Saturday, April 29, 2006

Will the real Alexandra Frean please stand up?

Alexandra Frean sang breathy French vocals on the Blue Aeroplanes' Honey I, and, with only her sensuous voice to go by, I built up an impression of a sexy, stately, if slightly haughty, woman, all Paris fashions and full lips and dark eyes and Gallic shrugs.

Obviously, this is based on no evidence whatsoever, as the Blue Aeroplanes don't exactly hang out with Parisienne aristos, so it's at least as likely that Frean was a Bristol University Sociology student who'd learnt a passable accent during a gap year stint at the Montmartre branch of McDonalds, but my mind wanders where my mind likes to wander. Frean must surely be svelte and urbane and touched with a certain froideur.

So I'm reading Private Eye, a satirical magazine which likes to publish scurrilous rumours, and guess who pops up?

'Bizarre scenes on a recent press trip to South Africa arranged by Freeplay, the wind-up radio firm. Among the Fleet Street hacks in attendance was Ms Alexandra Frean, social affairs correspondent of the Times, who startled her hosts by continually taking photos of "Mrs Teddy-Weddy", her beloved cuddly toy, in various locations - on the hotel tortoise, next to some penguins, perching on the edge of Table Mountain, etc.

Most toe-curling of all was a visit to Robben Island, with a tour of the old jail led by a former prisoner. A solemn and serious occasion? Not, apparently, for Frean, who sat Mrs Teddy-Weddy in various poses (behind cell doors, behind bars, in the middle of the exercise-year et) - to the squirming embarrassment of fellow-hacks and horrified amazement of the tour guide.

All right, this could be a made up story (Private Eye regularly gets sued), and it could be there is more than one Alexandra Frean - though Frean isn't what I'd call a common surname. But they might be the same person. Could my cool, elegant chanteuse actually be someone who takes photos of Mrs Teddy-Weddy in Nelson Mandela's old prison? Oh, the disillusionment.

Though there is just the possibility that Frean, despite her teddy-bear habit, is nevertheless cultured and chic, and that inside every stylish bohemian there is a woman with a burning desire to snap her cuddly toys in famous places. I find it all strangely reassuring.


Is travelling dangerous? I may have slightly unnerved a reader who noticed that two of my near-death experiences were in Thailand. Not that the near-drowning was specifically Thailand related - I could have had the same result if I went paddling off Great Yarmouth during a North Sea storm. With added hypothermia. That typhoon, though, was a moment of genuine weirdness. Once the ferries were cancelled, the island got cut off and it became clear that every other westerner on the island was a total druggie. It like the cast of Lost had headed en masse down to the heroin plane for a mass indulgence.

And even the atypical pheumonia wasn't Thailand's fault, as I caught the damn thing in Hong Kong, and just happened to be in Bangkok by the time hospitalisation became desirable. For which I'm truly thankful, as the Vichaiyut Hospital was a fabulous place to be horribly ill, with much better treatment than would have been available in, say, the back-end of Sichuan province, China.

OK, my travelling days were a wee bit pocked by unfortunate incidents like car-crashes, incapacitating back conditions, sleeping under alpine hedges during thunderstorms and seeing people (well, one person) die. But it's always been like that. I'm a person who could declare, seeing the snow falling, that I wasn't playing football as "you could break your leg out there", get talked into it and then snap my ankle. I drank nail varnish remover as a baby. I'm on at least nodding acquaintance with most of the mistakes in the book. And probably not, therefore, a good person to be handing out advice.

Another reason to be a bit wary of giving travel advice is that I haven't backpacked in over a decade, everything will have changed and I'll sound like one of those old hippies who used to say that the Pudding Shop in Istanbul was the place to head to, man, when by the time I got there it had as much ambience as the BHS canteen in St Stephen's Street, Norwich. Though it's probably back to being a trendy hang-out again. See? I'm a dinosaur.

Notwithstanding my exposure to tropical diseases, I loved Thailand, and I'd head back there in a heartbeat. I probably wouldn't spend much time in Bangkok, and I'd definitely stay the hell away from the travellers' ghetto, Khao San Road, if only because horrible, nightmarish things happen to me every time I go near the place. Concretey Pattaya didn't impress me either. I'd stay away from the sex trade, not only because it's morally indefensible but because HIV is rife. I've never taken drugs, but I wouldn't do it in Thailand anyway. You'll find plenty of travellers who'll insist there's no chance of trouble, but they're a biassed sample. You won't find the ones who got caught because they've been locked up in some unappealing prisons.

Other than that, the whole country - jungles, ruins, beaches - was gorgeous. My favourite places were Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, the Khymer ruins near Khon Kaen (whose name I've sadly forgotten, Ayutthaya and Koh Samui. The people are friendly, the language is sonorous, there's endless piles of tropical fruit (including the noxious Durian fruit, which isn't so much grown as plucked from Satan's backside), the ruins are sad and stately and the beaches really are white. You'll love it, Paul.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The times I nearly died

Location: A boating holiday in Brittany, France
Nemesis: Decapitation
Blow-by-blow: After some less-than-impressive navigation by my father, we were stuck on a sandbank. Another boat was towing us off, only the metal fixture gave way, whiplashing between my ear and shoulder
How was it? Exciting. It introduced an enticing danger into my up-till-then mundane life
Valuable life lesson learned: Stay away from ropes under tension

Location: The A1M near Scotch Corner, North Yorkshire
Nemesis: Car crash
Blow-by-blow: Our hired Ford Orion, for no obvious reason, went out of control at 70 mph. We arced our way back and forward across the motorway before hurtling into the grassy central reservation and pitching into a ditch. We ended up in Catterick Garrison Hospital with nothing worse than medium whiplash and a certain amount of shock.
How was it? Time did genuinely seem to slow down, meaning it felt like we were doing 20 mph.
Valuable life lesson learned: Plenty. Don't get in a Ford Orion. Don't take your shoes off while you're in the car. And if my life is going to end suddenly, my last words will probably be "fucking Nora".

Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Nemesis: Atypical pneumonia
Blow-by-blow: I had something like bird flu years before it became trendy. Hallucinations! Panic attacks! An armful of antibiotics! Lung damage! And all on Christmas Day.
How was it? Shitter than a shit date in Shitsville with Jimmy the Shit.
Valuable life lesson learned: It's easier to get into a foreign hospital by waving your credit card than by waving travel insurance. That'll do nicely.

Location: Koh Phangan, Thailand
Nemesis: Drowning
Blow-by-blow: I was so enjoying the head-height waves that I didn't notice I was being pulled out to sea. I just about made it back.
How was it? A fantastic, adrenaline-pumping adventure. It was only once I was lying on the beach being sick than I considered it all could have ended unhappily.
Valuable life lesson learned: Don't go swimming in a typhoon.

Location: An office in Edinburgh, Scotland
Nemesis: A cheese and lettuce sandwich
Blow-by-blow: One second I was munching my lunch, the next, a carbohydrate-fat mixture was firmly lodged in my throat and I was making a noise like a sea-lion being castrated, wondering if any of my colleagues might know the Heimlich manoeuvre.
How was it? Much, much less funny than when I heard about how Mama Cass was supposed to have died.
Valuable life lesson learned: Chew your food properly, silly.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Brooklyn Bridge

Soviet writers loved technology. No third-rate Communist writer of the thirties or forties would have felt complete without praising output levels in tractor factories or paeons to pig iron production in the five-year plan, works interesting now only for their humour value.

Although its subject is a bridge, Mayakovsky's poem "Brooklyn Bridge", while bubbling with enthusiasm, never looks ridiculous. Mayakovsky, who wrote the poem during a six month visit to the USA in 1925, writes as a tourist lost in wonder viewing the marvel of his age.

There is a certain irony in a staunch Communist acclaiming the technology of the ultra-capitalist United States, and Mayakovsky, never one to shirk a problem, approaches it in his first lines -

Give, Coolidge,
a shout of joy!
I too will spare no words
Blush at my praise
Go red as our flag

He then launches into a full-on acolade, using, as he too often does, a military metaphor.

As a crazed believer enters a church,
retreats into a monastery cell, austere and plain
so I, in graying evening haze
humbly set foot on Brooklyn Bridge.
As a conqueror presses into a city all shattered,
on cannon with muzzles craning high as a giraffe
so drunk with glory, eager to live
I clamber, in pride, upon Brooklyn Bridge

If I worked for the New York Tourist Board, I'd consider making the next lines into a slogan -

As a foolish painter plunges his eye,
sharp and loving, into a museum madonna
so I, from the near skies bestrewn with stars,
gaze at New York through the Brooklyn Bridge

I've never been to New York, but I imagine his description of the quietness, even ghostliness, of the city no longer applies

New York, heavy and stifling till night,
has forgotten its hardships and height;
and only the household ghosts
ascend in the lucid glow of its windows
Here the elevateds drone softly.
And only their gentle droning
tells us: here trains are crawling and rattling
like dishes being cleared into a cupboard

Mayakovsky now drops in one of his other preoccupations, how he and his era will look to succeeding generations. This angle gives Mayakovsky's work a sharp immediacy as, from the grave, he directly addresses the reader. He invokes the dinosaurs as a metaphor for mortality, another recurrent theme.

If the end of the world comes
and chaos smash our planet to bits,
and what remains will be this
bridge, rearing above the dust of destruction;
then, as huge ancient lizards are rebuilt
from bones finer then needles, to tower in museums,
so, from this bridge, a geologist of the centuries
will succeed in recreating our contemporary world.
He will say - that paw of steel
once joined the seas and the prairies;
from this spot, Europe rushed to the West,
scattering to the wind Indian feathers

Mayakovsky now moves on to describing his own, ultra-modern world

By the cables of electric strands,
I recognize the era succeeding the steam age -
here men had ranted on radio
Here men had ascended in planes.
For some, life here had no worries;
for others, it was a prolonged and hungry howl.
From this spot, jobless men
leapt headling into the Hudson

A bit of a research error here, as the jobless men would have needed exceptionally strong leg muscles to plunge into the Hudson from the East River-spanning Brooklyn Bridge.

And he brings things to an end by namechecking himself, standing on the Bridge composing a poem.

I see: here stood Mayakovsky,
stood, composing verse, syllable by syllable.
I stare as an Eskimo gapes at a train,
I seize on it as a tick fastens to an ear.
Brooklyn Bridge -'s quite a thing.

Now I no longer writer poetry, but if I ever make it to New York, I might just heading up to the bridge to compose a line or two, because I don't have too many heroes whose footsteps I'd like to follow, and it would indeed be quite a thing.

The Bedbug and Selected Poetry

Monday, April 10, 2006

Flight cancellation

The Blue Aeroplanes are beginning to annoy me. Granted, I'm irked after only finding out they cancelled their Norwich Waterfront gig after I had shipped grandma halfway across the county for an evening's babysitting / deep sleeping, but you could argue the cancellation was because of poor advanced ticket sales, something which might have been avoided if we'd bought advanced tickets.

But I also failed to see them last month in a concert in that London because they'd sold out. What sort of band sells out some gigs and cancels others in the same tour? It makes no sense.

But that's not what really irks me about the Blue Aeroplanes. It all goes back to a calamitous gig in Scotland in the nineties. The exact venue has been lost in the mists of time - my wife thinks it was in Glasgow, but I remember it being Edinburgh's unpleasantly smelling Venue.

Anyway, on this particular night, the Aeroplanes' guitarist, substitute vocalist and Tim Henman-lookalike, Rodney Allen, decided to come out on stage as a blustering, monomanic football fan, telling us between every song about the love of his life, international business conglomerate Manchester United.

Now there is a time and place for hearing complete strangers witter on inanely about football, and that's why I go to Carrow Road. I go to Blue Aeroplanes gigs to hear Anti-pretty and Spitting Out Miracles and Broken and Mended. I want swooping guitars and caustic, sarcastic lyrics spat out from Gerard Langley's withering, pitying face. I don't want to be lectured about the world's premier glory-seeker magnet by some twat from Bradford-on-Avon. And he went on and on and on, all evening.

Rodney's display of overt English-wankerness was putting him in some danger of a kicking - and I think here lies the proof that this gig was in Edinburgh, not Glasgow, as behaviour like this in the West of Scotland is generally rewarded with multiple lacerations and an overnight stay in Stobhill Hospital - and to top it all, he came back on-stage after the gig and announced, utterly rat-arsed, he was going to entertain us with his stand-up comedy routine. He was then led off-stage by a sympathetic band member with the immortal line, "come on, Rodney, you plonker".

What was needed here was a spot of Mark E Smith style "don't let the doorknob ram you up the jacksy on the way out, Rodney" sacking from the Aeroplanes' poet-in-chief, Gerard Langley. Sadly it didn't happen and anyway the Blue Aeroplanes, who had been up there as my favourite band of all, were already well into a precipitous decline. Each album was substantially worse than its predecessor, until by Rough Music Langley was writing songs about going down the pub. But Sham 69 justifiably have that micro-market to themselves. And while CD Universe puts Rough Music as the Blue Aeroplanes' last album, it sadly wasn't. In 2000 there was Cavaliers and Roundheads, which was one-paced lo-fi muttering bulked out with witless maundering fretwank, useful only for clearing blockages in the middle ear.

And that seemed to be that for the Blue Aeroplanes, until this year's didn't-see-that-coming decision of EMI to sign them, release a new album and re-release Swagger, the album which first persuaded me I was in the presence of genius. It also, by appearing in the record collection of my new girlfriend, propelled me down the road to true love. In a world then stalked by hordes of Madonna, Sinitta and Wet Wet Wet fans, I took her good taste as a sign of cosmic compatibility.

At the time, it was commonly accepted that the pallid skin and lack of musculature found in most indie kids indicated underlying hormonal imbalances which surely made child-creation unlikely, but it turned out not to be the case. So we now have two children, one of whom at four years old listens obsessively to Elliott Smith and knows more Long Winters lyrics than I do, so we have to consider the possibility that indieness is an inherited trait. A few more generations and we could be a new species.

I could review the new album, Altitude, of course, but - guess what? - I was going to buy it at the gig they never turned up to. Since I can't review gig or album, I'm going to let you, the public, decide.

The Blue Aeroplanes gig was

a) like witnessing the birth of a strange, beautiful new species on an alien planet in a pulsating nebula
b) a humdrum stew of guitary sludge which was marginally better than the alternative, Coronation Street
c) Buttock-clenchingly embarrassing

The highlight of the evening was

a) Glittering arrangements of classic songs punctuated by intriguing glimpses of new ones
b) Nicking a plectrum when nobody was looking
c) Hurling up six pints of Broadside and a Chilli Doner Kebab in the Wensum

Wojtek Dmochowski danced like

a) Nureyev performing Swan Lake
b) Your Uncle Jimmy at a wedding reception in Chester-le-Street Working Men's Club
c) Bez

Whoever is responsible for booking Blue Aeroplanes venues doesn't know their arse from their

a) shoulder
b) wrist
c) elbow

Rodney Allen acted like

a) a twat
b) a twat
c) a twat