Saturday, April 23, 2005

Remember Ring of Bright Water?

'Ring of Bright Water', the sentimental 1969 movie classic about one man and his otter Mij. Did you cry buckets over this film when you were a kid? I did too. Read on to find out why this film is so strangely upsetting.

By the way I thought this longish post was quite fitting, as I am off to the Highlands & Islands of Scotland in a few hours. That's my excuse anyway. Hoots!

Remember Mij the Otter?

Ring of Bright Water is an adaptation of Scottish author Gavin Maxwell’s autobiographical classic, about a lonely man's relationship with a wild otter. Released in 1969 (and rereleased this summer on DVD), the movie starred Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers from the African lion epic Born Free; it was directed by Jack Couffer, who did the Born Free sequel, as well as Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I was seven years old, and my sister ten, when my mother took us to see this film at the local 70s fleapit. Mostly, we loved it. We were thrilled by the playfulness of the otter; we delighted in the scenes where Mij the otter misbehaves: on a fight to London, on a night train to Scotland. Indeed we gurgled quite happily until the final scenes of the film, when, quite suddenly, Mij the otter is killed by a labourer: sliced in half with a spade.

My sister and I stared at the cinema screen, stunned. When it became apparent Mij wasn't coming back, that they really had just killed him, we started crying, really sobbing. My mother urgently hustled us out of the Odeon, along with lots of other mothers with lots of other crying children, but outside, in the car, and all the way home, my sister and I continued to howl. We were wholly inconsolable; it took a good few days for us to calm down. Eventually we seemed to get over it; to move on.

But in a way I don’t think I ever moved on. As with many of my thirty-something, forty-something friends, the emotions induced by Ring of Bright Water remain with me; more than thirty years later I can still taste the bitter shock of my hot infant tears. So how can that be? How can a simple kids’ film do this?

Watching the Ring DVD now, it is not too hard to see, on the face of it, what so upset me as a seven year old. The film is sweet and pretty sentimental: consequently the cruel death of Mij at the end comes as a serious shock.

Yet I don’t think it is just this that makes the Ring of Bright Water story so potent. For a proper answer I think we have to look a bit deeper, into the poignant book behind the film; into the peculiar life of its very unusual author.

According to the wise and compelling authorised biography by Douglas Botting, Gavin Maxwell was a troubled man with a troubled background. Born into the Anglo-Scottish aristocracy in 1914 (his grandfather was the Duke of Northumberland) Maxwell nonetheless felt excluded, for many reasons.

Chief amongst these was Maxwell’s bisexuality. The roots of this are obscure: we know that Maxwell’s father died in the First World War, before the boy knew him; we also know that Maxwell’s mother was, by contrast, only too close, sharing her bed with young Gavin until he was nine. Understandably, Maxwell grew up a little different. These eccentricities were compounded when Maxwell’s mother dispatched her youngest son to a succession of dismal boarding schools.The vulnerably dependant Maxwell reacted by falling desperately ill; further periods of isolated convalescence conclusively moulded the boy into a snobbish, boozy, charming, manipulative, chain-smoking, clever, manic-depressive gay loner.

Not a promisingly stable beginning. Gavin Maxwell seemed slated for an early death, probably on the road - he was fond of drunkenly racing his various sports cars around Britain at up to 150 mph. The saving grace was arguably Maxwell’s love and understanding of the natural world, born of his upbringing on a traditional Scottish shooting and fishing estate. Whenever the young Maxwell could get away from university at Oxford, or the pubs and parties of London, he did: by returning to the moors and lochs of the north. There he knew he could be relatively happy.

It was, nonetheless, a pretty aimless existence, and it was brought to an unlamented end by the Second World War, when Maxwell was made an officer in the Special Operations Executive, training operatives in the remote Scottish peninsula of Knoydart. Maxwell loved this job, mainly because he was in his beloved Hebrides; an added bonus of Maxwel's assignment was that it gave him an idea for his next, post-war role. Inspired by the magnificent sight of some basking sharks off Knoydart, Maxwell left the victorious British army, to fund and run a small shark-fishing industry, on the island of Soay near Skye.

After five years, the enterprise failed, perhaps unsurprisingly. At a loss for what to do next - and feeling the financial pinch - Maxwell decided to put all the recent raw experience, and all those tall sharking tales, into his first book. It was called Harpoon At A Venture, and with its energy and lyricism, and dramatic Hebridean background, it was an immediate best-seller.

The slender blond aristocrat was now a literary celeb. Soon he was travelling the globe, writing about Morocco, Sicily, Arabia. It was in the last place that Maxwell met the love of his life. The year was 1956. The author was boating the marshes near Basra when he came across an abandoned baby otter. With his instinctive gift for animals (Maxwell was apparently able to call birds from the trees), Maxwell swiftly befriended the creature. Perhaps he saw something of himself in the little otter’s inquisitive, mercurial loneliness. For days the baby otter sheltered in the warmth of Maxwell’s jacket. Then it died.

Maxwell was heartbroken, but his lifelong passion for otters was just beginning. Soon he had acquired a new Asian otter: Mijbil, ‘Mij’ for short. Delighted with this new charge, Maxwell opted to take the playful, wilful Mij from Basra to Cairo, and from there all the way to London and Scotland. It was this remarkable and hair-raising journey that became the famous scenes in the eventual movie.

Despite their mishaps, the pair safely attained their new home. This was a house situated on the wildest part of the Knoydart peninsula, devoid of electricity or telephone, at least an hour’s hike from the next human being. In his books Maxwell called the house ‘Camusfearna’ (Gaelic for ‘bay of alders’), in reality it was called Sandaig, and it was paradise for otters - and for a man hoping to keep otters. There was a waterfall at the back, two burns either side, a ribbon of rabbity dune, and a stretch of private coastline endowed with seals, eider ducks, rorqual whales, and lots of fish.

For one long glorious Hebridean summer Gavin Maxwell lived totally alone with what was essentially a wild animal. This was not a human/pet relationship, but a friendship, a partnership, perhaps even a kind of love affair: witnesses speak of Maxwell rolling about on the floor with Mij, man mewing rhapsodically to otter.

The eccentric idyll couldn’t last: human relationships intervened. Although the adult Maxwell had largely restricted himself to casual gay flings, he was also prone to intense, if platonic, heterosexual affairs. One was with the poetess Kathleen Raine, who sometimes came to stay at Sandaig. In the spring of 1957, Maxwell was obliged by business to leave Raine alone at Sandaig, with Mijbil. A few days later Raine lost track of Mij. The wandering otter was killed by a roadmender that same afternoon, in a ditch near Glenelg.

From that horrifying moment, it is fair to say that Gavin Maxwell fell out with Fate. Disaster seemed to pile on disaster. The spurned Raine famously cursed the mourning Maxwell from under a Sandaig rowan tree. Maxwell acquired more otters, but they turned on their keeper - and started attacking Maxwell’s friends and helpers, one almost fatally. In the next years Maxwell took a wife, but there were no children. Not long after this embarrassingly brief marriage, Maxwell crashed a car: the accident left him semi-crippled.

Even Maxwell’s great literary success came at an onerous price. When, in 1960, he published the account of his happy yet tragic time with Mij, Ring of Bright Water (the phrase was Raine’s, a description of the two burns that circled Sandaig) he sold two million copies, making him the biggest selling author in the world. But this fame meant fans, and fans meant that Sandaig’s once splendid isolation was compromised by endless visitors. The final blow came when Sandaig burned down in October 1968. A few months later the weary Maxwell yielded, with dignity, to lung cancer; he lived just long enough to applaud the success of the film adaptation of the famous book.

So what does this poignant and unusual life-story tell us about the strange potency of Ring of Bright Water?

A few years ago a friend of mine bought a tiny island once owned by Maxwell. It is called Eilean Sionnach, and it is just off Skye. It also looks directly over the sea to Sandaig, to ‘Camusfearna’. When I was invited up to this sublime yet troubling place (nothing had prepared me for the piercing beauty of the Inner Hebrides) I took the opportunity to actually read the book of Ring of Bright Water for the first time.

It was there, immersed in Maxwell’s lyrical but masculine prose, with the slate-blue waters of the ‘bay of alders’ visible from my very window, that I realised why this tale, and the movie made from it, has so much resonance. Using the sadness and loneliness of his own life, and the haunting beauty of the Scottish highlands and islands, Maxwell created a new version of the Fall. Through his bittersweet experience with Mij, he had came to see that human beings are creatures in exile, and this was what he allegorically wrote about in Ring: our sense of being somehow abandoned, our savage yearning to be reunited in Eden, the sense of dark loss that permeates the frail beauty of this world.

Far-fetched? Pretentious? Maybe, yet I am sure it was intimations of these very adult ideas that were stirred in my seven year old’s mind, way back in 1970 - and also in the minds of thousands of other children at about the same time. And that is why Ring of Bright Water was one of the most disturbing children's films of all time.

 Posted by Hello

... and here's the author himself, the homosexual blue-blooded, otter-loving, Ferrari-thrashing Anglo-Scot Gavin Maxwell. Posted by Hello

Friday, April 22, 2005

Voyaging North

This is where I am going at the weekend.

I haven't been blogging much of late, cause I am immersed in writing the memoirs of my love-life (Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You; Bloomsbury Books, 2006 (for those unfortunate souls who have forgotten)). I'd like to say this situation is going to change anon, that I am soon going to start blogging like a bastard, but I'm not sure I am: because at the weekend I am flying north to the most remote inhabited isle in the United Kingdom: Foula (pronounced foo-lah) a chunk of wave-lashed granite, twenty miles from the Shetlands, not far from the Arctic Ocean.

Foula, by all accounts, is a rum place. Until recently a lot of people spoke in a Norse-inflected dialect - a hangover from the Viking invasions of a thousand years ago. Even now, people on Foula (all thirty of them) use a different calendar to the rest of us: the Foulans use the old-fangled Julian calendar rather than our funky new Gregorian calendar (rolled-out across Europe in the Renaissance); this means the islanders celebrate Christmas on June 10th. Or something.

There are other odd things about Foula. It's got some of the highest cliffs in the world. People like to eat puffins there, when they can't find a nice juicy gannet. The main means of communication on Foula used to be a postal service like none other: when the island was cut off they had to put letters in small wooden boats, chuck them in the sea, and hope that the prevailing currents would carry the missives to the mainland, where the letter would be posted. Apparently this method was quite unreliable.

Even now Foula is very remote and easily isolated. In bad weather the islands can go six weeks - SIX WEEKS - without any contact from the mainland, without any visitors being able to come or go.

So I may be gone some time. I hope not, as it's lambing season there - and I am staying in a croft where I will be 'expected to muck out on the farm'. Nice.

All in all, I feel I might not be blogging quite as regularly over the next few days as I'd like. Unless they've got some kind of broadband access, involving thistledown.

Wish me luck! Posted by Hello

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

How I Got Kidnapped. By Hezbollah.

A Hezbollah dude. A man like this kidnapped me and a friend, for an evening, in the mid 90s. I'm serious. Read on for more details...

As I haven't properly blogged for a few days, and as there is a chance I won't be blogging much over the next week or two (I'm off to the Shetlands to continue my islands odyssey) I thought I'd post a big piece that I've been hanging on to for a while: so as to give you all something to read while I'm away. But first I'd better explain something.

My life, to put it simply, has been totally bizarre and extremely wild. I say this, I confess, with a hint of smugness - I'm glad I've had enough adventures to fill three lifetimes. However this packed life I've enjoyed also gives me some problems. For instance, when people start telling me about their "crazy stories" - How they got pulled over by the French police for speeding, How they once stole a pencil - I try to look interested and stuff, but it's sometimes hard. Cause compared to the usual suburban soap opera, my life is a frigging epic movie. Directed by Ridley Scott. This discrepancy can make it tricky for people to relate to me. Put it another way, when I hear someone recounting their tale, I often hesitate to reply, because what I want to say is, Well, that's fascinating, and you really sprained your ankle in Tescos? Now, do you want me to tell you about the time I was in a knife fight in Marseilles, or the months I lived in a hotel with heroin on room service....

Before you all flame me, I am aware I sound like an arrogant tosser. Sorry about that. I'm just saying it like it is. And while we're on that subject - saying it like it is - the other trouble with my wild life is that sometimes, when I do divulge some of my escapades, it looks like I am just making it up. The stories are just too outlandish. If that's the case, I can only apologise for the surreality of the truth. But it is the truth. The story you are about to read is the total and complete truth of something that happened to me about ten years ago. And if you don't believe me you can go and ask Florian Denk, the other guy in the tale. I'm fairly sure he won't have forgotten.

An Evening With Hezbollah

Sean Thomas

The Lebanon, 1995

I am sitting in one of the noble but dusty bedrooms of the Hotel Palmyra, in Baalbek. Outside the window the warm October sun is going down behind the enormous columns of the great Roman Temple of Jupiter and Venus.


Says Florian. He is cleaning his camera lenses, all sanded up from the long tough drive down the Bekaa Valley. I have a painfully crick neck so I can’t be bothered to respond. Instead I look out of the window at the famous Roman temple. It really is big; and gross; almost Stalinistic. Even the shadows of its amazing columns have a numbingly huge quality. No wonder the place, this place, Baalbek, was such a draw all those years ago, before the Lebanese war. Before the country became a religious cockpit and a gruesome bloodfest. Before tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were brutalised, and the centre of Beirut was turned into an Effects of Shrapnel Exhibition.


Says Florian, giving up on his complicated, boxy, Hasselblad camera.

'Yeah.' I say.

We rise. Straightening out things, dusting off our jeans, we walk down the grand and creaky wooden stairs of the hotel. Unsure where the restaurant is we poke around the complex ground floor: sticking our heads into different empty rooms; rooms full of stacked chairs, rolled carpets, rooms with an air of sad, self-contained melancholy. Obviously not many tourists come to Baalbek or the Hotel Palmyra any more: not since the war, not since the war which has only recently ended.

As we poke around it occurs to me that these frightened tourists might have a point. Baalbek, is after all the city where the Beirut hostages were kept; where Brian Keenan, Terry Waite and John McCarthy were chained to radiators for three or more years by the guerrillas of Hezbollah. When we were in Beirut this last week some people actually warned us about coming here even now. Jesus! You’re going to Baalbek? Don’t be so fucking stupid!

Setting these thoughts and memories aside I go over to Florian, who has opened the two biggest doors. Florian:

'I guess... this is the restaurant?'

I peer over his shoulder. He’s found an even bigger room than the rest. Vast. With dozens of tables actually in rows, some of the tables also have tablecloths. Even more encouragingly, three of four waiters are wandering around the place; turning the lights on as the sun goes down. Unnervingly, however, there are no other diners. Standing at the great restaurant door, Florian and I shuffle, and cough. The coughs echo. The waiters turn and look at us with that sad, half-angry look you get from the proprietors of a hopelessly failing enterprise. I wonder:

'Do you think they can squeeze us in?'

We go to a table smack-bang in the middle of the cavernous, vaulted, chandeliered room, and we wait. Then the waiters come up to our solitary occupied table and we order some food and then we wait some more. Red wine arrives; good Chateau Musar. Florian and I drink. We chat and de-stress. We talk about our trip. Florian and I are on assignment for the lad’s magazine Maxim in the UK. We are here to cover the New Lebanon, how the country is recovering from the war; how the fleshpots of Beirut are being refleshed, repotted.

So far we’ve done OK. Beirut is, as we journalistically hoped, bouncing back. In fact people are literally dancing in the ruins. In the last week we’ve been to nightclubs on the old Green Line where Muslim and Christian girls disco-dance on the precise spot where their brothers recently shot at each other; we’ve been to other night-clubs in shrapnel-acne’d buildings where they play video footage of the civil war - assassination, explosions, sectarian garottings - while people mill about underneath ordering expensive whiskies with tan, Rolex-watched arms.

'I liked Byblos as well.'

Says Florian, chewing a stale breadstick .Then he laughs a lot. Florian is German, a friend, a good photographer, a onetime war photographer (in Bosnia). I nod, and snap off a bit of Florian’s breadstick - it’s the only breadstick - and also chew. Then I agree with him about Byblos being good. Byblos is a city just north of Beirut which we visited after Beirut. We went to a supposedly famous restaurant called Pepe’s with a wall on which were stuck lots of pictures of Vaclav Havel and a series of increasingly horny Mrs Havels. Pictures of Jacques Chirac too - very faded. Brigitte Bardot. De Gaulle.

After a night in Byblos we got our driver to take us north, to Syracuse. Very Arab, very dusty. Very different from Christian, Maronite Byblos. Then we headed north up over the mountain backbone of central north Lebanon, taking time to look at the famous Cedars of Lebanon. All six of them. During our brief visit to this pathetic copse, our driver told us how the cedars of Lebanon used to stretch from Syria to Israel, a vast scented legendary canopy of a dozen million acres. But then the Romans chopped ‘em all down for saunas.

It seemed somehow symbolic; of what I had no idea. Once over the mountains, we headed south, down the poppied fields of the golden and notorious Bekaa Valley. It was a longish, eerie drive. Past parked Syrian army tanks, past big roadside posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, past a lot of suspiciously rich houses: opium dealers. And now we are in Baalbek, our job basically done; with a couple of days to spare.

'Mouton, Monsieur..'

Says the waiter, plopping a plate of rich brown oily stew on the table. I sit back and inhale deeply: I’m very hungry. Famished. All morning on the road, and all afternoon wandering around the Hezbollah-bullet-peppered columns of the Jupiter Temple, has had an effect. I pick up a fork and knife and..

Blackness. The room goes BLACK. I stare at Florian, where Flo should be. The lights have banged out. It is totally pitch black. Can’t see a thing. What’s happening? Why is it so dark? We hear a shout. Someone shouting outside. Tensed, I scrape my chair back. From being very relaxed I am now suddenly panicked. I’m thinking suddenly of those warnings about Baalbek. My mind is racing away. Is this how it happens? Is this how you are kidnapped by Hezbollah? Was John McCarthy sitting in a Pizza Hut in Beirut and then the lights went out and then some unshaven guys rushed in with ropes and a hood and the next things he woke up chained to the central heating?

I hiss an urgent question at Florian. He starts to answer, but then we hear someone say the words power cut in English. Power cut!? Florian and I whisper - half relieved - wondering if we heard right. Then another waiter shouts something in French about electricite. Florian sighs and I hear him sit down again. I copy him. Then Florian tells me he can’t find his fork in the dark. We start laughing at ourselves. Then we start drinking blindly from nearly spilled wine-glasses. Then the head waiter rushes up with a candle. Light. Again. The real lights are flicking back on.

I am, somewhere deep inside, almost disappointed.

Later we lounge about our hotel bedroom in the lamplight. Bats wheel about the temple across the way. I hear a donkey coughing. Distant carhorns. Muezzin.

Florian is sprawled across the bed half-reading a newspaper. A local newspaper in French. He says:

'The Israelis are bombing the South again..'

With that he tosses the paper across, and goes back to his camera lenses and his camera lens cloth. I pick up the paper: rubbing my crick neck. I know just enough French to glean the meaning of the news-item. The Israelis are still occupying a tranche of south Lebanon, and they have recently been pounding and bombing, from the zone, a suspected Hezbollah stronghold: a town called ‘Machgarah’. The paper says that several Lebanese people have died in the Israeli bombardment in the last couple of days.

I look up. Florian looks up. He can see the expression on my face. He says sharply:



'No, Sean! Nein!'

I am unabashed.

'Come on Flor, come on... we’ve done out bit, we’ve got the job done, what else are we going to do?'

Florian looks at me.

Florian is a proper German war photographer; he’s done war photography in Bosnia in the last couple of years. He knows about war; he’s seen it; he’s got the marvellous, enviable stories. And now, as he’s told me, he doesn’t really want to do it any more. No more war. But... but I still do. A war! A real war! And just a hundred miles away!

Florian has not stopped looking at me. His face is a glaring question. A good question. Why am I like this? I suppose.... I think about it.... I suppose I’ve always had this thing about war. Ever since I was a kid. As a kid I was crazy for war. I used to spend whole mornings as a kid in our family house in Hereford, carefully lining up thousands of toy soldiers on the dining room carpet, then I would use my flattened hand as a Stuka plane to mow down the endless regiments. Then I would kick the whole process off again, re-enact the battles. And when I wasn’t doing that I was reading books about war; or reading magazines about war; or memorising the dates of wars; or making toy tanks to go with my war day-dreams; or being a Phantom jet in the schoolyard; or arguing the merits of the T34 and the Sherman, or watching lots and lots war programmes on TV. From a very early age I even and simply loved the wonderful words that go with war: Kalashnikovs. Firefox. Oerlikon. Stuka Stuka Stuka.

Florian has a slightly more... mature attitude. As he’s recently seen real dead bodies, smelt the hot smell of real spilled intestines, he now has a true and balanced and mature war-weariness. Which I respect. And also envy. I envy Florian this, too. I don’t just envy Florian his experiences of war, I envy - perhaps more - Florian’s ability to be war weary. How I would love to have Florian’s right and ability to look at people and shake his young but battle-scarred head and say - War? I’ll tell you about fucking war.

I want to be able to say stuff like that. I want to be able to sit in sunlit terraces in central Europe sipping expensive Pilsener beer while looking distantly and hauntedly into the middle-distance - making my friends and girl admirers think: look, he’s thinking about the war, better leave him be, don’t you know what he went through?

Right now, across this Baalbek table, Florian can see all this on my face. My envy. My pathetic and juvenile lust to be a cool war journo, as compared to what I actually am at the moment: just a lad mag hack writing about tits and arses in Beirut brothels. Gimme a war! Validate me! Make me cool and tough! Please?

'OK,' Says Florian, reluctantly smiling, 'OK. Let’s do it. Maybe we’ll get a story...'

The next day we get up early, pack our bags, and go down to the city’s main taxi rank. One of the glories about the Lebanon, as we have discovered, is that you can get a taxi anywhere - as the country is so small and cheap. Now we are going to get a taxi to the war. A taxi to a war. I am suppressing a happy and infantile desire to go up to the nearest cab, leap in the back, and say ‘the war, please!’

Florian, laden with camera kit, and I, carrying my normal bags, approach the first taxi driver. He is propped against his battered milky-coffee-coloured Merc in the dusty sunlit plaza outside the hotel. He looks at us quizzically: two white guys, two westerners in this very very unwestern town. He is thickly bearded, oldish, eyes creased by sunlight. We ask him to take us to... Machgarah. He looks back at us. He looks across to his friends in the other cabs. Then he laughs. A laugh of derisory bitterness.

Nobody wants to take us to Machgarah. We move up and down the cab rank doing our best. No dice. One cab driver has enough English to look at us, and wave his cigaretted hand and say ‘No, Machgarah dangerous. No.’ Then he actually speeds off, as if scared.

Finally, after a few sugary teas, and a few dozen dollars, and a good few hours, we find a driver. He is jolly, fun, in his twenties. A lad. We pile in his car with some Lebanese mothers in scarves. Squeezed. The drive is fun: fast and brakeless. Goats, old buses, and more parked Syrian tanks shoot past on either side. After fifty miles in the trafficy Autumn sun we reach a crossroads in a small town. Another square full of beaten-up mercedes taxis. The driver stops. We tap him on the shoulder.

'Is this Machgarah?'

The driver turns around in his driver seat and shakes his head. He points with two fingers up a busy road going right.


He says. Then he turns and points to the road heading straight on, the almost trafficless road heading towards some blue distant hills.


And with that we are turfed out of the car. Ordered out, and into the square. Despite our protestations the cab simply reloads with lots more fat Lebanese women, and scoots off in the apparent direction of Beirut. Defeated, Florian and I retreat with our bags to a windswept cafe, where we have more sugary tea alongside men in black and white Druze caps who stare at us in an odd, blank, silent way. Then, refreshed, we start the schlep around the taxi drivers again. This time we are lucky. The first driver says Yes, he’ll do it - for fifty dollars. Fifty dollars for fifty miles? Not a good deal in the Lebanon. Then again we are driving into a war.

Our bags in the boot, we climb in the car. Two Arab guys climb in beside us, one in the back on my left, one in the passenger seat. With a virile wheel spin we head off; as soon as we start we are stopped about a hundred metres down the road. A Syrian solder with a submachine gun slung around his shoulder is leaning into the car, peering in the back: right at Flo and I. The squaddie barks something when he sees us. We don’t understand. Nor does the solider it seems. The soldier is looking very disbelieving; he is barking again. The taxi driver turns and shrugs and says to us: passport.

Florian and I find our passports, and hand them over. The soldier takes them and disappears. Perhaps, I think, we aren’t going to get any further to Machgarah. Perhaps it was just a boyish dream to go to war. Perhaps this is a good thing anyway. Diconsolate, annoyed, subdued, Florian and I wait; as we wait the taxi driver turns on the radio and it blares some discordant, ululating, quarter-toned Arab music. Music so loud it makes the worry beads hanging from the rear-view mirror slightly tremble.

The soldier is back. He leans down to the window and looks at me and Florian again. He shakes his head disbelievingly - then he hands our passports back. He then steps away - and waves us on. Good to go!

It’s a strange drive. At first the driver and his Arab passengers chat affably enough, chatting loudly over the blaring radio. But then the sun starts to go down; the car starts to climb higher into the hills; and a cold breeze whips in through the windows. Now the driver turns the radio off and turns on the headlights - occasionally showing the reflecty eyes of cats skidding off the kerb to escape the car. Black shadows dance by the car. Cold rainy night air surrounds us.

The taxi is totally silent. My ears pop. Florian is fumbling with his small camera in his lap, nervously. The big Arab guy on my left winds the window up to keep out the damp mountain chill. We can hear the car-tyres rumbling and popping over the rocky, half-busted road surface. We drive on. Then the car skids to a halt in some shadowy, half-street-lit village. The two Arab guys get out and pace into the gloom, their flapping jellabiyas somewhat sinister in the dark. The car doors slam shut again. Now it’s just Florian and me and the driver. The driver turns and looks at us, as if to check we want to go on. We nod. He sighs... and wordlessly shrugs, and turns and guns the engine. Onwards.

But not for long. After a mile or two the car does another complicated series of turns.... and then thrusts abruptly into a square surrounded by crumbling concrete buildings with one solitary streetlamp giving off a somehow gloomy light.


Barks the driver. He immediately leaps out of the car. We follow, a bit bemused. The driver yanks opens the boot and helps us to take out our bags; he is hurrying, looking anxious. His eyes dart from side to side and then he gets back in the car; keys the engine; the wheels spin; in a second he is gone too. Florian and I stand there, wondering quite why we came here. What did we expect to find? What do we do...
before we have time to express this, in the dark we head an enormous CRUMP. Like a Roman god’s fist has slammed onto the table of the Lebanon. For a second the ground shakes, actually shakes.

In the gloom, Florian says:

'Shells. That’s shellfire. Incoming...'

I don’t know whether to be delighted or appalled. I am both. So it is really happening! We are really in a warzone; this is really what it is like! I can see in the barely streetlit darkness that Florian’s eyes are now quite white, and wide; I feel, ridiculously, like I should grasp his upper arm and say something reassuring. But then we both hear voices. Doors are opening around us, people are appearing. A garage door lifts. Another huge man has appeared from absolutely nowhere. He is waving something at us. Is it a gun? It’s hard to see in the dark. More hands grab our arms, jostle us. We feel ourselves being pushed by three of four men, they are pushing us down the road. We resist, we go to pick up our bags but more hands slap us away, furious hands. More voices are babbling. Our bags are then snatched and dragged away, into the garage. The garage door cranks shut. What?

I sense another man on my left. A friendlier face. A kind intelligent young Arab face. Speaking very quickly to me.

'Who are you? Who are you? Who you are? They want to know who you are?'

'We... we.. '

I say, too shocked to explain. Florian says, more commandingly:

'We are journalists. From Beirut.'

The larger darker figures are still moving us, they are still brusquely pushing us down the road. As we go we pass a streetlamp. In its light I turn and look: yes the really tall man has a gun. A big gun. He is pointing the gun at us. Quickly we move on into the dark. The friendly Arab:

'They are Hizbollah, they are going to...' He shrugs, 'To question you..'

Then he goes quiet. We are near the end of the dark narrow street. We feel the weird loud whisper of another shell, crashing into a hillside somewher near. Not far away some woman in a house laughs, a mad cackle of a laugh. The friendly Arab grasps my arm again and says:

'Do not worry, they will not shoot you... they.. just want to question you...'

The larger Arabs grab us again, and push us roughly through an open gateway. We step into a courtyard. Rain is coming down. I can hear more gunfire somewhere. Then I realise I really am now being taken prisoner. Then the ground shakes VERY VIOLENTLY as another shell impacts: much closer. At once we are shoved through a bright doorway and into a bright room. The door slaps shut behind us.

There are Turkish carpets and chairs. Some cushioned benches. A few Koran-y books on shelves. A picture of a bearded imam on the wall. Otherwise it is bare and white. We are angrily gestured to sit on a bench. The huge Hezbollah guerrilla with the gun looks at us, and then sits in a chair opposite. I notice for some reason that he looks sad, yet still aggressive. He has cold hard eyes; he is slumped in the chair, staring at us wearily, dully, malevolently.

I am pretty fucking scared now. The adrenaline is really pumping. On my right Florian is pale. The huge Hezbollah guy beckons the friendly Arab over and whispers to him. The man turns and attempts a smile. He says to us, thickly:

'They think maybe you are agents. They think you are come here to kill them...?'

I stare at Florian, who stares at me. I am uncomprehending. Then it hits; I remember: a news report a few weeks ago. Two Israeli agents were caught masquerading as Canadian tourists - so as to assassinate a Hezbollah agent in Jordan.

So that’s it! They think we are Israelis! My stomach gurgles. As it gurgles, my stooped mind churns it all: what the Hezbollah are thinking. Presumably... they can’t believe we are this stupid, just this stupid, that I am as stupid as this: just to wander into a warzone in a what-the-hell way. And so they think we are agents, MOSSAD agents.

I sit up. Appalled. Because. Because... if they do think we are Israelis then.. why shouldn’t they just kill us straight away? Why take the risk? Why not just take us out, shoot us in the temple, dump the bodies, say the Israelis killed us? That an Israeli shell got us? Why not just do that? That would be good publicity for them? Why take the risk we are who we say we are? What the fuck? What the fuck is going to happen? What the fuck is stopping them killing us?

The cold horror seeps like mercury into my heart. I am now very likely to die. There is no logical reason why I should not die in the next hour. This is it.

The horror is evidently sinking in with Florian, too. As the Hezbollah hardnut barks question after question at us, thorough the ‘friendly’ Arab interpreter, Florian tells lie after lie. He starts to make us sound important, not two stupid overgrown lads writing about titty bars in Beirut. Florian tells the Hezbollah people how we are attached to the German Embassy, how the German ambassador knows where we are, how we are on assignment for a big magazine writing about the goodness of the Hezbollah cause.

Florian has thought quickly; Florian is the war correspondent; Florian is lying to save our skins. As Florian makes his effort, I sit back, sweating, pale, clammy. Watching the hard cold eyes of the Hezbollah captain; the squinting, warfucked eyes of his lieutenants. Then it occurs to me it is probably a bad thing to stare at these guys. So I look to the side. At the glinting gold-toothed Korans on the shelf. The old cup of tea on another shelf. Normality of sorts. Tangentially, I wonder what it must be like to live here, in a town on the front line; a town being shelled and bombed every day. Every day. No wonder people are laughing hysterically in their houses.

And as I speak the shells start marching nearer. Nearer, further, nearer. I can sense the town cowering around me; cowering down, like a dog with an abusive master. Israel. What’s that line in the Larkin poem?

Man hands on misery to man... it deepens like a coastal shelf...

CRASH. Another shell. Then a rattle of machine gun fire. Then what sounds like a jet. Jesus. As the shells keep landing it occurs to my half-detached brain that what I can hear is the Israeli gunners hard at work, hard at work seeking out this very house. The Hezbollah headquarters! Of course. This is probably the very place they are aiming for. This house and its occupants. Me!

I am 32. I am sittig on a bench in a small town on the southern mountains of Lebanon. I am probably going to die.

The questioning is done. The Hezbollah guy looks at the friendly Arab. The friendly Arab stares at us, and weakly smiles, and says:

'Now they are searching your bags. If they do not find...anything... if your air tickets are what you say... they will let you go....'

He reaches out and goes to shake our hands, one by one, holding them firmly with two hands the way politicians shake hands. Way too sincerely. I find this the opposite of reassuring. Nor do I find the guy’s smile much comfort: he does not believe it. He is not hopeful. He looks sad and scared. And now he is gone.

The room falls silent, apart from the distant crumps of the big Israeli guns. Florian and I look at each other. Florian leans, and says very quietly to me:

'Those agents... In Jordan..'

'I know.'

I say. And I do. I know. Then we both say nothing. Then we sit back and wait. As we wait we find we are both throwing our heads back and yawning, strangely, though we are not remotely tired. Must be the adrenaline.

Minutes pass, more minutes. I find myself wondering how, if the Hezbollah captain is going to kill us, how he will actually kill us. The simple mechanics of it intrigue me. Will he just stand back and shoot us, here, in this room? Or would that be too messy? Will they take us out into the yard and make us kneel on the filthy wet concrete? Or might they be seen? Then might they drag us into a car and drive out into the dirty mountains and do it in a ditch? In the mud? The shit? The blood?


The door opens. The man from the garage is there. The man who has been searching our bags. He looks at the Hezbollah captain and says something. The Hezbollah captain nods. Florian and I look at each other. What has happened? What are they doing? What?

Then another Hezbollah. He steps forward. And points to me in particular:

'Your bags...... OK.'

OK? My bags.... OK?? I feel my shoulders untense; I had not realised they were so tense. I am slightly relaxing. Then I wonder if I am really meant to find the man’s words encouraging; so I glance around the room, nervous... but Yes. Since the man came in the atmosphere in the room has slightly changed. Some of the air-curdling anxiety has disappeared. The Hezbollah people are chatting more warmly to each other, even half-smiling. So maybe it is going to be alright. Maybe they aren’t going to kill us!

Another guy in a Palestinian head-dress comes in. He is holding some stuff some cylindrical kebabs in paper, and a couple of Cokes. This is for us. As we take the food I realise we have not eaten in hours; I am hungry again. I wonder what time it is.

Grateful, Florian and I munch hungrily on the odd, cucumbery kebabs; when we are done we rub our faces and sip our Cokes and we talk, very quietly. We are both trying not to seem too relieved, and yet not too scared at the same time. We are confused and frithtened, but hopeful.

But now I need to pee. I say this to the Hezbollah kebab-guy. He looks at me, and seems to understand. Then he smiles. The smile is still more encouraging. So it really is going to be OK! As I step forward the Hezbollah guy opens the door and points outside; obedient, I nod and go outside into the chill mountain air and I start to take a leak against the courtyard wall. As I do I hear the crumps again: but this time there are lights as well. From the courtyard I can see what’s going on: the ‘battle’. I can see what must be explosions across the valley. Dark and distant gold puffs. Fireballs. At the end of the valley I can also see high red tracer fire: rows of soaring red minus signs in the black starry sky. It is all... oddly pretty. Very pretty. Thrillingly pretty. I am seeing war. For the first time: I am seeing war. Fireworks with a purpose. The real thing. I’ve done it!

My heart is racing, and lifting. I am happily zipping my flies, thinking about the story I will have to tell when we finally get back to London. Elated, excited, I turn and duck back inside the Hezbollah safe house.... to see Florian siting cross legged on the carpet looking even more frightened than before. Totally white-faced. I can instantly sense something is wronger.

I sit down next to him. ‘Nonchalant’. He hoarsely whispers:

'They are searching my last bag now, my last camera bag.'

I swallow:


'Remember that ring I showed you?'

I look at my good friend and colleague, perplexed. Then I remember. In Beirut Florian showed me a silver ring; given him a few years ago by an Israeli friend. On the inside of the ring was an inscription, in Hebrew. In Hebrew. In Hebrew.

'... Where...?'

Florian shakes his head.

'In Baalbek I hid it... '


'In a film canister...'

'Oh Christ..'

'It’s in the bag they are searching now.'

I sit back. I swallow very very very very dryly. This, I think, is IT.

Florian shrugs at me, apologetically. I strongly feel he does not need to apologise. It was my dumb fucking idea to come here; my stupid juvenile need to see a real war. I almost feel like hugging Florian while saying a loud and emotional sorry.

But I don’t. Instead we sit there, and wait. Listening to the distant shells come and go, come and go. Each time a shell falls the house shakes a little.

The Hezbollah guy is standing up, conferring with his lieutenants, occasionally glancing at us. The goldtoothed Korans are glinting in the trembling white lamplight.

Then the bag-searching man comes back. The door is open, framing him. I smell cold wind from the mountains; chill dark wind beyond. The bag-searching man shrugs at the captain, and then turns.


He says again.

'OK. The bags are OK.'

We look at him. We look at him. He shrugs and nods.

The big Hezbollah guy also nods at us, disdainful and vigorous. He babbles some sudden harsh Arabic. The bag-searching man nods again and says:

'Yes... He say to me... now you must go back to Beirut now.. and...' A wan smile. 'And you must never come back!'

No argument. We jump up, head to the door. We find our bags stacked outside. We go to take our bags, but then the Hezbollah guys hoist our bags for us, and drag them quickly across the street to a waiting taxi. We follow. I have never been so keen to get away from somewhere in my whole life. Florian is totally silent. We are climbing in the taxi. The taxi doors are being slammed shut, the bags are loaded. We are turning in a small circle now, we are heading out of town, past the empty shuttered shops, past the dim little streetlamps, past the house where the woman screamed and laughed.

Moments later we are in the mountains, heading back thru the darkened country to Beirut. Florian exhales, and winds down the window. Fresh mountain air floods in, sweet and cold and damp.

In the back of the taxi I slap Florian’s thigh. Then I grin and shout and punch the air:


 Posted by Hello

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Boring Post on Happiness

The peacocks of Brownsea, yesterday.

Sorry to all my readers for the slight hiatus in blogging. I've got a good excuse though, I've been doing the latest instalment of my Britain's Other Islands piece for the Sunday Times. This time around my destination was Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset, where I stayed with my beloved fiancee in a little cottage three yards from the sea.

I'd like to report some dramatic incident or bizarre happening that might make this blog-post a bit more interesting, but I can't. Brownsea Island is just... tranquil, and idyllic, and gorgeous: a little remnant of an Edenic England, an England that never existed. It's also the last remaining home of the, er, English red squirrel (OK not the Giant Panda, but they are cute). And it's where Baden Powell started the scouting movement. AND it's full of peacocks wandering self-consciously around the sunlit meadows like overdressed debutantes at Glastonbury Festival.

Likesay I am aware this is one of my less interesting posts. Happiness writes white, as someone said. Anyway just about the most interesting things that happened on Brownsea was that I drank wine with Claire and we had a nice curry in the cottage and at night we listened to the avocets shagging.

I guess I did relearn one important thing though: England is a beautiful and remarkable country. It's easy to forget that.

PS. How freaking good is this photo? Look at the composition! The visual rhythm! Did it with my mobile phone, as well.

PPS. Er, much more interesting posts shortly!
 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Jew and his Box

I have just received this ancient Cornish news clipping from my very good friend Loic Rich (a Cornwall-based multi-ethnic person, before anyone sends for the thought police). He finds it funny and unnerving, at the same time - and so do I. The opening line of this newspaper article is priceless. I hope you can read it; if not it says: 'It is generally thought a thing almost impossible for a Jew to part with his box'. Er, yeah.

But what makes it even more amusing - and bizarre - is the academic footnote, which you can't see here because my picture resizing skills are minimal. In the footnote, the writer of the book The Jews in Cornwall, wherein this clipping appears, claims that this venerable piece of journalese somehow shows 'tolerance of, concern for, and equanimity towards Jews'. Of course it does - particularly the bit where it says 'the characters of several honest men [were] questioned by the Jew'?

As we say in Cornwall: God bless us, one and all! Unless you're Jewish.
Posted by Hello

Monday, April 11, 2005

Cheese-Eating Euro-Twats Strike Again

A man angrily discovering that his new iPod has had its volume capped by the European Union, yesterday.
[OK, it's me. But still. I am angry, as you can see. And I think I might have lost a bit of weight.]

The other day I went on the Tube, with my fairly new iPod Mini. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I realised that I could not hear any music above the din of the rattly old Northern Line train. Was my iPod working properly? Was I finally going dead after years of Walkman abuse, Motorhead concerts, and generalised shouting in pubs?

No. The problem, as a swift bit of Googling told me, is that all European iPods have a 'volume cap', designed so that we don't damage our precious ears. This volume cap, my Googling also told me, was imposed by the British Standards Institute.

So yesterday, in a bit of a huff, I rang up the BSI and ranted at them, demanding the name of the nannying git of a bureaucrat who had decided to fuck with my iPodding without a bye-your-leave. Once the BSI press spokesperson had gotten over my cavalier use of the word 'git', he told me that the Standard actually came from CENELEC, the Comité Européen de Normalisation Electrotechnique. In Brussels.

This seemed to good to be true. So I rang up CENELEC and was informed, by a polite but bemused French PR woman, that yes, CENELEC had imposed this standard by a 'process of consensus'.

My dander up, I demanded the woman tell me the name of the person who first suggested this asinine bit of interfering bureauwank - because I wanted, obviously, to shout at this person in person.

The PR woman said she couldn't tell me. This didn't make sense: I thought I must have misheard. So I asked again. Again she replied 'she couldn't tell me whose idea it was', because 'that wasn't the European way'. In other words: poor humble members of the public like me aren't allowed to know who comes up with all these EU laws and regulations that impact on our daily lives.

At this point I denounced the CENELEC and all other European Institutions for being the inventions of the fucking devil, and repellently undemocratic to boot, and then I wished the good woman an 'au revoir'.

So there you have it. My life (and your life, if you have a European iPod) is very very slightly worse because of some silly, interfering and ridiculous European Standard, and we're not allowed to know whose fault this Standard is, because 'that's the European way'.

I think I might vote No in the European Constitution Referendum.

 Posted by Hello

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Most Important Address in the West?

Doesn't look much does it? Just a dodgy Lebanese restaurant. Yet next door is probably the most notorious address in modern Satanism, a sinister location of crucial importance in modern religious history. Wonder what the kebabs are like.

The Most Important House in the West?

It doesn’t look much today: a workaday bit of inner London, complete with greasy spoon on the ground floor, and a Lebanese restaurant next door. Yet this humble Victorian terrace is, in its own way, one of the most significant addresses in Europe. Why? Because a hundred years ago, number 36, Blythe Road, Hammersmith, was the headquarters of a strange Victorian sect known as the ‘Golden Dawn’, a sect which, though it may be virtually unknown today, arguably transformed Western religious belief.

Big claims. To find out the how and why - and whether - we have to go further back, to the 1880s, when London’s and Europe’s intellectuals were beset with doubt and anomie. On the one side was monolithic Christianity, smugly resistant to change. On the other side was the scientific world of Darwin and the factory-owners, reducing man to monkey - or machine. Neither option, neither pole, seemed remotely appealing to impatient spiritual thinkers of the day. It was time to beat a new path to ‘personal fulfilment’.

How to do this? The Freemasons had already tried. It was the masons who originally conceived the idea of a tightly-knit religious-intellectual sect, existing within yet apart from mainstream society. Then there was Eliphas Levi. In the mid-nineteenth century this failed French priest wrote tracts of magical instruction drawing heavily upon the medieval Jewish tradition of the Kabbalah (now Madonna's chosen 'Faith'). Finally, there were the theosophists and the rosicrucians. The first were giddy idealists who hoped to unite all faiths in one single creed, patched with modern science, the second were Franco-German snobs who saw a mystical underlay beneath the dreary pieties of Biblical Christianity.

The genius of the Dawn’s British founders - a solicitor, a librarian called Mathers, a few like-minded friends - was to cheerily synthesise all of this disparate religious freethinking, and much else, into one new pseudo-religion. To help, they had some texts of ‘ritual magic', supposedly unearthed at a Farringdon Road book-stall, across from the present location of Yo Sushi!

Once all that was in place, the Order was ready for recruits. In 1888 Mina Bergson, sister of the philosopher Henri Bergson, became one of the first initiates into the new Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

That a woman was in the vanguard is highly symptomatic: and is one of the principal ways that the Golden Dawn changed modern spirituality. Previously, all western religions, even the masons, had been rigidly patriarchal. By contrast, the Dawn’s feminised belief-system (ancient goddesses featured heavily in Golden Dawn liturgy) meant women were at least as valued as men. A revolutionary change.

The initiation that Bergson underwent in the first Golden Dawn Temple (in the grounds of today’s Horniman Museum in south London) gives a flavour of the Dawn’s curious and eclectic ways. The temple walls were richly adorned with Kabbalah symbols and Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the middle was an empty coffin, a cuboid altar, and a table decked with chalice, knife, and holy scourge. In the smoky shadows, red-robed priests and priestesses patrolled about the room, chanting the Dawn’s weird new prayers as they went.

Nutty? Maybe, but here is another great inheritance of the Dawn: the idea that, religiously, you can just do it yourself. Before the Golden Dawn, religious rituals were revered because they were old and unchanged, at least in theory. By contrast. the Dawn were the punk rockers of spirituality, happy to pick and mix bits of the old, and add new stuff of their own. They only cared that it felt and looked right. Many modern religious pioneers are indebted to this bold and poetic synthesis.

The exotic Dawn rituals were obviously alluring: membership swiftly expanded. Many came straight from the ranks of the bourgeoisie: others were more bohemian or aristocratic - like Constance Wilde, Oscar’s wife, or Algernon Blackwood, the famous ghost story writer. And then there was W.B.Yeats. In 1890 the great Irish poet was initiated, in the Dawn’s second temple at Fitzroy Street, London W1. Why? As Yeats later wrote in his metaphysical study, A Vision: ‘Some [members of the Dawn] were looking for spiritual happiness or for some form of unknown power, but I had a practical object. I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul’s.’

This is another Dawn inheritance. Music and literature have seriously benefited from the Dawn’s idea of fusing a personal religion with artistic intuition. Poetry has been especially impacted: the Dawn-esque symbolism of Yeats informs Ted Hughes, and much Seamus Heaney and John Berryman. Less predictably, pop and rock have also been influenced: David Bowie was a huge fan of the Dawn in the 70s; Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was another. Through these famous artists the Dawn’s odd, poignant mysticism touches other musicians to this day.

The last major influence of the Dawn is its extra-curricular pursuits. When the members of the Dawn weren’t conducting strange, smoky rituals in their coffin-filled basements, they liked to experiment with travelling the astral plane, or doing spirit invocations, or praying to salamanders, or testing the powers of meditation, Oriental magic, and Tarot. In all these exploits the Dawn was charting new ground: such things had been dismissed through the Victorian era, even fiercely abjured. Without the Dawn’s interest they might have disappeared altogether. Ergo, anybody who turns a Tarot card today, anybody into reiki, wicca, crystal therapy, and lucid dreaming (inter alia), should pay homage to Yeats and the Dawn, for guarding and nurturing the esoteric flame.

The Order’s end came when Aleister Crowley joined in 1898. This Cambridge-educated son of evangelical Plymouth Brethren took the studious occultism of the Golden Dawn by storm. He learned the texts in record time; he jibed at the genteel games of ‘Enochian chess’; he dabbled with sex magic, Satanism, feeding birds to skeletons, and serious drug abuse (a more dubious innovation: Crowley must have been one of the first heroin addicts in the world).

The cerebral founders of the Dawn were not impressed; the scene was set for schism. The final act came at 11am on April 19th, 1900, when Crowley attempted to seize control of the last and most important Golden Dawn temple - the Blythe Road building above. Inconspicuously dressed in a kilt, sporran, dagger, and ‘black mask of Osiris’, Crowley crept down the suburban road from Olympia and bamboozled his way into the sacred vaults. He was eventually ejected by Yeats - alongside a bemused local constable. The temple was duly saved, and Crowley returned to his apartment in Paris, where he found Mathers shaking some dried peas in a sieve, and calling up the demons Beelzebub and Typhon-Set - to wreak their anger on Yeats & Co.

This bizarrely picturesque final act - the Order broke up soon after, despite the victory by Yeats - might be reason enough to blue-plaque number 36 Blythe Road. But, more importantly, it has recently been established that Blythe Road is the last major Golden Dawn temple still standing. All the others have been blitzed away or demolished. One of the most important, Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia, was levelled just the other week. This leaves Blythe Road as the only site that truly remembers the Dawn, the only place with real links to this kooky, gallant, funny, half-mad, half-inspired group of like-minded young Victorians. A small group which, in its strange and subtle way, managed to change our world forever.

 Posted by Hello

Friday, April 08, 2005


Me shooting a gun in Utah. A picture entirely unrelated to the following post.

My posting of the limerick for Claire (scroll down a few inches) has got me thinking about limericks in general. To my mind, the ideal limerick should be wry, smart-arse and probably obscene. My model for limericks, indeed, is this one:

While Titian was mixing rose madder
His model posed nude up a ladder
Her position, to Titian,
Suggesting coition,
He ran up the ladder and 'ad 'er

Which covers all the bases, I reckon. My own efforts in this vein are not as impressive. The other day I did come up with this (while passing Lyon on the TGV):

There was a young couple from Lyon,
Who couldn't find things to agree on,
Despite this estrangement
They enjoyed an arrangement
On Wednesdays he used her to pee on.

Not bad, I believe, but not brilliant either. For true drunken stupid brilliance, I have to cast my mind back fifteen years, when a friend came up with my favourite 'amateur' limerick of all time.

To understand it, you must picture the scene. A bunch of lads are in the Lake District, on a weekend jolly, doing coke and getting pissed. The B&B where we are all staying has a rather frumpy landlady, called Mrs Knight, the subject of some rude speculation by me and my friends Nick, Al, Rupert, etc. On the last night we drink just a bit too much beer and snort just a bit too much powder, and start making up uncouth limericks. The final one, by my friend Nick, is this:

One day in the Lakes Al said,
'Who's going to give me some head?'
Down came Mrs Knight,
And said 'What a sight!'
And Al came all over her tits.

I think for hilarious badness and ribald surreality, that takes the biscuit. But maybe you had to be there. And on coke.

 Posted by Hello

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Love Poem for My Fiancee, Claire

A brilliant picture of Claire in a church on the Scillies. By me.

I was somewhat mean and insensitive to my beloved fiancee last week. Since then she's been huffy, and perhaps with good reason. When I asked her what I could do to make it up to her, she said, Write me a poem.

Since then I've been thinking: trying to come up with a poem that will symbolise my contrition, and epitomise my love. Something along the lines of Byron's 'She walks in beauty like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies', or William Blake's 'Never seek to tell thy love, Love that never told can be'.

And so, remembering my beloved's birthplace, the bosky county of Kent, I came up with this:

There was a young lady from Kent
Who read some Immanuel Kant
When asked: d'ye ken?
She said: 'No I can't,
'Now fuck off and die you old clumsy person'.

Unfortunately, for some reason this verse does not seem to have mollified my beloved. In which case I can only say: sorry, babe. xx Posted by Hello

Obscene Chapter from Abandoned Novel

At the end of last year I largely abandoned a novel I was writing. Since then I have commenced my memoirs (Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You; Bloomsbury Books); I have also started a different novel; a better one, I hope.

But was I right to abandon the previous work? I think so. It was shite. But maybe I am wrong! Anyway I'm leaving it up to you to decide. Here is one chapter from it. Be warned, it is excessively rude - unsurprisingly, seeing as it describes a young nurse, Nina, having a threesome with two male friends.

Obscene Chapter from Abandoned Novel

Nina flattens her fingers on the pillowcase as Dorian slaps her bare bottom. He is obviously going to take her from behind. Her head pertly posed, she listens to him dropping his jeans: the tinkle of his belt buckle, the sloughing of shorts. Then there is an Australian grunt, and she feels him going inside her; sliding inside. At this, Nina sighs and accedes, and relaxes. At least he is hard this time; though still a little small.

Nina feels his hips against her buttocks. Nina wonders if he has drunk as much as her. At least the room isn’t spinning, just jerking backwards and forwards. A little dizzy, but pleased, Nina sinks her hot bare face onto the pillow, and feels again a bit dreamy. Somewhere back there Dorian is adjusting; there is a puasein the action then he takes her from a different angle. Examining her own fingers, Nina winces at her chipped vermillion nail varnish she hasn’t repainted for three days. And then those bitten nails. Maybe the chipped nail varnish is the reason the guy disappeared? Jon?

Nina stirs from her reverie. Dorian is making strange noises behind her. As he proprietorially slaps her buttocks he is saying words she can’t make out.

Nina turns her head right around, and looks up at him, skeptically.


She sees he has sweat over his face, oddly unattractive. His wide bare surfing Aussie chest looks nice, tho; would look nicer with hair. Nina sees that Dorian is not looking at Nina; he is staring down at himself: with utmost seriousness; parting the cheeks of her arse for a better view of his penetration. Like he is a downcast penitent. Then Nina feels the tell-tale juddering in Dorian’s thighs. So she says:

‘No Dors...’


‘Please... Don’t come yet!?’

The room stops moving. Because Dorian has almost stopped thrusting. His face creases, he looks oddly pained, he says ‘Oh Nina...’; and then his pelvis jerks; and he half falls out of her. With a sigh Nina turns her head and stares at the opposite wall of Dorian’s flat. She can see: pennants for Aussie rules football teams, above a big stack of books on Pediatric Oncology. Behind Nina, Dorian is still busy: she can hear him swearing as he tries to shunt his penis back inside her. Like an autistic child in a petting farm, trying to feed a goat. Wrong!

Tender, coaxing, Nina reaches around and finds his semi-hard penis, which gets harder in her hands; blindly but deftly she guides him to the preferred place; and when he docks and slips inside she says:

‘I have to do all the work around here!’

Nina waits. But Dorian says nothing. Bhen she hears someone else laughing.

It’s the other guy: Andy. Nina turns and sees that he has swaggered out of the bathroom and he is saying:

‘Friends! Romans!’

He is very naked. And he has quite a big erect penis; bigger than Dorian’s anyway. Nina at once feels sorry for Dorian: having to compete. As Andy stalks from the bathroom; his erect penis awkwardly swinging from side to side, in front of him. A small child at a protestant Orange Order carrying its banner. Or something. Nina wonders why she gets these strange images in her head when she has sex. She strains to watch, inquisitively, as Andy comes around the front of the bed, by Nina’s head. there Andy stops and he cups Nina’s chin and tilts up her face; he makes a questioning expression; she thinks for a second and then she nods and so he shoves his cock right into her mouth.


He says, when he is inside.

Nina manages not to gag; instead she sucks. She tastes the new man in her life, the new man in her mouth; fragrant sourness of new soap; beer sweat maybe; Andy’s thicker penis feels like a very unknown kind of offal gingerly tasted on a French holiday. Nina tries to enjoy the sensation; she starts to enjoy it. But she can also feel Dorian doing his business behind her. Making her shake too much. Like he has something to prove by thrusting with extra vigour. So she reaches her chipped nail varnished fingers around, and subtly takes Andy half out of her mouth, because she is scared she is going to bite him.

‘You weren’t wrong mate..’

Says Andy, as he moves his penis in and out of her mouth once more. He is doing this in an aggressively questioning way; almost obliging Nina to swallow a greater length. Nina opens her lips and she yawns to gargle the penis and Andy says again:

‘She’ll be apples!’

Nina wonders what this means; she sucks dutifully, then slavishly; she hears Dorian speak in a srangulated way:

‘Mate. You should see what I’m seeing.. Get in that milking shed!’

Then Dorian spanks her bottom hard. Nina winces but feels she is nonetheless wetter down there. She wonders at the automaticity of her sexuality, of her orgasms. She thinks about breakfast with two men. Then:

‘What a bloody amazing arse!’

Says Andy and he laughs laddishly. But as he does this he starts stroking Nina’s face; caressing her face; almost secretly, as if he doesn’t want Dorian to see what he is doing. Nina squirms, as much as she can squirm she is kebabbed like this: by two men. Nina doesn’t want Andy to secretly caress her face. She doesn’t want any of that shit. That isn’t what this is all about. Nina needs this sex to be mechanical, to be as basic as possible; to be thunderously loveless; she wants these guys to treat her like a prize animal; slap her and fuck her. Fill her up, fill up the hole, fill the void. If they start getting loving and coy it will make it all embarrassing, scary and wrong; this is just a threesome, just a bit of fun, three mates having a laugh.

‘Fancy a swap?’

Says Andy. At this Nina jibes; she removes Andy’s cock from her mouth and says:

‘When you guys have quite finished...’

‘Oh... uhm’

Says Dorian. Out of view. Andy says:

‘Sorry Nina..’

Then he adds:

‘Are you OK?

Nina laughs and sighs and says;

‘Yeah... but I’m not a deaf mute..’

At this there is a silence. Then Andy says:

‘So... ok then.... do you mind if we swap?’

Nina thinks. She looks at the fiery black solenoids of Andy’s pubic hair, which is all she can see at the moment. Then she says:

‘Go ahead, but I’m going to turn over..’

Andy chuckles at this. Then he moves away, and Nina senses Dorian also withdrawing; and then the two guys actually do it: they are actually changing ends. Nina feels a bit like a tennis court. Centre Court perhaps.

‘New balls please’

Nina says. And then she laughs; then she wonders why she said this; using a pins-and-needles-y elbow she turns on her back. Somewhere in the room the two guys are talking; Nina feels very drunk still, but more comfortable; she is staring at the ceiling now; thinking of Frida Kahlo for some reason. Then she feels someone holding her bare foot, lifting her foot up, kissing her ankle. Nina feels a roughish hand on her inner thighs, a penis or a thumb rub against her thighs and then oh-my-God she is full again, a lot fuller: it must be Andy, penetrating her, as he fingers her open. Yes. Nina frowns her eyes shut and she feels good. Yes. Yesyes. This is much better. But as Nina feels this she also feels something by her ear; head turned she notices that Dorian’s slightly smaller penis is at her side. Gently importuning. Like a small girl asking her sick mother for a biscuit.

Quickly Nina shakes this image from her head and she closes her eyes and she opens her mouth and she takes this other penis in her mouth; and so she sucks it, and the penis warms and grows in her mouth. Now the two men either end of her are really fucking her; truly using her; properly; as she wanted them to do. But of course she is using them too. This is how it was meant to be. No hassle, just basic rough sex, just hard lovely sex, just two blokes and a girl; chatting; being mates; yet naked and aggressive and exploitative. Which is good. Nina knows what she wants now: she wants the two men be winking at each other, to be gloating over her, their prize; she wants to be their prize, their best thing; a great and stolen work of art gloated over by Nazis; a rustled steer taken by the reivers of Scotland. Will ye no look at the haunches!


Says Andy. He is caressing her breast. Nina opens her eyes and takes Dorian’s cock out of her mouth for a second and she says:


‘I gotta say..


‘I gotta say...... Your tits are the best..’

Nina nods at this. Then she feels the rush of something; she smiles and stares at the ceiling and she says:

’Thankyou... from all of us..’

And again she feels a surge in herself; she starts to pant now; even though she wants not to pant, to yawn her excitement, to let them see they are winning. But she can’t help it.

She is definitely panting. She can hear the guys talking. She hears Andy say.

‘Is she OK?’

Nina closes her eyes. Her legs start to quiver. She heads Andy again:

‘Hey. Look at her thighs. Does that mean she’s coming?’


Is this how she comes?!’


‘So dyah think she’ll mind if I...’

Says Andy. Nina tries to mumble but she can’t; quickly she jerks Dorian’s cock back in her mouth and she tries to shrug at the same time; she feels very drunk; almost happy; she wonders if this is what it is: to be in love; with that she thinks, she hums, she moves, she lifts her pelvis up; presenting herself to Andy, for inspection, to be examined to be praised and adored and also abused; and then she opens her eyes and looks despairingly and angrily at the ceiling as she thinks of her own silly nakedness and then she sees that Andy really is winking at Dorian and then she feels the surge inside her again; the careenign motor car in her heart; the brakes gone; and Nina gulps at Dorian and then she sees Andy reaching over her body and she sees that he is shaking Andy’s hand above her.

A moment later Nina gives up.

‘Wow. You didn’t tell me she was a squirter!’

Monday, April 04, 2005

International Hangover Cures

Irn Bru. Made in Scotland. For Hangovers.

I went out drinking with my beloved fiancee yesterday. And why not? - it was a gorgeous Spring day here in London, and there are few things I like more than necking a golden glass of Leffe Blonde Belgian lager while soaking up the Charlotte Street sunshine.

Six hours later I reeled home. And now I have a mouth like an Algerian internet cafe toilet.

To celebrate my Pulitzer Prize winning hangover, here is a topical little skit I wrote onn this subject, just a few weeks ago..

International Hangover Cures

Feeling a little iffy this Monday morning? Did you wake up a few hours ago and think: why is there a drum & bass party in my head? What you have, of course, is a kociokwik. A katzenjammer. A resaca. Which are respectively the Polish, German and Iberian Spanish terms for a hangover (the first two both mean ‘a wailing of kittens’. Which is oddly neat)

No matter how bad you feel right now, even if you feel as bad as P.G.Wodehouse - ‘I was left in no doubt as to the severity of the hangover when the cat stamped into the room’ - there is some small comfort in knowing that throughout the world, on this fresh and lovely Monday morning, there are hundreds of millions of other people feeling equally as grim. If not worse.

In Sweden, as you read, strapping blonde tennis instructors are clutching their scalps and bemoaning the fact that they have ‘ont i haret’ - ‘a pain in the roots of the hair’. Meanwhile, next door, the shrewd and oil-rich Norwegians might have managed to stay out of the EU, but they’re still staggering about the fjord getting moody about the ‘tommermen’ - ‘the lumberjacks in the head’.

Further south, things are also pretty disagreeable for the Italians. OK they’ve got better shirts than us, but in the night they went and sicked all over them, and they are now gesticulating wildly to their mothers as they whinge about their ‘malessere dopo una sbornia’ - literally ‘the ailment after a binge’. And the oh-so-clever French aren’t feeling too smart either, they’ve got a ‘gueule de bois’. A wooden palate. Ha.

So we’ve established that the whole world gets a sore head. But what can we learn from our fellow members of the international freemasonry of feeling rubbish? Ever since the not overwhelmingly practical Assyrians suggested ground swallows’ beaks and myrrh as the ultimate hangover cure, drinkers the globe over have been searching far and wide for a sovereign remedy for their lumberjacks. And they’ve come up with some strange and intriguing ideas.

One theme that runs through the world’s hangover remedies is pain. Perhaps on a homeopathic basis (the idea that like deals with like), perhaps because nasty metabolic shocks induce the production of endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), or perhaps as a simple corollary of the self-hating masochism that so often accompanies a really bad kociokwik, many cultures have thought to recommend bodily torment for their hangovers.

In New England the salt water cure is said to work, i.e. go jump in the sea. In some Caribbean countries a little futile bloodletting is the thing. And in Finland a really hot and painful sauna is the national remedy. This last has some basis in scientific fact: one of the main causes of a hangover is the congeners, the toxins in alcohol particularly prevalent in ‘coloured’ drinks (like red wine, cognac, and bourbon).

If you sit in a sauna, or indeed have lots of vigorous sex ( c Kingsley Amis) you will sweat out the toxins quicker than you would otherwise. Readers of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London will remember how he describes working as a ‘plongeur’, a washer upper, in a big Paris restaurant, and how the steamy, sauna-like ambience of his workplace was a great cure for his inevitable morning heads.

At some point the Pain Principle of hangover cures elides into the Painful Food Principle. It’s difficult to understand the rationale behind some exotic food-based hangover cures other than that they are so disgusting you will either throw up (removing the toxins again), or merely hate yourself less for having done some penitential suffering.

The Wild West Cowboy cure, for instance, involved brewing up a delicious tea of dried jackrabbit droppings. In southern Japan they are known to cherish a tisane of coral dust. Nearer home, old-style Englishmen swore by a portion of bitter almonds and raw eel. And from contemporary Holland comes matjes, a raw fresh salted baby herring. But perhaps these last two aren’t so mad: they are both full of salt and vitamins, and salt and vitamins are two things the hungover body needs to replace the minerals so carelessly sluiced into the Armitage & Shanks the previous night.

Salt is also, one imagines, a rationale behind the positively alarming number of international hangover recipes based in and around rank bits of offal. In Ecuador they like nothing better when feeling feeble that chowing down to a nice plate of ‘caldo de manguera’: a soup made from pigs’ intestines filled with rice and blood. Mm.

In the Netherlands it’s sheep’s trotters and oatmeal. The Japanese (big drinkers, the Japanese, even if they do lack one or two of the enzymes one needs to process alcohol) have, in their inimitably civilised way, even gone to the length of inventing the ‘ramen bar’ for their ‘futsuka yoi’ (two day hangover). A ramen bar is essentially a late night caff where the only thing on the menu is sheep’s stomach in soup. Go to the pleasure districts of any Japanese city around four a.m. and you’ll see thousands of slightly wobbly salarymen enthusiastically heading off for their bowl of tripe-broth.

Tripe? Did someone say tripe? Uncannily enough sheep’s tripe is favoured by Turks and Mexicans for their hangovers, too. This is a strange global echo, given that the cultures are otherwise so diverse. Similar echoes can be found in the worldwide fondness for post-excess pickles and eggs. Worse-for-wear Romans liked to down six raw owls’ eggs in one go. And then perhaps visit the vomitorium. Hungover Thais heartily recommend ‘son-in-law-eggs’ which sounds a bit maladaptive, but is only hard-boiled chicken eggs in a chilli sauce. Meanwhile the headsore Russians go for pickled cabbage, sauerkraut juice, and other vinegary concoctions, as do the Balts and the Poles.

Indeed a kind of pickle-belt runs across Eurasia, from Russia through Germany to northern England. Perhaps the water one would necessarily drink with pickles and eggs explains these predilections: dehydration being one of the main causes of hangover angst. This might also explain why the Scots swear by a can of Irn Bru.

If all this is a little rebarbative for your battered soul, and tender stomach, you could try some of the globe’s more spiritual and/or magical remedies. In countries where voodoo is an influence they like to stick thirteen black-headed pins into the bottle from which they’ve been drinking. Should you have somehow worked your way through an entire crate of Budvar you’re going to need a heck of a lot of pins. Next door in Puerto Rico they like to slice a ripe lemon in half and rub the halves into their armpits. Robert Boyle the seventeenth century scientist thought walking about on hemlock leaves all day was a fantastic way to cure the kittens. He’d probably have been better off with his chimney-sweep’s cure: warm soot dissolved in a glass of milk (soot, like charcoal, is a ‘chelator’: a chemical agent that combines with and removes the poisons in alcohol).

Still not enough? Nothing take your fancy? Then you’re reduced to the time-honoured Australian method. A bucket by the bed and the phone off the hook. Happy drinking.

 Posted by Hello

Saturday, April 02, 2005


This book once made me cry.

I have been reading a novel called The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. It's a strange book, it starts off quiet and sparse, a simple account of a young German lad who gets involved with an older woman. But then it slowly, and quite brilliantly unfolds into a seriously moving analysis of the woman's wartime guilt (she was an SS guard in Auschwitz), and her pathetic but poignant efforts to atone. The emotional pitch of the book, heightened somehow by its austere style, gradually mounts up until, by the last chapters, I was actually sobbing. Yes, sobbing. Real tears, with that kind of heaving sound.

A bit gay, I know. And rather unusual for a cynic like me. Indeed only two other books have made me properly weep, as an adult. Bitter Fame, the fine biography of Sylvia Plath, by Anne Stevenson, was one. I remember I was almost unable to finish this book I was crying so much; it was something to do with the inevitability of it all, of Plath's suicide, plus the horrible bit where she puts bread and milk out for her sleeping kids, then folds a tea-towel to protect her silly face from the rusty inside of the gas oven door. As with all suicide stories, true or false, I wanted to rush in and stop her, yet had to stand by helplessly and somehow guiltily. Indeed, as I was reading the book (and it is very well written) I had an overwhelming urge to go back in time and say, Sylvia, come on, chill out, life's not so bad, go get drunk, watch an episode of Fawlty Towers, take a rock of crack, anything. But of course you can't. Also I'm not so sure Sylvia would have liked crack.

The other book that made me cry was the Lonely Planet Guide to Russia. Unlikely, you might say. But there is an explanation. First it was the account of the Stalingrad Battle - and the huge statue the post-war Stalingraders put up to Mother Russia. Second I was on the Trans-Siberian railway at the time, passing through Novosibirsk, and I was coming off a two year heroin jag. Rather badly.

When you come off heroin the weirdest things happen to your emotions. Because they have been deadened or muffled for so long, your emotions return with extra vigour, your nerves are scraped raw, you can get upset or randy or angry or exultant or weepy at the slightest thing. Like a frigging guidebook.

The moral of the story? If you really want to get into a book, take heroin for two years, then begin to wean yourself off, and then read the book. Works every time!

(Oh yes, and do try The Reader. It's truly great.) Posted by Hello