Great song. Great film. Great place.
There’s something about the American diner that stirs the imagination. Maybe I’ve watched too many road movies but the thought of spending a life behind the wheel checking out each diner you come across seems a perfect existence to me. If my numbers ever come in I might just do it.
This particular diner had all the requisite attributes demanded of any classic diner (plus bonus Americana points for name, location and rail road tracks out front) – the long counter, vast booths, waitress with the coffee refill permanently on the go and eggs over easy – or is it easy over? I never do remember.
I stumbled across a piece of news this week purely by accident concerning the closure of HMV’s flagship Oxford Street store. It was while making a quick online search looking for news of the potential transfer of Julian Draxler to Arsenal.
Like so many of my seemingly simple internet searches this turned into a furious series of click throughs to stories that in no way enhance my general life experience, but leave a depressing stain on the psyche, while also wasting valuable minutes (ok, hours) in my day.
News of Draxler became news of Blur’s Alex James’ intention to launch a range of drinks called Britpop (a wind up, surely?) became Frank Skinner turning down the narrating job on Benefits Street (wise move) became Russell Brand making an apparent homophobic remark to Cambridge students (it wasn’t) became the retirement from public life of Shia LaBeouf (me neither) became the story of HMV’s closure.
In between, thanks to the horrific Daily Mail Online (still the Daily Mail only crossed with Heat magazine) which places headlines with pictures all down the right hand panel outlining everything you need to know without even having to click through, there were brief glances at stories concerning Calum Best, James Middleton, Chantelle Hayes and several dozen other non-celebrities.
The news concerning HMV was barely covered by the national press with only NME.com and The Independent reporting it in any detail, yet it was the only story to leave an impression on me. Possibly because it was the only piece of genuine news I stumbled across, but mainly because it stoked that old devil called nostalgia.
I shed no tear for the passing of the once-former music store giant due to their laughably over-priced merchandise, but part of me couldn’t help feel a tinge of sadness at this particular store closure. Back in my record-buying days visits to London involved trawling the likes of Upper and Berwick Street in the dingy, elbow-room only confines of serious record shops, but there was always time to take a detour to the Oxford Street behemoth to marvel at the sheer beauty of so much music under one roof.
Music megastores were nothing new in the 80s and 90s but HMV at 150 Oxford Street – once the biggest music shop in the world – was the daddy of them all. It was the only reason to visit London’s busiest street, unless you had a strong desire to purchase a Beefeater teddy bear, and its place seemed as secure as Selfridges.
With indignant haste it soon became a dinosaur, a symbol of a bygone age that wasn’t actually bygone. Record buyers decided that not having to waste an entire day fighting the horror of crowds of shoppers just to pay way over the odds for the latest release when you could now stay at home and click a button was quite a good idea.
I embraced the change as much as the next techy geek, but reading the article I began to pine for those long lost days immersed in vinyl and CD’s searching for that all elusive, long-since deleted Moose B-side. Unless you shared the passion it’s difficult to explain the joys of ambling around second hand record shops, but I can safely say that there was no such thing as a wasted second in a record store.
HMV biting the dust matters little, but the passing of a way of life for many of my generation and those before is cause for much sympathy, even if for many of us we hadn’t even really noticed it had gone.
I’ve never previously had a problem with the high street store John Lewis. As wretchedly middle-class as they are I’ve always held a soft spot for JL since religiously spending Saturday afternoon from 4:30pm as a boy stood in front of their gigantic array of televisions watching the football results roll in – they even had one screen showing Teletext for the professional loafers who wished to make a whole afternoon of it. Being able to plonk yourself in the warmth of John Lewis’ immaculate electrical department was several degrees finer than staring through the shop window of Radio Rentals or Granada exposed to all the vagaries of the English weather.
But nostalgia will only keep you appeased for so long.
Not even Neville Chamberlain could hope to remain a pacifist when faced with John Lewis’ relentless quest to force that most vicious and unnecessary musical art form upon a nation; the dreaded cover version. Not all cover versions are evil of course (Think Soft Cell, Tainted Love; Johnny Cash, Hurt; Jimi Hendrix, All Along the Watchtower) but statistically 99.5% of them are pointless and ghastly.
John Lewis has taken this to extremes by starting a new trend of cover versions that have ripped all the guts and emotion from the original recordings and replaced it with post-modern, stripped-down arrangements and pseudo-conscious delicate vocals that merely irritate rather than resonate. This is reason enough to never buy another top-of-the-range food blender from them again, but now the devious swines have also tried hijacking Christmas in the process.
It’s not the actual adverts themselves that are annoying – although the only one of any interest is the snowman who goes to the shops and that’s mainly because my daughter enjoyed it – but the music is unforgivable. The Beatles, Elton John and Guns N Roses were the first to have their songs trampled over by John Lewis, but things really got out of hand when some previously unknown – and still unknown – performer was allowed to butcher The Smiths’ classic Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want (although the real crime was how on earth Morrissey and Marr allowed such a travesty to occur in the first place – Mozzer failed to mention any of this in his autobiography funnily enough).
For 2012 John Lewis wheeled in some other faceless ‘artist’, who presumably had failed to turn up for their X Factor audition that year, to desecrate Frankie’s beautiful The Power of Love, and now after the somewhat inevitable but equally depressing success of both singles the marketing team, seemingly aware that they have stumbled upon the proverbial golden goose, have decided to lump all their budget on household names and go big for 2013.
Proving that they have their fingers very firmly on the middle-of-the-road pulse John Lewis have roped in Lily Allen, who has a famous dad and I believe was quite popular in about 2009, to sing a song by a group of public school boys also rather popular in the previous decade and who look like aspiring accountants.
Alas, it is a winning formula. Primed to appeal directly to the kind of people who consider Mumford & Sons cutting edge.
Thanks to the enormous success of John Lewis’ recent Christmas TV ad campaigns, other marketers with no trace of originality have jumped on this current bandwagon, resulting in a slew of morose, listless covers that add nothing, yet take everything great away from the original. Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody and Primal Scream’s Movin’ on Up are just two I’ve had the misfortune to hear recently; the heart and soul of such great songs mercilessly torn out, the memory forever desecrated by, well, who knows?
It’s a trend that looks unlikely to end any time soon and the blame for that must lie with John Lewis.
If all this wasn’t bad enough I now have to listen to people – alright, read comments on Twitter from total strangers – say how they feel John Lewis have become the very definition of Christmas, despite their latest ad appearing to look like an outtake from Watership Down.
Devilish looking kids who only want to give and not receive presents, snowmen buying scarfs and hare and bears don’t encapsulate Christmas. Noddy Holder screaming “It’s Chriiiiiiiiistmaaaaasss”, Jona Lewie stopping cavalry and fairytales of New York do.
In order not be seen as all mouth and no trousers I shall from this moment on be boycotting John Lewis department stores until they promise to abandon this hugely successful marketing strategy that everyone is talking about and return to being famous for being less famous than its food retail division neighbour, Waitrose.
And anyway, I can get the football results anywhere I please these days.
Now if they were to encourage cover versions like this then I might relent. Just so long as they weren’t trying to sell sodding alarm clocks at the same time.
“For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. The single most significant event to have occurred since 1945. Yeah, check me out with the hyperbole. Such was the magnitude of the event that all who were alive at the time claim to know exactly where they were when they heard the terrible news. Three shots – two direct hits – by a wife-beating, ex-marine, part-time Soviet defector, drastically altered the course of world history, while whole careers have been built around the conspiracies, what if’s and consequences of what occurred that sunny Dallas day by the grassy knoll.
Kennedy was the last of America’s great statesmen; a movie star president; the last of the famous international playboys. His short, glamorous life and untimely death is of course immensely intriguing. Listen to the speeches, read the books; here was a genuine man of the people, several light years ahead of his time. His story, and that of the Kennedy family, is one that never grows old.
Which is why when waiting in LA for a flight to Mexico it dawned on me that I could make an unplanned stopover in Dallas to visit the location of one of the 20th century’s most important moments. I also got to sell it to my wife because she realised she could visit Southfork Ranch. Discussion over.
As something of a museum fiend I don’t say this lightly when I nominate The Sixth Floor Museum as the best museum I’ve ever visited. For a start it’s housed in the old Texas School Book Depository which is the building in which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his bolt-action rifle. You actually get to stand within touching distance of the exact spot from which the world briefly stood still. And you don’t get to say that about the Tate Modern.
The events leading up to that fateful day are also explained, outlining the toxic atmosphere JFK was stepping in to. Texas was not a friend to Kennedy and Dallas, known back then as “the city of hate”, was waiting for the President with Confederate flags and banners accusing him of being a traitor, socialist and enemy of democracy. The immediate aftermath and impact on America and the world at large is also generously detailed, while just as interesting are the exhibits about the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate today. Just who was behind it? The CIA? The Mob? Castro? Aliens? In all probability it was just the work of a sad misfit who wanted the world to know his name.
Leaving the museum and walking around Dealey Plaza on a day that looked exactly as it did on 22nd November, 1963 I felt immense sadness. Rightly or wrongly I’ve always believed Kennedy could have made a difference. That the world would have been a better place had he lived and carried on his presidency, passing the baton on to his brother, Bobby, to keep fighting the good fight.
Instead the Right won out and the military-industrial complex – which Eisenhower had forewarned in his Farewell Address to the Nation – was allowed to flourish.
Perhaps in reality America would have probably still found itself embroiled in an unwinnable war in southeast Asia attempting to stop dominoes while JFK would have fathered a lovechild with Marilyn and spent his downtime deflowering White House interns – actually it turns out he did the last one anyway – but just as we refuse to believe John Lennon would have gone on to record anything as excruciating as the Frog Chorus, sadly we will never know.
If just for today, spare a thought for JFK; the last great champion of the free world.
It was taken on Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake, Utah. I’d presumed the salt lake was in the middle of Salt Lake City – I’m not sure what would lead me to that assumption – but it actually resides in an isolated spot a few miles north of the metropolis.
It had been a long day of driving by the time we arrived and there was just one hour before access to the park was closed. Entry by car is along a thin causeway that cuts across the water and eventually stops at the middle island, which although known as Antelope Island is more famous for the wandering bison.
Before reaching the middle we got out for a walk besides the lake shore. In the half-light with not a sound and barely a ripple on the water there was a distinct otherworldly feeling to the Great Salt Lake amplified by the perfect mirror image of the surrounding mountains on the lake’s surface.
Writing at the time for another blog post I tried to neatly encapsulate the ghostly, almost spiritual nature of the lake with one word. I settled for ethereal. It seemed fitting although it was a word I’d always seen associated with the likes of the Cocteau Twins, Slowdive and a glut of long since forgotten Shoegazing bands. This was no place to be starting at your feet though.
Once at the far side of Antelope Island things suddenly brightened up as the sun was still clearly visible way out west. We perched ourselves on a rock and watched as the sun descended aggressively under the far-off mountain range, shifting colour frantically and leaving us in darkness in a matter of minutes.
I caught the whole thing on camera, able to witness the different tones and shades of the sky and lake as the sun disappeared. It was a stunning sight, made even better by the fact we were seemingly all alone bar the odd bison. I became so mesmerised by the whole scene that my brain momentarily stopped functioning. It’s the only logical explanation I have for failing to protect my eyes.
Soon after I began seeing black spots in front of me and developed a raging headache. Slight panic ensued – I’d not yet seen Monument Valley at this stage after all – so I stopped at the nearest Kmart pharmacy for advice. Not having a cure for stupidity they couldn’t do much for me, except recommend wearing shades. There were no long-term side effects thankfully and the trip wasn’t blighted by astronomical medical bills, but I will never be able to think of the Great Salt Lake without my brush with blindness. That and Liz Frazer.
I like a good view. I’d venture a long way for a special one. Which is what I did to find this particular view of Monument Valley. If I was a list man I’d probably put it top of my all-time favourite views. The reason I’m not a list man is because my views (pun intended) change with each passing year. The eighteen year-old me for instance would have spat Kronenbourg 1664 all over any suggestion of liking a view with such strong Western connections because way back then I considered Westerns the work of the devil.
From what I could see they were plagued by corny stereotypes and barely half-truths. There appeared no other reason for a Western than to ruin Sunday afternoon television for which they appeared to eternally appear upon. Whether it be the painstakingly dull TV series Bonanza or a film where some maverick bloke who looked old enough to be your granddad, fell in love with a woman who could have been his daughter and decided to stick around, become sheriff and bring the bad guys to justice (and if a few Indians get taught a valuable lesson by the white man in between then even better). Westerns were only marginally less detestable than musicals.
As I’ve discovered with so many things in life, it turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right places because once I started searching properly I developed a serious Western addiction.
My Damascene conversion occurred while watching the midnight showing of Unforgiven in a near deserted Harlow cinemaplex. I’d only ventured inside because the thought of returning home seemed even worse than sitting through a film about ageing cowboys. In that cinema, while more than a little intoxicated by booze, I sobered up to the majesty of the Western. Within two years I’d seen close to 100 films from the genre and signed myself up for a film studies course, purely because a large chunk of the module focused upon Westerns.
Which brings me – or brought me – to Monument Valley, a location permanently associated with the great films of director John Ford. This iconic setting stands on the border of Arizona and Utah, and if approached from the east along Highway 163 it appears almost out of the blue as you arch over a gentle curve in the landscape. What struck me the most, even more than the natural beauty of the place, was the sheer isolation. I was able to take copious amounts of pictures for minutes without seeing another vehicle, including the obligatory one lying on the tarmac to get what I hoped was the perfect road trip shot. Despite its legend, Monument Valley appeared not to be a road well-travelled. Perhaps not surprising when you consider that trying to find it involves several hours behind the wheel. Good job it was the best view in the world. For this week at least.
It’s not often I feel compelled to write about the sad passing of a celebrity figure. In fact for ‘not often’ read ‘never’, but James Gandolfini meant a lot to me. We’ve spent a lot of time together these past 15 years or so me and ‘T’, as he was called by certain members of his crew in The Sopranos, and in a strange kind of way not grounded in any sense of logic, I looked at Tony Soprano as family. I’ve watched all six series of The Sopranos in its entirety twice now and I’m seriously considering going for the hat-trick.
Gandolfini, as New Jersey Mob boss Tony Soprano, was the most mesmerising TV character of the past twenty years. Possibly ever. A violent, sensitive, comical man wrapped up tightly in a mass of contradictions, but whose side you were always on, no matter how depraved his crime(s). He directed whole scenes purely through his eyes and had a gaze that drew you in and demanded to know just what the hell was going on inside his troubled mind – and you can’t say that about Ken Barlow (probably best not to say anything about him actually…)
I laughed with him, I cried with him, I shared many of his frustrations with him. I admired the legion of bad shirts, the memorable one-liners and the ability of a balding fat bloke to pull so many beautiful women. Shit, part of me probably even wanted to be him; just with better clothes.
During the first run of The Sopranos I would wish days away waiting for the next episode and it was always ever Tony I looked forward to watching most. I don’t think I could ever grow tired of watching him, in whatever role he chose. And on a purely selfish level I’m devastated that we’ll never see him play Tony Soprano again, even though that was probably always the case. It’s equally shattering to think we’ll never see such an awesome talent in any new productions and, of course, what’s most heartbreaking is that he leaves behind a young family.
James Gandolfini; a true genius. Rest easy big man.
Just recently my daughter turned five. If I were a habitual Facebook user I would have probably posted a picture on her birthday and wrote something completely vacuous like ‘My little girl is 5 today. Where did that go?’ I know exactly where it went because I’ve spent most of the time documenting it with pictures and videos and diaries. Just never here. Which seems a bit peculiar when I think about it.
This blog was always meant to be about the things in life that inspire me and yet the things that inspire me the most, my children, I’ve largely refrained from mentioning.
I know that part of the reason for this is because personally I tend to switch off when I hear others write about their kids in minute, painstaking, boring detail. I realise now that I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Through my work I’ve stumbled across many great blogs written by parents about their children and family in an open, funny and engaging way. And what has struck me about all of them is what a great document this will leave for the children when they grow older and no longer want to talk or be seen with their parents ever again.
So from now on I will talk about the children. I’ll show pictures and maybe get a bit slushy when describing how great they are. Or maybe next week I’ll decide that I want to write about great chip shops I’ve frequented. At this precise moment though, I’m doing it for the kids.
I’ve just renewed the licence for the web hosting and domain of this blog. I decided to take the five year option as it works out cheaper than renewing every two years. It set me back £150 instead of £220 which is quite a saving. Except I’m paying for something I rarely use so the smart option would be to let the licence expire and save myself a tidy wedge that could be spent on something more essential, like a new carpet for my kids to ruin.
The trouble is I’m kind of tied in to this whole blog thing now for the simple reason that I’ve convinced myself that there’s the world’s best blog post lurking inside of me just waiting to get out and reveal itself to my readership of one. It’s the same totally devoid-of-reality logic that still makes me feel I may not yet have missed out on my opportunity of representing Arsenal at football or fronting a platinum-selling rock n roll band.
So while the dream lives on I shall keep this darn blog and maybe do something really radical, like actually post some stuff on a semi-regular basis. Solitary Fan, you have been warned…
“Nothing in this world could touch the music that I heard, when I woke up this morning” Dream Attack, New Order
I woke up to New Order’s Technique album for the best part of two years. Sometimes it was the actual music itself I used as a prop to kick start my (school) day, but mostly it was by staring through glazed eyes at the floor-to-ceiling length fly poster – depicting a cherubic Roman/Grecian figure bathed in a medley of stunning colours – that took pride of place on my bedroom wall. It’s an album that still resonates strongly with me today, effortlessly able to remind me of the injection of untamed excitement I felt on first listen each time I hear the electro beeps of opener Fine Time.
By 1988 New Order had already assured their legacy. From Joy Division through to the retrospective collection, Substance, New Order had become one, if not the, most influential bands of their generation and with The Smiths recently departed from the Indie scene the group stood unchallenged as the kings of the alternative music scene in the UK. The band had barely put a foot wrong since the release in 1982 of the single Temptation, a track heavily-influenced by the New York club scene of the day. And it was that constant meshing of dance, electro and traditional guitar-drum-bass that gave the band its compelling and unique sound over the coming years.
They were the band the cool kids followed, which was slightly ironic as by 1989 the band themselves resembled a motley collection of comprehensive school teachers. Bernard Sumner – the front man by process of elimination after being shunted to centre stage after the untimely death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis – performed a dance when the band played live that made him look like a drama school teacher demonstrating improv. The married couple of Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris had always looked as though they would prefer a night in front of the TV watching Coronation Street while marking English essay papers than playing another sold out show at the G-Mex. And as for Hooky, as plainly mad as he once was, his trademark beard and wild hair still gave him the appearance of a slightly gnarled geology teacher. Forget appearances though, it was only ever about the music with New Order.
With the release of said compilation album in 1987 (typically this being New Order all mention of the words ‘Greatest’ and ‘Hits’ were omitted and all tracks were in fact 12” versions of their singles) plus the emergence of acid house and a new crop of young Mancunian bands surfacing on the horizon there was much pressure on New Order to stay ahead of the game and remain relevant. Add in ongoing band tensions, drug and alcohol abuse plus Bernard Sumner’s messy divorce and it would be easy for the band to exit stage left and leave it to a host of (pale) imitators to try and carry the torch. For a band that had come through the loss of their iconic lead singer at such an early age growing old gracefully was never likely to be on the cards. The band decided to plonk themselves down on the island of Ibiza through the ecstasy-drenched second summer of love in 1988 and the result was Technique, an album laced with acid house and infused with indie pop rock and dance. It sounded completely unlike anything else that had gone before and nothing that has come along since. Yet at the heart of it Technique somehow never escapes that reassuring feel of a New Order song.
From the infectious pure dance grooves of Fine Time and Vanishing Point through to the melancholic pop of Run and Dream Attack it’s an album that glides effortlessly from pumped up bonkers beats one minute to sombre and reflective melodies the next. It’s the sound of a band completely on top of their game and they were only ever coming down the other side of the mountain after its release (yes, even World in Motion couldn’t top this…). From my own perspective it was the first purchase in my own Year Zero of music worship – 1989. This was the year when my relationship with music moved from growing interest to fully fledged irreversible obsession and while The Stone Roses, De La Soul and Pixies arguably released better albums that year it’s Technique that I still listen to the most regularly today. My favourite album by my all time favourite band. A song to save your life.
I finally made it back to Ronda this year after an absence of twenty-one years. It’s a place that has long-held a curious hold over my travel plans. My first visit had been for a few hours in the summer of 1991 and despite having passed through Andalusia on a dozen or so occasions since, I hadn’t ever returned to the town that boasts probably the most spectacular location in the whole of Spain. I’d threatened to return more than once, even going as far as to book accommodation for an overnight stop, but for various reasons kept failing to make it back. In truth I had some demons to exorcise when it comes to Ronda because that first time, to shoehorn another Beach Boys lyric in, was the worst trip I’ve ever been on.
The scenario was this; family of four, crammed into a beat-up SEAT Marbella without air conditioning as temperatures approached the high 90s and a father behind the wheel who got sweaty palms at the thought of driving further than 200 metres attempting to traverse one of western Europe’s most nerve-jangling mountain drives. In my youthful innocence I knew nothing about the potential hazards that lay ahead. Yeah, I knew we were heading up into the hills, but I’d holidayed in Wales before, the odd steep incline was nothing new to me. It didn’t take long to realise this wasn’t a stroll across the Cymoedd De Cymru as each torturous curve in the road was met with cries from my father of “Bloody hell” and “Shit! Shit!” every two minutes, along with some xenophobic comments that don’t need repeating here. It’s easy to forget now with the Spanish road system having been completely overhauled in the last decade or so, but in the days before European governments racked up unsustainable levels of debt on public services, driving in Spain often felt like taking your life in your own hands. Uneven surfaces, sheer cliff drops with no protective barriers and suicidal local drivers who wanted to overtake whenever a blind bend arose. There was one moment when my father misjudged a corner and strayed across the middle white line, only huge good fortune that the other side of the road was free of traffic prevented a collision. It wasn’t easy watching your old man, a person who up to that point you had respected and believed knew no fear, reduced to a quivering wreck. So I didn’t watch. I buried my head under a cap and listened to Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine on a walkman. I figured that if was to spend my last moments on earth hurtling over an Andalusian cliff the intense, trance-like guitar of Kevin Shields would be a fitting soundtrack. This unfortunate scenario was thankfully avoided, but the few hours we spent in Ronda were spent in silent contemplation by each one of us as we all knew that we had to go back down that same road, only this time on the exterior side. It ruined what should have been a memorable visit. Everything about Ronda suggested it was a place of unique beauty and there wasn’t a Linekers bar or English breakfast menu in sight which was quite a shock after spending the first week of the holiday tied to the resorts of the Costa del Sol. I could grow to like this place I thought, but not enough to want to make that car journey ever again. The drive down was as perilous as that we had made up. On more than one occasion I feared I would be kissing this cruel world goodbye, but we all lived to see another day, safely returned to the comforting sight of high-rise coastal apartments, fast food outlets and pubs selling John Smiths. How lucky we were. In the immediate aftermath of this notorious day trip Ronda became the unutterable word in my parental home. Its mere mention brought cold shudders from all who had been involved. We developed thousand yard stares if others spoke of the sheer beauty and general loveliness of Ronda, scarred by flashbacks of what took place that day on the A-397.
For years I barely thought of the place again. Then I discovered Ernest Hemingway and knew that one day I’d have to go back. I held out for the prospect of Ryanair building an airport in Ronda (something they would probably call Madrid South) to spare the drive, but eventually I just gave in and this year booked a week’s stay just outside the town as a precursor to a road trip through the Spanish interior. It may be stretching it a touch to say that Hemingway was the main cause of my return – I’d long wanted to explore the pueblos blancos (white towns) which pepper the mountains north of the Costa Del Sol anyway and Ronda is a big enough draw in itself without the strong connection to the man who liked to be called “Papa” – but it certainly forced the issue. That and the fact there’s been a new road built from Malaga that thankfully takes the fear out of heading into the hills. Hemingway comes in for quite a bit of stick these days in modern literary circles with accusations of misogyny and racism frequently hurled at him, while his vocal love of bullfighting are never going to sit well with 21st century sensibilities. His detractors have a point, yet it can’t be disputed that his simple and direct style of prose irreversibly changed the face of American literature, and for the better. I think of him as the John Lennon of the literary world in many ways. Or maybe Lennon is the Hemingway of the music world? Whichever, neither of them invented what they did, but they certainly ensured that their chosen fields would never be the same again after they had finished with it, inspiring a whole host of imitators. Both enjoyed a drink, both were flawed geniuses struggling to cope with their own inner demons – fatally so in Hemingway’s case. And both somehow made a full beard look cool.
Hemingway spent a lot of time in Ronda, which must have pleased the local bar owners, and the town is synonymous with probably the most famous chapter he ever wrote; chapter 10 of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Papa describes in gruesome detail how during the Spanish Civil War the fascist sympathisers of a small town were locked up in the town hall, then one by one brought out to be clubbed and beaten by a frenzied mob until they were eventually put out of their misery by being thrown off a cliff. Although never naming the town in the book Hemingway later confided that it was based on events that took place in Ronda in 1936 when some 500 people, mostly Nationalists, were thrown into the gorge. I had this in mind when standing on the balcony at the end of the shaded park, Alameda del Tajo, taking in the outstanding views of the surrounding Serrania de Ronda. It’s hard to imagine such terrible things happening in such a beautiful place, but then both sides in the Spanish Civil War were not averse to a bout of barbarity against a beautiful backdrop. If you follow the path that runs parallel to the gorge you come to another picturesque site that’s also witnessed the odd moment or two of butchery in its time. Ronda’s Plaza del Toros enjoys legendary status in Spain for being the oldest bullring in the country (opening in 1785) and also the place where the modern corrida bullfight was born. It was here that Francisco Romero decided that fighting a bull on a horse, as was the style at the time, was rather tame so to jazz things up a bit he jumped off and began scrapping on foot. This new style proved extremely popular with the Spanish public and the new rules were eventually set in stone by Francisco’s grandson, Pedro. Horses across the Iberian Peninsula still mark the day with an equine national holiday.
Entrance to the Plaza de Toros allows you to walk freely through the arena itself so you can create some kind of feel for what it must be like as a matador as you stand in the middle of the bullring. Exceptionally nerve-wracking would be my guess, even if you do have a sword in hand. My own views on bullfighting change with the weather; where once I was vehemently opposed to it, now I kind of shrug my shoulders and accept that bullfighting is Spain, Spain is bullfighting. Thrown in with a bit of flamenco and patatas bravas. Plus I’m also very fond of a plate of rabo de toro so I can’t be too critical. Hell, I once killed a pigeon with an air rifle so who am I to lecture a nation on its animal rights record? As my children ran barefoot through the bullring’s sandy surface, re-enacting their own corrida, I did find myself wondering how much blood had been spilled on that very same sand. Then I lightened up a bit and decided to go drink some beer and didn’t give it any more thought.
The Plaza de Toros resides in the more modern Mercadillo quarter and this is connected to the old Moorish part of town, La Cuidad, by Ronda’s undoubted top attraction the Puente Nuevo. This eighteenth-century arched bridge straddles the Rio Guadelevin 120 metres below and is reputedly one of the most photographed sights in the country, something you won’t fail to believe as you fight for elbow space just to catch a glimpse of it. Heading into the old town the streets start to narrow and every so often a viewing platform allows you to take in more of the spectacular views. It’s perfect meandering territory with camera at the ready. At least I imagine it probably would be for anyone not pushing a double-buggy across cobbled streets in the mid-afternoon sun. For people like that there are thankfully plenty of bars offering a seat and respite from the intensity of the sun.
In recent years I’ve developed a fondness for collecting old travel books, one of which is Fodor’s 1957 Spain and Portugal guide. Inside it describes Ronda as “a romantic kingdom of mountaineers, smugglers and horse trainers”, which I’m not sure is a compliment or not but certainly makes Ronda sound a few legions more exciting than today’s reality. If that particular author were writing today they would probably be more inclined to say that it’s a kingdom of Costa del Sol daytrippers, middle-aged northern Europeans and tour bus drivers. The middle-aged northern Europeans are a particularly ferocious bunch. On one occasion while walking along the pavement me and pushchair nearly got ramrodded from the side by a tiny Frenchwoman leaving a hotel and carrying a suitcase of such epic proportions that Ryanair officials would spontaneously self-combust if you ever tried checking it in. This is a very common sight in Ronda, not senior citizens from France trying to take out kids in pushchairs, although that’s not to say it doesn’t happen on a frequent basis, but pensioners in general. Most of them following behind someone holding an unopened umbrella in the air. Tour groups desecrate the landscape; endless streams of them lazily ambling behind their pied piper until they are herded back on to their coaches leaving a relative calm to descend upon the town as the rondenos gradually emerge from shaded living rooms to reclaim their town once again. What tourists do remain after the tour buses have all departed for the day generally appeared to be mature couples, child-free and unwilling to adapt to the Spanish way of eating late. Maybe it was the fact we were visiting just outside of the peak summer period but restaurants tended to shut up early, having seen most of their diners depart at a time when Seville is just getting ready to get the night’s proceedings underway. It all gives Ronda a strangely subdued atmosphere during the evening, at odds with Andalusia’s general tendency to keep going way past the midnight hour.
For a town that had Papa for company for so many years there has to be somewhere to catch a nightcap or two and once you break out of the confines of the tourist ring there’s still to be found the reassuring sight of locals spilling out on to pavements and debating the latest football news over a vino tinto and plate of pulpo a Gallego as the kids hare around like fireflies. We found all this in the Barrio de San Francisco quarter, which lies through the town’s main Moorish gate, Puerta de Almocabar, which is still looking mighty fine for its age. In what would have once been the town’s cemetery, lying as it does just outside the old city walls, things start to come to life in the handful of tapas bars and restaurants. The downside to all this is that it’s an uphill walk back into town so on the nights we couldn’t face the climb we ended up in Plaza del Socorro, a bustling pedestrianized square back in La Mercadillo quarter. As befitting any Spanish plaza worth its sal there are plenty of locals chewing the fat and a child’s game of footy taking place against immaculate church doors. It was here, while enjoying a few sundowners on our final night before heading further north that I was able to finally accept that the ghosts of Ronda past had finally been exorcised. I was glad I’d made it back, if not a little sad I’d left it so long. Hemingway thought Ronda the most romantic town in Spain, although after the amount of daiquiris he knocked back he probably wouldn’t have noticed if he was in Hull on a wet Wednesday evening, but he has a point. Ronda is one of several gems in the Andalusian crown, perhaps not outshining the likes of Cordoba, Cadiz and Granada, but certainly worthy of more than just a fleeting visit that appears to be the way of so many. It’s a town that demands to be explored and soaked up at leisure. Comparing my two contrastingly different visits I’m reminded of a quote from For Whom The Bell Tolls, “I loved you when I saw you today and I loved you always but I never saw you before.” Or to put it another way, it’s in my Top 5 list of places that Hemingway once ran up a bar tab.
The 2012 London Olympics are finally here and a nation doesn’t so much rejoice as try to figure out which bit is going to annoy them the most. Frontrunners include overall cost, expected traffic delays, border control mayhem, union strikes, corporate freebies, Seb Coe, empty seats, empty traffic lanes, security firms getting paid millions to secure nothing, students and OAP’s getting paid nothing to secure everyone. Moaning we are reliably told is a very British affair and while I like a good moan now and then, usually concerning popular culture, arguments for the perceived downside of staging the Olympics in this country bore me as much as the crap jokes about how entertaining the women’s beach volleyball will be (it’s women in bikinis, you can find lots of them on beaches around Europe, although possibly not as trim admittedly). There’s a very real sense that a lot of people, Daily Mail readers to be exact, wish the Olympics to be one great big shambles so they can delight in just how crap we all are at organising global events as though they are akin to setting up a vicar’s tea party in your back garden. I’ve no interest in seeing that; I want to see a great games hailed as the greatest ever with countless champagne moments that leaves a buzz for years to come. I want to see UK athletes lording it over the French, Germans, Russians and Aussies (I’ll leave the Americans and Chinese out of this as don’t want to get too carried away) as we bag a glut of medals. And I don’t even care if they all come in clay pigeon shooting or freestyle skateboarding. I want all that, but I also know that whatever does transpire it still won’t be as good as an 80’s Olympics. And here’s why…
It would be a pretty spurious argument that insisted boycotts make for a better Olympics, but what the boycotts of 1980 and 1984 did was intensify the spotlight of athletics and make it front and back page news. In short, sport became political, especially the Olympics. It was a reflection of the times and created a very neat good/bad aspect to sport. The good were those of us who had the freedom to watch T.J. Hooker while the bad were anyone who couldn’t buy a pair of Levi’s. Most western schoolchildren during the 80s were convinced that the Ruskies wanted to blow us all into smithereens. Sting even hoped they loved their children, which of course they didn’t because we all know Commies are heartless, mechanical bastards who like to eat small babies for breakfast washed down with neat vodka. Although the USA and Soviet Union spent nearly half a century staring each other down armed with copious missiles thankfully neither were mad enough to actually push the button, which meant that sport was often the only way of deciding who really was the superior country. Or it would have been where it not for the involvement of politics.
The USA refused to attend the 1980 Moscow games in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, something which seems quaintly funny, if not ridiculous, now. Only 80 countries were represented in Moscow with more than 60 following the USA’s lead and boycotting the games. Great Britain, somewhat surprisingly considering how much we follow the US like lapdogs these days, didn’t boycott. The final decision was left to the athletes themselves and clearly the likes of Brendan Foster and Geoff Capes had a strong desire to see Lenin’s Mausoleum and bread queues so off Team GB went. Although in a really crap and pointless protest they didn’t fly the Union Jack at the opening ceremony and instead chose to compete under the Olympic flag along with several other countries, which must have caused Leonid Brezhnev no end of sleepless nights. Or presumably it would have done if he wasn’t an alcoholic, chain-smoking sleeping pill addict. In fact he was probably more concerned with what to write in reply to the letter from Margi Clarke’s mate. Moscow was unique in many ways, the one and only to be held in the old Eastern Bloc after all, and we’re unlikely to see another so politicised. And despite the competition being weakened with the American absence there were an impressive 36 world records created and a white man won the 100m final, that’s unlikely to happen again either.
Predictably the Soviet Union led a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later followed by a further 14 Eastern Bloc countries and allies. Surprisingly the US wasn’t at war with anyone at the time, at least not overtly, so the excuse the Soviets gave for not turning up was the “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States.” I think they left the bit out about you didn’t turn up to ours so we’ll be shagged if we’re turning up to yours. Whereas the Moscow Olympics appeared to be constantly played out against dark skies the Los Angeles Games were constantly bathed in searing sunshine. Despite the Americans laying the whole ‘aren’t-we-great’ nonsense on the rest of the world as they walked off with over 100 medals more than the second-placed country (surprisingly this was Romania who surprisingly stuck two fingers up to the Soviet Union and were the only Eastern Bloc country to head west) LA was a classic Olympics. It also had a man in a jet pack at the opening ceremony which felt a bit like you had stepped into the future, although this was balanced out with Lionel Ritchie performing a 9-minute version of ‘All Night Long’ at the closing ceremony, which felt a bit like you had stepped into purgatory.
Seoul in 1988 was equally brilliant. The time difference meant that you could watch the action over breakfast which made a welcome respite from Nick Owen and Timmy Mallett. Both the Soviet Union and USA turned up and we discovered that athletes took a lot of drugs. It had a genuine feel-good factor and also claimed the most shocking Olympian moment ever when Ben Johnson had his gold medal taken away for doping. Also, we finally learned that America wasn’t the bestest sporting nation on earth as they finished third in the medal table behind the Soviet Union and East Germany, two countries that ceased to exist by the time of the next Olympics. While Great Britain didn’t feature high up in any of the medal tables during the 80s we did prove pretty handy in track and field thanks to a handful of superstars, which leads me nicely on to my next point.
Someone recently asked me who I thought would win the Men’s 100 metres final. Naturally I replied “Usain Bolt”. This was followed by the 200 metres, to which I again replied, “Usain Bolt”. Then they mentioned the 400 metres to which I stopped thought about Roger Black for far longer than I’d like to and shrugged my shoulders before responding “Usain Bolt?” This carried on with every leading male track and field event and I just replied Usain Bolt to all of them. It turns out that he is the only athlete I know these days. Apart from Mo Farah, I’ve heard of him, but had to check which event he takes part in. This shocked me for a number of reasons. Firstly I was under the impression I liked athletics, yet I suddenly realised I hadn’t watched any since probably the last Olympics and secondly I once knew all the major stars of track and field with PB’s included. Nowadays there simply aren’t any major household athletes, besides Mr. Bolt of course, whereas during the 80s every event had at least one household name. They became a staple of primetime TV. The likes of ‘A Question of Sport’, ‘Wogan’ and ‘Through the Keyhole’ were crawling with them. Athletics was sexy in the 80s, up there with footy and cricket in terms of profile when the Olympics or World Championships came around. Christ, the Olympics even made hockey seem interesting for a little while when Britain won gold in 1988. Today athletes get blown out of the water by nomarks from reality TV in terms of mass appeal. Anyone who has seen that advert with Chris Hoy would probably understand why mind you, but ultimately I just don’t know 99.9% of the buggers who will be lining up to compete in London.
Off the top of my head without even wikipediaing anything I can think of a wealth of major 80s athletes…Ed Moses, Carl Lewis, Sergei Bubka, Daley Thompson, Ben Johnson, Allan Wells, Seb Coe, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Sanderson, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Florence Griffith Joyner, Said Aouita, Calvin Smith, Merlene Ottey, Linford Christie, Roger Kingdom. I just tested myself on how many athletics competitors due to perform in London I can name and their main event and came up with five. Three of them will be running in the 100 metres. I could name more cyclists taking part than track and field which sums it up really.
Rivalries existed everywhere on and off the athletics track in the 80s and the sport was all the more memorable for it. Coe v Ovett, Lewis v Johnson, Fatima v Tessa, East v West (once they both decided to go), Daley Thompson and that German bloke with the almighty tache and mullet, Zola Budd and Mary Decker-Slaney, although that wasn’t a rivalry as such just a great piece of drama forever etched on the memory of anyone who saw it unfold. The Olympics always made for great telly and created an interest outside of the Games itself. There was a time when I only associated the likes of Zurich and Oslo with athletics because the only time you ever heard of them was when an important race meet was taking place, which was usually televised and also usually involved a world record being broke. Do they even have race meets anymore? I’m sure they do but as Ron Pickering isn’t telling me about it I really couldn’t say. And going back to my original point, do today’s athletes hate each other in the same way that Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson did? Not if you listen to Usain Bolt they don’t. He actually said he’d be happy to see his training partner and current 100m world champion Yohan Blake win if he didn’t. I’d never actually heard of Blake until I saw a program about the potential winners of the 100m last week, slightly unbelievable seeing as I could still name all 8 runners in the 1988 100m final. Athletics needs that sense of heightened drama where the viewer knows that the leading competitors want to win for so much more than just the glory; they want to win because they can’t stand the fucker next to them. Without that it’s just an overgrown kid’s sports day without the added pleasure of seeing the three-legged.
If one thing really grates about the modern Olympian experience it has to be the way in which big business have splashed their ugly mugs over everything. We’re reliably informed that without the mega bucks of the corporate fraternity there would be no Olympic Games, which is obviously nonsense. What we wouldn’t have is the million pound stadiums and VIP tents. It’s something you just learn to live with in today’s world, but it can only dilute the enjoyment of the whole experience. The recent Olympic torch procession was a perfect example. You are handed out all sorts of paraphernalia to wave and bang together which are all graffitied with various sponsor logos and then as you wait for the torch to come by a couple of buses in bright colours pass by first, again covered in sponsor logos, where young people dance way too enthusiastically than is necessary and someone implores your local town to “make some noise”. Apparently when you pay millions you’re allowed to do this kind of stuff. It will only get worse during the TV coverage, not that I’m implying it was much different during the 80s, it was then after all that the whole corporate juggernaut started to pick up speed, but it felt somehow less conspicuous than today’s sporting events. Oh sod it, I think I might be moaning now…Let the Games begin…that catchphrase probably comes with a sponsor by someone now as well…
1. a person who is fond of drinking
2. pub, local (Brit. informal), bar (informal, chiefly Brit.), inn, tavern, public house, watering hole (facetious slang), roadhouse, hostelry, alehouse
The pub is close to extinction. Just this week CAMRA have announced that up to 12 pubs are closing in the UK each week I know this is somewhat old news as in the last ten years pubs seem to be closing with greater frequency than a Myleene Klass TV appearance, but it’s still a genuine worry for me. While many of my passions dwindle in their intensity with each passing year, my love for the traditional boozer grows stronger. I’ve taken to planning visits of pubs as yet unexplored (by myself) with an intensity not seen since attempting to complete the Panini Mexico 86 sticker album. Days out with family and meet ups with mates are built around the promise of finding virgin pub territory. My worn Good Pub Guide is a trusty toilet companion. So what will I do if the pub really does go the way of the dodo? It truly doesn’t bear thinking about, but I know an England without pubs wouldn’t be any England I’d want to be a part of.
My interest for the pub was first aroused at a tender age. As a child I often wandered what went on behind those fortress-like doors and glazed windows. My mother insisted that pubs were a place where idle men with low IQ’s resided, frequented by undesirables of the worst kind. How wrong she was. The pub is a palace of pleasure; a temple to the healing powers of ale; a refuge from the trials and tribulations of the outside world. She was right about them attracting some of society’s less desirable characters, but the odd nut job and bar room bore is a small price to pay – it keeps them off the streets for a few hours at least.
In my youth I spent much time in the pub, sometimes whole days, and I can’t say I ever gave much thought to my surroundings. As long as there was minimal chance of being glassed by a local or a dress code to adhere to I’d happily drink in most venues. I didn’t even question the quality of the beer that much. In fact I’d have probably drunk through a prop forward’s sweaty jock strap providing they were still serving and the jukebox was throwing out some sounds.
Today I don’t get much opportunity for sybaritic afternoons, but that just makes the time spent in a boozer that much more precious. Long gone are the days of necking mass-produced lagers, replaced by a love for all things real ale, and just any pub won’t do, it has to have that authentic feel that only a traditional, proper boozer can muster. I’m thinking about those that are almost cathedral-esque inside with the fading light only punctuated with the odd shard of light from what few windows there are and where, once firmly holed up inside, it could be anytime of day. There’s also that smell of wet wood or old carpet, sometimes both, that should be repugnant but is manna to the senses for you know this way true love lives. The boozer is reassuringly familiar and yet each one has a life and personality of its own. You know it feels right the moment the bar person asks ‘What can I get you?’ and you know it feels wrong if they say, ‘Will you be eating with us today?’ before they’ve even begun pouring your pint. And you know it’s definitely wise to turn around and head back the way you came if your presence receives a colder welcome than the locals at The Slaughtered Lamb.
Hopefully the day shall not pass when time is called on pubs altogether, but just in case I’m going to keep on enjoying them while I can – it’s one of my few remaining passions after all…and I’m too old for sticker books.
‘Put your make up on/fix your hair real pretty/and meet me tonight in Atlantic City’
Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City
My days of television over-indulgence are seemingly way behind me. A combination of children, work and insipid programming have reduced my viewing hours. Perhaps until either retirement (yeah, right) or senility catch up with me first. Were it not for Association Football, NFL, The Wire and The Sopranos I would have barely racked up more than an hour or two per week in front of the box these last few years. A recent addition to that list is HBO’s epic Boardwalk Empire. Set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era, Boardwalk Empire is breathtakingly good, as you might expect from something that involves Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and Steve Buscemi. It also exposes the myth that only the Brits can carry off period drama when the reality is that only the Brits can carry off stultifying dull period drama. It’s such essential viewing that it makes me want to go visit Atlantic City, because anyone who has been reading any of my inane ramblings will know by now that my travels revolve greatly around my popular culture obsessions. In this case there is no need to take the long road to New Jersey’s version of Blackpool. I’ve already been there. And it wasn’t a TV show that made me go, because that would be slightly ridiculous. No, I went because of a song.
The evening I rode into Atlantic City it was only the fourth day of the Great American Road Trip (as it shall be trademarked from now on) which me and my wife were embarking upon. We started the day in Gettysburg in neighbouring Pennsylvania and looking at the road map it looked a mere hop, skip and a jump to AC. It was a hop that would leave Bob Beamon nodding in admiration as it lasted for a whole six hours. You could cross from one side of the UK to the other in half the time. After such a fatiguing car journey what I most needed from AC was a relaxing night and some good old American hospitality. What I got was the most annoying receptionist ever to park their arse behind a welcome desk.
“Hello Sir, welcome to Harrahs. How can I help you today?”
You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a pleasant enough welcome, but don’t be deceived. Firstly, the woman who said it had an unfathomably high-pitched voice. Secondly, she had a very unconvincing perma-grin and appeared unable to look at me directly in the face. Lastly, she bore an uncanny resemblance to Debbie McGee and I’ve never liked her. This particular disdain for the sidekick of one of the 80s most popular TV light entertainers arises from the fact I could never work out why so many people found her attractive. She was only attractive in relation to Paul Daniels, in that you always felt he was punching massively above his weight. But that’s no way of judging a person’s attractiveness as even if Paul Daniels had bagged Vanessa Feltz he’d have been punching a few notches above his true level. With all this in mind I took an instant dislike to the receptionist. Little did I know that this was just the build up of my overwhelming antipathy towards her.
“Hi, I have a reservation in the name of Gray.”
This removed the fake grin. Her face began contorting in much the same way mine would if forced to watch the entire box set of Sex in the City.
“I’m sorry Sir. I didn’t quite catch what you said. Could you repeat that for me?”
“I have a reservation in the name of Gray.”
Still the pained expression, only with a hand movement to her ear as though she had just been addressed by someone speaking fluent Cantonese.
“Could you spell your name for me please, sir?”
“G-R-I-Y?” Now squealed in an unprecedented high-pitched level to offend me further.
“No. G-R-A-Y. With an ‘A’”
“With an ‘I’? I’m not seeing that on our booking system sir. Can you spell that again please?”
“I’m sorry Sir; I can’t understand what you are saying. Could I see some ID please?”
Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I was having trouble making Americans understand the noise emanating from my mouth. My mother would probably be sympathetic to their pain seeing as she spent much of my adolescence telling me to stop mumbling whenever I spoke. And then castigating me once I stopped speaking to her other than out of sheer necessity. I should have told helium voice to stick it. Or demanded to speak to someone who wouldn’t try to rob me of my dignity. At the very least I should have said I’d leave a shitty comment on Tripadvisor. Instead I wearily passed over my passport.
“Oh, G-R-A-Y. You said it wrong.”
“Sorry? What was I saying then?”
“You were saying ‘I’”
“Really? That’s strange. I’ve been spelling it with an ‘A’ all my life. Funny I should suddenly decide to change now.”
“That’s not a problem sir. Your room is on the 226th floor. Do you know what construction is?”
“Is that the same as building work?”
I metaphorically bit my tongue as I was given a detailed explanation of what construction work is (it does indeed involve building things) and how I may be woken up earlier than I wished for by the fact there was a hotel the size of Plymouth being built next door. I had stopped caring. Even if Debbie McGee had told me I was sharing a room with a touring group of flatulent Mongolian wrestlers I couldn’t have been more depressed than after our initial verbal exchanges. Call me touchy, but there’s something uniquely humiliating about being told you can’t spell your own name after the age of five.
After the hotel welcome I reasoned that the rest of our time in Atlantic City could only be an improvement. Which it was, but it was a close run thing for a while back there. AC is essentially a poor man’s Las Vegas with a seemingly average age of 74 on the night we were there. To me Vegas looks rather sad and stupid during the day without the lure of the neon to brighten the place up. Atlantic City looks sad and stupid even at night. Not Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal hotel though. That just looks incredibly funny. For all the wrong reasons. The famous wooden boardwalk, the first in America, was practically deserted bar the odd wino and staring at the closed tat shops it was hard to imagine that this place had once been a magnet for the rich and powerful. AC cannot only boast the nation’s first boardwalk, it saw the first Ferris wheel, first colour postcards, first Miss America Beauty Pageant and was the model for the first version of Monopoly. It was also very nearly the first (and potentially last) place I ever got run over by a man in a powered wheelchair who, from the way he was weaving from side to side, I detected may have been DUI. To be fair it looked like the most fun you could have in this one-Taj-Mahal-hotel town.
Inevitably my mind started to wander to the song that had made me come here – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’. This was the song that made me look at Springsteen in a much different light. I don’t think I’ve re-evaluated a musician as much as I have with Springsteen. Growing up I saw Springsteen as representing everything that was corny and naff about American music – stadium rock, badly-acted MTV videos, insanely bad dress sense, and songs, as the Prefab Sprout song said, about cars and girls. I didn’t get it, and didn’t want to get it. He was just another rock dinosaur who said nothing to me about my life. The fact he was called The Boss just made me dislike him even more. What sort of person calls themselves the Boss? Brian Clough could maybe get away with it, but not some tight white t-shirt wearing bloke with an obsession with glory days and forever banging on about being born an American. But then, after constantly seeing artists I admired quoting their appreciation of Springsteen I decided to do some delving. What I found out was that Springsteen never gave himself the name The Boss and doesn’t particularly like it; and that song about being born in the USA isn’t in fact a pro-Republican fist-pumping ode to the greatness of America, but a tale of the alienation felt by returning Vietnam vets, abandoned by the government that had sent them half way across the world to fight and now despised by the people they were apparently fighting for. In my usual obsessive way I accumulated all of Springsteen’s back catalogue and discovered a hefty wedge of musical gems. The album I was most drawn to was ‘Nebraska’, a sparse sounding collection of demos recorded on a 4-track tape recorder. It sounded more like something Dylan would release and thematically it offers precious little hope. It was further confirmation that my initial misgivings about Springsteen representing the American Dream were way off target. Springsteen sings more about the American nightmare and the everyday reality of the struggles of life faced by most people. He’s an undoubted patriot, but an angry one, and he’s as angry as ever with his latest effort, Wrecking Ball; pissed off at the way the bankers and politicians are selling his country and the average man and woman down the river.
The crowning moment of ‘Nebraska’ is the track ‘Atlantic City. It’s a powerfully evocative tale of two young lovers escaping to the city to find a new life. By the end of the song it’s clear that the city’s murky underworld is about to draw the male character in; something he accepts with crushing inevitability
“Well now everything dies baby and that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
It’s my favourite Springsteen track and even though he was singing of a different time much of what the song elicits is still true today. It’s a city clouded with a sense of gloom and eternal desperation intertwined with a hint of unwavering optimism. After all, this may just be the place where your dollar coin turns into a million dollar bills.
We walked through some of the casinos in search of somewhere to eat, but instead found ourselves gormlessly watching pensions disappear into slot machines. Finally we came across the rather new looking Pier at Caesars. The place was largely deserted, probably because the bars and restaurants inside had some semblance of style. I was drawn to Game On for no other reason than the fact the waitresses wore very few clothes and there was a television the size of your average UK cinema screen showing the baseball. We grabbed a booth and enjoyed a few Yuenglings and a meaty burger while watching the St Louis Cardinals take on the New York Mets. The ball game, beer and burger – it all felt distinctly American, and just the kind of experience I had come looking for, rescuing what had threatened to be a disastrous evening. But there was no escaping the fact that Atlantic City was a mess of a place. It lacked style and it lacked soul, clinging desperately to past glories that are unlikely to ever return unless Florida and Nevada are to suddenly reverse their gambling laws.
Springsteen perfectly captured the mood of the place with the song Atlantic City – it’s a town where dreams come to retire. And if everything that dies does indeed come back then perhaps there is some hope, as Nucky Thompson is probably the only person who could inject some life back into the place. That and some new hotel receptionists.
I’m having a Christmas renaissance this year. After losing interest over the past decade or so I’ve had some Scrooge-like rehabilitation thanks in part to real ale (see last post), but predominately because my daughter is of an age where Christmas, like the song says, becomes the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve done the nativity play, been to Santa’s grotto, helped write the Christmas list and generally reveled in the glow of a child’s excitement at Christmas time. It’s been great and I’m looking forward to Christmas more than I have done in a very long time. And yet…and yet there’s no escaping the fact that Christmas was simply much better in the 80s and it’s unlikely that things will ever reach such giddy heights again. Think I’m talking baubles? Then consider this…
Christmas was the only time of the year when the Radio Times and TV Times made its way into our household. I’d tear away at these bumper double issues, armed with a fluorescent marker pen, studying each daily listing meticulously for any sign of a TV film premiere. (To be fair there were only four channels to look through and they all ended around midnight so it wasn’t like scanning through the 786 channels that are readily available now). TV film premieres were infrequent events back in the 80s, but Christmas seemed to throw up a high quota. The transition from big screen to TV was not an overnight process back then either; The Empire Strikes Back for example took seven years to make its way on to UK telly screens, something that gave it almost mythical status in my primary school as no one had actually seen it at a cinema when it was first screened in 1980. It seems quite quaint now to think that you had to wait around five years to catch a Hollywood blockbuster such as Ghostbusters or Back to the Future, in your front room other than from the video rental shop. Today there’s a way to watch new releases – legally or not – almost as soon as they hit the cinema (sometimes even before) in any location you please. As much as I find that a good thing, it also destroys any sense of excitement that the film premiere used to generate at Christmas. Some would argue that entire families sitting motionless (unless it was on ITV in which case you could move during the ad break) for two hours is never a good thing, but these were shared moments when family and friends laughed, cried, and farted together in one room and that rarely, if ever, happens anymore.
Besides the films there were of course the Christmas specials and the 80s threw up some genuinely golden TV moments. It’s difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when the BBC and ITV didn’t base their whole Christmas (and Autumn. And parts of Summer) schedule around inane shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor. In the 80s we could watch Christmas specials from The Two Ronnies, Morecambe & Wise, Only Fools and Horses whereas today these very same shows, in the absence of anything original and even remotely within touching distance of quality, are repeated ad infinitum. There’s not a single programme scheduled for this Christmas Day that would make me want to switch the telly on, whereas in the 80s it only ever came off for dinner.
Just as today’s Christmas TV is forever stuck down memory lane then the same is equally true when it comes to the music we hear during the Yuletide festivities. The Christmas song peaked in the 80s just as The Pogues partnered up with the late and much-missed Kirsty MacColl to produce the definitive Christmas song; one that has been known to make grown men cry into their tenth pint of Guinness. Fairytale of New York led the way in the 80s but Band Aid, Wham, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Jona Lewie and The Pretenders all served up songs that are essential for any self-respecting Christmas mix compilation.
Since the 80s we’ve been starved of classic Christmas tunes. Personally, I blame the detestable Simon Cowell. That man has ruined the good old Christmas song, replacing it with a series of bland, production-line ‘artists’, the majority of whom have stolen No1 spot at Christmas and then gone on to achieve the square route of sod all. If ever you needed a reason, beyond the five thousand that instantly spring to mind, to dislike Cowell then it’s the thought that if he had ever had some input into the release of Fairytale of New York he would have replaced the Shane McGowan parts because he can’t sing in tune.
I’ve never had much time for the belief that good things come to those who wait, but I’ll make an exception for Christmas. While I don’t doubt that kids of today build themselves up into a frenzy of maniacal hysteria at the thought of what Santa has left in their stocking can it really be with as much intensity as those of us who were children in the 80s? Taking me as the only example with which to base my theory I can vividly recall that with about five days to go to the big day I seriously feared my head might explode from all the excitement building up inside of me. I’m sensing the anticipation in today’s kids but I’m not seeing it in their eyes, probably because they aren’t playing by the same rules as those I had to adhere to.
My Christmas list started to develop around about May 30th because once my birthday was over anything else toy-related that I craved would always be met with a “you’ll have to wait until Christmas for that now.” These terms and conditions were ruthlessly enforced with only the odd Star Wars figure slipping through the net. Patience wasn’t so much a virtue as a pain in the arse, but it certainly made waking up on Christmas morning that much more special when you had been starved of treats for six months prior. It would be a sweeping generalisation – something I’m rather good at – to suggest that kids today are showered with presents all year round, but I’d wager they never count the days down quite as much as an 80s child, purely because the ‘must-have-now’ culture that pervades today makes it less likely so. I’m grateful for having to endure the waiting game, it was actually an essential part of what made (makes?) Christmas great.
If I were musically talented I would have made a song about it just to back up my argument. Fortunately somebody already has watch?v=SHNpS-pnH-M
Merry Christmas Everyone!
December 1st is possibly the most disappointing day of the year. You know that Christmas is on the horizon when December crops up on the calendar but there’s still a mountain of shit to ply through before you can even think about the joys/trauma of Christmas Day and the festive period. As a child the advent calendar used to trigger irrational excitement in me – irrational because after seeing your first one you had a fair idea of what kind of thing lay behind each window in the ensuing years and none of them were ever particularly enthralling, unless you have a fondness for badly-drawn pictures of robin red-breasts, candles and the like). Much to my frustration I was never allowed a chocolate one as they were frowned upon for not being traditional, although one year I did manage to nag my mother into getting one with presents in. These were so small as to be unrecognisable and would now come with a choking hazard warning for anyone under the age of 41 splashed all over it.
In fact, now I really think about it December 1st is officially the worst day of the year because I’ve just reminded myself how,as a child, at the beginning of the month Christmas felt like it was as far away as the next appearance of Halley’s Comet. Time physically slowed down from this day on until Christmas Eve when it actually started going backwards. Now, just to mess my mind up even more, December passes in about the space of 26 minutes. However, to make this month more bearable, and perhaps raise my Christmas excitement to pre-1985 levels I’ve decided to drink a beer I have never previously tasted before for every day up to the big day itself…when I then plan to drink anything with alcohol in it right up until 7a.m. January 1st.
It’s an alternative advent calendar where with the opening of each lid bottle I don’t quite know what to expect, but like the real advent itself I’ll have a fair idea that it won’t be too much of a surprise. I do know it’s going to be a damn site more enjoyable than staring at a picture of a bauble or holly sprig – it better had be anyway as I’ve invested quite a bit of cash into this.
The majority of the beers are Christmas ales, brewed especially for this time of the year, and some have ridiculously high alcohol contents (one of them – guess which from the picture – is a staggering 10.5%). All of them will be dispatched with love and unbridled joy (and the ones that taste a bit odd will still have me declaring to anyone who cares to listen, probably my 18 month old son, “It’s not something I could drink a lot of, but it’s not bad all the same*.”) I may even post some tasting notes and say something really pretentious like, “I’m getting roasted nuts over an open fire with hints of Christmas pudding” or I might just say “I’d really like a day on the piss on this stuff” or I may not say anything and just drink it. Whatever I do, one thing is clear; I’ve rediscovered my love for Christmas. And that’s got to be worth drinking to.
*This is code for “it’s pretty shit really, but I’ve paid for it now so I’m going to enjoy it despite it tasting like cough mixture.”
I received a text last Saturday night telling me that The Stone Roses were reforming. I dismissed it immediately. As I had done every other rumour that seemed to circulate annually insisting that the band would be putting past differences aside to get back together to reclaim the title of ‘Best Band in the World’ that they relinquished about five minutes into their notorious headline slot at Reading festival way back in 1996.
When it became apparent that this time the rumours may well be true, I felt cheated. The Roses were supposed to remain part of that small club of truly brilliant bands who once they called it a day would never sully the memory with a half-arsed take-the-money-and-pretend-you-don’t-really-hate-each-other-anymore reunion. The Beatles, The Clash, The Smiths…ABBA(!)…they all maintained their integrity and left us with the music rather than tarnished images of aged millionaires going through the motions. The Roses were above all this, they’d said so themselves. Those of us who were there the first time around didn’t need it and they didn’t seem to need it, finding peace in their post-Roses lives. This wasn’t supposed to happen and I didn’t want any part of it. And yet…
And yet, when the moment came and the rumour became reality, seeing the four of them appear again on a stage together, taking on the world again in a nonchalant, cocky way that is one third of their broad appeal it felt maddeningly right. I tried desperately not to be excited about this. The past was theirs but the future belongs to someone about thirty years younger. Trying to reclaim former short-lived glories always threatens to soil the memory of the most important band of my generation bar none. In truth though, I’m ecstatic. Not because of what might be, but because of what seeing the four of them together reminded me of. It transplanted me back to 1989.
Back then I was a fourteen year old with a ravenous appetite for something that was once called indie music. My musical education up to that point had been rich and carefully constructed. An older brother with five years on me would often sit me down to play his latest vinyl purchases. The Smiths, The Cure, Simple Minds, Lloyd Cole, early U2 and R.E.M., New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, Jesus and Mary Chain, House of Love, Wedding Present, My Bloody Valentine…just some of the bands I heard every single day of my young life. We moved home in the summer of 1989 to a different part of the country, my brother staying behind, and so bringing an end to these jukebox sessions. When he left he gave me a C90 tape of new stuff he had been listening to. One side contained a selection of tracks by bands I had limited knowledge of…Primal Scream, The Sundays, Pixies, Wonder Stuff, James, That Petrol Emotion…and some I’d never heard of…Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets…while the other side was taken over with an entire album by another band completely new to me.
That album was ‘The Stone Roses’. It was an album that very quickly became my new best friend in a strange new world. It gave me a lift at a challenging time and it gave me meaning when I was struggling to come to terms with this new life. The fact they also looked like the coolest people ever to have trod the earth while talking of insurrection, being adored, smashing the (music) establishment and killing the queen just made me love them that much more. No band has ever made me feel the same way since. No band ever will. The Stone Roses didn’t save my life, but they radically altered it. As I said in one of my first posts, from the Roses grew a desire to listen to more music, read more books, see more films and open my mind to an alternative world view being pedalled by parents, teachers and a right wing press. To this day The Stone Roses’ debut is still my favourite album of all time. They mattered then; they matter now.
For some people, like this bitter chap in The Guardian, the hype surrounding the band is completely unjustified. The truth is though, if you weren’t there first time around you’ll never ‘get it’. It may sound terribly condescending, but if you can’t remember the breathless expectation that surrounded the wait for the release of Fools Gold/What the World is Waiting For, the legendary appearance on TOTP along with the Mondays, the iconic NME cover shoots and that live performance on ‘The Late Show’ as they happened then you were probably just too late to fully understand. Nothing since, not Oasis, Verve, Blur, Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys or any of the other ‘bands of a generation’ have even come close to defining a moment in time as powerfully as the Roses once did.
So while I suspect this may all end in (glorious?) failure, despite the fact they’ve apparently just sold 220,000 tickets in 15 minutes breaking some kind of record, I no longer care. The Roses are back. And the world seems a better place for it. Now, where did I leave my Reni hat…
…and now I’m not so sure. When I decided to start this blog I fully intended to litter it with regular, concise posts about all kinds of stuff that make up my world. So far I’ve only managed dissertation length pieces, none of which I imagine have been read by anyone in their entirety except me. I’ve treated the blog a bit like a January membership to the gym; all full of good intentions and enthusiasm for the first week, but then slowly pushed to the recesses of the mind while still convincing yourself that next week you’ll pick it up again. It’s surprisingly difficult this blogging lark and I need a lie down just thinking about what to write about. But the beauty of being an unknown writer is that there is no eager audience just waiting for you to unload your creative juices all over them so you can be as prolific as JD Salinger after Catcher In The Rye and no one actually gives a shit. However, I’ve paid for this sodding thing so I may as well use it. One such thing I had wanted to write about was conversations I have overheard. I’m a terrible eavesdropper, although most of it isn’t difficult as I’m convinced a hefty portion of the population are wanting the rest of us to hear what they have to say. Now that I get to hang around schools and coffee shops on a daily basis (because of my children, so let’s leave it there…) I am consumed with overheard conversations. Most are brain achingly dull, some are painstakingly annoying, but every so often a tiny gem emerges bringing about unintentional hilarity, briefly dissecting the humdrum of every day conversation and bringing a passing smile to the face of someone it was never intended for. To be honest I could just make these up, but that would require an input of imagination on my part and besides – as I’ve never (over)heard anyone say – truth is funnier than fiction.
While watching my daughter to make sure she didn’t decide to freefall from the top of the climbing frame in a kid’s playground in a pub recently, a game of footy between four previously unacquainted children broke out. As the game developed a short conversation emerged that had me smiling like a simpleton.
“What’s your name?” Said one boy to his new team mate.
“Lucas,” the other boy replied.
“Woah! Quality football name.”
Alan Shearer could only dream of giving such inspired insight on the Beautiful Game.
And with that I shall stop. I feel exhausted
Following on from the last post I’ve decided to write about the time I went to Philadelphia because some readers (ok, it was just the one person) failed to comprehend how the City of Brotherly Love could ever hold a greater place in anyone’s heart than the City of Light. This should hopefully explain why Philly outscores Paris…in my world at least.
The lasting affection I have for Philadelphia can be explained by two very straight forward reasons. The first is that this was the place Kim and I began a six week road trip across America, which in turn led to a nine-month world tour and the second reason I’ll explain in pt.2 because otherwise this will become one very long, rambling post. The question that inevitably arose when revealing the starting point to our world tour was “Why Philadelphia?” Some people failed to comprehend why we had seemingly bypassed New York, Boston or the Magic Kingdom as the beginning stage of our journey, but the reasoning was simple. I didn’t want to revisit places I’d already been on this tour of the States and more importantly, as this was a journey to discover the monuments, legends and myths of America, I felt it only right to begin at the beginning. And the beginning had to be where the Declaration of Independence was written, signed and first publicly read, initiating the birth of modern America. After explaining this most people would stare blankly, and if Kim were nearby throw compassionate looks her way. “Well, you’ll be certain to eat well in America at least” was the customary response. As an aside I would add that I also wanted to run up the Rocky Steps, which generally met with much approval and a why-didn’t-you-say-so-in-the-first-place kind of look.
This being the start of the trip – when it was easy to deceive yourself that money was of little concern – we booked a couple of nights in the Thomas Bond House B&B. The TBH – as I never called it but I’m trying to cut back on unnecessary wordage, I think it’s going well so far – has been restored to look as it would back in the 18th century so period furniture and colonial vibes abound. It also proudly boasts of being the only lodgings located inside America’s most historic square mile, or Independence National Historical Park to give it the proper title, and is a short walk to the main historical sites of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center and the National Constitution Center. As we hit the streets of Philadelphia for the first time we both sensed a strange transformation take over us. It was whilst walking down Chestnut Street that the uncontrollable urge to start humming Bruce Springseen’s classic track about these same streets could be contained no more.
“That must be Independence Hall. La la la la la.“
“And there’s Liberty Bell. La la la la la.”
“Let’s take a walk down 5th Street. Streets of Philadelphia La la la la la la.”
We conversed like this for the rest of our time in Philly (to use local parlance), which drew a few odd looks and was even a bit annoying after the first hour, but I seriously don’t think there’s any way around it other than having a lobotomy.
First up on the historyfest was Independence Hall, scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and where the US Constitution was first drafted in 1787. America as we now know it began in this very place, even if they still had the small matter of sending the British packing before independence could be fully attained. You have to join a guided tour to view inside the Hall and the history lesson inevitably focused upon a bit of Brit-bashing, or more specifically, slagging the English. I wouldn’t want to portray myself as overly sensitive to this sort of thing but travelling the world for any English man or woman will at some stage incorporate negative press. You have to expect this sort of thing. You can’t just go around trying to conquer most of the world bringing civilization and cricket with you and expect a great big thank you can you? I’m only joking of course – imperialism is so 19th century.
The magnitude of the events that unfolded inside this building are simply too great to make such modest surroundings worthy of the occasion. It was here that wise men argued and debated the exact content of documents that shaped a fledgling nation; the likes of which not seen since Magna Carta. As noble a document as the Declaration of Independence clearly is, there are one or two things that demand closer inspection. It was Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, who drafted the Declaration and committed to print the immortal words “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal”. It’s a hell of a mission statement for any time, never mind the late eighteenth century in a land gradually being taken from its original inhabitants, so there is no shame to be felt at failing to meet such lofty aspirations. Yet I can’t help thinking that it was never likely to get off the ground when Jefferson, a man who publicly considered slavery immoral and spoke out in favour of its abolishment, owned almost two hundred slaves himself. To add insult to such hypocritical injury it now appears likely, after years of study, commissions and DNA testing, that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of many black slaves in his home at Monticello. Clearly a practice he once labelled as an “abominable crime” had its upsides. This was not to be the first time that the issue of race and America’s inability to fulfil those promises of the Founding Fathers would arise during our time in the States.
Besides the odd bold proclamation that was doomed to failure before it began, the majority of the Declaration is taken up with a good old fashioned rant at the King of Great Britain. The list of crimes attributed to George III leave no doubt that British involvement in America could only continue for so long. But it is worth mentioning that the eventual defeat of British forces was in no small part due to the influence of the French, whose stock was much higher in Philadelphia in those times than it is now as we would later discover. The end result of all this for Britain was that they looked elsewhere to colonise, trade and send people they didn’t like. Just think, without those rebellious Yankees we may never have had The Ashes, chicken tikka masala or Stefan Dennis.
The Liberty Bell, just across the way from Independence Hall, is of such national importance that you have to pass through rigorous airport-style security to enter. Such inconveniences have become all too familiar for those of us in the western world, a small price to pay for ensuring our safety. Or so you would think. Yet for one family from the East Midlands this was an unnecessary hassle. While queuing to get in I heard the first English voices since landing. It was a family all with Shane Meadows accents hailing from somewhere near Derby I suspected after seeing the dad’s elegant Derby County FC arm tattoo. To the ranger who was idly minding his own business by the exhibits they may as well have just dropped in from Dagestan for all the sense they were making. The mother seemed particularly perturbed by the high security and raised the point with him.
“What’s wer’all the se-cure-tee?”
“I’m sorry ma’am?” The perplexed look on the rangers face while trying to maintain a smile was worth the admission fee alone.
“The se-cure-tee. T’is it real n’sry? Takes ages to gerrin’ wiv the kiddies.”
No response as the ranger tried in vain to decipher what he had just heard.
“The se-cuuuurree-tee. You know, the x-rays.”
“Ah the security.” A look of relief crossed the ranger’s face as the question became clearer. Kind of. “Well ma’am we have had security concerns in the past so I’m afraid it is necessary to keep our visitors and attraction safe.”
“It’s very inconvenient like.”
“I’m sorry about that ma’am, but your safety is our top priority.”
“Well, I don’t understand. S’only a bell.”
And with that she walked off, leaving behind a man whose head had just been messed with in a manner he had probably never previously known or is unlikely to ever know again. Personally, I admired this frank assessment of one of America’s most visited attractions, but felt certain my compatriot didn’t fully appreciate its symbolism. Not that this stopped the whole family – including nana in her mobility scooter striking an uncanny resemblance to the prune-like grandmother in the TV show ‘Benidorm’ – having several dozen pictures taken alongside it. The Liberty Bell is of course much more than a bell. How many bells do you know that go on a national rail tour so that the rest of the country get their chance to witness it first hand? Initially the Liberty Bell rang out to announce victories in the Revolutionary War, but it later became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement, poignantly referred to in Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and heralded by Nelson Mandela for its eternal association with democracy. Still, it will take more than a universal icon of freedom to impress some of the fine people of Derbyshire. I imagine they live by the maxim; seen one bell, seen them all.
With time drawing in on the end of the working day we decided to do the one thing I’m always so eager to mock others for doing. We took the open-top double-decker tourist bus. In my defence we had an hour to burn at the end of the day and Philadelphia is a very spread out city so I was willing to abandon my principles this one time. You won’t get me in one of those duck boats though…It ended up being a private tour as we were all alone. Our guide, Mike, despite being sat right next to us, insisted on speaking through his microphone, which was my personal highlight of the tour.
“OVER ON YOUR LEFT AND MY RIGHT YOU CAN SEE CITY HALL.”
It was like being in the front row of a concert. Mike would continue his well-honed commentary and when out of sight of any notable locations drop the mic and chat with us about where we were from and how long we had in America. When we told him it was our very first day of a world tour he became very excited to the point where he nearly missed his lines.
“So how long do you guys have in South America? I always wanted to go to…AND ON YOUR RIGHT AND MY LEFT YOU HAVE THE FRANKLIN INSTITUTE SCIENCE MUSEUM.”
You had to admire the man’s professionalism.
Our hotel was handily placed for the congregation of bars and restaurants around 2nd Street and despite this being mid-October it was still warm enough to try some pavement drinking. I was keen to try out some new beer, so when asked what I would like by our waiter I gave my standard reply of “something local”. As a self-confessed real ale lover and CAMRA card owner to boot – despite not being excessively overweight, consumed by unkempt facial hair and in need of some personal hygiene tips (well, not that anyone has been brave/cruel/honest enough to tell me) – I was getting a bit giddy at getting my lips around some of the ever-increasing number of excellent US craft beers. I definitely didn’t want to be drinking any Bud/Coors/Molson rubbish that we get pedalled in the UK so freely. I’d seriously prefer a pint of tramp’s backwash to having to drink Budweiser again. What I got was a drink by the name of Yuengling and despite always aiming to drink without prejudice I had a sneaky feeling it would be just another bland, tasteless mass-produced North American gas-fest. A more wrong man on the streets of Philadelphia you would not have seen since Randolph and Mortimer Duke decided it would be a good idea to reverse the lifestyles of the characters of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. Yuengling, with its rich amber colour and crisp, dry finish, is a perfect drop for a warm evening in the city and I liked it a lot; five pints liked it in fact. As I would later discover Yuengling is freely available throughout Pennsylvania and the drink of choice for Philly sports fans. It is also America’s oldest brewery, forming in 1829, which would suggest I should have heard of it before then, but the reason I hadn’t may have something to do with the fact they don’t export and have no plans to do so, unfortunately. Indeed they only currently distribute within America to 13 states. The Beer Police will probably pour scorn over my fondness for Yuengling as it’s not officially a craft beer and they dare to brew more than 24 bottles a year, but it has the mentality of a microbrewer and a taste that makes it a perfect session beer so as NWA once sang, fuck tha beer police. It also only cost $2 pint and seeing as the last time I set foot in Paris I was paying close to 10 Euros for a pint of Europiss I think that’s another notch in Philadelphia’s favour.
In Pt.2 I’ll provide the second reason why Philadelphia rocks. And it’s not Hall & Oates…
A conversation I was having last week turned, perhaps inevitably, towards travel and holidays. The person I was chatting with made a simple enquiry about what my favourite destinations were, to which I wheeled out a stock list of responses. This was met with, “what is it about them that you like so much?” And then I went a little silent, pondering the question. After a short period of erm-ing I came up with “they just have a good feel about them”. It was a depressing retort unlikely to influence anyone’s future holiday plans. With this in mind I decided to piece together a set of criteria for determining the appeal of a destination.
These guidelines are geared towards my own tastes and temptations, but I feel are perfectly transferable for other people’s passions. For instance ‘Food & Drink’ could be replaced with ‘Shopping’ or ‘Taxi Drivers’ with ‘Hotel Receptionists’. In each category you should award marks out of 10 giving each destination a final score out of 100. Anywhere that rises above the 80% mark is slipping into the favourite category. What I have discovered using this method of evaluation is that some places create a bond that cannot be determined by what guidebooks and common perception tells you and results can appear surprising. For example, Philadelphia outscores Paris. I’ve nothing against the French capital, indeed it’s granted me many a happy memory – despite being the only place I’ve ever been chain-whipped (a story for another day). And in a who’s-more-handsome-and-sophisticated face off Paris is giving Philadelphia a bloody nose every time. Yet regardless of all this, Philly is nestled firmly in my list of Top 5 world cities beginning with the letter ‘P’, while Paris doesn’t even make the short list. (If you’re wondering how this could be just consider this; it wasn’t the Montmartre steps Rocky Balboa ran up was it?)
So, read on to discover what guidelines I’ve devised to establish what makes a place a ‘favourite’, some places merely a ‘worthwhile’ and a whole host of others a ‘wouldn’t rush back’? (I’ve still yet to have visited anywhere I’ve regretted. And that includes Middlesbrough). In no particular order of importance this is…
World of Sighbury’s 10-step guide to determine what makes a place great (or not as the case may be…)
What’s there to do?
Bit obvious this one I’ll grant you, but what appeals to one tourist may hold as much appeal to another as a double edition of The Vanessa Show. Personally, for a place to work for me it should have plenty of historical monuments to gawp at (a well preserved old town is always welcome), a couple of decent museums to drag my wife around (something which mysteriously makes her go weak to the point of threatening collapse unless we leave soon), a vibrant cafe/bar scene and plenty of aimless strolling potential. The possibility of a quick round of crazy golf is an added bonus.
Places that offer adrenalin rushes, rides in a horse-drawn carriage and endless rows of those people who spray themselves in silver and stand still for a living, at least until some kid is forced by their parents to stick a coin in their pot triggering some awful robotics, run the risk of losing points.
Destinations scoring highly in this category: Ghent, Hanoi, Rome, Salamanca, Vienna
Food & Drink
An integral part of any trip is the promise of feasting with reckless abandonment, pouring scorn on all thoughts of diet and calorie counting. While it’s always a pleasure to be offered a varied menu and countless eating options such as you might find in most large Western cities, sometimes you can’t beat landing somewhere that is renowned for a certain dish or cuisine and just happens to do it outrageously good whether you are eating in a top restaurant or by the side of the road. Anywhere, no matter how beautiful, will always be marked down if you can’t find a decent bit of nosh – a case in point being Yellowstone Park; full marks for natural beauty, nothing for the inedible hamburger they tried to palm me off with in the eating lodge.Bonus points are awarded to anywhere that can serve up a first rate Wiener schnitzel, rack of ribs or corn beef hash. If somewhere can offer all three I’m emigrating.
If the quality of the dining options is important then the standard of a town’s drinking holes is vital for a memorable stay. There are few greater pleasures in life than wiling away an afternoon/evening/weekend in a foreign drinking establishment savouring the local tipple – indeed many of my happiest memories have been spent in such places. The frequent availability and quality of the beer is important, which is one of the reasons I’ll never hear a bad word said about the state of Belgium. I’m even quite partial to an Irish pub on my travels – a sinister secret I’ve now just exposed. Further marks are awarded if you can enjoy your drinking while doing the following; sit outside in agreeable weather, be surrounded by fantastic architecture/scenery or able to watch a live English Premier League match.
Antwerp, Buenos Aires,Melbourne, Memphis, Mendoza, Munich, Prague, Sydney, Tallinn
Or as I also like to call it ‘What Risk Being Chain-Whipped?’ In my younger years I was strangely drawn to places that were a bit edgy and there’s no denying that some of the more interesting places on the planet carry more than a hint of danger to them. It’s strangely life-affirming to carry your wits about you and quickly work out where potential wrong turns exist. Too many wrong turn possibilities, however, and any appeal can soon wane. Similarly, being made to feel more paranoid than a coked up Ray Liotta in Goodfellas can also become tiring. Ultimately, searching for places with an edge is best left for backpackers and Jeremy Bowen. Most of us just want to go about our business without stirring the curiosity of the locals too greatly, free to enjoy your surroundings, especially if you’ve children in tow. The locals can make a stay with their hospitality, or lack of, to strangers, and the more curious the local and their customs then all the better. Places where you encounter piss poor scams such as a stranger telling you that you’ve either dropped a coin or had a bird shit on your shoulder lose points purely for the unoriginality of its criminal fraternity.
Places with plenty of edge: La Paz, Mexico City, Naples, Rio de Janeiro, Washington DC
Places edgeless: Auckland, Dublin, Luang Prabang, Ljubljana, Reykjavik
The presence of water, whether it river, lake or sea, adds to the allure of any destination. Beaches don’t cut it though; they are all right for a couple of hours, but even staring at ladies in bikinis through the disguise of your shades can get boring. A river – one that is navigable and not a dumping ground for supermarket trolleys – gives a place a focal point, drawing life towards it. Find a place to eat and drink while in the presence of a sweeping river and you’ve found a fast route to happiness. Lakes provide a great backdrop to any town or city, plus they offer boat rides which are leisurely, peaceful affairs – apart from that one I took on Lake Titicaca which broke down and slowly began sinking, making me secretly fear for my life until we were rescued by the owner of the travel company in his private vessel, which bizarrely had once belonged to President Nixon after he received it as a present from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (that’s another story for another day). The sea is also capable of eliciting similar feelings to rivers and lakes, but it’s a much more hit and miss combination. Not every port can be a Barcelona and for every Cannes there’s a Clacton and Calais. I’m sure one exists, but I can’t think of a single crap place with a river running through it.
Budapest, Cadiz, Chicago, Florence, Hoi An, Perth, Porto, San Francisco, Vancouver, Venice
Under the stars
Darkness changes everything, but some places simply come alive once the natural light has disappeared. It’s not about the clubbing scene or bar life, but all about how a place looks, feels, sounds, smells once night time arrives. The way somewhere is lit affects the whole mood. Las Vegas with its cacophony of neon or the towns of South East Asia with their almost hushed street lighting are as much a part of the fabric of a place as its people. I’ve never liked anywhere if I haven’t liked it once night descends.
Ho Chi Minh City, London, Madrid, New Orleans, Tokyo
Thirst for knowledge/Cultural referencing
I mentioned a thirst for knowledge at the beginning of my blog as the main reason for undertaking much of my travels. Without that nagging itch to discover and seek places I’ve read about in books or seen on screen it’s vaguely possible I might have become one of those people who holiday in the same place, eat in the same restaurant, drink in the same pubs and spurn diversity at every turn. If I can visit somewhere and find reference to a song, book or film I am familiar with (or in some cases extremely passionate about) and discover first-hand subjects I’ve often spent years studying then I can’t fail to be consumed with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Berlin, Cusco, Guernica, New York, Phnom Penh
Standing in the shadows of history
Everywhere can boast of history – even Milton Keynes – but some places reek of it. There are enough places on the planet to satiate any history obsession, just look at the UNESCO world heritage list if you’re seeking inspiration, but it’s those places where history was made – and in some cases the course of history forced to take a different path – that leave a lasting impression. Admittedly a lot of them involve war and death, but I don’t make the rules – that’s usually how moments that shook the world play out.
Dallas, Gettysburg, Pompeii, Sarajevo, St Petersburg
I never really appreciated how crap zoos are until I began to travel. Seeing any animal in its natural environment is a curious thrill, as well as being fucking terrifying when it happens to be a saltwater crocodile or shark. I’ve never built a holiday around it, but if you can combine some of the things from above and get to stare at the likes of elephants taking a dump in the wild then what’s not to like?
Colca Canyon (Peru), Kruger National Park (South Africa), Northern Territory (Australia), Ranthambore National Park (India), Yellowstone Park (USA),
Often the first people you will encounter in a foreign place. Get one who can manage a smile, speak English (or just speak), not drive like Barry Newman in Vanishing Point and actually charge you the correct fare for the ride and you know you’ve arrived in a great place. I find that if you can manage just one out of the four you’re doing well. In Eastern Europe it’s a little known fact that all taxi drivers assume that men want to visit venues where you can stare at naked women, in India they are convinced that you wouldn’t possibly object to looking at their uncle’s shop, in South America it’s a given that they will only lighten up if you mention the word ‘football’, while in Asia they would feel slighted if you didn’t try to barter the price down. Still, without them bus queues would be horrendous.
Sane taxi drivers: Belfast, Christchurch, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, Stockholm
Taxi drivers that make Travis Bickle look stable of mind: anywhere in Eastern Europe
And World of Sighbury’s Top 10 world destinations as determined by the 10-step guide are…
It’s Wimbledon time again. I won’t be watching. I know what’s about to happen. Someone from Spain or Switzerland will win while some guy from Scotland will crumble under the pressure of all that weight of expectation from England’s Union Jack face-painted middle-class. It wasn’t always this way. I’m old enough to remember when Wimbledon was essential viewing.
There’s no escaping the past. Not if you’ve ever turned on the telly. Countless TV hours have been dedicated to toying at our nostalgia strings by dissecting the way we used to live all of about…well…about one month ago in some cases. The 80s comes in for particularly close attention, which means you’re never far from the obligatory clip of some slimy yuppie carrying a ridiculously large mobile phone, Del Boy falling through a bar and Michael Fish making a complete tit of himself. The decade has been tirelessly pored over and dissected, which usually involves a bunch of celebrities you’ve never heard of reading some ‘amusing’ anecdote from an autocue which clearly never happened to them, especially as you’ve deduced that half of them would have been about three years old at the time. One consequence of all this misty-eyed reminiscing is the blatant revisionism that implies everything was so much better back then. While you could present a strong case that music, film, football, fashion, politics, kids TV, Sundays and Robert de Niro were more interesting in the 80s, there’s really not many things you can hand-on-heart say were outright better in Lady Thatch’s decade.
Despite this though, I loved the 80s. I didn’t know that then, but looking back with those heavily rose-tinted glasses strapped to my eyes this was the decade in which I never had to do a single day’s work. And for that reason alone it will always hold fond memories. I entered 1980 as a four-year old in a hand-me-down parka and drainpipes and left it ten years older wearing 20” baggies and a Joe Bloggs hooded top – in the days when hoodies didn’t mean you were about to mug someone – still oblivious to all the stresses and delights of GCSE’s, alcohol/drug misuse and fear of remaining a virgin for life that were all just on the horizon. The 1980s meant no work, no worries. Happy days indeed.
And some of those happy days were spent dossing in front of the telly once school was over for two weeks in June/July watching some of the greatest tennis there’s ever been or ever likely to be – I’m only talking about the Men’s Singles here. With all respect to the Ladies competition it may well have just been called the Navratilova Shoe In – so when I see some bloke who finished fourth on Big Brother 6 telling me about Eddie the Eagle but no mention of Wimbledon it makes me want to do a Why Don’t You? and put a foot through the telly. And on the rare occasion Wimbledon does get a mention it will inevitably feature an excruciating clip of said ‘celebrity’ attempting to say, “You cannot be serious”. Or Cliff Richard. Which also makes me want to raise a boot.
So what was so great about the Wimbledon Men’s competition in the 1980s? Three reasons.
There were a lot more characters back then. Now I appreciate that calling someone a character in everyday life can be code for: bit of a twat, especially after 8 pints of piss. But in sport it usually translates as someone with charisma, balls, madness and an ability to do something truly magical when you least expect it. Just look at the names of some of the guys who graced the Top 10 rankings during the 80s; Guillermo Vilas, Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pat Cash, Henri “everyone’s favourite Frenchmen” Leconte and Boris “everyone’s favourite German” Becker. These guys were pure entertainers and all tremendous characters. We even had a pantomime villain in Freddie Mercury’s long lost brother, Ivan Lendl. The Czech’s ruthless professionalism was a foretaste of the later generation of Sampras and Federer. His inability to win Wimbledon – despite spending three years as the No.1 ranked player in the world – only added to the sense of spectacle. The fact he was a dirty Communist swine to boot made it even better that Wimbledon became the only Grand Slam trophy to elude him.
Since then who has there been to entertain the masses? Pistol Pete? The Stephen Hendry of tennis; plain old boring ruthless efficiency and not a single Tiger Woods style sex scandal to redeem him. The Fed Express? Technically impervious at his peak, but completely unlovable as a person – he even managed to cry without showing emotion. He’s also Swiss so I will refer to Orson Welles’ speech in The Third Man regarding that nation of heroes watch?v=dv1QDlWbS8g Rafa Nadal? He might get the housewives a bit flustered, but even accepting his brilliance he’s a player who always leaves me cold when watching. So what if he has the perfect backhand? Until he introduces a few point winning Becker-like full stretch mid-air dives into his game I’m not interested.
Beyond the top 4 seeds does anyone really know or care about the rest of them? If they had a personality we might, but where are the tantrums and the ability to self-destruct? And when will today’s players ever look like they are actually enjoying themselves? For most it looks like they’ve just been told they’ve got to spend the rest of their life appearing on A Question of Sport sat alongside the ultimate tool that is Matt Dawson (this show is something else that was better in the 80s. Well, it was only ever actually good for about two weeks, but that was way before Sue Barker got anywhere near it). Today’s stars could only dare to dream of being able to capture the imagination of the public in a way the great rivalries between Borg, McEnroe and Connors once did.
In short, and without getting scientific about it, the clothes were fucking ace. Fila, Sergio Tacchini, Diadora, Ellesse, Lacoste, Fred Perry, Adidas, Puma. Every shirt and every training top from this era was a design classic, becoming standard issue for any self-respecting football casual. Borg even put his name to the greatest trainers known to civilisation – the Diadora Borg Elite. These clothes are so good that when Danny Dyer wore replicas in British gangster film, The Business, it was even possible to stop yourself from laughing like a crazy fool every time he opened his mouth. For a few seconds at least.
The complete understanding that no one from Britain would ever win
In the 80s British men’s tennis had John Lloyd, who was probably too busy trying not to let the complete sausage Chris Evert slip through his fingers to ever be a contender and Andrew ‘king-of-no-one’s’ Castle. There was as much chance of a British men’s winner at Wimbledon as there was of Noel Edmonds making compelling television. This was fine though because it meant the competition never got bogged down by the media’s desperate desire to see someone British and not called Fred Perry win the damn thing. Since then we’ve had Henmania, that Canadian with the shit-eating grin and morose Murray. I’ve seen more personality in an Aussie backpacker’s flip flop than those three put together.
I think that’s all the proof you need that Wimbledon was indeed a far greater spectacle when the likes of Tears For Fears used to be Top 10 stalwarts. Here’s visual proof as well – it even looks great with some bloke waffling in Italian over the top.watch?v=csQRF_p7SSM
Sometimes your travels take you full circle. This definitely felt the case last month upon setting foot in the ridiculously picturesque Plaza Major in the Spanish hillside town of Trujillo. The town lies in the middle of the thinly populated Spanish region of Extremadura and bar the last remaining daily tour bus which was dragging its way across the medieval stones, some old boys chewing the fat under the arches and some kids using a 500-year old door as a goal frame there was precious little other activity as I stood in the shadow of the imposing equestrian statue of Francisco Pizarro. This, as my guidebook was telling me, is Old Spain, and judging by the lack of crowds it’s also a place that few people can be bothered to trek out to. That’s something of a shame though, as Trujillo is possibly my favourite place in the country – it’s certainly sat at the pinnacle of my Top 5 Iberian destinations beginning with the letter ‘T’.
To reach Trujillo involved a six-hour car ride from Cadiz – a journey time that would deter many, especially if you have to make it with two young children in tow. Being something of a sucker for a decent Plaza Mayor, however, means I am more than willing to suffer the threat of revolution from a bored audience in the back seats and set sail for plazas new. Any potential mutiny was strangled at birth by regular ice cream stops while for the drivers the end reward was an ice cold cerveza, consumed as the late afternoon sun slowly arched its ways behind the stork-topped, baroque and Renaissance stone buildings that surround Trujillo’s main square.
The drive had been memorable enough in itself, clearing a path over the foothills of the Sierra Morena before entering the parched surroundings of southern Extremadura. There was also an element of eeriness for the number of fellow drivers once clear of Seville could be counted on all the fingers of a 5-a-side football team. It felt remarkably similar to driving across the western states of America, in both geography and scarcity of vehicles. It’s not often in Western Europe that you can find roads so clear, but Spain appears to have more than its fair share away from the major conurbations. This, I’ve slowly discovered, is a country that makes perfect road trip territory.
Extremadura rarely catches the headlines these days; it’s a region out on a limb, nestling up to the Portuguese border to the west, tantalisingly out of reach of the thoroughfares that service Madrid while throwing envious glances below at lively, seductive Andalusia. Judging by some of the locals they probably don’t even give a flying jamon iberico – glad of the anonymity – but there was a time when Extremadura, and tiny Trujillo in particular, were the centre of the universe. For it’s here that many of Spain’s legendary conquistadors hail.
Perhaps it was the grinding poverty and hardship of late 15th/early 16th century Extremadura that made some of its inhabitants dream of shores further afield or perhaps there was something in the fountain water that inspired a generation to go rape, pillage and plunder foreign corners of the world not yet known to European eyes, but a freakish number of conquistadors, such as Hernan Cortes (conqueror of the Aztec Empire), Hernando de Soto (conqueror of Florida)and Vasco Nunez de Balboa (discoverer of the Pacific), were all born in the region, while Francisco de Orellana (the first known person to navigate the Amazon River) and the Pizarro brothers (Francisco, Gonzalo, Hernando and Juan) all hail from tiny Trujillo. It’s Franny Pizarro, as conqueror/destroyer of the Incan Empire (all depends on your point of view really – after all, one man’s conquistador is another man’s psychotic greed-fuelled murderer) and founder of Lima who warrants a statue in the main square. The thinking clearly that the more innocent people you annihilate the more prominent your monument should be. In fairness the conquest of the Incan people was a pretty remarkable affair when you consider that Pizarro advanced from Panama into Andean South America accompanied by 180 men and 37 horses and somehow managed to chase an army of 30,000 tooled up Incas out of town. It’s the sort of away day action Millwall could only dream of.
Five years before this I’d come across another statue of Pizarro. This time while standing in a park in the capital of Peru, which occurred a few moments after seeing his grandiose coffin in the nearby cathedral. It was hard to concentrate fully at the time because downtown Lima had a reputation for being a touch on the dodgy side for tourists; especially at night when along with my wife we decided to take a stroll out. Fortunately we had a guy who had served in Peru’s equivalent of the SAS looking after us, although he had an alarming tendency to sod off every ten minutes to go see a man about a guinea pig leaving us surrounded by intrigued locals as we played our own game of musical statues – only daring to move once the Peruvian Andy McNabb returned. On the rare moments he was about, this being the time we bought him dinner, I asked him what he thought about the statue of Pizarro. His response was a disinterested shrug of the shoulders followed by, “Your Francis Drake was a bigger bastard.” Surreally, this was a view shared by a hotel owner we met while working our way through Peru – and I’d not even asked him about any conquistadors – he offered this opinion while discussing what time we would like breakfast. From what I’ve been able to detect the main gripe a Peruvian would have with Sir Francis Drake is that he once raided a Spanish ship just off the coast of Lima that conveniently happened to contain booty reckoned to be worth the equivalent of £7 million in today’s money. Hardly a noble gesture I’ll accept but I fail to see how it makes the lawn bowls wizard a worse man than those who had brought about the decline of an entire culture.
We survived the mean streets of Lima, but I wasn’t so fortunate on the meeker paving slabs of Trujillo. While enjoying that chilled beer I mentioned earlier, contemplating how we’d completed the Pizarro circle by having seen the birthplace and final resting place of Francisco, while also admiring the palaces and churches that had been funded by all that Incan treasure, a smartly-dressed grandmother with Maggie Thatcher hair came over to our table gesticulating frantically in our faces while pointing at our 11-month old son in his pushchair. It’s at moments like these that I wheel out my trusty, well-rehearsed, piece of Spanish vernacular; “Lo siento, no habla espanol.” This has served me well over the years and although often followed by resigned, frustrated gestures by the person I say it to (and possibly also some rude comments once they now know I won’t be able to understand), I’ve found it gains some form of sympathy from whoever it’s spoken to. Not with the Spanish Lady T however – this just made her shout some more. The more I shrugged, the more aggressively she pointed at my son. A Mexican standoff was developing, until she started to repeat mantra-like the word frio. Thanks to the wonders of Dora the Explorer I was finally able to grasp just what she was banging on about. It appeared that she felt my son, who was wearing a short-sleeved baby grow and shorts without socks, was cold. The temperature had been riding in the high 70’s all day and to this Anglo-Saxon it still felt positively tropical. I responded with another one of the words I’d learnt from Dora – caliente. The old lady rolled her eyes, clearly exasperated with this loco inglesa and finally walked off with a despondent shake of the head.
Secretly I knew the cause of her consternation. As much as the Spanish love to see children and take them almost everywhere they go, you only had to look around to see that babies, even on a perfectly warm evening, are dressed up as though the next Ice Age is due to descend within the hour. We’d noted that male babies were quite often kitted out in thick wooly tights, a fashion that delighted my wife who insisted that we buy a pair for our own son. I consider myself a liberal kind of chap, but I came over all 1930’s Yorkshire miner at this suggestion and declared that no son of my mine would be wearing tights. There are some things as a parent that you just don’t want to see. As punishment for such narrow-mindedness, I fully expect to one day be greeted with the news that he has turned his back on the bare-knuckle boxing lessons I’d been forking out for him and wants to take up ballet.
It’s a difficult thing writing about your family, and kids in particular. I’m acutely aware that while to me, my children are the most fascinating thing on the planet – after The Wire, salt water crocodiles and war – they will muster complete indifference to anyone else reading. I’m cool with that, as I almost always find myself drifting off whenever someone else writes about their kids as though we should share the author’s joy at their offspring’s ability to walk/talk/vomit. I’ll try not to over do it, but to ignore my children’s presence would be slightly ludicrous and a little bit impossible – no matter how hard I may try. My wife, Kim, gets to keep her real name as saying something like “her indoors”, “my better half” or “the missus” is a crime worthy of a slow, sinister punishment involving needles and eyeballs. The children shall be called a variety of things depending on how creative/stupid/witty/lazy I’m feeling at the moment they happen to crop up.
The only bit of drama we encountered during dinner were the prices. Trujillo may be in the back of beyond, but they squeeze the tourist dollar for all its worth here. As you would when you are offering tables with such wonderful views. Along the raised section of the Plaza Mayor are a handful of classy restaurants (they have maitre d’s and everything) with outside seating so you can keep a watchful eye over the floodlight Pizarro monument. We took a table at Bizcocho and enjoyed a fantastic meal of stewed bull’s tail and partridge risotto while indulging in the special dessert menu that claimed to be for two persons but really would leave five groaning at the excessiveness of it all.
The wine was something of a revelation too. After being given that uncomfortable task of ordering a bottle from the menu while your waiter hovers over your shoulder, I mumbled something about wanting a local wine while eyeing nervously the prices – there was nothing below 20 Euros besides half bottles. My waiter pointed his pen at a bottle of red called El Silencio, priced at a cool 33 Euros. I gave him a glance over my shoulder and he gave me a look that said, “buy this and you’ll be getting some action tonight.” I returned with a look that said, “I’m staying in the same room as my two children tonight pal, there’ll be none of that malarkey.” Despite ruminating over the fact that for the sort of money they were charging for a single bottle I could have cleared out the entire wine section of the local Lidl with a bumper packet of peanuts thrown in, I relented and went with the recommendation. Without having any concrete method of determining the value of any given meal, this rather expensive one certainly felt like it was worth it if the feelgood factor it instilled in me is anything to go by. Meals like this don’t come around every day after all – unless you live in Trujillo and are minted.
For a town with a population just under the 10,000 mark Trujillo is big on things to see and do. That’s if things you like to see and do involve ancient buildings and artefacts. If they don’t then you’re stuffed – they don’t even get Sky News on the hotel TV to relieve the boredom. It contains a first rate castle, which is surely reason enough in itself to visit because we all love a good castle. Indeed, a recent EU study costing roughly 38 million Euros revealed that European men love a good castle more than a good roll in the hay*. Trujillo’s castillo, with its Moorish origins, is in relatively perky condition considering its age with fully walkable battlements offering a 360-degree viewing platform. From the top there are some stunning vistas across the town below and vast open countryside surrounding the town, confirming its isolated location. It also offers the chance to soil yourself several times over if you bring along a young child who likes to run at high speeds at all available opportunities due to the fact there is next to no safety barriers on stairs or battlements meaning one false step could result in consequences too grim for me to even care to imagine.
After lunch I was left on my own while the rest of the family took some siesta time. Armed with Michael Wood’s excellent Conquistadors I was going to learn a little bit more about the people whose wealth had created so many of the fabulous palaces I was surrounded by while enjoying a few beers. That plan was going great until I was unexpectedly joined by an American couple we had chatted to briefly at the castle. They were from California, just embarking on a month-long European vacation and also travelling with two young children. They weren’t typically American, saying little unless prompted and speaking in almost hushed tones, but as gatecrashers go they seemed pleasant enough. The dad, Ian, had worked in Spain for two years in the early nineties and had always wanted to bring his family back to the country in which he’d spent so much time. Intrigued, I asked him what he had been doing for those two years.
“I was over here on missionary work.”
I weighed this up. Missionary work? Hmmm, this could be a conversation I didn’t want to get into. But if only to fill the ever-widening silences I inquired further.
“So was your work for the Roman Catholic church?”
Jesus Christ of the latter day saints that was the one answer I didn’t want to hear. As he said it I put down the beer I’d begun drawing to my lips. Why Mormon? I’d have preferred anything – even jihadists – to Mormon. I’ve nothing against Mormons, they just make lousy drinking partners. With my beer turning warm I told them of the time Kim and I had spent driving across the States and the fabulous week we’d had in Utah. I waxed lyrical about Utah’s beauty with its amazing national parks and stunning solitude, but the mum, Carol, wanted to know what I made of Salt Lake City. I replied carefully with a simple, “it’s an interesting place.” This answer goes way beyond diplomatic as SLC is in fact the most boring city I’ve ever set foot in. And I’ve been to St Albans. The interest lies in the fact that on any street corner within eyesight of the Temple you will encounter young women of varying nationalities asking if you would like a guided tour of Temple Square. Despite insisting that this is not necessary, somehow you will still find yourself being ‘chaperoned’ around and end up watching a 90-minute film about some bloke called Joseph Smith who was visited by an angel called Moroni, found a book made of gold behind some rocks, had another visitor called John the Baptist, started his own religion, got persecuted a lot before being killed which left a power struggle resulting in someone called Brigham Young leading a group of pioneers from Illinois to Salt Lake City to create a permanent home. As stories go it required several leaps of faith to accept everything as gospel and I don’t know what I found more difficult to believe; the bit about angels and John the Baptist or the fact someone named their child Brigham. At the end of this movie ‘epic’ there’s nowhere in town you can buy a drink. Or at least if there is, no one will tell you about it. Like I told Carol (who no doubt had once been one of those women mechanically asking to show folks around), it’s interesting, just not interesting interesting. More interesting in an arched eyebrow kind of way.
Ian was enjoying my road trip story (I think. It’s quite hard to tell when someone just stares at you with only the odd head nod) and gave one of his own, recalling the time he travelled through Death Valley on a Harley. Eager to keep the conversation flowing I jumped straight back in.
“We made the same trip after leaving Las Ve…Las…Erm…Nevada…Yeah. We made that trip.” For some comical reason I couldn’t quite bring myself to say the words “Las Vegas”. I don’t know why. They probably thought I was already sat on a covered wagon on a one-way journey to hell anyway so admitting to a few nights in Vegas was unlikely to worsen things.
“Where were you again?” Asked Ian. “Las Vegas,” I muttered shamefacedly. Suddenly that siesta looked like a good idea.
The meal on the second evening was also spent by the square but without the hefty price tag. My daughter, still outrageously active at 10pm despite giving me the runaround on the castle walls earlier, was happily entertaining herself beneath the arches with a balloon donated to her by a waiter. Up and down she ran under my careful gaze, getting pats on the head from passing strangers and waiters alike, allowing me to ponder the greatness of the Med countries that are so welcoming to children and don’t even quiver an eyelid at the sight of your kids tearing around like loonies at a time that the UK has seemingly made constitutionally illegal for children to show their faces at.
I had that warm feeling inside gleamed from a mixture of alcohol and smugness at discovering a new ‘favourite’ destination – plus relief at not having wasted a day of your life in a car only to turn up at somewhere with as much charm as Stoke-on-Trent – when my eyes made contact with a familiar glare. La Granimator was back. And this time she was threatening to confiscate balloons. I trudged wearily over to her as she stood over my perplexed daughter issuing some directives about the perils of a road that was a good 20 metres away. Plus no doubt something about the unsuitability of her evening wear. She gave me the lecture too – in Spanish – as I stood there with a forced grin that gradually began to make my face ache such was the length of the sermon, engaging in a mild game of tug of war with the balloon – I say mild, it was more just a case that Spain’s version of Mrs. Mangle wasn’t letting go and I was quite keen not to appear to be wrestling her for it, despite the lingering temptation. When she had finally stopped and released the balloon I thanked her – in Spanish – for what was probably one long bollocking regarding the inadequacies of my parenting abilities.
I was beginning to understand why Francis and his brothers upped sticks; if they had to put up with busybodies like this all through their youth, you’d probably be tempted to sail half way around the world to take your rage out on a vertically challenged, cocoa-leaf addicted group of people who you had never clapped eyes on before. Especially if they happened to own lots of gold. Senora Frio wasn’t running us out of town though. We were on our way anyway. But we’ll be back. Of that there’s no doubt. This place has conquered my heart.
* sources unconfirmed at time of going to press
Guernica (or Gernika as they like to spell it in, er, Guernica) is a symbol of man’s destructive capabilities. Now, the aim of this blog is not to become clogged down in wordy rhetoric (which is handy as I probably couldn’t manage it anyway) or depress the hell out of anyone who happens to read this, but there’s no way of lightly glossing over the fact that on the afternoon of April 26, 1937, the first aerial bombing of civilians ever recorded took place in this tiny, peaceful Basque town. The German and Italian fighter planes that carried out the slaughter of innocent men, women and children destroyed 70% of the town, leaving an apocalyptic scene that was later interpreted so majestically by Picasso.
From the moment I learnt this, after being introduced to it via The Stone Roses’ b-side, I immersed myself fully in the thorny topic that is the Spanish Civil War. As a direct consequence my literary and art appreciation made several stellar leap forwards, but if I’m being truthful here (this happens occasionally, although I much prefer gross exaggeration as a standard form of expression) despite copious hours of my life dedicated to the Spanish Civil War I still don’t truly, completely, understand what the buggery was happening. Let’s face it, what chance have I got of nailing down the precise goings on when it even confused the stupendously gifted mind of George Orwell who was out there fighting? That guy came up with the name for the most successful reality TV show ever. Not even Simon Cowell is that clever.
To reach Guernica involves heading to Bilbao to catch possibly the slowest train in western Europe that will eventually drop you at a place full of dour, nondescript buildings (unsurprising for a place that was once systematically razed to the ground). Eventually you find yourself in a tiny museum where not a single guide speaks English and all exhibits are in the local tongue. You’re shown relentless displays of misery that start to crush your soul and at just the point when you think it’s all over you find you have in fact missed the main ‘attraction’ of experiencing what it was like to have been in Guernica on April 26, 1937 as bombs explode and the shivering sound of babies howling in despair plunge you into a near psychotic state of gloom.
And after being thanked profusely for your visit you are directed towards an oak tree. And as you stare at it you wonder if perhaps this means more to you than it really should. But a huge part of you derives satisfaction from that because this is your thirst for knowledge and you’re living it firsthand. Afterwards you pop into a local bar where all the men wear creased, tanned faces with fantastically cool berets angled perfectly across their greying hair and all look like they should be outside playing petanque. Some of whom may just have been in town that day when hell paid a visit from the skies. And as you sip on a cold beer and gaze at them all gesticulating madly at the football on the telly you suddenly realise that all this is because once you casually popped into your now extinct local record shop and parted £2.99 of your dad’s hard earned money to buy a piece of vinyl. And you still stop to think about the horror but not too much because you’re on holiday after all. And it’s only then that it hits you that if there is meaning to all this you’ll be fucked if you know what it is. So you drink another beer and watch the footy and raise a silent toast to your old mate; thirst for knowledge.
A stepping stone on my eventual journey to the town of Guernica occurred several years prior when visiting the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to check out Picasso’s monumental painting, completed in response to the bombings. Guernica is probably one of barely a handful of paintings that have left me a little bit paralysed when viewing it up close. In a what-leaves-you-more-breathless face off with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Picassso’s Guernica gets the Mona Lisa in a headlock, ruffles her hair and laughs in her face. Then it puts her down, pats Mona on the head and says “don’t mess with the big boys luv”. Probably with a Spanish accent though.
I’ve often wondered that if ‘Guernica’ hadn’t been written by perhaps the only band who could claim to be genuine heroes of mine, whether I would have taken such a clinging interest. Made of Stone is one of the Top 5 greatest pieces of music ever committed to vinyl (this is a view that is always liable to change, but for now it feels like Top 5 material. Tomorrow I may not even think it’s one of the Top 5 Stone Roses songs, but it’s my blog and I’ll change my mind if I want to). ‘Guernica’, the song, is in fact Made of Stone played backwards. This was the first song I had ever heard played backwards apart from that freaky theme tune to The Omen trilogy which gave me recurring nightmares for at least 18 months of my life and made me very cautious about taking lifts, double glazing vans and standing under church spires in heavy storms. As songs go ‘Guernica’ could fit snugly into the ‘one purely for the hardcore fans’ bracket, but there appears to be no hidden message from Satan in there and I’m quite certain that it will forever remain in my Top 5 list of songs played backwards. Its chances have been lengthened by that fact I can only think of four off the top of my head. The backwards song is a much under-appreciated art form, but if you should read this and decide to go listen to Guernica on an iPod at great volume in a darkened room; be warned: it could potentially make you do an Arthur Fowler.
It only took me 14 years to get to Guernica. This was the time between first staring at the name in black and white on the back of the 12” version of The Stone Roses’ stupendously sublime Made of Stone single and spending a freezing Sunday afternoon in February among the verdant hills of northern Spain staring at an oak tree. What I didn’t know at that moment in the summer of 1989 was that this word would pretty much influence forever there on in reading habits, holiday plans, political leanings and choice of sexual partners (I made that last bit up…).
If you’ve never heard of The Stone Roses then where you been? And if you haven’t heard of Guernica then, as the title of a Roses’ song goes and what John Lennon once sang to his former writing partner – how do you sleep? Probably quite easily without recurring thoughts of screeching Heinkel engines and screams of innocent women and children whirling around your head. How I came to spend a freezing Sunday afternoon in February among the verdant hills of northern Spain staring at an oak tree can be blamed purely, squarely, totally and unquestionably on an incontrollable desire for that intangible thing commonly referred to – and what Jarvis Cocker once so memorably uttered in a song about common people – as a thirst for knowledge. And I’m not even Greek.
Any wannabe social media expert who somehow happened to stumble upon this blog will have by now clicked off in search of something else to use as a subject for an online tutorial to their 50,000 tweeter followers, screaming as they go “What is this fool going on about? A whole paragraph and no sign of an introduction or theme. Have they never heard of SEO’s? What the fuck is a ‘Guernica’ anyway?”
It’s thanks to a thirst for knowledge that I’ve been fortunate enough to cross paths with so many great writers, directors, artists, and beer makers. It’s been instrumental in helping build a record collection that if it were to be played all in one hit would still be going strong after 100 days. It’s taken me literally around the world and through more than 50 countries, providing a much needed distraction from football and loose women (at the age of 13 these two subjects probably dominated 98% of my day. Today, I have other distractions such as work, kids and writing pointless articles that no one will read so I’ve managed to shave a few percent of that total). Mostly however, a thirst for knowledge has ensured that I’ll probably wind up my days poverty stricken with nothing to my name besides a laptop overloaded with an unfinished novel and streams of photographs that never made it through Boots processing lab. There will of course still be an iPod to soundtrack my plight. I have considered potentially selling my kidneys if things got too desperate – there’s got to be a long weekend in a Ryanair destination in one of those.
A thirst for knowledge controls your passions. In my case, once I realised there was something more important in life than Subbuteo and Panini football stickers, each new thing I discover turns me onto something new, until you arrive at a point seemingly several leagues from where you first started but is all somehow intrinsically linked. Where it all started is a cause of much debate, but I’ve decided that The Stone Roses and Guernica are the two staples that continue to trigger my intrigue and appreciation for the world around me. In my head I’ve created a family tree type diagram of all the things that I love and draw inspiration from with the aforementioned Roses and Guernica sitting at the top like a married couple. From there lines shoot out towards the likes of Picasso, Miro, Orwell, Hemingway, Cervantes, Madrid and The Clash. After that it’s just a short hop to Dali, Pollock, Camus, Kafka, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Salinger, The Stooges, Joy Division/New Order, Bowie, Dylan, The Byrds, Neil Young, The Smiths, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, San Francisco, New Orleans, Buenos Aires and Rome. And from there, well from there it’s infinite, but some of the names along the way I’m going to explore on these pages. You could conclude that by this logic that all things are related to one another in some way, but I can unequivocally state that no amount of thirst for knowledge would be strong enough to make we wish to listen to a Chris de Burgh album or watch anything featuring Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s obscene to even contemplate such actions.
So where do you begin?
Sadly, it’s taken the best part of a month to decide this alone and a further month to eventually put it down on paper, so to speak. But where writing and me are concerned, long painful silences are common bedfellows. Something of a problem for someone who wants to write a blog you’d imagine. The facts are these; unless there’s a deadline looming large and the promise of hard cash awaits, the thought of writing can usually be beaten into submission by the more alluring proposal of watching the third series of The Sopranos. Again. On some days even watching Cash in the Attic can seem the lesser of two evils.
I’ve tried adopting the common philosophy preached by so many writing experts to always write something whenever the opportunity arises, even if it’s just a solitary sentence. This worked wonders initially as I unleashed a short story’s worth of stream-of-consciousness literary wonder, only to find days later when I attempted to re-read it that some sixth-former had somehow hacked into my computer, deleted all my piercing insights on modern life that would eventually hear the name Sighbury mentioned in the same breath as such great minds as Nietzsche, Sartre and Nick Hornby, and replaced them with excruciating tales of unrequited love and self-loathing. So with another best seller mysteriously lost I’m once again left staring at a blank page.
You couldn’t even pass it off as writer’s block. It’s more a case of the writing equivalent of irritable bowel syndrome. You know you want to let it all out, but whenever you sit down to try nothing happens. Then the urge to unleash returns the exact moment you stand up again. And on and on it goes through countless wasted hours of frustration. Whenever that all too rare occasion arises where you have all day alone in comfortable surroundings to carry out your business then nothing comes. But the moment you are in a situation where it is impossible to capture a single thought – like under the glare of a dentist’s light or waiting for a self-checkout assistant to turn off the flashing red light on a machine that is supposed to speed up your life, but is somehow incapable of recognising that bloody great big 4-pint carton of milk you’ve placed in the packing area – ideas begin to leak from your mind faster than…erm…diarrhoea.
Then by the time you finally manage to record these inspired musings into actual art you’ve forgotten two thirds of what you were positive was on a par with the collective works of Thomas Hardy and the bits you do remember are hastily scribbled down in your “ideas” pad only to be looked at the very next day with the same set of eyes and met with the response, “I haven’t a clue what I’m going on about here. Must have been pissed.” So you take Edwyn Collins’ advice and rip it up and start again.
Yet in amongst all this inertia and HBO reruns it occurred to me that instead of waiting for inspiration to knock on the front door, invite themselves in and slap me across the face with a hardback edition of ‘Great ideas for people with blogs that have no theme’, I should stick to what I know. And before you all shout “this shouldn’t take long”, what I know is everything that’s great in the world – music, travel, football, film, TV, books, beer, pubs, food, restaurants, art, museums, history, sport, idling and the comforting whiff of nostalgia. Plus, I’ll probably bang on a bit about my wife and kids because it would be somewhat remiss of me to exclude them when I’m talking about the things that are most important in my life.
So that’s what I’m gonna write about – all the stuff that makes up my world. And to get the ball rolling I’m starting with the band who made the greatest album ever and a tiny town in northern Spain. I just need to watch the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire first and then I’ll get straight on to it…
*Those of you with a particular fondness for Mancunian indie rock bands from the early 1990′s may have noticed that I have borrowed the title of my first post from a song. I am particularly partial to stealing a quote from songs, films, books and various people of interest on an unhealthily regular basis. I like to consider it an exhibition of my immense cultural knowledge…but grudgingly accept it shows a dramatic lack of originality.
But as I often like to say; “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation”. Or was that Voltaire…