Thursday, November 19, 2009

SLO train returns

Bakersfield is synonymous (for me) with country music as imagined by the Rolling Stones (“girl with faraway eyes”) and memorable for both of us the place we consummated our marriage. This time round it appeared to have grown exponentially and as a result finding anything at all in the town, least of all a motel, proved difficult to say the least. Eventually we found the always reliable America’s Best Value Inn and headed off to a pizza parlour. The latter turned out to be a cross between a sports bar and a working class social club: the sort of place that in the UK would probably make me wince but which in the US having a wife and a pleasant disposition (and an enthusiasm for beer and pizza) made effortless. The next day we were in San Louis Obispo (SLO), more our kind of town: surrounded by mountains yet warm most of the year, inland but a short distance from the Californian coast, and possessed of very cool vinyl and book stores virtually next door to each other (Boo Boo Records and Phoenix Books). We stayed in the same motel on California as our last visit. Painted in adobe style, the Los Padres Motel is well located, being a short stroll up from the aforementioned stores and a selection of bars around California and Higuera streets. However its walls are paper thin and an afternoon’s siesta was to be rudely interrupted by the arrival of Randy and Barbara, or whoever, whom we could hear fart, let alone cough or copulate. SLO still proved a winner however, and a new discovery was in fact the oldest record store in town, “Cheap Thrills”, launched in 1971 when its album title appropriation would perhaps have been more obvious. It lives up to its name, and not in the negative, UK, sense, with LPs from $3 and some great and often very clean rarer items. Weighed down with another fix we retired early before hitting Boo Boo the next day which is a cooler store but which has a lot less vinyl. I still managed to score however, finding a (cheap) thrill reminiscent of three decades back as I tested a period copy of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn is Dead” on one of their many decks. Can you imagine being handed a cartridge and invited to cue up a second hand album in an equivalent UK store? The riverside bar and restaurant in Higuera once again proved a winner, as dining outdoors in mid November proved irresistible. We eased off our beer intake by strolling around the mission building to the sound of “Another Brick in the Wall (part 3)” pumping out of a bar and I felt a degree of patriotic fervour well up inside me. On being invited to enjoy a Stella with a drunken Brit in a bar over the road from the restaurant, I felt rather less affinity for my country. Leaving SLO was sad, but before long we were on Route 101 and hugging the Californian coast, reaching Big Sur where we discovered the delights of Gorda, essentially a small motel and collection of cabins/a restaurant and a shop. Our hotel room had a view of the Pacific a few hundred feet away, which helped offset the painful bed and an invasive external light. Up in Ripplewood, the log cabin collective run by Anglo women and worked by Mexicans, the breakfasts are still phenomenal. Priced out of the market we stayed for the first time at Fernwood where we were within walking distance of the bar and restaurant which still excites but the food service was never its strongest point. That day we revisited Pfeiffer-Big Sur, where we had spent hours watching a beached golden sea lion back in 2000 and which has meant so much to us since we first started coming to California in 1997. This time round it didn’t disappoint – rugged rocks and wild waves enhanced the sunset, after we had spent time watching a heron on an afternoon fishing expedition. We spent a couple of nights up the coast in Monterey where we prepared for a repeat whale watching expedition that, despite an attack of nausea, was a welcome escape from land that included a hump back as well as some dolphins. Coming into San Fran for the final leg proved easier than expected, although the city seemed sadly dead even for the time of year. While tourists are fairly thin on the ground in late November, it seems odd to see bars and shops closing up by 9. Tosca’s bar on Market and Columbus has a juke box with mostly opera and walls adorned with depictions from operatic scenes. Its dark red ambience is normally conducive to drinking but this virtually empty bar seemed a little sad, even though we were celebrating with a bottle of local champagne. We got to chatting with a banker about this and that and the time passed pleasantly before we moved on to red wine and steaks at Sears restaurant near our hotel – Grants on Bush in the renowned Nob Hill area (where an all male cabaret and a stimulant shop helps the area to (unwittingly) live up to its name). After such an evening our final full day in the US was a touch subdued, before the 2 days of flying back to the UK. It has however been a wonderful trip, one on which I have learned a lot and wished that I had known a hell of a lot more before I came. The divisions that one superficially witnesses are not just north and south, red and blue, but struck me the most as coastal versus interior: the cosmopolitan over the more traditional. Much of the time, however, we didn’t talk politics with those who for the most part were serving us rather than accompanying us. We enjoyed the hospitality and the polite lack of questioning or the polite disinterest in those with “funny accents”. The US has probably lost some of the lustre for me as the familiarity has grown, even in the limited experience I have of it. However I still want to know more, and to experience more, of this place, and will no doubt be back before that long.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Viva Las Vegas

We returned for what was scheduled to be a one night gig, 9 years on from when we came here to get married. Once again the Hard Rock Café chain provided what for some might be a surprisingly tasteful hotel option. Tasteful in terms of room décor and in terms of its museum like arrangement of rock memorabilia and photos, but, yes, also tasteful in terms of Vegas, which really shouldn’t be judged by conventional notions of taste at all. More important than these average musings is the fact that as soon as we found the check in desk (not easy) and duly checked in, we returned to the Pink Taco. Not a gay Mexican food chain but a bar that made you feel very happy and provided very good food. The bar itself, like many bars in Vegas, has gambling machines indented in its very surface. This though didn’t detract us. The margaritas, however, did, and provided an exciting stimulant at 2 in the afternoon, which a light tapas-style mex lunch didn’t interfere with too much. That night we checked out Caesar’s Palace, not the concert hall, where Frank was performing with Sammy again but for the first time was united with Barbara, but the gambling area were we settled in for another margarita and watched the world go by. Hunger pains sent us out and about on the strip before we chanced upon a hitherto unknown venue (to us). “Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville”. Having a liking for some of his material (see London revue in my July blog), having a good friend who is totally devoted to the man, and a penchant for margaritas, we couldn’t resist a chance to, well, drink more margaritas to the accompaniment of the man who has created a margarita musical culture all of his own. Of course Jimmy wasn’t there in person, but his endorsement and his music, and the general ambience of parrots, pacific isle chic and, eh, margaritas, made for an attractive option. We were seated at the end and could witness “parrotheads” dining en masse and a newlywed couple dining out in style. The African American groom - unembarrassed by his “parrothead” balloon adornment – was, like his white wife, dressed in what, by Vegas standards, was very smart, almost conservative, wedding garb. Our waiter kept us well oiled, allowed us to acquire for our friend a souvenir menu, and generally made our time there a breeze. Next stop was, to be honest, a disappointment. Our Afghani cab driver seemed sure that there would be live music (why would you seek advice on this matter from an Afghani?), but nine years on "The Voodoo Lounge", where previously we had hung out after our wedding, is no longer a music venue. In truth it’s an average disco whose sampling of dance classics pumped out to a largely middle aged crowd seemed somehow pointless. It was great though to see the place again – its several levels of roof top drinking spaces and impressive inner bar makes for an attractive venue. As the DJ weaved in a few seconds of Curtis Mayfield we wondered aloud how much more conducive to dancing for this (or possibly any) crowd the playing of the real thing would actually have been. Our taxi driver regaled us with the evils of the public health option and dismissed my drunken attempts at postulating the virtues of market regulation, before blessing our Queen and conceding that this was an issue best left to us to debate. Back at the Hard Rock the earlier conversion to gin was no longer proving smooth. The benefit however of the next morning’s ill health was an unplanned second day at the hotel which was very conducive to my health indeed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hiking in a different world (nearly)

We were sad about leaving Denver. Our path out through the slowly evaporating snow was smooth, but re-entering motel city proved a difficult adjustment. Furthermore, the weather remained bitterly cold in south-west Colorado en route to Utah. Our first stop was the town of Eagle and specifically the Eagle Grand, a misnomer at least at this time of year. The setting was fantastic, with mountains encircling us, and the motel was low rise and run by a genial host. However with temperatures outside below freezing, it was darned hard to get warm. Dinner helped, and right next door was The Grand Restaurant where we ate good food in front of a roaring fire. The next night we stopped in Green River where a functional motel (the heater worked) at a bargain rate and a cheap and no hassle town sat well with us. It was Halloween so Ray’s Tavern was not, we were told, as busy as it would normally be on what was a Saturday night. After good burgers and draught beer there we went over to another bar where the clientele patently weren’t engaged in trick and treating with little Johnny and Annie. A drunk vamp (sic) with what I think were false Dracula style teeth and a variety of werewolves caroused up and down the bar as we nursed our buds and listened to the skinniest trucker I’ve ever seen engage in monologues about his living arrangements. Nice guy though. We left the revellers to it, fancying that we were intruding a tad on a (mostly) locals’ party. The next night we upgraded, stopping after a thrilling ride at dusk through Utah’s incredible landscape of limestone rock. Caverns loomed large as we were the only people on the long ride to Hankville. We had to phone for a room from a Bentley-driving owner of the only store in town. Supping beers and drawing on rollies, we made the most of such a comfortable stop. Perfect silence and a full moon made for a transcendent experience in the chill of the evening as my wife did her blog.
In Boulder (Utah that is) there is little except a couple of motels and three restaurants (largely catering to the hiking crowd en route to Bryce. However the Circle Cliffs Motel (three rooms, cash preferred) was a delightful place with rooms where the lady of the house had plainly made an effort to make it as comfortable as possible. The next day we entered the Bryce complex, taking in modest trails still overpopulated with tourists for what, after all, is a few weeks shy of Thanksgiving. That night we avoided the corporate style motel/restaurant set up at the entrance to the national park and took a room a few miles down the road in Tropic. If you are ever in Tropic do not eat at Clark’s Restaurant. Hope that the pizza place is open. Clark’s ageing food did not go down well. However their draught porter did. I recommend a pitcher of porter and well done hamburger.
The next day we took one of the longest trails in Bryce – Fairyland. While the name conjures up a venue frequented by those of broad sexual orientation, the trail itself is a wondrous spectacle of orange limestone canyons and sheer rock faces populated by spruce and fir. The incredible sight at times makes one think of Wadi Rum, Jordan with a touch of the jurassic as (often) dead, gnarled tree trunks reminded me of twisted human life or animal forms. The “hoodoos” – tall limestone rocks partly eroded by freezing and thawing – can easily make you imagine that the old Indian legend is true and that the bad people were turned to stone. Faces peer out across the phenomenal landscape – gay dogs, Karl Marx, conferring elders, a witch’s cat, and, more generally, images akin to Abu Simbel or the Valley of the Kings, with a touch of Mayan or Inca rock carvings, came to mind. Half way through this eight mile hike I transcended for the first time on this trip, other than when in bars or restaurants or driving to the accompaniment of great tunes. At the incredible frozen stream and waterfall near "The Tower of London" rock face this feeling was, sadly, knocked back by the first presence in 4 miles of other humanoid life forms, especially when one of them turned out to by a post sell-by date hippie hiker with no apparent state or national address other than the “world”. We hiked back the same way, struggling up the final stretch, but bowled over by the same scenery from a different perspective as the rocks and trees were cast in, literally, a different light.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Things to do in Denver before you're dead

Having caught the cable car up to the top of Sandia mountain in ABQ, we hiked a little amidst the snowfall in near freezing temperatures, an amazing contrast with the weather on terra firma. We spent our final night in ABQ with 2 new friends we had met earlier on a trail near the Sandia mountain who kindly let us stay a night with them. They advised us to take Route 285 to Denver, our next destination. As a result we saw amazing snow-topped scenery en route north to Colorado rather than the monotony of the interstate. The next night we stayed in Salida, a very pleasant if all too darn nice artsy stopover, with great diners and numerous studios and galleries. We met an interesting sculptor who has entered his 50s finally doing what he wanted all his life after his marriage broke up and too many years in regular work. More interesting than Salida, however, was Antonitas, a sleepy New Mexican town which, after driving through damp and snow exiting ABQ, provided a welcome stopover. Here there were no tourists (except us). This laid back settlement town has been peopled by those of Indian and Mexican origin for 500 years. We ate well and cheaply in the local diner among an interesting clientele that included the local sheriff and some local officials who effortlessly switched their conversation from English to Spanish, a vision of the American future perhaps. I nearly got busted by a genial local policeman for parking the wrong way, but the timely intervention of a town elder prevented the People of New Mexico from facing me in the county court in 7 days time.

Suffice it to say that we drove into the capital of Colorado in upbeat mode, keen to see a very old friend of my wife’s who has lived in the US for more than 25 years. We were all nervous about how it would turn out. So much water under the bridge since they had worked together in London, so hard to know how much they would have in common now, and how I would get on with him. Within minutes of entering his apartment we both felt right at home, however. His spacious flat is crammed with framed movie and album posters and there is a hi fi in both the living room and his bedroom, each with a turntable. How cool is that? Conversations ranged widely but music was the constant theme. A major snow storm over the city on the first night ensured that we rested and appreciated our friend and his cool pad all the more. We ventured out to an Anglo style pub and on the the third day the amazing vinyl and poster delights of "Twist and Shout" on Colefax, the main street, saw us splurge once more

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Route 66 to Albuquerque

The interpretive center in Chandler OK is a remarkable attempt to introduce the Route 66 experience to tourists who may not have an extensive background in the myths and legends of the “mother road”. Run, it seems, as a business, this Route 66 Museum provides you with a motel type experience, courtesy, we were told, of a German who volunteered his conceptual support. Visitors can lie back on white beds and look upwards to a TV taste of both past and present along the historic route. Two local photographers’ work depicts remnants of Americana. There was also a veterans’ hall that I assume functions on memorial days. It houses a 1940s type police car and a tribute to the local fallen.

There wasn’t a suggestions box in the foyer, so I venture this comment now: where is the Woody Guthrie/Chuck Berry/Rolling Stones soundtrack and/or visual installation? Europeans, like, I venture, Americans, think of Route 66 as a mixture of dust bowl migrants heading to California for its “pastures of plenty”, and, more often probably, rhythm and blues blasting from gleaming chrome Chevies. This is how I would like our road trip to have been conducted, that combined with at least a portion of Hunter S Thompson’s trunk when he was en route to Vegas. The former at least is what I think the punters need some of at the interpretive center. I should add that it may be that the dust bowl heroes get a look in at the Museum of National Pioneers down the road in Chandler, which sadly we didn’t have time to visit.

That night we crossed into Kansas (Ks) and found ourselves in Hutchinson, an intersection on what proved to be a major detour south-west. The Lone Star restaurant, a Texan style steak house with great music, young and attractive staff, draught local beer, oh and excellent steaks, saw a conversion on the road to Denver and little more than the inspiration of Neil Young’s song Albuquerque to lead us to the decision to head to New Mexico via Route 66. Poor sleep sadly took the edge off the feeling the next morning. We drove through heavy storms before the layered clouds that had darkened the skies finally cleared and we crossed the Ok border again before reaching Texas itself, or at least a north west corner of it. There we found a comfortable redoubt at the lesser-known motel chain, Rodeway Inn. One floor only and no internal doors. The manager had got out of east Africa in the early 70s, hoping for a better life in the UK before ending up managing this pleasant if a little overpriced motel. The next day we entered Albuquerque (ABQ) to the sound of The Who’s Live at Leeds. In (almost) the words of the Neil Young song of the same name, we had hired a car, were moments away, and had the means at least to get in the mood. The University Lodge – an independently owned motel run by a genial Indian – was our first stop, up on Nob Hill, the smarter end of Central Avenue, ABQ near the University of New Mexico whose partisans dominate this part of town. On the ground floor at a two level motel we were risking disturbance, but the room had a pleasing feel and a welcome bathroom window looking out on the street. However an hour listening to a guy punishing the bed above us and exhausting his girlfriend’s (?) repertoire of excitable noises in the middle of the night, followed by a car horn repeatedly going off outside our window, and then a full-on Mexican moan fest about domestic woes obliged us to seek better accommodation.

That day we hiked near the Sandia mountain, whose often snow topped peaks are an omnipresent part of the city’s backdrop. Exhausted and dehydrated after foolishly packing insufficient water supplies, we checked in to “The Imperial”, another independently owned motel at the other end of Central Avenue, in the Downtown area. Despite getting an upstairs room next door to a store room, depression hit me as I spotted the dreaded and previously unsuspected internal connecting door, source of many a negative motel experience for me. More importantly the area had a bit of a badlands feel as a majority of the motel guests didn’t have cars and my hired Chevy Impala seemed to get undue attention. The fact that the manager spoke to you through a glass screen and made you sign for the (non functioning) remote didn’t help my confidence. Unwashed and still dehydrated we headed for a drink and found the splendid Malone’s, dark with a huge circular bar, great service and a cool 80s soundtrack (sic). We knew that we should have split for dinner elsewhere but could not resist yet another pint of Sam Adams on draught to chase down an in house burger (surprisingly good) served at the bar. The place was popular but this was 9 o’clock on a Friday night and we had plenty of room to get full and thorough attention and a lot more than elbow room. In any British town at this time on Friday night there would be scrum at the bar of an indifferent venue with impersonal service. We finally got out and discovered an excellent micro brewery bar (Chama River). Four pints on, we headed back to The Imperial and the promise of a number on the balcony of the badlands. We surveyed the scene of drunks and suspicious parked up vehicles in the neighbouring lot, and a weird mixture of other guests passing us as we took in the scene. I faded out before the morning-after beckoned. Immobilism was relieved by the tender mercies of The Standard Diner (, an excellent recreation of a deco-style eatery built in 1947. The walls were covered with the work of local artists and photographers, and the diner served good food and coffee with a kick – a rare US experience. At the record store, “Natural Sound & Vision” on Central, I splurged on bargain vinyl at $3 a time and, for a while, my long time addiction was satiated.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The caravan moves on

Heading in to Missouri (MO) we visited Pine Woods lake. Hardly a trek, this was a chance to walk off lunch before more driving. After Big Springs later that day, where the river runs a natural shade of green, we stopped at Van Beuren, where a motel, a general store, a funeral parlor and a couple of restaurants serve the local populace and, more importantly for the local economy, the canoeists for whom MO is a greater focus than hikers. Van Beuren's avuncular owner told us that this out of season hamlet was a "party town", something hard to believe, even when the canoeists are in full pelt. He told us that the general store was the place for all culinary and libation needs. Dinner was classic southern fried, breakfast the next morning was bollocks, largely due to our own ineptness and lack of cafeine. We purchased a couple of CDs from the counter however, one of Powdermill, a rootsy MO mix with rock sensibilities and genuine musicality, authors of Trailortrash (check it out on on youtube), the other Shund, who should be renamed Shite: it has the same opening two letters and a total of five, is easier to pronounce and entirely encapsulates their oeuvre. Shund are totally local: the bass player was the shop server's nephew and the singer ran the machinery shop next door. The Shund schtik is lumpen metal and the lyrics of those whose relationship experience sounds like the equivelent of playing air guitar. The next night we stopped off in Monett (no silent t's for this town) which appeared (from our motel room) to be largely strip malls but had the distinct advantage of a Bayou, a New Orlins-style eatery right next door. Feeling ripped on a bottle of Sam Adams each, drunk chilled from the boot of the car on an empty stomach, we went on to dine in the bar and enjoyed steaks and beers. The sad part was being back in the motel room without anymore beer. However Are You Being Served on cable for the first time in 30 years was quite a hoot. We left Monett late after a slow start and a weird breakfast overseen by an Indian watchdog who menacingly studied the TV a few feet from where we trying to stuff the muffins and doughnuts into our pockets. We got to now the road from MO to OK (Oklahoma) pretty well as a few hours later we were back, wife having forgotten her wallet (stashed under the pillow in a high security move that obviously foxed both of us). For a second time we traversed the border, observing as best I could from the driver's seat Native American casinos (legal when on reservations) and an interesting arrangement of rusting tractors in a long line on a hillside. That night in Tulsa we supped beers and ate well in a Ruby Tuesday (the same sh*t we have in the UK, right?) but something wasn't quite right in Motel City, the phalanx of two story motels arranged one side of town. A bad night's sleep in the Super 8, and an impossible to fathom tourist map, led to us making a premature exit from town. Less than 24 Hours in Tulsa, as the song might have had it. We stopped off in Stroud that lunchtime, hitting the Route 66 trail, and enjoying the first of many OK themed venues, trying to milk a key part of US culture. The Rock Cafe was originally built in 1939 when the US was still sitting out the battle against fascism and The Kansan Wizard of Oz was wowing movie goers. In fact a reinvention burned down only a few years ago, but the stone building and artifacts make for a pleasant ambiance. The staff, like many Americans, are very friendly and the food was damn good. Graffiti is officially encouraged in the unisex restrooms and you can watch the cooks at work as you follow the yellow highway lines to the crapper. That night we stopped along Route 66 in Chandler, where a fairly new lazy motel owner was milking the originality of the 1930s Lincoln Motel to the extent that the wooden cabins are falling apart. I mean, do you really want an original bog seat?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

From Ky to MO

Went to Lexington VA with our friends on Monday on a visit combining an important health treatment with thorough examination of that town’s thrift stores. The latter enabled my wife and I to kit ourselves out with warmer clothes as fall marches on. Driving back to Frankfort we took in the beauty of the surrounding scenery, including some Kentucky farmsteads and a country store selling overwhelming cake. Time passed all too quickly before we had to be on the way again as we approached the one third mark of our trip. Leaving Frankfort we journeyed to the south eastern part of the state, stopping off at Mammoth Caves where we experienced a small slice of some 350 miles of chartered cave networks since this national park was opened in the 30s. A tribute to the CCC, the conservation corps founded under FDR’s New Deal, was opined by the impressive forest ranger on the bus as we headed to one of the caves. Tired, I was lifted by his articulacy and natural authority. When he heard we were “from England” he told us to apologise to the Queen for what he was doing to “her language”. I was too slow to reply, as I should have done, that he speaks far better English than her as his speech is coherent and he enunciates his vowels whereas her Anglo-Germano-artisto pedigree makes many of her vowels hard to decipher. We left the caves and headed for Puduka, famous for little other than state incentives for artists to gentrify its poorer parts. On arrival we headed for a focal part of a city that appears to have only poorer parts, the Salvation Army Center. In the US these are de facto welfare centers where good value clothing and sometimes social services are on hand. Paduka was no exception and we took advantage of the former before somehow heading right out of town earlier than intended. Row upon row of strip malls and dead motels passed us by before we realised we had exited the city. We washed up through pleasant and increasingly flatter terrain in Missouri (MO). The lesser known town of Russelville beckoned us to its liquor store, gas station and Econo Lodge. All of these were fine, though I am not eating another Mexican until California. They are never hot and rarely serve beer let alone margaritas.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rattlesnake jazz

From Elkton we joined the Shenandoah national park via the Sky Line drive (Virginia) off of which we hiked a series of trails, some arduous, some not. An identity shift seemed to occur as we got the pleasure Align Centerout of spending a serious amount of bucks on hiking paraphernalia at the Rock Lands camping shop. Such an investment required justification of the outlay. It was as if these two middle aged and relatively novice hikers were over reaching themselves in a bid to justify the expenditure. The first day we must have hiked for around three to 4 hours and had to turn back from completion of the White Oak Trail as dusk fell and we wondered about our stamina for getting back up the incline. One of the earliest sights on our first day was as above (Stony Man Trail), as we took in the beauty of the mountains which then became shrouded in cloud. The next day a combination of a wrong turn and ambition saw us hike for a total of 5.5 hours as combined two trails and nearly wiped ourselves out climbing up and down steep and rocky trails. Some had glorious vistas, others were more the pleasure of the walk through woodland with deer and chipmunks a constant feature.
One such trail saw us reach an impressive waterfall where a rattle snake made a surprise landing at my feet and lay inert. Assuming its rapid path from above my head to my feet was the result of it being either dead or severely under the weather, I didn’t panic. My wife, more concerned than me, expressed the urgency of the situation which sent me into a belated and perhaps risky skedaddle as I scuttled away at some speed. However the snake seemed content just to hang in the water before bizarrely shooting down stream. The weird thing is that I am more bothered about the people walking towards us on a trail and whether we will have to talk, then I was about the rattlesnake.

The hiking in the Shenandoah was great but the accommodation and eating situation was of a different order. A kind of hikers and campers’ theme park, Sky Land (as in the Sky Line drive) offered cabins in the woods originally constructed in 1902 when the site was first opened to the “well to do” as the description inside our tiny cabin put it. The place was very quaint and the surrounding mountains sublime, but something told me that the well to do of the turn of the previous century would not have spent the best part of the night listening to children who hadn’t been put to bed til 10 crying and moaning before the dulcet tones of Dad coughing his guts up in the early morning light finally ended my futile attempts at rest. We got ourselves moved out of there to more modern motel style accommodation which made us feel a whole lot better.
When we exited the Shenandoah and took on the southerly Blue Ridge Mountain trail we divided our time between the easier hikes off the parkway and exits for the evening into cheaper motel type accommodation. Using the latter you don’t feel like you’re paying through the nose for just a sometimes questionable rest spot. You also get to explore small towns like Buena Vista where we took in a local Mexican restaurant, and the Meadows of Dan, barely a village but with a great name and a great diner that provided healthy dinner and breakfast the next day. We exited the trail having visited the Blue Ridge Music Center where an impromptu double bill of bluegrass moved us with its almost innocent beauty. Older singer and guitar player Willard Gaillard had teamed up with younger banjo and guitar player Scott Freeman. Scott was quite a virtuoso player and a less confident but pleasant singer. Later reading made me think about banjo techniques and his use of claw hammer and finger pickin seemingly came right out of the banjo styles brought by slaves from western Africa, and specifically western sudan and Senegal. This barely appreciated aspect of the history of so called white country (and for that matter the “country” style pre blues music of black men in the Appalachians singing in English of life’s troubles accompanying themselves with a banjo and a fiddle) is documented in a highly recommended thesis on the subject available from the music center. African Banjo Echos in Appalachia by Cecelia Conway gives transcribed and pieced together oral histories of African American “country” musicians of the so called pre blues era. The guide in the music center had by her own admission genned up on the history and disparate roots of country as developed in Va. The exhibits there told a story of local musicians and the first country 78s from the 1920s when “hill billy” was first applied to white singers (as opposed to purveyors of “race” music) before the 1940s arrival of “blue grass”.

Inspired by our conversations there we drove on heading towards Kentucky where we are as I write this. Our friends have a house in the old state capital Frankfort, a quaint town of 23,000 where we discovered a wonderful book shop (Poor Richards) where we spent several hours browsing (and purchasing) second hand books, where later we returned for a gig featuring John Pope, a blues and jazz piano stylist, Matt “Zip” Irvin on tenor sax, and a double bass player Owen Reynolds. He though was the only professional musician, John being a piano technician by day and Dr Zip being a professor at EKU. On arrival we hadn’t expected much and, despite the venue, were not excited about what we mistakenly thought would be a sober coffee shop situation. When we walked in we became 45% of the audience (and much of the rest seemed connected to the venue) and sat right down near the band for what was akin to a private audience. The tunes veered between old and more modern jazz standards (MoonRiver, a Buddy Bolden song and a song about Buddy Bolden, Mose Allison etc), trad blues songs and some more contemporary or off the trail numbers such as a self penned instrumental by John (presently nameless to me), a cover of Billy Bragg’s musical interpretation of a lyric penned by Woody Guthrie about a town known to Zip - Winston, Salem - a theatrical style piece (Hail Mary) by Pamplemousse, and an adaptation of a Basque folk tune about being a tree. It was a great night, where it felt wonderful to chat with relatively local musicians and to throw out the odd comment between numbers. We returned to the porch before retiring pretty light headed well past 1 am. Earlier our friends’ friend’s daughter, who is house sitting in their absence, had come back from a work shift to check on the dogs accompanied by her friend and we semi embarrassedly told of (some of) our evening’s fun. It was as if the roles had reversed.

A dining highlight in Frankfort was Rick Paul's "White Light Diner" (, where we ate an excellent lunch on our second day in town. The host was out of town that day but we were in good company in the small but atmospheric eatery where the locals offered good advice and kindly interest in our travels. The diner has functioned since 1943, and Rick Paul, almost a celebrity chef who has cooked for a variety of interesting personalities including Goerge Bush Senior, has made the place a source of a wide variety of southern dishes. Well worth a visit.

Monday, October 5, 2009

roadtrip photos New York and VA

US roadtrip begins

The Virginia Plan proposed delimiting federal executive power by empowering the national legislature. Virginia Plain proposed cool yet retro sophistication among lumpen glam stomp. Out here in Virginia plans are few and the hills definitely outnumber the plains. Yet these hills are the stuff of inspiration not hindrance. Walking trails among the Apalachians (pron. Apa-latch-ee-ans) we found the meaning that we had been searching for on this road movie since arriving in New Jersey over a week ago. NY - our early port of call after a brief tarry in the big apple’s perceptibly rotten neighbour NJ – had been good for drinking with an old English friend and workmate and for an insight into some of the bars and restaurants that make up his life. However the defining of what this trip will be all about would be held in abeyance until we had rented wheels in the outskirts of Trenton NJ - a blue collar rail hub. Abandoning plans to head to the nation’s capital for engagement in matters middle eastern, we headed down to Virginia via Elkton: a brief stopover in Maryland off the interstate 95. A station stop before a planned visit to Fredericksburg VA the next day, Elkton was to us no more than a cheap motel and a KFC. This though was much appreciated after a 2 nights near Time Square NY had provided the most expensive accommodation per square foot I had ever had the misfortune to pay for. The hotel though was conveniently located in walking distance to welcoming bars: one where we met our friend’s workmates, another involved an enjoyable couple of hours in the Blarney Stone or some such, where the music was on random and the punters rarely saw limeys in their drinking establishment
After our night at the Knights Inn in Elkton, the Indian cleaner peered in the window of our clearly lit room, where my wife was reading the Cecil Whig clad only in knickers and a loose top. This apparently short sighted gentleman was seeking to determine whether human life dwelled within and therefore whether he should douse down our bog with bleach or shake our sheets free of detritus. “Don’t understand English – Asian” they later revealed when I asked them not to look in our room when the presence of a car out front and illumination inside suggested we may not need his and his wife’s tender attention. Later that day we arrived in Fredericksburg – famous as the fault line of the American civil war when thousands died fighting in just a few brief days in the battle of unionism versus southern confederacy. Robert E Lee’s southern forces were eventually subdued by the Yankees fighting under the flag of a barely invented American nation, a nation to this day still struggling with the legacy not just of southern slavery but of resistance to big government – whether GOP or Democrat – if headquartered in DC. The public health care option bit the dust the day we arrived here, opposition to Obama’s plans echoing a political tradition rooted in resistance to the power of the center, itself a sound constitutional principle applied in state’s rights and the separation of powers. So today does this strain of liberalism find representation in the GOP or among Dixiecrats both defending a principle and susceptible to private health company money.

Having arrived early in Fredericksburg we checked out the fantastical wares of an antiques market where I bought a Vietnam campaign medal and resisted vinyl temptations. Along the beautiful river that snakes along the east side of town we found relation as we connected once more to the point of our journey – natural beauty taken at our own pace. I had been in this town only 18 months earlier, meeting up with an old friend from Jerusalem whose undergrads I gave a lecture to on the obscurities of Saudi foreign policy. Now I was back with my wife and more relaxed as we were here for purely social purposes and I had not come here hot foot from burying my father in England. My friend’s son is growing fast. The pleasures of fatherhood were though sometimes belied by his wistful remembrance of a former freewheeling existence around the mid east. It was great to see him and his wife again, albeit that tiredness got the better of us all before the beer had the chance of aiding recollection of old acquaintances among the would be power holders and inebriates of Palestine.

We had planned to stop over in Charlottesville the next day, an apparently pleasant student town with an artsy scene – however the arrival of the U2 travelling juggernaut pushed up the hotel rates for largely overbooked rooms. We promptly left town and holed up in nearby Waynesboro where I descended into a deep depression as the focus of the trip became lost on an auspicious anniversary – the birthday of my dead father. Salvation was thankfully found among the warmth of the occupants of the nearby strip mall of which Little Caesar’s (Little Hitlers?) and a flooded laundrette proved particularly appealing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Life ends at 45

...thought that might get your attention. Though the title of this post, as Tim Lott once observed of a tiresome Freddie Mercury routine, is a bit like the old man producing a rat from under his rain coat. The thrill wears thin after the first few repeats. Appropriate metaphor indeed...I had said that the relocation from Deira to Dire Diary might produce some observations on life back in blighty, so here it belatedly is, though without the satire desired my my wife. Approaching 2 months back in the country, I am heading toward the fork in the road, and am, as usual, determined not to take it. I had hoped to avoid thinking about my professional future, had even thought I might avoid the middle east (see July posting) but knew that this aspect at leastwas a delusion .

We are both intent on the road trip from next month; the rest, who knows? Some possibilities exist for me from UAE contacts and from elsewhere that could pay the bills from the winter; other options would suck me back into the London slog that I have been avoiding and which friends tell me to avoid.

I am currently having my wife's suggestion that we could never have had kids emphasised to me by the experience of having our nephew in the house for a couple of nights. My reaction to him is my father all over. Flexibility has never been my strongest suit.

Life is short. I will focus on the luck of being free of an employer for the time being and must make the most of it until the road trip beckons. More vinyl therapy is definitely needed; this after all was virtually the whole reason for taking time out in the UK.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Jimmy Buffett Live in London

Jimmy Buffett’s First Ever UK gig – July 5 2009 Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

40 years in the business, tons of albums under his belt, and a relatively small but highly loyal fan base across Europe. Yet, strangely perhaps, this was the Mississippi/Florida singer songwriter’s first ever UK gig (barring a performance in an all star charity bash a few years back). The legions of self professed “parrot heads” (the name by which his devotees are known) were not disappointed. Shepherd’s Bush Empire – long the redoubt of tribal gatherings – saw a profusion of white middle aged couples in Caribbean fancy dress gathering early for a chance to grab the best view for this unprecedented show.

Mr Buffett’s musical and cultural shtick is a Carribean/Key West Florida gumbo of mid tempo rock with a rootsy undertow, as, I guess, befits a man who started life as a wannabe country singer. Seeing him centre stage dressed in, appropriately enough for his image and for this almost tropical UK heatwave, Bermuda shorts made me think that this was possibly the least cool gig I have ever been to in my life. Much of the gig involved an eight-piece band, and one female backing singer, knocking out foot-tapping numbers bolstered by Jimmy’s often comical lyrical observations, as reflected in such titles as "Cheeseburger in Paradise". Other times there were embarrassing exercises in frat party cool ("Summer School", for example). Every number however elicited ecstatic responses from the Buffett cognoscenti. His performances though were all too often easy on the ear and emotionally unchallenging. In contrast, “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, "One Particular Harbor", and the (sadly only) three acoustic numbers were, for my money, the stand out numbers of this gig. The acoustic songs were a funny (and possibly the only recorded) satirical take on the world financial meltdown, Plenty to Drink About; and two of his most renowned (if that is the right word) tracks: "A Pirate Looks at 40" (revered by Bob Dylan, he wryly noted) and “He Went to Paris”, which closed the show. On these latter two numbers, the quality of Mr Buffett’s vocals and the emotional power that he is capable of summoning up, despite all the schlock of his Carribean island thang, came through strongly. Margarettaville, a signature Buffett tune that perfectly embodies his sailing, sozzled, and soaking up the rays persona, was enjoyable. Ending with “He Went to Paris”, however, meant that the gig closed on a qualitative high note, right after a thoroughly unnecessary sop to the Brits had seen him and his oversized band tackle Yellow Submarine. Buffett seemed bowled over by the response of the audience and promised to come back next summer for his second ever proper British gig. I hope he does, and in the process he should draw deeper on the emotional depths that he plainly has.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

UAE parallels with Iran?

The UAE, a neighbouring country of Iran that allows the Iranians a business and finance enclave in Dubai, is relatively unaffected by the political upheaval in the Islamic Republic, and stands to gain economically. Obviously the UAE's rulers are wary of Islamically-sanctioned authority being challenged in the streets, even if it is largely in the name of regime figure who has been electorally dispossessed. The nearest parallel to what is happening in Iran in the GCC states are the disputes over succession. These still ocassionally pop up among the families of some of the northern emirates of the UAE, and via the family fights vitiated through parliamentary shenanigans in Kuwait as well as the more coded family disputes over policy that get a semi-public airing in Saudi Arabia.

Otherwise Gulf politics are about traditional consultation methods and individual sheikh's majlises, processes that are sometimes bolstered by narrow electorates for powerless putative parliaments. Kuwait is a relative exception to this rule. However its legislative politics are more parliamentary theatre than substance, as could be said of the UK until last week. The Al-Sabah have long been a lesson for other GCC leaders in why they should not go down the part-constitutional politial route. Now that Iran has shown that electoral politics is as dangerous as brash modernisation was 30 years earlier for the Shah, this lesson is only compounded. Dubai's version of brash modenisation is unlikely to herald what happened in late 70s Iran of course. The (indigenous) cultural conservatism and the ruling family's partnership with the local ulema who have become more controlled in the last 10 years will see to that. Dubai's clerical class, as in other UAE emirates and in other GCC states, are rigorously held in check in what is a small city state. Radical Islamic opinion -once useful throughout the Gulf in countering the attacks of Arab secularists - has been easily controlled by ministry purges in the last few years, while talk of national identity and more active morality policing has helped offset more recent disquiet.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Old New Homeland

Strange times indeed. Am in a period of transition between departing the UAE and arriving in our old new homeland, the UK. Departure has been something I am taking in my stride, mindlessly preparing for the off by filling my time packing and finishing up admin tasks in Sharjah before spending a few days with friends in Dubai and then on to the plane with X, my long-time friend and wife. I expect that the journey home will see some deeper reflection on what it has all meant but maybe not, as tiredness and a hangover are more likely to compound the generally dissolute state of mind that I have found myself in over a number of months. An inability (or unwillingness) to think and a difficulty in remembering has been something that has characterised my state of mind for several years now, beyond the specific and relatively narrow requirements of work.

What is to be done? I am happy to have no specific plans beyond deep immersion in my music collection and time spent with my wife, in addition to reacquainting myself with my mother whose health had largely dictated future calculations over the last year. The difficulty will be in gauging what happens in say a year from now; what do we do beyond raising mortgage money and paying the bills? Do we want to be there for say the next 5 years, dealing with family and working on the mideast (in my case) from the vantage point of London? I had thought that once work pressures eased (as they plainly now have) I would want for nothing more than escape from the damned region and the chance to make the most of the 15 years left for fun before old age kicks in. I am not interested in competing with the big boys in regional meltdown watch, and I have never had the patience to do what real regional experts do (learn the key local languages properly and obsess, obsess, obsess). In fact I have always found the obsession of my western peers who work on the region to be rather tiresome, wondering what is missing from their lives that the fate of the Palestinians, Iraqis or even the Bahraini Shia is something that can make them fulminate with impotent rage against local power brokers, western governments, religious intolerance (delete as appropriate).

I had thought that I could redirect my energies on something that would take me (mentally at least) far away from the accursed middle east and apply my general political nouse to wider problems. We shall see – I can’t earn money by presenting the long historical view of the strange death of the Labour Party, while condescending to step into the parochial ring to fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love is plainly a waste of my inordinate political talents. My teaching of international relations at Sharjah hasn’t really made me an incisive observer of world political trends, while my creative writing abilities (as you can no doubt tell) haven’t really improved much for 20 years. My wife however thinks that a sometime sparkling and satirical wit should be deployed in scripting socially observant plays or comic observations – I will certainly have time to pursue this possibility, but don’t hold your breath. Old dogs and new tricks come to mind. Watch this space as Deira Diary relocates from the middle east to the east end and my takes on the UK, the mid-east, old (and new) music, and, as far as possible, the world become subjects for some sometimes ill-considered reflection

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Back to the Mother (F) country

We are leaving Sharjah on the 14th June, so unless I run into any of you in the office, this may well be goodbye.

I am highly appreciative of the willingness of the university to give me the opportunity of teaching for the first time in what is now an even more varied career. I have no idea what will happen back in the Old Country; that will be in the hands of God, my mother, and the luck of the Irish (note the order, as was said of Saddam’s comments concerning what he thought were life’s three afflictions). I am not, by the way, and to the best of my knowledge, Irish.

It has been an up and down experience for both of us out here in the UAE, one that we will, for sure, remember for some years to come. It is also possible that we will be back, although probably not in a long term employment capacity. I shifted my Mid-East focus to the Persian Gulf over 10 years ago, and it’s probably too late to shake off this particular affliction. So that suggests that a return visit to the UAE is more than possible. Whether I will then be serving in a teaching capacity back in the UK or preparing my bid for the Labour leadership in 2014, I cannot predict. Equally likely, I will be a “researcher”, with all the ambiguity and mukhabarat connotation that that implies. My wife, I trust, will return, full force, to painting, and, with the grace of God, will make a mint and I will get to realize a long held ambition: to drive a van from town to town, continent to continent, from art exhibition to art exhibition.

If our current plan works out, we will be on the road from NYC to the west coast sometime between mid-September and mid-November 2009.

This blog will shortly redeploy to the wild east of London. Dire Diary anyone?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Checking out...for good

Another rerun of the Eagles' tune on VH1 last night reminds me now of where I came in. That being the Hotel California where I was holed up for three months in 2007 courtesy of my former employers, a conflict resolution charity. In this two star benign regime anything was available for Dirhams, albeit that Heiniken was my only occasional indulgence. Now I am really checking out of the UAE, and from this university compound in Sharjah where we redeployed nine months back. It has been another benign regime, hard to escape its collective clutches, its welfare provision, and its relative ease and convenience. Well, we are now finalising the prison break, although like Michael of the TV series we may have to continue the struggle on the outside, in part one of our own making. Blighty beckons, main reason being to provide psychological support to my mother , but other factors are at work too. Teaching has been especially hard and almost gruelling when combined with writing research papers on the regional situation. These though will provide fame and glory in the major publishing platforms that only Abu Dhabi and a UK university can provide. Once back in the child's bedroom of musical delights and hi-fi, I will probably miss the structure, the relative respect, and the apparent purpose behind what I have been doing in Sharjah. Close, confessional, friendships there have not been, but interesting folks a plenty have been discovered among the faculty. Friendships made here and in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will hopefully be sustained when we all move on to pastures new. Where this goes next, and what will have been achieved is hard to gauge. I know that some students appreciated my insights, others made me feel intellectually and personally inadequate to the task. Overall, university teaching diminishes your analytical depth as those close to the real politics are more out of reach and your own analysis is necessarily simpler. We fly soon, hoping that the advantages of northern European climate and things to access without wheels will make us both closer and life in general more fulfilling.