Two pints and a packet of Thai please

A few years ago a close friend – let’s call him Clive – decided to up sticks and move to Pattaya in Thailand.

I had a vague idea why. It’s Paradise. He went there for a cut price skin graft after the NHS gave him MRSA, and, having enjoyed the hospitality of a five star state-of-the-art hospital for the princely fee of two thousand pounds (the same operation cost six thousand at home), he decided never to come back.

Of course when I arrived in Clive’s new home town, I had a fair idea what to expect. Google “Pattaya Thailand” and “go-go girls” appears next to “beach holidays”. But I wasn’t worried. I imagined it would be easy to avoid the sex trade. And if not perhaps I’d learn something.

We got to my hotel mid-afternoon. As Clive, his young Thai girlfriend and I relaxed by the pool, two middle-aged Americans – both weighing in at around 20 stone – waded in, followed by two tiny Thai women. Two hippos, two gazelles, a beach ball and some epic splashing. As I sat with my mouth open, Clive’s girlfriend laughed. Not the laugh of a 20-year-old, but one who understood that these men – sad acts on home soil – were in heaven.

Next stop was Clive’s bar. Three Thai women bustled around a single customer, while I asked a few questions. How were suppliers, margins, business? Clive – a former labourer with no bar experience – nodded at the manageress and said, “She’s got it covered.”

I went for a walk, and that’s when it hit me. Central Pattaya is one big bar, divided into sections. There must be 3,000 in an area two miles long and 300 yards deep. All open-fronted so customers can view the merchandise: thousands of bored young girls in short skirts and high shoes. Pattaya is prostitution on an industrial scale.

I felt like a hospital patient who’d just woken up in a zombie movie. In a world of overweight, balding, middle-aged men and Thai girls young enough to be their daughters, I was the only single white western female.

“How can they stand to sleep with these old men?” I asked. “The older and uglier the better,” Clive said. “They’re more grateful. Young blokes want it for free and can go all night. They don’t want that.”

I spoke to men in the bars. “Girls here know how to treat a man,” they said. “At home all I can get is a fat, ugly bird.” He added, “You take them back to the hotel and when you wake up they’ve washed your socks for you!”

A few days later Clive introduced me to another staff member. She was small, pockmarked with acne, in a black dress with the side cut out to reveal a tiny ribcage. We shook hands. She had a big smile and sad eyes. It was awkward.

Later I found out why: he told me her job was to sleep with customers. If they liked the look of her, they’d pay the bar a “fine” to take her back to their hotel. She would get 1,000 baht (£15); the bar kept 200 (£3).

I went to bed that night and lay awake until morning. The T-shirts were right: “Good guy go to heaven, bad guy go to Pattaya.” I was in hell.

Over the next few days I tried to get Clive to let her go: “They’re human beings, not pieces of meat.”

He told me she was ‘freelance’. He didn’t employ her. She’d merely attached herself to his bar because it was small, friendly and she had friends there. It was a sports bar with large TV screens. The men were there to mostly watch football. She was an added extra, like free nuts or pizza, and if she and her friends weren’t there, he wouldn’t have a business; “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”

The “girls” (no one ever used the word prostitute) earned about £75 a month in a shop or office, whereas a few years in Pattaya could set them up for life. “Most have kids. Their Thai blokes knock them up, then piss off. Besides, if they don’t like the look of a geezer, they can say no.”

“How often does that happen?”

“Not often.”

I was dumbstruck. Clive, the boy I had taught to play conkers, was in the oldest business known to man.

More surprising still was his reaction. Everyone else accepted it; why couldn’t I? “You work in advertising,” he added. “You sell loans to people who can’t afford it!”

I came to the conclusion that in his eyes, most men are decent blokes who need women like you need a good meal. In his world the bar girls sing a song about meeting a rich farang (foreigner) who will whisk them off to a life of luxury. It’s a world in which a girl falls in love with a customer every minute of every day.

I pleaded with him to leave town with me to get a new perspective. He agreed, but only after he’d thrown a birthday party for the girl with the sad eyes. He’d promised her a roast pig, balloons, maybe a mobile phone or an iPod?

She asked for a teddy bear.

Six months later, he gave up the bar and married a Thai woman with a young daughter. When the little girl holds his hand, he says it “kills him”.

 

You’ll never look at Gill Sans quite the same again

The Gill Sans font has long been a favourite of the BBC, Network Rail and the Church of England. Created in 1928, it was the first British modernist type design, marketed at the time for its ‘classic simplicity and real beauty’.

However Eric Gill (1882 – 1940), the man who created it, was anything but. He sexually abused his daughters, slept with his sister and, how can I put it, was intimate with his dog! I’ve never been a fan of the exclamation mark but in his case it’s more than warranted.

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As an exhibition at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft in East Sussex, draws attention to his work, it raises an interesting question – can you separate an artist’s life from his work?

From the outside looking in, Eric Gill was the complete renaissance man; typeface designer, calligrapher, artist and stonemason. You can see his work, Prospero and Ariel, at BBC’s Broadcasting House and the Creation of Adam in the headquarters of the United Nations. While the nude torso, Mankind, below is the first thing that greets you when you walk into the V&A from the tunnel entrance on Exhibition Road.

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I saw it only recently. It’s beautiful.

I first came across Gill’s story a couple of weeks ago when I went to a talk, ‘The Anatomy of a Doll’ at The Royal Academy of Arts, hosted by artist Cathie Pilkington.

Cathie Pilkington’s work includes a bust (pictured below), modelled on a doll Gill gave to his daughter, Petra, when she was four. The little girl never liked it, complaining that it looked nothing like the dolls belonging to her childhood friends. She even went so far as to paint it to try and make it look like theirs.

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Mercifully her abuse didn’t start until Petra was in her teens, yet the knowledge of what was to come gives the doll, and indeed Cathie Pilkington’s bust, a poignancy that owes more to life than to art.

Cathie Pilkington told me that having read his diaries, she thought Gill must have been incapable of empathy. To illustrate her point she quoted a few entries from his journal.

“After he had a bath one day he wrote ‘experimented with dog in evening’.

A few days later he added: ‘Bath. Continued experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man’.

Standing in the bar at the RA, I nearly coughed up my drink. It does however raise an interesting question. Knowing what we know now, is his work any less beautiful? Or more so because in real life his actions were so ugly?

Without thinking I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Woody Allen is still funny.”

Now I wonder if I was being too glib. What did Jimmy Savile think to himself as he strolled into Broadcasting house, with Eric Gill’s statue staring down at him? Or Rolph Harris for that matter?

But I’m muddying the already murky waters. Neither were artists. They created stuff, but it wasn’t art. Few mourn the fact Harris’s paintings have disappeared from view, and no one misses the incessant high-octane jabber of Savile.

But what about the artists whose work is of value?

Roman Polanski’s Tess released in 1979 is still moving, despite knowing that Tess’s tormentor, Alec d’Urbeville, had more in common with Polanski than audiences really knew at the time its release. Polanski’s arrest for raping a 13 year old was only two years earlier, after which he fled from America to France, never to return again.

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table still fascinate us. Later this month cinema goers will be treated to yet another interpretation of his adventures with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. No one even knows or cares that Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, which was published in 1485, was imprisoned for armed assault and rape.

You have to wonder if a measure of moral turpitude, or blindness, leaves room for other senses to develop.

I also wonder where exactly do you draw a line.  At what point is an artist’s life so reprehensible that it becomes impossible to enjoy their work.

Savile sits at one end of the scale. No one will ever screen Jim’ll Fix It again. Case closed.

Gill sits somewhere in the middle. Apparently his daughter, Petra, refused to condemn her father when she was interviewed just before her ninetieth birthday. She said, ‘We just took it for granted’. Though she agreed that had she and her sisters not been home-schooled they might have realised his behaviour was abnormal.

According to reports before her death in 1999 she bore no visible scars from her childhood, and enjoyed a happy marriage with four daughters and two sons.

Still, one thing I know for certain. I shan’t be using Gill Sans any time soon.

 

Festival 6: where fantasy meets reality

This summer I found myself on an impossibly long drive to North Wales for Festival 6 with a bad case of urinary tract infection. It was six and a half hours of pure hell.

But it was worth it. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. As I drove through Snowdonia National Park I was met with rolling green hills, swathes of mist worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, and tribes of sheep, many of whom happily stood in the middle of the road.

My Audi A4 is a killing machine with a fuel injected sixteen-hundred horse power engine. They didn’t give a toss.

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However, when I arrived at the small town of Porthmadog,  (pronounced Port-ma-doch. Shame, I was rather fond of Port-mad-dog), I came down with a bump. Having driven through a pastoral idyl, suddenly I was in Knackersville. With the exception of the harbour, the town is uniformly grey. And not in a sexy 50 shades kind of way.

The high street is full of discount stores and charity shops.

There’s a sprinkling of trendy cafes aimed at festival-goers bound for Portmeirion down the road, but when I ventured behind the free range egg and locally sourced bacon façade for a pee (like I said, I had a problem), I found the toilets hadn’t been updated in years.

Not that that’s a bad thing. But it’s clear that the seasonal nature of tourism doesn’t give the locals enough money for reinvestment.

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Portmeirion, where the festival is held just two miles away, feels like another planet.

If you haven’t heard of it before it’s part Disney World, part San Remo. I kid you not.

The brainchild of eccentric millionaire Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, it’s an Italianate village built between 1925 and 1978 as a holiday destination.

Back in the day, Mr Williams-Ellis and his wife hosted a glittering procession of stars in the 40s and 50s, from Ingrid Bergman to Noel Coward.

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Only today the crowds are very different.

Overgrown teenagers in waterproofs and the occasional mankini, come to soak up some tunes and an alternative cultural vibe before the long drive back to London (you don’t hear a lot of Welsh accents at the festival).

It’s also famous as the setting for the iconic 1960’s TV series ‘The Prisoner’, starring Patrick McGoohan.

McGoogan is number 6, a retired secret agent sent on a series of missions on behalf of a nefarious group from whom he can never escape: “I am not a number. I am a free man”.
Fans make an annual pilgrimage to the village, presumably to soak up all the dystopian weirdness.

I tracked them down to a large tent where they screened clips from the series and talked weird facts.

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Apparently
McGoohan vehemently ruled out any romantic story lines. In the one scene where he strokes a woman’s hair, it’s actually his daughter wearing a wig.

But I digress. Portmeirion has a four star hotel, swimming pool, shops, restaurants, a bandstand and a town hall where they stage lectures and lessons in arts and crafts. It’s decidedly odd and rather wonderful.

But once you’ve been to Portmeirion you can’t help but feel sorry for Porthmadog. One has a Michelin starred restaurant, the other has a Greggs. It isn’t fair.

Most festival goers stay in or around Portmadog then get a shuttle bus to the festival nearby from a football field round the back of the town. Take the walk and you’re greeted by scrap yards, funerary stones, empty shops and a hall selling second-hand furniture at rock bottom prices.

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There’s also the derelict grade II listed Snowdon Mill. Back in late 2016 it was on the market for £350,000 with planning permission to create 27 new luxury apartments.

With views of Cardigan Bay and Snowdonia National Park it would easily fetch a hundred times that amount were it south of Watford.

It was sold at auction for £150,000.

mill

Still, things are changing.

In 2009 Porthmadog was gifted a £50m bypass to help local businesses and jobs. Clearly it was built to capitalise of the success of the festival, so tourists would consider the area as an all-year-round destination.

But if so, the locals themselves need to think like tourists.

When I first arrived I didn’t know about the shuttle service to the festival, so I asked several passers by. One chap told me to walk (it’s 3 miles). Most didn’t know. And one woman pointed to a bus stop going in the wrong direction. The sign was in Welsh.

In November 2016 local businesses were given bilingual ‘open/closed’ signs for the first time. Given!

As the festival attracts crowds in excess of six thousand a year, that’s bizarre. Especially in view of the Welsh weather.

On day three of my trip it started raining. Hard.

Trudging about in muddy fields isn’t much fun in sandals, and given my need to go to the loo every five minutes, all that water was driving me crazy.

I hopped in my car and drove away. As it happens it was the right decision. That day the nearby river burst its banks.  Farmers were obliged to ‘muck in’ (literally) and pull cars out of the water.

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Would I go again? Definitely.

At the very least the scenery is gorgeous. And if the sun shines you feel like you’re in the middle of a film set. Which, incidentally, you are.

Only next time I’ll remember to take a pair of wellies.

 

 

(updated March 17)

 

 

Trump is not a victory for emotionally led marketing

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Can I just say how disgusted I am by the sudden rush to praise Donald Trump for his marketing savvy.

Putting a ‘new communications strategy’ label on the last few months does not make it alright to be a lying, bigoted, xenophobic misogynist.

If you use hate to make your supporters feel better about themselves, you’re an old-fashioned demagogue.

Boris and Nigel used the same tactic during Brexit.

Can’t wait to see that £350m a week show up in the NHS. I’d like to think it will make up for the £66 billion a year the treasury say we’ll lose without access to the single market, but the maths is beyond me. How many zeros are there in a billion these days? Are we operating on American billion with nine noughts or the English billion with 12? Who knows, or cares, since everyone disputes both figures anyway.

We’ve clearly reached a nexus where lying is fun. It’s even got its own word, ‘Post-truth’. In other words, facts and carefully considered arguments are, well, dull.

Is the future going to be a smorgasbord of emotionally-charged misinformation, fed to use via algorithms which amplify opinions we already hold?

We’re in the eye of a storm that has marketing at its cold dead heart. News isn’t news any more, it’s ‘content’.

‘Content’ doesn’t hold itself up to any standards. You don’t have to weigh up the truth with well reasoned arguments on all sides. The purpose of content is to entertain, not educate. Content looks like this:

“Heidi Klum.  Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.”

“when you are a star you can grab women “by the p***y … You can do anything”.

“It really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass” (Esquire)

“She is a dog who wrongfully comments on me.” (re Huffington Post editor Arianna Huffington.)

“You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” (re Megyn Kelly, of Fox News)

“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

Jonathan Wald, executive producer of CNN Tonight, tweeted “In the end the ratings proved more accurate than the polls. People want to watch the Trump show.”

To my shame I watched it too. The sheer unadulterated gall of the man had me spitting out my earl grey tea in shock and amusement. Surely no right thinking woman could possibly vote for him?

Except they did.

I’m not amused any more.

I’ve been waking up all week with a feeling of dread, without quite knowing why, until it dawns on me. A few months from now the most powerful man in the world will be a reality TV star who lives in his own gold plated, pussy rich reality. One that doesn’t recognize global warming because ‘scientific experts’ are presumably boring.

Similarly, our own government is pursuing exit from the EU without a strategy or the necessary army of civil servants to make it happen, because, well that requires more ‘experts’ and … yawn…. they want to remain in Europe.

But perhaps I’m too wedded to the old Pre Post-truth truth? After all, if it’s just ‘marketing’, Mr Trump could be a perfectly reasonable man who said all those deplorable things just to get media attention. Boris could be a brilliant comedian who contradicts himself and his government for the same reason.

Neo-nationalism could simply be a short-term campaign strategy.

In which case ‘Make America great again’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ will soon be forgotten. Won’t they?

I doubt it. That’s their brand. Anti-establishment, anti-PC, anti-decency.

In a way it’s refreshing. It reminds me of the old ‘You’ve been Tango’d’ campaign, where that fat bald orange bloke slaps people round the head.

Which it is. Only with hair.

Strange, blonde gravity defying hair.

 

 

The great perfume con

This Summer I stayed near Grasse, the world capital of perfume. I should mention that until my visit I’d never found perfume even remotely interesting.  I’d buy a bottle of the stuff, wait for it to run out, then buy a different bottle. End of.

I simply wanted to hang out by the pool at my friend’s villa. The deal was I could stay there for free if I snooped on the gardener.

Of course, the poor man was perfectly aware of my mission. Whenever he got the chance he occupied himself with a leaf blowing machine, hedge cutter, or indeed anything else that made a bloody racket. He was the busiest, most diligent gardener on the planet.

The noise was so unbearable I jumped in my car and left for Grasse in search of peace and quiet. When I arrived, to my horror, I found the place packed with tourists, there for the annual ‘Fete des Roses’. They were everywhere; in fountains, wrapped round wrought iron fences, even the cafes had elaborate floral displays in the windows.

No English display would be quite so showy. Thank god they weren’t triffids.

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I wandered into the Fragonard perfume museum and picked up a bottle of Rose de Mai trying to figure out what it was all about.”Eees made from real flowers”,  said an assistant in a sexy French accent.

Aside from being slightly offended they knew I was English simply by looking at me, I was flummoxed. Aren’t they all made from flowers? Isn’t that the point?

No, he explained. The ‘absolut’ (essence to you and me) from which most perfumes are made, is made in the lab!

Real flowers, it transpires are in increasingly short supply. Indeed, since 1987 Chanel have block-bought all the jasmine flowers produced by the Mul family, who’ve cornered the market for five generations. A 30 ml bottle of Chanel No 5 requires no less than 1,000 buds.

As demand outstrips supply, lab manufacture is fast becoming the norm. Best of all it’s cheap. If you buy a bottle of perfume for £50, you could pay just £2.50 for the absolut and  £10 for the bottle. The rest is advertising and distribution.

Remember the ad for Channel No 5 where Nicole Kidman runs away from a good-looking young chap? Or the one in which Keira Knightly pretends to ride a motorbike after a brief encounter with another genetically gifted young man?

That’s where all our money goes.

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No wonder so many celebrities from J Lo to Lady Ga Ga have launched their own scent. All you need is a big enough name to front a marketing campaign. After that it’s pure profit.

By way of example, Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume, White Diamond, earned over $1 billion since it was launched in 1991. While Beyonce’s fragrances racked up a cool $38 million in sales in 2011. In fact the global perfume market has been forecast to reach a value of approximately US$45.6 billion by 2018.

But marketeers don’t just have women in their sights. As men are becoming increasingly conscious of their looks, the market in men’s fragrances is growing too. Believe it or not Bruce Willis launched his own in 2014 called ‘Bruce Willis Personal Edition’.

According to his publicists it has ‘hints of black pepper and citrus, enhanced with a hint of tobacco’. What a shame it didn’t have any hints of gunshot residue, or the fall out from Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza.

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Roses, it would seem, are big business.

I wonder what former resident of Grasse, Edith Piaf, would have made of it all?

A celebrity before the term was invented, Piaf gave column inches like no one else. She also, as we all know, sung the inimitable song ‘La Vie en Rose’. She’d be the perfect celebrity to front an ad campaign wouldn’t she?

Or would she? Abandoned by her mother, blind as a child, she survived German occupation, lost a child, endured three life threatening car accidents and had a string of lovers, including the love-of-her-life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, who died in a plane crash.

You could see it all on writ large on her face. Her pre-botox, pre-plastic-surgery face.

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If she were still around today, what would her scent be like?

It would be called La Vie en Rose. That’s a given. But the advertising might be tricky.  Arthritic, hooked on pain killers and booze, I’d love to see someone try to put her on motorbike.

Still, her absolut would be nothing but real,  made from petals ripped from their stalks by drunken poets at midnight.

I’d buy it.

 

 

 

Looking for the Berlin Wall

When the wall come down in ’89 it was the greatest party of all time.

As I watched it on TV in living room dressed in my pyjamas I desperately wanted to be there. There’d be no awkward standing by the hors-d’oeuvres. No chit-chat about what you did for a living. No, you actually got to stand on a concrete wall and hack at it, providing you had a sledge hammer handy of course.

berlin wall

So when I arrived at my hotel just off Alexander Platz, East Germany’s main square, I couldn’t help being just a little excited. Checkpoint Charlie was just a mile down the road. All I had to do walk across it and, who knows, some of that old party spirit might just rub off.

And yes, maybe I’d watched too many black and white movies starring Trevor Howard and Alec Guinness, but the suspense was killing.

I walked past the luxury department stores and gift shops, and found myself staring at, well, nothing. All that remained of Checkpoint Charlie was a hoarding of black and white 48-sheet posters, showing how it used to look. A group of school children milled nearby as a teacher tried in vain to tear them away from their mobile phones.

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The hut was there, but it looked more like a brand new shed from B&Q, serviced by a couple of out of work actors dressed as soldiers. Presumably to give us all something to look at before we bought a piece of wall in the nearby gift shop. Funny thing; every piece on display was covered in citrus-coloured graffiti. Very pretty. Very fake.

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I sat in Einstein’s café, drinking latte, watching the fake-soldiers pose in front of the fake-hut for the tourists. Not the Einstein café you read about in the guide books you understand; the louche gambling establishment from the roaring 20s; but the chain. I might as well have been sat in Starbucks.

The next day I headed through Bernauer Straße station at the other end of town. Still searching.

When I arrived I felt distinctly odd. It wasn’t just the fact the station was stuck in a 1930s time-warp, but something else. I found myself taking pictures without knowing why.

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When I got back to the hotel later I looked it up on google. Turns out Bernauer Straße was one of Berlin’s Ghost Stations on the very border of East and West. Sealed in 1961 to prevent East Germans escaping to the West, it remained that way till reunification in April 1990. Guards were ordered to shoot to kill on sight. And they did, though in 1962 twenty nine East Berliners managed to crawl through it to the West. No wonder the place gave me the chills.

From there it was a short stroll to Mauerpark, where I finally saw what I’d come for.

Rows of metal struts pierced the grey sky where the wall used to be, the concrete long since gone. It looked like the rib cage of a dinosaur.

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It was hard to tell what I was looking at as I stood on what used to be a patrol road, the remnants of two walls either side of me, an old watch-tower nearby.

Lacking any real focal point I wandered over to a giant wrought-iron frame. On it where photographs of the people who’d been killed trying to escape. Most of them invested with that polished glamour you only see in old black and white photos.

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A few children were running about on the patchy grass, blowing bubbles, having their own little party.

I felt ashamed for wanting the wall intact. Suddenly glad of the fakery.

It should be hard to find.

One can only hope the new walls springing up all over Europe eventually suffer the same fate.

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Protected: The writer’s retreat

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Where are all the dodgy people?

I visited Amsterdam for the first time a few days ago. It was wonderful – clean, charming, civilized – all of which was oddly unsettling.

And yes I stayed in the posh bit, between the Vondelpark and the main square in the Leidseplein district, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it felt wrong.

Let’s start with the hotel where we stayed, The Owl. It was delightfully eccentric. You couldn’t help but notice a glass cabinet dedicated to an army of tiny ceramic fowls blinking in the gloom, tucked somewhere between the ancient toast machine and the creaking lift. They seemed to be watching over us as our concierge, Peter, happily marked out places for us to visit on our map. He seemed almost too good to be true. One had to wonder, did he have a touch of the Norman Bates?

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Sat in a café by the canal along Bilderdijkkade while my friend succumbed to the temptation of all the independent designer shops, I noticed a man furiously jotting notes in a large book. Being a Brit I naturally said nothing, but then another woman sat next to him asked what he was doing. He explained that he was writing a book about moments on history that might be reinterpreted later on. Both spoke in perfect English, yet none of them were. A conversation ensued that was as quirky as it was erudite. I was charmed and unsettled at the same time. It was like a scene from a foreign movie in which subtitles were curiously absent.

Keen to experience Amsterdam’s liberal attitude to smoking marijuana, we went on to purchase a sticky lump of what was called ‘coffee cream’ in one of the city’s famous cafes where it’s perfectly legal to smoke. It should have given us a rush, but it didn’t. It was allowed. So in search of a naughty buzz we found ourselves having a sneaky toke in Vondelpark, Holland’s Central Park, where the signs clearly tell you not to smoke. Sitting on the grass, we watched people exercise en-masse; while their bags were left unattended on the immaculately clipped lawns. Groups of youths sat around portable barbecues chatting amiably as the sun set. Jogger after jogger trotted round the park; each one more preternaturally good looking than the next.

We couldn’t help but point, “Look there’s another one!” In London those joggers would be wheezing from yesterday’s curry and lager. In London those bags would have been swiped inside ten minutes. Here they were all fit and relaxed. Where were the ugly, dodgy people?

And there’s the rub. Because when I got home I found out that any problem people in Amsterdam; the thieves, bullies and thugs; are tucked away in Ghettos!

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan and the council have set up what are popularly known as Scum Villages.

In 2012 the authorities appointed a special hit squad to identify offenders who are sent to live in caravan-style metal containers, watched over by the police and social services.

Of course what happens in those ghettos probably isn’t pleasant. I’m guessing there won’t be a lot of joggers, owls, or historians.

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It might not surprise you to know that Eberhard van der Laan is a touch right-wing. Perhaps it’s all that cycling. Too much chaffing.

He argues that when it comes to problem neighbours it’s the innocent who suffer and are forced to move out. So he and his councillors have swapped things around.

“Repeat offenders should be forcibly removed from their neighbourhood and sent to a village for scum,” he said. “Put all the trash together.”

On the one hand I’m appalled. On the other sympathetic. Having dealt with a neighbour who, after I cleared our communal hallway of all his rubbish, promptly filled it with more of the same, the idea is very appealing. He wasn’t invalided, he wasn’t mentally challenged. He just didn’t care about other people. The two men who lived under his flat were forced to listen to his music at all hours of the night.

But I digress. Suffice to say Amsterdam seems great. I could easily imagine living there. Only problem is I might find myself living in a metal container.

 

Blues Boy Dan Owen

Going to the blues festival in Hebden Bridge is a hit and miss affair. With several acts on at any one time, buying a ticket can be a bit of a gamble.

So as I sat in the audience at in a decrepit Baptist Church, waiting for the next act, Dan Owen, I was more interested in what I was about to have for dinner.

Our hosts said they’d discovered him in Newark. Said he was “Mad talented”.

I checked my watch. 7.45 pm. There was a nice fish and chip shop round the corner.

Dan, the boy-man, sat on a stool in the middle of the stage looking slightly bemused. Like a cherub in a Michelangelo painting, guitar on his lap, he might as well have been listening to a menu. “Breaded haddock? No, cod thank you.”

And then he sang.

“Roll me up and smoke me when I die.” He sounded like an old man! Like John Lee Hooker but with more bass and gravel.

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I looked at my friend. She looked back?

“And if anyone don’t like it, just look ’em in the eye”

He thumped his leg to the floor with such force I found myself wondering if it hurt.

“I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin’
So don’t sit around and cry
Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.”

Thoughts of pickled onions and chips left my head entirely. Was there an old man hidden behind the stage? Or trapped inside his body?

‘I don’t know where the voice came from,’ says Dan, ‘that’s just how I sing. I remember going to the doctor once because I was worried about it. It just seemed too deep and gravelly. I thought there might be something wrong. The doc had a good look around and said there was nothing wrong with me, no nodules, no problems, nothing.’

When he was 16 Dan wanted to make guitars, only during his apprenticeship he was hit by a piece of wood, and lost the sight in his left eye. At a loss what to do, he listened to the likes of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker, and played his guitar. Then in 2012, he decided to try singing at a few local pubs.

Pretty soon he was playing the Newark Blues festival. And when a fan filmed him singing Bob Dylan’s The Ballad Of Hollis Brown the clip went viral, watched half a million people.

Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac offered himself as mentor. Dan says: “Mick sort of found me via YouTube then came to a record industry showcase in London. We went for dinner and just had a chat. I mean, his stuff, Fleetwood Mac, is pretty amazing really. He’s been there and done it, so it’s amazing to have someone like that on board. I’ve always liked Fleetwood Mac. He’s been really, really good with me.”

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Mick says, “Dan’s music is from the heart. It is genuine blues and Dan is at the forefront of the new wave in British singer-songwriter talent.”

Now, having recorded in Nashville with Grammy award-winning producer Vance Powell, and toured with ZZ Top, he’s going places.

Go see him before he gets famous.

Here are his tour dates for 2016:

 

 

 

When in Rome

Recently I visited Rome because, well, among other things I’m a huge fan of Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurilius.
Flick through his book, Meditations, and you’ll see that life in Rome, back in Marcus’s day, wasn’t that different from our own. OK, so he ran an empire of about 3.5 million square miles, dominating about 20 per cent of the world’s population, but he was just as perplexed and amused by peoples’ behaviour as you and I. That’s why I always take him with me on the tube. Whenever someone farts, pushes, or snorts next to me, I bury my nose in Marcus’s fragrant musings in the hope I’ll feel better.
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Here’s my current favourite, ‘Everything we hear is an opinion. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth’.
I couldn’t agree more. Right now my truth is I’m getting on a bit. I’d very much like that to be a question of perspective. Ergo not the truth.
I went to a party a few weeks ago where the music was so loud dancing was the only available activity. So I obliged, though after a while it dawned on me. When I dance there’s no longer any undercurrent of sexual potential. No one’s looking at me. Dancing isn’t sex with clothes on. It’s me flailing my limbs about for no one’s benefit but my own.
In fact walking through the park, I was surprised when a man gazed in my direction only to realise that he was looking at my new Specialized Sirrus Sports Hybrid 2013 bike. I can’t blame him. The green trim does contrast nicely with the grey.
So, knowing all that, I did what all people entering middle-age do. I went to visit Marcus’s home turf, Rome.
I figured that by connecting his past with my present I might arrive at a more complex, multi-faceted sense of truth. One that might somehow reverberate off all those wrecked stone pillars and ruined porticos. One that says it isn’t so much the facade, but what’s behind it.
We started at the Coliseum, where we paid about ten quid for a tour in full expectation of drama and excitement; hungry lions, screaming Christians and ladies who paid gladiators for sexual favours. But no, a young Italian woman reeled off a list of facts – the number of exits, seating capacity and what the tickets looked like – come on.
The next day we tried the Forum. This time, without a tour guide. It was spectacular. Triumphal arches, proud pillars, a warren of ancient apartment buildings built into a hillside. But there were no signs telling you anything about it. Not a map or a leaflet in sight.
We were clueless.
Until we spied a young Canadian guide surrounded by a group of very hot tourists sweating in shorts and jolly hats. They were scrabbling over a group of rocks under the shade of a dead tree. Honestly, the Italians really aren’t that bothered about putting on a show. In London you’d have an interactive 3D experience. In Dubai, marble seats and air con. Here – rocks.
We edged closer and cocked our ears, hiding behind frozen bottles of water. You can buy them for three times the usual price from some Indian gentlemen outside the gates. I stuck mine down my T-shirt; my own air-con.
After a minute or so, we discovered that he was a facts and figures man too, reeling off a list of dates of no interest to anyone but some imaginary schoolmarm. Though eventually he did reveal that Caesar was stabbed, not on the steps of the Forum as everyone believed, but in a theatre near the Pantheon about a mile away. At last, a fact that was worth something. Poor Caesar, not only was he murdered, no one had bothered to remember where.
Our guide then went on to impart more facts about the local real estate. Pointing out a couple of pillars made out of purple marble called Porphyry from a rare Egyptian quarry, worth £17,000 per square centimeter.
Egypt. He mentioned Egypt. We held our breath collectively, waiting for some juicy gossip about Queen Cleopatra and her dalliance with Caesar and Anthony. Sexual politics, incest and fratricide. Nope, seems no guide will stoop to human intrigue, just stale facts.
He pointed out the foundation of the House of the Vestal Virgins. Did you know that if they had sex during their 30-year residency they were buried alive? No? Neither did he.
But then I remembered why I gave up history at school. The people who teach it have no interest in the human condition. When it comes to emotions, intrigue or relationships, they’re just not interested. Perhaps that’s why history is destined to repeat itself?  They like to remember what happened, but not why.
My best advice is, if you go to Rome, is read up on it before you go and take a leaf out of Marcus Aurelius’s book:
‘Let not your mind run on what you lack but what you have already.’

 

In the meantime here are a few more musings from Marcus (121 – 180AD):
Virtue and wickedness exist, not as emotions and thoughts, but as actions.
Why would one want the applause of fools?
Remember that sometimes to change your mind is just as astute as to be able to discern the right course without advice.
Before each action think: shall I have no reason to repent it afterwards?
When wronged, step back to consider whether you are not sometimes guilty of the same thing.
A person cannot anywhere retire better than into their own soul.
You consist of three things only, your body, your life, your mind; only the last is subject wholly to your control. All else is mere smoke.
Do every act of your life as if it were your last.

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