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Thursday 23 June 2016

My Musical Career (see accompanying MIXCLOUD set).

I first got the idea of playing in a band when I was at school. I had had piano lessons since I was 4, obviously with a classical bent but, starting with Russ Conway, I had started playing along to the singles we got and played on the family Dansette. When I was in the Lower 6th and we could stay in at break in the music room, with a few like-minded guys, we would bang out our versions of Spencer Davis Group and the Small Faces which would attract girls, our secondary objective. Then when a student in London in the late sixties, a friend persuaded me to go to an audition with a group called Sam Gopal. A fellow auditionee was the late and much lamented Lemmy Kilminster. He didn’t get the job of rhythm guitarist but I did get the job as keyboard player : I didn’t take it as I couldn’t afford to buy a Hammond B3 organ.
ARK playing live.
My real music career started with the band ARK,  North Devon band formed in the early 70’s by Chris Kausman (electric guitar and vocals), Reg Meuross (acoustic guitar and vocals) and myself. Then we added Harvey Bainbridge on bass, Colin Mitchell on lead guitar, Alistair Merry on percussion, his girlfriend Lois as dancer and, after various trials, Martin Griffin on drums. Jeff Hocking was our sound engineer and Steve Smith our roadie.
This blog post is to go alongside my MIXCLOUD selection, Music Mainly Recorded in My Holidays Over the Last Forty Years. And the first track is LIVING IN COMFORT, written by Chris Kausman and recorded by Jeff Hocking in his cramped Appleford studio. We played mainly covers of Bob Dylan and old blues songs like Parchment Farm but did play a few of our own songs written by Chris or Reg.
Harvey, Martin and Me meeting for the first time in thirty years
WE ended up supporting HAWKWIND on a short tour and then, a year later, DAVE BROCK CAME UP WITH THE IDEA OF HIM AND BOB CULVERT forming a band called SONIC ASSASSINS using me, Harvey and Martin from Ark. We had a couple of rehearsals, got together some old favourites and two new songs, Free Fall and Death Trap and arranged to play a Christmas show in Barnstaple. Just before the concert, Bob got cold feet and was only persuaded to take part right at the last minute. The place was sold out and we played continuously until we had run out of material to a great reception. During the show the band started an improvised pattern which Bob thought was going to be the song Masters of the Universe but he then improvised too and this became the cult favourite Over The Top.
The MixCloud selection has this song plus, beforehand, two Hawkwind classics, Angel of Death and Magnu, all recorded live at this concert.
Apparently we then played a second gig in Wales and then I was asked by Dave to join Hawkwind for their American tour. Whilst on this tour Dave and I did several radio interviews in which it was suggested that Hawkwind was going to morph into Sonic Assassins. However, when we got home, I had decided it wasn’t for me and that with my French wife and two children, cat and dog, I was going to move to France and Hawkwind was out of my life.
We lived in France, in the south-east, from 1978 to 1990 and during that time I played and recorded with loads of bands, some my own. Legend, Exiles, Exit, Stradivarius, and Twice As Nice among others. I equally played with the Topper Headon Band alongside the recently sadly departed Henry McCullough and we recorded a couple of my songs.
Playing with LEGEND in France 1980
I moved back to the UK, first to East Devon and then to the New Forest, in 1990. I was teaching by day and playing music at weekends with a local RnB band whose name escapes me and then joined the CROPDUSTERS, Hampshire’s version of Sussex’s LEVELLERS. We played some good gigs including the MEAN FIDDLER at New Year. It was good fun but although they asked me to, I couldn’t afford to give up my well-paid day job: I was by now Deputy-Head in a residential special needs school.
I ended up being Head Teacher and then got offered the post of Head Teacher at a school I had worked at before back in the days of ARK. That job became really full on and I was hardly at home and had no time for playing music and my wife decided to move back to France. It was when we packed up the large house we had been living in, putting most of our stuff in storage, that a trunk containing all my music tapes and other souveniers went missing. Hence the big gap in my music recordings.
Along with a new partner, I was in Bristol from 1999, running a large project for young people with severe behavioural problems. No time for music really except being asked by Rick Nowell and his small record company, Feel The Quality, to record some of my music with vocals written and sung by local Bristol DJ, Sonic. We did this along with some quality musicians including Roni Size’s drummer, Rob.
Sonic, a poet and vocalist, Bristol fashion.
The next track on MixCloud is Bristol Situation one of the songs we recorded followed by a demo Sonic and I recorded at my house, called Just Out of Reach. Both these songs are very Bristolian in style and substance.
My work was very demanding and tiring and in 2005 I was obliged to stop working due to health problems which turned out to be cancer and eventually in February 2006 I had a large tumour removed from muscles in my back next to my spine. During my recovery and with support from my sons I started to write songs again and place them on a website where they were spotted by Dave Brock of Hawkwind. He phoned me up and asked me if I had a band which could support them on tour. I lied and said yes and so LASTWIND was formed. In fact, in 2003 Jalal Nurinda of seminal New York hiphop band, the LAST POETS, had started working for me and we started working on tunes for his projected album. And I have him to thank for the name, Last from Last Poets and Wind from Hawkwind. He went to France and wasn’t allowed back into the UK so that was the end of that collaboration.
The original drummer and bassist of LASTWIND suddenly wanted to be paid a lot more than I could afford so in the end I programmed the drums and bass and we hit the road just me and the excellent French guitarist OBNY. We got a good reception supporting HAWKWIND but at the end of the tour he had to return to France.
Lastwind supporting Hawkwind 2006
The next two tracks on MIXCLOUD are live recordings from this tour, Paris-Marseille which I sung in French and our show stopping final song, Monster Trucks.
Although we did a couple more LASTWIND gigs with a different line-up, I was getting fed up with playing just that sort of music and started writing, playing and recording a series of very different songs under the name DOWNTIME. I just put these out on SoundCloud and SoundClick, an American site, where they got a good reception and I was in their charts for quite a while even with a track in their top 3 (out of several thousand).
The next three songs on the MIXCLOUD selection are from this period, although a couple of them I started working on just before starting Lastwind. Then I have included the main song from music I did for a film called Light at some time in that decade.
POLYMORPH performing live in Bristol.
I was now working as Centre Manager at a Language School in Bristol and one of the teachers was a talented writer called Johnny Trousers. He knew I had recording possibilities and asked me about recording one of his songs. Soon we had an album’s worth and put it out under the name of POLYMORPH and even played a couple of gigs in Bristol. And in the Mixcloud sequence the next two songs are from this short lived group.
Lastwind version 2 on tour, March 2013
An old acquaintance, Frenchy Golder, director of Flicknife Records then asked me about putting out a Lastwind album and then touring it. I said yes cos I was by now retired and living in Devon looking after my mum and had the time and was rather bored. I recorded the whole album alone, helped by a few guitarists, in particular Jerry Richards of Hawklords. Then, old friend Latch, back in Bristol, said he could find the members for a 5 piece band and he did, they re-recorded the album, RETURN OF THE SONIC ASSASSINS, ready for it to be manufactured and toured. This we did in atrocious weather in March 2013. They were not happy days and I decided that was the end of recording straight ahead rock and touring. There are three songs from this venture on the MIXCLOUD sequence but they are my demos versions all with lead guitar by Jerry Richards : Daytrippers, When and Autoroute.
When my mum passed on a the end of 2013, I was free and had a little bit of money she had left me so I bought a big American camper van and headed for France. I had various tunes hanging around ready recorded except vocals which I had never used because they didn’t fit into the Lastwind mould. And I was continuing to write. I wanted them to become songs but I didn’t feel like writing lyrics or singing anymore. I bumped into someone on the internet who liked what I sent him and was interested in writing lyrics and singing.
Kenneth Higgins and Me in Bangkok.
Only problem was, Kenneth Higgins lived in Bangkok.
We met up when I travelled out to Asia in the winter of 2014/15. We got on, agreed on which songs and so NAGAS was born and a first album came out in early summer 2015, COME TOGETHER and the next 4 tracks on Mixcloud are from this album. We had to change the name to NAGAS2 because there was already a group in France with the same name. I had plenty more songs to keep Ken busy and end of May 2016 we brought out a second album called KARMA VORTEX. The next four songs on MixCloud are from this album.
The final track on Mixcloud is just me, under my own name and is probably the direction I will be going in next: instrumental music with few if any lyrics, music which gives a particular ambience, sometimes for dancing, sometimes for chilling, sometimes for reflecting. But who knows. Music keeps flowing out of me and is central to my life for however much longer it continues.

Peace and On. 

Saturday 18 June 2016

The Town Where I Live - Villefranche de Rouergue

Villefranche de Rouergue has been my chosen home now for about two years and I feel already that I belong here and have absolutely no thoughts of moving. It is a small town of 11 thousand people, less than it had in the mid-nineteenth century, probably its peak period.
The town was founded in the late thirteenth century as part of a project of those in power at the time to create a series of small, fortified towns called Bastides. There are many of these all over the south-west of France, many called Villefranche, hence the need to add to the name. The Rouergue is the name of the area in which the town is situated, once a political area of which the town was the capital.
At the time the town was created, the south-west was in ruin after the Cathar Wars which had created chaos throughout the region. The idea of the Bastides was to create safe places where the scattered artisans and other trades people could install themselves and bring a network of centres of trade and commerce to the region.
Villefranche was in an area of many activities which could develop and expand due to the protection of the town. These included the mines up and down the Aveyron valley and the agricultural activities up on the plateaus above the town. These diverse activities meant that the town had a growing commercial importance which developed these commercial activities into veritable industries in the 18th and 19th centuries with the development of mills up and down the river.
The old Bastide which is the centre of the town still exists in its medieval street plan, a warren of mainly narrow, mainly cobbled streets, all going outwards from the central cathedral square to what were the gates of the walled city in a Roman geometric fashion. The walls have now all disappeared but the streets have not been changed, still retaining the names given to them because of the activities which happened in them in the past like Hammer Street where I lived before, the noisy part of the town where workers hammered copper into vessels of many sizes.
Although a serious fire in the fifteenth century destroyed most of the houses, they were rebuilt on the same sites and most of the houses/buildings in the town date back to that period. We can see they used a framework of wooden beams and large rocks from the quarries around the area and roman tiles on the roofs. As we wander around the town today, a thing that remains striking is the covered arcades around the cathedral square and some of the amazing old doorways still used to get into the buildings. Also, most of the buildings had a business on the ground floor with family living in the two floors above this with a further floor for housemaids and apprentices.
These days the old town is a mixture of immigrants, a large part of the French population having moved out to modern bungalow and houses on the slopes of the valleys surrounding the town. We have the different waves of immigrants: from Spain and Portugal, from the North African nations, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and more recently, from Mayotte and Reunion, French controlled islands to the south of Africa. Plus of course, people like me, people who have decided to retire here from GB, the USA mainly.
Tourism has become the main industry these days and it receives its fair share of tourists, mainly just passing through and staying a couple of days but also some who use it as a base to visit the surrounding area which is beautiful and quite diverse with a lot of chateaus and abbeys to visit.
I have posted here a load of photos to give you an overall picture of the town.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

The Early Seventies - College and An Unfortunate Accident.

Now suddenly we were quite well off because I got my student grant as someone having a baby and  with a wife to support. We started thinking about getting transport, me taking my driving test, and, with our budget, including saving towards a car, we could afford one LP record a week: I had my priorities right.  So I immediately started building up our small collection by buying several, after all we had got the grant for the term in advance, and I bought a decent stereo system with a pair of home-made speakers that were loud and clear. Having music around the house again brightened up life considerably and, although the volume was kept fairly low when baby Sam was sleeping, music was on full time. I can’t remember in what order my collection grew but I know that Velvet Underground, The Pretty things, Spirit, It’s  a Beautiful Day, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Soft Machine were all fairly early arrivals, followed by a batch with folk or country edges, Fairport Convention, Roy Harper, Bob Dylan, Poco, CSNY, The Byrds, etc who all entered the frame.

A photo of me at around this time.

Of my group of fellow students I can only remember a few. Heather, the 40 something divorcee, Val, the twenty something single mum, Stuart, the ex-Guardsman, the ex-vicar, the ex-policeman. St Lukes was famous for its Physical Education section and gave places to good players in most sports. We had a young Welsh International Rugby player who was apparently as thick as two short planks, but he helped Lukes win their league at Rugby. So a lot of the young students we saw around the place were healthy looking athletic types and our group rather stuck out. There were a couple of hippiesh types in our group but they both dropped out at some point. None of the group looked like big party types, but neither was I at that period, in fact I was very insular and got on with my course in my own way, taking deep interest in that which interested me and virtually ignoring stuff that didn’t.
What Heather did was befriend me, along with a few others in the group, and invited us round to her nice house in a very good neighborhood near the college. And then she wanted to meet Simone and suggested she come down for a couple of days. Although this was going to be a logistical nightmare, Simone was so desperate to get out the house, that she agreed and it all worked out well with Heather and her two daughters cooing over baby Sam and getting on well with Simone. This led to a long friendship with Heather, right through our time in France even. Simone was getting out of the first stage of mothering as the spring came on and began going into Barnstaple on the bus again with Sam in a front carrier. She began to meet other young mother’s particularly at the hippy Barum Market, and some of these came out to visit. In fact, as the spring sprung and then summer followed, our house became quite a popular afternoon venue.

My then wife, Simone, with baby Sam.

One event made us realise that we would have to try and get a car at some point. One early evening when Sam was first beginning to walk around, he spotted his milk being warmed on the stove and made a grab for it. Unfortunately it was warming in a saucepan of boiling water which went all over his leg making him scream. We tore off his pyjamas, a mistake as the skin came off with them, and realised he needed hospital treatment. We didn’t have a phone, the neighbours were all out so I just had to hitch-hike the 7 miles to South Molton Hospital in the rain with a screaming child. Luckily I got a lift quite quickly and Sam was well treated and an ambulance took us home. But he had to have his dressing changed a couple of times which meant more hitch-hiking. He had scars for a few years but there was no lasting harm but we knew getting a vehicle and maybe even a phone was essential.
As I mentioned, some of my course I loved, some I despised or just found boring. Luckily, throughout the course, it was based on course work, with no exams. I did very well in my favourites and scraped through the others having done very little work. Going through the different subjects, we had obligatory junior maths which seemed mainly concerned that we understood the metric system which was being rolled out into all aspects of life – boring but not difficult. Then we had obligatory English taught by a gay posh guy who had our tutorials in his ‘chambers’. I think he thought we were at Oxbridge. He finished most sentences with ‘isn’t it’, told me off for being so scruffy and served tea and biscuits all round. I enjoyed his knowledge of English and of story telling, he told us there were only 7 stories in the world, they just kept changing the details. He was mainly fun and English had always been my top subject. 
Then there was the obligatory subject of Educational Theory taken by my favourite, Sir Richard Acland. He turned everything on its head from day one and had some of the group wondering what on earth was going on. He ridiculised the present system with its ‘exams’ to make sure we all ended up at the right desk or machine or broom for the rest of our lives.

Toddler Sam in front of our cottage.

He wanted an education system based on creative learning, starting with the things closest to us and then slowly working outwards, so that our education was experience based and we were taught how to think, how to develop an inborn bullshit detector. And, certainly, no exams, just qualifications based on our showing what we were capable of. He gave me as an example, a person who had been in the education system for getting on for twenty years yet at no time had I been taught about looking after a young baby, one of the most likely things to happen in my life, a real need. 
All this sounded great to me and I was all for it. We worked in small groups to develop an alternative syllabus and then were sent out in the streets to try and sell it to both school pupils and parents. That particular exercise was quite depressing to us students because it was rejected by pretty much everyone we showed it to. But Sir Richard said, of course they will reject it, they are victims of the existing system and have been programmed to think like that. We then moved on to learning about how children learn and why they don’t learn and why so many children fail at school. I got really hooked on all this and for the first time saw a potential future in teaching, not just my own children but others too.

Monday 13 June 2016

Teenage Rebel in Sidmouth.

It was in my fifth year of grammar school that things came to a head. My mum always said it was working in hotels that got me growing because I was eating so well, definitely compared with what I got at home. So suddenly, like a lot of my mates, I could get served in pubs, not all of them, just the more dubious ones that could do with the extra trade. So, added to smoking came the drinking and the need for mints as well as squeezing my fingers on the lavender plant in the front garden when I went home. Mum and dad were usually in bed by ten so if I came in just a little late I wouldn’t have to face them and I usually didn’t, and if dad was still up he would be occupied and we would just call out goodnight to each other. We were never a touchy-feely sort of family.

And then there was a party with a sleep-over so I could get really drunk. I asked a girl name Sue to

come out to Exeter with me the next weekend and she said yes and to celebrate a bunch of us went skinny-dipping in the sea before puking up everywhere in a romantic way. Bob Posta, who lived in the house on the hill opposite, had become an increasing partner in crime. His father was Czech and was a watchmaker and a bit irascible, but his wife was all Devon niceness. Bob would signal me with a huge mirror, beaming it into my bedroom window when he was ready to go out so that we could meet at the bottom of our hills saving one of us a climb. He was as wary of my parents as I was of his, particularly after one of his mirror signals caught my mum’s eye when she was ironing in the front room making her burn herself.

One night after some sort of drunken activity, Bob and I had a fight at the bottom of the hill over nothing at all. I had a sharpened steel comb and he combated this by picking a large round stone off the top of someone’s garden gate post and hurling it at me. He missed and it rolled on down the hill until it smashed into someone’s parked car and we scarpered. But worse was to come. It was the time of the school play and we were doing The Crucible and Bob and I had very minor roles. We decided it wasn’t worth going home to come back again, so we went into Ottery into a cider bar and got stuck into some rough cider, ten old pence a pint, whilst playing darts. When I managed to make the tire round the dart board fall down, the landlord had had enough of us and chucked us out. On the edge of town by the train station we caught up with some of the girls in our class who were the leading ladies in the play and were rather toffee nosed. I picked up some dog shit and threw it at them for fun and they ran off disgusted, but then in the boys’ dressing room when the girls came in in their beautiful costumes to show off, Bob puked up in front of them and one of them refused to go on with the show. We were grabbed by Mr Herbert, a rugby playing chemistry teacher, and marched round and round the playground to sober up until we could walk a straight line. We were in total disgrace.
The next day we were both spoken to by Tack, short for Tacitus, the Latin teacher and Deputy Head. He told me he knew it wasn’t easy being the son of a church minister, having to be over-bad to prove I wasn’t a goody-goody, but this was a step too far. My cheekiness in lessons was well known and my well known dirty rhymes about various teachers had not gone un-noticed but this was a step too far. I was under warning that unless my behaviour changed immediately I would not be wanted in the sixth form. Bob had a similar talking too and was told that in view of his exemplary performance as captain of the rugby team he would be forgiven BUT he had to keep away from me. Of course, letters were sent to our parents. I can imagine the bollocking Bob got, but mine were more upset than cross and I persuaded them it was all Bob’s fault and that my O level results were going to be hot. They had better be was all they could say and no more going out when there was school day the next day. And, basically, I learnt that I could push the boat out pretty far and nothing much would ever happen.

Of course, my parents encouraged anything that could keep me on the right path and this included paying for me to go to Covenanter camps. Now, when I was 14 and 15 these were kind of fun, down in Polzeath in Cornwall, surfing and all that stuff. The first year, I knuckled down and played the game(s) including the chores like peeling spuds for 50 odd men and boys. By the second year I was already feeling this was all dull and I particularly hated the nightly singing round a bonfire, ten green bottles and all.
The best thing was I got to know my first ‘negroes’ or ‘coons’ as some of the boys called them. They were from Islington and were rebels like me. We would go for long walks instead of playing beach volley ball or something like that and we’d talk about their life and soul music and Jamaican music, that which was slowly turning into reggae. We just hit it off. I must admit to being horrified when I saw one of them pee and realised that his dick was loads bigger than mine and reassured when I saw the other one’s was more normal. They liked me cos I treated them like normal people and I liked them cos they were different. One kid in my tent had the cheek to call me a coon lover so I got my own back by putting a dead grass snake in his sleeping bag and nearly killed myself laughing when he nearly died of fright. The others laughed too and then we got down to our regular game of who could come first, our nightly wank game. I must admit there was not much religion there.

When I was 16 we could go to the seniors’ camp and there was one sailing on the Norfolk Broads. This meant going through London and a stop-over at one of the other lad’s grandparents in Tottenham. Part of our plan, there were three of us, was to go into ‘town’ and see a group in a club. We got a copy of NME and saw that there was a band called Steam Packet, with Long John Baldry who we knew off Top of the Pops, playing at the Marquee Club and that it didn’t finish late so it would be on for us. The only thing that pissed me off was that my dad insisted I had a hair cut before we went and told the barber to give me a short back and sides which left me looking daft and not modern at all. Still, couldn’t be helped and we went and saw the band. The other singers were the then unknown Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll, and for me they stole the show. Brian Auger was a top organ player and I was beginning to get into bands who had keyboards, people I could try and emulate on my piano at home. The sailing on the broads was fairly tame and being stuck on a boat, 8 per boat, it was difficult to escape the religious bits which bored us to tears.
Then my dad had organised a trip to Germany and we were looking forward to that, particularly me and my new mate from outside the school, Keith Hudson, the first mixed race kid I knew. He was a year older than me and already had a scooter and a parka with his initials in white fur on the back. We all went over on the ferry from Dover to Ostend and then it was train to Cologne. Belgium seemed a bit like home, a bit grotty, but when we arrived in Germany we saw it straight away. Everything was sparkling new and clean and a lot of people seemed to be wearing uniforms, although that may just have been us. We were met by the German pastor and his wife, Herr Nagle, and he was smoking. Wow, this was different!! You must remember this was the year we had won the World Cup and beaten the Germans. We had Union Jacks on everything, our bags, t-shirts, jackets, even little flags to wave in our hands.

We were staying in a school, a room for the boys, one for the girls and another, a way off, for the leaders, including my mum and dad. And there were some German kids mixed in with us who, fair do’s, right from night one, showed us how to get out and go into town. Not that much was happening. We bought some bottles of Leifraumilch and got a bit pissed, nearly had a fight with some local kids and crept back into our rooms. We traipsed around visiting things and moaned about the food and saw Pastor Nagle having wine with his lunch, another unheard of thing, and did a lot of shouting ‘England’, waving our flags. Having been served sour milk with our food on day 2, we became very suspicious of everything we were offered and I asked for translations from a German friend I had made, Wolfgang, and his girlfriend, Gita. She was very pretty, a bit of a Sandie Shaw, and she would often be found next to me until we always sat next to each other in the bus. Wolfgang didn’t seem to mind although I found out later this was absolutely not the case.
We all laughed when we went to visit a castle whose name when translated meant castle castle castle and we all enjoyed the hanging train in Wuppertal. I wasn’t much impressed by the country but was pleased when my parents announced that Wolfgang and I were going to do exchange visits. I could see more of Gita – we were now on snogging and upper body petting terms.
When we got back from that, I started working in a hotel, still on the washing up, but bringing the money in, and, my ‘O’ level results arrived and I had got 10, making me the top in my year, equal with Peter Crab who lived out in the wilds and had no distractions and was treated by all as a genius. I did fail one subject, chemistry, which was the only science I took. But, the main thing was, the school could hardly not let me back in the 6th form next year and I was well and truly back in my parents good books which meant they were letting me go out as often as I wanted, no questions asked.
The summer flew by and it was back to school where I was to study for English, Geography and Economic History. These were subjects I could eat for breakfast, this was not hard work, almost fun. So, my behaviour got worse at school. I would always arrive a bit late having taken the normal bus, not the school bus, so I could smoke on the way, along with some mates from lower forms. I wouldn’t wear my cap, had started growing my hair long again and deliberately gave the air of not giving a shit. When I was 16, I bought myself a scooter, a Vespa 175. It was always breaking down on me and I couldn’t afford to tax and insure it right away but with other mates with scooters, we went out on a few runs. On one of the first of these, we went round a bend, all over the road, and a car coming the other way swerved to avoid us and crashed into the hedge with the lady passenger, her door having opened, falling straight out onto the floor. It all happened in slow motion but we didn’t hang around using the back lanes to get back home.

We weren’t welcome around Sidmouth as mods and used to go to other places where mods were more common, like Whimple where there was quite a crowd. A guy called Ash was the ‘face’ and he started having uppers, black bombers and such, which we took increasingly. We would go to certain events, mob handed. Some of my mates were at the dance in Exeter where two servicemen were kicked to death by the mods, and some of our lot had been beaten up by rockers too. We all went to an outdoor concert starring the Kinks and had been having a ball, flirting with girls, getting drunk, pills working well. I went off for a piss and came back just as the Kinks hit the stage. Suddenly at the end of their first number I felt fur being pulled off the back of my parka. At first I thought it was my mates and shouted leave it out. But it continued and I looked round and saw it was a rocker doing it, one of a mass of them. I ran for the stage and slipped under it then headed for my scooter and was off like lightning, my mates having already left when they saw the number of rockers. 
I always saw the mods as non-violent, sinned against, but all that changed when one evening a London mod working in Sidmouth picked up two of us and said let’s go to a decent mod club and drove us down to Torquay, a good hour away. Once in the place where I met up with that lighting that picks out all the white and where the music was good but incredibly loud, within 15 minutes our new friend had got in a squabble with some guy, head-butted him, blood everywhere and we got thrown out. What a waste of money!!

Friday 10 June 2016

Leaving Bangkok and Heading North by Train.

My son's family about to catch the same train but 6 weeks later.

So, at 9 o'clock in the morning, I found myself inside the main railway station of Bangkok. Its size didn't really go with the city: it reminded me of the railway stations in cities like Exeter or Valence except that it was a terminal. It reflected the minor part that rail traffic plays in the Thai economy these days with air traffic being a more popular mode of transport for those who can afford it. My platform was hardly crowded by European standards and most of the waiting people were Thais. I was chatting to an elderly Chinese lady when our train backed into the platform and she pulled me to my feet when some music started which was apparently the Royal anthem: they all love their King and the royal family in general.

Bangkok, the Royal Palace.

With the help of a female attendant, I rapidly found my reserved seat which was comfortable enough and next to a window as I had asked. Before we had even left the station, the female attendant brought us round a bottle of cold water each and a little pack of snacks, sort of sweet little cakes and biscuits. I had already bought myself a chicken salad sandwich, or rather baguette, so I was fine for a journey of five hours. I was pleased that there was no one sat next to me so I could concentrate on looking out of the window and taking some photos. The journey was less than 250 miles though, despite the train’s name, it was hardly a TGV.
We crawled out through the suburbs which reflected how the city was developing, a mixture of existing skyscrapers and ones being built, interspersed with some crumbling old buildings and small shanty villages, particularly alongside the tracks and under concrete bridges being built for future motorways. And, as was to be seen throughout Southeast Asia, there were plenty of outdoor roadside eating places where food was cooked in front of the customers who then ate either squatting or sitting on small plastic chairs in front of plastic tables. Squatting is a position we seem to have lost yet everyone in Asia seems to do it comfortably for long periods.

Typical rice paddies.

When finally the suburbs were behind us, we entered a never-ending plain of rice fields or paddies that stretched as far as the eye could see, with small villages set in the middle of them. Irrigation channels ran in all directions ensuring that there was plenty of water for the crop when needed. It seemed obvious that, here, rice was not exactly a seasonal crop as some fields were being prepared for sowing, others had the plants pushing up through the water, others were being harvested, others were being grazed by buffalo and others being burned off ready for the next cycle. Small herds of cows and occasionally goats were watched as they grazed the edges of the fields, particularly next to the actual railway line.

This scenery, although fascinating to begin with, soon became rather tedious, so any sort of variation would catch my interest. We would stop at small stations in small towns where a few people would get on and off but there would be a lot of people just hanging around, the arrival of a train being a big event one supposed. One town was particularly interesting because for the first time I saw quite a few monkeys hanging around, jumping up and down from trees and making quick raids on any rubbish lying around. I later heard this town was famous for its temple monkeys,

Monkey on the support of an advertising hoarding.

monkeys were tolerated because of their connection with the Temple: unfortunately, I was to realise that wildlife did not abound in Southeast Asia, at least not outside of the deepest and densest forests. However, in this region, there were plenty of water birds, herons and egrets, which were feeding themselves wherever there were fields covered in water. There were great flocks of these which would take to the air in fear as the train went past. Trying to photograph these was rather difficult from the train. In fact, as I soon realised, taking photos using my iPad mini, was only really good  for scenery or stationary people.

So I was quite glad when we pulled into the station at Phitsanulok, the small but ancient city where I had decided to break journey. I walked out of the station, about as big as the one where I live, a two platform job, and was hit by the early afternoon heat. In the small square in front of the station there was an old steam engine, perhaps a monument to the days when the trains had more importance. Still, I had wanted to be in a place that was not a tourist destination, and it seemed that I had made a good choice; there were no other white foreigners in sight. I knew my hotel was in front of the river on the other bank and less than 2 km away and I quickly engaged a tuktuk driver who asked for the equivalent of one euro for the trip. This was more like the Thailand I had come to see and I intended to wander round town the next morning while waiting for my 2 o'clock train.
My hotel turned out to be a modern concrete establishment of quite some size next to some buildings which seemed to be part of a University. I was quite surprised to see no smoking signs even on the driveway which was home to a small pack of dogs. I went up the marble steps and was confronted by a reception desk manned by five young ladies none of whom seemed to have a reasonable command of English. Having filled in the usual form and surrendered my passport, as a guarantee for services I had to pay for or any damage I might commit, a custom in all hotels here, I

 A shopping street (for Thais).

tried to find out where I could smoke and whether I could eat. After a lot of chat between them, I finally got the idea that I could smoke anywhere outside and that the restaurant was open. So, there being no porter, I carried my bags up to my room which was more than adequate, and set off to find the restaurant which seemed fully staffed but in which I was the only client. The menu contained only Thai dishes which the young waiter could not explain to me so I chose the typical Pad Thai soup with a bottle of beer and ate my way through it whilst reading the autobiography of Johnny Rotten/Lydon, hunting out any big, red pieces of chilli.
It wasn't a particularly good meal but only cost €1.5 so I couldn't complain. I returned to my room for a quick shower and then decided to walk by the river as it was getting late and night falls at six. It seemed to me that this old town was decidedly 20th-century looking and I later read that the old town was largely destroyed in a huge fire back in the 50s. So it was mainly white concrete modernity that I could see the other side of the river. There seemed to be some sort of running race going on, as people on the wide pavement in front of the river, kept running past me with numbers attached to their T-shirts, people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I later discovered that this was a charity event that happened every year. The river was wide enough to have fishing boats on it and the town on both sides was built well above as the river got a lot deeper during the rainy season - I had chosen this time of the year in order to avoid the torrential downpours that happen then.
Then, as dusk started to arrive, so did two other phenomena. Firstly, loads of Swallow-type birds appeared, feeding on the swarms of insects that suddenly appeared and reminded me not to go out at night without covering myself with mosquito spray. Secondly, young people started appearing, in couples and small groups, mainly accompanied by scooters and mopeds and all with smart phones attached to their ears.
As I would see throughout Southeast Asia, these are the two essentials of life for the young and the not so young. Most people here stared at me for more than a polite time, an obvious sign that they were not used to seeing white tourists and no one wanted to engage with me. The only person who did was another white tourist, a New Zealander, who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He didn't stop for long as he was doing the ‘run’, from the old town to one bridge then along the river on the other bank to the other bridge, the bridges being just over a kilometre apart.
It was dark by now so I returned to my room to check my emails and to think about where to eat. I wanted somewhere where I could sit outside and watch the world go by with a cigarette and a drink and then have a reasonable meal. Opposite the end of the bridge I had noticed a sort of High Street, lined with all sorts of businesses, where I thought there must be some eateries, so I went to investigate there but found nothing so I ended up on the terrace of another smart hotel about 400 m from mine and where there were three white guys and a Thai smoking and drinking on the terrace. I quickly learned that they were resident in the hotel and that they were gays of the more flamboyant variety. So I kept my distance from them and got served with some disdain by the very smart Maitre d’ who also sent a waitress with the menu I requested.
The food was pretty good. I ate indoors, as that was obviously necessary, and watched the behaviour of a large party of smart, middle-class Thais and the musicians providing them with entertainment. Popular music in South East Asia tends to be Western-based of a sugary nature. The keyboard player and lady singer were obviously talented but this all fell apart when the singer was replaced by various people from the large group: it was karaoke time. Karaoke is just so big in Asia, but for me, something to be avoided because the songs all sound like Eurovision and the singers tend to sing out of tune. I wanted more connection with Thai life and I was getting it!

So I returned to my hotel quite ready for bed and when I was all done I opened my bedroom window to lean out for a last cigarette and to my surprise found I had a neighbour. It was what looked like a barn owl and seem to have its nest in the angle between the roof support and the roof itself about 5 m from me and slightly above me. We watched each other for quite a while, it showed no fear of me and I tried to take photos of it and it was too dark and I thought if I used my flash he would fly away. But it was a pleasant and unexpected end to my day.

Bangkok temple by night.

In the morning, when I got to the restaurant for breakfast, I was surprised to find it full to bursting with Thais. I was the only foreigner and I realised that this hotel was probably aimed at Thai tourists. This was borne out by the breakfast buffet which was mainly rice and noodles dishes which I would happily eat for lunch but not for breakfast. What made me hurry through my toast and coffee was what was playing loudly on the two large flatscreen TVs; it was a phenomenon I had seen when I ate with my friends in the Thai restaurant in Bangkok. Thais love their soaps and here was one being shown at loud volume during breakfast. Not for me, no thanks.
I returned to my room to pack, went down to reception and asked them to order me a taxi to town. Two euros by taxi and 10 centimes to leave my luggage in left luggage. I wandered around the centre of the town until the heat got to me for the first time really, having the chance to look at Thai shops aimed at ordinary people rather than tourists. Most of the shops were all the same size, quite small, and opened out completely on to the street with the owner or their worker (unlikely) sitting on a chair as near to the front as possible without being in the sun, usually busy on the smart phone or tablet, totally unperturbed by the lack of clients. Then, it was quite normal to find several shops of the same variety right next to each other, a feature I was noticing even more in bigger cities later on. And finally, it seemed to me that more expensive items, particularly imported products, were near enough the same price as back home and therefore beyond the reach of the average Thai.

I returned to the station to get some shade and a very cold drink and found a sort of portable bar along the platform where an English guy and his teenage daughter sat smoking beneath the no smoking sign and drinking beers. I ordered an icecold Zero Coke and joined them. He was a regular in Thailand and it was his daughter’s first visit and he complained that all she wanted to do was to go south to some resort with full moon parties etc. But he was determined that she see some ordinary Thai life first. He said that the majority of younger European tourists behaved very badly, and did things they would not do at home. He wondered what local people thought about such behaviour and what a bad impression it must make on them. These were thoughts I would remember when I saw such examples of loutish behaviour later on my trip.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

A Quiet Week On The Med, April 2014.

I went to Rosas the hard way, up over another pass, which let me see the entirety of the bay I was going down to. I wanted to find a supermarket and do a shop before getting installed in a camp site which I did. I love Spanish supermarkets because a) they are cheaper than say France b) they are always nearly empty and c) they sell you plastic bags at 5 centimes each, whereas in France you just have to bring your own.
I found one campsite which was very expensive again so contined and found the one in my campsite book. It was 73 Euros for the week plus 5 euros for 50 hours of internet so I decided to book in for 7 days. The site was quite full and there were changes everyday as people arrived and others left. It was a good site in that it had everything one could need and was literally 2 minutes walk to the beach. It was great to be settled for a while – I wanted to get on with my writing in particular and also do a few domestic chores like laundry, changing my bedding over to summer setting and just some general cleaning up.
It was the first time for quite a while that I had internet round the clock and I got into using YouTube to watch some standup I hadn’t seen before and a load of concerts. I love good standup, standup that is making a point and yet is funny. I saw a couple of Billy Connolly I hadn’t seen and a Ricky Gervais, a couple of Dylan Moran an old Chris Rock plus a couple of new to me American guys whose names I can’t remember. The great thing about YouTube is you can turn off what you’re watching if you’re not pleased with it and go to something fresh. Concert wise, I enjoyed Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, recent and old, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, The Cure and The Rolling Stones and turned off quickly The Sex Pistols comeback.
Reading-wise, I had a new but old Peter May book, situated in Beijing. A brilliant story, well constructed and researched and quite believable. Just finished it this lunchtime – what next?
I enjoy cooking and have become a bit Spanish, having my lunch around 2 and my evening meal around 9 but unlike them, my evening meal is usually the biggest. Lunch is always something simple, often mainly leftovers, but the evening is usually some sort of grilled meat with a load of stir-fried vegetables and often chick peas or lentils instead of pasta, rice or potatoes. And when I do cook potatoes, I cook some other vegetables with them like cabbage or leeks. With alcohol being so cheap, I have a G and T before hand and half a bottle, occasionally more, of Spanish Red wine with the meal. Artichokes are so cheap I often have one or two as starters accompanied with the dried ham I got in the market when I was in Viloria. Cigarettes are so cheap that I have made no progress on giving them up – my main motivation being the cost. 
I’ve had some stable German neighbours who are as friendly as one can be when there is no common language and the other side I’ve had English and French who were very friendly too. Then I get to know others because of the pet factor: nearly everyone has a cat or a dog, and as I have to traverse the whole camp when I take Eddy for walks, we got to know them all. Out walking Eddy twice a day I get chatting with people too, almost always because of Eddy who they admire and then want to touch. And he is getting more tolerant of strangers touching him.
My toes have shown great improvement since I’ve been here but I have been suffering from a lot of pain in my left hip and just have to walk it off every day. Sometimes when I get up the pain is so bad it makes me gasp so is a bit annoying.
The other slightly annoying thing is that when going through my bank account to look at how the exchange rate has been improving, I noticed some transactions I knew nothing about. I had a chat on the internet with my bank about this and they said the main way they stop such regular fraudulent events is by cancelling the debit card and sending out a new one. This is fine but could leave me without a card for a couple of weeks which would make life difficult. I’m still trying to find a solution to this one, particularly because they can only send out new cards to my given address which means they would go to Sam’s but he is off for a couple of weeks holiday in the Isle of Skye in about a week’s time.

I’ve been finding myself awake at night a lot and I think this is because of my bad hip.
But, everything else beside, I’ve been enjoying myself here and am in no real rush to leave. My week is up on Thursday though and I shall leave I think although I may hang around till Friday when my pension appears in my bank account so I can do a pretty big shop before heading into France and the next stage. Also, because of the potential card problem, I may head back to Najac – 5 hours from here says Google, hence a two day trip for me, before going back to my plan of following the Med in France from west to east.
It is strange being in a place where four fifths of all the buildings are unoccupied yet he poorer Spanish and the immigrant Moroccans live still in comparative squalor.
The weather here can change very quickly. This morning Eddy and I went for our longest ever walk here. We left with total blue sky and bright sunshine but by the time we got back the sky was covered with clouds and a cold wind was blowing. Eddy is out dead at my feet, the walk this morning did him in.

It’s April Fool’s Day and I think this is probably the first year ever when I haven’t tried to make an April Fool out somebody; just can’t be bothered.