and miraculously lift them up as if they were light as a feather. After a few false starts (giggling), I was chosen to lie down. Each person put their fingers underneath me, and spoke the same lines: 'He's looking sick / Call an ambulance / He's looking very ill / Where's the ambulance?' Then, 'He's dead' and whoosh – up I went. Sort of.
We finished with pushing each other around in the office chairs, went to a bar about 2am, then headed home. Naturally, I got lost about 3am or so when the night bus left me stranded in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, it had been a good evening.
2. The big showdown*
One was a production manager (PM), the other a freelance graphic designer (FGD). They didn't quite see eye to eye: the PM would design pages; the FGD would tinker with them for days. The showdown was like what the meeting of De Niro and Pacino in the film Heat should have been like. They were working opposite each other. It was lunchtime, the office virtually empty. Something snapped in the PM; probably it was the overpriced FGD fiddling with the Quark (yes, Quark) pages yet again. The PM started shouting at the FGD about changing the pages just before press day. The FGD had no choice but to shout back, telling him his pages were rubbish and needing changing. This goes on for a bit and by now they are both standing up. Then the FGD utters the words which might actually be straight from the film Heat: "If you want me gone, just say the word. I'm gone in five minutes. I'm out of here and you'll never see me again." Four years later, he's still there and the PM isn't. 3. The dramatic resignation*
The new magazine editor was born on exactly the same day, month and year as me – we had been on earth exactly the same time, and had had different life experiences to say the least. More worryingly, a young woman we worked with – well, her mother was also exactly the same age as us. He had issues: since leaving the army he'd been listless and lacked direction. I didn't know anything about him, except he'd only just met his nine year-old son for the first time the previous year. He'd had a turbulent affair for six months with a Spanish woman (who he said was crazy) a decade previously. Ten years later she'd called him up and said he had a nine year-old son. He'd been able to meet him once, in Spain, chaperoned by his son's mother's sister. Neither the mother or the sister approved of him, and didn't want him seeing his son again.
He worked with us for a few months. He obviously wasn't enjoying it. One day, just before home time, he was getting upset about being dictated to by PR agencies; he said he couldn't work under these conditions. The managing editor informed him it was the nature of the beast. His face turned red; he slammed a load of papers down on his desk; stood up, and declared, in that case, 'I resign'. It just came out, I wasn't sure he actually meant it. He looked surprised that the words had come out of his mouth. People don't resign like that any more; I admired it. There were only a few of us in the office, but the words had been uttered, and he had to pretty much follow through with it.
4. The crazy freelancer*
She looked like what I imagine a Marxist lesbian would look like. Very intense, she could barely look at men, and sneered when I suggested she could use the men's toilet (the women's being occupied). She slammed drawers and office stationary loudly and muttered to herself. The incident happened, again, at lunchtime; the office was almost empty. She was a freelance reporter, interviewing someone on the phone for a magazine article. At some point a couple of us sitting nearby realised she was having an argument with her interviewee, and her voice got louder and more aggressive. She had our full attention by the time she was shouting at him "You will not hang up on me! You will finish the interview! Don't you dare hang up on me!" She was gone the next day.
5. I resign
I saved the best till last didn't I? *I know what you're thinking – the office was virtually empty in all three episodes – how was I the only person to witness all three events? Just lucky I guess.
I know I moan about office life a fair bit (see below) but seriously, taking a bunch of random people; putting them in a grey box with strip lighting (ie an office); staring at a screen all day; getting them to have to work together eight hours a day, five days a week; where passive aggressive behaviour is the order of the day; and do activities that are at best pointless, at worse painful; I don't know, it just seems like a perverse joke.
The musical genre is perhaps the most underrated (how can you not love Busby Berkeley?) in cinema, but delightful, moving, beautiful, surreal, unexpected musical – whether dancing or singing or both – moments often occur in non-musical films, sometimes in quite bad films (and not exactly great songs), as the following list demonstrates. But the mix of sound and image somehow works to create something sublime.
1. Mauvais Sang (1986) – Modern LoveDavid Bowie
This extraordinary clip of Denis Lavant running, coughing, stumbling, dancing, cartwheeling and punching himself to the tune of David Bowie's Modern Love is one my favourite film sequences – it's certainly the reason Modern Love is my favourite David Bowie song.
2. Big (1988) – Heart and Soul / Chopsticks
3. Rush hour (1988) – WarEdwin Starr
Best bit of the film.
4. Ten things I hate about you (1999) – Can’t take my eyes off you Frankie Vallie
Someone singing to a loved one in public is the ultimate romantic
gesture, fraught as it with complete embarrassment and humiliation.
Naturally, it always comes off okay in the movies.
6. Pretty in Pink (1986) – Try a Little Tenderness Otis Redding
7. Almost Famous (2000) – Tiny DancerElton John
8. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Singing in the Rain Gene Kelly
9. A Bigger Splash (2015) – Emotional RescueRolling Stones
Ralph Fiennes does Jagger.
10. Train wreck (2015) – Uptown Girl Billy Joel
Though this sequence is to woo back her boyfriend, it comes just after alcoholic/nymphomaniac Amy Schemer has got drunk and tried to rape a 16-year-old boy. I personally wouldn’t go anywhere near her.
Imagine a society where every citizen gets £30,000 a year, paid for by the government, just for existing. Basic Income, also known as Unconditional Basic Income and Universal Basic Income, has been an economic theory for some time but has only recently become a feasible possibility. Jeremy Corbyn has been 'looking at' the theory, and several nations and states, including Switzerland and some cities in the Netherlands, have or will hold referendums on the topic (Switzerland recently rejected the plan but has been the first country to hold a vote for it). Ontario, Canada, is also looking to initiate a pilot project for Basic Income.
The concept is not a new one: from Thomas Paine to Richard Nixon the idea has been around, in various forms, for hundreds of years. Basically, Basic Income gives every individual a livable amount of income every year without means test or work requirement, regardless of any other income, regardless of background, sex or age.
There are some big questions around it – some economical (can it financially be done? Apparently, yes), others philosophical (what would we do with our time?). The time question is the most interesting one. Would we want to work? Well, a lot of would probably not, seeing as most of the population work in minimum wage, pointless soul-destroying jobs. Hopefully some people would still want to work (!), but the idea is they'd work fewer hours, giving them more free time and enabling others to also work part-time in their jobs, creating more work.
I literally dream of a world of Basic Income, where work and financial worry isn't the sole focus of our lives; where we're not wasting eight hours a day, five days a week doing mindless activities simply to exist; where we spend more time with our families and friends; where we have time to explore and develop other interests in life – spirituality, learning to play the violin, spending six months in Morocco painting. Being free from financial worry would enable us to pursue our dreams, and though – if that dream amounts to being a rock star, writer or painter – might not amount to fame and riches, at least we'd have the time and money to explore it. Alternatively, one could just become an alcoholic and watch YouTube videos all day and night.
"Socialism!" I hear you cry! It'll never work! Okay, let me try to sell you this one instead: Capitalism. A system where only the top 5% are the winners and the gulf between rich and poor gets wider and wider; where profit comes at the expense of everything from personal feelings to the environment; where corporations rule the world and have no accountability for whatever they do, whether it's destroy the environment or pay no taxes. Surely it'll never catch on.
Ten years ago today, this blog started simply with 'Hello' followed by 'Is anyone out there?' It proved to be one of my most popular posts, amassing four comments in the space of over nine years. It was a hard act to follow, and ten years and over 800 posts later I'm still chasing the dream. You would have noticed I've been writing less and less posts – time and inspiration are often lacking. I'll try to keep up writing at least one a month. Thanks for watching.
The 12 metre tall Man Engine has just finished its two week, 130 mile journey through the mining counties of Cornwall and West Devon. Slightly reminiscent of Ted Hughes' Iron Man, the mechanical puppet is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the mines receiving recognition as a World Heritage Site from UNESCO. That some old mines in south England have the same status as the Taj Mahal, Borobudur and Angkor Wat may seem surprising but aside from their historical importance, the mines are a beautiful sight to behold.
We visited ones around Carn Brae, walking some of the Great Flat Lode trail, a seven mile journey along the old tramway routes that miners used to use. On a beautiful day, the paths were virtually empty (most people at the beach, we surmised), and the mines are tumbling down and overgrown with ivy and flowers; it felt like stumbling across the ancient abandoned kingdoms of Cambodia or Peru. The mines look like Gothic ruined abbeys, churches and castles. I swear I heard the clippety clop of horses approaching us on the path – but it was empty; just the echo of history was all I heard.
Even though they've cut 341 trains a day; even though their trains never, ever run on time; even though trains are cancelled without warning or explanation; even though the staff often go on strike, though they rarely turn up anyway; even though the trains are overcrowded and creak and crawl along the track, stopping at a red signal every few minutes; even though it's the worst performing train company in the country, even after all this, it's reassuring to know the class system still exists in England, and for twice the price of a regular fare one can purchase a first class ticket for Southern trains and the only discernible difference seriously seems to be the (removable) First Class white piece of cloth on the back of the seat. However, if anyone actually buys a first class ticket, they can rest assured no riff-raff will be next to them – Southern has actually fined people for standing in the first class carriage when the train has been so crowded that there's been nowhere else to stand. Tomorrow, a fresh week of industrial action – can't wait!
"Mr Grogan writes so clearly that he almost convinces us the whole story could be true."
– The New Yorker
"This book is true."
"The best and only authentic book written on the sixties underground."
– Dennis Hopper
According to his autobiography, Ringolevio, A Life Played for Keeps, by the age of 21, Emmett Grogan (born Kenny Wisdom) had fought in a gang fight with the largest gang in New York (The Chaplains); spent time in jail; become a heroin addict, a burglar and a robber; watched as he and his mates kill a heroin addict with battery acid (it looks like heroin and leaves no trace); attended a posh prep school on Park Avenue, Manhattan, where he excels at basketball and goes to weekly parties with the rich kids and their parents for the sole reason to scope out the houses to rob them – which he does very successfully, waiting for the owners to go on vacation then looting them all of money and jewellery. Whilst doing this, he stays at a posh hotel and hangs out at Birdland listening to the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Bobby Gillespie. But when local gangsters get wind of his selling the stolen jewellery he becomes a wanted man.
He flees the States with $40,000 in his pocket; first to Amsterdam (on the boat across has an affair with a model), then Paris, where the tensions between the Algerians and the French are high – a bomb explodes just outside his hotel room. Meeting two men in a cafe, he drives with them across the Alps into Geneva, Switzerland then Italy, where he climbs mountains, learns to speak fluent Italian and helps build a church. He spends eight months in Heidelberg partying and spends a large chunk of his money; goes to Italy, witnessing the funeral of "Lucky" Luciano; then Rome, where he gets set up by a dealer called Squint Laszlo and spends seven months in jail (he's 17 by now). He swears revenge on Laszlo, tracks him down to the States, watches his house for a month, kills him with a shotgun, expertly making it look like an accident (they'd been a lot of recent mishaps with local residents killing themselves whilst cleaning their guns).
Emmett goes back to Italy and in Rome he watches films and reads the beat writers. He meets a girl, attends film school and immerses himself in New Wave cinema, Pasolini, Fellini. Adapts TS Eliot's Wasteland into a screenplay. Makes and acts in a few films, one of which wins a prize at a film festival but then is expelled from film school when one of the judges recognises him from when he was arrested and tried in Rome previously. Reads Joyce – goes to Dublin. Gets a job at the Guinness brewery, hangs out with the IRA, blows up a few buildings. Goes to London; writes pornography books for a while until, again, gangsters are after him for muscling in on their turf (his partner in writing had just been hospitalised).
(When he's not doing these things, he's either beating the shit out of someone, drinking Cutty Sark, taking drugs, getting busted by the cops, having casual sex (most notably in the back seat of a limousine with four beautiful black chicks and a lot of cocaine, whilst being driven through the Newark riots of 1967) or reading Beat writers.)
At 21, Emmett Grogan returns to the States for good, where he immediately gets drafted into the Vietnam war. In army training, where, naturally, he excels, Grogan deliberately gets himself discharged by popping a load of pills and aiming a bazooka at his fellow soldiers, and subsequently spends time in the psychiatric ward before being set free.
Grogan finds himself in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and becomes immersed in the counter culture, founding the Diggers, the anti-establishment anarchist group who distributed free food, put on improvised street theatre and organised free concerts with the like of The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. Entirely distrustful of the whole flower power movement, he becomes a kind of outlaw figure and legend, equally admired and despised. His reputation spreads, and Grogan gives talks in London, New York and San Francisco; he coins the phrase
"Today is the first day of the rest of your life"; hangs out with The Black Panthers, Timothy Leary, The Hell's Angels, Michael X, Allen
Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan; organises the Rolling Stones'
Altamont free concert (whilst in police custody). He kidnaps Governor George Romney and his wife, Lenore, in a large truck in San Francisco, managing to lose the FBI and the police. One of the most moving sequences in the book occurs when he leaves San
Francisco briefly to learn how to hunt deer with an American Indian in a forest in New
This was all before he was thirty; by thirty-five he would be dead of a
heroin overdose. Whether or not it's all true or not is a moot point;
it's a terrific read. Whether or not there even existed a man called
Emmett Grogan is also fairly moot (my boon companion think he's
fictional, and in the book there are several allusions to Emmett Grogan
being a myth – he shuns all publicity, refuses interviews, the photos that exist of him are not him but an actor. He basically works like a dog, stealing food and setting up 'free' shops to help the poor and needy (an about-turn for someone who used to beat the shit out
of people, and murdered a few too). There's not that much information about him online.
The 500-page autobiography, written in crystal clear, detailed prose in the third person, where, confusingly, for the first half of the book he is Kenny Wisdom before changing his name to Emmett Grogan, is part polemic and part unbelievable adventure story. Why is there not a film made of this man's life?
If writing an autobiography by the age of thirty seems a little vain, well, Kenneth Branagh, merely an actor, wrote his first one by the same age, and Jordan, a model, has so far ghostwritten* four, the first of which was the biggest selling autobiography sold at WH Smith** in a single week.
*I don't mind ghost-written autobiographies at all – unless they're a writer, there's no reason to suppose any celebrity should be able to write a book of their life. However, Jordan has also ghostwritten three novels, which is slightly beside the point for a novelist.
**I've been meaning to write a post about WH Smith for years, but it'll just consist of this: it's crap. It's always been crap. It's like jack of all trades, master of none. Its greetings cards are tacky, magazines and books bland and mainstream, chocolate overpriced, toys and stationary limited... Bring back Borders! Did I actually dream Borders? It was like my favourite shop ever, yet no one I mention it to have even heard of it.