Thursday, November 19, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Thursday, November 5, 2009
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
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
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 (www.standarddiner.com), 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
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Sunday, October 11, 2009
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.
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" (whitelightdiner.com), 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
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
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
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
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
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
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?