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Xmas Card From A Hooker

Monday, February 18th, 2013

post_display_open-uri20120810-2993-4kugxrShe approached me in a dive bar in Savannah called Pinkies, the most beautiful girl in the world, or at least my portion of it. Came on like a young Debbie Harry, all popcorn coloured hair and candy floss lips…all the fun of the fair.

She hailed from somewhere to the southwest and the singular thing about her was she had actually been born a boy, given name Joseph S. Baumgarten Jnr. “If I gets to liking you, you can call me Gentry.” I pondered a little on that name and asked if it was after the country singer Bobbie Gentry. She steepled her tiny, delicate hands under her chin and pouted. “No, you fool, because I is descended from gentry.” I didn’t question that unlikely statement.

I asked her how she made ends meet. She came over all Blanche Dubois, “I depend on the kindness of strangers.” She asked me if I wanted to “swing by her place” – a discount could be arranged – “being as how I was so kind ‘n’ all.” I said that wasn’t going to happen but I’d buy her a few drinks in exchange for her company.

Her voice as she settles to telling her story is like warm butterscotch but when she’s bitching it turns into splintered toffee. All angles and grit:

“Ain’t nuthin’ new to my tale hunny, daddy found me in his girlfriend’s dress – haute couture baby – I was fixing on trying on some Chanel pumps when I caught sight of his reflection in the window, he was all kinda frozed with anger. He didn’t hit me, he just hurt me, said I was none of his making.”

That self same day she dealt the few cards she held and they came up night train to Anywhere, U.S. of A. She was just north of fifteen-years-old.

It’s late now and the Pernod & blackcurrant is slurring her words into one sticky mess. The night has turned maudlin in a mellow warm way. We have moved to a booth and she has taken to smoking menthol cigarettes with wonderful affectation. In the half-light she has managed to morph into Cameron Diaz. It’s all there in the still dazzle of her fading smile. She owns it’s time she caught some beauty sleep, asks me again if I’ll sweeten her night, only this time it comes free. Again I shake my head and ask her this last question, how old are you now?

She feigns shock and then bubbles into laughter, all chocolate and smoke. “I’m twenty- seven next birthday.”

But she is lying and soon too she is crying, for lost time, for the waste of it. Just as abruptly her eyes beam with hope, she bites on a cherry blossom nail and says:

“I’m gonna do me some settling down, find me a good man, a big boned boy of Boston Irish stock, hair like spun gold, like to wrap me in his arms and keep me close.” With that, and a peck on the cheek, she ups and leaves.

I call “go well Gentry” but she doesn’t turn round, she’s already off searching for heroes. Looking in all the wrong places. Looking in all the wrong places.


The Sound And The Fury

Monday, November 5th, 2012

As a child I was a voracious reader, ably abetted by my father who airily tossed me any book he had just finished. He did not censor my intake, from the brutality of Hubert Selby Jnr to the density of William Faulkner – ‘down the long and lonely light rays you might see Jesus walking like’I devoured them all. But the Life And Death Of Saint Kilda was my special favourite. Saint Kilda was, and is, a group of thin, inclined, sheets of basalt, masquerading as habitable islands, that cling to the edge of the Atlantic, a hundred and fifty miles north northwest of the Scottish mainland.

How did they live, these near mythical people, these Saint Kildans? In my childish imaginings they lived in bursts of feverish activity and quiet contemplation. Which is to say they lived like birds.

I returned to Saint Kilda again – where the white whales sing at the edge of the world – courtesy of a specially commissioned opera, Saint Kilda: Island of the Birdmen. On stage, aerial gymnasts glide and Gaelic singers keen and lament, but it is the giant screen that haunts. In the flickering, ancient, footage, a solid canopy of gannets scream like babies in a field full of razorblades. Kittiwakes and guillemots screech and skree down the scowling cliffs, arguing angles that don’t exist. On Boreray the puffins nestle stoutly. In the roiling waters beneath Stac Lee, lie miles of coral reef – feather star, sun star and orange deadman’s fingers. Above the waterline, least willow, purple saxifrage and butterwort flourish. Everywhere, wind blasted heather. Summer shielings full of sheep – dry stane and musty wool – cling to the earth in the lea of Gleann Bay.

Strange to think that anywhere this elemental could actually belong to someone, but it did, the Macleod’s of Skye were the landlords and they received their rent in kind. The birds, it always comes back to the birds, were the islands’ currency. Feathers for mattresses, rendered oil for lamps and meat for consumption. Supplemented by barley, oats, and fish.

And now, it seems, the islands are to be returned to nature. For the last fifty years they have been a military base, but the army has announced its intention to withdraw from Saint Kilda, which means it will be unmanned throughout the winter months, so the archipelago will be left to the elements again, those driven, relentlessly cruel elements, that finally forced the natives away, after 3,000 years of clinging to the edge of nowhere.

In the winter of 1930 the natives petitioned the government to be taken off the island. Diseases for which they had no defence, emigration, dwindling stocks of everything, (hell, the rapidly changing world) had devastated the population.

And so it was that the Royal Navy sloop SS Harebell hung low in the water at her anchorage in Village Bay on that late August morning. Children and women ran hither and thither in an attempt to avoid the prying eye of John Ritchie’s camera, amateur and intrusive, as it recorded the evacuation of the remaining thirty-six islanders.

Each Saint Kildan family went into their home for the final time and placed an open bible and a handful of oats on the table – succour and sustenance for the unlikely visitor – before drowning all of their domestic pets. The simple economy of that gesture.

Then let us suppose they took one last look up Main Street to the cleats on the higher ground, effectively their fridges, before craning their necks to take in the green vastness of Conachair. Higher still, the glowering sky, fat with rain bearing clouds. Everywhere, in this the nesting season, a cacophony of gulls strafing and dive-bombing any moving thing.

Finally, those last thirty-six islanders would have turned, with the slowness of centuries, and walked to the end of the rudimentary jetty – framed by three towering Stacs bleached white with bird shit – where they would have stepped, for the last (and first) time, off the edge of the world.

One by One the Guests Arrive

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

You will not be alone for long, you will either have a guest or you will have a visitor, the phone will thrum with messages of sympathy, velvety voices that will sound, to you, like razor blades. No one will understand but everyone will be ‘understanding’. It will be 9am in a flat on Bothwell Street and your husband of thirty-five years will have been dead for six hours.

This small death will bleed into the fabric of people’s lives and nobody will be able to wash it away, except by pretending it is invisible. The future will be devoid of all promises. The present, a full stop. Even the past, will be rendered meaningless. Nothing about this day and date will seem remarkable, except to you. Exceptionally, to you. For, in order to continue existing, you will have to move from what has made you into what will make you.

The first weeks will be the worst, looking at the snapshots from his numbered days. The wedding photos – when you said yes to him, it was the sweetest yes he had ever heard – you in your wedding gown looking like you owned everything. Him trapped there forever, like a pressed flower in a forgotten book. You will look closer, trying to inhabit the waste lonely places behind his eyes, sewing nothing to nothing, trying to remember. Trying to remember not to forget.

When you try to sleep you will have that dream you always had, where he is waving to you from the far horizon, the one you mistook for certainty and a long life ahead. You will be startled into wakefulness in a roar of blood and mucus. And nothing about your room, his room, will be familiar to you. It will take the dawn to paint the space he has left in your bed into a shape that you recognise. Then you will be restful, knowing that whatever strange latitudes he travels in, he will always be nearby.

There will be a funeral; your youngest daughter will hide her bloated eyes behind a pair of Jackie Onassis sunglasses (I know this because I will know her). The mourners will feel as conspicuous as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. There will be a dryness to the ceremony – a conveyor belt in Seafield crematorium – that will leave some people praying for rain, but you will already be soaked to the skin. People will remember your composure, your quiet dignity – they cannot know, that quiet is harder than loud – they cannot see, that when you are alone, at last, you will weep as if your eyes are broken. They will not hear his last beseeching question, something he read somewhere – you alone will hear that:

“Why does the darkness come all at once, where was it when the light was here?”

And you will answer, from this place where you are, for a little while…


Gone to the Dogs

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

It’s more than fifteen years since Teenage Dog Orgy ground to a sudden unseemly halt. We were writhing around on the floor of an Edinburgh nightclub playing an incongruous version of Feed The World. More accurately, we were welding the lyrics of Feed The World onto one of our soundscapes – for soundscape read god-awful racket – and somehow along the way it had morphed into F**k The World. The management considered this to be in bad taste and, as the saying goes, pulled the plug on us. This deterred us not one jot, we soldiered on gamely with an acoustic guitar and four-part, ahem, vocal harmonies. We had settled into a Zen like repetition of the F**k The World refrain, when bouncers started appearing from all corners, beady of eye and firm of intent. I like to think that the chorus of boos that greeted our eviction from the venue had everything to do with the bouncers over zealous manhandling of the four of us, and nothing whatsoever to do with the performance that had gone before.  

It had all started so well. We conceived the band as a break from our day jobs in bands that were trying to achieve some sort of commercial success i.e. compromise. There would be no compromise with Teenage Dog Orgy. The rules were simple: no songs; no rehearsals; no concert should last longer than 20 minutes; we would all take equal amounts of amphetamine sulphate before going on stage so we could all play at a synchronised breakneck speed; on leaving the stage, we should ensure that amps were at full volume and all guitars leant against them, thus creating hurricanes of deafening feedback whilst we exited the venue through the crowd and the front door; we would not return to the venue. Oh, and employ a great sound engineer to make sense of the senseless. Our mission statement was – leave them wanting less – how could we fail?

And for a while we didn’t. Knickers were thrown on stage at our debut, which was attended by rather a lot of girls, causing us to immediately regret that rule about leaving the venue and not returning. Our fourth gig numbered among its throng three eminent professors from Edinburgh University, one of whom had written an almost unreadable academic treatise on Bob Dylan. We were in the middle of playing Noise No3 when I decided to vacate the stage and have a chat with them. I handed my guitar to a guy in the front row, telling him to, “Just thrash it.” Professor Day surveyed the crowd, observing wryly, “Isn’t it Barthes who postulates that if there is such a thing as artificial intelligence then there must also be artificial stupidity?” Whilst Professor Nicholson offered a metaphorical bon mot about, “Deconstructing and reconfiguring the wheel.” At this I noticed that the chap I had left playing my guitar was doing a decent job of deconstructing and reconfiguring said guitar. He was bouncing it on the floor and catching it on the way up – it has to be admitted the resulting noises were in no way detrimental to the overall racket that was bleeding from the stage. I headed back to rescue the much-abused instrument.

Things rapidly deteriorated. The late John Peel announced on air that if anyone could get the wonderfully named Teenage Dog Orgy into a studio he would play the results. A journalist, referring to one of the major league noise merchants of the time, said, “They are not fit to lick the mighty Teenage Dog Orgy’s boots.” It was never meant to be like this, we were meant to be dreadful. Properly, comically, dreadful. We went into the studio. At this point we had never heard ourselves. The live stuff was just a blizzard of feedback, speed psychosis, alcohol and egos. This was different. At the playback we all looked dumbstruck and then burst out laughing. We were dreadful! The unheard lyrics, when not borderline obscene, were downright actionable and the music…well, the music. If molten lead seeping through urine soaked mattress had a sound, this would be it. The journey from here to being barred from our last ever gig was swift and sure. We had achieved what we set out to achieve. We went out in a blaze of mediocrity.

A Naughty Boy

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

One of the curious things about this column writing game is that a lot of people assume everything you write is made-up. This couldn’t be further from the truth, every word is hewn from the granite of ones own humiliating and, usually, downright embarrassing experiences. Which is why my partner – I’ve been told to say partner rather than girlfriend, because girlfriend makes me sound young – cringes whenever she reads my scribbling. A brief flick through the 49 Leithers that have gone before, prove she has every right to be concerned. In fact, if we were married and she filed for divorce citing mental cruelty, I’d probably get banged up for 25 years. No parole.

As evidence I offer, with not a scintilla of pride, Issue 3. Where I was first sick on a girl; then managed, in my drunken fumbling, to knock her headfirst of a gate and finished up burning her arise in quicklime on a bowling green. Sounds like the work of a serial killer, rather than someone trying to woo his schoolyard crush. Issue 4 found me poured on to the Edinburgh train in Pitlochry, a bottle of whisky to the wise. With, for some reason, 5 kilos of chanterelle mushrooms in a basket. I woke as the train crossed the Forth Rail Bridge, there were mushrooms all over the aisle and people, very kindly, tried to tip toe round them. I say kindly, because I was splayed all over two seats with my, ahem, ‘tackle’ hanging out of my trousers. My fellow travellers would have been perfectly entitled to take a more judgmental approach. A pistol whipping would not have been out of the question.

Issue 6 saw me win the girl and, surprise, surprise, lose the girl, after failing to make it to three meetings. To one of which I plead extenuating circumstances, I was upside down in a hedge, in the lawns of a palatial hotel, er, drunk. Our last attempted liaison went so badly pear-shaped that I woke up the next morning in a pigsty, in the middle of winter, hugging a pig for warmth. Which was, gentle reader, my first ever one-night stand. Issue 21 offers up the disastrous radio tour of the Highlands. The one that culminated in a gig in Inverness, where I was asleep behind my guitar amp after six songs and the drummer had put his kit together so haphazardly that the bass drum rolled off the stage into the lap of a guy in a wheelchair. Lastly, but not leastly, Issue 33. Where your correspondent decides to do a bit of culture vulturing at the Edinburgh Festival. Fisticuffs with a minor poet and a kerfuffle involving a D List celebrity, out of which nobody emerges with much merit, ensue. As a postscript, I feel it incumbent upon me to make no mention of the column entitled, “Teenage Dog Orgy.”

So how did I first volunteer for this, very public, humiliation? Mr. Peter Laing, our then editor, popped into my place of employ, whilst The Leither was but a twinkle in his eye. He was noticeably rubicund of feature and obviously a few brandy and ports to leeward. “Who writes the rather amusing blackboards outside?” He hiccupped. I told him that would be me. “Could you expand them?” What, make the blackboards bigger?  “No, no, no, expand the words dear boy, the words. This is no time for persiflage.” Of course, as ever, he was right. And here, red-faced, nonetheless, I remain.


Sketches of San Sebastian

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Into San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain, for a tour – more of a feeding frenzy – of its Michelin starred restaurants. Given that the city has more three star restaurants per head of population than anywhere else in the world, this holiday borders on the obscene. Perhaps foodie tourism has taken over from sex tourism?

A curious thing happens when I consult my notes, for though I make mention of Arzak, Mugaritz, Akelare, and Martin Berasategui, it is the places arrived at by happenstance that seem to have marked me most. So I shall put the big guns on hold and offer a few tidbits from one man’s journey with his near saint of a girlfriend and their convection oven of a car.

In the Picos de Europa amid vertiginous gorges and extraordinary scenery, we stop for bread fish soup – a shellfish broth that is leavened with stale bread. It plops onto the plate like pig slops but tastes like heaven. A local sidre, poured from a great height to oxidise it, is dungeon cold and sour as green rhubarb.

At Praia de Mogodof on the scalloped, bleached white, beach, made from the dust of a billion crushed shells; a lean-to shack offered salade nicoise made, correctly with tinned tuna stored in sunflower oil. Who needs French beans? This came on a plate you could land a helicopter on along with a tractor wheel of tortilla that had been cooked to order and was thus perfectly liquid at its centre. The owner was touchingly aggrieved we could not finish it. It would have sufficed for a coach party of sumo wrestlers.

In Lugo, lamb’s tongue; leathery crunch and yielding interior. Tripes, yes the texture and smell is like eating boiled Converse trainers, but the taste! Raw armandine clams, still throbbing, chewy like seaweed and sweet as fudge. In Santandar, fabada, the Asturian stew of beans, sausages, morcilla, cocina and sweet, artery clogging pig fat, bubbles and broils its way to our table. A mini Vesuvius.

At Alona Berri tapas bar – ‘cuisine in miniature’ – they promise to feed us till we are not hungry. And they do. Stand out dish; pig foot terrine, peppercorn crisp, roast baby squid suspended above a reduced fish stock laced with vermuth. One if by land one if by sea.

Thank heaven for Schwartz’s Deli

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Before disembarking the Queen Mary 2 at foul Fort Lauderdale I was advised that American food was cheap, substantial, and crap. The first two observations proved correct, happily the latter did not. The food, incidentally, on the Queen was uniformly fine. I particularly recommend the tasting menu in the Chino/Japanese restaurant. That is to digress, the meat of this piece is modern American cuisine and for those of you planning a visit the prognosis is good. From grits – like polenta only, well, grittier – to porcini dusted snow crab, you will find it in rude good health.

They have not yet latched on to – excepting Enoteca’s and Deli’s – the current British vogue for letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Here the average dining experience is all flash and filigree put to good effect. It is elaborate but never overly so. Thus, pecan dusted orange roughy fish with jalapeno mash and cilantro jam or pheasant chipolatas in an oyster broth with chorizo oil – cheap certainly, though on closer inspection the oyster broth, which kicked off at $10, eventually costs $14 once you factor in local and state taxes and obligatory service charge. As an aside it’s funny that as a rule of thumb American establishments suggest between 15 and 20% as a reasonable tip yet when they visit our shores more often than not they do not tip at all. I presume they assume the tip is ‘built in’.

What of quantity? Why here I have no complaints. In Savannah’s 45 Bistro a lacquered bento box contains: ½ a kilo of rare seared tuna; 8 vegetable tempura fritters; a mountain of ramen noodles and a lake of endame and nori sauce. Unbelievably, this constitutes the first part of a three-course lunch for one. In Scotland this would be the makings of a substantial meal for two, end of story.

As we veer over the border into Montreal, all is style over substance, which is to pontificate. In mitigation I offer these dishes sampled; coffee dusted scallops on walnut mash, foie gras, apple jus, candied leeks with a grapefruit and caramel syrup followed by frozen fig nougat, fig carpaccio, maple syrup and chips flavoured with port. Thank heaven, then, for Schwartz’s deli – a favoured haunt of Leonard Cohen. Melt in the mouth salt beef, dill pickle, mustard and rye, simple. Anything you can’t eat gets packed into a doggy bag and will sustain you for another couple of days, all for $3.50.

As we make to leave the counter assistant asks me if I’ve forgotten my coat, “I didn’t bring one,” I say (outside it is minus twenty degrees). He smiles ruefully. “You grow old quickly but not wisely,” he says, shaking his head slowly. Homespun homilies for free…what’s not to like?

Not Writing a Column for The Leither

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

This is how it works. When a new issue of The Leither hits the streets, an email is dispatched from the editor’s penthouse at One Diamond Point. He thanks us all for our contributions and then reminds the boys that they are a bunch of sluggards, underachievers, and fly-by-nights, who need to pull their socks up. He thanks the girls again, even more profusely, remarking that there work rate and attention to detail is second only to the late, great, Sir Jock Stein. He always finishes with the words that strike terror into any sane person’s heart – “and remember, deadline day for all articles is the first Monday of the month.”

That would mean this column should have been handed in on 6th January. It is now the 15th. Nine days late and no comeback, how come? The trick is to catch the editor as he walks among his adoring public and rugby tackle him into the nearest pub. There to feed him brandy and port and plead for a ‘special dispensation’, which he agrees to, but only until he finds out what special dispensation means. When that runs out, you must discombobulate him with bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale and rum and tomato juice chasers, and ask for a little, erm, more leeway. You have struck gold when he manages a, “yes of course dear boy,” before falling asleep in the toilet.

When all else fails you just have to sit down and write the damned thing. D-day finds me leaping from bed at 9am, okay 11.30am, well okay, my girlfriend drags me screaming and kicking into consciousness at around 12.30pm. Tea and toast are magicked up and I’m plonked in front of the computer. But, hark, isn’t that an absolutely hilarious episode of Last of the Summer Wine on the telly that will probably never be repeated? Disaster, they are showing three episodes back to back and Compo has just bought a wardrobe which you just know the irascible old duffers will turn into a canoe…suddenly it’s 2.30pm. I get up to brush the toast from my teeth and am shocked by the state of the bathroom cupboard, it is in fact pristine, but any excuse for time wasting is good on deadline day. I marvel yet again at the hundreds of tablets I’ve squirreled away over the years and dig out the Comprehensive Guide to Medicines to find out what they are all for. It is now 4.30pm.

I sidle, sheepishly, into the kitchen and offer to make dinner. The girlfriend laughs fit to burst, “you only ever offer to cook when your Leither column is due, get on that computer, and don’t start arsing about with the plants.” I come out of the utility room, arms full of baby bio, plant food, scissors and spray cans and transport all the plants to the bath, where I give them a happy half-hour of pruning and watering. I shout to my girlfriend that I’m just nipping out for some more plant food and manage to get out of the door before her tongue catches me. In Lidl I buy oil paints, an artists palette and a toolkit  – you’re right, I don’t paint or do home improvements – and take the packages home and start opening them. “Your tea is ready.” Oh good!

At 7.30pm I approach the computer gingerly but, hey, the Simpsons are on and it may never be repeated. At 8.30pm I start checking if the phone is off the hook, incase someone is trying to call me for a drink or something. Not that I would, I’ve got an article to write. At 8.45pm I tell the girlfriend that I’m popping to the pub to see if I can, ahem, loosen up the wee grey cells. I sit in a corner of the Alan Breck with my moleskin notebook like a proper tit. The congenial locals are not deterred, Darren sends over a pint, as does Derek. It would be rude not to join them, I put my ridiculous notebook away, I have written one line. The title of this piece.

I get home about 1.30am and resolve to do my article as soon as I’ve completed the computer golf game in at least 10 under par. At 2.30am I check my e-mails, there is one from the esteemed editor, the gist of which is. ‘You’ve let me down, you’ve let your colleagues down, but, most importantly, you’ve let yourself down etc.’ I crack open a beer, at 4.00am I send him this.