Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Spilling the beans

Spilt coffee on the steps of Goldsmiths University, London.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Water in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky

Water in the films of Tarkovsky (other motifs in his films include fire, dogs and horses) always looks so lush and inviting (when it doesn't include falling masonry). Characters in his films rarely change to bathe – they usually go into the water fully-clothed. His water is often subterranean and where it shouldn’t be; an abandoned building, a leaking ceiling (sometimes in a dream or fantasy sequence). Whatever its context, I always want to be in it. The camera lingers on it, zooms into it, characters stare at it, verdant underwater plants dance in it. Only the animated films of Studio Ghibli come close to showing the beauty of water.

From top to bottom: two from Stalker; Andrei Rublev; Mirror; Nostalgia; The Sacrifice; two from Solaris

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Random film review: Andrei Rublev

Iconic: a still from Andrei Rublev

Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky | Soviet Union | 1966 | 183 mins.

There's a running joke between my daughter, partner and myself that when we're deciding on a film to watch of an evening, I always say how about a four-hour Russian black and white movie? They always sigh, and say no. The four-hour Russian black and white film I'm always referring to is Andrei Rublev (actually just over three hours long but I exaggerate for effect). I first watched it aged 18 as an art student, and watched it again recently.

Maybe it's the black and white combined with the brutally realistic depiction of medieval Russia but I look on the film as a virtual documentary on the life of the icon painter Andrei Rublev (circa. 1360-1430) though at least 90% of it is presumably made up, seeing as little is known of his actual life. Nevertheless, it feels a truthful, spiritual, and profoundly moving experience watching the film as we follow the monk Rublev (played by Tarkovsky regular Anatoly Solonitsyn) wandering the harsh Russian landscape looking for work as an icon painter and encountering naked pagan rituals, brutal Tatar raids, famine, war and, finally, the casting of a giant bell, where Rublev breaks his vow of silence and desires to return to painting (he'd had years of self-doubt, questioning the role of the artist in society and the point of art amid so much war and bloodshed). The epilogue is the only colour segment of the film, where we see close-ups of Rublev's paintings.

However, not a lot of actual painting is seen during the film (so, no, it's not like watching paint dry). In fact, the guy doesn't even so much as pick up a paintbrush in over three hours (though there's one scene when Rublev is seen sketching an icon). For those looking for the clues to his genius, there is none. It's more like an anti-biopic. After two hours he goes on a vowel of silence. Then gives up painting altogether. In old age he becomes an extra in his own biopic (doesn't that happen to us all eventually? We just become an extra in our own life?).

When I went to Russia a few years ago, aside from the churches and brutalist Soviet architecture, the main thing I wanted to see was Rublev's paintings in the flesh. And they were stunning and beautiful, the colours still fresh and bold. The film had haunted me for many years, and it felt a profound experience to see the paintings, which no doubt I wouldn't have heard of if it wasn't for the film, over twenty years after first watching it.

– 5/5 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top ten films about painters
Andrei Tarkovsky's top ten films
Top ten foreign sci-fi movies

Random film review: I, Daniel Blake

Dir: Ken Loach | UK | 2016 | 100 mins.

England on celluloid is one of extremes: it's either Richard Curtis or Ken Loach. Real life is somewhere in between for most of us, hopefully. But a few lives are like a Richard Curtis film, far more, most likely, are like a Ken Loach film.

First off, I, Daniel Blake is an important and moving film, charting as it does the benefits hell of Geordie Daniel Blake, who is unable to claim Employment and Support Allowance following a heart attack. His doctor has found him unfit to work but a five minute Work Capability Assessment deems him fit and able, so he has to make a claim for Jobseeker's Allowance. This means he has to actively search for work and provide evidence, but he has to turn work down on the advice of his doctor.

Caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of benefit bureaucracy, what comes across is the seemingly intentional dehumanisation and humiliation of people caught in the benefits system, where through no fault of ones own – accident, loss, illness, redundancy – a person has to turn to the state for help and is treated like a number. What saves the film from being totally depressing is the spirit and humour of Daniel Blake (played by comedian Dave Johns) and his friendship with Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mum of two from London, recently arrived in Newcastle.

I'm glad Ken Loach is making films, but too often find him didactic, his characters mere pawns to express his view on society. It seems hard to believe that, Blake, a man in his 50s with a decent job (carpenter) would never have used a computer or the internet before (though I realise we still live in a country where some people can't read or write). Hence we have a scene in the library where Blake puts his mouse against the computer screen to move the cursor, having never seen or used such a device in his life. Other elements verge on cinematic cliché – Katie turning to escort work, for example, rather than looking for work in a bar or shop.

At the risk of sounding facetious, the film sometimes came across as a DIY manual – how to heat your home with bubble wrap, tea lights and a flower pot, for example, and I was thinking (after a bit of internet training, natch) Blake should launch a YouTube channel of instructional videos. Seriously though, he could at least have set up a small carpentry business; it's a great skill to have, and very much in demand. If he did small projects (like his treasured mobiles, the only thing in his flat he wouldn't sell), it wouldn't have affected his heart. 

After it ended, I did imagine a Hollywood remake: Blake takes an Uzi into the job centre and guns everyone down, blows the building up and runs off to Mexico to live with Katie. But it's a Loach film, and there was no happy ending.

– 4/5

Be good to your fiends


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Top ten missed vinyl barngains

 One that got away... Popol Vuh's soundtrack to Herzog's classic 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God (though it only contains two tracks from the actual film)

Missed, lost chances and regrets swirl around in my head, whether it be job opportunities, friends, lovers, photos, books or records. I have no explanation for why I didn't buy these records, most of which were under a tenner, and all of which I now of course desperately want.

1. Bob Dylan – The 50th Anniversary Collection 1963 
(6 LP set)
This is the only one I will probably never have the chance to buy again, seeing as it was released in a limited edition of 100 (snuck out by Sony/Legacy to prevent the recordings entering the public domain) and now sells for about £500. I can't remember why I was in Sister Ray early one Saturday morning in November 2013 but I saw it there. For £30. Seemed expensive at the time.

2. Popol Vuh – Aguirre (pictured above)
This one isn't worth a huge amount – about £40 – but the original pressing seems fairly rare. I'd seen it for £5 at a record stall at a car boot sale a few years back. I held it in my hands, put it back. Went back to the stall half an hour later – it was still there – again, held it in my hands, ummed and ahhed, but didn't buy it.

(Recently my mum returned from the V&A with a bunch of greetings cards – including one with the Indian painting of the lotuses on the cover of Aguirre – which even my daughter recognised immediately, as I'd been going on about it so much. For years. Sigh.)

3. Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers 
The one with the famous Andy Warhol crotch shot cover with an actual zipper on the original LP,  I saw this at the record stall in Barnes Fair. Quite rare for the cover to be in perfect condition (with an intact zipper, so to speak) but the vinyl had a large scratch on it so I passed. £4.

4. Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet
£2 in a charity shop in Richmond, this one wasn't in very good condition.

5. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited / 
Bringing it all Back Home
Two classic Dylan albums in great condition at a car boot sale for £3 each. Don't ask.

6. Every single Steeleye Span album
I love Steeleye Span but don't have any of their albums. About a dozen or so had turned up in a charity shop, as well as solo stuff by Maddy Prior. They were all in perfect condition, and £2 each. I wasn't sure which ones to buy – aside from all of them – so opted for none. But I did get Liege & Leaf by Fairport Convention.

7. Crates of classic rock LPs including Led Zeppelin, 
David Bowie etc.
A van pulled up at the Chiswick car boot sale and unloaded about twenty crates of vinyl. Middle-aged men swarmed around them. I had a good look, they were all £2 each, but I felt a bit overwhelmed. There were multiple copies of, say, the first Led Zeppelin album, with different coloured covers. I couldn't remember which the valuable pressings were, so didn't buy anything.

8. Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
Classic experimental album that is very painful to listen to. I've probably heard the whole album once. Nevertheless, seeing the first pressing, double LP in mint condition in a charity shop was tempting. But not for £20. I went back a few times, waiting for it to be reduced in price. The third time I went, all the vinyl was half price, but Trout Mask Replica was gone. There was other stuff left – including Safe as Milk for £5. I should have got it. But didn't.

9. The Beatles – White Album
Never much liked the Beatles anyway*. £6 a bit steep. Mentioned previously.

10. Crazy Horse – Crazy Horse
The debut album of Neil Young's backing band for £1 in a Crystal Palace charity shop seems a no-brainer but it was a bit tatty.

I very rarely make this mistake any more (i.e. if it's a pound or two, I'll  take a chance – go crazy – and buy it), and the amount of barngains I have bought runs to hundreds, so I'm grateful for what I've managed to find – but these missed ones nag at me like a sore tooth for some reason.


*I remember reading in Nick Hornby's 31 Songs how he wasn't a big Dylan fan but realised he owned about a dozen of his albums anyway. I'm the same with the Beatles (and David Bowie) – I wouldn't call myself a fan of either, but find I own, on vinyl and CD, virtually every album they ever released (as well as some rarieties).

I'm also not a fan of James Corden – but found myself watching his recent Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney. It was surprisingly moving as Macca visits his old haunts in Liverpool, then does a surprise gig in a pub he used to drink in as a lad.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Missed Photos
Letting the barngains go
Recent barngain LPs
Recent barngains
The month's musical barngains
Top 10 greatest missed  barngains
Top 10 most valuable CDs (Consistently one of my post popular posts for some reason)

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Corn + Wall = Cornwall

50 Shades of Ray / Catching some Rays

Just two (for the price of one) concepts from the 28-page book that is It's A Shame About Ray.

Here's what people are already saying about it:

"U r a fucking genius!!!!!!"
– Christian

"Makes me want to meet the legend"
– Mel

"You must have a lot of time on your hands"
– Caspar

"Brilliant work"
– Narinder

"No comment"
– Ray

Top ten London buildings

1. Natural History Museum, SW7*
2. Michelin House, SW3* (pictured)
3. Battersea Power Station, SW8*
4. Horniman Museum, SE23
5. Space House, WC2
6. Gala Bingo Hall, SW17*
7. Peckham Library, SE15
8. Crossness Pumping Station, SE2
9. Southgate Tube Station, N14
10. St Pancras railway station, N1C

*What can I say? South west is best.

Inspirational demotivational business slogans

Previously on Barnflakes:
Aspire to be average
Don't just be yourself
Dream job is an oxymoron; T-1000 came up with 'Nightmare job is a tautology' but it's just the flip side of the coin – I would have thought of it eventually.
Top five office moments

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:
The BARNACLES page has been updated and 'redesigned' (i.e. font made bigger), with choice bon mots now added regularly.

A brief* history of photography (part two)

At the risk of sounding pretentious (though I never thought there was anything wrong with that), I feel photography's always been in my blood. My grandfather, who I never met, was a keen photographer and amateur filmmaker; he worked for Kodak and experimented with 16mm colour film before it was available to the public. My uncle, who sadly passed away recently (I helped write his obituary in the Guardian), was a successful food photographer in the 1970s (I remember the surprise of seeing a poster of his in Athena whilst at school and thinking 'He's famous'!) and made adverts in the 1980s. My dad barely ever takes a picture, but my brother and I have always taken them. I would say it was travelling, like with many people, which got both of us into photography. We take similar photos too – of doorways, pavements and faded posters, for example.

Photography was always there in my travels – even if I wasn't the one taking the photos. For example, whilst in a belly dancing club in Cairo in the mid-1990s, my girlfriend at the time and I met two photographers taking pictures of the dancers, and of my girlfriend too when she got up on stage to have a go at belly dancing. They were using a Rolleiflex film camera and promised to post us prints but never did.

Said girlfriend was anti-photography, as I have been too at various times, so I didn't take many photos in Egypt (but obviously, the ones I did are great, such as this and this) or Morocco or most of SE Asia (I took about ten rolls of 36 photos in six months; I might take that in a week now with my iPhone); unique photo opportunities, perhaps, in my travelling days – hitching rides on the back of trucks full of Berbers and goats in the Sahara desert; narrowly missing massacres and revolutions (stuck in Jakarta with dengue fever during the riots and revolution for the fall of Soherto in May 1998, I was surrounded by photo journalists and used to hang out with them in the bars around Jalan Jaksa. I hardly took any photos – I was trying to make a video with a cheap camcorder until it got stolen by a prostitute – see my book Gullible Travels if you're interested). I curse myself now for not buying an SLR and taking lots of photos; it was a different world back then. The things I saw I'll never see again.

But I always felt I was a photographer, just one who didn't necessarily take photos (like Isabelle Huppert in Hal Hartley's film Amateur – the nymphomaniac who doesn't have sex), hence I'm doing a book of Missed Photos (there's something about the photos I didn't take that are always better than the ones I did). Didn't the Japanese used to say – which always seemed to me a bit ironic for them – cameras are an intrusion as they see into the window of the soul? Back then, it felt like I was living life, and photos were just an impingement on life (I always thought photography, like writing, a lonely existence; that's why I think I went into film, a collaborative process).

As mentioned in part one, I learnt how to use an SLR at 'A' Levels, then forgot how; I learnt at art college, then forgot how; I learnt at film school, then forgot how. The first 'proper' camera I bought was a Lomo (it felt proper to me). I loved my Lomo – shooting from the hip was their motto. I worked with a guy called Ken who was annoyingly good at whatever he tried his hand at, including Lomo photography. He took amazing photos with his, and had one published in a magazine, but he had no real interest in photography. I took okay ones, such as this and this.

My Lomo got stolen (also mentioned in part one); in fact I've had about half a dozen cameras stolen from me over the years. I should take heed. Like when my skateboard broke in half (a lovely Mark Gonzales board by Santa Cruz), I knew it was time to quit. I was crap skater (but liked the lifestyle).

Eventually the internet came. I went off photography again in the early internet age, and didn't take any good pics for years. It's like men who think they have a reasonably-sized dick until they come across porn on the internet, and they think 'What the fuck? Is that for real?' (or indeed women who think their boyfriend is pretty well-endowed...). Whatever talent you think you have – genital size, photography, writing, graphic design, illustration... there's a million other people who are bigger, better and more popular than you. Comparisons are inevitable if fruitless at best, destructive at worst.

I enjoy many things – chess, tennis, films, music, writing, photography, travel, for example – but not being brilliant at anything (or even just gaining the respect of my peers or being popular on social media; encouragement from my daughter and girlfriend don't count – that's unfair; of course they do, they're my biggest fans who keep me going – but you know what I mean... they may be biased) is, well, extremely frustrating. Unfortunately, lack of ambition and self-confidence aren't a good combination and don't really help.

With the internet, there's so much talent, sure, but also so much rubbish (or worse still, so much average stuff). A friend told me recently it’s the worst time ever to want to become a photographer – everyone’s a photographer; every day millions of photos are being uploaded. Exactly, I replied, there’s more crap than ever before.

(But Instagram, ah, Instagram. It doesn't even matter what your photos are like. It's about being popular. If you're a popular person, your photos are popular. It reminds me of being at school. The internet is one big popularity contest. Is it just me – yes, I know it is – but the popular photos and blog posts are just inundated with complements: 'amazing photo!', 'great post!', etc – if I ever get any comments, they're mainly piss-takes.)

In a recent interview, Joel Meyerowitz, famous street photographer of the 1960s, declared contemporary street photography dead – the streets are filled with people glued to their phones, he said. I think street photography is the hardest but most exciting genre of photography: you never know what you're going to come across. I love the idea of being a flaneur, wondering the city armed with a camera (which I've been doing on – but mainly off – for 25 years all over the world). Walking down any street, you may stumble across a great photo with a click of the shutter (such as this – which, you know, I love, but think in this day and age, with most people pretty visually astute, maybe six out of ten people walking past it would have taken a shot of it with their phone, and come up with a similar result. The main difference being they probably don't work for Magnum).

(This is what gets me about most office work – you know exactly what you're going to do, every single day. There's no surprises, no eureka moments – but photography, and street photography in particular, you can be walking around the most boring neighbourhood, but if your wits are about you, you may happen upon something beautiful and unexpected.)

The truth is, I've lived most of my life in my head (have I mentioned this before? Oh yes, here somewhere). I read biographies and autobiographies all the time – of film-makers, artists, mathematicians (Alan Turing, if you're wondering), travellers, musicians – from Miles Davis and Malcolm Lowry to Bruce Chatwin and Alan Lomax. What I'm always looking for, in a way, is a clue to how they did it, how they succeeded, and, in a way I suppose, where I went wrong in life. Just as in the film Life of a Leader (excellent, though almost too opaque even for me; the soundtrack the most accessible thing about it, which is saying something for latter-day Scott Walker) looks at the childhood and possible clues as to what ingredients go towards making a fascist dictator (presumably Hitler). So I endlessly pore over clues to what maketh the man (yes, usually a man) a successful artist in his field (Malcolm Gladwell says it's 10,000 hours of practise but I'm not so sure). In other words, to put it another way, why do I feel such a failure (in this area of my life)?

(What can I say? I have friends working in film, advertising, music and fashion; I know people who have published books and directed films; some are earning over £100K a year... I'm genuinely happy for them, if that's what they want. Most of them don't have time to spend their money, let alone spend time with their partners and children. A lot of these so-called glamorous jobs are actually fairly dull; either a lot of waiting around, or not ever leaving the Mac screen. I've worked in most of these fields and though I've been paid well, I've not had any job satisfaction at all. I'll always go my own way, plough my own furrow.)

It might be that I spend more watching my old videos on YouTube, looking at my photos on Flickr and Instagram and reading old blog posts more than anyone else does. I look at other people's work a lot too, and spend time thinking about photography and film, but get disheartened by the sheer volume and talent of it all – and then the comparison thing comes back. I love my films, designs, photos and writing. This is the crux of my failure – no one else agrees with me! At the risk of sounding pretentious again, I try to be creative every single day. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but this is what I've always done, and always will. It's what keeps me going.

Living in my head, I sometimes fantasise that my writing/films/photography/design will be 'discovered' (isn't that how it works? The good stuff rises to the top?) and I'll gain recognition in one of the fields. And make some money! Doing what I like doing! But I'll be aged 82, maybe, sitting in an old people's home, imagining the same thing – I’ll be thinking a Hollywood exec will read a treatment of a film I've written and buy the rights to it; a gallery will call to request an exhibition of my photos; a company will call to use a photo of mine for a billboard campaign; my videos will get millions of hits on YouTube... you get the idea. But meanwhile...

It feels like everything's passed me by. All my interests and passions – films, photography, graphic design, car boot sales, charity shops, old records, books and magazines, art history, travel, my paintings, doodles and writing, my impeccable taste – I just thought it would all lead somewhere. I often think I just want to chuck it all up into the air and have it all land in a different position so I can find a way forward. And get rich and famous.

*Turned out to be slightly longer than brief, and perhaps more personal than I envisaged. Luckily no one reads my long blog posts. Thanks for listening if you made it this far.

Previously on Barnflakes:
A brief history of photography (part one)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Top 10 films with men in drag

1. Divine
Pink Flamingos (1972)

2. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis
Some Like it Hot (1959)

3. Dustin Hoffman
Tootsie (1982)

4. Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) 

5. Jeff Bridges
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) 

6. Kurt Russell
Tango and Cash (1989)

7. Tim Curry
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

8. John Travolta
Hairspray (2007)

9. Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo
To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)

10. Robin Williams
Mrs Doubtfire (1993)

Monday, June 04, 2018

Saatchi gallery barngains

It's a shame when the gallery or museum shop is more stimulating than the exhibits on show, but such was the case at the Saatchi gallery this weekend, whose current exhibition, Known Unknowns, failed to excite me or my daughter. The gallery shop, however, was full of wonders. Aside from charity shops, gallery and museum shops are my favourite kind of shops. I'd like to see a whole shopping centre of them, largely to save having to visit the galleries themselves, and to buy all my Christmas presents in one fell swoop. Imagine, shops of the British Museum, Tate, V&A, Natural History museum, etc, all under one roof. Retail and cultural bliss combined.

The Saatchi gallery shop has lots of reduced books, including The Field Guide to Typography: Typefaces in the Urban Landscape, a neat book which informs you which fonts are which in the city, from shop signs to train station signage. Reduced from £16.99 to £6.95.

In the gallery itself, French Lebanese artist Mouna Rebeiz has gone to town on the freebie front. Her exhibition The Trash-ic or Trash in the Face of Beauty, is giving away lavish A3 catalogues of the exhibition, as well as an English edition of the French art magazine connaissance des arts (usual price: £7.80), which features – yup – her exhibition. I don't know who's paying for this free promotion for Rebeiz (presumably not her). Finally, Saatchi's surprisingly consistently boring gallery magazine, Art  & Music, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, was also picked up for free. Oh, the gallery is also free to visit, should you feel the need to go.

I don't know, I just figured as my daughter (almost 12) is into girl power, she might like the exhibition of 17 female artists. I didn't think it would be exploring mainly adult themes – spurting bodily fluids, sex, human trafficking – and my daughter wasn't impressed. Some of it actually looked quite interesting, but we had to rush through it – there was a shop to get to.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Zombie blockbuster disaster movie dream

I’ve wanted one of these dreams all my life – a combination of low budget, edgy zombie film and Hollywood blockbuster disaster movie. I got one the other night, then wished I hadn’t. I’ve mentioned before how when my life is busy and exciting, my dreams are mundane in the extreme. And when my life is dull, my dreams can be pretty exciting. Well, this one was a roller coaster and a half.

Mankind was living with the post-zombie apocalypse, zombies were everywhere and that was fine, they were a nuisance but pretty harmless and under control. Apart form the biting, they blended pretty well into society. Ken, an old colleague I haven’t seen for years, was around. Pacey and Dawson from Dawson’s Creek were around (looking like they were still in the 1990s); I think they were soldiers living in the barracks.

Without warning there was a blinding light, an explosion and a flood of Biblical proportions. Mass confusion and hysteria ensued. I was standing in the street with my daughter's mother at the time; I don’t know where our daughter was – safe, I sensed. Water was rising fast. We started running up a hill; the water was already up to our waists. I eventually reached the top of the hill, just safe from the water below. I looked around, thinking my ex was right behind me. She wasn’t. I looked down below, and there she was, on a raft, just about to go into an abyss. We looked at each other for a split second – in that second, in her eyes, I knew she’d made peace, and everything would be okay, I would look after my daughter. Then she was gone.

I was upset. Back at the barracks, I hugged Ken. Then I had to tell my parents, my ex's parents and my auntie and uncle (aren’t dreams amazing? In real life, my uncle had recently died, but here he was alive as day). My daughter already knew. My dad mumbled that he’d had a ‘very disturbing’ voice message on his phone from my ex, just before she went over the edge.

I woke up sweating, almost in tears. It was a classic! Production values were high; special effects pretty realistic, acting very good. It packed an emotional punch. Script top notch, if slightly confusing in places.

Previously on Barnflakes:

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

It's a Shame About Ray – the book

Yes, this is now an actual thing. What started off as a drunken laugh in the pub is now, a week later, an actual book – well, once I get it printed of course. It's a Shame About Ray – named after the classic Lemonheads album – is a tribute to production manager Ray, his B2B magazine flatplans, and the cornucopia of puns that go with the man and the name.

And what an array of Rays: from Blu-Ray, Stingray and Ray Gun to the Milky Ray, 50 Shades of Ray and Ray of Hope, all the clichés – and more – are featured in one handy 28-page, A5 booklet. A fitting panegyric to the man and his work, it is also the perfect companion to my previous Rashisms: The Book of Rash, as Ray and Rash both worked together.

Previously on Barnflakes:
The Rayfaring Stranger
Rashims: The Book of Rash

Thursday, May 17, 2018

London through its charity shops #36: some odds and ends

Victoria, SW1P
The train station and surrounding area have been under construction for years and it still feels like a building site. The shiny new buildings are all ghastly, with one – the Nova Victoria – being dubbed ugliest of the year last year and winning the Carbuncle Cup.

The only redeeming features in the area are the stunning Westminster Cathedral, with its Stations of the Cross by Eric Gill, and Strutton Ground, the only nice road in the vicinity with its cobbled stones and weekday food market. There's a jolly nice Oxfam bookshop there, also selling music and DVDs.

Bermondsey Street, SE1
My favourite street around London Bridge now has a charity shop. Cause for celebration? Nope, because it's a Marys Living and Giving Shop for Save the Children with no books or records and men's shirts costing £25. 

Tulse Hill, SW2 to West Norwood, SE27
It's taken me years to know the difference between Tulse and Herne Hill (confusingly, for my mind anyway, it's because they're so close to each other). Tulse Hill is horrible, where people get shot and dragged under cars; Herne Hill is pretty nice.

Across the road from Tulse Hill train station is a ramshackle Geranium Shops For The Blind charity shop. These are getting to be such a rare breed; most charity shops been tarted up into boutiques with prices to match. This one's cheap and a bit dirty but can get in good stuff.

Continuing south along Norwood Road, we enter West Norwood before we reach another charity shop, and it's another Geranium. This is similarly ramshackle but bigger. Next is a relatively sterile RSPCA, with not much of anything of interest, ever. Past the train station on Knight's Hill are two Emmaus Lambeth, one selling white goods and electricals, the other, clothes.

Herne Hill, SE24
Herne Hill is nicely situated by Brockwell Park and has a funky market on Sundays. Not greatly served by charity shops, it has two pleasant Oxfam shops opposite each other on the delightfully named Half Moon Lane, a general shop and a bookshop.

Brixton, SW2 & SW9
Brixton has also never been good for charity shops. There's been a TRAID for years, which I've never been in, and there's now a huge Barnardo's on the corner of Brixton and Stockwell Roads, almost opposite the Brixton Academy. Lots of clothes, records, bric-a-brac and books; they had a good selection of art books when I last went in – I picked up one on Marcel Dzama for a couple of quid.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London through its charity shops

Monday, May 14, 2018

London libraries #7: Swiss Cottage

A brutalist exterior houses a delicate, flowing and symmetrical modernist interior. What's not to like? Originally designed in 1964 by Sir Basil Spence (Coventry Cathedral, New Zealand's Beehive), it was sensitively remodelled in 2003 by John McAslan & Partners. The library has a light, calm, peaceful atmosphere. It also contains a gallery, cafe and other cultural and leisure activities. As the twin staircases are symmetrical, expect publications like Time Out and The Guardian to have rife comparisons to the films of Wes Anderson.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London libraries
London Through Its Charity Shops #35: Swiss Cottage
Random Animated Animal Film Reviews

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The weekend in barngains

The Cramps, Smell of Female LP (£2, Putney charity shop)
Yes I have it on CD, but great band, best album title ever, cool cover.

Fairport Convention, Liege & Lief LP  
(£2, Putney charity shop)
Didn't have this one at all. I only have Unhalfbricking by Fairport, which I've mentioned previously.

Rodreiguez, Cold Fact CD (£1, Putney charity shop)
Another recent coincidence this – I was chatting to a friend about Searching for Sugar Man over dinner the other evening, then this turns up. I've mentioned Light in the Attic, who have re-released the 1970 album, before. There's another 'alluring narrative' that goes with Rodreiguez: he was (re)discovered a decade ago working as a labourer in Detroit, not knowing his debut album had become a cult classic, and he had become a national hero and beacon of hope in South Africa.

Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream 
(£3.50, Putney charity shop) 
Beautiful book.

Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon  
(£3, Hammersmith charity shop)
Even though this will turn out to be another Gravity's Rainbow, I've been desperate for this ever since going to Kosovo. H said it would turn up eventually, and it did. There was no way I was ever going to pay £21 for a paperback.

Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman 
(£2, Crystal Palace charity shop)
The best comic strip ever.

Not pictured:
Two-for-one tickets for Kew Gardens
To see the newly restored Temperate House, even if it did rain.

Free screen print from Mai 68: Posters from the Revolution exhibition, Lazinc gallery, London
To the same friend I was chatting to about Rodreiguez, I muttered something about The Clash line "turning rebellion into money" with regards to the exhibition, but fascinating nonetheless.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London Through its Charity Shops

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:
BARNGAINS is a select list of rated barngains from 2007 to the present day.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Notes on The Human Library

"I've just been to see the satanist"
"Oh the neo-Nazi just popped up, I want to grab him before
anyone else does"

Originating in Denmark, natch, The Human Library is an organisation dedicated to challenging prejudices through conversation. The concept is simple: people ('books'), mainly those who society as a whole has prejudices against, are on loan to 'readers' for twenty minutes, who get to ask questions and listen to the book's experiences. On a board is a series of labels – satanist, bi-polar, Muslim, homeless, autism, HIV, alcoholic, etc – and a reader picks whichever human book interests them, and they both go and sit on a sofa to talk about the subject.

I was a tad apprehensive beforehand, but the whole experience was relaxing and enlightening. As I look after an autistic young man, I went for the autistic book, and he was informative and chatty. H went for a reformed fascist and a neo-Nazi. The satanist was constantly in demand and booked out.

I love the idea. Whether the people who it's perhaps aimed at – those with prejudices – would be open-minded enough to attend such an event is questionable, but it's enlightening for both sides: the books get to express their experiences, and the readers get to hopefully understand a marginalised section of society.

We ran with the concept – why stop at prejudiced members of society? There could be a series of books, where experts expound on their chosen field. I know what you're thinking – isn't this what the internet is all about? Yes, true, but actually talking to someone face to face about a subject is far more enlightening and interactive than watching a YouTube video about it.

Interestingly, that week H had been on a course about restorative justice, a process where the victims of crime embark on a series of dialogue with their perpetrator. Having the victim and perpetrator talking face to face can give the victim closure and hopefully enlightens and changes the perpetrator, making them understand the damage they have done. It's a known fact that prison tends not to reform criminals; restorative justice can repair harm, build communities and promote understanding.

restorative justice council

That evening we listened to:
Everyday I Write the Book by Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Previously on Barnflakes:
The Museum of Everyone 
A Life of Art

Friday, May 04, 2018

Cinema in Crystal Palace finally to reopen

After eight years of campaigning by local residents, there is finally to be a cinema in Crystal Palace, the first time for over fifty years. The Rialto on Church Road first opened in the 1920s, closing in the 1960s to become a bingo hall. More recently it's been a Christian centre. The Everyman chain of cinemas put in a bid earlier in the year, which was accepted. It will open as a four-screen cinema towards the end of the year.

Time Out has some pictures of what it's going to look like.

My image above contains all the iconic Crystal Palace landmarks: Transmitter tower, Sphinxes, dinosaur, subway and statue from the Great Exhibition.

Now all Crystal Palace needs is some chain stores. I've had with the cafes and vintage shops; there's nowhere for me to buy me a pair of pants or socks. Give me an M&S!

Nearby, the West Norwood Picturehouse is also due to open this year.

Previously on Barnflakes:
The lost art of the double bill
In the Crystal Palace subway
The dinosaurs of Crystal Palace
Random film review: The Pleasure Garden 
London through its charity shops: Crystal Palace, SE19
Double bill me

Elsewhere on Barnflakes:
Crystal Palace Flickr album

Monday, April 30, 2018

Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss

The May Day festival in Padstow (also known unaffectionately as Padstein due to Rick Stein's chain of restaurants there) is a centuries-old tradition involving two processions through the fishing port town, each led by a hobby horse or 'Obby 'Oss. It was a wonderful experience when I went a couple of years ago but the sight of the 'Obby 'Oss alarmed me. Reminiscent of a cross between an evil Father Christmas, African tribal masks, Punch & Judy and something from The Wicker Man, the 'Obby 'Oss is an unpredictable beast, charging through crowds of people in the hope of capturing a fair maiden (so I was probably fairly safe then).

As tradition goes, from midnight today (the day before May Day), locals will decorate the town with flags, flowers and the maypole. Then late morning on May Day itself the processions begin, consisting of traditional dancing and singing. Locals are dressed in white with red scarves, some playing musical instruments. The 'Obby 'Osses, one red and one blue, are guided through town by the Teazers, who lead the dance with a club in their hands. Thousands of tourists also litter the narrow, windy streets.

See photos of Cornwall in my Flickr album, including some from the 'Obby 'Oss festival in 2016.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Beauty and the Brutalist exhibition
The Morris Dance Murders movie
Barnflakes goes Cornwall
Celebrating Cornwall's mining heritage
Notes on Cornish fiction

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The seven fabled noses of Soho

Not to be sniffed at: three of the seven Soho noses
I followed my nose through the streets, picking my way through the hoards of tourists in the rain, searching for the seven noses of Soho. They were here somewhere, and if I found all seven (which I didn't; I gave up after three) I was promised great wealth. I put my nose to the grindstone but they were hard to find, roughly at shoulder height yet hidden in plain view, and the size of a nose. The rain got heavier, my boon companions found a pub, and I was happy enough with my three (I nose when to give up).

The story goes that in 1997, in protest against the proliferation of CCTV cameras in the UK and inspired by the Situationist movement, artist Rick Buckley anonymously stuck 35 plaster casts of his nose to various buildings in London. Even though he painted them the same colour as the walls he stuck them on, so they would be fairly inconspicuous, most of the protrusions were found and removed. Fourteen years passed until Buckley admitted he was the guerrilla artist responsible for them, by which time the remaining Soho noses had reached mythical proportions, inspiring all kinds of fantastic tales (which you can read about here if you want), including the one about fabulous wealth coming to those who find all seven, a difficult task seeing as at least one is located outside of Soho.

Previously on Barnflakes:
The Chewing Gum Artist Vs The Admen

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Top ten films featuring photographers

1. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1956)
2. Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966)
3. Salvador (Stone, 1986)
4. High Art (Cholodenko, 1998)
5. Uzak, pictured above (Ceylan, 2002)
6. Momento (Nolan, 2000)
7. Proof (Moorhouse, 1991)
8. One Hour Photo (Romanek, 2002)
9. City of God (Meirelles, 2002)
10. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Stiller, 2013)

See also:
The Bridges of Madison County (Eastwood, 1995)
Kodachrome (Raso, 2017) 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top ten photographers

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

I know I'm back in Brixton when...

I'm standing outside the pub for five minutes having a smoke and get offered a carrier bag full of steaks for £10; home-produced music CDs with hand written labels; three people trying to bum cigarettes off me; an elderly, well-spoken old lady asking for 40p to get back to Slough ("You'd have to pay me not to go", quipped my Catalan – "not Spanish!" – companion); and an elderly black woman asking me if I'm having a good evening.

I was actually rather offended not to be offered any drugs. When I was younger, I was constantly being offered them down Cold Harbour Lane. Either Brixton has become too gentrified and the drug dealers have moved away, or I'm just looking too old to score drugs. Maybe a bit of both.

Previously on Barnflakes:

Monday, April 23, 2018

Random Netflix TV Reviews

Lost in Space
Many years ago my brother and I used to watch the original black and white TV series from the 1960s and find the professor, Dr. Zachary Smith, very amusing. Then there was the dull, forgettable 1998 film with William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman. Now comes – and I feel like I've been bombarded with ads about it online, on the radio, in print and on billboards – the Netflix 2018 reboot. And you know what? It's so bad it's unwatchable. We couldn't get through episode two.
– 1/5
Stranger Things
What's so risible about Charlie Kessler suing the Doobie Brothers, I mean the Dust Brothers, no – I mean the Duffer Brothers for plagiarising his idea for Stranger Things is that's there's not more people doing the same thing. Such as John Carpenter, Steven King and Steven Spielberg (and that's just for the credit sequence!). Oh, I get it – it's a homage, not a rip off. Nevertheless, if you're of a certain age, i.e. you were a child of the 1970s/80s, it's hard not to feel like you've seen Stranger Things many times before, from the typeface of the titles, to the music, the characters and the plot. I'm thinking, like, The Goonies, Stand by Me, E.T., Carrie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, The Evil Dead, Poltergeist and even Pretty in Pink, to name just a few (here's an entire A-Z of films referenced in the series). It's not even just films from that era: I thought the sequences where Eleven ('El') goes into the black 'void' were uncannily similar to scenes from Jonathan Glazer's extraordinary Under the Skin (2013).

Now, I don't mind film or TV directors being influenced by previous films or filmmakers: from the French New Wave directors affection for Hitchcock and Hawks, to the ultimate film geek Quentin Tarentino being influenced by, erm, virtually all cinema, there's a fine tradition of directors wearing their influences on their sleeves; doffing their caps, if you will. But when every frame of the series is a mash-up of Spielberg, Carpenter, De Palma, John Hughes et al, and drenched in clichéd, retro nostalgia for the 1980s, it's quite hard to take anything else from it.

It's like the difference between recent films Super 8 (2011) and It Follows (2014). Like with Stranger Things, Super 8 is set in the same period (1979 to be exact), is a mash up between films such as The Goonies, Stand By Me and E.T., but adds absolutely nothing to them or the genre. On the other hand, It Follows, whilst quite obviously influenced by John Carpenter, only takes his films as a starting point, and ends up with something stunningly original, and terrifying. Another 1980s-set film, Donnie Darko (2011), uses the trope of the American high school and music of the time, but to original effect, exploring diverse themes such as time travel and mental illness.

If you're a child, however, watching Stranger Things for the first time and thinking it's great, scary and original, that's fine. But if the first time you hear The Clash, Joy Division or New Order is on the soundtrack, I don't know, there's something wrong about that (Guardians of the Galaxy is another one retreading old retro ground with a mixtape of 1970s songs – featured previously in other films such as Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights – and storylines out of Star Wars). It's like – and this is just a shot-in-the-dark theory – they're purposely trying to hook in both children and adults alike. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it's the clichéd, unoriginal, cynical way they go about it that gets my goat.
– 3/5

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Recent Barngains

Bookbinding: The Complete Guide to Folding, Sewing & Binding by Franziska Morlok and Miriam Waszelewski
Crystal Palace charity shop, £3, sealed (RRP: £30)
'Bookbinding is a unique and essential reference guide for designers, explaining industrial bookbinding techniques with a focus on the design and conception of print products', so says the Amazon blurb. It also says the book isn't actually released for another week or so.

The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog, typeface memory game
Sydenham charity shop, £2 (RRP: £13.95)
Yes, I know how to have fun.

Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs 
by Henry Carroll
Clapham Junction charity shop, 50p (RRP: £8)
Handy, simply-explained guide for taking photos using an DSLR, something I've never quite mastered.

The BARNGAINS page of this blog (just below the masthead at the top of the page) has had a recent, much-needed redesign and update, and now contains a list of select barngains from 2007 to the present day.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London Through Its Charity Shops

Monday, April 16, 2018

We're all pretentious now

There was a time, many years ago, when we'd laugh and scoff at pretentious descriptions of wine that contained, say, 'aromas of rich dark currants, nectarine skins, gushing blackberry, but lots of fragrant tobacco, rich soil, white flowers, smashed minerals and metal' (actual review). Now that such descriptions are commonplace, meaningless and we ignore them completely, other products have got on the bandwagon. Nothing can be just what it is any more – it has to stand for something else, something more, something usually pretentious.

Coffee is the new wine. My pack of Taylors of Harrogate ground coffee, Rare Blossom Ethiopia, is a 'dazzling riot of honeysuckle, mango, blossom, whisky and spice' (what, no 'echoes of a Bach fugue in the background'?). It's been some years since I've been able to go into a coffee shop and ask for something as simple as a white coffee (it doesn't seem to exist any more); it would be easier asking for an Austrian goat milk double-half-caf-half-decaf-soy milk cappuccino – extra hot – with a dash of Madagascar cinnamon and half a tablespoon of caramel-latte-frappa-mocha.

A list of 'guest beans' on a coffee shop menu (handwritten chalk on blackboard, obvs) includes those from Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala, Colombia and 'Coeur D'Afrique' (a place or a state of mind? The name evokes Conrad's anti-imperialist Hearts of Darkness, set in the Congo; despite being a slightly dangerous place to hunt for speciality beans right now, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the 'future of coffee', according to the NY Times. The aforementioned Coeur D'Afrique bean contains huckleberry, violet and sugar cane, but might as well also give off a whiff of, say, earth freshly dug up by Fairtrade slaves). The list of exotic (yet poor, obvs) countries conjures up colonial images of seventeenth century explorers returning from the New World with plundered treasures such as gold, tobacco, spices, chocolate and, indeed, coffee.

If coffee is the new wine, chocolate is the new coffee. In the 1980s, Ferrero Rossier and After Eights were the ultimate pretentious chocolate but that's nothing compared to the new breed of brands where 'lemon, poppy seed and baobab' is an actual flavour. Chocolate from Ecuador is apparently 'flowery and fruity'; from Madagascar it's 'intense red fruit with cherry notes', whilst Southeast Asia has 'smoky and earthy flavors'.

(When it comes to hot beverages and chocolate, sorry, but I'm so happy with a Sainsbury's Red Label cup of tea and regular Kit Kat I can't even put it into words.)

If products such as wine and perfume were the precursors of this pretentious parade, nowadays many other once-average and taken-for-granted items such as coffee, chocolate, craft beer, vinyl records and bikes are revitalised as specialised and authentic, artisan products with the intention of making the buying public feel like connoisseurs. Niche has become mainstream. I mainly blame advertising and hipsters.

What's the next product to get the pretentious treatment? Speciality industrial-strength bleach sourced from uranium mines in Namibia? With shades of deadly nightshade, aromas of Agent Orange and the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now in the distance...

Previously on Barnflakes:
The agony of choice
Now serving flat white
Not for all the tea in China
Proud to serve

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In St Pancras Old Churchyard

Supposedly one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe, dating back to the fourth century, St Pancras Old Church is located five minutes away from St Pancras train station in Somers Town on Pancras Road. The churchyard is a curious place, part park and dotted with ancient trees and interesting tombs with fascinating stories.

The most striking aspect of the churchyard is the famous Hardy tree (pictured, top) – named after the Wessex writer Thomas Hardy – where hundreds of gravestones are piled around an ash tree in a circular pattern with the tree roots intertwined around them. As a young man, Hardy trained as an architect in London, and one of his unenviable tasks was to dig up and relocate body remains in the churchyard to Finchley to make way for the expansion of St Pancras train station. With the remaining gravestones, the young Hardy made a rather artful arrangement of them around a tree in the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard is architect Sir John Soane's mausoleum (pictured, bottom) for himself and his wife, Eliza, who died, according to Soane, after the shock of discovering their son's negative reviews of his father's work. Soane never forgave his son, and never got over the death of his wife. If the design of the tomb looks familiar, that's because it was supposedly the inspiration for architect Giles Gilbert Scott's iconic red phone box.

Though her body has been moved (to Bournemouth), the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, remains. When her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was planning an elopement with poet Percy Shelley, they used to meet at night to discuss their plans at her mother's grave.

Charles Dickens used to wander around the churchyard, and it's mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities. It also features on William Blake's mythical map of London. Somewhat later, in 1968, The Beatles posed for publicity photos in the porch of the church whilst promoting their White Album.

Previously on Barnflakes:
William Blake's vision of angels in Peckham
Notes on Gilbert George Scott

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Random Animal Animated Film Reviews: Paddington 2 and Isle of Dogs

Paddington 2
Dir: Paul King | UK | 2017 | 103mins.

Paddington 2 has had the best reviews of any film ever. It's had a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (their highest ever), five stars in all the papers including the Guardian, with even the usual cynical and sarcastic comments section reduced to mushy praise of the film.

I thought it was dire, natch. Reuniting two of the cast members of the equally offensive Notting Hill – Hugh Grant and Hugh Bonneville, whilst tossing in other TV-friendly actors such as Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley – and also being set in Notting Hill, it has the feel of a Richard Curtis film; it peddles a vision of London full of nostalgia (which presumably never existed) and friendly neighbours. The one good scene – a fun choreographed dance number in a prison with Hugh Grant – is unfortunately not revealed until over the end credits. A recent Guardian article compares Paddington 2 to the films of Wes Anderson. I can't quite see it myself.

– 1/5 

Isle of Dogs
Dir: Wes Anderson | USA | 2018 | 101mins.

First things first: Isle of Dogs is not set in London's East End, but 'twenty years in the future' (from when?) in Japan. I wasn't that bothered about the film until I queued for an hour in the rain (listening to the young Brazilians behind me, talking of being first ADs on the latest Spielberg film) with my daughter to see a wonderful exhibition of the original film sets and puppets. My daughter, aged 11, definitely hadn't wanted to see Paddington 2, and I had to physically drag her to see Isle of Dogs.

It was well worth it, both charming and moving* – more emotional, in fact, that Wes Anderson's live action films. Anderson is everywhere right now (and perhaps always has been), as the Guardian will be the first to tell us. All of Instagram is a tribute to the filmmaker's formal and colourful compositions, with Accidentally Wes Anderson being the most obvious paean (helpfully, pretty much anything can be Accidentally Wes Anderson – phone box, park, train station, hotel, lighthouse).

Wes Anderson making films is like a baby boy playing with his posh dolls house in the attic of his parent's house. Apparently the epitome of an American auteur, he makes what films he wants on his own terms within the Hollywood system, casting which actors he wants (usually Bill Murray and Owen Wilson but also the likes of Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel). But actors are like pawns in his game. I don't mind deadpan acting – in the films of Aki Kaurismaki and Yorgos Lanthimos, for example, it's used to great effect. But compare the emotional intensity of Killing of a Sacred Deer to, say, the lack of any emotion in Moonlight Kingdom.

It seems – though not on purpose – that I've seen all the films of Wes Anderson. I also come to own three of the soundtracks to his films on CD. But I'm not his biggest fan (my favourite would probably be The Grand Budapest Hotel, a souffle of a movie, mainly due to Ralph Fiennes' performance). His formality and quirkiness, his contrived fastidiousness (reminding me slightly of Kubrick), those flat, symmetrical compositions – all leave me cold, and usually bored. Wes Anderson is the success of form over content.

The techniques that he's used in his live action films – those flat compositions, those 'overhead tableaux' shots – but mainly the complete control he obviously craves from every frame of a film, means animation is probably his forte (or adverts). Though he's only made two – Fantastic Mr Fox along with Isle of Dogs – with those he's able to control every element of the production, from the weather to the actors.


*I know, I know, I feel your frustration. You came here looking for a proper film review, only to get half a dozen bland words about the actual film.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Three recent coincidences

1. R had been telling me about Unit Editions, ‘a progressive publishing venture producing high-quality, affordable books on graphic design and visual culture’, that I’d never heard of, the day before. The next evening R popped round the flat (a rare occurrence btw, being allergic to my cat, Casper). A parcel was waiting for me in the doorway. I opened it up and it was a beautiful book called Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution (with ‘free’ poster), published by, yup, you guessed it, Unit Editions and costing £55 (I must take umbrage at the ‘affordable’ claim in their blurb). I hadn’t ordered it; it was sent by an old friend I hadn’t heard from for years, completely out of the blue. He thought I’d like it.

2. S and I were sipping our Greggs coffees on a bench behind a church in Greenwich. We were talking about Krautrock, Can and Stockhausen, then onto atonality and minimalism; then came Carrie and Brian de Palma, followed by Dario Argento and Italian giallo films which led on to Peter Strickland via Berberian Sound Studio and the Duke of Burgundy, then vampire films and finally, somehow, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Fear Eats the Soul is one of my favourite films, ever). Five minutes later we were strolling around the secondhand market across the road, and S spotted a DVD box set of Fassbinder films. What are the chances? S didn’t want it, so I snapped it up immediately. 9 Fassbinder films! For £5! Barngain.

3. I was moaning on the phone to H about many things, including this very blog. 12 years I’ve been writing it, I said, and virtually no comments, no feedback, nothing in return (I blame social media for the death of blogs). Why do I bother writing it, I asked her. She didn’t know. I didn’t know. Anyway, just as I said no one ever leaves a comment, I was checking my emails and a notification came up that C (for Caspar; different spelling to my cat, so, no, they're not one and the same) had left a comment on a recent post. Faith in mankind was temporarily restored.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Myanmar days

I went to college with two students who changed their names. One changed both his first name and surname, and his whole image – from clothes to hair colour. Of course it's common for celebrities to change their name... Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Elton John, Maurice Joseph Micklewhite became Michael Caine (not a lot of people know that), Lana Del Rey is actually Elizabeth Woolridge Grant.

Countries and cities also change name, usually for political reasons. From Ceylon to Sri Lanka, Persia to Iran, Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Abyssinia to Ethiopia. Burma became Myanmar (pronounced 'me an ma') in 1989. The government also changed many of its city's names, as well as the location of its capital. So Irrawaddy became Aveyawady, Pegu became Bago and Rangoon (which ironically translates as 'end of strife') became Yangon. Yangon was the former capital; Myanmar's capital city has changed about thirty times in the last thousand years. The latest capital, Naypyitaw, is a very new city indeed; construction didn't start on it until 2002. Which all makes for much confusion. 

(I imagined a businessman at the time of the changes having a meeting in the capital only to discover it's changed location; or a government official, not being told of the changes, going to work on a Monday morning to discover he's in the wrong city; or a tourist asking for a ticket to Rangoon only to be told it doesn't exist any more. Can you imagine if the capital of the UK suddenly upsticked from London to Bath, or Birmingham?)

Coming out of Yangon airport I was immediately hit with the unmistakable sensation of being back in Asia. It was a nice feeling – the heat, the smells, the bustle, the poverty, the temples. It was 6am and the sun was rising, birds were chirping. It was already hot. My last visit to SE Asia had been... disastrous (see my book Gullible Travels) so I was a tad apprehensive, mainly about the heat and the food, neither of which had agreed with me last time (fifteen years ago).

The traffic and pollution in Yangon was horrendous. H had been working in the country a few weeks; I was driven to her hotel, picked her up, then we were driven to the Golden Rock by a driver plus an "English speaking" guide. This would be our routine for the entire holiday – picked up at airports (there was a lot of internal flights), then chauffeur driven around with a guide (at one point two guides and a driver).

H had organised the entire trip for us. Every inch of the way. The only thing missing, which I'm glad I insisted on, even though it wasn't on the itinerary and would involve going there as soon as I got off the plane, was the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo pagoda – one of two dreamlike, mythical images of Myanmar etched in my mind; I'd probably first seen them in National Geographic magazine over twenty years ago – the other being the pagoda at Mingun with the huge crack running down the middle (both pictured, above).

The gravity-defying large golden rock (the pagoda is on top of it), perched on the edge of a cliff and the huge crack in the pagoda caused by an earthquake (symbolising to me the folly of man and the destruction of a kingdom) were impossible, beautiful and surreal images so alien and exotic I never imagined seeing them with my own eyes.

The Kyaiktiyo pagoda, the third most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar, was a beautiful and relaxing place to hang out in. We watched families picnicking and monks praying; in particular we were charmed by the 'pink nuns' – girls with shaven heads wearing their pink robes. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed; it was hard to imagine Myanmar being a country cut-off from the west for decades, ruled with an iron fist by a military dictatorship. Though Myanmar was finally opening up to tourism, in other parts of the country systematic genocide was taking place against the stateless Rohingya Muslims, many of whom were fleeing the country into Bangladesh.

I bought some gold leaf and pasted it onto the rock along with other men (women weren't allowed). It felt quite a profound and spiritual task, being part of a process that thousands had done over hundreds of years. I'd forgotten what it was like to be in a Buddhist country – Buddha statues, temples and stupas were everywhere we went. So it was a surprise the next day stumbling across a small Hindu temple in the countryside next to a small lake. further along in the fields were Monet-style haystacks. We went off-piste and were invited in for tea in a little hut by some rice fields. Everywhere we went – both of us tall and pasty white – people would take photos or ask us to pose for a photo with them. They'd giggle and stare and made us feel like movie stars.

Our favourite meal was in the Bago region where our driver stopped at some roadside stalls of dried fish. We crossed a wooden bridge over a river into a village which obviously didn't get a lot of tourists – we were stared at wherever we went and invited to lunch in the courtyard where they were preparing for a festival. We were handed plates which were filled with rice and soup. It was delicious and though obviously a poor village, they wouldn't accept any payment for lunch. Well, we were the entertainment after all: even though conversation was rudimentary, the locals found us fascinating and took more photos of us than we did of them.

Also in the Bago region we visited a village with a small snake monastery – that was fine; a monk had a dream that the snake now in the monastery was the reincarnation of a Burmese spirit (nat). (We were used to seeing such things – the Buddha's toenail is buried under a pagoda; next to a temple, the shape of a tree root is the Buddha's big toe.) No, what got me was the village itself. What should have been a pleasant country village (we'd seen plenty) stank, quite literally, of poverty. The village lake was filled with plastic bags and bottles, which children collected for money. There was no running water. Heaps of rubbish (mostly plastic) were everywhere (if I ever won the lottery, I wouldn't go for yachts or fancy houses, I'd like to think I'd try and sort out shit like this). Religion, huh? All the gold temples, pagodas, stupas and Buddhas we'd seen were immaculate. They all had stacks of offerings: money, flowers, gifts. Yet the surrounding area was invariably poor and filthy. Obviously it's not just Buddhism. All over the world I've seen the same thing.

It was sometimes nice getting away from the big tourist sites; at the Golden Rock there had been hardly any tourists but in Bagan, ancient city of a thousand temples, there were plenty. Yet wandering around the old city felt like being Indiana Jones; we'd stumble across over-grown temples wherever we looked in the dusty and tree-lined plain. Walking is one way to do the 26-square mile area of temples and pagodas; there are also bikes, hot air balloons (too expensive for us), taxis and coaches. At the main temples, children would follow us around, trying to sell us souvenirs and books. Burmese Days? I've read it. How about The Glass Palace? I've read that too. Okay mister, you buy From the Land of Green Ghosts? Haven't read it, but don't want to.

In the evening, hundreds of tourists would climb the temples (an activity now banned) for amazing views over the hazy landscape of temples and trees to catch the magical sunset. Any notion of it actually being a magical or romantic moment was unfortunately ruined by all the tourists (I know, I know, we were also tourists) and a thousand phones and cameras going off at once to capture the event. And sunsets are over-rated (which I've mentioned a few times in the past).

Disasters have long plagued Myanmar – earthquakes have destroyed temples; fires have ruined cities, including Mandalay, which I romantically imagined to be wooden shacks and bicycles but has been rebuilt – largely by the huge influx of Chinese – into a bland, modern city. Kipling would turn in his grave. Luckily, there's other stuff to see around the city: Mandalay Hill and Palace; loads of temples and pagodas, including Kuthodaw (which contains 729 stupas and is regarded as the world's largest book), the Shwenandaw Monastery (beautiful 19th century wooden building) and the aforementioned Mingun Pahtodawgyi, my mythical incomplete (on purpose) and cracked (by earthquake) monument stupa. We chartered a large boat, just the two of us, to see this, sitting on deckchairs on deck, sipping on Sprites and eating nuts, to travel the 10km along the river from Mandalay. This, perhaps, felt like the biggest extravagance of the trip; other boats the same size contained about thirty tourists.

It was around this time we first encountered The Pest. After seeing him once, we saw him everywhere. There was a daily ceremony at a monastery where loads of young monks would wait in line for breakfast. It was a visual feast with hundreds of crimson robes lined up with their bowls. The Pest was a Japanese tourist dressed like a fisherman or photographer (there's a fine line – pardon the pun – between the two: geeky body warmer with lots of pockets, combat trousers with lots of pockets, stupid hat... but the Nikon camera costing the GNP of a typical Burmese village gave the game away).

We speculated that he worked for National Geographic. And this is how he got his good shots – by being a pest. He walked in front of everyone. He ordered monks around. He took about a hundred photos a minute. He was everywhere all the time, taking photos and annoying everyone.

We went on to the iconic U Bein Bridge, in time for the iconic sunset, naturally. Over 1km long and built in 1850, the teakwood bridge is believed to be the longest and oldest of its kind in the world. Next there was Inlay Lake, a beautiful, serene expanse of water with fishermen, marshes, floating gardens and houses on stilts. There were two types of fishermen there: one type who actually fish, and the other who pose for tourists for $1 (these are the fishermen one sees in all the guidebooks).

Amazingly, this time in Asia, the heat and food had been fine. The December heat wasn't overwhelming, and we'd eaten a lot of vegetables and noodles (every day in fact). We'd drunk green tea, Sprites and Cokes, and the occasional latte when we could. In fact, the only time I got a dodgy tummy was, typically, the only day there were no toilets around: we were on a boat all day on the lake. H had bought a small bottle of lethal Mandalay rum the night before (for about 70p) and we drank some with Coke. I warned her against it – I'd had Mekong whisky in Thailand and suffered the consequences, which were severe – but she didn't listen and didn't admit the alcohol was the cause of my stomach troubles until the following day – when she'd had some rum again the night before (and I hadn't). I was fine the next day, H had the upset stomach. We poured the rest of the rum down the sink.

There had been horse and cart rides, boat trips, planes, taxis, gigantic Buddha statues, temples, pagodas, stupas, caves. It was non-stop for over a week. From dawn to dusk. And then there was Ngapali beach, voted the best beach in Asia, for a few days of R&R. It was Christmas after all. We got cocktails and mingled at the bar. No, we didn't actually – one reason being there was hardly anyone around. No, mingle at bar was how we remembered saying 'Hello' in Burmese: min-ga-la-ba.

The beach was beautiful, with golden sand, warm water and huge shells washed up on the shore. We weren't really beach people, but made an exception this time. It was paradise. The restaurant shacks on the beach served me chunky tuna steaks cooked on the barbie with rice and avocado salad. Washed down with a glass of watermelon juice, the total cost was about $3 (about the same price as a latte, when we could find one). Christmas Day is all about context: out here, we didn't really think about it. The hotels had half-hearted Christmas trees and lights in their lobbies but it wasn't convincing.

I didn't see any tourists going as far as the working part of the beach, about half a mile away from the hotels, where the local fishermen and women did their thing, but I loved it there, despite stepping on hundreds of discarded fish heads, the best and biggest shells were to be found there, amongst the nets and anchors. The men did the fishing and the women did the sorting and dying of the fish. Presumably the same way they'd had done it 500 years ago.

We returned to Yangon and had a day seeing the sights. I was keen to see any remains of colonial architecture, and there was plenty of it, crumbling away gracefully. Lunch was awful, at this tourist trap of a restaurant with a garden setting. You know what? It was probably okay but I'd had it with our English speaking guides, most of whom couldn't speak English that well at all, and definitely couldn't answer any questions if they went off-script. We usually tried explaining that we only wanted to eat in local places, not horrible tourist restaurants. The food was usually better, and cheaper, in a local place, and, you know, we did want to see how the locals lived, not be surrounded by other tourists all the time. I was trying to avoid and ignore our guides half the time. They'd drone on about the history of a temple which we would have forget instantly if we could even understand their English.

So, all this time – apart from the beach – we had a guide and a driver, and they were different each place we went. The driver's were usually fine – they'd just drive. But there was this one driver H really didn't like the look of. He was a bulky, shaven headed thug, but I didn't mind him all that much. But H couldn't stand him, his arrogance. She said he looked ex-military and had a nasty look about him. H found out from our guide that he was indeed ex-military and used to be a sniper in the army. He was the only one who didn't get a tip from us.

I'm being unfair; some of our guides were very nice, bought us lunch, gave us gifts of green tea (which I bought back but still haven't used). But things reached a head in the evening when we went to the gold Shwedagon pagoda, Myanmar's most holy pilgrimage site, which we'd seen in the distance at various times, dominating the skyline. There was a lift up to the pagoda which I'd got in first with a bunch of other people, and H and the guide had to wait for the next one. When I got to the top I saw the sun was about to set and rushed off to photograph the pagoda with the sun setting behind it (I know, I know, when am I ever going to learn about sunsets?). Then I went back to find H and the guide. I couldn't find them anywhere, and there were hundreds of people milling around.

When I eventually found H, maybe an hour or so later, she was furious. She'd been on her own with the guide, who'd not only been harping on about the pagoda, but also in a state about having lost me. I found him waiting by the entrance, in a panic, saying this had never happened before, he'd been sick with worry. To tell the truth, I'd had enough of the English speaking guides.

Nevertheless, it had been an incredible holiday in a beautiful country, with friendly people and extraordinary sights. Yes, the poverty jars. Yes, knowing there's a genocide happening upcountry as we laze on a beach jars. At least H, who had been working there, was trying to make a difference. She said it was the first country she'd worked in where she could also have a holiday. On the internal flights we read the newspaper New Light of Myanmar (published by the Orwellian Ministry of Information), who singled out the UK's Guardian for spreading false news about the military's persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Freedom of the press is non-existent, with two Reuters journalists currently clocking up 100 days in jail for reporting on the genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has faced widespread criticism for not speaking out over the crisis.

In the last few days, Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw has resigned, apparently due to ill health. Former general and Vice-President Myint Swe takes over until a new president is chosen (Aung San Suu Kyi, who had a loyal ally in Htin Kyaw, is exempt from taking the position, due to having children with an English husband, a clause in the constitution seemingly introduced with her in mind). The future doesn't look great for Myanmar.

We took separate flights home (H's had been organised by the company she worked for). I stopped off at Doha airport, in Qatar, with branches of Harrods and WH Smith everywhere; it could be anywhere except for the chic sheiks in their flowing white robes – how do they keep their whites white? Prayer rooms, quiet rooms and smoking rooms reminiscent of a smoky English pub circa. 1994. The men wear white; the women black. A video and a Daily Mail article inform me it's the most luxurious, expensive airport in the world but all I saw was a giant sculpture of a teddy bear – apparently art.

Flickr photos here.

– December 2016