Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I'm doing the best I can

I was sitting in a bar the other day, waiting for my new romantic interest, The Artist, to join me.

She, running late in her taxi, was a tad concerned that I might be imbibing too heavily before her arrival, and sent me a text message recommending that I should "sip" my beer. She meant it in a very light & teasing way, I'm sure; but I pictured her saying it in a tone that was just sufficiently schoolmarm-ish... to be desperately sexy!!

I replied: "I AM sipping. It's just that the sips follow one another rather quickly."

The story of my life?? Everything's a metaphor with me!

Hex The Ex!

Another (rare!) cross-post from my 'Froogville' blog - since The Ex has loomed large in my thoughts and my writing lately, and has made one or two appearances over here on 'Round-The-World Barstool Blues' as well.

*********************************************************************

It has been bothering me that it is perhaps inappropriate - unhelpful to my emotional health - to keep referring to my worryingly Sylvia Plath-like former girlfriend (witch, bitch, muse, mentor, siren, unsuitable soulmate) as The Ex. After all, I have quite a few other 'Exes'; and I may soon be about to acquire another!

I also feel that a re-naming might be symbolic 'moving on'; perhaps a useful proofing against the dangers of a bad run of 'anniversary blues' (the next 6 weeks are a minefield of landmark moments in our brief, intense, wonderful, disastrous 'relationship': first meeting, first date, first poem, first kiss; first week-long 'disappearance', first evidence of mental instability, first argument, first admission of 'the other man'...).

Therefore, I propose to try to refer to her as The Poet from now on.

Old readers may be briefly confused. New readers will be no more confused than they otherwise would have been. Deal with it!

Monday, October 30, 2006

You don't get rid of me that easily

Ta-daaaa! I'm back!! It is as though I never went away.

Either those pesky bureaucrats at Kafka Central rethought their policy on blocking posts to Blogspot over the weekend…. or their blocking apparatus has failed (or been thwarted by Blogger? Go, Blogger!!!)…. or my problems with that were just a temporary glitch after all.

Whatever the cause of the maddening interruption (and probably we shall never know), I am now re-connected, and thus able to share my brain-scrapings with you whenever the mood so takes me. (Unless you happen to be living in the same country as me, or in one with a similarly f***ed-up censorship regime; in which case, you need to learn how to use Anonymouse, my friend.)

I am half-tempted to make more of an effort to deserve the interference of the government by including more social and political commentary (the powers-that-be would certainly not like Froogville's 'Where in the world am I?' series, if they knew). This is the common error of tyrants down the ages: random, unnecessary oppression creates rebels out of complacent gripers.

I wonder if 'someone' is 'looking over my shoulder' at this….?


"I saw him standing by the newspaper stand. There's something odd about his gloved left hand…"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

'Normal' Service will be resumed....?

This could be a 'Where in the world am I?', but I think I'll probably post it on both my blogs.

I live in a country where Internet access is fraught with difficulty and frustration. Partly it's the common problem of a developing country racing to catch up with those glamorous industrialized nations…and sometimes rushing at things a bit too fast. The nationwide Internet architecture is still a bit primitive and unreliable in some respects. Though major cities now all have access to a pretty sophisticated high-speed broadband network, in practice it doesn't work that well because much of the equipment isn't as cutting-edge as the new routers and cabling. There is, in particular, a problem in the last link in the chain: only a handful of the most-recently constructed buildings are actually wired for broadband; the rest of us have to hook up via ancient telephone lines. My connection is rated at a very decent 100Mbps, but in practice, I doubt if it is one-tenth as fast as that most of the time.

Of course, it also doesn't help that I live in a country where the government is virulently opposed to the free flow of information, and thus we have one of the most heavily monitored and filtered Internet systems in the world – which slows things down even further (sometimes to a complete stop: the Google search engine became completely unusable for a few weeks back in May and June this year [and – incomprehensibly! – so did GoogleMail]), and leads to all kinds of (fortunately, mostly ephemeral) weirdnesses.

At first, I was tempted to put down the sudden disappearance of Blogspot to such an annoying but temporary glitch. However, after 24hrs, I now rather fear the worst: it's blocked (AGAIN). Curiously enough, the Blogger site isn't. Not so far, anyway. Yesterday, I was still able to post – although I could only view the results via an anonymizer. The interfering Net goons seem to have closed that rather obvious loophole now. Blogger is still fine, but I'm not allowed to publish to Blogspot. (Since I can, it appears, still edit and save posts to the Blogger site, I may have to call on one of my friends overseas to become my 'literary executor' and log in to my account to publish for me a couple of times a week. Until 'they' close that avenue too….)

I am not greatly familiar with the dark arts of circumventing Net censorship using anonymizer sites and such, but I may have to start trying to get more savvy. Anonymouse is becoming my lifeline at the moment – but even that is extensively interfered with! I had thought that I had managed to log in to Blogger using this site in the past (I had originally been planning to try to do all my posting anonymously, to avoid possible 'trouble'… but then decided I couldn't be bothered.); but perhaps I was mistaken. Now I am unable to log in anywhere using a password through Anonymouse. Has that always been a limitation of the system, or is it new? Or is this further evidence of the sinister work of the goons?

Does anyone know of an anonymizer (or other canny method) that might enable me to log in to Blogger "anonymously" and publish to Blogspot without being blocked?

Anyway, one way or another, I hope to be able to resume posting shortly. Please be patient.

I had anticipated this exasperating development right back when I started this blogging lark a couple of months ago, but I have found it a surprisingly bitter blow – I was just starting to enjoy myself!! Damn it!!!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Haiku Bar haiku

Since the 'Friday haiku' has become a regular (and much-loved??) feature of my doppelganger blog, Froogville, I thought I would institute a similar tradition here on this site... using some of the alcohol-tinged frivolities I have penned in my favourite local drinking den, the place I have come to think of as 'The Haiku Bar'. (Most of them, in fact, have been recorded originally on the SMS writer of my mobile phone, and later transcribed on to my computer. But, of course, there isn't a convenient single verb to describe that. [I realise how rarely I use a pen for anything these days... very sad, very sad.] If I don't write them into my phone, and try to rely on memory alone to preserve them - well, they usually don't get preserved! How many mini-masterpieces may have been lost that way! Ah, the ephemerality of all that we create!)

In the Haiku Bar,
All of us came to forget.
Instant fellowship!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Traveller's Rest

One of the great 'lost' pubs. It enjoyed a brief flowering of 'perfect boozer'-dom, at a time when I was lucky enough to be able to enjoy it; but within a few years it had been utterly, tragically ruined by a change of landlord and ownership, and woefully misguided 'renovation'.

The Traveller's is near the top of a steep, hilly road leading out of Durham (all roads in Durham are steep and hilly), picturesquely called the Claypath. It happened to be fairly near the teacher-training school I attended at the back end of the '80s, and so - at my prompting - it soon became established as the watering-hole of choice for a large clique of my fellow student teachers. It was ideally dark and gloomy within, immediately cosseting you in a womby oblivion of the world outside. It had some very fine beer, and an excellent range of whiskies on the optic. It had a magnificent long bar of thick, ancient wood. It had an eccentric gaggle of hard-drinking regulars (mostly refugees from dull Civil Service jobs - I think there was a pensions office or somesuch just down the road). Best of all, it had an extremely friendly, extremely hard-working, extremely shrewd young landlord - a guy who, within just a few weeks of my meeting him, unhesitatingly subbed me some money so that I could carry on drinking there (after I had suffered one of those embarrassing lost bank card moments). And, almost better even than that, he had a dreamily lovely girlfriend (drop-dead gorgeous and a wiz in the kitchen - how often does that happen?) who served up some conspicuously better-than-average pub grub (her steak & ale pie, made with the excellent Theakston's Old Peculier, was a special favourite; it may well have been made with the otherwise unsellable dregs of the barrel, and was known on a few occasions to provoke a slight loosening of the bowels, but it was worth it!).

And yet this idyll was soon to pass. Just a few years later, I was back in Durham attending an interview for a teaching job at a local school. Naturally, I looked in on the Traveller's for a little nostalgia fix (I knew John and his fair lady had moved back to his native Stockport to open up a new place, but I thought there would still be some of the old magic left there)..... and found the place gutted, unrecognisable. Many fine British pubs have been ruined by pig-headed modernisations and refurbishments in the past 10 or 15 years, but this was the most pointless, most ham-fisted example I have ever encountered. It seemed impossible that the restful haven I remembered could so suddenly have been transformed into something so noisy and garish and charmless. The wonderful wooden bar was gone, removed (or, incomprehensibly, covered over with steel sheet). Everywhere there seemed to be chrome fittings and harsh lighting and twinkly neon displays - it was like being inside a pinball machine. And there were NO customers. I couldn't even bear to stay for one drink; I turned on my heel, and went outside for a quiet weep.

My thoughts turned to the Traveller's again in these past few days because it was the scene of my finest ever (almost certainly never to be exceeded) birthday celebration. It was only a few weeks into the teacher-training course, but that's such an extreme environment that it does foster a kind of 'battlefront camaraderie' - intense, if ultimately short-lived, friendships form very quickly. My new buddies and I had already firmly established the Traveller's as 'our local' (though usually for lunchtime rather than evening drinking; I was renting a small house in an old mining village some miles out of town, and - there being no late buses at that time - I generally headed home relatively early of an evening). So, the stage was ideally set for a BIG piss-up. So big, in fact, that I have almost no direct recollection of it (but that's how it should be!): all I know is that I woke the next day crashed out on the floor of a friend's room in the college attached to the teacher-training school, and needed a supporting shoulder to lean on to help me stagger, still barely conscious, the few hundred yards to our 9am lecture. The rest I had to piece together over the next several days from other people's fragmentary, sometimes accusatory accounts.

The key piece of evidence in reconstructing events came from Aileen, one of the regulars at the Traveller's, a semi-crazed Irishwoman who regarded the bottle of Old Bushmills on the optic rack as her personal property: she was peeved at me that I had singlehandedly emptied a bottle that was, she believed, more than half-full the last time she ordered a drink from it. This was a particularly terrifying revelation because I recalled that I had a declared policy for the evening that I would only buy myself whiskey chasers, expecting other people to buy me my pints as birthday offerings. 15 whiskies, 15 pints? Did I really do that?! I think perhaps I did! Ah, youth.... I wouldn't be able to any more.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Cosi fan tutte

This is one of my favourite comments on female vanity (recalled to mind by my last post about a celebrated depiction of the Trojan War). It's by the early 20th Century Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, something of a pioneer in the genres of horror and fantasy... but much wittier than most who plough that furrow.


"And were you pleased?" they asked of Helen, in Hell.
"Pleased?" replied she. "When all Troy's towers fell;
And dead were Priam's sons, and lost his throne;
And such a war was fought as none had known,
And even the gods took part; and all because of me alone?
Pleased?
I should say I was!"

The advantages of a Classical education

A curious little bar, not so far from where I live (now, alas, defunct, but a small favourite of mine a couple of years back), was distinguished by this rather striking mural.

This is not in Greece. It is about as far from Greece as it is possible to get, without going way down into the Southern Hemisphere. And yet here is a classic piece of ancient Greek art. The bar manager - an Australian girl called Anna - and her boyfriend had painstakingly copied it from a book using the simple-but-effective gridsquare method. It sent shivers down my spine as soon as I saw it.

Most of the customers (and there were never very many anyway), if they gave this a second glance at all, probably thought only, "Hey, cool painting." But I... I actually studied Classics for my first degree (one of the reasons, I maintain, that I have remained so steadfastly unemployable ever since); so I said, "F**k me! That's Exekias!!" And so indeed it was. To be honest, I doubt if I would have recalled that fact from my undergraduate days, but I had considerably improved my grasp of this sort of stuff subsequently through having to teach the Art & Architecture module of the A-Level Classical Civilization course during my schoolmastering days.

Exekias, an Athenian master pot-painter of the later 6th Century BC, was the pre-eminent exponent of the 'black figure' style; and this is his most famous work, an interlude in the Trojan war where the two leading Greek heroes, Ajax and Achilles, amuse themselves with a board game (a form of backgammon, I suspect, since in the original - I'm pretty sure - they are each calling out their die rolls).

You do find the strangest things in bars.

Monday, October 23, 2006

And I am a Rain Dog too...

Although I go through phases of loving each of Tom Waits's albums a little more fiercely than the rest, if pinned down to a single 'desert island discs' choice, I usually have to go for 'Rain Dogs' as my absolute favourite. (The guitar on 'Downtown Train' is the one thing I'd really love to be able to replicate in my own playing [one day, assuming I ever get down to practising properly... it's hard to take up an instrument in your middle years!] - not at all complex, but exquisite phrasing and control of tone.)

I hadn't understood the reference in the title track (although I've always felt a particular identification with the early line: "Taxi?? We'd rather walk.") until I read an interview with Tom a few years back in which he talked about it. The idea was that in a modern city the dogs all rely on items of street furniture to leave their territorial scent markings on, and these are easily washed clean by a heavy rainfall. Hence, after a storm, you will see a lot of bemused and bedraggled urban mutts forlornly sniffing at suddenly odourless mailboxes, fire-hydrants, and lamp-posts, at a loss as to how to find their way home.

And that's a rather too apposite metaphor for guys like me - never being sure where 'home' is, semi-permanently baffled by our surroundings, thrown into confusion by every change in the weather.

I don't think anyone has ever written better of the road, the bar, and the underachiever than Tom.

That mystery birthday cocktail...

I learn that the drink which did such BAD things to me a couple of days ago is more widely known as a 'Dr Pepper', because it attempts to mimic the taste of the famously foul-tasting proprietary soda. I can't see the appropriateness of this, or even the point of the attempt. I am not one of those perverse enthusiasts for Dr Pepper soda. To my mind, it tastes like cough syrup. Regurgitated cough syrup. The beer-and-depth-charge combination my friend The Barman mixed up for me on Friday actually tasted surprisingly nice.

It seems that he was taught this recipe by a friend of my pal Nick the Photographer.... called Gary. Not a doctor, though, I don't think. No matter. It's a good name for the drink. Thus are cocktails born and named. Around these parts, this dangerous potion will always be known as the 'Dr Gary'.

Gary, whoever and wherever you are, thank you.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Who's the lucky birthday boy??

I had a birthday party last night. A real novelty for me. In recent years, I have been finding it harder and harder to conceal the 'significant' date from close friends, and so have begun to use it as an excuse to get together with a few people for dinner and some drinks - but never a party, as such. I don't think I've had a birthday party since I was 10 (and I didn't enjoy that one!).

However, I hadn't thrown a party in quite some time (not since my infamous series of 'leaving' parties back in June); and the b'day fell on a Friday this year. Fate, once again, seemed to be conspiring against me.

The crucial extra impetus came from my pal, The Barman - a friend for four years now, and by common consent amongst my crowd, the best barman in this city. For the past two years he has made my local hole-in-the-wall drinking den - the place I nickname 'The Haiku Bar', because it inspires my creative urges - the hottest spot in my district, and a second home for me. Now he has become a victim of his own success. His boss has just transferred him to a new bar (same neighbourhood, only slightly further away from my apartment), which is much larger, and comfortably appointed - but sadly lacking in customers. The place has been open three or four months now, and is still completely dead almost every night. And there is little chance of that improving now that the slow winter months are upon us. The Barman is keen to work his magic there, but I fear it is a Mission Impossible. However, I and his many other loyal customers will do our damnedest to help him.

Hence - the unaccustomed 'birthday party' last night. I managed to round up 30-40 assorted lowlifes, most of whom were tactful enough to say that I didn't look a day over 30 (or, in some slightly less tactful cases, over 35). I even had some strange (attractive, very young) women flirting with me - everybody loves a birthday boy!

The Barman came up with a 'birthday special' for me - a concoction known as the 'Dr Gary': beer with a cola top, and an amaretto depth-charge in it..... amazingly enough, it actually tastes quite nice. I suspect an over-indulgence in those may have been responsible for my sleeping in to 3pm this afternoon.

Another unwelcome sign of aging, that: I am starting to lose my fabled resiliency - for drinking, for late nights, for life....

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Another bar poem

Not one of mine, this time. Something I just found on the Internet, from a favourite writer (obscure, Croatian).


The Beautiful God-Hater

A regular customer in a local bar
Waves his empty sleeve,
Fulminates from his undisciplined beard:
We've buried the gods
And now it's the turn of the dummies
Who are playing at gods.
The regular is hidden in tobacco clouds
Illuminated by his own words
Hewn from an oak trunk;
He is as beautiful as a god
Dug up recently nearby.

Vasco Popa (tr. from the Serbo-Croat by Anthony Weir)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Another great 'Hagar' moment

The best of all, in fact.

Hagar, voyaging further afield than usual, happens upon a desert island - a typical cartoon-strip depiction of one: just a small mound of sand in the middle of the ocean, with one or two coconut palms growing out of it.

On the island is a castaway: again, a steretypical figure with ragged clothes, long, unkempt beard, and wild, staring eyes.

Hagar attempts to make small talk. "So, how long have you been on this island?"

"Twenty years!" groans the poor wretch.

"Wow, that's a long time!" observes Hagar, sagely, as he takes in the desolate scene, the sparse vegetation. "What did you eat?"

"Well, mostly," replies the castaway,"I ate the rocks."

Ah, so the man is obviously mad - but Hagar still tries to humour him. "The rocks, you say? I bet they taste pretty bad, don't they?"

"Oh yes," says the castaway, "but they're easy to catch."


Some years later, when I shared this story with friends at University, the word 'Rockeater' became a popular slang term amongst us to denote someone who set their sights deliberately low in dating, in order to minmize the risk of rejection. A useful concept.

Me, I've always been at the opposite end of the spectrum: too proud to "eat the rocks", I endure years of starvation.

A cartoon unsuitable role model

Is 'Hagar The Horrible' still being published? When I was in my teens, I had a weakness for this very silly cartoon strip about a plundering, pillaging, hard-drinking, stupidly macho Viking. (I am ashamed to admit that it used to appear in The Sun - the most popular but most determinedly downmarket of UK newspapers; a rag with very little to recommend it, apart from the cartoons..... and the fact that its bombastic Middle England prejudices were often unintentionally hilarious.)

In one of my favourite sequences, Hagar is getting drunk in an obviously disreputable, dangerous sort of bar. He whistles imperiously for yet another beer. The barman hurls a bottle viciously right at him. Hagar nonchalantly catches the bottle in flight towards his face, and, in one easy motion, bites the neck from the bottle, and chugs the beer down in one (glass splinters and all).

His gormless sidekick, Lucky Eddie, looks at him anxiously and says, "Do you know how many calories are in one of those?"

I rather fear I am reaching that point in life myself. I've always been happily proof against hangovers, but now I seem to be losing out on the pleasant buzz of mild inebriation as well - my tolerance has just got too darned high for my own good. So now, the major concern in my mind as I ponder whether or not to order another beer is not "Will I regret this in the morning?" or "Will this take me into the happy-drunk zone?", but merely "What will this do to my waistline?"

I suppose this is what they call 'middle age'. Our fathers warn us about it, but we never listen....

Monday, October 16, 2006

Unleash those comments!!!

One of the many vexing glitches about the Blogger interface is its repeated lapsing into default settings on things like allowing comments.

A few of my friends have complained at being required to go through the rigmarole of registering on Blogger themselves before they would be able to add comments to my blogs.

I think this is now, finally, fixed (at about the fifth or sixth attempt): you should be able to comment away quickly and easily (and anonymously, if you like), without having to register or sign-in first.

So, go ahead and do your worst!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Blue Parrot (A Cretan PostScript)

George Rodinos - one of my all-time favourite barmen, and someone to whom I still owe a huge debt of gratitude - had told me he was planning to open his own place shortly after I left Crete; a bar he was going to call 'The Blue Parrot'. I think it was going to be on the north coast of the island, somewhere a little to the east of Rethymnon.


Alas, I soon lost touch with the incomparable George, and have never had the opportunity to return to Crete. I would be very interested to know if 'The Blue Parrot' ever came into being, and it if yet thrives. I imagine it would have been a very good hangout indeed.

Beware of the Owls!

And another....

It just so happened that this school trip to Crete took place shortly before the final episode of 'Twin Peaks' was due to be screened in the UK. That series was a particular favourite of mine (and, bizarrely, also of my father - just about the only taste we ever shared!), and had acquired quite a cult following among the older students at the boarding school where I was a live-in teacher. Two of my teaching colleagues had become lumbered with somewhat unflattering nicknames derived from the show - Killer Bob and The Log Lady - but I.... I was (briefly!) Agent Cooper, after Kyle McLachlan's quirky but ultra-cool FBI investigator.

So desperate was I not to miss the denouement of this landmark TV series that I had set my own VHS machine to record it, and the school's machine in the Audio-Visual Aids Room, and had made my parents swear to tape it and keep it for me, and had wrung similar promises from at least two of my friends. A number of my favourite students accompanying me on the trip had gone to similar lengths - but we were all in a state of high anxiety that all of these plans might miscarry and that we might somehow miss out on seeing how the story concluded.

I have to admit, we were pitifully obsessed. We were swapping catchphrases or discussing favourite moments from the show almost incessantly. For those of us who were aficionados, cultists, it became an irresistible running joke through the holiday; for our travelling companions who did not share our consuming enthusiasm, it must soon have become a terrible bore. (It didn't help that McLachlan had just started appearing in a series of TV ads - in his Agent Cooper persona, or a 'non-IPR infringing' facsimile of it - for Ruffles, an American brand of ridged crisps [or 'potato chips', if you must, my US readers] newly launched in Britain...... and we found Ruffles to be a ubiquitous brand in Crete, and thus an easy stimulus to yet more 'Twin Peaks' banter.)

After a few days - on the momentous day on which the last episode was to be screened in our absence, when our nerves were at their tautest - we took pity on our beleaguered 'non-TP' friends, and, at my instigation, we, the fans, all tried to embrace a self-imposed moratorium on further references to the show.

It lasted all of about 2hrs.

We stopped high up in the mountains somewhere for a mid-morning stroll around a monastery which enjoyed a local claim to fame as a sort of Cretan Alamo, the scene of some little-known, suicidal stand against someone or other (the Turks, probably) a century or so before. On entering the large adjacent giftshop and convenience store afterwards, we encountered an unnerving spectacle. Fellow enthusiasts of 'Twin Peaks' will doubtless recall that the owls in the woods were sinister harbingers of something or other, possibly 'familiars' channelling the evil spirits from The Black Lodge; the mystical Log Lady was stern in her repeated warnings, "The owls are not what they seem." - one of the most memorable lines from the whole series. This remote Cretan gift shop displayed a large selection of stuffed animals. Nearly all birds. In fact, almost exclusively owls. More stuffed owls thant you would ever expect to see in your entire life. It was very, very spooky. Ed, my favourite student and fellow 'Twin Peaks' nutter, clocked this bizarre apparition with the same stunned disbelief as me; the other 'Peakies' in our party slowly gathered round us in silent awe. We continued speechless - but fighting a doomed battle against helpless corpsing - for several minutes as we reboarded the coach, got under way again. Then Ed turned to me across the aisle and asked, "Are you going to say it, or shall I?" Moments later, half of the coach spontaneously chorused with one voice, "THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM!!!"

Maybe you had to be there.....

Wake up, sleepy Jean...

A further recollection from that fantastic holiday in Crete....

George the hotel bar manager was quite a find - handsome, charming, smart, with great English (he'd grown up in America) and impeccable taste (we spent long hours swapping favourite film recommendations, comparing favourite Tom Waits songs). We stayed in touch for several months after I'd returned home (photography was another shared interest, and I spent some time shopping around to try and find him a good price on a rare secondhand Nikon he was determined to have).

On a couple of nights when I wanted to stay up longer than his work commitments would allow him to, he left me the run of the bar, trusting me to pay for any further drinks my companions and I consumed; he also left me his ghetto-blaster and some of his Tom Waits tapes, so that we could enjoy suitably mellow late-night music. Better yet - an act of unwarranted generosity which leaves me stunned and moved to this day - he stood me all of my drinks on a very tipsy last day in town, after I had been unexpectedly left almost penniless. (One of the kids in our party had taken over the pool table from me mid-evening the night before, and had craftily stayed up playing all night, without anyone noticing; however, the balls had been signed out in my name, and George the decrepit doorman, whose responsibility it was to account for the unpaid-for 12hr game, had little alternative but to stitch me up for the whole of the rather hefty bill the next day!)

It might well have been that penultimate evening (although there were three or four more almost as good) when I found myself alone in the bar with a few of my favourite students (they were all 17 or 18, and about to leave school, so were trusted as adults) and the rather lovely local woman with whom I was enjoying a very intense little holiday romance. Ed, my brightest student and a very fine chorister, had just come back from a karaoke contest, flushed with victory, and proceeded to act as a human jukebox for the next hour or so, singing beautiful unaccompanied versions of just about any pop song we could think of to request. My favourite was the old Monkees hit 'Daydream Believer'; a song which still has enormous emotional resonances for me, primarily because of its association with that sublime evening.

A deserted bar all to ourselves, a comfortable sofa and a sexy woman beside me on it, sitting in darkness looking out at the harbour lights twinkling off the Mediterranean - and a perfect song, perfectly sung. I don't think there have been many finer moments in my life.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A slightly blurry recollection of Crete

Blame the Italian sandwiches. You see, it all started the year before.

When I was, briefly (in one of many 'former lives') a school teacher, I had to accompany a school trip on an improving Mediterranean jaunt each Spring (I was a Classicist; so we alternated each year between Greece and Italy). On the previous year's trip to Italy, 'packed lunches' had been provided as part of the tour package, but they were a disaster: dry, rock-hard bread rolls, processed cheese slices, and utterly tasteless 'salami' which seemed like wafer-thin slices of plastic, coated with grease. And really, really, really nasty chocolate wafers to accompany them.

We'd ended up spending a small fortune from the 'contingency budget' on eating lunch in restaurants. So, next time out, in Crete, we were all - teachers, parents and pupils alike - given a daily spending allowance, a kind of 'refund' from what we'd paid for the trip, to cover providing lunch for ourselves. Somehow, it was like FREE money, and we went a little crazy! And Crete is cheaper than Italy. A LOT cheaper. And I don't have much appetite in the middle of the day, especially when the weather is hot - as it is already starting to be in Crete in April. Thus, even if we did indulge in a light salad or some souvlaki, we found ourselves still with enough pocket money left over for 4 or 5 bottles of beer each lunchtime (beer is cheap in Crete; at least, it was back then in the early '90s) - or, 'liquid sandwiches' as they soon became euphemistically known.


Hence, the whole trip went past in a happy blur.

Of course, the lunchtime drinking was really quite moderate, no more than a necessary rehydration after the regular excesses of the late-night drinking. (I fell in with a particularly good crowd at the main hotel we stayed at just outside of Rethymnon.)

One night I'd been up VERY late. Eventually, our coach driver (a cheery fellow, but with barely a word of English) had joined us for one or two nightcaps of raki (in Crete, raki is a quite decent local brandy - rather than the rotgut super-ouzo which the term seems to designate in most of the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean), after a particularly gruelling evening taking another party of tourists to some 'folk dancing' event, and then having to clean the seats after one of the punters had overindulged on ouzo or retsina or whatever.

The next morning, I overslept and nearly missed the coach. We had an especially harrowing trip up into the mountains - one of those tortuous Greek roads of continuous S-bends with a sheer precipice on one side, and poignant little roadside shrines commemorating the victims of past brake failures clustered on every corner.

Noticing that I looked even more pale and under-refreshed than usual, one or two of my colleagues quizzed me as to what I'd been doing the night before.

"What did you get up to last night?"

"Oh, nothing much. Just hung out in the hotel bar."

"How late did you stay up?"

"Oh, until about 3 or 4, I suppose."

"Who was up with you that late?!"

"Oh, you know, just the usual suspects. Ritsa the tour guide [most Cretan women seem to be called Ritsa], George the bar manager, George the doorman [all Cretan men seem to be called George]..... and, er, George the coach driver."

At this point, an anguished silence fell over the the rest of passengers - many of them, no doubt, fervently praying that George the coach driver was not feeling quite so under-refreshed as I was.

Indeed he was not; but he did look a lot happier and more composed after joining me for a 'liquid sandwich' at lunchtime.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Another bonding moment

Drink and poetry, poetry and drink are great things for bringing people together, for helping us to recognise hidden kinships.

One of my party piece recitations is the Charles Bukowski poem 'Beer' (one of the great love poems, I think - to drink, if not to women.... though to women too, in a sad, twisted kind of way). I happened to mention the first lines in passing (without explanation or attribution) to one of my new, occasional bar cronies, Danny The Aging Hippy, and his face immediately lit up in recognition - "Oh my god! You know Bukowski??" We were fast friends from that moment on.

That opening is:

I don't know how many bottles of beer I have consumed
While waiting for things to get better

I haven't got time to include the whole thing here (go and find it for yourselves, if you don't already know it), but it ends:

Beer, beer, beer
Rivers and seas of beer
The radio singing love songs
While the telephone remains silent
And the walls stand
Straight up and down
And beer is all there is

I think we all know that feeling, don't we?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Jeffrey Dahmer Time

I recall hearing a story some years ago about the extremely fortuitous escape of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's last victim. (I've never found this account in print subsequently, so this might be another instance of false or confused memory, but I hope not - it's a good story. "If the truth and the legend disagree, print the legend.")

It seems he was a young man who was picked up by Dahmer in a local supermarket. Dahmer was at the checkout, paying for a case of beers, got chatting to the guy, and invited him to come home with him and have a beer. Now, I would have been a bit wary, a bit creeped out right away here. But Dahmer was evidently a very charming man. And there seems to be a gay sub-culture of casual - nay, instant - pickups which has always baffled my comprehension.

Anyway, the young man drove home with Dahmer, but reported getting nervous when he reached the house, claiming to have noticed an unpleasant smell - like rotting flesh - as he crossed the porch. It was at this point in his account that he says he thought to himself,"Oh well, one beer, and I'm outta here."

10 minutes later, he was naked, gagged, and handcuffed to a bed. That's pretty quick work - Dahmer must have been quite an operator! But, as it happened, Dahmer left his intended victim unattended for a few minutes, and he managed to detach the bedstead from the bed and, still chained to it, drag it out into the street...... where he was lucky enough to run into a passing cop car, and was saved. Well, lucky for him, unlucky for Dahmer.

Since hearing that tale, I have often cited it as a warning to others, and as a reminder to myself, of the terrible predicaments that just one drink can lead you into; that maybe this bar - or an evening of drinking in general - is not such a good idea, that it might be better to call it a day and go home after a solitary drink.

Of course, it all too often becomes,"One more drink - and I'm outta here." For me, 'Jeffrey Dahmer Time' is more often the final round of a long evening than a sensible declaration of abstinence at the beginning.

Friday, October 06, 2006

More from Jeff

A few of my most cherished lines from the late, great Jeffrey Bernard.

On depression:
"Unhappiness is a kind of disease. You catch it in childhood, and it's incurable."

On the tedium of the British Sunday (things have got a lot better in the last 15 years or so, with a considerable relaxation of the licensing laws and other long-standing restrictions on Sunday trading; but in the 70s and 80s, when I was growing up, the weekends were a wasteland of nothing-to-do):
"Sundays are a sort of dress rehearsal for being dead."

On gambling (he had all the vices!):
"I don't gamble for excitement. I gamble because I'm lazy and I want something for nothing."

On the double-edged sword of 'eternal youthfulness':
"I used to think I was Peter Pan; but I've suddenly realised I'm The Flying Dutchman."

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Rock-It Grill

The most recent of my beloved American bar experiences - not strictly one of the 'corner bars' I spoke of in my last post, rather bigger and grander than that, but still nicely downmarket, unassuming. A particularly welcome find in Old Town Alexandria, an area I stay in a lot (an old University buddy and his family live there, and are good enough to allow me to make them my regular base for visits to other friends on the East Coast during my extended holidays in the States once every year or two): a rather high-tone neighbourhood, where most of the other bars, alas, are painfully expensive and lacking in any real character.

The Rock-It, I suspect, is going to become one of my great favourites - if it is still there when I next return. It has all the required elements. Long bar, a good height for leaning on? CHECK. No daylight penetrating interior of the bar? CHECK. Extended 'happy hour'? CHECK. Decent selection of draft beers? CHECK (Yuengling, Sam Adams, etc.). Pool tables? CHECK. Excellent bar food? CHECK. Outrageously pretty and vivacious young barmaid? CHECK. I'm easily pleased.

I happened on the place quite by chance one afternoon a few months back, lured in by their Tuesday lunchtime promotion of half-price burgers. When I discovered that their 'happy hour' began at 3pm and went on for four or five hours, I was sorely tempted to waste the rest of the day there. However, my budget on that trip was so narrow that I could only afford a big drinking session - even at 'happy hour' discounts - once more before I left; so, I scurried self-denyingly out of the door just a few minutes before the magical 3pm....... to return a few days later with my friend Caren. For a bender and a half.

I can hardly wait till next time.

Down on the corner...

Although I grew up with the traditional English pub, and love it dearly, I think I have come to prefer American bars.

The notorious English 'reserve' is nowhere more apparent than in the pub (well, OK, it is even more apparent on a train....): the lone drinker is generally left on his own, and it is much harder to start random conversations with staff or fellow customers. In America, they really do work to make you feel "one of the family".

And they have 'Happy Hour' - what a wonderful invention that is. (It's a bit of a shame, of course, that all the other hours seem unhappy by comparison, but we learn to live with that.)

And the barkeep is a much grander being there than in the UK: not just an underpaid and disaffected hireling of the owner, but a veritable demi-god within his or her little domain..... the person who will effect introductions for you to the regulars (and perhaps to the cute girl down at the far end of the bar that you are too tongue-tied to approach), will encourage the regular imbibing of shooters to accelerate the onset of happy drunkenness, will keep the banter flowing all night, and - if you tip generously and are a good sport - will contrive to 'lose' a hefty portion of your tab when you finally decide it's time to leave.

I have travelled extensively in North America, have lived there for a while and still visit regularly, have in fact probably spent nearly as much time there as in the UK over the past 5 or 6 years. And I have whiled away many an hour in American bars, especially in the unpretentious, blue-collar bars you seem to find on every street corner in working class neighbourhoods in places like Boston or Philadelphia. I love the darkness of them, the cosiness, the friendliness. I can't even remember the names or locations of most of them, but they do account for a sizeable proportion of my favourite drinking memories - and several of them will feature in these posts over the coming months.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Another unsuitable role model

Another favourite writer who was an inspiration and a joy to me throughout my childhood was career drunk, Jeffrey Bernard. The poor man was a hopeless alcoholic who came to a very unhappy end, but he wrote about his self-destruction with great wit and, sometimes at least, a ruthless insight. And he pulled off the enviable trick of making a living out of his addiction, by writing about it in a number of magazines and newspapers - most notably The Spectator, which carried his 'Low Life' column every week throughout my school and University days.

Well, not quite every week, of course. He was sometimes incapable of submitting anything, and thus was born the magazine's celebrated, oft-repeated single-line apology for his absence, "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell" - which was later used as the title of a theatrical celebration of his life and work by his friend Keith Waterhouse. On certain occasions, an editor would feel obliged to vary this time-honoured formula: "Jeffrey Bernard's column does not appear this week, because it is remarkably similar to the one he submitted last week."

I fear the seductively seedy Soho he portrayed in the column was always partly romanticized, perhaps heavily flavoured by his own youthful first taste of it back in the '50s. By the time I was old enough to make my first pilgrimage there in the '80s, many of its most famous denizens (such as the painter Francis Bacon) had died or moved on, and the Bohemian savour of the place was fading. But the bars and clubs he had celebrated, those magical-seeming dens of iniquity which had haunted my childhood - The Colony Room, The Groucho Club, The Gay Hussar, The French Pub, and, most of all, The Coach and Horses on Greek St - they were all still there, and just as I had pictured them all those years.

I even met the great man himself a couple of times. Once in his 'local', The Coach - where I enjoyed a brief conversation with him. Nervous of irritating him with a standard, grovelling groupie approach, I instead offered him a straight business proposition which I felt sure would appeal to him: I'd buy him a vodka & orange in exchange for a racing tip. He gave me one, although I have long since forgotten what the horse was called. It finished nowhere. I'm not sure if he was playing a trick on me because he didn't take to me, or if he was just a lousy tipster. The second time was early in the opening run of the 'Jeff is Unwell' play at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue; he was skulking in the Stalls bar throughout the show, getting absolutely steaming as he fretted, quite unnecessarily, that the show wasn't going down well. My friends and I did our best to reassure him at the half-time interval. And, I imagine, I bought him another vodka & orange to help settle his nerves.

A strange man - but a terrific writer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Koryo Hotel


This time last year, I was on holiday in Pyongyang, North Korea. A fascinating experience, if inevitably also a somewhat depressing one in many ways. The all-pervasiveness of state propaganda quickly becomes a bit oppressive (as in Orwell's '1984', they really do have radios in every home, radios that you can turn down but not off). The diminutive stature of the people is an uncomfortable reminder of the decades of starvation the country has suffered. The low level of technical, cultural, and economic development is everywhere apparent; even in the modestly affluent capital, motorised transport is almost unknown, and even bicycles are a rarity - most people walk to work.

Moreover, there were extensive restrictions on our movements: basically, we were expected to stick with our tour group at all times, and not to attempt to photograph or engage in conversation with any Pyongyang citizens we might happen to meet. We were not supposed to leave the hotel at any time unless accompanied by our Korean guides (although trips to the nearby stamp & poster shop, only 50 yds or so down the street, were tolerated).

Evening activities, then, were decidedly limited, once we had returned from our day's excursions and our evening meal. At least our base for these few days, the Koryo Hotel (one of only two hotels in the city equipped to deal with foreign visitors, and much the nicer of them from my observation), was very comfortable - and had two decent bars. I favoured the less-frequented one upstairs, largely because of the presence of pool tables (though I could rarely find anyone to have a game with), and also because of the devastatingly pretty girl who served there in the early evenings. It would seem that North Korean women are, in general, strikingly attractive; and, of course, the ones who get high-profile jobs in the tourist industry are the pick of the crop. I was significantly smitten two or three times during my short visit. Alas, wooing & marrying one of these lovely creatures is simply not allowed. And, as I learned from the barmaid, state propaganda effectively programs their thinking to exclude even contemplating such a possibility: "Why would a Korean girl marry a foreigner? Korean men are much better!" Bravo - quite so, yes. Nothing wrong with a bit of national pride. But surely, once in a blue moon, there might be a foreigner worthy of consideration? Not this foreigner, evidently.

North Korean beer is very passable - mostly German-style lager of the kind that prevails throughout Asia, although they do also produce a more distinctive brew that's more like an English brown ale. North Korean rice spirit - soju - is more than acceptable: one of the best drinks of this kind I've encountered, far more palatable than the Japanese or Chinese equivalents. I even picked up as a souvenir a local adder liqueur ("good for health!"), the snake coiled ghoulishly in the bottle. A year later, I still haven't got around to trying it!

No great drinking adventures to report here. We were on a punishing sightseeing schedule, with pretty early starts each day. And I was - up to a point - trying to treat my body as a temple, in anticipation of running my first full marathon a few weeks later. And there wasn't a reliable, regular Drinking Companion on hand to lead me into excess (although I did have a number of fascinating conversations with members of the hotel staff, with other tourists from a variety of European countries, and with a pair of Russian musicians playing with a visiting military band). Nevertheless, it was certainly one of the most unusual places that I have ever drunk (a police cell in Fiji probably takes the prize there - but that will have to wait till a later post).