64. David Bowie in Barcelona

I know, I’m reviewing an exhibition – two, in fact – which begs the question: have museums got more rock n’ roll or have I got less? Does seeing Evan Dando at Gorilla in Manchester and having night tickets for Sonar preclude me from mummified status? Perhaps – at least for now. While this opportunity to see the V&A ‘on tour’ was less immersive than the Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains experience I waded through in London a few weeks ago, it still has plenty to offer. The interactive mixing desk, and thus the opportunity to remix your favourite tracks (‘Money’ without the bass line is worth a listen) is absent, and there’s no 3D revolving prism to indulge the senses, but what you lose out on in technological whimsy, you gain in intimacy.


Putting the ‘I was there’ into Bowie

Here – torn from A4 pads or accounting ledgers or written with schoolboy simplicity on graph paper are the lyrics that Bowie and his handpicked musician friends alchemised into genius. Although his artistic visions undoubtedly scaled the same preposterous heights as Floyd’s, the version of events presented here reminds us – as does the man himself in a selection of interviews that, like the music, is transferred straight into your Sennheiser headphones as you browse the intriguing paraphernalia – that the nuts and bolts of the creative process were just as mundane as those serving countless other artists, only David Jones had decided early on that he was going to transform himself into something utterly unique. His motivation? At least in part it was to avoid the dark history of madness and suicide on his mother’s side of the family. Unlike most of us, Bowie felt he had no choice but to put his money where his mouth was even before he made any, and his cards on the table even when the pack was a jumbled mess of influences with no obvious aces to play.

On that point, Bowie reminds us that there is no shame in ignorance; any more than it’s uncool to have a thirst for knowledge. He recalls seeking out difficult books and impossible jazz records, refusing to be intimidated by them – hating them, then growing to love them (helped in part no doubt by the effect the avant-garde titles had on potential admirers when poking out of a bag or jacket pocket on the tube). He wasn’t being pretentious; didn’t hide his naivety, but his shameless pursuit of a more cerebral world worked out, and he went on to digest and reinterpret its more playful, humorous and human elements to the delight of his audience. Enough said – here’s a few photos of the Floyd show. They wouldn’t let me take any at the Bowie gig; maybe I just missed the warning signs in London.

I read recently that the music you enjoy at 21 stays with you forever – an evolutionary adherence to a misspent mammalian prime. I prefer to think I just have good taste but feel free to disagree!

DAVIDBOWIEis continues at the Museu del Disseny, Barcelona, until 25/9/17. A weekday ticket (Monday-Thurday) costs 14,90€.


51. Memorable Times I’ve Been Sworn At In Public

Leaving the ferry late the other night, nursing a can of almost-drunk Kirin in my paw and heading for home, I was surprised to witness a youth sprinting ahead of me instead of veering towards our incongruous McDonald’s or one of the island’s nocturnal food stands (cheesy fish balls anyone?) What he did next almost shocked me. He spun round on his heels and gave me the finger, repeatedly and determinedly, before disappearing into the shadows.

Why was I only almost shocked? This is Hong Kong. Getting abuse on the street is as rare as thousand-year-old hen’s teeth. I guess the reason I wasn’t entirely surprised by the abuse is because I have a long and varied history of being sworn at in public that crosses continents and defies (so far as I’m aware) personal motivation on behalf of the cursers, which suggests that at certain times or in particular circumstances I am representative of something far more provocative than I perceive myself to be.

Take the case of the elderly football fan who approached me in Krakow as we relieved ourselves behind a stand during a tense Wisła Kraków match. Keep in mind that at the local derby between Wisła and KS Cracovia it’s not unknown for rival fans to battle with swords and axes. But what threat did he see in me? Perhaps the shadow of a British hooligan he’d grappled with in the ‘80s at this ground or another? On this occasion he shuffled up to me so gingerly that I offered my hand as much to support him as allow him the honour of greeting a guest new to his land. While his English mustn’t have been exercised very often, he spoke clearly and carefully to make sure I wouldn’t miss a word.


I smiled. He smiled. We zipped up our flies.

On the same European trip there was the punk in Berlin. Taking photos in the deserted streets around the neighbourhood I found myself in, I was feeling good about the city – not to mention life and all the opportunities it provides. All until, crouching down to snap some or other piece of street architecture, my lens focused on a huge pair of black bovver boots protruding from the cobbles. At the summit of this immovable object was a Mohican; at the midriff a middle finger that was telling me exactly where to go more succinctly and effectively than most Tourist Information Centres I’ve visited.

I smiled. Moved on my way. Quickly.

Next there was Washington DC. Walking not far off U-Street, near Busboys and Poets (the kind of aspirational, all-purpose, all-welcome venue you find in areas undergoing gentrification), an old African-American guy confronted me on the street: ‘Kiss my black ass you gay f*ck’, he said – delivering a mixed message that I’d no intention of picking apart for his benefit or mine. Perhaps if I’d been close enough to him to smell the booze on his breath I might have nudged him closer towards the gutter, but as he was pretty much there already I just kept walking.

Of all these vaguely threatening but still incredibly minor incidents (when compared to the abuse others face on streets around the world on a daily basis) the one in DC was probably the most understandable – once you got past the racism and homophobia. The city was changing while remaining largely segregated. And a social group that appeared to be benefitting infinitely more than older, poorly educated black men was privileged white dudes my age. However, as with the Polish football fan and German punk, I couldn’t imagine any extended dialogue designed to placate him ending with anything other than a bottle of strong, sticky spirits being smashed over my head.

Safe to say I didn’t feel as uncomfortable during this latest incident in Hong Kong. I taught English on this island a few years ago. It’s not out of the question that I forced the finger-waggling kid to read a poem aloud in class. Something to do with the sea no doubt. I’ll let this one go, as I’ve let the other incidents go. Every now and then you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. What can you do? You just have to hold your hands up, accept the finger, and move on.

44. Japanned

With Hong Kongers flocking to Japan just now, buoyed by a healthy exchange rate and charmed by the sakura (cherry blossom), I congratulated myself on being ahead of the curve before realising that although I had been immersed in the escapist world of Miyazaki many times I was yet to visit the land of their conception. What was he escaping from? What was I waiting for? I hastily screwed on my dive helmet and joined the queue.
Is the subway as easy to master as it looks? That depends on whether you’re being sarcastic or not. This first-timer struggled valiantly before being dragged down to new depths of inner despair by its multi-coloured tentacles; raging silently against the dying of best-laid plans like a mute Godzilla with a clipboard. Fortunately, once I’d grown used to their intimidating imperial-era uniforms (peaked caps and brass buttons that could have been inked by Hergé in the ‘30s) and wildly disparate ages (either incredibly young or past retirement age – perhaps a symptom of Japan’s aging population) I found station officials to be incredibly helpful. Likewise, despite the rush, commuters were often willing to help the stranger in their midst, even when he was doing his best to pretend he wasn’t particularly lost.
Tokyo must be especially interesting to a virgin twosome, as opposed to a single wanderer. It might be the safest city in the world but I can imagine other, self-inflicted hazards popping up. It is NOT the place to go as a couple if one of you smokes and the other doesn’t (smoking areas are sparse and grim) or if one of you is good at directions and the other isn’t (but thinks they are). I could barely walk by the end of my interesting, expansive and fiercely independent travels by train/foot. I’m a ditherer in company but decisive when alone. After the disappointment of the Imperial Palace (at a time when global leaders are being exposed as little more than corrupt, money-hoarding despots, there is something profoundly dispiriting about a gathering of commoners, myself included, camped compliantly outside Palace walls, content to take long-distance photos of a private sanctuary for the elite, then move on as if this were a perfectly normal way for our tax to be spent) I found a Ginza architecture walk recommended by Time Out and there was no stopping me – I had to discover all the buildings on the list, even though many had been occupied for years; from the neo-renaissance clock tower attached to the Wako store (emblazoned with ‘SEIKO’) to the Bordeaux pub at the end of the trail – an incongruous hobbit house hidden by a hairy fringe of shrivelled ivy. The zigguratian silhouette of a capsule hotel a road or two further brought to mind regeneration cells for an abandoned Mars expedition. I limped home like a dented probe.
IMG_5594Home for the night was Nui Hostel in Kuramae, a converted warehouse on the banks of the Sumida River, recommended by friends for its superior dorms, local beers on tap, and enthusiastic Japanese hosts. I went to bed having shared a few craft ales with fellow guests and the hipster owners – far from legless but wondering how I was going to survive the rest of my trip without functioning feet.
‘Where can I hire a bike?’ I ask the stern-looking woman at Kyoto’s Tourist Information, fresh off the Shinkansen and invigorated by the view of Mount Fuji en route.

‘Kyoto is not good for bicycles, too many people,’ she tells me.

‘Okay…and if I want the occasional cigarette while I’m not cycling around the city?’

‘Here only,’ she uses a stiff finger to stub out the smoking area near the station, obliterating a dozen sheepish commuters and a couple of defiant European retirees with a single decisive prod.

I take her advice with a grain of salt and yet another perfectly formed mini-sandwich from the nearest 7-Eleven. Sure enough, it turns out to be flexible. True, I can’t always cycle around Kyoto comfortably, but this is due to rainstorms, parking problems and the occasional impatient lorry driver rather than the crowds (light compared to Tokyo). Cycling on the pavement is also perfectly acceptable, while cycling by the Kamo River at dawn, beneath the cherry blossom, and under iron bridges that return me to Manchester, is an experience so sublime that I almost wished my grumpy tourist information lady was sat astride my handle bars, Ms Piggy/Kermit style.
How do I get up in time for my 6am ride? Easy. Unlike at Nui, the bunks at Bakpak Hostel don’t have sound-stifling curtains around them. On my second night I return to find a middle-aged couple has moved into the dorm along with an elderly matriarch. Mysteriously, they select choose bunks near the window, beyond a partition, while choosing to position the old lady on the opposite side of the room, on the bunk below me. Won’t she be scared, being so close to the weird-looking foreigner with the limp?

The son, or son-in-law’s sheepish smile is explained and the couple’s logic crystalised at 4.30am when I’m woken by duelling snorers. Not only is the old lady a regular snoring factory (one with a blocked chimney by the sounds of it) but a young Hong Kong lad across the way is courting unconsciousness with all the grace of an airhorn at a rave, quickly forming a subliminal duet with his cacophonous colleague. In fact, so heavily and deeply does he sleep that when I find him dead to the world after my ride at 11.30am, it turns out death is only a minor exaggeration. Concerned at his profound lack of movement, it takes me an age to wake him. At one point I wonder if I should take a last photo of him for his parents but worry about what they would make of his half-on, half-off marijuana ankle socks.
IMG_5707Still, my roommates’ histrionics means I’m able to start my bike ride bright and early. I begin by following the river, stopping to watch birdlife; attempting to make it east to Fushimi-ku – a challenge set by a hip Hong Kong couple as I extended my map in the lounge the night before – but I’m blocked by repair work so decide to head west towards Arashiyama. By 8am I’m not quite at the famous bamboo grove but am within sight of green hills, having had a wonderful experience cycling in the veins of the city. An early morning novelty, I’m bowed at by policemen; join a party of giggling schoolgirls cycling to school, and cross rusty rail tracks while scouting for ghost trains. An old couple tend to fish in large tanks outside a dilapidated garage. Their family business? What happened? There are still enough cars around here to keep me on my toes. The sun peeks through the clouds and I must return to Bakpak to revive the dead, racing east in the wake of commuting cyclists young and old – more hills now clear to the east. I freewheel down into the city, my blistered feet a distant memory.
IMG_5704 The Rules
Before I present you with a watercolour picture of frolicking freedom, I should probably revisit the parts of Japan I found a little more…officious. It’s hard to know if it’s the addict or libertarian in me protesting when it comes to Tokyo’s outdoor smoking ban. I’m not a daytime smoker so it’s not like I was in hellish straits for want of a gasper, more that I was seeing the ban as the thin end of the wedge. Around Tokyo there are almost as many red crosses through prohibited activities as there are helpful cartoon characters and musical ditties to remind you of how to behave politely on the underground.

Somehow smoking indoors, next to people enjoying their food, is still tolerated. I was just getting used to a smoke-free existence when a distinguished looking gent, part of an elderly drinking clique, lit up in an innocent-looking café at lunchtime without hesitation. Yet when I sneaked down to the riverside in Kyoto for a crafty tab at dusk, I couldn’t help wondering if the two lads on the opposite bank were filming the sakura or me, perhaps with a view to claiming their reward from the authorities. I guess that’s what comes of watching Ten Years in Hong Kong and seeing director Kwok Zune’s scary vision of uniformed children informing on their elders…

Japan has left me tired but happy. Five days is too brief a time to get more than a surface impression of somewhere with so many dimensions. Perception varies; the cherry blossom is magical, until fallen petals mush beneath your tyres and make them skiddy; the rules are annoying, until you realise they allow you to walk around cities day or night safely, and without smoke getting in your eyes. I wonder if my planned all-nighter in the alternate universe of Tokyo’s neon-bled Shibuya district might have made everything make sense. My blistered feet mean sleeping in the airport before my early morning flight becomes a more realistic proposition; this in the company of a favourite, and weirdly appropriate, Japanese tipple – Mr Boss’s rainbow coffee.


4. Crossing Consonants

There is a big, fat, bald man playing computer snooker on the back of my headrest using his big, fat, bald fingers. My first reaction to this repetitive nuisance is perhaps understandably extreme. I would like my fellow passenger to recognise the immature idiocy of his actions (and, ideally, the futility of his entire existence) seconds before our plane is vaporised by billiard-hating aliens. Admittedly, the knowledge that my last thought would be one of satisfaction at another man’s regret risks exposing a previously undiagnosed petty streak on my part. But after nine hours flying I’m well past caring.

Once arrived at Glasgow for a Fortress UK security check (‘Roll on devolution!’ the man in the luminous vest cries in mock jest when complaints are made by the English-bound amongst us) I have time to reflect on my minor sufferings. It is, of course, the airline’s fault for fitting such amusements inside supposed comfort items. If they offered me pictures of my niece and nephew to flick through, or screens of typos which, when corrected, would inexplicably lead to world peace and Internet freedom, I’d no doubt be tap-tap-tapping away on the seat in front of me too.   

In any case, I should be used to such things. Travelling is full of such strange overgrown babies disguised as grown men – especially in the West. The US border is the only place I know where laughing politely at someone else’s grade school jokes is loaded with such an air of expectancy and menace that you’d be forgiven for slipping a crib book of humorous phrases inside your passport (perhaps covering the Vietnam visa in the process). Earlier in my holiday, at the private Q&A session I’ve come to expect Stateside (this one conducted under a skull and antlers as it’s the US-Canada border I’m crossing) a comedian poured snugly into his uniform that morning informs me that my home country and place of residence must be like ‘night and day’. In my nervous state (like Woody I also have a problem with authority, to which I respond just as pathetically) I can only think that the broadly-accented African-American border official must be referring to Manchester’s famous Indie music haunt, Night & Day; before immediately vaporising the thought – a small violence that the guard nevertheless perceives behind my shifty eyes and bearded features (it’s the training, you see).

‘I said, “They must be like night and day”’, he repeats, all traces of a smile now wiped from his features, ‘Very different.’

‘Why, yes,’ I manage, ‘they are,’ only just succeeding in stopping myself from asking if he ever caught Elbow before they got huge.

No prizes for guessing that at least some of the hang-ups I share with Woody are of my own making. I still remember the days when passports were interchangeable amongst friends and James Bond skied across borders without having to transfer his chemical weapons and duty free fragrances into a €1 plastic bag first. Maybe it’s best that those days are gone, but please – border people everywhere – be patient while I accept the new world order. In the meantime I’ll be petitioning the airlines, hoping to send video games on planes the same way as smoking, sitting on the pilot’s knee, and refusing to treat all travellers as suspected criminals.