The White Room

London

Another November night, another private view for an exhibition that makes no sense to me apart from free booze. They’ve got the thermostat turned up to thirty and I’ve arrived in a clearly ill-judged suit appropriate for the season. I should have worn beachwear.

As a rule I dislike shows that require sheets of paper to tell me what’s going on, but tonight I find myself asking the charming woman who pours the vodka if there’s anything that can help me make sense of this. She doesn’t have any literature that can help but, ignoring the plaintive looks of the usual suspects chasing a glass of warm Prosecco, she gamely leaves her station behind the booze table to give me some guidance.

“All the pictures are different,” she tells me, “taken in different places.” I’m beginning to get that feeling of ironic uncertainly again. “He told me the key is to see the work in there,” she says, pointing to a circular wall, off centre in the room, which I’d previously taken to be some form of unavoidable void.

“I didn’t know there was something in there,” I offer. Her expression shows no sign of irony or humour – so often the case with the young. She’s very willing to help me achieve understanding, but the Prosecco hungry crowd is growing and I take pity on them. They’re going to need it. “Thank you,” I say – her expression is almost pleading – “I’ll have a look in there.”

I go ‘in there’, which involves waiting with the rest of the sadly curious until a young woman dressed head to toe in black, with long straight black hair, pale skin and round glasses, senses the moment is appropriate to open the curved door and allow us entry.

It doesn’t offer any enlightenment. The projected work is presented in such a way that necessitates a constant turning of the observer’s body, inducing a nauseating dizziness in your correspondent. The small circular room is heated even more than the rest of the gallery.

I escape the small room and see a man in shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. Wise.


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A break from the norm

England

Small town. I came out of the supermarket to find two fourteen year old schoolgirls sitting on my bike. When I was at school the nymphettes would roll their already short skirts up at the waistband so as to raise the hem as much as possible. These two were probably their great granddaughters, the technique having been handed down. At least they moved off when asked, giggling.

The town itself is strikingly beautiful; famously so. Generations of painters have hymned to its light and colours. Brightly clothed families, with dogs and children in perpetual fear of seagulls, still attest.

Even Hollywood’s most cliched set wouldn’t look as picturesque as the pubs, seeping with the genuine stature of age. No one ever created sky and sea so perfectly in balance, or such a breeze – strong enough to cool, but gentle, so as to stroke the skin.

I came here for a break from London; booked a hotel online and jumped on the bike. It seems it’ll be more of a break than I planned – inadvertently, I booked myself into a Christian hotel. The doors are locked at 9pm, the WiFi has parental controls. There are prayer meetings morning and evening.

I’ve just been out to buy a bottle of whisky. It’s going to be an interesting couple of days.


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Lascivious nods

Edinburgh

Rose Street played a small but memorable role in my younger life; what cultural commentators like to call a ‘rite of passage’.

For in a pub there – now, I hope and trust, long vanished – I witnessed my first and last stripper.

It was lunchtime, and my friend Andy decided this was the place to spend it. Not for want of alternatives – Rose Street had, I think, even more pubs then than it does now – but possibly because he’d spotted a seductive sign in the window, the promise of naked flesh with your pint.

And so we pushed open the old wooden door and quit the bright street for the dark, sparse, tobacco smoke scented den of iniquity. I recall a few solemn tables near the walls, and a few solemn men venerating their pints with more smoke, and – a surprise this, since I’d missed the sign in the window – one corner of the dark panelled room which was covered in mirror tiles. It called to mind a makeshift shower area built for a narcissist. “There’s a stripper,” said Andy.

As we moved towards the bar, monitored without interest by some of the solemn men, Andy nudged me. I glanced at his lasciviously grinning face – he really was much more enthusiastic and confident about all this than I was – he nodded towards Mirror Corner: “Look at the tiles on the left there.”

My eyes, slowly becoming accustomed to the gloom, studied the mirror and saw nothing of note until suddenly the impression left by a pair of oiled breasts sprung out at me. I can’t deny a thrill of excitement; teenaged obsession with the female breast was strong in me. Andy broke my reverie, handing me a pint. The lascivious nod again, toward the bar’s end.

I followed his gaze to where a heavily made up woman with dark curly hair stood, a shawl draped casually over her nakedness, drinking a pint. The man next to her had an arm resting lewdly across her shoulders.

I felt no attraction to her – she probably seemed from another planet – but will admit to a strong curiosity. Some music started. She stepped up on to the small raised platform in Mirror Corner and, in an utterly disinterested way, removed her shawl and her g-string over the next two minutes. She then stepped off the platform, finished her pint, and, still naked, walked around the room waving the empty glass at the solemn men, some of whom put money in it. Andy and I were among them.


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Convenience

London

I’m told this blog lingers on the failings of the modern world and how much better things were back in the day, and I suppose it does. Put it down your aged correspondent’s accumulated wisdom, hard won over the long years.

For the record, some things were better in the past and some things were worse; the fact is that when one looks back into one’s own past from the perspective of age there is the inevitable danger of subjectivity brought on by wistful longings for lost youth.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we only left behind the bad things, and only brought with us the good and worthwhile? It doesn’t happen that way, which leaves room for grumpy old bastards like me to irritate everyone with stories from the good old days. It’s always been that way of course; even the phrase ‘the good old days’ seems to have originated in the early part of the virtuous Victoria’s reign, when people would look back with misty eyes to the days of the debauched Georges. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Which brings me to Tesco Metro (not just Tesco, of course, all the supermarkets are equally guilty) and their elimination of local competition. The idea of a supermarket around the corner that stocks all the things you need at cheap prices is, of course, great, and I for one will admit to using them. But then the small shops close, and you regret it but you say ‘that’s progress’ as you walk past. Then the supermarket starts to reduce it’s range, getting rid of it’s less popular lines according to modern retail philosophy. And then you realize that one of the lines they’ve dropped is something you use every day, and so the convenience of the local supermarket is now irrelevant, since the local shop where you used to buy it has closed and you’ve got to walk to another part of town to get it.


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Insidious torpor

London

What is ‘a cold’? It’s such a feeble illness, so pathetic, so humiliating to admit to, that many simply refuse to suffer from it; calling it ‘the flu’. You see? It doesn’t even get to use the definite article, it’s only ‘a cold’, whereas it’s ‘the flu’.

As a result I’m never quite prepared for how unmitigatedly shitty a cold makes me feel. Attentive readers of the toadstool will know how pure and healthy my lifestyle is and so will be unsurprised that I suffer from colds infrequently; but when I do – stand back, close the blinds, clear the room, evacuate the building and do not return unless bearing LemSip.

And yet I’m always surprised when it hits. As I write I’ve just emerged from one such bout; from the moment when I reluctantly accept that mucus production has increased to unprecedented levels, and fuzzy-headedness drives me to my bed, I live in a bewildered state. Constantly surprised that I feel so incapacitated and trying to remember where I put all the bottles of syrup, pills, sachets, sprays and extra strength tissues I haven’t used since the last time.

Eventually, once I’ve gathered everything around me, so that I only need stir from my bed for calls of nature – or to pour boiling water on another dose of the life-giving LemSip – I nest. Radio 4 reminds me that there is a world beyond my darkened windows as I drift in and out of consciousness for around 48 hours.

The worst of it is that, while the initial descent into torpidity is rapid, the ascent back to humanity is slow and punctuated with reminders that you’re not yet fit to be released into polite society.

And yet, eventually, one day you realise you can take breath without an eruption of coughing, and it’s gone. You’re free. And you forget immediately how ghastly the whole episode was, allowing you to pour disdain on the next unfortunate acquaintance who cancels on you because they’ve got ‘a cold’.


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Royal decree, number 1

London

Two streets away, the thumping annoyed. One street away it reached intolerable. Once the source was in plain view it got no louder until I was close enough to understand; the backing track for a steel drummer standing outside Boots.

Appreciator of steel percussion I may be, enjoyer of banging beats played loudly in public I am not.

When I’m king we’ll have no more of this. I’m all in favour of street musicians – even the ones I don’t like – but standing on the street playing recorded music on an amp doesn’t make you a street musician. It makes you a public nuisance.

This is true, only more so, in tube stations. I understand TfL carries out auditions for those keen to express themselves musically on the underground network. I can’t imagine what this consists of, but can I suggest that they establish whether an applicant can actually make music? Or is it considered a sufficient skill to plug an iPhone into a battery powered amp?

There would be an exception written into my royal decree though: for electric guitars. It’s an instrument, after all, that doesn’t make much sense without an amp. Then you must allow electric violins, I hear you all cry. No. The electric guitar is a distinct instrument from the acoustic, with a separate repertoire. Let that be the criteria. Your king has spoken.


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It’s Strephon

London

No stranger to the Coliseum Theatre is your correspondent, and while I by and large enjoy the English National Opera productions, many of which are superb, I’d never seen any of the quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan. That changed the other night.

G&S, as I’m now qualified to call them, inhabit an uncomfortable slice of the opera spectrum, with a reputation as being middle-class, middle-England, and middle-of-the-road; one foot in the lifeboat of political satire and the other on the dwindling iceberg of frivolous entertainment. Enough with the metaphors.

I’m making ‘entertainment’ sound beneath contempt, which isn’t my intention; being simply entertaining is a great skill, and indeed this production of Iolanthe achieved it – and a lot more besides.

Also refreshing to see the Coliseum full. It’s a large house and I’ve seen great performances of Mozart and Puccini, Strauss and Delibes, playing to two-thirds capacity. Perhaps back-to-back G&S is what the ENO’s needs to end it’s constant flirtation with financial disaster.

Hardly the youthful audience the ENO dreams of though; I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s unusual that I lower the average age of any gathering, but this was certainly an exception. The assembled snowbirds didn’t necessarily get what they were expecting, judging by the reaction of the stony faced couple next to me who seemed determinedly unamused. A dancing peer-of-the-realm falling spectacularly off the roof of a full scale stream train: not a glimmer of a smile. An irrelevant pantomime cow wanders across the stage and joins in the chorus: nothing. Another peer with a badly behaved terrier glove-puppet (memories, for me, of Spit the Dog): nada.

Even my favourite gag of the night, the Fairy Queen’s constant mispronunciation of the leading character’s name ‘Strephon’ as ‘Strapon’ – which if you ask me got more hilarious every time – didn’t crack their granite expressions.

Nonetheless, you can now count me as a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. The skilful combination of wit and charm, especially in the hands of such an accomplished company, nailed it.


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Enough?

London

Pulp Fiction is a film of doubtless quality – it’s certainly among my favourites – but it has limited ambitions. Those ambitions are fulfilled perfectly; this is an intricately planned and beautifully made entertainment.

Many at the time criticised this. The violence should have more context, it was said. The vacuous, hedonistic life of the protagonists should be shown to have negative consequences. They missed the point, I think: this is entertainment.

But it’s not a film you’ll walk away from with any abiding questions. You’ll marvel at the plot, revel in the supremely quotable script, copy the style, wonder at the characterisations; but you won’t be asking yourself about the world-wide political crisis caused by the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid, war in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, or any other contemporaneous events.

Why should you? This is entertainment.

It isn’t always that way though. Landmark films of previous decades did manage to entwine entertainment with relevance: Taxi Driver, Casablanca, The Public Enemy…


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Unraveling

London

Storytime. A man visits a young boy and presents him with his fathers watch, fulfilling a promise.

Early one morning, twenty years later, two gunmen walk into an apartment and kill three young men while narrowly avoiding death themselves. They leave, taking with them a briefcase belonging to their gangster boss, and another guy, who they accidentally shoot in the car.

Startled, they drive the car to a friend’s house where, with the help of a well dressed fixer, they clean up the blood and dispose of the car, and the body, and go to breakfast in a diner. While they eat, a later-day Bonnie and Clyde hold up the diner at gun-point. They escape again, minus their wallets but with the briefcase, and go to meet their boss in a nightclub. He’s busy bribing a boxer to fix a boxing match, but they wait and give him the case.

Later one of the gunmen, after a stop to visit his heroin dealer, takes the boss’ wife out to dinner, at the boss’ behest. She accidentally overdoses on his heroin and he drives her to the dealer’s house where he administers a shot of adrenaline direct to her heart. She survives.

Later again, it’s the night of the big fight. The boxer has double-crossed the gangster. Instead of taking a fall he bets on himself, knocks out his opponent – unintentionally killing him – and runs to a rendezvous with his girlfriend in a motel room, planning to abscond the following day and disappear. She brought his belongings, but omitted the most crucial thing – his father’s watch, given to him twenty years earlier, compelling him to return to the apartment he knows will be watched by the gangsters.

He returns, collecting his watch and killing a gunman. While making his escape he’s recognised and shot by the gangster boss, who pursues him to a pawn shop where they are captured by a psychotic rapist and his friend. While the gangster is being raped the boxer escapes and, to his own surprise, returns to rescue him.

In return, the gangster forgives the boxer’s double-cross.

Heard it before? I didn’t make it up; it’s the plot of a legendary film. Rightly legendary too. It is an astonishing piece of work, ground breaking and shocking in it’s day, and it confirmed the auteur as a great film-maker. Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino.

Almost twenty-five years after it’s release it still feels contemporary; a film I can sit through again and again, relishing it’s affect on first time viewers.

But I’ve always been curious how it was plotted. On screen the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, and I wanted to see if I could iron out the wrinkles, lay it out flat, and examine the story to see if it still works.

I think it does, don’t you?


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Basecamp

Amsterdam

Thirty five years – I counted them – since the last time I sat in the Old Sailor in Amsterdam. It was basecamp for about a week back then.

I sought the place out as I wandered about the city today, thinking of a glass of beer and a jenever. The old adage applies though: never go back. The place is a shithole.

It’s very possible that it always was; my twenty year old self probably wouldn’t have cared. But the line of English drunks outside vomiting abuse at passers by was certainly new, as were the large football bearing screens glimpsed through the windows. Keep walking.

Favourite bars always change over time, it’s a law, and we’re forced out into the cold to forage for new ones. Fortunately, this is Amsterdam; around the corner I found Café Fonteyn. At first sight it’s pleasing, busy but not heaving. The chill damp evening propels me towards the door, inside it’s warm, a gentle hum of conversation over only just audible music. Gemütlich. There’s a table free. Perfect. And I like the wallpaper.

I have a new home.

There are a few places I like, dotted around the place. Café Lisboa in Valencia, Le Select in Paris, El Glaciar in Barcelona, Witzli Poetzli in Antwerp… Even fewer where I like the wallpaper.

Who knows how many of them will still have a pulse if I ever visit them again.


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