Singles of the year: #66 (NMC)

66. This Love – Maroon 5

After a pleasant couple of hours spent in the dimly lit opulence of the swishest new bar in Phuket Town, our waiter friend from the Banyan Tree decides to take the three of us clubbing at the joint up the road. We enter the compact, packed venue to the sound of Wild Cherry’s 1970s funk-rock classic Play That Funky Music, with a six or seven-piece live band “performing” in the middle of the main floor to the right. The guitarists are striking poses; the keyboardist is pounding away; the crowd are whipped up into a frenzy… but the music itself is actually coming from the DJ booth. Hiring a full live band to mime to records? OK, that’s weird. Is this common practice over here?

We squeeze our way up the steep open staircase ahead of us on the left hand wall, past more jiggling revellers (roughly 75% Thai to 25% European/American/Australian), navigate through the grinning crush of dancers on the balcony above the band, find a table at the back, and order our drinks. As the waiter returns, K and I realise that although the tune playing is still Play That Funky Music, it is no longer the recorded version; somewhere along the line, the band have picked up the beat, joined in with the record, and have now seamlessly taken over the performance. What’s more, they’re cooking up a storm.

With each successive number, the players swap places and instruments accordingly, with vocalists coming and going from a extended pool. On a huge video screen above the performing area – and thus level with us on the first floor – a classic rock video channel is playing with the sound turned down, giving rise to some odd juxtapositions: the sound of Enrique Iglesias’ Bailamos to the visuals of The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, for instance. K is convinced that someone behind the scenes is carefully matching up the sound and the vision (“that’s so clever!“) – but then, the Long Island Iced Teas are kicking fairly effectively all round.

At the opening bars of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, our collective Pavlovian response is not to be resisted. Within seconds, the three of us are chugging away at the front of the balcony, clinking glasses and bottles with the merry throng around us. The comparatively tall and burly Thai fella on our left – a serial clinker and hand-shaker, and lead candidate for the post of K’s new best friend – has, for reasons best known to himself, decided to hoick his T-shirt up above his chest, which he is now proudly slapping with the palm of his hand. Ours not to reason why. Down below, a broad-shouldered, homely looking chanteuse, whose innate campness puts me somewhat in mind of Nadia from Big Brother 5, is belting her way through the track with beaming, eager-to-please enthusiasm, repeatedly flapping her elbows against her sides as she does so. Meanwhile our impeccably groomed companion-cum-guide has cast aside his leather jacket, rolled up his sleeves, loosened his top, and is busily reconnecting with his inner Disco Bunny: all sideways shimmies, coiling gyrations and lingering, provocative strokes of the torso. It’s mental. It’s great. I love it. We all love it.

Living La Vida Loca gives me a chance to shove my way downstairs for a slash. Next to the urinals, and away from the other wash baisins, a single bowl is marked with a sign, in English and Thai: Vomit Station. Hanging on the wall at a wonky angle, a corpulent, squiffy-looking dame in a scarlet frock (think Beryl Cook does Bangkok) reclines awkwardly on a chaise longue, leering down at the tipsy micturators, a couple of whom are loudly declaring their respective sexual agendas for the night in the most unequivocally detailed terms.

The band’s range is impressive, ranging from recent pop hits to disco classics and rock standards. Back in our seats, I recognise the strains of Maroon 5’s This Love: a hit from a few months earlier which I had enjoyed well enough at the time, without exactly being overwhelmed by it. I hadn’t realised that it was so popular internationally. In this context, it sounds fantastic. It’s one of those instant flips that you sometimes get with seemingly inconsequential pop songs. Give them a context, an association, a memory, and you imbue them with a poignancy that can sometimes last for decades.

The DJ set which follows is even more eclectic, the dancers responding with equal enthusiasm, regardless of what is played. Although we cope manfully with the rinky-dink 200bpm happy hardcore bonkers nosebleed toytown techno, Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ tips us over the edge, firmly nudging us downstairs and out onto the street.

On the Saturday night, we’re back in Phuket Town, celebrating our friend’s promotion at a cheerfully bustling downtown restaurant, with a ever-shifting assortment of his colleagues from our resort; throughout the evening, they appear on motorbikes in dribs and drabs, whenever there’s a break in the stormy weather at the end of their shifts. The meal unfolds episodically and informally, with new dishes being ordered whenever anyone feels like them; then pooled, passed around, and left on the table for whoever wants them next. It’s a form of extended grazing, which we had spotted – with some degree of envy – at neighbouring tables of Thai diners during the week, at our favourite independently-run beachfront restaurant. It’s a style of dining which suits the food, and us, well.

Once the slight shock of our presence is overcome, our dining companions happily absorb us into the general banter, back-chat and gentle ribbing which dominate the table. On the giant video screens, live UK soccer is being shown; a national obsession, and ideal for everyone’s Saturday night entertainment. Time and again, people arriving at our table look at K, and make the same observation: you look just like Alex Ferguson.

As you may be aware, K and I don’t exactly follow the football closely. We therefore haven’t the faintest idea who Alex Ferguson is, or what he looks like. As luck would have it, one of the teams in the second match turns out to be Manchester United. Eventually, Ferguson appears on screen.“Look, look! Alex Ferguson!”

We roar with appalled laughter. Guess that “they all look the same to me” stuff cuts both ways, then.

Around the table, there is much talk of the paper birds. In certain areas of southern Thailand, newly emergent outbreaks of sectarian violence are threatening the peace, stability and economic well-being of the country. Indeed, with tourist numbers slightly down on last year, our companions are already worried that this might be taking effect. (We are quick to reassure them; after all, how often does the western media ever report on south-east Asian affairs?)

In response to this situation, the Thai government has devised a novel approach. Instead of sending the troops in, the country’s entire population has been asked to construct folded paper birds, containing messages of peace, to be dropped on the affected areas by the air force on the King’s birthday – which is tomorrow, as it happens. The original aim was to collect around 60 million birds – one for every citizen. However, in true Blue Peter Christmas Appeal fashion, the total number has soared beyond that, to an estimated 120 million.

I try to imagine the sight of 120 million paper birds fluttering through the air, bearing peace slogans. It’s an undeniably powerful, beautiful image. We canvas our companions’ opinions on the initiative. The feeling is unanimous: they, and just about everyone in the country, are solidly behind it. Back at the Banyan Tree, staff have been as busy as everywhere else, assembling and gathering their stock of birds. Slightly confused by the timelines, K and I resolve to make our own when we get back to the villa; we think it would be a nice touch if at least a couple of guests could add their own.

Sometimes, when I am a little tipsy, I can err on the side of overly sincere over-dramatisation. But then it’s Saturday night, and we’re all a little tipsy. Leaning across the table, I make my pronouncement. “If this mission is a success, then the people of Thailand will have taught the world a valuable lesson! I mean, imagine if the Americans had dropped birds on Iraq, not bombs!”

Oh, will someone please just slap me, before I turn into Yoko f***ing Ono?

This is also the last night of our holiday in Phuket. Everyone is asking whether we’ll be coming back. Having already made our decision a few days ago, we make a solemn promise: same week next year, hopefully in the same villa if possible. We have enjoyed a perfect holiday – the stuff of fantasies – and these affable, welcoming people have helped to make it possible. In all the conversations we have had about our resort during the evening, it has become abundantly clear that everyone takes a great pride in creating and maintaining such an idyllic environment (and such a prestigious one; for ever since it opened, the Banyan Tree has been repeatedly garlanded with awards). We would have sniffed out the bullshit by now, or the cynicism, or indeed the desperation; there is none.

“You should all take a real pride in creating such a perfect environment!” We are, as I say, a little squiffy.

“You must let us know when you plan to come back! We will create a special welcome for you!”They are, as I say, a little squiffy. We take our leave – somewhat earlier than we would have liked, but it’s a long day tomorrow – amidst smiles and handshakes, and warm hugs from our newly promoted waiter-no-longer friend.

That was close.

Boxing Day morning. Why has J texted me with this cryptic message?

What do you mean?


Sorry darling, but I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

Weren’t you staying near the tsunami area in Thailand not long ago? Must have knickers in a twist.

Tsunami? I’m straight onto the laptop … f**king poxy 56k dial-up … and into Google News … what the f**k? … and I’m searching.

“phuket tsunami”

“laguna beach tsunami”
“banyan tree tsunami”
Not a bean.

On the TV news, all the talk is of Patong beach, 30 minutes south on the same coast. Devastation. But at this early stage, still numb and near-tearful from the shock, all I can think of is the people I’ve met. The guys who work at the resort’s beach restaurant, where we took lunch most days. The nice couple from that Saturday night, who run the “reggae bar” next door. Our favourite independently run restaurant further down the beach, where you choose your own freshly caught seafood from the tanks. Whole livelihoods potentially destroyed.

In between bulletins, I’m combing the news stories on the web. Malyasia? Nah, skip it. Indonesia? Yeah, whatever. Sri Lanka? Come on, come on, next paragraph. I’m dimly aware that this is vaguely shameful, but I really only have one thing on my mind. Our hotel was maybe 200 metres back from the beach, with a network of three large lagoons immediately behind. If Patong is any guide, then prospects aren’t looking good.

Strangely, there’s very little “there but for the grace of God go we” about all of this. Funny. Would have expected that.

Late that night, a story comes up via a search on Google News: an eye-witness has described the Laguna Beach Resort (a large complex of five hotels, including the Banyan Tree) as “completely gone”. That’s it: just two bald words. I go to bed feeling flattened.

The following morning, another site has followed up the story, by speaking to contacts at the Laguna Beach. The story is false. A headland at the south of the bay has broken much of the force of the tsunami, causing the rest of the bay to experience more of a “major swell”. No casualties. A few minor injuries. Some rooms flooded in other hotels. Some damage to the Banyan Tree’s beach restuarant. Clean-up operation already in progress. Gratitude to staff and guests for their efforts. Beach to re-open on December 28th. Please focus attention and efforts elsewhere, to where they are most needed.

Strange to think of holidaymakers lazing on the beach, just thirty minutes away from such carnage. Finally, the “what if” scenarios start up. Would we be lazing along with them, or would we be lending a hand down in Patong, and would it even be a useful hand, or would we just be like the awkward dinner-party guests who insist on helping with the washing up without knowing where anything goes, and would it be best if we just confined ourselves to splashing our cash around, thus helping to re-establish swift normalcy to the tourist industry? Do your bit for disaster relief! Buy expensive cocktails! Utter, utter head-f**k.

But more than anything else on the morning of December 27th, what I felt was an immense sense of relief.

A pity it turned out to be so short-lived, then.

Woefully, pitifully, horribly short-lived.

Now read this. (via)

When good cliques go bad.

Amongst the numerous contradictions that have helped shape me into the fascinatingly complex individual that I am today, (and God, this ironic self-aggrandisement is going to have to stop some time soon, lest the wind should change direction and leave me stuck that way) my attitude to social cliques is a prime example. Rationally speaking, I retain a strong dislike for cliques: the insularity, the exclusivity, the unhealthily inward focus. Nevertheless, I am also the sort of person who has always been naturally drawn towards them, and into them. For there are aspects of cliquedom which attract as well as repel: the security, the dependability, the easy, instant support network – and, if I am honest, their essentially self-referential nature. I like the “insider knowledge” that membership of a clique confers – and I love the knowing, sharp banter which flows from that. Mine is a sense of humour which thrives on the delicious naughtiness of the in-joke; I delight in operating just within the boundaries of what constitutes good-natured teasing, safe in the knowledge that offence will not be caused.

Thus it is that over the years, I have found myself right at the heart of many a social clique. In my first year at University, our clique of maybe a dozen or so in residence hall was so flagrantly close-knit that we referred to ourselves quite openly as “The Clique”, and were happy to be known as such by everyone else. I’ve been in school cliques, office cliques, gay cliques (of various hues), neighbourhood cliques, clubbing cliques, pub cliques, house-share cliques… the lot. And for a while, they’re usually great places to be.

Until – inevitably – they start to disintegrate. A key member of the clique moves away – or changes job – or meets a new partner with a different set of friends, who doesn’t quite “fit in”. Or maybe they just bore of the repetition, and so start to move in wider circles. The pub changes hands; the club shuts down; the department is re-organised. Or, worse still, a feud breaks out between two or more of the clique members. Sides are drawn. Allies are recruited. This person and that person can no longer stand to be in the same room together. Suddenly, the illusion of permanence – that we will always be together, friends forever – is cracked, revealing the underlying, uncomfortable truth: that these arrangements are always temporary.

The ground is pulled from under your feet. You had come to rely on these people. Their constant presence had saved you from having to make conscious decisions about who you saw, where you went, and what you talked about. You feel uneasy, insecure – and, if you’re not careful – resentful, wounded, jealous, spiteful. The open banter freezes into covert bitchiness. The aggrieved muttering and finger-pointing begins. It’s all his fault, or her fault, or their fault. We thought you cared. You’ve spoilt everything. You were a false friend; you strung us along, and we never realised.

In these situations, closeness can turn to distance in an instant. Too late, you discover that with some people, it’s all or nothing. From gossipy huddles three times a week down the pub, to strained smiles and awkward small talk three times a year; in the street, in the supermarket, at someone else’s summer barbecue. It hurts. You can’t quite understand how everything changed so rapidly. You replay events and conversations over and over again in your mind, trying to find an answer, wondering what you did wrong.

Shows like Friends perpetuate a myth; the myth of the permanently inseparable gang. Yes, individual friendships can and do last – for years, for decades – but without need of the supporting structure of a clique to keep them alive.

These days, I retain a careful wariness of cliques. I will happily hover at the edges – picking up some of the banter, joining in some of the activities – but I will stop well short of total immersion. And yes, that applies online as much as offline. What’s more; I have discovered that I actively like the independence that this brings. More choices, more variety, more control. More interest. More scope.

“Darling! You’re looking as fabulous as ever tonight! Mwah! Mwah! Big hug! Now tell me all the latest gossip!” Enjoy it for what it is. But don’t be seduced by the illusion, however glittering and flattering it may be.

Swanky do.

I didn’t really want to go to the swanky hotel’s first birthday party – it was too soon after the excesses of the weekend – but K said come on, it will be a laugh, people we know are going, it’s free booze and gourmet nibbles, and it’s a good excuse to put on our smart new trendy gear and pose around a bit. Sometimes, he knows exactly how to speak my language.

“It’s cocktails and beer in the restaurant, or champagne and wine in the lobby.”

What a peculiar way to organise your drinks. We turn right and battle through to the lobby, winding through sprawling clumps of braying flash trash who think this do is the fucking business, mate. There’s a big queue for fizz – except that it’s more of a scrum, as most of the flash trash evidently consider themselves above waiting in line. No-one doing the rounds with trays, except for one lone waitress with just two glasses left; she promises to return with more, and is never seen again.

Awkward, over-calculated postures; fake smiles betrayed by eyes which are constantly scanning the brightly-lit space; everyone is performing, everyone is “on”. (And I choose my prepositions carefully, hur hur.) Playing the game is the only option. Our journalist friend (already battling to suppress his dirty looks when no-one is watching) introduces us to someone of his acquaintance who has wandered into our orbit.

“This is K, this is Mike, this is S.”

She smiles and greets K, swivels her head straight past me in one smooth, flawless motion, then smiles and greets S. In a split second, she has correctly calculated that I am an outsider at this game, and thus am no-one worth knowing.

As we have observed on many occasions, our journalist friend is blessed with uncommonly acute social antennae. He waits a minute or so, and then has another bash at bringing me into the game.

“This is Mike. This man is one of the country’s top bloggers. He’s just been featured in The Observer.”

(In brackets. In the middle of a list. At the back end of Page Two. But now is not a time to quibble.)

In a split second, she has snapped straight back round to face me, arm already outstreched, face wreathed in smiles. “Hi! Very pleased to meet you!”

As I, in turn, make my own calculations and act on them accordingly. Two can play this game, missy.

An enthusiastic, natural networker, our journalist friend has recently taken to talking me up everywhere as “one of the country’s top bloggers”. As I blushingly make to duck and wince – bobbing my face, Lady Di style, beneath an imagined (and long vanished) floppy fringe – I discover with some surprise that the old reactions of bafflement, condescension or total disinterest have all but vanished. People actually look impressed. Post-BdJ, her book deal, and all the attendant guessing games in the national press, everyone in these circles now knows exactly what a blogger is. Or thinks they do, at any rate. We’re the phemomenon du jour, don’t you know. We’re really frightfully au courant. No longer viewed as sad little loudmouths, bleating away to nobody in particular, we’re getting respect. What a richly ironic proposition – that the lascivious diaries of a call girl could finally be conferring respectability upon us all.

Back at the swanky do, I am slowly drowning. Our friend from the boutique hotel is regaling us with mischievous gossip about the boy band who checked in this afternoon. (“Our masseuse says that X has such stinky feet!”) For me, this should be conversational home ground – an easy lob. Nevertheless, it is becoming more and more of an effort of will to focus on what is being said. An overpowering sense of disconnection is taking me over. The people standing around me no longer seem quite real; it is as if I am observing them through a bubble. Even their voices are sounding muffled; words reverberating inside my head, but their meaning failing to reach my brain. I keep zoning out, staring into the middle distance, longing to be anywhere but here – and then frantically snapping back into the room, trying to arrange my facial features into some semblance of the requisite brightness, failing badly, and then zoning out again. Insulating myself with ever-thickening layers of guilt.

As the cycle repeats, panic starts to rise inside me, causing my heart to race and my temples to pound. I even feel slightly sick. I have to get out of this room. NOW. Handing my glass to K, I mumble an excuse and flee for the sanctuary of a toilet cubicle, where I sit for several minutes, trying to calm myself, waiting for the pounding and the throbbing to stop.

If I stay in here any longer, people will wonder where I am. A fresh wave of anxiety hits, pushing me back out into the lobby. I try and flash a look at K, but we are in uncharted waters here, and there is no meaningful signal which I can send. Besides which, he is playing the game to perfection, networking all around with his customary apparent ease, attracting people towards him with that understated charisma which he doesn’t quite know that he has. I have no wish to put him off his stroke. A new anxiety hits me: that I might be letting him down in public. The pounding and the throbbing return, even as a couple of goons in matching white sportswear suddenly materialise next to me, tumbling around on the lobby floor in an ill-conceived display – half judo, half breakdancing – which is presumably meant to be the evening’s “turn”. It is a staggering misjudgment. No-one quite knows how to react. Even the flash trash are looking uncomfortable.

And I can take no more. Another quick mumble to K, and I am out of the door before he even has the chance to react. Ten minutes later, I am back at home, sitting semi-catatonic in the dark in my Marc Jacobs pea coat and my too-tight Prada shoes, breathing in and breathing out, and finally understanding why K sometimes has to leave noisy gay clubs in a hurry.

New Dawn Fades.

(posted by Mike)

In the comments box attached to my Five Stages Of Working In Paris piece, John sums up exactly what it is about Charles De Gaulle airport that depresses me so much:

I think the awfulness of it is compounded by the airport it was intended to be, or once was. It’s got this towering modernistic sixties/atomic/space thing going on, but it looks so dated and thwarted and smells of dead cigarette smoke and old clothes.

Precisely. For someone of my generation, who was seven years old when Apollo XI landed on the moon, there is something particularly poignant about anything that reminds us of the thwarted technological Utopianism of the 1960s. Why aren’t we wearing silver bodysuits? (Mid-nineties ravers excepted.) Why aren’t we munching magic pills in lieu of boring old-fashioned food? (Er, ditto.) Why aren’t we travelling to work by gyrocopter? Why are there no giant cities underneath the oceans? Why aren’t we taking our holidays on Mars? Boo! Swizz!

The biggest recent example of Failed Space Age is, of course, the demise of Concorde, which made its final flight two days ago. K and I spent a lot of yesterday morning taking the piss out of Jonathan Glancey’s decidedly overblown front page piece in The Guardian, Time machine’s final trip leaves an empty sky:-

The sky seems a little lower this morning; a cathedral without a spire, a mountain without wolves…
And then she turned and pirouetted slowly into her hangar to meet and greet the massed ranks of waiting TV cameras, as 100 celebrities, captains of industry, competition winners, newspaper editors and at least one ballerina and a fashion model emerged from her nipped and tucked fuselage.
That trademark thunderous rumble, as if the clouds were being pushed apart by some titan, caused heads to crane from city streets as she took off or came in to land.
The future we dreamed of in the late 60s has dissipated somewhere between meso, strato and thermospheres.
“When once you have tasted flight”, wrote Leonardo da Vinci, “you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards.”
But when you do so, what you will no longer see is Concorde.

Enjoy the free champers, did we, Jonathan? Tight deadline, was it?

When I was around five years old, and developing a fascination with words, I thought that the “biggest” word in the English language was “supersonic”. How could you possibly get bigger than that? The word itself thrilled me, conjuring up visions of nutty professors in white coats, busily inventing things left, right and centre.

Whatever happened to the “nutty professor” archetype, anyway? The chuckling white-haired boffin in his lab, single-handedly devising the future? Pensioned off, I guess, his place filled by faceless ranks of Product Development Managers. Technological innovation sure ain’t what it used to be. What sort of eager child nowadays could get fired up by romantic visions of Product Development Managers? Ah, there’s the rub.

My uncle, a retired government scientist, has always had a slight whiff of the Lone Boffin about him – although he is anything but nutty (quite the reverse) and isn’t a professor. In early retirement, he took to blowing up passenger aeroplanes, to see what happened to them structurally when they exploded – the objective being to find new ways to strengthen their construction. His team would buy second-hand fuselages (surprisingly cheap, apparently), take them to deserted patches of land, and blast them to smithereens. Nice work if you can get it, right?

Before blowing a plane up, its luggage hold would be filled with a full complement of actual luggage, in order to simulate the correct conditions. (A plane with an empty hold would explode in quite a different way.) To do this, my uncle’s team obtained large amounts of unclaimed lost luggage, which could then be put to use.

A curious and unexpected snag began to manifest itself. It turned out that a disproportionate amount of the unclaimed luggage originated from the Indian sub-continent. (It’s tempting to speculate about Hindu fatalism at this stage – “Our luggage has gone; it was meant to be” – but I shall refrain from doing so.) On inspection, this luggage was found to contain more lengths of folded material than luggage from other parts of the world (sari fabric, maybe?), to such a degree that it was producing a skewed sample – the softness of the fabric cushioning the blasts and producing atypical results. You have to admire the level of precision at which these guys were operating, don’t you?

Now, where was I? Oh yes: Failed Space Age. The first time that this concept hit me was in the early 1980s, when I took my first cross-channel hovercraft ride. Hovercrafts had come along at much the same time as moon landings and supersonic flight, and to me they had always reeked of Tomorrow’s World glamour and modernity. (The show’s chief presenter, Raymond Baxter, was of course another classic Boffin archetype, several years before the clownish Magnus Pyke started to downgrade the whole notion.) A brainy distant cousin of mine had even (so I was told at the time) built his own mini-hovercraft in his back garden; his youngest son could actually ride about in it. Jealous wasn’t the word.

(Incidentally, the same cousin was also a regular judge on BBC1’s Young Scientist Of The Year programme, where teams of nascent school-kid Boffins competed to produce the most exciting, innovative and – this is important – socially useful inventions. It’s a programme which could never be made nowadays. Young Product Development Manager Of The Year just wouldn’t have the same ring to it. The nearest approximation we have is Robot Wars, I guess – where social usefulness has been replaced by Philippa Forrester in tight leather kecks, making all the nerdy boys blush and stammer. Such is the nature of progress.)

It therefore came as a huge disappointment to enter the forlorn, forgotten-looking hovercraft terminal, staffed by “hostesses” of a certain age who were still wearing the same uniforms that had been designed for them in the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, these outfits had yet to acquire much in the way of retro period chic – they simply looked as if nobody had been bothered to update them, and re-enforced the suggestion that hovercrafts were an abandoned, dead-end technology. The rest of the world had moved on, leaving behind a bunch of rather passé looking matrons in matching tartan berets and mini-skirts, marooned in a shed in Ramsgate. The awful, noisy, bumpy ride which followed (I threw up into a paper bag) supplied ample explanation for this.

K remembers the opening of Charles De Gaulle airport being covered on the children’s programme Blue Peter, being deeply excited by its modernity, and being horribly disappointed by the grim reality twenty years later. We’re a scarred generation, we are. We need post-space-age counselling.

The five stages of working in Paris.

(posted by Mike, who has been up since 4:00 this morning and is therefore feeling a bit jet-lagged, even though the time difference was only an hour, and who is aware that what follows might consequently be a rambling, spaced-out jumble of a piece, but – since time is so tight in his newly acquired eurotrash-business-jetset lifestyle – is also keenly aware that it’s this or nothing, and that he can’t leave everything to his actually quite scarily talented guest posters, and oh God, he’s rambling already, OK, focus…)

1. This is bewildering.

Pitched into an unfamiliar (dare I say alien?) environment, where all life’s little details feel somehow other, one’s capacity for making the wrong choices increases exponentially. On difficult days, my expectations will shrink back to that classic, irreducible, middle-class English ideal: to get safely from one end of the day to the other without suffering any noticeable embarrassment along the way.

During my first week in Paris, this proved impossible. I pushed doors marked tirez, and pulled doors marked poussez. I caused bottlenecks in front of crowded Métro barriers, frantically scrabbling through my satchel for that sad little placcie bag containing my carnet of tickets. Given a choice of directions, I invariably set off in the wrong one. I struggled with suitcases, room keys, breakfast juice dispensers, coffee machines, small change, tables in cafés, plates of unfamiliar food (how the hell are you supposed to eat escargots, and why did I order the bloody things in the first place?), tips, the language (how I hated it when well-meaning Parisians answered my faltering French with grammatically perfect English, always, always, always – humour me, goddammit!) … embarrassment compounded embarrassment, leaving me feeling trapped inside a bad sitcom.

Mr. Bean Goes To Paris. Sometimes, I could almost hear the laugh track. I could even feel myself starting to pull the facial expressions. Behind closed doors, I sometimes did. Hey: got to keep yourself entertained somehow.

2. This is exciting.

Hang on a minute – I’m in freakin’ Paris! Cool as!

Pavement cafés! (Refreshingly free of all that creeping demographic segmentation, with hand-holding teenage couples bunched up next to gnarly old men, and neatly coiffed Madames next to merry groups of homeward bound office workers – every single last one of them smoking of course, but somehow getting away with it, because this is Paris, and this is what you do. Comme il faut, sort of…)

Beautiful manners! (None of that sod-you-mate Brit solipsism in evidence here, thank you…)

Timeless, understated elegance! (Thank God I got that ridiculous it’s-for-a-play-it’s-meant-to-look-stupid Hoxton Twat bleached fin hairdo chopped off in the nick of time…)

Iconic buildings! (Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Centre, Notre Dame, Louvre…)

All those sexy Marais ‘mos a-poutin’ and a-struttin’! (I’d do you, and you, and you, and you…)

Two nights running, I met up with Sarah, who had seen my shout-out on the blog a couple of weeks previously. Up until that point, my existence in Paris had been a steadily de-humanising round of work / eat / read / sleep. Now, I could finally start having proper conversations again. It still took a couple of drinks each night to unfurl my tightly sprung mental coils, but Sarah’s stimulating company gradually eased me back into a more functional, natural engagement with my surroundings.

Towards the end of the second night, I met Sarah’s charming Italian boyfriend, who spoke no English. So there we were, none of us native French speakers, conversing in the one non-native language which we all shared. My first proper French conversation in years. I don’t think I fared too badly, all things considered. The wine helped, of course – as it always does with foreign languages, relaxing you into a state where, the less you consciously try and search for them, the right words will instinctively start to bubble up to the surface of their own accord.

Sitting in the back of the Italian boyfriend’s car, zooming along the Seine embankment past all the illuminated guide-book sights, heading towards the twinkling Eiffel tower (that hourly light show turns out to look much better from a distance), I found myself grinning with glee. Wheeee! I’m zooming through night-time Paris in the back of a car! This is living!

3. This is fantastic.

Commuting to and from the office every day on the Métro with all the other workers, headphones playing Blur’s Think Tank or – best of all – Bowie’s Reality, newspaper on my lap, I started to feel like quite the proper Parisian. No longer the innocent abroad, but a seamless part of the crowd. Striding purposefully across the Port St. Cloud, with the crisp, clear Autumn sunshine lighting up the glass buildings ahead, and all those gorgeous height-of-autumn colours in the trees of the Parc St. Cloud, and on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne behind me. Heading back after an intensive (best behaviour in front of the client!) but surprisingly satisfying day’s work, to the hotel where they know me by name, and the little Internet place over the road, and my favourite local café/bar next door, and those wonderful early morning markets underneath the raised Métro tracks…oh yes, I’m up and running now, and lovin it lovin it lovin it.

4. This is routine.

Almost as soon as you’ve reached Stage 3 – the very next morning, in fact – Stage 4 stumbles up, bleary eyed, and clobbers you round the back of the head. In a trice, the thrill of the new evaporates, leaving you once again with that familiar feeling: same old, same old. After all: routine is routine, wherever you go. Suddenly, you’re back to wanting out.

5. This is enough.

You’re exhausted – okay, so it’s earnt exhaustion, “good” exhaustion – but no less knackering for all that. You feel ground down, fed up, wanting your man back, your home back, your life back. The misery of the shabby, over-familiar satellite lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport is the last straw – especially when you find that the bar’s shut. All your fellow passengers irritate you to distraction. The massed ranks of self-important business wonks are de-briefing into mobiles, with as much manufactured assertiveness as they can muster, all with the same emotionally distanced and faintly absurd vocal patina. There’s a tense Daily Mail type on your right, eyes narrowed and suspicious, muttering her inecessant litany of minor grumbles about absolutely f***ing everything to her silent, defeated looking husband, who looks as if he stopped listening years ago. You can’t get home quick enough.

On the plane, you put REM’s Bad Day on repeat, and crank it up nice and loud. When was the last time you kept hammering the same song over and over, because it gave you that “Yes! This is ME!” feeling? Pissed-off music for grown-ups. Bloody marvellous. Sipping your G&T from the trolley, you revel in your misery. In fact, you positively celebrate it. Dinner’s waiting when you get home. As you start planning your comic monologue, a wry smile creeps over your face.

I’ve not been in Paris this week. I’ve been in Cologne instead. Meaning a whole new set of unfamiliarities, of course – but somehow, I’m becoming familiar with the very state of unfamiliarity itself. If that makes any sense at all. (I can’t tell anymore; it’s getting on, I feel even more f***ed than I did when I started.) I’m beginning to sense that – for now at least, until even the familiarity of the unfamiliar ossifies into dull routine, as it surely must – this is actually doing me the power of good.

The Thespian Life.

I was fully expecting the world of Am Dram to be populated by the sort of characters you find in Alan Ayckbourn plays. There would be a grande dame figure called Pat (half-moon spectacles on a chain, voluminous paisley shawl), with a serenely magisterial air; everyone would be secretly a little bit in awe of her. (“You’d have to check that over with Pat, I’m afraid.“) There would be a “character actor” called Bernard, who would be given a Comedy Turn cameo role in every production; he would play all of these parts in exactly the same hammed-up way, mugging furiously to his loyal crowd in the audience. (“Good old Bernard – couldn’t have a show without him.“) There would be a slavishly self-martyring borderline hysteric called Hilary (Costume Department), who would rail constantly about having to do ALL THE WORK, with NO SUPPORT and PITIFUL RESOURCES, and absolutely NO THANKS AT THE END OF THE DAY FROM ANYONE. The stage manager would be a surly sociopath, answerable to no-one. There would be a subtle but rigidly stratified order of precedence amongst the actors – in effect, a miniature Star System – with an inner clique of three or four players who would constantly bag the best roles, to much furious sotto voce mutterings from the rest of the company. (“Well, I think we all know why Rupert gave the part to Helena, don’t we? I mean, I don’t deny that she’s a very pretty girl, but really…“)

To this effect, I have been pleasantly surprised. Everyone involved in this production has been – well – normal, and nice, and unpretentious, and socially skilled, and welcoming, and co-operative, and mutually supportive, and all of that. Who knew?

The constantly nagging question of the past three or four weeks: why haven’t I been doing this before? Why has it been eighteen years since I last acted? (Not even K has seen me on stage.) This – the acting – is actually one of the few things which I can do reasonably well. How ridiculous to have let it slip. I can’t begin to understand it.

I seem to be better at it this time round, as well. Back then, in the days of University Dramsoc, with all of its intimidatingly faux-soignee Crispins and Portias and Ramsays and Dinahs and Dominics, my self-subordinating timidity could hold me back. Besides, how much did any of us really know about the intricacies and nuances of adult human behaviour? Too many times, we would fall back on Doing It Like We’ve Seen It On The Telly – or else we’d come over all self-consciously Art-ay, in a kind of clueless sub-Samuel Beckett way. Whereas now, despite playing a deliberately stock character – the Camp Stereotype – I can work from real life observation, rather than guesswork and second hand imitation. He could have been James Dreyfuss, or Kenneth Williams, or Brian Dowling, or “Just Jack”, or Graham Norton, or any of the rest of them, but no – my little “Lexis” is his very own special creation, Lord love him.

To this end, Buni and I went out and conducted some Field Research a few weeks ago. In the Lord Roberts and @D2 (our local midweek gay venues), we trained our eyes on all the trashy queens, and solicited advice from all and sundry. What would he wear? How would he sit? How would he hold his cigarette? We tuned ourselves into the prevalent look: low-slung, distressed, “extreme boot cut” jeans (“flares” to you and me), mussed-up “fin” hairdos with the blonde highlights growing out, metal chains which dangle from the waist to the backside via the kneecap, buckled leather wristbands, chunky neck chains…quite a studied, carefully constructed look, it seemed to me. It would probably take hours to assemble, and much trawling through God knows how many funky specialist shops…

But, no. What I hadn’t realised was this: you can buy the whole look at Top Man. Every last little accessory – it’s all there for the taking, and my word, so CHEAP! Especially when Buni (my newly appointed Stylist & Personal Shopper) presented his NUS Discount Card at the till. Having set aside half a day to turn me into a trashy queen, we’d got the whole thing – including three changes of top – in less than an hour. (“It’s a mid-life crisis in a bag!“, we quipped, skipping out of Top Man together.) The ease and speed with which we were able to do this was both astonishing and somewhat disillusioning. Homogenised Chain Store Street Style: ho hum, how very humdrum. I really had credited the trashy queens with more creativity than that.

All that remains for my transformation to be complete: the haircut and the fake tan. Buying my bronzer in the chemists yesterday lunchtime, the sweet little old lady at the till smiled at me and said: “Ooh, going anywhere nice?

(Good GRIEF. It’s for a PLAY, woman. Because WHY ELSE would I POSSIBLY want to buy bloody BRONZER? Do I LOOK like the sort of person who would turn themselves ORANGE before going on holiday? Are you perhaps confusing me with SOMEONE ELSE?)

And, oh dearie dearie me, orange is most definitely the word. Shiny, luminous orange. David Dickinson, Dale Winton, Judith Chalmers orange. People in the office have already commented – and I’m still only on my second application. Just wait till they see tomorrow afternoon’s Spiky Bleached Fin hairdo. Ooh, there’ll be talk.

orange-dd orange-dw orange-jc

Ah yes: the Spiky Bleached Fin hairdo. Now, I’m all for taking my character as far as I possibly can – but, well, I’m visiting clients in Paris next week, and the flight leaves on Monday afternoon, and the salon doesn’t open on Mondays. It’s a good job that the guy who cuts my hair is an old friend, who might be persuaded to do me an out-of-hours favour on Sunday – because I simply CANNOT walk round the streets of Paris with orange skin AND a Comedy Haircut. At least, not without a sign round my neck, in two languages, saying: IT WAS FOR A PLAY. IT’S SUPPOSED TO LOOK STUPID. I AM NOT HAVING A MID-LIFE CRISIS.

The perils of the thespian life, eh? Still, I’m doing it for Art. So that’s OK then. Because Art trumps Life, every time.

Things which I never got round to blogging about, even though they happened ages ago, because I am the King of Procrastination. Part 3.

riley01Yesterday, Diamond Geezer talked about the Bridget Riley exhibition at Tate Britain, which ends this Sunday – so I guess this is absolutely my last chance to plug it. (We visited the exhibition over the summer, and both loved it – but I was on Hitzefrei at the time, so said nothing about it.)

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition starts with Riley’s heavy duty monochrome op-art work, with which she made her name in the 1960s. The cumulative effect of these pictures upon the eyes is so physically intense that if you’re not careful, it can actually make you feel slightly sick. Consequently, we both found ourselves staring at soothing patches of bare white wall every now and again, just to calm our poor little eyes down; the optical equivalent of a “palate cleanser” in a posh restaurant.


Moving through to the “multi-coloured vertical stripes” section, our first reaction was disappointment. “Cuh, swizz, nothing’s happening with this lot.” Because by now, we had come to expect every painting to f**k with our vision, Magic Eye style. Maybe, in the early 1970s, this had become a general expectation amongst Riley’s public. Maybe she had begun to feel burdened by this expectation. Maybe this was one of the reasons why she changed direction.


Our favourite section of the whole show was at the point where the strict, formal stripes had progressed into curvy waves, containing twists of colour. Warm, expansive, serene, mature, intensely pleasurable, and vaguely reminiscent of late Monet water-lilies in some inexplicable way.

riley04The subsequent “diagonal cross-hatching” phase – although I loved it 10 years ago, when it provided my initial entry into Riley’s work – now seemed a bit stale, a bit over-familiar, a bit too – dare I say it? – Late Eighties Habitat Duvet Cover. On the other hand, that’s hardly Riley’s fault. Indeed, over the years, she has consistently objected to the way that her work has sometimes been co-opted by the world of fashion and style (in particular by Mary Quant and the mods in the 1960s). It’s strange how these shallow imitations have at times posed genuine threats to the purity and the power of Riley’s original vision.

Next, I would have banged on about the Wolfgang Tillmanns exhibition in the next door gallery, but it’s far too late for that now (it shut a while ago). Excellent in a very different way – and in a way which appealed far more to me than it did to K, what with its sexy sheen of oh-so-stylish, aren’t-we-just-living-the-life, bleeding edge metro-homo fabulousness. Anti-glamour glamour, which finds as much beauty in everyday random rawness as it does in studied, posed artifice.

Some of this work had originally appeared in trendy style mags, such as i-D. Did it therefore even belong in an Art-with-a-capital-A Art Gallery? The simple answer: no-one ever seriously objected to a Norman Parkinson retrospective. Or a Richard Avedon. Or a Cecil Beaton. Like Tillmanns, they all dealt in supposedly transitory images, which were very firmly rooted in their own particular time. And yet, somehow their photographs simultaneously managed both to capture that time (definitively, iconically, fascinatingly) and to transcend it. I would contend that it’s going to be the same with Tillmanns. An originator (along with Jurgen Teller) of that whole anti-supermodel “gritty realism” aesthetic in fashion, I suspect that his work will endure for far longer than his detractors might imagine. But, as I say, no point in banging on about that now.

Right at the end of the Tillmanns exhibition, a video installation piece. Inside a large, pitch black room, pumping techno music blared out. Bloody good pumping techno music, at that. Grade A stuff. Mid-nineties vintage, at a guess. My era, in other words. It drew me in, like a moth to a flame, even as K started nervously looking at his watch. (“I’m not sure we’ve really got time for this…“) The far wall was a giant video screen, showing various images of club lighting. The lights were synched perfectly to the music. The camera never panned down to the crowd below.

I was transfixed. In my disco-biscuit-munching Glory Days, I would sometimes – as so many did – “have a wobbly” early on in the night. A sort of mini-anxiety attack. At times like these, one of my best coping strategies was to tune out from the mashed-up crowd around me, fixing my gaze instead upon the light show. I would then calm myself down by focussing all my concentration on the various complex lighting patterns that were being created, and the way they followed and reflected the music – reminding myself all the while that these effects were being carefully orchestrated by people who weren’t “on” anything at all: the lighting jocks, the DJs, the musicians. These were the people upon whom I would then train all my newly minted “empathy” – the sober, straight, creative ones. I found it deeply reassuring that they were all in charge, quietly directing the madness from behind the scenes. Thus stabilised, I would then eventually train my gaze back down towards the roiling throng around me – and joyfully reconnect.

“I don’t feel comfortable in here at all, Mike. Can we go? The riverbus leaves in five minutes…”

Another, deeper, more enduring level of sanity punctured my reverie. Torn by conflicted feelings of yearning nostalgia and slightly shamefaced foolishness – which I covered up as quickly as I could with self-deprecatory mockery (“Good job you’re here – I’d have been stuck in there for days otherwise, haha“), I stumbled towards the light.