Saturday, January 18, 2014

A loft full of yesteryear

I have spent a good part of the day in my loft disinterring old memories by sorting through carrier bags of paperwork, slightly damp books, and yellowing photo copies. This was a difficult exercise. A good deal of it I am putting aside to trash, give away, or in some cases to offer to specialist scholars with a penchant for copies of UK and US Government documents relating to Kuwait in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Sad. Aside from the Kuwait documents, this was a difficult and often emotional exercise.

I am a hoarder. Why else would I have found boxes quite literally containing nothing but newspapers from the 1990s? However when the items I find are Christmas cards from long lost friends, a receipt for studio time in 1985, and heavily annotated 20 year old articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they stir up memories difficult to simply dispose of in the waste pile. A box of photos from the 1980s and 1990s mostly brought me cheer, especially those of my wife and I. Thinking of her does not invoke pain. A copy of a Sunday supplement magazine with Dylan on the cover, and with “For Neil” in my mother’s hand-writing, does.

I found an old cigar box with letters and cards. Some were from a slightly eccentric Edinburgh Quaker who many years ago would send me clippings apparently affirming unmitigated Israeli evil. He himself would not set foot in the Holy Land…on principle. However many were from my now deceased mother and father. I had long forgotten that my father had actually expressed in writing his “pride” in what he thought I had “achieved”. I don’t recall him ever clearly saying such a thing mind you. Rereading a note from my mother expressing similar sentiments was difficult, not because I don’t recall her ever verbalising such sentiments, but because in the end isolation and the disappointment she felt with her life made her love of her sons insufficient to want to keep on living.

Another dimension to the afternoon of half-remembered enthusiasms and distant echoes of longings once felt, and often discarded, were the piles and piles of rock magazines and newspaper clippings. Musicians’ obituaries, gig and album reviews, band profiles. Even a copy of Paul Yates’ execrable “Rock Stars in Their Underpants”.  The Middle East somehow took over from, but never entirely replaced, my youthful love of pop. The latter had rendered Tommy Docherty’s Man Utd pretty irrelevant for me when I was a mere 12 or 13. Pop has been a constant. It is a profession that I vaguely flirted with once as a would-be manager (briefly) and periodically ever since as an amateur critic.
The stuff I was going through was overwhelming, partly by virtue of its sheer quantity as it began to merge with the piles and piles of old books and magazines that already clutter our landing. However it also began to make me feel hopeless. Of course your life isn’t defined by old newspaper articles you’ll never read again and notebooks filled with scrawl. However they can say something about what your life was about, and, by now being old, what your life has become. Memories, past enthusiasms, hand-written notes suggesting real concern for the conflicts of far-away places. My notes from the present will not later be discoverable in box files or cardboard boxes. They will be on hard drives and memory sticks. Some will be included here, at least for as long as this blog exists. Their concerns, aside from what I need to do to earn money, will often be personal, whether I am writing about myself or an old band I have seen.   

Right now I just want to cleanse myself in all senses of the dust of yesteryear, but the boxes surround me, awaiting collection or council recycling. I am going out tonight and perhaps the booze will wash away some of the cloying sense of the past. At least until the morning when I will sit at this screen again, switching awkwardly between sad musings and professional assignments. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The sad demise of Barry's Bench

A Dubai source has given me the very sad news that “Barry’s Bench” is no more. The Mexican-style restaurant that sat inside the very pleasant Arabian Courtyard Hotel (located opposite the Dubai Museum) has closed. This was my favourite restaurant in the whole wide world. I once considered holding our anniversary party there (after we had already moved back to London). I am totally gutted. It has, I am told, become a pizzeria.

Now, my sense of what is good in the world has been circumscribed by too much time spent in the Middle East. When we lived in the UAE, finding any restaurant with character, aside from de facto male-only joints rejoicing in such names as “Pak Express”, was a difficult exercise. Barry’s managed to utilise the advantage of being within a hotel (booze was on the menu) without actually seeming like you were. In fact you could enter and exit directly from or onto the bustle of Bur Dubai in the old Creek area of town. Location was very much part of Barry’s charm.

Seating was mostly in spacious booths. This modest-sized restaurant was designed for comfort, not to cram as many punters in as possible.  An undoubted factor in the particular appeal of “Barry’s Bench” was the almost obligatory Margaritas. These we enjoyed whilst waiting for our mains, with our mains, and as desert. They were lovingly prepared at the enticing restaurant bar where the odd punter would sit. I, for one, have not tasted better.

The food? Oh yes…that was always superb (I did once eat there sober). The burritos and tacos tasted as authentically Mexican as anything I ever had on the west coast of the US, and I never (knowingly) saw a Mexican in Dubai. The staff who served you in the restaurant were south Asian men and a Filipino woman. They were friendly and attentive, but not overly so. Unlike most waiters in 4 or 5 star hotels in Dubai, they respected your space and your need to take your time. Perhaps that is why it closed. However it was always busy when we were there.

I never did find out who Barry was, and exactly what or where his bench was either.

“Time Out Dubai” lists a “Barry’s Bench Express” as located within the Times Square shopping centre on Sheikh Zayyed Road. It seems the legend continues. However a fast food version located in a mall without being able to savour Margarita Time would really not be the same. Not at all.   

Friday, January 10, 2014

Family duties

It’s a New Year and in a few months time it will be my 50th. Yet I am not sure what will have changed by the time I reach that particular milestone. Too much time on my own to think, perhaps. For when I am not writing about the Gulf from the vantage point of Walthamstow, I am wondering what the point of any of it is. The book will provide something different for those who are so inclined. In the context of recent family events, and an inability to believe the future will be profoundly different, my enthusiasm sometimes wanes. If I don’t have a runner in the Mid-East race, and if I don’t feel a desperate desire or ability to reveal some hitherto unrevealed truth about it, then it is perhaps unsurprising if I am not always totally fired-up about my professional duties.  

Aside from that, the great escape (to where?) has been indefinitely postponed. I am childless, yet tied to family. Without family, yet performing family duties. What a strange state to be in. My mother died 15 months ago and I am still waiting for the headstone. Without parents I have no one to cry to. As a child I cried to my parents. As an adolescent I needed to cry to someone else about my parents… I found Jesus. As a young man I turned away from fathers, holy and unholy. As a middle aged man my parents began to need me to cry to…about themselves, about each other. In the last five years I have buried them both. I may never see my brother again. I am happily married to the woman who has been my closest friend for more than two decades. I am lucky. This is narcissistic, attention-seeking, nonsense.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cheesecloth rock in the New Year in the Stow

Cheesecloth are an East London/Essex band who specialise in highly competent covers of mildly obscure ‘70s songs. Fans of the band helped to fill out the Ye Olde Rose n’ Crown pub in Walthamstow this New Year’s Eve. However many of the revellers turned up before tickets were required for entry and were plainly content to just drink, regardless of what was going down on stage.

This band of middle aged males and a young female keyboardist are passionate and engaged, and some of the songs they covered were bold if not borderline ambitious. Bowie’s “Drive in Saturday” was a notably entry in the latter category. Even that did not faze them. More typical pub rock fodder were their faithful versions of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”, McGuiness Flint’s “When I’m Dead and Gone” and Ronnie Lane’s “How Come?” 

The problem, at least for those who lacked the dedication of those, like me, who were dancing down the front, was that many of the numbers required a minimum age of at least 50, and a functioning memory, to mean very much. That, the fact that some of the songs are relatively laid-back, and the understandable desire of many to just booze on an occasion traditionally dedicated to the same, meant that, however hard Cheesecloth worked, they were often, inevitably perhaps, falling on deaf ears. However, as the pace and revelry built up toward midnight, the number of those dancing steadily increased. After the cheers for the New Year rang out, and the band took another well-earned break, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” was played over the PA. It’s never sounded so good…(hic)….

Consisting, on New Year's Eve at least, of Ian on lead vocals and guitar, Danny (bass), Holly (keyboards), Pete (drums), John (guitar), and Huw (harmonica), Cheesecloth are well worth checking out if this kind of music and pubs in the East and North East London area are your bag. Their manager, and such was the enthusiasm down the front, bouncer, is Ian Blowes. In the latter capacity he was working pretty hard, so much that he performed the only on-stage wardrobe change of the night.

If I have any criticism it is the of the band’s name, which used to make me imagine that they do covers of Brotherhood of Man songs. However it’s memorable and they’ve had it for a while, so, like their material, why bother changing a good thing?