Well of course I don’t believe in god, but I suppose I must confess that, irritating though it is to see it always listed as everyone’s favourite word, I am a fan of serendipity. And when fortunate things happen at opportune times, it’s tempting to ponder the prospect of some beneficent overseer – ’til one remembers all that is wrong with the world.
Nevertheless, after having looked after a very good natured, friendly cat for a period of ten days and just, within the last hour, returned him to his owners, I was feeling a bit sad. I’ve always loved cats and would dearly like one – it’s only the combination of a mild allergy and the fact that I live in a flat without a garden that ensures that I don’t. I missed Chatouille immediately.
As much as I enjoy the fringe benefits of having a friendly animal around (more cuddles, essentially, plus another living thing to talk at), the thing I like most about pet ownership is the simple fact of their presence – I liked this one’s calm and noisy breathing, her habit of curling up just out of reach, occasionally stretching her paws. It’s a consistent and reassuring pleasure just having an animal around; a silent, forgiving therapy.
So, having moped around the empty flat for half an hour, we repaired as we always do on Sunday night, to the local pub, to scoff their leftover roast potatoes and grab a pint. The cat in our local is a lovely little thing, but in sharp contradistinction to their new puppy, she keeps herself to herself, flattening out atop the fruit machine and viewing newcomers and regulars with a wary eye.
But as soon as I arrived at the pub and went to order drinks tonight, she leapt up onto the neighbouring bar stool, gained a bit of extra height by placing her front paws on the bar, and pressed her head, affectionately (I think) against the triangle of my face which contains the left side of my nose, the upper part of a cheek, and my eye. And sort of butted me, persistently, back and forth. I stroked her cheerfully and cheered up markedly, while she whacked her face against mine.
I don’t believe in god, but thanks, world, for sending that cat.
This Sunday afternoon, I sat outside the lovely Berthom bar, in central Strasbourg, with my friends Vic, Alec, Ant, Anne-Sophie and Rich. We actually stumbled upon the bar about eight months ago and immediately fell in love with it; the stylish font on the sign, the dazzling menu of beers, the dark alcoves and friendly waiting staff. This time, barely recovered from clambering breathlessly up hundreds of steps (and 66 metres) to the viewing platform of Strasbourg Cathedral, we collapsed gratefully into our seats and ordered:
A Maredsous 6 Blonde and a Bel Pils, for me. The former a very refreshing Belgian beer, slightly sweet and dry, with a nice, burnt, orange colour, the latter a plain but hugely drinkable pilsener from the Duvel stable.
A Faro Lindemans and another Maredsous 6 Blonde for Vic, who (rightly) found the former – a Belgian Lambic beer – unbearably syrupy, although it also had a counterbalancing (but not very pleasant) sourness, too. The latter, as mentioned above, made up for the ordering faux-pas.
A couple of strong beers for Ant; I forget what the first was, but it was a heavy, dark, bitter concoction (and very nice for it). The second was the dark variety of the first beer I had – a Maredsous 8 Brune which was lovely – malty, thick, and laced with something spicy. Both these beers were 8% ABV and upwards. Brills.
A very sweet, light, fruity Pêcheresse for Anne-Sophie, which came – like all the beers at Berthom – with a really beautiful label. And I can’t recall exactly which beers Alec and Rich had, but I recall a very pale Vedett Extra White sat on the table, and also another brune, so thick and dry it was essentially stout. There may have been more.
Given false confidence by all this booze, we took these (very transparent) photographs of a guy we liked the look of. He totally knew.
Preamble: I hadn’t expected to attend Vintage for this, its first year, but I won a pair of free weekend tickets late in the week, meaning that Victoria and myself were able to make it along for two of the three days.
The festival, in case you’re not familiar with the concept, is a ‘celebration of Britishness’ organised by Wayne Hemingway, and aims to bring together music, art and fashion from the 1940s through to the 80s. Hosted at the splendid Goodwood estate near Chichester, it’s much more than a straight music festival – apart from the main stage and a number of smaller tents, the site includes a fairground, a food market, a patchwork of allotments and a prefabricated ‘high street’ – a run of stores operated by the likes of John Lewis, The Body Shop and Oxfam, along with a smattering of cafes, pubs, cinemas and cocktail bars.
It sounds grossly commercial, but the emphasis is on vintage gear and the crafts, with fashion shows, cookery demonstrations, dressmaking lessons and talks throughout the days. There are a bunch of second hand stalls too, with a huge number of interesting clothes, generally priced at around the same kind of price you pay in Brighton. In short, despite the emphasis on shopping, it generally avoided gaudy sponsorship and genuinely felt homespun and local, rather than like a big money-making enterprise.
1.30: The first thing to notice is the extraordinary level of effort, both on the part of the organisers (whose ‘high street’ looks genuinely brilliant) and the attendees, who appear to have gone to extraordinary lengths to look good. All day we encounter brilliantly dressed people, from teenagers in Topshop tea-dresses to super-serious Mods, from middle-aged men in expensive tailored suits to young women in exquisite 50s dresses. Via the high street, we head straight for Peter Blake’s art bus, which contains some really amazing Clash memorabilia, then explore the vintage stalls, looking at antique homeware and bric-a-brac. The weather is cool and dry, but we spy some ominous looking clouds on the horizon.
2.00: Rather than heading deeper onto the site, we drift left and locate some deck chairs overlooking the forest, and enjoy a picnic consisting of cheese (cheddar, Comte and Parlick Fell), bread, saucisson, cornichons, olives, pork pies and artichoke hearts. It starts raining and, ominously, we decide to ignore it (prefiguring later things to come). The food demolished, we embark on a circuit of the site, taking in a short glimpse of Aswad, who are sounding pretty crap over on the main stage.
2.30: The vintage shops have some great stuff. We spend a good half hour dipping our head in and out of a sequence of colourful, crowded stalls until I eventually stumble upon a pair of lovely, round-toed brogues, which after a moment’s hesitation I snap up. I’m already wishing, in fact, that I had made more effort, for I’m dressed functionally where everyone else looks amazing.
3.00: Vic, who used to become an absolute terror if deprived of a cup of tea for more than an hour, is strictly a roobois girl these days, so there are no caffeine withdrawals to guard against. Nevertheless, there are a bunch of nice places to have a sit down and a drink, and we grab a cup of tea and have a sit down. I initiate a discussion about shoe laces.
3.30: Reasoning we’ve done enough exploring, we pitch up outside the pub at the apex of the high street. Titled ‘The Festival of Britain’, it’s a gorgeously designed building – a temporary illusion of permanence. We grab a pint of Goodwood ale and sit happily admiring people’s clothes and marveling at the variety of stuff to do. Then the rain drives us inside.
4pm; We arrive at the main stage to find the Buzzcocks rattling through their back catalogue with fizzy aplomb. The contrast, as ever, between Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle is hilarious – the former round, content, undemonstrative; the latter still fighting the punk wars, hoisting his guitar high, windmilling, pointing to the crowd. When Diggle blows a speaker he’s forced to sit a song or two out, and is clearly dejected.
But such is the winning simplicity of the Buzzcocks’ back catalogue that the band sound exactly the same as a three-piece as they do when all four are playing. They bring out the hits – What Do I Get, Orgasm Addict and the timeless Ever Fallen In Love With Someone (You Shouldn’t've Fallen In Love With)? – but by now it’s hard to notice much except the driving rain, which has absolutely drenched the thinning crowd. Stoically, we resist seeking shelter – and the consequence is that we have to walk around shivering for the rest of the day.
5pm; We’re really soaked. Worse, we’re really fucking cold. So we resolve the problem by ducking into the Kenwood store, where we sit through a faintly painful Fanny Craddock parody, enlivened by the lovely set, which includes a revolving kitchen, allowing demonstrations to take place in the 1950s or 60s, depending on the need. That done, we’re still not much drier, so we go shopping. Vic picks up a frankly alarming pink cardigan, which provides an essential layer of dryness (our coats and jumpers are so sopping wet they’re relegated to our bags) and I pick up a ‘Blues and Soul’ T-shirt of which, it later transpires, Vic is so jealous that she buys one too. Still not entirely dry, we decide that momentum is what we need to warm up, so head for the fair, where we are spun up into the clearing sky, our stomachs lagging ten feet below us.
6.15pm; We go and see The Beat, who, we discover, we really don’t remember all that well after all. They dedicate a song to Joe Strummer, and everyone exchanges broad smiles. We go back to the pub.
7pm; It turns out that Sandie Shaw is still terrifically cool – she looks amazing and her voice stands up too. As we arrive at the main stage, she is tackling ‘Jeane’ by The Smiths, and it’s the perfect fit – a clever, knowing, moving track delivered with poise. Unfortunately, however, Sandie is operating as a kind of compere tonight, and the guests she introduces are not of such a high standard, and nor are the songs they sing. So while Corrine Drewery (of Swing Out Sister) has a great voice, she’s landed with a Wham song, which just sounds terrible. Similarly, Mica Paris oozes charisma, but there’s only so much you can do if you’re singing something by Tom Jones. Sandi Thom takes to the stage, too, and she’s just awful – warbling in her mannered way through a couple of songs. It feels like it will never end.
We do, however, get the splendid presence of the amazing Kathryn Williams, whose voice is just startling. She sings up a storm, her strong, passionate vocal effortlessly dominating the field. She’s charming too – after a display of effortless brilliance, she grins and admits “it’s fucking scary up here”. Her voice is so good that she even makes John Lennon’s awful, tuneless ‘Jealous Guy’ sound good. I think I could even handle watching Kathryn sing ‘Imagine’, she’s that talented. By the time, however, that Natasha Marsh and Linda Lewis take their turns, the song-selection is so grim that we’re fast exchanging pained expressions. Lewis announces that she’s going to play a Bob Marley song.
“If it’s No Woman No Cry”, I declare, “we’re leaving”. It is. We do.
8.30; Far, far, far, far better fun is the ‘Wall of Death’, a classic carnival act carried out at deafening volume. It’s massively exciting. Essentially taking place inside a large wooden barrel, the audience is placed at the top, looking down, while motorcyclists whizz around the drum, gathering speed until they’re eventually looping horizontally to the floor, inches away from the audience. It’s ludicrously dangerous and brilliant fun. We whoop and cheer, hearts in mouths, then fling coins down to the floor in appreciation. Great.
9pm; Hearts still racing, we head to the Torch, an impeccably constructed 40s style night club with a real dance floor, a big stage and a restaurant. It’s incredibly convincing – moments after the roar of engines and the smell of oil, we’re all of a sudden lounging on sofas listening to live jazz and watching some super-sophisticated dancing unfold ahead of us. It’s such a jolt, and a perfect example of what Vintage does best – of all the small festivals I’ve been to it has the most to offer in terms of variety and surprise; there literally is always something different around the corner. In conventional terms it’s not a music festival at all – it’s a day out, a kind of fair. It’s a vivid piece of escapism. And as such, I loved it. I’m also conscious that, on day one, we covered perhaps 40% of the attractions. Much more still to do, then.
As has become something of a habit recently, I ended up in the pub with chums from work the other night and, using the football as a cloak to obscure a darker urge to have a few drinks and leave my desk early, managed to end up staying ‘til last orders, dimly conscious that the urge to enjoy oneself and talk rubbish runs slightly counter to the need to remain some semblance of professional distance with one’s co-workers. Well, never mind that – it’s better and easier to forget about such things occasionally. The summer sun – allied with the World Cup – has provoked a great deal of socialising, in and around work, which makes everything more enjoyable.
What it also does, alas, is puts paid to my good work in May in trying to save money, or rather not overspend so injudiciously. June has been expensive; the Vestry ran out of almost all of its watery continental lager after the football; I like to think my contribution was noted. I really do have no idea when to stop however – I would gladly have extended the drinking session into the small hours, which is why I’m thankful that not everyone I drink with is quite as impulsive as me. In the meantime, my stomach churns with a diet of supermarket sandwiches, cold cola and aspirin.
I might compile a list of the places in Brighton that I feel ashamed of having never visited, and just get them all done. It’s utterly ludicrous that I could have lived here all those years and never, until Friday, visited the Brighton Toy and Model Museum, which is an absolute treasure trove of joy and pseudo-nostalgia. Not only was the Muesum, as part of the Festival season, open late specially, but the marvellous 0 and 00 guage train set was up and running.
Me, Sam and Dan circled it hungrily, wanting to reach out and touch, while Laura looked tolerantly on and scribbled in her notebook. I like the furniture best, I decided, the level crossings, roadsigns and brick red pillar boxes. Through one window I admire a model landscape more reverently than I do the rolling downs on my daily commute.
I hear Sam talking loudly. He and Dan have stopped by a cabinet containing a model helicoper. “Why does it have twin rotor blades?”, Dan is wondering. And Sam is off. “Well actually”, he says, “the vast majority of Soviet helicopters had twin rotors. The second was introduced to counteract the effects of torque on the single blade…”. I can’t bear it. I don’t care if Sam is right or not. I denounce him as a bullshitter, loudly. Behind him a couple of children, who were listening attentively, look disappointed. Sam is now a pariah in their eyes.
They eye him angrily.
Our enthusiasm for the toys is not infectious. After a while – when we’re on our third lap of the exhibits – Laura announces that she’s going to head off and leave us to it. She does. The men are left to their toys. We grin at each other.
- I don’t use the chubb lock on my front door; there’s already an outer door to be negotiated, so I don’t feel I need that extra security. Plus, I’m a bit lazy. But I realised something funny the other day, when Vic came round for dinner.
When Vic comes round, she has to be watched carefully, because otherwise she will start opening post and peering into drawers. This time, she successfully managed to get open a letter from my landlord, informing me there’d be a annual check on the property later this month. It ended with a reminder that all locks would be used on departure, so I should make sure I have everything with me to get back in. I realised that there is, in fact, one time when I always use the chubb lock.
Ten times out of ten, on those increasingly rare occasions when I go out and drink so much that I cannot recall getting home, I discover the next morning that I have double-locked myself into the flat. I find this fact, pleasing – somehow I not only always manage to make it home, but take extra care to make myself safe, too.
I’ll be alright.
- Four days since The Guardian announced that it’s backing the Liberal Democrats at the General Election, and I’m still too angry to buy a copy. Apart from occasions when I’ve been out of the country, I don’t think I’ve gone four days without buying a Guardian in at least a decade. I wonder how long this will last.
When the Evening Star became a freehouse in 1992 the owner converted half the cellar into a microbrewery. When demand grew the brewery moved to nearby Ansty but still supplies the pub with it’s golden Hophead bitter (3.8%) as well as rotating Dark Star beers. You’ll also find a choice of real ciders and international bottled beers. A short hop away from Brighton Station, it’s often missed by the visiting crowds heading down to the seafront. Also handy for catching the last train back to London if you’re on a day trip to the coast. Look out for its one-batch-a-year Critical Mass (7.2%) Christmas ale – sure to get you singing Fairytale Of New York in the manner of Shane MacGowan himself.
Rather than soak an experience in and then think about it, analyse it, write about it later, I’m going to have a go at transcribing my thoughts about the latest chapter in my Budapest adventure as I experience it, so consequently I’m crouched over my iPhone while I should be drinking in my surroundings. On the other hand, I am sitting in the pitch black.
A couple of people have mentioned Budapest’s ruin pubs to me since I arrived, but it took my friend Laura recommending Szimpla Kert to me to get me in the door of one of them. The ruin pubs are essentially ad-hoc bars created in the space of one of the city’s many ruined buildings. In Szimpla’s case, it is housed inside a crumbling mansion, a haphazard sequence of rooms, some without proper ceilings, and a huge courtyard in the centre of District VII, the pock-marked, culturally rich part of the city that proved to be first a haven and then a prison for the Jews of Hungary during the thirties and forties.
Everything inside the pub is delapidated and decaying, but the extent to which the space, and the objects within it, have been repurposed is absolutely staggering. Each room has it’s own character and is as cosy as the last, even if some are filled with broken chairs, upturned bathtubs and old televisions. The space I’m sat in the at the moment contains 13 of the latter, suspended from the ceiling, each showing a gradually evolving psychedelic image. Apart from the TV’s, there is no lighting. So until one’s eyes adjust, one is basically sitting in the dark. The room opposite, by way of contrast, is just a few seats and a wall, upon which films are projected. To my left, dimly visible through the archway, a room with ivy snaking across the mesh roof.I’ve really never been anywhere quite like this before – it is the comfiest, richest, most dramatic and at the same time most basic pub I’ve ever frequented.
Posted 05 Nov 2008 — by Jonathan Category Uncategorized
Whose idea was it to schedule Bonfire Night the day after the American election? Really bad timing; I think after staying up ‘til five o’clock last night any participation in the festivities tonight would be bordering on suicidal. Ordinarily I watch the fireworks at Hove Cricket Ground, which are always reliably ace, and do so from the considerable comfort of Dave and Eleanor’s balcony, but this year the option is nixed as Dave has rather inconsiderately moved out and I keep meaning and failing to catch up with the elusive Eleanor. I did weigh up the thought of watching it on the cold grass inside the stadium, but after last night’s excess and excitement, that appeals rather less. So tonight the emphasis is on warmth and an early night, possibly with a few fireworks glimpsed through the skylight.
The election, of course, was wonderful. Dan, Sam and myself convened on Ant’s new flat for a delicious Roast dinner and wiled away the pre-election hours by listening to Throbbing Gristle and watching the telly on mute. Adverts, in particular, were a delight; no matter how bucolic or serene it may otherwise be, no advert can survive a soundtrack of the Gristle’s ‘His Arm Was Her Leg’ without being rendered impossibly sinister.
That done, we dashed over to the Shakespeare’s Head for a few drinks before retreating to the flat to watch Obama romp home. Of course, it took a bloody age, and we ran so completely out of alcohol that we were driven to contact Brighton’s own Booze Brothers (men who deliver alcohol to drunks in the middle of the night) who, sadly, were otherwise engaged, leading Sam to make the desperate decision to race back to Compton Avenue to get some more wine. By about half four or so it was unarguably clear that Obama had won, and we watched with glee as the last States fell. It was a genuinely amazing, delightful thing to witness and watching I felt privileged, as if I were an actor in the drama unfolding, simply by virtue of being able to look on and cheer. Hurrah for Obama.
This won’t look very good in the narrow confines of my blog template, but below is a set of photographs I’ve stitched together; the subject is a long wall in Manhattan’s East Village, culminating in a little pub (shown above) called The Mars Bar. Click on the long image and it should show you a close up.
Posted 13 Jul 2008 — by Jonathan Category Daft, Music
After a Friday night drinking in Seven Dials, last night we decided to undertake an expedition over to Hanover for a drink with some friends who are based over that way, and strolled along to The Constant Service, a nice, fairly quiet pub halfway up the sharp slope of Brighton’s most villagey district. Walking in we noted, however, a drum kit and guitar amp sat in the corner room and, anticipating a lot of noise, made our way out – via the bar, where for some reason we were made to barter beer prices – to the pub garden.
Mark and Lou were giggling. “Did you see their name on the kick drum?”, Mark asked.
I shook my head.
“The Brown Stripes”, Lou told me.
After half an hour or so of drinking in the balmy air, we realised that a band were taking to the stage inside. I glanced into the window, and saw a middle-aged man striding on stage dressed as a Roman centaurian. I blinked, and glanced at my beer. The drummer followed him on, dressed identically.
We watched through the glass, and began to look at each other, exchanging surprised glances.
“They’re dressed as Romans”, James said.
“They do seem to be dressed as Romans, yes”, I agreed.
“Look, even the sandals”, noted Lou.
“Sandals are very fashionable”, Mark replied, knowledgably, “I read it in the Guardian”.
The band started up and played for about two hours; enthusiastic cover versions of rock standards, TV theme-tunes and a rather wonderful cover of ‘America, Fuck Yeah’, from the crude but very funny Team America: World Police film, which they recalibrated into a song that went:
“Hanover! Fuck yeah!”
I wonder if they ever play in Seven Dials. Do they skip this one?
Once or twice we venture in to go to the bar, and note with alarm that the place is full of very enthusiastic audience members.
I muse that my band was never received with such gleeful abandon, and order another drink.
Posted 25 Oct 2007 — by Jonathan Category Uncategorized
A slightly overdue post, this, but I thought I’d take a break from blogging about Brighton in order to dodge backwards in time and reflect a little more on my recent trip to Leeds. In particular, to laud one of the best pubs I’ve ever been to, the wonderful Whitelocks, which is located down a narrow lane in the centre of the city.
I shan’t bore you with a history lesson, but… oh alright, but just a quick one. A listed pub, Whitelocks (which was originally called The Turk’s Head) was first granted a license in 1715, and while it may have changed a fair bit since then, it retains the essence of a proper English public house. It’s dark, ornate and friendly, serving a wonderful selection of cask ales, beautifully decorated, and pulsing with life as if it were the very heart of Leeds. Although if the wall murals outside are anything to go by, it is a Leeds which is greatly changed.
Sitting with a pint of ale one afternoon on my recent trip I was interrupted by a passing customer, who needed me to move a chair so that his wheelchair could continue through the pub. Engaging him in conservation, it transpired that he had drunk in the pub after the war, and he was visibly touched to see that so little had changed. Despite his advanced years, he was as sharp as a needle, looking for ornamental details and signs of permanence and finding plenty to delight him. He had been an artist and explained that he had drawn the inside of the pub from exactly where I was sitting. I was moved and happy to be sat in a place so tangible and real, so resistent to change.
I heartily recommend a visit next time you’re in Leeds.
I don’t mind making mistakes so long as they are, if not universal, commonly made ones. Who of us, after all, has not supped a pint of Cypriot-brewed lager on an orange skied coast and exclaimed “this beer is fucking gorgeous. It’s Cypriot beer for me from now on”.
Exactly, all of us.
Sitting in bars on a similarly idyllic range Croation beaches and harbours, I’ve knocked back plenty of Lasko this week, and enjoyed it hugely, hugging the thick pint glass to myself in the afternoon sun. I had a long day today, however, and thought to myself, ‘I’ll just grab a couple of beers from the supermarket and drink them in front of BBC World in my room’. So I bought 2 cans of Lasko Pivo, branded ‘Zlatorog’, the beer which I think I’ve been drinking with abandon all week in the cheerful Adriatic sun.
It took about six reluctant sips and a good deal of sniffing to work out what exactly this particular Croation beer brought to mind. Taste? Good old fashioned vinegar. Smell? Much more interesting – I eventually pegged it, incredibly accurately, as soy sauce. Unbelievably, unforgivably bad. Wow. Straight down the sink.
Will I drink more of it by the harbour during my lunch break tomorrow? I wouldn’t bet against it.
The first pint of beer I had in San Jose was a glass of San Francisco-brewed Anchor Steam Beer, which is a highly unusual, spicy lager/pale ale combo of real richness and taste. It’s slightly less fizzy than a European lager, and a deep orange, coppery colour with a flat, creamy head. It’s very malty and spicy, containing a strong hint of burnt caramel and biscuits, and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. Very crisp and extremely nice – my first job back in England is to hunt this down.
It perhaps helped that myself and Sam sat drinking it in the Californian sunshine.
Next up was a pint of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which was similar in feel but lighter and less bitter, perhaps slightly more carbonated but retaining the rich hoppiness of the Anchor Steam. Rather sweeter and milder, and easier to drink, but much less individual.
Finally, last night I had a Sierra Nevada with my meal, but couldn’t really place it or differentiate it from the drinks I had before – but will come back to it if I have another glass.
Assistant Blog – bringing you the most important news from America, as it happens.
Once I get through the customs and security at Chicago (shoes, coat, belt off), I find myself, having rushed prematurely, with space to explore. I’m dog-tired, but the aforementioned exhileration, until now dormant under the surface, springs joyfully to life and I dash down from the landing gate, having calculated I have thirty minutes spare, to Chicago airport’s book shop. I bury my nose (metaphorically, just) in the strange scented, differently weighted books of America. First I rush to the fiction stand, to examine my favourite books in new, unseen editions, and then I spring back to the bestseller table.
I’ve heard various things about the US book market, and won’t for a moment, on the strength of a couple of visits, years apart, pretend to know anything much about it. Friends from the US have told me how astonished they are, on British public transport, to see so many people reading books. On the other hand, standing in this Illinois bookshop, I’m taken aback by the quality of the top ten on offer; serious fiction by Philip Roth, books by Democratic party hopefuls and several tracts on the Middle East and Government policy. The new book by Dave Eggers, which is about a refugee from the Sudanese war, which I excitedly buy, is placed bang in the centre of the new releases table.
My heart thudding with excitement, relaxing in and exploring this enthralling shop, I forget completely my extreme tiredness and lose myself in a flurry of pro-Americanism, deciding that I can’t live in England any longer and must move to the States forthwith. I rush back to the gate, book in hand, and throw myself onto a seat at a little bar sat beside it. A sign warns me that all customers will be ID’d, which send me into a jetlagged panic of amusement. The barman comes over, and, wanting to look dead adult, I splutter “A Bugweiser, please’.
He looks stern. “A what?”
“A Busweiger”, I reply, all nerves and tiredness. I show him, pre-emptively, my ID.
It’s always flattering to be described as a lovely boy, which I now have been, over on Ali’s ace new Split Down The Middle blog, but I wasn’t altogether sure that such a nice bit of praise was entirely compatible with Ali’s realisation, shortly after she started drinking with me, Dave and Dan, that “boys believe what they want to believe, regardless of the facts, or the measured opinion of friends, or the niggling doubts, or anything. If they want to convince themselves that something is acceptible to do, they will do it”. Having provided her with such an insight into the workings of a man’s mind, we should perhaps hand back the plaudits and hang our heads in shame.
Had a cool evening though – me and Dave met up there after work and downed a couple of pints, although the speed with which we drank them was dictated not so much by drunken enthusiasm (it was Monday night, after all) but rather by the fact that Dave, glancing down at a chili pepper nestling in our bowl of olives, wondered aloud “do you think that’s hot?”, and then decided to find out. Dave is a blonde bombshell with a fine, pale beard which is only visible in good light, but if you ever want to see it, the trick is to feed him a chili pepper. His face turns purple and his beard is suddenly visible. Ace. I’ve never seen someone drink a pint of guiness so fast. The olives were hot, too, egged on and contaminated.
As Ali intimates, the theme for the evening’s discussion was social, and socio-sexual (whatever that is) embarrasment, so we traded stories of little slips, mistakes, ill-judged comments, that feeling of waking up still quarter-cut in the morning and having to cycle through an evening of memories to recollect the moment when you allowed one blip to colour the evening – you forgot someone’s name, or said something too loud, or did something transparent which your companions saw through, and laughed about. These are tiny things, but they’re somehow almost as agonising as the big problems. I always fixate back on the slightest things, and if I don’t remember them I conclude I’ve just forgotten. “Did I make a complete idiot of myself at your house last night?”, I think of asking.
Dan and Ali had plenty more stories. When we looked up, it was after twelve and the remnants of our pints were being confiscated. Bah.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Michael Palin’s travel programmes – they do a superb job of chronicling distant lands in amazing insightful detail. But where, if you sent Michael Palin to Mexico and asked him to research the Aztecs, he would talk of feathered serpents and folk mythology with a very BBC sense of ironic detachment, it’s a great pleasure to watch DBC Pierre deliver the same lines, the same portents of dread, dead straight to camera with reverent seriousness. Palin may return from the Himalayas enthused, but he doesn’t come back possessed. Actually, Pierre looks possessed at the beginning of his journey, never mind the end, if only by Mexican firewater, but it makes his ‘The Last Aztec’, a channel 4 film which I caught repeated on More4 tonight, brilliantly enjoyable.
A lot of TV history seems intent on proving which civilisation was the best or the strongest or most civilised – Egypt or Greece, Roman or Aztec. Certainly any sense of journalistic impartiality is absent in Pierre’s film – he points out that “while we as a culture were chucking shit out of windows into alleys in London, these people had drainage, they had courts, they were living off spring water and vegetables. While we were dying of the plague and scraping around in the grime, these folk were wandering like gods”. He reveres the glorious and magical history of the Aztecs.
Again, unlike Palin or his fellow TV journalist contemporaries, Pierre refuses to conform to type. For a start it’s quickly clear, through a combination of his appearance and his driving, that our host is absolutely trashed. In truth, despite the historical content, the film is really a gonzo road movie in which Pierre’s passion takes centre stage as recalls his childhood in Mexico city, the stories that fuel his imagination, and explores his thesis that the heart of Aztec Mexico is still throbbing hard under the surface of the capital city.
And indeed it is, literally – wherever tears appear in the world’s largest city, he shows us, the ruins of the Aztec empire are exposed, and we watch archaologists uncovering sacred grounds, the bodies of Aztec children and shards of Aztec stone. This most spectacular civilisation, Pierre reminds us, was carved by a stone age society. Indeed, without not only steel, but also without wheels. He finds the place, locked away behind an iron gate, where Cortes, the Spanish usurper, met Moctezuma first – he was welcomed not as an invader but as a God. Once more, Palin might film the spot through the gate. Not DBC Pierre – he just bribes a policeman and gets in that way.
So, allowed in as Gods, the Spanish took the Aztec Empire, and Moctezuma was stoned by his own people for letting them down. Pierre is intent on mourning the collapse of the civilisation which inspires him so. “There’s only one way to get over the decline and collapse of an empire”, he tells us sourly, sitting in a seedy bar. “And that’s to get completely lashed “. He throws back a tequila, shaking his head, looking around. “I can’t say it feels any better”. So he has another.
Incensed, he decides to take the Palace back for the Aztecs. He is approached by a local, outside. “Do I want an official tour?”, he says disdainfully, preparing to storm the place, “what the fuck is that?”. He banters with the guard on the gate, but gets no further. By now, anyway, his misanthropy knows no bounds, so what does he do? He drinks lots more, he reminisces about a dead girlfriend and the centrality of death in the Mexican character, and goes out at night looking for fresh corpses. When he finds some, he takes photos. By now I am thinking this is surely one of the oddest bits of TV I’ve ever come across. Back in the daylight, pissed, he wanders into a church, lights up, and starts rambling about Dracula.
Mexico, he tells us, has dreamt up a unique cocktail of death-fascination, where the pre-Spanish culture of death worship has combined with the Christian concept of mortality. He asks a priest about it, making sure he mentions Christians ripping the hearts from still-living children in the process. Yet Aztec magic still holds sway, and as Pierre decides he wants to climb a mountain to find the resting place of Moctezuma, he realises that he had better have his soul cleansed first. He buys some dried hummingbirds, for starters. It will ward off curses, apparently.
The Sierra Madras mountains are his destination, a magical realm, and he starts his climb, intent on finding spirits, “secrets from the past”, living remnants of the Aztec world, and gold. Most people, as he climbs, are too frightened to talk of the spirits. Pierre has been here before, actually, and he seems scared too – after all, he points out, “the last time I left this valley, many years ago, my life went hurtling into a downward spiral from which I’ve only just recovered”. He keeps climbing anyway.
But, just in case, he sacrifices a couple of chickens first. By the time’s that done, he’s “as clean as a whistle”, he says, “a poet”. And he needs to be cleansed. “There are many things that happen to you, physically and emotionally”, he says, “which leave a smudge”. The bit where the first chicken is beheaded – with kitchen scissors – is horrifying. And after all that, standing in the swirling mist, Pierre is still too scared to climb the mountain. So he gets absolutely slaughtered again, then turns back: the gonzo journo who turns back! Give him another beer and he’ll do it, I was shouting.
I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the game, but each week when we finish a fun and fairly drink-sodden pub quiz at The George, we pass around several pieces of paper and a bunch of biros and begin playing a drawing game. The rules are that each person writes a sentence and passes the paper to the next person, who draws what they see. They then fold over the paper so that the original caption is not visible and the next person along writes down what they see. Then, in turn, the next person draws the caption, and so on…
The following sequence, appropriately given that Dan didn’t have any cash him on last night, started with the following sentence. You can follow the evolution through.
“Dan drank pint after pint and jonathan paid for it all, and felt cheated”.
From that, the next person in the line extrapolated the following:
“Dan is getting pissed on Jonathan’s money and Jonathan doesn’t like it”.
Pictorially represented as…
“Dan continuously drinks beer Jonathan has bought for him without acknowledging the pain this causes”.
“Jonathan dares Dan to just keep drinking as usual”.
We rarely get to the end of the sequence without hideously distoring the meaning, so we were pretty proud of that. And the story has a happy ending, too, as Dan is a decent sort and bought me lunch today.
"Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right."
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green