Monday, April 16, 2018

We're all pretentious now

There was a time, many years ago, when we'd laugh and scoff at pretentious descriptions of wine that contained, say, 'aromas of rich dark currants, nectarine skins, gushing blackberry, but lots of fragrant tobacco, rich soil, white flowers, smashed minerals and metal' (actual review). Now that such descriptions are commonplace, meaningless and we ignore them completely, other products have got on the bandwagon. Nothing can be just what it is any more – it has to stand for something else, something more, something usually pretentious.

Coffee is the new wine. My pack of Taylors of Harrogate ground coffee, Rare Blossom Ethiopia, is a 'dazzling riot of honeysuckle, mango, blossom, whisky and spice' (what, no 'echoes of a Bach fugue in the background'?). It's been some years since I've been able to go into a coffee shop and ask for something as simple as a white coffee (it doesn't seem to exist any more); it would be easier asking for an Austrian goat milk double-half-caf-half-decaf-soy milk cappuccino – extra hot – with a dash of Madagascar cinnamon and half a tablespoon of caramel-latte-frappa-mocha.

A list of 'guest beans' on a coffee shop menu (handwritten chalk on blackboard, obvs) includes those from Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala, Colombia and 'Coeur D'Afrique' (a place or a state of mind? The name evokes Conrad's anti-imperialist Hearts of Darkness, set in the Congo; despite being a slightly dangerous place to hunt for speciality beans right now, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the 'future of coffee', according to the NY Times. The aforementioned Coeur D'Afrique bean contains huckleberry, violet and sugar cane, but might as well also give off a whiff of, say, earth freshly dug up by Fairtrade slaves). The list of exotic (yet poor, obvs) countries conjures up colonial images of seventeenth century explorers returning from the New World with plundered treasures such as gold, tobacco, spices, chocolate and, indeed, coffee.

If coffee is the new wine, chocolate is the new coffee. In the 1980s, Ferrero Rossier and After Eights were the ultimate pretentious chocolate but that's nothing compared to the new breed of brands where 'lemon, poppy seed and baobab' is an actual flavour. Chocolate from Ecuador is apparently 'flowery and fruity'; from Madagascar it's 'intense red fruit with cherry notes', whilst Southeast Asia has 'smoky and earthy flavors'.

(When it comes to hot beverages and chocolate, sorry, but I'm so happy with a Sainsbury's Red Label cup of tea and regular Kit Kat I can't even put it into words.)

If products such as wine and perfume were the precursors of this pretentious parade, nowadays many other once-average and taken-for-granted items such as coffee, chocolate, craft beer, vinyl records and bikes are revitalised as specialised and authentic, artisan products with the intention of making the buying public feel like connoisseurs. Niche has become mainstream. I mainly blame advertising and hipsters.

What's the next product to get the pretentious treatment? Speciality industrial-strength bleach sourced from uranium mines in Namibia? With shades of deadly nightshade, aromas of Agent Orange and the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now in the distance...

Previously on Barnflakes:
The agony of choice
Now serving flat white
Not for all the tea in China
Proud to serve

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In St Pancras Old Churchyard

Supposedly one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe, dating back to the fourth century, St Pancras Old Church is located five minutes away from St Pancras train station in Somers Town on Pancras Road. The churchyard is a curious place, part park and dotted with ancient trees and interesting tombs with fascinating stories.

The most striking aspect of the churchyard is the famous Hardy tree (pictured, top) – named after the Wessex writer Thomas Hardy – where hundreds of gravestones are piled around an ash tree in a circular pattern with the tree roots intertwined around them. As a young man, Hardy trained as an architect in London, and one of his unenviable tasks was to dig up and relocate body remains in the churchyard to Finchley to make way for the expansion of St Pancras train station. With the remaining gravestones, the young Hardy made a rather artful arrangement of them around a tree in the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard is architect Sir John Soane's mausoleum (pictured, bottom) for himself and his wife, Eliza, who died, according to Soane, after the shock of discovering their son's negative reviews of his father's work. Soane never forgave his son, and never got over the death of his wife. If the design of the tomb looks familiar, that's because it was supposedly the inspiration for architect Giles Gilbert Scott's iconic red phone box.

Though her body has been moved (to Bournemouth), the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, remains. When her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was planning an elopement with poet Percy Shelley, they used to meet at night to discuss their plans at her mother's grave.

Charles Dickens used to wander around the churchyard, and it's mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities. It also features on William Blake's mythical map of London. Somewhat later, in 1968, The Beatles posed for publicity photos in the porch of the church whilst promoting their White Album.

Previously on Barnflakes:
William Blake's vision of angels in Peckham
Notes on Gilbert George Scott

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Random Animal Animated Film Reviews: Paddington 2 and Isle of Dogs


Paddington 2
Dir: Paul King | UK | 2017 | 103mins.

Paddington 2 has had the best reviews of any film ever. It's had a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (their highest ever), five stars in all the papers including the Guardian, with even the usual cynical and sarcastic comments section reduced to mushy praise of the film.

I thought it was dire, natch. Reuniting two of the cast members of the equally offensive Notting Hill – Hugh Grant and Hugh Bonneville, whilst tossing in other TV-friendly actors such as Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley – and also being set in Notting Hill, it has the feel of a Richard Curtis film; it peddles a vision of London full of nostalgia (which presumably never existed) and friendly neighbours. The one good scene – a fun choreographed dance number in a prison with Hugh Grant – is unfortunately not revealed until over the end credits. A recent Guardian article compares Paddington 2 to the films of Wes Anderson. I can't quite see it myself.

– 1/5 

Isle of Dogs
Dir: Wes Anderson | USA | 2018 | 101mins.

First things first: Isle of Dogs is not set in London's East End, but 'twenty years in the future' (from when?) in Japan. I wasn't that bothered about the film until I queued for an hour in the rain (listening to the young Brazilians behind me, talking of being first ADs on the latest Spielberg film) with my daughter to see a wonderful exhibition of the original film sets and puppets. My daughter, aged 11, definitely hadn't wanted to see Paddington 2, and I had to physically drag her to see Isle of Dogs.

It was well worth it, both charming and moving* – more emotional, in fact, that Wes Anderson's live action films. Anderson is everywhere right now (and perhaps always has been), as the Guardian will be the first to tell us. All of Instagram is a tribute to the filmmaker's formal and colourful compositions, with Accidentally Wes Anderson being the most obvious paean (helpfully, pretty much anything can be Accidentally Wes Anderson – phone box, park, train station, hotel, lighthouse).

Wes Anderson making films is like a baby boy playing with his posh dolls house in the attic of his parent's house. Apparently the epitome of an American auteur, he makes what films he wants on his own terms within the Hollywood system, casting which actors he wants (usually Bill Murray and Owen Wilson but also the likes of Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel). But actors are like pawns in his game. I don't mind deadpan acting – in the films of Aki Kaurismaki and Yorgos Lanthimos, for example, it's used to great effect. But compare the emotional intensity of Killing of a Sacred Deer to, say, the lack of any emotion in Moonlight Kingdom.

It seems – though not on purpose – that I've seen all the films of Wes Anderson. I also come to own three of the soundtracks to his films on CD. But I'm not his biggest fan (my favourite would probably be The Grand Budapest Hotel, a souffle of a movie, mainly due to Ralph Fiennes' performance). His formality and quirkiness, his contrived fastidiousness (reminding me slightly of Kubrick), those flat, symmetrical compositions – all leave me cold, and usually bored. Wes Anderson is the success of form over content.

The techniques that he's used in his live action films – those flat compositions, those 'overhead tableaux' shots – but mainly the complete control he obviously craves from every frame of a film, means animation is probably his forte (or adverts). Though he's only made two – Fantastic Mr Fox along with Isle of Dogs – with those he's able to control every element of the production, from the weather to the actors.

–4/5

*I know, I know, I feel your frustration. You came here looking for a proper film review, only to get half a dozen bland words about the actual film.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Three recent coincidences

1. R had been telling me about Unit Editions, ‘a progressive publishing venture producing high-quality, affordable books on graphic design and visual culture’, that I’d never heard of, the day before. The next evening R popped round the flat (a rare occurrence btw, being allergic to my cat, Casper). A parcel was waiting for me in the doorway. I opened it up and it was a beautiful book called Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution (with ‘free’ poster), published by, yup, you guessed it, Unit Editions and costing £55 (I must take umbrage at the ‘affordable’ claim in their blurb). I hadn’t ordered it; it was sent by an old friend I hadn’t heard from for years, completely out of the blue. He thought I’d like it.

2. S and I were sipping our Greggs coffees on a bench behind a church in Greenwich. We were talking about Krautrock, Can and Stockhausen, then onto atonality and minimalism; then came Carrie and Brian de Palma, followed by Dario Argento and Italian giallo films which led on to Peter Strickland via Berberian Sound Studio and the Duke of Burgundy, then vampire films and finally, somehow, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Fear Eats the Soul is one of my favourite films, ever). Five minutes later we were strolling around the secondhand market across the road, and S spotted a DVD box set of Fassbinder films. What are the chances? S didn’t want it, so I snapped it up immediately. 9 Fassbinder films! For £5! Barngain.

3. I was moaning on the phone to H about many things, including this very blog. 12 years I’ve been writing it, I said, and virtually no comments, no feedback, nothing in return (I blame social media for the death of blogs). Why do I bother writing it, I asked her. She didn’t know. I didn’t know. Anyway, just as I said no one ever leaves a comment, I was checking my emails and a notification came up that C (for Caspar; different spelling to my cat, so, no, they're not one and the same) had left a comment on a recent post. Faith in mankind was temporarily restored.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Myanmar days

I went to college with two students who changed their names. One changed both his first name and surname, and his whole image – from clothes to hair colour. Of course it's common for celebrities to change their name... Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Elton John, Maurice Joseph Micklewhite became Michael Caine (not a lot of people know that), Lana Del Rey is actually Elizabeth Woolridge Grant.

Countries and cities also change name, usually for political reasons. From Ceylon to Sri Lanka, Persia to Iran, Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Abyssinia to Ethiopia. Burma became Myanmar (pronounced 'me an ma') in 1989. The government also changed many of its city's names, as well as the location of its capital. So Irrawaddy became Aveyawady, Pegu became Bago and Rangoon (which ironically translates as 'end of strife') became Yangon. Yangon was the former capital; Myanmar's capital city has changed about thirty times in the last thousand years. The latest capital, Naypyitaw, is a very new city indeed; construction didn't start on it until 2002. Which all makes for much confusion. 

(I imagined a businessman at the time of the changes having a meeting in the capital only to discover it's changed location; or a government official, not being told of the changes, going to work on a Monday morning to discover he's in the wrong city; or a tourist asking for a ticket to Rangoon only to be told it doesn't exist any more. Can you imagine if the capital of the UK suddenly upsticked from London to Bath, or Birmingham?)

Coming out of Yangon airport I was immediately hit with the unmistakable sensation of being back in Asia. It was a nice feeling – the heat, the smells, the bustle, the poverty, the temples. It was 6am and the sun was rising, birds were chirping. It was already hot. My last visit to SE Asia had been... disastrous (see my book Gullible Travels) so I was a tad apprehensive, mainly about the heat and the food, neither of which had agreed with me last time (fifteen years ago).

The traffic and pollution in Yangon was horrendous. H had been working in the country a few weeks; I was driven to her hotel, picked her up, then we were driven to the Golden Rock by a driver plus an "English speaking" guide. This would be our routine for the entire holiday – picked up at airports (there was a lot of internal flights), then chauffeur driven around with a guide (at one point two guides and a driver).

H had organised the entire trip for us. Every inch of the way. The only thing missing, which I'm glad I insisted on, even though it wasn't on the itinerary and would involve going there as soon as I got off the plane, was the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo pagoda – one of two dreamlike, mythical images of Myanmar etched in my mind; I'd probably first seen them in National Geographic magazine over twenty years ago – the other being the pagoda at Mingun with the huge crack running down the middle (both pictured, above).

The gravity-defying large golden rock (the pagoda is on top of it), perched on the edge of a cliff and the huge crack in the pagoda caused by an earthquake (symbolising to me the folly of man and the destruction of a kingdom) were impossible, beautiful and surreal images so alien and exotic I never imagined seeing them with my own eyes.

The Kyaiktiyo pagoda, the third most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar, was a beautiful and relaxing place to hang out in. We watched families picnicking and monks praying; in particular we were charmed by the 'pink nuns' – girls with shaven heads wearing their pink robes. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed; it was hard to imagine Myanmar being a country cut-off from the west for decades, ruled with an iron fist by a military dictatorship. Though Myanmar was finally opening up to tourism, in other parts of the country systematic genocide was taking place against the stateless Rohingya Muslims, many of whom were fleeing the country into Bangladesh.

I bought some gold leaf and pasted it onto the rock along with other men (women weren't allowed). It felt quite a profound and spiritual task, being part of a process that thousands had done over hundreds of years. I'd forgotten what it was like to be in a Buddhist country – Buddha statues, temples and stupas were everywhere we went. So it was a surprise the next day stumbling across a small Hindu temple in the countryside next to a small lake. further along in the fields were Monet-style haystacks. We went off-piste and were invited in for tea in a little hut by some rice fields. Everywhere we went – both of us tall and pasty white – people would take photos or ask us to pose for a photo with them. They'd giggle and stare and made us feel like movie stars.

Our favourite meal was in the Bago region where our driver stopped at some roadside stalls of dried fish. We crossed a wooden bridge over a river into a village which obviously didn't get a lot of tourists – we were stared at wherever we went and invited to lunch in the courtyard where they were preparing for a festival. We were handed plates which were filled with rice and soup. It was delicious and though obviously a poor village, they wouldn't accept any payment for lunch. Well, we were the entertainment after all: even though conversation was rudimentary, the locals found us fascinating and took more photos of us than we did of them.

Also in the Bago region we visited a village with a small snake monastery – that was fine; a monk had a dream that the snake now in the monastery was the reincarnation of a Burmese spirit (nat). (We were used to seeing such things – the Buddha's toenail is buried under a pagoda; next to a temple, the shape of a tree root is the Buddha's big toe.) No, what got me was the village itself. What should have been a pleasant country village (we'd seen plenty) stank, quite literally, of poverty. The village lake was filled with plastic bags and bottles, which children collected for money. There was no running water. Heaps of rubbish (mostly plastic) were everywhere (if I ever won the lottery, I wouldn't go for yachts or fancy houses, I'd like to think I'd try and sort out shit like this). Religion, huh? All the gold temples, pagodas, stupas and Buddhas we'd seen were immaculate. They all had stacks of offerings: money, flowers, gifts. Yet the surrounding area was invariably poor and filthy. Obviously it's not just Buddhism. All over the world I've seen the same thing.

It was sometimes nice getting away from the big tourist sites; at the Golden Rock there had been hardly any tourists but in Bagan, ancient city of a thousand temples, there were plenty. Yet wandering around the old city felt like being Indiana Jones; we'd stumble across over-grown temples wherever we looked in the dusty and tree-lined plain. Walking is one way to do the 26-square mile area of temples and pagodas; there are also bikes, hot air balloons (too expensive for us), taxis and coaches. At the main temples, children would follow us around, trying to sell us souvenirs and books. Burmese Days? I've read it. How about The Glass Palace? I've read that too. Okay mister, you buy From the Land of Green Ghosts? Haven't read it, but don't want to.

In the evening, hundreds of tourists would climb the temples (an activity now banned) for amazing views over the hazy landscape of temples and trees to catch the magical sunset. Any notion of it actually being a magical or romantic moment was unfortunately ruined by all the tourists (I know, I know, we were also tourists) and a thousand phones and cameras going off at once to capture the event. And sunsets are over-rated (which I've mentioned a few times in the past).

Disasters have long plagued Myanmar – earthquakes have destroyed temples; fires have ruined cities, including Mandalay, which I romantically imagined to be wooden shacks and bicycles but has been rebuilt – largely by the huge influx of Chinese – into a bland, modern city. Kipling would turn in his grave. Luckily, there's other stuff to see around the city: Mandalay Hill and Palace; loads of temples and pagodas, including Kuthodaw (which contains 729 stupas and is regarded as the world's largest book), the Shwenandaw Monastery (beautiful 19th century wooden building) and the aforementioned Mingun Pahtodawgyi, my mythical incomplete (on purpose) and cracked (by earthquake) monument stupa. We chartered a large boat, just the two of us, to see this, sitting on deckchairs on deck, sipping on Sprites and eating nuts, to travel the 10km along the river from Mandalay. This, perhaps, felt like the biggest extravagance of the trip; other boats the same size contained about thirty tourists.

It was around this time we first encountered The Pest. After seeing him once, we saw him everywhere. There was a daily ceremony at a monastery where loads of young monks would wait in line for breakfast. It was a visual feast with hundreds of crimson robes lined up with their bowls. The Pest was a Japanese tourist dressed like a fisherman or photographer (there's a fine line – pardon the pun – between the two: geeky body warmer with lots of pockets, combat trousers with lots of pockets, stupid hat... but the Nikon camera costing the GNP of a typical Burmese village gave the game away).

We speculated that he worked for National Geographic. And this is how he got his good shots – by being a pest. He walked in front of everyone. He ordered monks around. He took about a hundred photos a minute. He was everywhere all the time, taking photos and annoying everyone.

We went on to the iconic U Bein Bridge, in time for the iconic sunset, naturally. Over 1km long and built in 1850, the teakwood bridge is believed to be the longest and oldest of its kind in the world. Next there was Inlay Lake, a beautiful, serene expanse of water with fishermen, marshes, floating gardens and houses on stilts. There were two types of fishermen there: one type who actually fish, and the other who pose for tourists for $1 (these are the fishermen one sees in all the guidebooks).

Amazingly, this time in Asia, the heat and food had been fine. The December heat wasn't overwhelming, and we'd eaten a lot of vegetables and noodles (every day in fact). We'd drunk green tea, Sprites and Cokes, and the occasional latte when we could. In fact, the only time I got a dodgy tummy was, typically, the only day there were no toilets around: we were on a boat all day on the lake. H had bought a small bottle of lethal Mandalay rum the night before (for about 70p) and we drank some with Coke. I warned her against it – I'd had Mekong whisky in Thailand and suffered the consequences, which were severe – but she didn't listen and didn't admit the alcohol was the cause of my stomach troubles until the following day – when she'd had some rum again the night before (and I hadn't). I was fine the next day, H had the upset stomach. We poured the rest of the rum down the sink.

There had been horse and cart rides, boat trips, planes, taxis, gigantic Buddha statues, temples, pagodas, stupas, caves. It was non-stop for over a week. From dawn to dusk. And then there was Ngapali beach, voted the best beach in Asia, for a few days of R&R. It was Christmas after all. We got cocktails and mingled at the bar. No, we didn't actually – one reason being there was hardly anyone around. No, mingle at bar was how we remembered saying 'Hello' in Burmese: min-ga-la-ba.

The beach was beautiful, with golden sand, warm water and huge shells washed up on the shore. We weren't really beach people, but made an exception this time. It was paradise. The restaurant shacks on the beach served me chunky tuna steaks cooked on the barbie with rice and avocado salad. Washed down with a glass of watermelon juice, the total cost was about $3 (about the same price as a latte, when we could find one). Christmas Day is all about context: out here, we didn't really think about it. The hotels had half-hearted Christmas trees and lights in their lobbies but it wasn't convincing.

I didn't see any tourists going as far as the working part of the beach, about half a mile away from the hotels, where the local fishermen and women did their thing, but I loved it there, despite stepping on hundreds of discarded fish heads, the best and biggest shells were to be found there, amongst the nets and anchors. The men did the fishing and the women did the sorting and dying of the fish. Presumably the same way they'd had done it 500 years ago.

We returned to Yangon and had a day seeing the sights. I was keen to see any remains of colonial architecture, and there was plenty of it, crumbling away gracefully. Lunch was awful, at this tourist trap of a restaurant with a garden setting. You know what? It was probably okay but I'd had it with our English speaking guides, most of whom couldn't speak English that well at all, and definitely couldn't answer any questions if they went off-script. We usually tried explaining that we only wanted to eat in local places, not horrible tourist restaurants. The food was usually better, and cheaper, in a local place, and, you know, we did want to see how the locals lived, not be surrounded by other tourists all the time. I was trying to avoid and ignore our guides half the time. They'd drone on about the history of a temple which we would have forget instantly if we could even understand their English.

So, all this time – apart from the beach – we had a guide and a driver, and they were different each place we went. The driver's were usually fine – they'd just drive. But there was this one driver H really didn't like the look of. He was a bulky, shaven headed thug, but I didn't mind him all that much. But H couldn't stand him, his arrogance. She said he looked ex-military and had a nasty look about him. H found out from our guide that he was indeed ex-military and used to be a sniper in the army. He was the only one who didn't get a tip from us.

I'm being unfair; some of our guides were very nice, bought us lunch, gave us gifts of green tea (which I bought back but still haven't used). But things reached a head in the evening when we went to the gold Shwedagon pagoda, Myanmar's most holy pilgrimage site, which we'd seen in the distance at various times, dominating the skyline. There was a lift up to the pagoda which I'd got in first with a bunch of other people, and H and the guide had to wait for the next one. When I got to the top I saw the sun was about to set and rushed off to photograph the pagoda with the sun setting behind it (I know, I know, when am I ever going to learn about sunsets?). Then I went back to find H and the guide. I couldn't find them anywhere, and there were hundreds of people milling around.

When I eventually found H, maybe an hour or so later, she was furious. She'd been on her own with the guide, who'd not only been harping on about the pagoda, but also in a state about having lost me. I found him waiting by the entrance, in a panic, saying this had never happened before, he'd been sick with worry. To tell the truth, I'd had enough of the English speaking guides.

Nevertheless, it had been an incredible holiday in a beautiful country, with friendly people and extraordinary sights. Yes, the poverty jars. Yes, knowing there's a genocide happening upcountry as we laze on a beach jars. At least H, who had been working there, was trying to make a difference. She said it was the first country she'd worked in where she could also have a holiday. On the internal flights we read the newspaper New Light of Myanmar (published by the Orwellian Ministry of Information), who singled out the UK's Guardian for spreading false news about the military's persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Freedom of the press is non-existent, with two Reuters journalists currently clocking up 100 days in jail for reporting on the genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has faced widespread criticism for not speaking out over the crisis.

In the last few days, Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw has resigned, apparently due to ill health. Former general and Vice-President Myint Swe takes over until a new president is chosen (Aung San Suu Kyi, who had a loyal ally in Htin Kyaw, is exempt from taking the position, due to having children with an English husband, a clause in the constitution seemingly introduced with her in mind). The future doesn't look great for Myanmar.

We took separate flights home (H's had been organised by the company she worked for). I stopped off at Doha airport, in Qatar, with branches of Harrods and WH Smith everywhere; it could be anywhere except for the chic sheiks in their flowing white robes – how do they keep their whites white? Prayer rooms, quiet rooms and smoking rooms reminiscent of a smoky English pub circa. 1994. The men wear white; the women black. A video and a Daily Mail article inform me it's the most luxurious, expensive airport in the world but all I saw was a giant sculpture of a teddy bear – apparently art.

Flickr photos here.

– December 2016

Friday, March 16, 2018

Top ten fictional bands

The Carrie Nations
1. Spinal Tap
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
As mentioned some years ago, a fictional band who then released an album and toured in real life.

2. The Carrie Nations
Beyond The Valley of the Dolls (1970)

3. Autobahn
The Big Lebowski (1998)

4. Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes
Star Wars (1977)

5. Wyld Stallyns
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

6. The Folksmen
A Mighty Wind (2003)

7. Stillwater
Almost Famous (2000)

8. Marvin Berry and the Starlighters
Back to the Future (1985)

9. The Paranoids*
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (1966)

10. The Fool*
Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (1973)
An English rock group who has Tyrone Slothrop appearing on one of their album covers.

*Yes, two Pynchon bands make it in the top ten. And yes, I know it's difficult to gauge how good a fictional band is in a novel, as you can't actually hear them, but imagination is a powerful tool.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Anvil vs. Spinal Tap
Top 10 Films about Musicians

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Top ten prequels

In the beginning there was...

1. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
(Original: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 1847)

2. The Godfather Part II, Dir: Francis Ford Coppola (1974)
(Original: The Godfather, Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) 

3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (1995)
(Original: The Wizard of Oz, Dir: Victor Fleming, 1939)

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Dir: Gareth Edwards (2016)
(Original: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 
Dir: George Lucas, 1977)

5. Twin Peaks: Fire Come Walk With Me,
Dir: David Lynch (1992)
(Original: Twin Peaks, Creators: David Lynch/Mark Frost, 1990-1991)

6. Star Trek, Dir: J. J. Abrams (2009)
(Original: Star Trek, Creator: Gene Roddenberry, 1966-1967)

7. Monsters University, Dir: Dan Scanlon (2013)
(Original: Monsters, Inc., Dir: Pete Docter, 2001)
 
8. Skagboys by Irvine Walsh (2012)
(Original: Trainspotting by Irvine Walsh, 1993)
 
9. Havisham by Ronald Frame (2004)
(Original: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1861)
 
10. Finn by Jon Clinch (2007)
(Original: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pylons in the snow

Ljubljana, Slovenia

I noticed an eerie silence at East Croydon train station – maybe due to cold weather, maybe something else. Then H noticed trains weren't running to Gatwick; there was a bus replacement service from Redhill to Gatwick (a six mile journey). I immediately sensed potential mayhem. The train to Redhill arrived – completely over-packed with passengers and suitcases. I did some quick maths: 12 train coaches, each requiring a whole bus at Redhill. There would need to be a whole fleet of replacement buses waiting for us. Needless to say, there were none. No buses, no information, just complete chaos with hundreds of people filling the train station platform, the entrance hall and a long queue outside snaking up to the place where there were non-existent buses. By the time we made it to the entrance hall, we had an hour to go before our flight. There were still no buses, no information and hundreds of people ahead of us.

We had to make a decision – quick. H said to leave the station and find a taxi. Amazingly, not many people had the same idea, and after running halfway down a road to stop one, we shared a taxi with three others to Gatwick – at the extortionate cost of £10 each (one of the others was so outraged, he wasn't going to pay, and the driver stopped. No, no, we shouted, keep driving!). We arrived at the airport with minutes to go before final boarding, ran along the endless corridors and got on the plane with about 30 seconds to spare.

Our taxi driver to Gatwick was from Kashmir where he told me it was -15 in the mountains right now. It was hard to imagine that coldness – though we found out a few hours later. Slovenia was experiencing its coldest winter in a decade with snow a foot deep (as was much of Europe; even the UK would get its fair share). I've probably never experienced – not even in Iceland – the icy shock of coming out of the airport late at night to be greeted by -15 C. A taxi took us to our hotel in the centre of town, along the banks of the willow-lined river that winds through the city. Unsurprisingly, given the temperature, there was no one around, and nothing open. We found one restaurant, called Paninoteka, and I had beef goulash with polenta and a pint of local beer. Bliss. One of the best meals I'd ever had.

(We returned to the same restaurant a few nights later to try and replicate the experience – never a good idea. There was a different waitress; I stupidly ordered a different meal, with wine instead of beer. We were sitting on the other side of the restaurant. I don't know, nothing felt the same. And it wasn't very nice. I always say never return anywhere – whether it be a country, city or restaurant – it's always a disappointment.)

The first thing we did in the morning was buy woolly hats. Then breakfast. We found Le Pitit cafe, a charming place a little away from the river. I don't know what was happening to my taste buds but everything tasted amazing (even the tap water in the hotel tasted like it had just melted off the Julian Alps, which it probably had), a simple breakfast of eggs on toast, coffee and orange juice, tasted fresh and lovely.

Our hotel was not only perfectly situated next to the river in the centre of town (which blissfully is all pedestrianised) but next to wonderful, geeky shops: we were next door to TipoRenesansa, a letterpress workshop and shop (where H talked me into buying a lovely notebook for – ahem – €18), a couple of record shops, a photography gallery and shop, and several bookshops. Retail heaven was on my doorstep.

(Everywhere H and I have been together we invariably: 1) Want to move there; 2) Think it's nicer, prettier, greener, friendlier, more efficient, cheaper and more interesting than London/England; 3) The only good thing about London is its free museums and galleries (we never fail to forget that museums and galleries are closed on a Monday everywhere in Europe, and charge an entrance fee when they are open); 4) Being oh-so-well-travelled, everywhere reminds us of somewhere else we've been – in the case of Ljubljana, it was Helsinki meets Venice.)

Despite the -7 temperature during the day, Ljubljana is a lovely city to walk around (even nicer in the Mediterranean summers, where open air restaurants, bars and markets line the riverbanks). There's plenty of pretty Art Nouveau buildings, lovely bridges, a castle perched on top of a hill over looking the city, numerous museums and galleries including a puppet theatre, cobbled roads and a tiny population, most of which seem to be students on bikes. Metelkova is a former army barracks (like the Venice Biennale Arsenal, H noted) turned autonomous alternative arty district, holding exhibitions, events and gigs. Everything in the city is within a 15 minute walk.

Slovene architect Joze Plecnik was responsible for much of the modern look of Ljubljana (as well as Prague and Vienna), designing many of the city's notable buildings, including the lovely, iconic Triple Bridge. But architect Milan Mihelič, still alive aged 92, designed a bunch of estates on the outskirts of town and a cool 1960s petrol station near the bus station, which I took more photos of than any other building in the city.

The sloping Tivoli Park sits on the outskirts of the city and contains landscaped gardens, statues and fountains. H spotted a small creature on the edge of a lake. It looked like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. The poor thing was staring at us, shivering. Will it be okay? I asked H. It will be fine, she reassured me, and we went on our way.

We spent a day at Tito's former holiday retreat, Lake Bled. If it sounds like something out of a vampire film, rest assured it is quite the opposite: a fairytale setting with a medieval castle on a cliff, pine forests and the Julian Alps all overlooking the glacial lake, on which sits a tiny island with a chapel on it.

Not to be confused with Slovakia (which I did numerous times), Slovenia was the first country to leave the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and saw a lot less fighting (just a Ten-Day War, in fact) than its former-Yugoslavian neighbours. It created a democracy and soon joined the EU. I was slightly disappointed at the lack of Brutalist Communist architecture but the petrol station, goulash, cool shops and Art Nouveau architecture made up for it.

– February 2018 

Flickr photos here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Warren Oates' Rolled Oats

The estate of Warren Oates, legendary cult actor of classics including Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands, The Wild Bunch and Bring me the Head of Afredo Garcia, has released a new range of breakfast cereal. Warren Oates' Oats is what it says on the packet: oats for making porridge. It's hoped Oates will do for oats what Paul Newman did for sauces and marinades.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Rocky's Rockland Road Rocky Road
Gravy Juice
Top ten Prince food songs
Top ten road movies

Friday, March 09, 2018

Notes on Kent

It took a while for Kent to grow on me, having long thought of it as either bland – The Garden of England, National Trust properties and places like Ashford and Maidstone – or pretty rough end-of-the-world towns like (the clues are really in the names) Gravesend (where Pocahontas died) and Rainham (voted 7th worst place to live in the UK last year; Dover – also in Kent – came first).

But dig deeper and Kent's beauty, uniqueness and quirkiness reveals itself. The most interesting aspects of Kent are along its coastline. I've always liked Margate, years before it started trying to regenerate with its Turner Contemporary gallery, hipster shops and Dreamland (though I like all of them too). A little further south, Broadstairs, Charles Dickens' favourite holiday spot, and Ramsgate, where Wilkie Collins gets two blue plaques (one for where he lived; the other where he was having an affair) and Van Gogh lived and taught briefly, couldn't be more different to still-slightly-seedy Margate. The three towns make up the isle of Thanet.

Many towns in Kent have a literary or artistic connection. Tracey Emin hails from Margate, and Turner spent some of his childhood there, and would visit the county throughout his life, the coast inspiring many of his seascape paintings. Mary Tourtel, creator of Rupert the bear, and Richard Dadd, the artist who killed his dad, were born in Kent. William Caxton, inventor of the printing press, was also born in the county. You can't go far in Canterbury without coming across Chaucer. And novelist William Golding worked as a teacher in Maidstone.

Dungeress is one of my favourite places in the UK. It has an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel with its unique shingle beach (containing hundreds of rare insects, birds and plants), fisherman's cottages painted black and nuclear power station in the distance. Famously the home of Derek Jarman and his garden, the cottage is still lived in by his former partner, and the garden still tended.

Remnants of war feature heavily along the Kent coastline. The giant concrete sound mirrors (acoustic early warning systems soon made obsolete by radar) near Dungeress in Denge are like the beautiful ruins of an ancient civilisation. Seven miles off the coast are the striking Maunsell sea forts, looking like rusty aliens in the sea. Nearby is the sunken SS Richard Montgomery, the masts of which can be seen just above the water. Filled with explosives which can't be touched, the ship could apparently explode at any time, causing a tsunami. Quite a few Martello towers survive in Kent. Built between 1805 and 1808 to guard against invasion by Napoleon; in the event, after the Battle of Trafalgar, they were never used.

Other notable Kent towns are Dover, of course famous for its iconic white cliffs (talking of iconic, one of my favourite things in Kent are their oast houses, very distinctive buildings once used for drying hops); Chatham, where the important naval docklands no longer function as such but remain open for the tourist industry; Whitstable, famous for its oysters and beach houses; Herne Bay, a beautiful seaside town where last year someone was beheaded with a Samurai sword; Deal, yet another lovely seaside town, has lots of bric-a-brac shops and Sandwich has a Roman fort and amphitheatre (I'm sure it's been done to death, but I've always wanted to do a business deal in Deal followed by eating a sandwich in Sandwich).

The tiny Isle of Sheppey is a weird place – there are people who live on the island their entire lives without ever leaving it. Although not even really an island (an island on an island, if you will) – there's a bridge connecting to the mainland – it has the isolated feel of one.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Art of the seaside
Margate's Shell Grotto
Sound Mirrors

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Top ten Nicholas Cage films

The nephew of director Francis Coppola can't act (his style is often called "operatic"), isn't good looking and has weird hair in every film he's in but you know what? I like him, and, unlike many other actors of his generation – Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp spring to mind – Cage has actually been in some decent films. And there are times – I can't say why – when I'm just in the mood for a Nicholas Cage movie.

1. Wild at Heart
2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
3. Leaving Las Vegas
4. Raising Arizona
5. Adaption
6. The Rock
7. Con Air
8. The Weatherman
9. The Knowing
10. National Treasure

Cage used to own various properties in and around Bath, including a castle in Somerset and a town house in Bath's historic Circus, but has sold them in recent years due to debt. One of my favourite performances of his was when he turned on the Bath lights in 2009. More recently he was spotted in a Frome pet shop.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Lookalikes #40: Terry Riley and Terry Nutkins

Terry Riley, born 1935, American minimalist composer, and Terry Nutkins, 1946-2012, much-loved presenter of The Really Wild Show, where Chris Packham got his break in 1986.

I love the liner notes on Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air, released in 1969:

And then all wars ended / Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and the metal poured back into the earth / The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green / All boundaries were dissolved / The slaughter of animals was forbidden / The whole of lower Manhattan became a meadow in which unfortunates from the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in the sunshine and were cured / People swam in the sparkling rivers under blue skies streaked only with incense pouring from the new factories / The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health was restored / An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways / National flags were sewn together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten

Ah, the dream of the 1960s. It all seems pretty reasonable to me, but appears further and further away.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Lookalikes #1-40