Thursday, November 30, 2006

My kind of 'Welcome'

My nostalgic recollection of the spliff-tastic two-man 'Beach Party' I shared with Mad Irish Dave has started me thinking back to my (thus far, only) visit to Jamaica. Well, that and the recipe for Jerk Chicken which Yahoo has unaccountably been splashing all over its e-mail for the past month or so (all readers seem to be agreed that it is a very bad Jerk recipe!).

I am in fact laying plans for a reefers'n'reggae party to celebrate Marley's birthday next year - having recently reminded myself of the date from the Internet (during one of my increasingly intermittent periods of access): an ideal way to chase away the chilly mid-winter blues.

I spent barely two weeks in Jamaica, at the end of my undergraduate career; but it was one of the most intense, most vivid, most diverse experiences of my life (the first time I'd ever been in the tropics, in the Third World.... very nearly the first time I'd been anywhere overseas!).

I was immediately impressed very favourably by the attitude of the island when I encountered a large 'welcome' banner draped across the exit lobby of the airport. It did not say - as you would expect in a stiffer, more prosaic, more strait-laced country.... in almost any other country in the world - "Welcome to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica", or "Welcome to the beautiful island", or "Welcome to Norman Manley International Airport".

No - it said, "Welcome to the home of Red Stripe beer!"

I thought to myself: "I am going to like this place!"

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Giving Bukowski his due

I have been staying this past weekend with a very cool German artist friend.... and he just happens to be a big Bukowski fan as well. Seeing all of those volumes of his work lying around the apartment has reminded that a few weeks back I was just too darned lazy to seek out and post the full text of his poem 'Beer', which I had referred to, and quoted in brief.

Well, better late than never.


I don’t know how many bottles of beer
I have consumed while waiting for things
to get better.
I don't know how much wine and whisky
and beer
mostly beer
I have consumed after
splits with women -
waiting for the phone to ring,
waiting for the sound of footsteps;
and the phone never rings
until much later,
and the footsteps never arrive
until much later.
When my stomach is coming up
out of my mouth,
they arrive as fresh as spring flowers:
“What the hell have you done to yourself?
It will be 3 days before you can fuck me!”
The female is durable:
she lives seven and one half years longer
than the male, and she drinks very little beer
because she knows it's bad for the figure.
While we are going mad
they are out dancing and laughing
with horny cowboys.

Well, there’s beer -
sacks and sacks of empty beer bottles
and when you pick one up
the bottles fall through the wet bottom
of the paper sack
spilling gray wet ash
and stale beer,
or the sacks fall over at 4 a.m.
in the morning
making the only sound in your life.

beer beer beer
rivers and seas of beer
the radio singing love songs
as the phone remains silent
and the walls stand
straight up and down
and beer is all there is.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Although I am in general one of those unsophisticated Woody Allen fans who prefers his "earlier, funnier films" (and sneer that his work has been getting terribly stale over the past decade or so), there are a few from his 'middle period' also that I particularly treasure. I felt a special sense of identification with 'Zelig', the fake documentary about a "human chameleon", a man so insecure in his own personality that he automatically adopts the manners and opinions of those around him - and thus blends in as well with left-wing intellectuals and literary lions as he does with Nazis and Klansmen.

Not that I have such a weakness of self-image (far from it!), or such an overriding desire to 'fit in', but.... my personality is so intricate, my interests so diverse (and often seemingly contradictory), that my various friends and acquaintances seem to perceive me in astoundingly different ways.

I rather suspect that, in general, each of them is attracted to an opposite image of themselves, and thus tends to exaggerate whatever features they feel they perceive in me that are most unlike them. My more staid and sensible friends take a horrified delight in my supposed propensities as a 'wild man'; while my hardcore drinking buddies often deplore me as something of a wuss, the kind of guy who is always preaching moderation and reminding them what time we all have to work tomorrow. The friends who have settled into a humdrum monogamy fondly suppose that I am having a high old time as a serial philanderer; the philanderers I know, however, are all, I think, quietly in awe of (or disdainful of... or just baffled by?) my sexual asceticism. My less bookish friends imagine that I am formidably well-read, an authority on almost everything; my more severely intellectual friends, I fear, sometimes patronize me (but probably rightly) as lazy, superficial, a dilettante.

I am both high-brow and low-brow; intellectual elitist and 'man of the people'; idle loafer and perfectionist workaholic; a self-indulgent slob and yet ruthlessly self-disciplined; an embittered cynic yet also a hopeless romantic; a wine & whisky connoisseur and an undiscriminating beer guzzler; and so on.

I am all things to all men, it seems! But is there a 'real me' in the midst of all this??

"My name is Legion, for we are many....."

One of the great 'lost songs'

Continuing my current vein of nostalgia for my far-off student days.... I recall that I once wrote a song in honour of that carefree, hedonistic lifestyle we used to enjoy.

I called it 'The Oxford Student Blues'.

But all I can now remember of it is the opening line:
"Well, I woke up this afternoon..."

Ah, the way we lived then.....

Haiku Bar haiku 5

This is the last you'll hear from me for 5 or 6 days (perhaps more, if the government continues its motiveless Internet-denying persecution of me!), since I am treating myself to a wee holiday. Make the most of it.

Midnight haiku man -
Alone with the night, trudging
Home to rhyme his dreams.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Before they were famous....

Having just said that I didn't spot any likely future Prime Ministers amongst my peers at University, it suddenly occurs to me that there was one - David Milliband, who was the President of my college's undergraduate student association one year (or 'Junior Common Room', as it's called in Oxford).

Perhaps still not a widely-known name amongst the general public (although I really wouldn't know, having happily quit England 5 years ago, and having paid almost zero attention to its politics since), he has 'risen without trace' through the ranks of New Labour: for a long time, he was one of the shadowy backroom boys (even said by some to have been an eminence grise of the Blair regime) working on policy and strategy in comparative anonymity; but now, I believe, he is an MP and a Minister..... and might well end up residing in No. 10 himself a decade or so from now.

I once wrote this silly little poem 'in his honour' (published on the college's toilet-door newsheet, Bogmopolitan). I wonder if he still remembers this? I wonder if Bogmopolitan is still going??

Lines on the retirement of the JCR President

So, farewell then,
David Milliband -
Or 'Dave', as we used to call you.
Yes, you were a real man
Of the people.
You were a good Prez
And a helluva hack.
One day,
Keith's mum will have heard
Of you.

Note 1: Some readers will recognise (others will not) that this frippery is in the style of "E.J. Thribb" - a faux naïf schoolboy 'poet' (an invented character, of course) whose flippant obituaries in this form were a regular feature in the long-running UK satirical magazine Private Eye.

Note 2: 'Hack' is not used here in the general sense of a drone, a talentless but dependable worker. At Oxford (I really have no idea how common or uncommon it might be on other campuses or in other areas of life), it was a ubiquitous slang term with the special meaning of someone who was particularly active or ambitious in a certain field (hence there were drama hacks, debating hacks, journalism hacks, Conservative Association hacks, Labour Club hacks, Student Union hacks, and so on). As a verb, it meant to aggressively promote oneself, and especially to attempt to solicit votes in an upcoming election.

An Oxford man

One of my lovely lady e-penpals chided me a while ago for my aforementioned fondness for dope, suggesting it was something that I really ought to have 'got over' during my undergraduate days. Then she followed up with this quite brilliant line:
"Ah, but I forgot, you went to Oxford, didn't you? With you lot, it was probably all debating and chess and betting on which one of you was going to make Prime Minister."

I mostly exercised my rhetoric in the bar rather than the debating chamber, and I preferred backgammon (at which I am pretty formidable) to chess (at which I am dismal). And most of the gilded butterflies of my generation were angling for careers in the media rather than politics - so it was more a case of betting on who would be the first to become Editor of The Times or The Telegraph.

But in general, that's a pretty fair summary.

Certain Substances

I confess to a weakness - discovered somewhat late in life - for reefers, spliffs, joints (and pipes, bongs, hookahs, etc.).

A 'weakness' both in the sense of 'fondness' and in the sense of a comically low physical tolerance. I suspect this is a large part of the appeal. Alcohol has been such a regular companion through my life that I have become far too familiar with its effects, and I am adept at maintaining a measure of self-control even in extremis, even on those rare occasions where I have managed to outstrip my liver's prodigious capacity to process the stuff into harmlessness. Frankly, I find it difficult to get drunk any more: my liver and my brain are too well-schooled in dealing with booze. Cannabis, on the other hand, knocks me sideways; it reminds me - strangely, it reminds me not unpleasantly - of my earliest experiences of getting drunk as a kid. It is such a rare indulgence for me (usually only 2 or 3 times a year) that I have never built up that familiarity and tolerance that I have with alcohol. Moreover, as a non-smoker, I am ridiculously inept at sucking the stuff into my lungs: I'm always rather embarrassed to share a spliff with friends, since my clumsy toking is so dreadfully wasteful of the precious happy-smoke. Fortunately for me (and my friends), even with such inefficient puffing, two or thee drags are usually enough to get me well away.

I especially enjoy the distracted obsessiveness it fosters, the contented fixation, the ability to perceive beauty in unexpected aspects of the mundane (like the creepy kid in 'American Beauty' who videos a plastic carrier-bag dancing in the wind). I particularly recall one occasion in the upstairs bar at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, after a night out on the town with housemate-from-hell, Mad Irish Dave, when I spent a good half-hour or so in silent (possibly drooling), blissful contemplation of the sinuous blue strands of cigarette smoke coilling up towards one of the lights.

I don't so much enjoy the fact that it completely screws my sense of balance. I almost invariably fall over at some point during the evening if I've had a spliff. After some dangerous overindulgence a while back (a friend had suggested trying to circumvent my being-crap-at-smoking problem by dissolving a little resin in hot water - bad idea: a great idea, but a BAD idea!), I found myself incapable of standing up for most of the following day.

These days, luckily, to achieve a gentle high, I don't have to puff (or drink) the stuff at all. It is so readily available in my present home city, so popular among the (American-dominated) expat community here, that I can generally just position myself downwind of the nearest pothead - and fly away on the secondhand smoke. Cor, baby, that's really free! Happy times!!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Time for a poem

And that reminds me....

It's been a while since I read any Bukowski, a while since I put any on here, so I just went and looked up a few old favourites.

So here's this, a useful reminder that sometimes less is more.

As The Poems Go

as the poems go into the thousands
you realize that you've created very little.
it comes down to the rain, the sunlight,
the traffic, the nights and the days of the
years, the faces.

leaving this will be easier than living
it, typing one more line now as
a man plays a piano through the radio.
the best writers have said very little
and the worst, far too much.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

A Party for Two

I mentioned my one-time housemate, Mad Irish Dave, a little while ago over on my Froogville blog. Indeed, it was he who was largely responsible for turning me on to the poetry of Charles Bukowski - two or three volumes of which were our staple bathroom reading that year.

It was a crazy, crazy year - not least because I was studying for the Bar (which is a huge amount of stress, even for someone as determinedly unstressy as me). Dave had been on the same course the previous year, and had achieved the rare distinction of failing it - so he should, in theory, have been cramming for re-sits... but he rather seemed to have given up on the idea. Instead, I slowly realised, he had hatched a perverse secret agenda to try to ensure that I replicated his unenviable feat. He was unsuccessful in this aim, I'm glad to say.

[However, my rollercoaster, heart-shredding affair that same year with the feisty Australian (the one whom I subsequently dubbed The Evil One; although at the time I ascribed her the slightly less sinister nickname of The Borg Queen - yes, yes, "Resistance is futile!") did take me to the very brink of that particular abyss. But, as so often, I digress.]

We had many great times together that year, Dave and I... as well as many, many flaming rows (he was mentally unstable and utterly feckless, and left me carrying most of the utilities bills for the house for the entire year).

Strangely, my absolute favourite recollection of those days is one of the weirdest parties, one of the most unashamedly excessive and gratuitous drinking sessions I have ever participated in.

In the small, semi-detached house we were renting, out near London's docklands, there was a little utility room at the rear, leading to the garden - well, not so much a room as a broad corridor. It was chock-full of gardening equipment and other junk of the landlord's. However, the walls were painted a particularly striking shade of blue - 'cornflower', I suppose; not really the colour of either the sky or the sea, yet oddly suggestive of both.... and uncannily soothing. The uselessness of this room - and its strangely appealing colour scheme - somehow became the inspiration for our wildest bender....

It was a Sunday. We were both bored out of our minds. Around lunchtime, we hit on the idea of having a 'Jamaican Beach Party'. Just the two of us!! I think the initial impetus must have come from Mad Irish Dave, but I certainly embraced it enthusiastically - and must have contributed some of the details.

We threw all the clutter from the 'blue room' out into the garden. We painstakingly manouevred the sofa out of the sitting room and into the 'blue room' (the space was so narrow that we had little choice, as we reclined deeper and deeper into the sofa's comforting folds, but to rest our feet on the wall opposite). And we sellotaped a double-page picture of Negril Beach (a Jamaican Tourist Board ad, I think, from one of the Sunday newspaper magazine supplements) to the middle of the otherwise bare expanse of the mood-mellowingly blue wall in front of us. Then, we laid in a generous supply of rum & coke (from one of those wonderfully dodgy East End off-licences where all the stock is smuggled in from day-trips to France, and thus beguilingly cheap), ransacked our two music collections to produce the grand total of 3 or 4 reggae CDs..... and shared a big fat spliff made from the rather excellent grass Dave had somehow managed to procure a week or so earlier.

I don't remember too much of the detail of what followed, except that we spent a good 7 or 8 hours in that tiny room, drinking a bottle of rum each and smoking a ridiculous amount of weed, and were both giggling uncontrollably most of that time, crying with laughter in a way we hadn't done since we were small children. We were, needless to say, pretty much incapable of speech or movement by the end of it.

And I think we both had to pull a sickie the next day....

Ah, great times, great times....

Friday, November 17, 2006

E-Mail Substitute

Dear Artist,

It seems you have been reading my Froogville blog, but not this one. Very frustrating, since two or three posts ago I wrote something specifically about you, to you, hoping that you might be able to reply in a comment.

Hell, reply on Froogville, if you must; but please drop me a line. I've removed the 'comment moderation', so you can publish something easily and immediately (previously I had had to pre-approve comments..... via one of my now inaccessible e-mail accounts).

Yes, I was - ever so briefly - able to get into my Inbox this morning: I was only able to read a few messages, and not reply to any, before it crashed again. Galling? VERY!!! At least I was able to read your most recent message about your weekend plans (Have fun, don't stay out too late tonight!). Please keep them coming. I will read them one day!!

Today, I am plotting to kidnap one of the ISP's flunkies, hold him hostage, and slowly torture him..... until the bastards restore a fully working service. (Hmmm, yes, I could be exchanging a cyber-prison for a real prison..... this is how crazy I've become during my isolation this week....)

Hoping to hear from you soon.

Yrs, P xx

Haiku Bar haiku 4

Wild nights of strangeness,
Good music, strong alcohol....
Still something missing.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The 9:30 Club

Reflecting on the current round-the-world Otway gigfest, I realise that I have not been going to a lot of live music recently. Ordinarily this is one of my main recreations (earlier in the year, I sent my pal Danny the Aging Hippy a text message saying: "I get all of my my energy from live music & beer!"), but somehow the schedule seems to have been a bit thin of late.... and I've been too distracted with other things.

However, I had some friends from out of town visiting last week, a young American couple who are teaching middle school in a provincial city a few hundred miles away; so I treated them to a show on their last night. It was a recently opened venue that I hadn't been to before, and has been much hyped as the city's first 'medium-sized venue'. The gig, alas, was something of a disappointment: a small, folksy band who were somewhat overwhelmed by the space, and gave a performance that was rather flat, lacking in passion, compared to previous years I 've seen them play here on more intimate stages. The club was a bit of a downer too: surly, unwelcoming staff, and a lone, undermanned, poorly stocked, and ludicrously overpriced bar. I'm not convinced that this city needs a medium-sized venue. It doesn't really have any 'big' bands, so the smaller, more characterful clubs are fine. Overseas bigshots can always find a concert hall or a gymnasium to play in.

My friend Caren, however, aptly commented that the space (if not the ambience) reminded her of the 9:30 in her home of Washington, D.C., and I grew momentarily a little wistful. I was taken there for the first time this year, for a farewell night out with the University buddy I had been staying with in Alexandria over the summer. The music was disappointing on that occasion also (it was some comically camp Canadian singer-songwriter whose name I entirely forget: he clearly fancies himself as the next Elton John [though the original is still doing fine, as far as I know; and I don't think the world is ready for two of them at once]; all jauntily mournful ballads with plinky-plonky piano; one irritatingly catchy - but otherwise unremarkable - 'hit' amongst them; the others all sounding more or less identical, but with less memorable lyrics..... Sir Elton he may be, or become; Bernie Taupin he ain't, and never will be!); earlier in the month, we could have had the gorgeous Katie Melua; later, we could have had the goddess, Chrissie Hynde; but we got stuck with a geeky Elton-wannabe. Oh well.

Live music is still a good night out, even if it's a bit shite. And I was very taken with the club. I heard from someone that it had recently been voted the best live music venue in the States - that seems a bit of a tall order (surely there have got to be at least a dozen similar clubs on the West Coast? And New York??), but I can almost believe it.

It suffers slightly from an unwelcoming location in one of the more rundown parts of town; but inside, it is an ideal size, a well laid-out space, and has a great sound system. Also - its chief advantage over my dismal local start-up - it has two or three well-tended bars (expensive, yes, but not oppressively so). My friend and I got agreeably tanked up on generously poured Jack Daniel's chasers - which mellowed our homophobic, anti-Canadian, plinky-plonk averse prejudices.

I am looking forward to a return there.... next year, or the year after..... whenever I next escape from my Third World exile. (Does anyone know why it's called the 9:30? Time of the first band on stage??)

I doubt if I shall be returning to the overpriced, atmosphere-free barn here again in a hurry.... or ever. Not unless Radiohead decide to play here, anyway.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Bar Etiquette

Now, I am a great fan of striking up casual conversations at bars. And I do try to be as tolerant as possible of behaviours, cultures, attitudes that are somewhat different to my own.

However, it seems to me that, when trying to engage someone in conversation, you should wait your moment, try to be aware of what the other person or people are doing and how they might feel about your intrusion. It's easier to initiate a conversation with another lone drinker than with a group; but, either way, it's surely usually best to begin with some apologetic request for acceptance such as "Is this seat taken?", "Do you mind if I join you for a moment?", "I couldn't help but overhear what you were saying there, and..." And there are clearly some circumstances where you just shouldn't try to butt in.

Lately, these elementary politenesses seem to be growing rarer and rarer. I'm not sure if this is the general problem of people behaving like arseholes when they've had a few drinks, or a more specific local phenomenon related to the dynamics of expat life out here. Indeed, I worry - at the risk of sounding like a terrible old fogey - if it isn't a 'generation gap' thing: young people today just have no manners!

It certainly doesn't seem to be nationality-specific, since of the two most glaring recent examples I encountered, one was British, the other American. I was in the Haiku Bar a few weeks back with a small group of friends, including The Artist (with whom I was just beginning my grand flirtation), when a very young, very drunk young British couple started taking it in turns to plonk themselves in the middle of our group (taking over the temporarily vacated seat whenever one of us went to the bar or the loo) and then drool and burble at us (their speech by this stage of the evening was at times almost incomprehensible, certainly very laboured and tedious). They were mostly harmless and not aggressive or dangerous or a long-term pest, so most of us grinned and bore it, treating it as just one of the occupational hazards of bar life. The Artist, however, reached her tether-limit ahead of the rest of us (she claimed to have been irritated by one of the girl's opening conversational gambits of "What's wrong with you, blondie?" - a line I shall long treasure, although I fear I didn't catch it at the time), and responded with admirable robustness: "Look, we didn't ask you to join us and you're being a pain, so would you mind just f***ing off?" Sometimes, that is the best, the only way to handle such situations; and I felt a little bad that I hadn't taken the lead in doing so myself.

Perhaps we are jinxed as a couple. A week or so later, almost exactly the same thing happened at a small bar downtown. This time we were alone, were just about the only people left in the place as they were getting ready to close up; we were enjoying each other's company, drowning in each other's eyes, teetering on the brink of falling in love.... when this young American couple (rather less drunk than our previous dual-nemesis, but almost equally crass) crashed in on us. At least the girl hovered shyly at a distance, but the guy just helped himself to a seat and led in with some line about how he admired "the intimacy of the moment [we] were sharing". After the awkwardness of the earlier experience, I wasn't about to let this develop into anything, so I immediately countered with a polite but stern: "That's right, it's an intimate moment - and I'd like to go on enjoying it with my friend. Why don't you go and enjoy your own intimate moment with your friend?" He scurried away, duly crestfallen. Sometimes it helps to be 6' 3" and scarily intense!!

These are not isolated incidents, but only the most conspicuous recent examples I have suffered - the more acutely memorable and galling because they briefly discomfited the woman I adore.

[And yes, I am hoping she will read this, and be cheered by a reminder of some of our times together, even these not-quite-the-best times. And I wish to remind her that I do adore her, because I have been unable to do this for a few days now, while locked out of my e-mail.
I miss you. Come back!]

I wonder, is this kind of behaviour really becoming more common? What is the cause of it? What is the best way of avoiding it? Or of dealing with it, without causing a 'big scene' or a fight? Answers in a 'comment', please!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Jericho Tavern

The Jericho Tavern is a medium-sized pub in north-west Oxford. As a watering-hole, it is pretty unremarkable (there are at least half a dozen more appealing dives in the adjacent neighbourhood of Jericho, the old industrial quarter along the banks of the canal), but the upstairs room has long been known as the city's premier live music venue.

It was for a while taken over by the Firkin chain, and lost the celebrated name. I'm not a great fan of chain pubs; and, although the Firkins are one of the better chains, I find their insistence on incorporating the word Firkin into alliterative names for all their establishments ('Philanderer & Firkin", "Fig & Firkin", etc.) to be deeply tiresome - especially when it requires the abandonment of an established pub name of some antiquity. I'm not sure if Firkin gave the pub up, or if they relaxed their Firkin-naming rule on this one occasion in deference to public pressure - but the Jericho is now the Jericho once more. I think the place may also have ceased to host live music for a while (I'm not sure if that was in any way connected with the unfortunate Firkin interlude - I've been away from Oxford for some years); but it is now once again a gig venue too.

I first encountered the Jericho during my student days, ever such a long time ago, but was not a particularly regular visitor back then. Later, in the early '90s, I found myself back in Oxford teaching for a couple of years, and was lucky enough to have a small flat on the edge of the Jericho district, just half a mile down the road from The Tav. At that time, John Otway (see my previous two posts) was playing there about once a month.... and I think I went to see him every single time he was on. Great days.

Radiohead, an Oxfordshire band, were just getting started around then.... and I'm sure they must have played at The Tav once or twice. However, I failed to notice them, was sadly unaware of them - I now kick myself that I failed to see them before they were famous. (I did see them relatively early on - in the 'Pablo Honey' days - and they were always a kick-arse band!) I never really expected to stumble upon true greatness in a small, local venue like that, and so chose my gigs based on the amusement value of the bands' names: 'Frank Fish & The Fins' and 'Kitchens Of Distinction' were among my favourites back then. Damn.

I heard a rumour when I was in Oxford a couple of months ago that Radiohead were shortly to play a 'stealth gig' at The Jericho Tavern, for old times' sake. I wonder if that really happened? Did I miss them again?? DAMN!

More on... The Otway Experience

Some of my correspondents have asked me, "Well, what exactly happens in a John Otway show?"

It's kind of hard to explain. Really, you have to be there.

Most of the time, he plays alone. Sometimes, he has a more proficient guitarist along to beef up his sound (in recent years, often a shambling heavy metal dude called Richard). Occasionally, he puts together a 'big band' - a full four-piece rock'n'roll outfit. For the Albert Hall gig, he had an orchestra and a children's choir. Very occasionally, he even reunites with his early '80s collaborator (and creator of his infamous signature tune, 'Headbutts'), Wild Willy Barrett. Once, he teamed up with another of my favourite eccentric British entertainers, Attila The Stockbroker (whose albums include titles of such twisted genius as 'Libyan Students From Hell' and '667: Neighbour of the Beast').

However he is accompanied, every show is almost exactly the same.... but that doesn't matter: familiarity breeds contentment for his many fans. He plays mostly covers, some relatively straight, but most with a jokey twist: Bowie's 'Space Oddity', for example, is always delivered in a broad Yorkshire accent ("Ey-oop, Planet Earth's blue, an' there's nowt ah can do..."). He sometimes offers a killer parody of Bob Dylan as well. Other songs strangely acquire more emotional power than the versions we are used to: 'Two Little Boys' (known in the UK mainly from a kids' version done in the '60s or '70s by the very middle-of-the-road Australian entertainer, Rolf Harris), and even 'Billy, Don't Be A Hero' (a cheesy '70s pop hit from a soon forgotten, two-hit-wonder band called Paper Lace), are reclaimed - despite a few moments of comic mugging - as moving anti-war ballads; 'Green, Green Grass of Home', mainly spoken, but with the chorus exploding into a rousing punk thrash, is somehow much more affecting than the syrupy Tom Jones original (Otway is big on Tom Jones: his greatest earnings to date probably came from the Weetabix TV commercial which used his rendition of 'Delilah' - "She saw the spoon in my hand and she laughed no more...").

The inevitable highlight of the show - for me, at least - is 'House of the Rising Sun', which, by tradition (a tradition whose origins are lost in the mists of time), is always done as a kind of call-and-response with the crowd. Members of the audience interrupt every half-line or so, prompting the next lyric with a facetious question:
"Tell us about yer mum!"
"My mother was a tailor..." "
What did she ever do for you?"
"Well, she sewed my new blue jeans."
"Oh, that's nice. And what about yer dad?"
"My father was a gambling man..."
"Where was that?"
"Down in New Orleans."

And then there's the physicality of the show. The increasingly extravagant forward rolls across the stage (while still playing the guitar), usually culminating with a dramatic series of leap-into-forward-rolls from the top of the speaker stacks - or from teetering towers of beer crates erected for the purpose. The reckless self-beating-up that happens during 'Body Talk'. The moment when he tears off his sweat-soaked shirt, showering the front row of the audience with popped buttons. And, of course, the grand finale of 'Headbutts' - where each headbutt mentioned in the song ("Walking on the beach in a Force 10 gale, when I saw three hippies - saving a whale. Well, I hate bleedin' hippies, so I give 'em all a headbutt.") is accompanied by a vigorous headbutt of the microphone (which invariably ends up beaten badly out of shape; Otway usually ends up with his forehead bruised, sometimes bleeding).

Like I said, you really have to be there.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


If you have not heard of John Otway - well, where have you been for the past few decades?? The phenomenon will be difficult for me to explain adequately, difficult for my readers to fully comprehend.

Nevertheless, I shall make a stab at it. He is not quite a rock star. He's a singer (though I suppose he doesn't really sing, as such), guitarist (adequate, at best), and occasional songwriter (probably his strongest suit, although he works mostly in surreal comedy and pastiche). He had one very modest 'hit' at the outset of his career - an infectiously silly, punk-ish love song called "Cor, baby, that's really free!" - boosted by a short documentary made about him ('StarDustman') by the local TV station. Since then, he has consistently failed to "make it big", but has amassed a considerable cult following through his gruelling gig schedule - he's been doing at least 2 or 3 shows a week, almost every week, since the late '70s (I went to the grand celebratory 'Gig 2,000' at the Astoria on Charing Cross Road some years ago; he's probably closing in on 3,000 now). Although he does very occasionally put on a show in a larger venue (he even played at the Albert Hall a few years ago; though the place was far from full), most of the time he is playing in the upstairs room at the pub to a few dozen people - most of whom are Otway regulars. But it's that intimacy of venue, and the enthusiasm of his loyal followers, that gives his gigs such a compelling energy. He is a tremendously engaging performer, enormously hard-working.... and very, very funny.

Everybody should see Otway once before they die.

I mention this because his latest grand, lunatic scheme is a World Tour. It's only a handful of gigs spread over the first few weeks of November, but it is taking in an impressive range of locations. Ah, if only I had the time and the money, I'd be there with the elite fan club on the plane with him - what a great holiday! A couple of days ago, he played a show in Asia. In China, actually. I might have been able to go, if it had been in one of the major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, or Guangzhou. For some obscure reason, his sponsors had chosen Ningbo - a burgeoning port city, but somewhat remote from international airports or expat 'civilization'. Even my friends in comparatively nearby Shanghai were saying, "How the f*** are we supposed to get there? It's miles away!"

It is rather galling for me. I am a huge fan. I have seen almost all of his previous 'big gigs'. I saw him dozens of times when I was living in Oxford. I even saw him when I was living in Canada (where I was about the only 'regular' at a badly promoted, thinly attended Toronto gig). I would have loved to have seen him in the Far East. But Ningbo??? In the middle of the week??!! Do me a favour!!!!

[Sound of teeth gnashing and teardrops furrowing my cheeks]

Friday, November 10, 2006

Another Haiku Bar haiku

The late-night feeling:
Senses keen, yet also dulled -
Full of emptiness.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Planet of Beautiful Women

The Artist chided me recently - after perusing my Yahoo Photos site - that I seemed to be "always surrounded by beautiful women".

There may be some truth in this. I've always been good at being friends with women (in fact, several of my very best friends, both here and 'back home', are women). I seem to be able to manage to be charming without being at all sexually threatening (people do occasionally mistake me for a gay); which means that, while I always struggle to find myself a girlfriend, I have any number of admiring girlie chums who will happily tell people what a great catch I would be.

And, yes, I am a great admirer, a connoisseur of female pulchritude. My oldest friend, The Egregious Dr P, once chaffed me for being "obsessed with classical ideals of beauty" - by which he merely meant that the reason I could never find a girlfriend was that I was "too fussy". I disagree with that verdict, but.... I do set the bar pretty high, I know. (I tend to want looks and personality and intelligence and humour and creativity and..... "Tick ONE!" my friends say.)

However, it is always worth bearing in mind this favourite 'proverb' of mine:
"Remember that many a man who has fallen in love with a pretty smile, makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl."

But (as so often) I digress. The question is, does this city in which I live have a significantly higher-than-average proportion of beautiful women? And do I get to meet them?

Well, it's not quite as spectacular as Edinburgh in August (what is?), where the Gorgeousness Quotient is pushed through the roof by the huge influx of art and drama students attending the festivals there (and the background levels of attractivness - it is like radiation, isn't it? There should be some sort of Geiger Counter device to alert us to dangerous 'hot spots'! - are always pretty high there: I have a great fondness for the ladies of Scotland). In fact, the local women here are mostly pretty rough - the least attractive in Asia by a long margin. However, as a bright & shiny metropolis, we do tend to attract some of the finest-looking women from all over the country, and beyond..... so, yes, there are plenty of headturners around. And then, of course, there are the foreigners. Although I admire the delicacy of Oriental features (Singaporeans, in particular, are probably the most beautiful women in the world, I think), it tends to be a rather abstract, academic kind of appreciation: 99% of Asian girls are just too darned short for me. My great weakness (who knows why?!) has always been for Americans. And, to a rather lesser extent, Australians. Canadians, Indians, Greeks, and most Eastern Europeans also get an honourable mention. We have all of those nationalities represented here, in numbers. Sometimes it feels as though I have woken up in one of those bizarre cheapo '50s sci-fi movies where the Planet Of Improbably Beautiful Women has sent down a covert invasion force to take over the Earth.

I was hanging out with a Drinking Companion a few nights ago ('twas The Choirboy - a handsome rogue, but at times strangely diffident with the ladies), when he suddenly told me: "It's ridiculous! I think I must have fallen in love with at least 2,000,003 women in the last month."

I could sympathise with his distress. Thereafter, whenever an attractive woman entered our field of view, one or other of us would intone sadly, "2,000,006.... 2,000,007.... 2,000,008...."

The Choirboy, of course, is still young, free, and single - at liberty to pursue any or all of these legion temptations. I, on the other hand, am tormented by the thought that I may have found The One.... and that she is now thousands of miles away, and might not be coming back. Yes, at the moment, there is only one beautiful woman I want to be surrounded by - The Artist. She had better bloody well come back!!!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

In the words of Lloyd Bridges (almost)

It looks like I picked the wrong month to give up drinking.

A succession of leaving parties for my erstwhile flatmate, Texan Lisa, followed by a good deal of taking The Artist out on the town, and, just for good measure, my birthday, followed by my young pal The Crazy Pole's birthday (and you know how Poles love to drink!), followed by the 2nd Anniversary party for the Haiku Bar....

I was seriously planning a month or so of total abstinence to try and get in shape for a marathon, but instead.... the last four weeks have just been wall-to-wall boozing.

It's been fun, but it's been crazy. I need a bit of chill-out and de-tox for a little while.

That's the plan anyway. It's never easy to stick to a plan like that in this town....

Saturday, November 04, 2006

An extra haiku

Today is your, our
Second Anniversary.
Thank you, Haiku Bar.

Through a glass, snarkily....

My favourite way of viewing the world....

Friday, November 03, 2006

Haiku Bar haiku 2

Here I am again:
Where the syllables arrive
In 5-7-5's

Thursday, November 02, 2006

We are sailing, we are sailing....

The only serious alternative to my beloved 'Haiku Bar' as a favoured 'local' these days is the Reef Bar. It is similarly tiny, similarly eclectic in its clientele, similarly welcoming to its select band of regulars - but very different in style: altogether more relaxed and comfortable, brighter lights and quieter music, tasteful decoration, and deep, deep sofas rather than wooden stools and benches. The 'Haiku Bar' is more like a US college bar: dingy, sometimes a little raucous, and encouraging of hard drinking. Reef is more like your living room, a nice place to relax and have a chat. (In many ways, I could see myself coming to prefer Reef to the 'Haiku Bar'; but I have rather too much sentiment - rather too many haikus, and the memories of the blues that led to them - invested in the latter now. And it does have certain formidable, probably insuperable advantages: the cheery presence of The Barman, my favourite drink-slinger in this town; the best and most diverse music selection in town [and if you happen not to like what's on, you can call the shots]; the fact that it's a good 10mins nearer to my apartment; and.... it's a great place for solo drinking [not that you stay alone for long, but that's what so good about it].... whereas Reef is a place to take a bunch of friends.)

I took The Artist (my NRI, New Romantic Interest; I work for an IT company now - everything has to be an acronym!) to Reef a couple of times last week, and she loved the place.

[I think she also loves the 'Haiku Bar', though she teases me that it is "unadventurous" and "unimaginative" of me to hang out there so often (now, there are two words that are not often applied to me! Though I'm reasonably sure she wasn't in earnest about that. And to be frank, I really don't go there all that often - sometimes not for weeks or months at a time.). How she loves to wind me up! And that was only our second date....]

Anyway, back to the Reef Bar....
There are three distinctive, beguiling eccentricities about Reef. The first is the music. Although they have expanded their selection quite a bit of late (not necessarily a good thing!), they still rely largely on their original collection, which was.... 3 CDs! A blues compilation, a classic jazz compilation, and a country & western compilation. That's really all you ever need.... And it did lend the place a charmingly schizoid 'personality'.

The second is the plate collection. As a gimmick in their early days, they would invite customers to commemorate their first visit by personalizing a small white dinner plate with a marker pen, and then hanging it on the wall just inside the door. This custom is now sadly discontinued, since the wall was soon full. Some of the plates have really quite impressive cartoons or abstract designs on them; others have just names and dates, or obscure mottoes (like mine - inelegantly scrawled in blue felt-pen, a line from a favourite film: "Failure is merely proof that the desire was not strong enough." Anybody know where that's from??).

And the third is the fact that, in my circle, Reef is never called Reef at all. Oh, no - it has become The Yacht Club. Strictly speaking, this is the adopted name of a diverse group of louche young men-about-town to whom I occasionally attach myself; the chief movers being Dapper Dan (actually a charming young American called Will; a latter-day dandy and aesthete who designs his own clothes... and mixes a mean cocktail!), Jesse the Film Guy, and Fergus the Dissolute Choirboy (my No1 Drinking Companion of the moment); none of them has, or is ever likely to be able to afford a yacht, but it is a wistful, aspirational sort of appellation. However, since the Yachties adopted Reef as their 'clubhouse', the two institutions have become inextricably fused together; and - for those 'in the know' - the name 'Reef' has become almost redundant.

The great thing about Yacht Club meetings (sadly infrequent at the best of times; but especially so now that Dapper Dan has returned to grad school, and Jesse is doing the 'serious girlfriend' thing) is that the indulgent owner of the place happily allows the senior Yachties behind the bar to mix their own drinks... which he then lets us have at giveaway prices. Dapper Dan, in particular, was an artist behind the bar; but Fergus also knocks out a pretty decent martini.

A discreet text message with the cryptic summons 'sailing tonight' was all that was needed to convene a meeting of the nautically-(& alcoholically-)inclined; but it has been some weeks now since I received such a welcome invitation. I am tempted to try to call a meeting myself, but fearful that I lack the necessary status - as but a late-comer and hanger-on to this jolly crew. I must confer with The Choirboy, and try to lay some plans. On these long winter evenings, sometimes only a cocktail will do.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Stranger at the Bar

A common conceit in literature and cinema. Remember the mysterious Sam Elliott figure in 'The Big Lebowski'?

Well, I have acquired such a shadowy, (almost) anonymous mentor myself, down at The Haiku Bar: an almost creepily cool French Cambodian dude, who exudes worldly wisdom through his pores, and has an opinion - usually a pretty sound one - on just about everything... but especially on matters of lurve.

Just recently, he told me that I should definitely make a move on The Artist before she went home, "because uzzerwise zere eez a danger zat she weel become, you know, a friend". I could see exactly what he was getting at, but I was inclined to disregard him on this occasion. I thought he was just being a stereotypically randy French git. I really couldn't see any point in initiating an affair with a woman who was probably about to disappear out of my life forever in just a few days' time. I was absolutely determined that this was the right course of action for me, for her, for both of us: I was NOT going to make a move.

But then she made a move on me; and I was powerless to resist.

Maybe she'd been talking to The Stranger....