Journals Archive

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MY PETS LESS ORDINARY

During my youth in Guyana, I became acquainted with some unusual wildlife. This is their story.

Everywhere in Guyana were creatures great and small; it was quite common to have small frogs torpedoing out of the water taps, not to mention lizards crawling up the walls, bats appearing at the windows and cockroaches scuttling across the floor. Once we even had a large snake curl up in a washing basket in the middle of our basement floor.

At night, bathing under the light of the driveway, would sit a vast collective of bloated, repulsive toads – called ‘Crapo‘ in the Creole tongue – that would puff up to twice their size; looking twice as ugly as I approached them. I would often get stung by Marabunta wasps (that bloody hurt like hell), attacked by troops of red ants, and bitten by mosquitoes on a white meat diet.

To my unpleasant surprise, even the caterpillars stung me when I accidentally trod on them. At least the birds liked me and would sing my name; the bird-song of the Kiskadee sounded like they were saying ‘Christopher’, so that’s what we called them – Christophers.

I was six years old and would earn eggs, milk, and meat for us by mucking out at the farm next door; herding and milking the cows and goats, along with feeding the chickens and ducks. At the farm I was considered a moving target for a bullish bull and a source of great amusement for a particularly sadistic turkey that would chase me up the nearest tree.

We acquired an unusual collection of pets of our own during our lives in Guyana: from a nameless tortoise that managed to escape, a temperamental macaw with a spoon fetish named Miguel – that also briefly escaped – an adopted sibling in the form of a howler monkey named Floyd, and an injured fox – that also escaped and ate next door’s chickens – and even – though not quite pets in the literal sense, a baby alligator and two manatees. Let’s get the latter two cleared up first:

The adult manatee had strayed from the sea and found its way far up the Abari River where she gave birth to a calf. My father – a student in zoology and marine biology – and his team were alerted by some local fishermen who had built an enclosure for them, providing protection from the piranhas and alligators.

The mother had a large scar on her back from where she had been attacked by something hungry, or cut by an out-board engine propeller – how the manatee got this far up the river was an incredible feat in itself. I was fortunate enough to paddle with the manatees and have since developed a great affection for this enigmatic and docile endangered species. The manatees were given a safe home at the Guyana Zoo in the capital city of Georgetown where we would visit them from time to time.

The new-born alligator was my father’s office pet and lived in a large water tank next to his desk. I’ll never forget the day that he turned up with it at the Dutch club; carrying the creature in his arms, its jaw taped up and my father looking sheepishly at my mother as if about to say “Can we keep him, pleeeese?”

Equally memorable is the sharp and assertive ‘NO!’ that thundered from my mother, shooting him down with her trademark stare. “But it’ll only be for a few weeks.” My mother’s reply was not fit for a young lad, a sheepish husband, or the infant ears of an unwanted alligator – and definitely not suitable for reading today. Only two alligators ever entered our house: one was a stuffed one, the other was ran over by a neighbor and cooked in a curry.

I thought that the fox was a dog at first (Well, it is in a way but you know what I mean). I remember being at a house across the road with two locals who had just cut the head off a duck (as you do); the beak of its detached head was still yapping on the ground while the mallard was running around the yard like a headless, erm, chicken, until it ran out of blood. In the distance I could see some natives approaching the front veranda of our house, presenting what looked like a small dog.

“Cool, we’ve got a dog!” I thought, and sprinted over to greet our new pet. What I came face to face with was not a cute dog with a waggly tail, more like a snarling beast. And my… what big teeth it had. My mother still tells of the way in which I approached the back door and, as cool as a cucumber, said, “I thought I’d come in the back way because there’s and angry looking fox lying in the way of the front door, what’s for tea?.”

The fox had been caught in a trap and had an injured paw; it had also been tied in a barbed wire collar that was still sunk deeply into its neck. The natives who found the battered fox had heard stories that my father was some sort of Doctor Doolittle and they left the fox for him to nurse back to health. It lived in a cage in the basement for several weeks until it escaped – eating my chicks and ducklings as a parting gift, also taking most of next door’s chickens while en route to god knows where. That’s gratitude for you.

My father returned home from the jungle with a surprise pet one day, in the form of a blue and gold macaw that he and some conservationists had rescued from poachers. We named him Miguel; he would eventually return back to Wales with us. The reason for the tropical rainforest being in such dire straits is down to the amount of perches Miguel went through.

Every day there would be a dissatisfied squawk and Miguel would be found clinging on to the side of the cage, feathers sticking up in protest. He was a little ‘temperamental’; the only way to get near him was by wearing my Sootyglove-puppet that he had grown quite an attachment to – more so than humans. Miguel’s few pleasures in life were bananas, sugar cane, my flesh, and being stroked on the head with a teaspoon – but only by the hand of Sooty, of course.

Miguel managed to get himself stuck up a tree one day (seriously!). His wings had been clipped but, as we found out, he was still able to make a break for it; he glided over to the nearest tree across the road. There he remained – standing out like a giraffe on a glacier, and probably feeling a little silly – as my father – probably feeling equally silly because he was wearing a Sooty glove-puppet and holding a spoon.

He climbed the tree – assisted by Paul the farmer – and got Miguel down safely before he glided away into the waiting mouth of something big. A little more wing clipping would make certain that Miguel would remain within the confines of the house.

Our reason for me and my parents being in Guyana in the first place was because my father was studying a Masters Degree in Zoology and Marine Biology; in the 80’s work experience was real work experience. My father would often venture deep into the jungle – sometimes I would go with him – as part of a team of local conservationists.

On one particular outing the team had heard gunshots nearby. Some poachers had fired upon, and hit a female howler monkey; she was left for dead and her new-born baby exposed and alone. The new-born was adopted by my father – who named him Floyd – and would become a valuable member of the King family.

Floyd was amazingly childlike and would play, sunbathe, and throw tantrums that upstaged even me. He would sit on my mother’s shoulder while she was out and about at the Sunday food markets; during the evenings he would sit on my father’s shoulder when he was playing dominoes, his long prehensile tail cuddling his neck.

He liked Pringles, peach juice, sugar cane and Edam cheese – and the little git was always running off with my Star Wars figures. When he needed feeding, attention, or comforting he would latch on to my mother, and when he got told off by my mother he approached my father; when he fancied amusement he would piss and shit in my bed. Miguel the macaw didn’t like Floyd and would make him dance every time he climbed on top of the bird cage.

Howler monkeys are the only South American monkey not to be kept as pets, due to their surly disposition. We would eventually have had to part with Floyd as he grew into a one meter tall adult. Sadly, he didn’t get the chance to grow into adulthood at all.

I was at a lesson with my private tutor when my father appeared in the doorway; his shoulders were slouched and he didn’t speak. He stood there for several minutes, just gazing into space before walking away. I wouldn’t find out until I got home from tuition that Floyd had broken free of his leash and had chased my father down the driveway.

My father always slipped through the back door before Floyd would notice he had gone, but Floyd had wised up to that. While giving chase to the Land Rover Floyd he latched on to the wheel and was crushed to death it as it rolled over him. He would be the last family pet that we would adopt in Guyana.

My only pet was a tortoise. I can’t recollect its name but I do recall that it was old, scratched and only had one eye. I would carry it everywhere I went; when it wasn’t under my arm it would follow me on foot. One day it mysteriously disappeared (yes, my tortoise ran away) and I especially recall the day that I got reunited with it – I will never forget that.

It was the very last day of my life in Guyana. I was saying goodbye to friends when something caught my eye; something walking down the driveway very slowly – it was old, scratched, and only had one eye. I swear to this day  that it was my old pet tortoise who had come to say farewell.

Whenever I tell this story I can’t help laughing to myself at how absurd it all sounds. It doesn’t surprise me when people think that I’m taking the piss and are inclined to ask “How much of that was true?” – I know that I would if someone was telling me something equally far-fetched.

This is actually my life that I’m writing about. The life of a valleys boy who was lifted from the snow covered hills of South Wales to the lush, green tropics of Guyana. For a six year old boy, it was a magical life far from ordinary. For a thirty year old adult, it is a privileged past that grows ever more distant, surreal, and unbelievable.

Here is a short clip from Guyana 1987, featuring me, my mother, Floyd the Howler Monkey, and Miguel the Macaw:

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KELVEDON HATCH: THE NOT-SO-SECRET BUNKER

I decided to pay a visit to the Secret (well, not any more) Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, tucked neatly […]

I decided to pay a visit to the Secret (well, not any more) Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, tucked neatly away in the Borough of Brentwood (unavoidably situated in Essex). Now a Cold War museum, Kelvedon Hatch was originally built in 1952–53 to provide command and control of the London Sector of Fighter Command air defense station in the event of a nuclear conflict. It was built to sustain 600 occupants for up to three months.

The Home Office maintained the bunker until its decommissioning in 1992 when nuclear threat appeared to have subsided – the current Russian president is too busy diving for lost treasure and wrestling bears. Though it is no longer in use, the bunker would be re-commissioned if Britain should ever offend a button-happy Communist regime, or poke its crude nose into the wrong Middle Eastern oil business.

The entrance to the bunker would have been impossible to find if not for a sign with ‘SECRET BUNKER’ painted in large friendly letters below a directional arrow. A windy path led to a quaint little bungalow huddled in the corner of a steep hill. The perimeter was surrounded by uniform rows of tall trees and a reassuring sign was attached to the wall at the bottom of some steps to inform visitors that they were where they intended to be – unless they intended to be lost.

I entered the bungalow and collected one of the audio commentary devices and headed down a few steps that led to a 100 yard tunnel. At the end of the tunnel was a guard room – strategically placed to shoot unwanted visitors and life insurance salesmen. Two blast doors, each weighing one tonne each, marked the entrance to the bunker.

I didn’t realise until the commentary piped in that I was now 120 feet underground, encased in a fortress of solid steel that rested at the bottom of a huge crater surrounded by three foot thick walls of concrete; surrounded by more concrete and smothered by a mound of earth for good measure. I wondered if they ever find spiders in the bath.

As I worked my way through the bunker the stiff-upper-lip commentary matter-of-factually relayed cold facts and sobering glimpses of future military rule, where, in the event of nuclear fall-out, the elderly and disabled would be rounded up and exterminated to save valuable resources – and, startlingly, we would have to rely on Local Authorities to know what they are doing. The laws we all know, break, or abide by would be null and void; the only decisive punishment, no matter how petty or severe, will be a bullet through the head. I wondered where diabetics would fit in all of this.

In selected rooms, chilling documentaries showed footage of bomb explosions; intimidating images of automobile steel getting scorched in the blink of an eye and then blown away like a cigarette paper in the path of a jet engine. Palm trees disintegrated and shorelines dissolved as a nuclear blast stormed the beach of a tropical test site. Every now and again William Shatner offered insights into what was being shown (no, he didn’t leap out of a cupboard). If that documentary didn’t tempt anybody to sign up to the CND, I don’t know what would. I started wondering if Trident wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

There was no modern technology in any of the operations rooms. If it wasn’t for the audio commentary I wouldn’t have known what the equipment was for. I think its un-impressiveness reflects on how far technology has come in the last decade. Most disturbing of all were manikins wearing Margaret Thatcher masks.

I found one documentary about preparing for a nuclear attack to be quite… ambitious. It reminded me of The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy when Ford Prefect tells the barman of the Red Lion pub that the world is about to end (lucky escape for Arsenal if it did). The barman says, ”I always thought we were supposed to do something, like lie down and put a paper bag over our heads”.

This documentary projected pretty much the same misguided optimism. It sounded good in theory, but a 100 megaton bomb isn’t going to care if you’ve correctly angled your doors at 45 degrees against the wall of a secure room, furthest away from any windows, and barricaded yourself in with furniture, celebrity autobiographies, and a few dusty old suitcases (imagine this is your house). And, yes, the documentary did suggest that if you are outdoors, lie down! I wondered if living in a house with an open-plan living room was such a good idea after all.

Not to matter. The startling likelihood is that most of us are going to die anyway. If we survive getting blinded by the flash, chargrilled by the intense heat and our flesh getting torn off by a 200 mph gust of radioactive wind, there are always the subzero fall-out temperatures and radiation sickness induced death to contend with. The cruel twist is that the longer you evade the Grim Reaper, the better chance there is of your death being a prolonged and agonizing one – but at least you’ll get to finish reading Luna Park before you go.

If you are jammy enough to survive the first fourteen days, you are going to need to rely on the signal from your trusted battery operated transistor radio to tell you when it’s safe to crawl out from under the desk and into the new age. I wondered if the digital switch-over was such a good idea after all.

This documentary also assumed that Britain will already have engaged in a few weeks of ground combat, before stopping to take tea and challenging the opponent to a three minute round of beat the buzzer. In an era where suicidal religious extremists get kicks out of exploding in public, I hold little hope for us should the shit hit the fan. A few drops of the right feuding chemicals and Trident would find its self on Job Seekers Allowance.

It’s terrifying to imagine there are weapons capable of reducing the entire city of London (and Essex, with luck, anyway) to rubble and dust. Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “If the next war is fought with nuclear weapons, the next will be fought with bows and arrows.” I fear it is inevitable. Rest assured, friends of the earth; rest assured with the thought that a select herd of Etonian millionaires with pantomime tendencies and a Bullingdon brawler’s mentality will be the chosen ones left behind to string the bows.

They can’t do any more damage than they have already, can they?

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MEMORIES UNDER THE METEOR SHOWER

...I grabbed a fold-up chair, made a cup of tea, and headed out to watch the meteor shower.

I arrived home from work in the early hours. The sky was cloud-free, so I grabbed a fold-up chair, made a cup of tea, and headed out to watch the meteor shower.

Sat immersed in the sound-scapes of Brian Eno’s ‘‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’‘ album I waited for the cosmic ballet to befall. Evanescing streaks of light traversed the glittering canvas while puffs of ghost-ship clouds sailed majestically by. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted two faint dots in the blackness; one suddenly made a sharp left turn. A few minutes later I saw another faint light dance and fade into the night.

I was transported back to my childhood in Guyana, cradled in my hammock on a tall veranda beneath a immeasurable blanket of stars; made all the more magisterial by the equally boundless Guyanese planes. The lethargic moon would attempt to cast a lackluster glow over proceedings, but no shadow or silhouette seemed courageous enough to bestow itself to the vast, baron landscape.

There was no street lighting in Guyana; only the crickets, sounding their residency among the sugar cane fields, provided any hints that life hadn’t up-and-left when no one was looking. The distant lantern glows of huts were effortlessly assimilated by the brilliance of the interstellar garden above.

To a child’s imagination it was like being alone on another world. The wonder and insignificance that I felt was augmented by dialing the long wave frequencies of my battery powered radio to the Morse code-like chirp and chatter of unknown origins. For hours I would stare at the stars and dream of one day living among them.

Twenty five years later and three thousand miles across the ocean – and the acceptance that I am too spaced out to be a spaceman – I sat, awed once more by the astral showers and the intensity and immediacy of their endings. Objects that have roamed the universe for billions of years, hurtling towards our own fragile earth, spectacularly reduced to dust in a blink of time’s eye.

‘Apollo’ faded out and an early morning silence fell – making no sound as it did; a curious scent teased the cool night air. There’s nothing like a dose of perspective in an increasingly materialistic and self-serving world; marred with wars and poisoned waters, floods and fierce fires; of clashing classes, cluttered culture, and cruel Con-Dem Nation. We couldn’t be fucking things up any more than we are.

I sometimes like to sit under the stars; to recharge and refocus my thoughts following a long and lonesome week at the shift workers’ grindstone. My happy place is any place under the stars, where I can be the ‘Valleys Tarzan’ again; without a single care in the world; basking in the Cimmerian ambiance of magnificent desolation.

Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) is available on Spotify

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THE ABERGAVENNY FOOD FESTIVAL

My review of the 2010 Abergavenny Food Festival for Buzz Magazine:

I’d hardly call Abergavenny a buzzing metropolis when compared to Cardiff and the London soaks I’ve been dipping in and out of during the last 20 years. But next to the saturated valleys town I reluctantly inhabit, Abergavenny is a breath of fresh air. On a particular crisp Saturday morning, as the lamented summer leaves began to adopt autumnal shades and the early morning sun etched shadows across the glittering dew, thousands of peckish weekend travellers from far and wide advanced towards the idyllic panorama of the Welsh countryside for the Abergavenny Food Festival.

The border town of Abergavenny has become a taste bud Mecca for ascending food fanciers and seasoned veterans alike – gathering together some of the most reputable names in the food fraternity, from Wales and beyond, to celebrate all things culinary and calorific.

I arrived at Abergavenny bright and early for my first food fest – clumsily brushing off the evidential trails of a Gregg’s pasty I’d found in the fridge. I had just finished a night shift and was still in a daze as I headed into the town. The bright white Angel Hotel stood warm and welcoming in the distance; the staff were serving coffees, teas and scones – how quintessentially British.

The Angel Hotel Ballroom and the Market Hall were among several town venues that played host to a diverse range of master classes and demonstrations during the festival weekend; among them was the sweet and the sour fragrance of Ottoman food prepared by Bulgarian born Silvena Rowe, the best of traditional Indian street food presented by Mint & Mustard chef Anand George, and the great Welsh food menu with James Sommerin and Richard Davies.

Scattered along the main streets were stalls including Cokina cookware, Hudnalls, and Caboos Gluten Free products. I strolled along, caressing the double espresso I had bought from the Angel Hotel before knocking it back like my favourite chaser – the type that makes me see double and act single. Being a diabetic on insulin I was starting to feel like a recovering alcoholic let loose in the Penderyn Distillery – so much tempting food to yank me off the wagon. Almost immediately I felt the smack of temptation as the smoky aroma of sausages caught me like a lasso. Buck-tied and hopeless to resist I found myself tucking in to a traditional Italian herb sausage that I could have rented a room for, and visited on the side.

To me, vegetables are merely plate decorations, and I fail to get excited over herb plants. Arun Kapil and Gerard Baker’s Spices & Spice Blends session, on the other hand, stirred fond memories of South American life, and the exotic aromas that danced in the air of the spice markets. As a special treat, Chocolatier Paul A Young and teatress Henrietta Lovell joined forces to demonstrate how the art of mixing fine tea with good chocolate goes far beyond dunking Kit-Kats in a mug of Quickbrew. I was never big on sweets and chocolate, but since my pancreas decided to stop working properly I have started to crave what I cannot have in large amounts. Defiant, I refused to meet the gaze of the many truffles, toffees and other items of sweet, sweet gluttony I stumbled upon – okay, I stared at them longingly and may have dribbled.

The wide range of meat and cheese, however, were fair game – cheese in particular is my Achilles heel and I was beginning to wish I’d brought the car.  For wineos, bread-heads and cheese fanatics there was a chance to receive tutored tastings from some of the top experts in the field, among them was a selection of Wales’ finest micro-beers, a cheese matured in Welsh ale and Jamie Montgomery’s showcase of his artisan cheddar cheeses.  The Cheese and Wine Show included cheeses from Britain, France, Italy and Iberia, with tutored tastings provided by Eric Charriaux and Amnon Paldi’s company, Premier Cheese.

The entertainment during the festival was just as diverse as the food: Bands, buskers and the obligatory Big Issue seller lined the crowded streets – among them was an Uncle Albert lookalike squeezing pop culture classics through a wheezing accordion.  The Wales World Trade Fare and Diabetes UK Cymru entertained for their cause; hosting food demonstrations, workshops and various forms of entertainment. Abergavenny Castle provided the backdrop for a number of musical treats during the course of the weekend; a smidgen of Normandy blues played by Skiffle Rendez-Vous, a sprinkling of Gypsy Jazz by guitarist Remi Harris and a teasing of Loon from Northumberland for extra flavor.

I will definitely be venturing to the Abergavenny Food Festival next year. With over a hundred events and happenings taking place over the action-packed weekend, showcasing some of the best food and drink that Wales, and the rest of the world has to offer, it was simply impossible to cover everything this time around – and there was not enough insulin in the world with which to try. Then there was the question of where to put the army of cheese, meat and beer I had enlisted.  Unlike my local Wetherspoons – where a good steak is rare and often well done – I knew exactly how long my next evening meal was going to be: a little over six inches; I was having Italian herb sausages.

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RAMMSTEIN ROCKEN! RAMMSTEIN BRENNT! – SONISPHERE 2010

Fire, flames and foam ejaculation! Rammstein rocked! Rammstein burned!

Rammstein sure know how to make a grand entrance! A German flag covering the entire stage drops to ground revealing the band, fronted by the surly looking Till Linderman – resembling a more carnivorous and satanic looking Frank-N-Furter; wearing a red leather apron, a hair net, and a red feather scarf. The inside of his mouth is glowing with a bright white light. He looks unnerving as he opens his mouth wide.  The intense ‘Rammleid’ pummels the crowd into frenzy during which the demonic Linderman chants ‘Rammstein!’  The combination of his resonant growls and the overpowering thrashes of guitar during ‘B******’ left me stunned – as if an invasion force had cornered me inside a phone box and violated me with a hand grenade. Not being able to understand the lyrics made the songs seem even more sinister.

Even without the hair net and other apparel Till Linderman looks like a hit-man employed by Hell to take out Death for being soft. The unsettling gaze in his eyes is that of a man who is clearly at home with being unhinged; the Dark Knights’ darkest nightmare. Linderman’s intimidating bass voice sends shock-waves across the field whilst he beats his fist (the ‘Till-Hammer’) furiously onto his thigh.  In Rammstein tradition fire and flames engulfed the stage.  During ‘Feuer Frei!’ Till and his ‘axe-men of the apocalypse’ breathe flames from their mouths.  For ‘Benzine’ Linderman sets a ‘stage invader’ on fire with a flamethrower – he looks to be enjoying it too much.   More pyros and flames whip the crowd into euphoria as Rammstein powers through favourites such as ‘Links234’, ‘Sonne’ and ‘Pussy’ – where Till straddles a giant penis that ejaculates foam into the audience.

During ‘Liebe ist für alle da’ Linderman drops Flake into a steel tub, filling it with molten ash poured from an elevated platform.  Flake is resurrected wearing an all-in-one LED suit.  He plays the keyboards for the rest of the show while rhythmically marching on a treadmill.  A definite highlight of the show was during ‘Fish’ where Flake sails the crowd in an inflatable dinghy. Along the way he collects a military hat and a Union Jack.  A stowaway from the crowd jumps on board before being ejected.  During Flake’s sailing Till Linderman stands at the back of the stage with one and behind his back; stern and statuesque as if overseeing a particularly bloody invasion.

The performance was too much to take in at times with the imposing Linderman and his dark minions conjuring up a furious wall of sound while Hell, fire and flames danced around them. In an ironic twist, the Rammstein machine drove 50,000 dumbfounded Brits to chant along in their mother tongue during a weekend that was supposed to celebrate Brit legends Iron Maiden’s homecoming. This was an earth-shattering display of German engineering; surreal, unsettling, and sensational. The only time Linderman addressed the crowd was to say ‘thank you’ at the end. With his assertive tones it sounded like a threat to burn all of our eyeballs out with a soldering iron.   Rammstein rocked! Rammstein burned!  I’m still feeling the aftershock.

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WE LOVED PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME

A travel journal; written in the same style that Bill Bryson's aren't.

We arrived at the lobby of the Quatier Latin hotel after 9 pm. The hotel manager was sat, feet propping up the desk, reading what, judging by the off-white colour of the pages, was something a little more intellectual than Le sport De Dimanche. He was dressed like a physics professor; wearing brown corduroys and a green knitted jumper. The hair on his head appeared to be demonstrating chaos theory.

The lobby resembled a contemporary library of Alexandria; bookshelves and pillars jostling for real estate. Reclining on a large three-seat sofa were three men – also dressed as physics professors – gazing intensely at their laptops as if the earth would stop rotating if they diverted their gaze for even a second. In the far corner of the room were two other gents, locked in a game of chess. I couldn’t help thinking that we’d booked into the French branch of the Diogenes Club.

I was playing the part of a concerned diabetic in need of his next meal; my snack supply was all but depleted. The hotel Professor handed out some forms for us to fill in, collected them once complete, marked them, and advised us of the best places to eat; which should not, he advised, be the restaurant at the end of the street – it is, in his words ‘Ugh, disgusting!’

We settled for a small cafe across the street where the lady serving us spoke good enough English for me to negotiate my way into a large cheese and ham Broschetta. One and a half coffees later, which did nothing, we headed back to our room for Morpheus to have his way with us in the land of dreams. I slept like a baby.

As badly as coffee and orange juice goes together in terms of taste, they provide the perfect kick-start to the day. Fed and stimulated we embarked on our first EVA to the Panthéon. The Panthéon was originally built as a church, until someone suggested storing their honorary dead countrymen there instead. Foucault’s pendulum swings at the centre of a vast, domed room. It is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who conceived it as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.

Surrounding the pendulum is a Greek-cross layout with paintings and large statues of exotic women with hefty cleavages. At the far corner is a door leading down to the crypt; we would be in good company down there: Victor Hugo, Louis Braille, Voltaire, Marie & Pierre Curie, and Alexander Dumas reside there. Placed on the stone tomb of Victor Hugo was a page torn out of a scrapbook with a carrot drawn on it – and the words, ‘Dear Mr. Hugo, here is a drawing of a carrot’.

At Saint Sulpice church – which has taken 100 years to build and still isn’t finished, I studied a map that was specifically designed to render what we were looking for virtually impossible to find. We were looking for Montparnasse Cemetery, but even the GPS on my phone was making every effort to ensure that we didn’t find it.

Walking for over half an hour and making several course corrections, our persistence was rewarded by the appearance a street sign. Montparnasse Cemetery is the eternal resting place for many of France’s intellectual and artistic elite. It is a tightly packed mass of tombs and graves; each trying to out-do the other. I was expecting, at one point, to see conservatories and a water feature – maybe even a shrubbery.

For Ceri’s Birthday we took a long stroll along the river Seine, en route to Les Invalides; the place of all things military and home to Napoleon’s tomb – among other decorated war heroes. On display at the War Museum were army uniforms dating as far back as the 13th Century. I was impressed by the large portraits on the walls; they were not protected by a glass frame – and all the better for it because I could get up close and admire the fine details of the brush strokes. Fuck laserjet, these were awesome.

After looking around the museum we entered Napoleons resting place. Situated in a large hall his grand sarcophagus sits prominently under the Les Invalides dome. Napoleon’s family, and several military officers who served under him, are also to be found nearby; a number of Generals, Admirals and Marshals are stored in the vault below – even in death there is a pecking order, with the little guy on top.

Continuing our tour, we learned that the Russian Première was visiting Paris. According to the news, the French Government was holding a sale on warships – buy one, sink one free. The busy main streets were lined with traffic wardens and armed police; sporting thick knee pads, bulletproof armour and guns that didn’t need a translator to relay their intentions. Every so often there would be a buzz of activity, the roads would clear, and a fleet of black cars with blacked-out windows would come speeding past – the cars were all Renaults, of course.

Top Gear once proved claims that a Renault Megane could collide with a wall at 30 mph without the driver sustaining a single scratch. When you see the way the French drive, you’ll understand why they are built tough: French motorists assume that red and green lights adjacent to black and white stripes painted on roads are just part of the Christmas décor, and that pedestrian walkways are simply the moped equivalent of a bus lane. French cars are designed in such a way that the horns need to sound in order for them move forward.

Alas, our short trip soon found its way to a speedy conclusion. Before we had time to say, ‘Sonne Lemitina’, we found ourselves homeward bound. On the train we were musically serenaded by a wealthy looking busker, towing a trolley of albums for sale. Everybody on the train ignored him; not because they didn’t want to make uncomfortable eye-contact with a needy busker, but because his music was shit.

Airport baggage handling is the frontier where time loses all ability to conform to the natural laws of the universe and grinds to a halt. After parting with our luggage we stopped for a bite to eat; I tried fish fried rice for what will be the only time and Ceri parted with a preposterous amount of Euros for no less than nine crisps; packed in a bag so big that it could have doubled as a braking parachute for an incoming Soyuz capsule.

After a long days travel back to Ebbw Vale, and with a few days leave left, we ventured into the countryside for long drives, bathed under the newly found sunshine; stopping for meals that were equally as exquisite than anything our pallets had encountered in Paris. To be honest, I was not fussed on the French Food – and I could have sold my pancreas for a cup of decent tea.

Someone recently expressed their dumbfounded snobbery at the idea of us going all the way to Paris and not appreciating the rich, culinary delights. It became apparent while sampling the rich, culinary delights that there are no rich, culinary delights to speak of; none that come within a whisker of what the Welsh countryside has to offer: Roast beef, Cottage Pie, Cumberland Pie – and all the other pies – Cawl; Pork and Cheese sauce with cream-garlic potatoes and cauliflower cheese. Afters like Sticky Toffee Pudding, Welsh Cakes, Apple Crumble, Rubarb and Custard, Bread and Butter Pudding. Fuck Gateaux and Truffles; fuck them with a rusty bent spoon.

The tea isn’t half bad, either.

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FROM MUSIC SCENES TO ECLECTIC STREAMS

A brief account of my musical journeys, and discoveries.

I am currently sat at my desk in work eating a mid-morning snack and listening to music. By ‘mid-morning’ I mean 3:00am. Thank goodness for netbooks, mobile broadband, and a stereo that turns all the way up to eleven! I like my job – even the night shifts – but it’s hardly the line of work that stimulates all of the senses, so I try to be as musically eclectic as I can over the course of my night shifts.

One morning, while serenading a strong coffee that wasn’t in the mood to be sung to, I decided to check out the new ‘Massive Attack’ album. I strolled over to my netbook, fired up Spotify – cutting Siouxsie and her Banshees off in mid-wail – and gave it a listen. It was that simple! Many moons ago I would to have to have ventured deep into the bowels of Cardiff, to an endangered animal called Spillers Records, exchanging small green pieces of paper in return for a magical shiny disk. This morning I was able to surf the rhythmic ripples of online diversity at my leisure.

It is through music streaming services like Last.fm and Spotify that I continue to discover new beats. Before the internet it was difficult to track down music outside of the social zeitgeist – with only a Woolworths to buy CDs from. My short term music fixes were satisfied by tuning in to night time radio shows, like John Peel – the Messiah of new and eclectic. But hearing music on the radio was one thing; tracking it down was like parting an ocean.

I was part rose in South America during the mid 80’s and became accustomed to the Bhangra, Shanto, and Reggae sounds that sang from the Guyanese shacks and shanties.  The surrounding Caribbean islands of Barbados and Venezuela captivated me with spine-tingling steel drums and tribal grooves that drifted from the crystal sands and across the vast Andes mountains. Our Western tape supplies were few; mostly consisting of the New-Wave sound that was around at the time, and artists of my parent’s generation like David Bowie, Billy Joel and Pink Floyd. Abba was huge among the Dutch community we would coexist with during our later years there.  When we returned to Wales there were two cultural divides, neither of which I was keen to embrace at the time: In the blue corner was Rock – crap until the nineties when punk-soaked Grunge gave it a good kick up the arse. In the red corner was Rap – crap until a controversial white boy gave it a good kick up the arse (no, not Vanilla Ice). I was listening to Pop, New-Wave, and Progressive soundscapes; the more electrical, technical, and challenging the better.

London was the biggest influence on my musical education. My musical explorations took place at a London flat during half terms and summer holidays;  filled with the pages of NME, Q, Mojo, and Kerrang! magazines.  Just off Tottenham Court Road was a used record shop called Vinyl Experience that sold limited additions and rarities of all kinds. I would save up, or persuade my father to buy them for himself and tape to them while he was at work, returning home to Wales with an armory of eclectic delights on TDK cassette tapes. In London, I was free from the sonic sameness of an adolescent society that drifted along with the acceptance flow without ever stopping to ask, ‘why?’.

During my rebellious teens I became influenced by the Post-Punk/Grunge movement. In my new Comprehensive School I found myself among a group of rebels without a dress code; spending our time buried away in derelict school cellars. Therapy?, Pantera, Nirvana, The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols tore obscenities through exhaled smoke rings of herbal pursuits; spitting dysfunctional ripples in angst-patented potions – bubbling blends of K Cider, Tennants Super, and blackcurrant cordial: the angry snake that bit back. It was in my teens that I started going to gigs  and music festivals, soaking up the raw energy of live music as it thumped my chest.

My social soundtrack changed during the mid nineties when I started college where a whole new sub-culture of individualism had evolved to greet me. Rock and Pop wannabes would sit huddled the far corner of the main hall with a CD player that sang The Doors, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. My social circles outside of college were encumbered in the repetitive beats of Dance and Trance music – most of it played on a hissy copy-of-a-copy cassette tape; coughing and spluttering through cheap Halfords speakers fixed to a wooden plank on the parcel shelf of someone’s Vauxhall Nova – chugging and spluttering to its own repetitive groove.

In time, the ashes of social flourish sailed away on the winds of my departed student bliss and I found myself in more cultured company. Weathered and worn by the personal changes that had occurred in my life, I had put away childish things and started exploring wider musical fields like Jazz, Blues and Classical music – a job at the local theatre provided the perfect place in which to indulge my cultural interests. It was a new century and I had become acquainted with the internet. Napster captained the pirate sea; scattering its musical booty to the masses. Online music services like Last.fm quickly soon rose to the fore – desktop conduits for musical endeavors.

In 2010, internet streaming services like Last.fm, Grooveshark, and Spotify offer a vast database of information: biographies, discographies, and similar artists; stations and playlists can be tailored by genre, even gender. Software is readily available to download and use on mobile phones – music on the move. Twitter gives up-to-the-minute news on the latest music and events; cassette bootlegs with photocopied artwork no longer have  to be hunted down like wild game across the vast planes of yesterdays frantic Camden. Over the last nine years I have indulged in music that – once upon at time – there would have been more chance of seeing me smile cheerfully through the steam at a locomotive convention than listen to. The saloon doors of choice have been blown wide open.  The sonic ocean has never been more enticing.

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BACK IN THERAPY?

Therapy? were my instrument of torture for family and Brit Pop loving friends during my teens; my rebellious musical equivalent […]

Therapy? were my instrument of torture for family and Brit Pop loving friends during my teens; my rebellious musical equivalent of the Sex Pistols. This Irish punk influenced band was responsible for tuning my ears into the energy, power, and aggression of heavy metal. It seems fitting to reminisce about the first time I saw them live because it was my first proper, stripped-down gig. That night in November 30th, 1994, at the Cardiff Astoria is an experience that has always been fondly etched in my mind; a time when the EU police didn’t exist to protect anyone from happily going deaf, and the bars would serve watered-down piss to any old toddler with a fake ID.

I can even recollect what I was wearing: faded black jeans with a  Jack Daniels belt buckle (that I still wear), a ‘Pogo on a Nazi’ Therapy? T-shirt, a red and black lumberjack shirt, a 1960’s police issue great-coat, a pair of worn out ox-blood Doctor Martens and a Jack Daniels bandana – most of which I still wear. I was armed with 30 quid, 20 Marlboro, and the obligatory Zippo. Out of the 30 quid I had managed to hose myself down with eight pints of cider and black, but I can still remember the gig and the state I left in; puking in a flower bed, proposing marriage, and passing out.

Therapy? blasted on to the stage, performing ‘Isolation’ as the opening number, relentlessly stampeding through metal-beaters like ‘Potato Junkie’, ‘Stop It You’re Killing Me’, ‘Accelerator’, and ‘Nowhere’. Fyfe Ewing was still drumming for the band then, and with his free-flowing style the music was never too rigid or structured. I really got off on his drumming; concentrating on him more than Andy and Michael. I had found a strategic vantage point in order to get the best view  – the upstairs bar overlooking the stage. I will never forget being sat in the company of two female friends during ‘Femtex’. I raised my pint to Andy Cairns and nodded to him as he looked in our direction. In acknowledgment he looked me straight in the eye, gave his wicked grin, winked, and nodded back before singing the lines, “Do you want a fuck, do you want a friend…?” Those were the good old days!

It would be 15 years before I would see Therapy? Again – at TJ’s Rock Club in Newport on the 16th October, 2009. To describe TJ’s as ‘a bit of a dive’ would be like saying Donald Trump parts his hair in the middle. With its stone/rock-face and rustic interior it closely resembles Santa’s Grotto in the spring-time, after being gate crashed by rowdy Klingons. The tables rock – not in a good way – the chairs are retired bar-brawl veterans, and the bar taps are simply there as part of the décor. In defiance of the Rock Gods there is no Newcastle Brown Ale, only cheap cans of Fosters and Carling. In one half of the venue the landlord has inconspicuously stashed some stolen pool tables in plain sight. The condemnable toilets could easily meet Olympic springboard diving requirements and the main stage, or balcony, is small enough to make the Spinal Tap ‘Stone  Henge’ look impressive. It was a fitting venue for a heavy metal gig.

Most of the crowd in attendance – married couples who sat on bar stools – were in their late teens during the 90’s; it was a styleless sea of greying, receding veterans with sensible haircuts, facial hair, and jobs – who’d probably left the 4.2 kids with Uncle Dave for the night before slipping out of their familiar Henley’s gear, dusting off an old leather jacket from the attic and squeezing into a long-forgotten rock t-shirt; exiting via the upstairs window and sliding down the drainpipe. This was a mature, dedicated fan base that out-grew the need to look cool and trendy at the turn of the century (or was that just me?). There was also a local, worn out old bike with false breasts who was, “here for a bit of moshing, like, innit”.

I wasn’t expecting anything special from tonight’s event; a few recognisable songs slung in among the newer material for nostalgia. I had become sceptical of Therapy? since those forgotten glory days; all the new stuff seemed pale in comparison to the earlier albums – ‘Babyteeth’, ‘Nurse’, ‘Pleasure Death’ and ‘Troublegum’ – listened to as they were through younger, less expectant ears. For me, the bands decline had coincided with the departure of Fyfe Ewing who always added an extra groove to the Andy Cairns/Mike McKeegan freight train. I was, however, about to be force-fed a molten slice of metal pie, served with a firm reminder of why Therapy? were my metal messiahs during my teens.

Supporting Therapy? were a Welsh band with a singer that hid his lisp well, and some guy from ‘The Almighty’ who had obviously fallen upon hard times because he couldn’t afford a band.  Therapy? took to the stage quite late. A displeased member of the crowd lobbed his pint at Andy, calling him a mother-fucking ‘female’s front bottom’. Unabated they kick-started the proceedings with the classic ‘Opal Mantra’, steamrolling through ‘Turn’ and ‘Isolation’, stopping briefly to announce the next song; dedicated to Spike Milligan entitled ‘I Told You I Was Ill’. I’d forgotten what good craftsmen Andy and Michael were. Each instrument effortlessly complemented the other. Andy can still deliver the vocal goods too, his voice sounding more mature, less strained and gruff. The drummer wasn’t too shabby either. His style seemed more rigid and less showy than his predecessor. This showed through on songs like ‘Isolation’ where (remembering 1994) Fyfe’s free-flowing style brought the song to life. Still, it wasn’t enough to stop me dancing like a deranged idiot.

Two new songs – ‘Blacken The Page’, and ‘Enjoy The Struggle’ – from the ‘Crooked Timber’ album followed. Orbiting around us during the first few numbers was a freaky looking college couple that seemed determined to tongue the last breath out of each other while taking photos at odd angles (I was a virgin, once). During a belting version of ‘Teethgrinder’ some tanked-up idiots broke on to the stage in an attempt to stage-dive (have you ever tried to stage-dive in a wardrobe?). Andy Cairns ended up on his back and his guitar stopped working. The rest of the band carried on un-phased, waiting for Andy to rise to his feet. While waiting for the techies to get his guitar grinding again he serenaded the crowd with a chorus of “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna turn around or desert you…” Then, with his axe back in business, they ploughed on. “If you’re gonna come on to the stage, at least have the decency to feel my balls before you jump off!” adds Mc Keegan.

After ‘Teethgrinder’ and a surprise performance of the accompanying B-side – ‘Summer of Hate – Andy thanked everyone for turning up and supporting the band during difficult times; by the look on his face he was clearly being sincere. This is where I swallowed my metal pie, before certifiably rocking to ‘Innocent-X’. A few post Infernal Love numbers followed, most noticeably ‘Live Like A Fucker, Die Like A Mother-Fucker’; dedicated to Gordon Brown & Co. My deranged dance moves continued into the next two old-school memories ‘Fantasy Bag’ from ‘Pleasure Death’ and ‘Nausea’ from ‘Born in a Crash’. ‘Stories’, ‘Diane’, ‘Die laughing’, ‘Nowhere’, ‘Potato Junkie’, and ‘Screamager’, relentlessly pounded the adoring crowd into submission . Over the next few days I would dig out my old albums and bootlegs and make up for what I had missed all these years.

They don’t make bands like this anymore and I doubt – for me – they ever will. For years I have been going to concerts with blinding light shows and super sound rigs designed to compensate for the fact that the performers are merely matchsticks in the distance. But gigs like Therapy? at TJ’s are as raw and stripped down as they come; up close, and fuckin’ personal. Commercial obscurity has not dampened Therapy?’s passion and enthusiasm. At TJ’s in Newport, these old-school Irish metal-heads reminded everyone of what they do best: they blew the mother-fucking doors off!

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A DAY AT SILVERSTONE

RAF Silverstone was commissioned in 1943 as an airbase for pilots and bombers during The Second World War. After the […]

RAF Silverstone was commissioned in 1943 as an airbase for pilots and bombers during The Second World War. After the war was over is served as a base for a different breed of fighter pilot. In 1950 a dozen magnificent men in their flying Formula One machines competed amid primitive straw bales for what would be the inaugural race of the Formula One World Championship.

These gallant sportsmen, modest in victory and gracious in defeat would lay the foundations of a legendary British racing history – man and machine giving it their all; mere mortals often paying the ultimate price.

Drivers would come and go – many before their time; such was the thrill of the sport and how true champions were born: Fangio, Moss, Prost, and Senna; some of the greats that fought tooth and nail around every inch of this motorsport Mecca cemented themselves firmly in the annals of history.

On June 20th 2009 I embarked on what would probably be the final hosting of the British Grand Prix at the epic Silverstone track. Travelling to Northampton at 4:30am in the morning squeezed in the back of a Vauxhall Vectra and having to passive smoke was doing nothing to soothe my draining sanity. But as the hours passed I started to come around and relax among the good company I found myself in.

We pulled into the Silverstone car park at around 6am. In front of us was a Mercedes with four boxes of Cleanex tissues perched on its back shelf. “They’re probably Nelson Piquet fans” I groaned.

We had successfully beaten the traffic and decided to have a bit of breakfast . A refreshing cup of tea later and we formulated a plan of action; our first port of call would be the McLaren stand were BBC’s Martin Brundle was making an appearance. We arrived early and managed to position ourselves at the front.

Martin arrived at 9am sharp; he spoke with authority and clarity, addressing the absurd squabbling and posturing between teams and the sports governing body. The present political stand-off is about as good for Grand Prix racing as Marmite on a sherry trifle.

After Martin had finished we headed over to a Ferrari shop; Matt had his picture taken with the Ferrari girls – their red tops were bringing out the breast in them (at least Ferrari was getting noticed for something this year.) I went in search of the Renault stall and bought a Fernando Alonso cap – I would be the minority among the sea of ‘Buttonmania’.

The effect of the credit crunch was quite apparent this year. Normally each team would display one of their cars but only McLaren was doing so. There was an evident quantitative easing of the usual bookshops and stalls that would normally sell memorabilia.

Grand Prix fans come in all shapes sizes. There are the usual die-hard racing fanatics; petrol heads who thrive in the atmosphere of high octane racing. These are identified by their varied, clashing attire. Racing attire is designed to stand out from other racing attire – if you wear them together you look like the victim of car crash in a paint factory.

Then there are the arrogant, stereotypical footballer chavs with moronic chanting and designer bling who are only here because an English driver is winning races. It was good to see so many black supporters present; Just as Fernando Alonso gave the Spanish nation a reason to pack the grandstands at Barcelona, Hamilton has helped widen the demographic on a worldwide scale – it’s only taken the sport 50 years to get it’s first black hero!

With the practice session about to start we headed in search of a good spot. We wandered around for half an hour before finding a small seated area at the entry of the Abbey chicane. Sitting at Abbey was a great opportunity to marvel at the awesome stopping forces.

The engine notes singing from the mechanical diaphragms as they passed were rich and bombastic; when slipping down the range of gears each car sang with its own distinct bravado. It was apparent that the Ferrari of Felipe Massa was a bit of a handful, the sparks were shooting from beneath the car as it slowed down. In contrast, The Red Bull of Sebastian Vettell looked more stable under breaking.

There was a short break before qualifying; an opportunity to seek a better viewing spot. We positioned ourselves track-side at the entrance to the 180 mile Beckett’s complex, one of the most daunting and challenging sections of any racing track. We stood behind a gathering of petrol-heads with folding chairs, clipboards, radio headphones and pack-a-macs.

Qualifying got under way and the first batch of gladiators blazed past. The speed of the cars threading the needle of Beckett’s was breathtaking; defying all the immutable laws of physics. Unlike the braking zone at Abbey, the flat-out engines roared with ear piercing rampancy. With the cars drowning out the sound of the commentary, and the screens being too far away to read, we didn’t have clue what was going on. Ironically, one of the boys was phoning his girlfriend in Wales to find out what was occurring at the track. One action packed hour later and the big show was over – but there were other acts to follow.

The GP2 race is held on a Saturday so we decided to hang around for it. The thought of that many cars jostling for position filled me with excitement and anticipation. We moved a little further up the track to get a better angle for the start. Most of the spectators had dispersed by now – probably to buy a Jenson Button. The reward for us was a much better view.

The start of the race resembled a modern Ben Hur epic: Two cars collided in the ensuing chaos sending each other into a synchronized pirouette; other cars swerving to avoid being collected in the dance. The air was filled with the sweet aroma of engine fumes and the engine noise was gruff – more like a Jimi Hendrix solo than an opera. Such was the aerodynamic force of these cars that my arm was being blown to one side when holding my camera in the air.

We gradually moved further up the track during the race; each spot providing a unique view of the cars speed and agility. While stood by the first corner a car lost control; hurtling toward us at high speed. I held my breath as the driver exercised lighting-fast skill; correcting the slide – it felt dangerous and exhilarating. I watched on, engrossed while witnessing these gladiators duelling in close combat; giving their all for the approval of the crowds. The combatants crossed the finish line to rapturous applause from the adoring crowd. I didn’t know any of the GP2 drivers, but that didn’t matter; they had put on an epic display.

Now that the main event was over we could sit in the grandstands and enjoy the support races. We sat at the last corner and watched future stars battle each other; hoping to make an impression on the Grand Prix racing centurions. The cars were much slower but the duelling was just as fierce; no quarter was given between any of the drivers.

As the victor crossed the finish line for the final race of the day an elderly couple sat with a picnic basket popped-open a bottle of champagne, poured two glasses, and raised a toast. It seemed a fitting way to end a great day of racing.