Travel & Popular Culture



Norwegian Good – SIP’s Top 5 Attractions

11 March 2022

Holmenkollen Ski Jump

Literally first up is the oldest ski jump at Holmenkollen. The modern tower visible a bowel churning distance before you have negotiated the icy roads from the station to reach it. Constructed in the nineteenth century by shovelling snow on top of branches, and collapsing in 1927 due to rot and excessive snowfall, the present incarnation is scarcely more reassuring to me as the glass lift ascends to the viewing platform.

It’s not long before my limited British scope of reference inevitably turns to Eddie the Eagle. What he was thinking of and his outsider art participation in the sport, turning from mockery to respect for pursuing this breath taking dream. Down in the museum, the presence of 2,500 of ‘pieces of wood’ or ‘skis’ in Norwegian, proves more moderately diverting before the glorified fairground ride of the downhill and jump simulator throws you around.

At the end of the train line and a couple of stops uphill is the Korketrekkeren or ‘corkscrew’ toboggan track. Conceived as the bobsleigh run for the Olympics, my disappointment at being unable to rent a sledge because the course was closed, after ice had led to several injuries was mixed. Mostly with fortifying swigs from a hip flask. My retreat over the frozen terrain, accompanied by local children descending the hills around the course, magnified by the emptiness.

Lorry – Oslo

Lorry is a restaurant which serves pretty standard pub food at the standard eye watering prices of everything in Norway. It also stocks over 100 different beers, but on the Saturday night of my visit seemed to conform to the view that the more choice available, the less anybody drinks. So why visit? For starters, the hundreds of items that range from ornamental legs dangling from the ceiling, to a stuffed giraffe neck on the stairs and a needle in a haystack letter from Maurice Chevalier, that give it an upmarket jumble sale appeal.

Followed by the booths dedicated to local artists, which includes one for Jo Nesbo, who has his detective Harry Hole frequent the place in the novels which have made him Norway’s most read author. The typically hard drinking character perhaps finding it more productive in the splendidly down beat Per pa Hjornet opposite the courthouse in central Oslo. Meanwhile, the author can luxuriate in a modern Hemingway persona, which includes being vocalist in a band, and before a knee injury playing football for Molde. And as if by Nordic magic . . .

Aker Stadium - Molde

Up North and deep in the snow you have come to Norway for, is the home of Molde FK. Considering this the artificial pitch is almost permissible, and the fact they have had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Europe’s most wanted footballer Erling Haaland as players, a sign of their success. With the stadium itself set on the banks of a Romsdalsfjord guarded by the icy peaks in the distance, it proves the most scenic setting for the game, this side of the somewhat different surrounds of the old Besiktas ground in Istanbul.

Molde itself seems to have one road running through it which given the driving conditions may be for the best. The footballer supporters bar on it remaining defiantly shut during the day we waited for the Hurtigruten Ferry to take us along the coast to Bergen. When it arrived from out of the dark, to dwarf the town, a large door opened like something from Close Encounters and we were beckoned forward from the near deserted waterfront. Being greeted on board by mask wearing figures wielding Covid probes cementing the feel of an alien abduction.

Bergen to Oslo Train

The eponymous Finse 1222 Hotel, at that many metres above sea level, and at this time of year leaving you to expect Jack Nicholson frozen to death outside, is the highest point on the awe inspiring Bergen to Oslo journey. A glacier to admire from outside, just one of the highlights of a train nerds train journey that challenges its passengers to take a bad photograph. And British ones to see how long they can get into it before saying ‘leaves on the line’ as a derisory aside to our train operators.

What is presumably a snow plough with only it’s grabber and centimetres of cab visible is testament to the work that goes on up here. All of which contributes to a spectacular six-hour journey, that seems to pass very quickly, and even if it could be said to become relatively benign before Oslo, still has icy lakes overlooked by rocky outcrops to occupy the time.

Munch - Everywhere

If in the form of the Scream, Munch has become part of popular culture, then he is perhaps unsurprisingly, ubiquitous in Norway. But from galleries in Bergen to the new mall like construction in Oslo, and the fleetingly entertaining collection of clothes and household objects that bear the painting’s anguished visage, perhaps the most authentic experience is at Ekeberparken Sculpture Park.

Here amongst some tedious female nudes by the likes of Rodin, and in the snow what looks like the perfect site specific, post ejaculation male genitalia riposte by Sarah Lucas, is the so called Munch Spot or view that featured in the Scream. Initially relief at finding it on the windswept incline was quickly replaced by irritation at the lack of signage to know I was definitely stood in the right place for the photograph. The abandoned tour guide tapping his clip board nearby suggested so, but if expensive visits to these sites are meant to put us in touch with the past or in this case create some connection to the man or his art, then this hadn’t worked. Unless feeling nothing much at all put me closer to the Munch mindset.

Whether this qualifies as an ‘infinite scream passing through nature’ is debatable but something which alludes to the essence of Norway’s appeal. From the unfathomable emptiness of the forbidding landscape, this being a country whose attraction seems predicated on something dark and unsettling. In a very real sense a country whose environmental reputation and economic miracle is based on the dirty secret of oil sales and outsourced pollution. It’s relationship to the Scandinavian stereotype bearing little scrutiny, as culturally if Denmark has Hygge and Sandi Toksvig, then Norway sports Death Metal and Knut Hamsun. That like Munch, this all makes it more interesting, saying something illuminating but uncomfortable about the nature of mankind.

The Shark is Broken – Ambassador Theatre, London

7 January 2022

It starts with the music. Not the incredibly evocative John Williams film score, which prompts laughs of recognition when it begins, but the Suzi Quatro soundtrack before the production. People, predominantly men, already transported to the mid- seventies setting of a Jaws production which the crew nicknamed Flaws, as a result of the imitation sharks that didn’t work, and the lunacy of trying to film them at sea.

It probably helps if you’re familiar with the movie, but with the audience on side and source material to die for, The Shark is Broken then proceeds to smash the ball into every open goal. The initial impression made by Duncan Henderson’s fantastic set design topped by the appearance of Ian Shaw in the role of grizzled sea dog Quint. Taking the recently maligned method school of acting to extremes, he unsurprisingly looks a lot like his Dad, but has the voice and mannerisms down pat to deliver mind melting observations about his Dad that is really his Grandad. The in character son delivering the hard living Robert’s ruminations on a father who committed suicide but we now know lived longer than him. His access to Shaw’s diaries providing background gold like the high stakes games of shove ha’penny used to pass the time when the shark was out of action.

Fittingly it was the Ambassador bar man who informed the patrons of his exacting electrolysis regime he undertakes to develop Robert’s unruly eyebrows. With the possibly more comfortable in his own skin, as already Oscar nominated for the French Connection, or plain boring Roy Schneider, acting as referee the story is driven by the antagonism between the seen it all Shaw and young pretender Dreyfuss. Brandishing theatre experiences like the scars that were exhibited in the film, it becomes ever more apparent that the similarity between their on and off screen relationship made them a perfect fit for the roles. The all too relatable Covid like cabin fever of being stuck on the Orca between takes, fuelling a volatile chemistry which scarcely needed Shaw’s drinking and Dreyfuss’s cocaine use to set it on fire.

Sometimes however the self -reverential nature of the on board exchanges can overdose on the meta references. Nixon being the ‘most immoral’ President when we now know he isn’t, or much of Shaw’s disparaging of the film, with lines like it being ‘destined for the dustbin of history’ or an incredulous ‘What next dinosaurs?’ as Spielberg limbered up for Jurassic Park, just too knowing. Ironically the aside which worked and was central to the drama, is the Indianapolis speech, and Shaw’s work to cut it down because they were ‘not doing a bloody play’. A foreboding of the story of the US Navy crew that delivered parts for the Hiroshima bomb, before being circled by sharks for days when their ship was torpedoed, precision made. His finished article coming across with the Shakespeare for the three-star jumper generation magnitude of the film thanks to Shaw Junior’s impeccable delivery.

Ultimately, and in its own way, The Shark is Broken is a crowd pleaser like the film. Being taken behind the scenes of the original blockbuster, that gave rise to the sort of vulgarity to trouble movie snobs, and leave the shark with a seriously bad reputation, an undeniable thrill. Partly a reminder of the silliness of post-Watergate interpretations of Jaws and a tribute to the power of rollercoaster art. This time capsule of a production taking the audience back to a time of enough macho posturing to sink a boat, and a Police Chief as the voice of reason.

Hey Hoe, Let’s Go

5 November 2021

Plymouth is a long way from the majority of the UK but being out on a limb has contributed to making it the country’s best kept secret. That this seems to have led to an unassuming nature is part of the charm but may also have contributed to it not being considered for a visit. Even the journey there on the Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed train line is relatively good value when the track, running so close to the coastline it has been swept into the sea, disappears into the sea cliffs at Teignmouth.

Safely arrived, it’s the Barbican waterfront area that survived the Blitz, and nearby docks, where the most impressive line-up of the histories big hitters is concentrated. From an age before routine air travel when the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward would disembark with the sort of style expected from the huge crowds. Going in the opposite direction it is interesting to speculate whether any of the Pilgrims about to board ship, nipped into a bakery opened in 1597 to get a sandwich for the journey. Or discovered that the queue along the cobbled streets for Jacka’s was as long as today and didn’t have time. The Pilgrim Fathers’ that set sail to America in 1620 being synonymous with the sea faring exploits that Plymouth is associated with. Ironically however, the Mayflower Steps that people were busy photographing, were built in the 1930’s as the original embarkation point is somewhere under the ladies’ toilet of the nearby Admiral MacBride pub.

Further down the road and next door to where I was staying the Dolphin kept the spirit of the Beryl Cook paintings which its known for alive. This being a spot of luck as the rumbustious characters and nights which she caught in characteristic style, adorned the walls, as today’s clientele did a reasonable approximation of them. On the edge of the area down Looe Street the Minerva Inn was in the local news for refusing entry to the Covid unvaccinated. Being barred, perhaps something of a result back in the day, as the pub was known for the Press Gang that lurked upstairs to really ensure you were Shanghaied in Port.

Following the shore way from the Barbican, and the expanse of grass to one side is the Hoe where Drake might have finished his bowls, before routing the Armada, and being back for tea with Blackadder style panache. Out to sea the sign to show where the ship Napoleon had been captive on before his exile is strode past without a second glance. The shore hugging Tinside Lido drawing the attention with its magnificent Art Deco stylings and proximity to the water making it a real life infinity pool in rough weather. Today it’s a place of opulent peace to rival anything the latest exclusive hotel can offer, that may like when thousands came to recuperate here during the Blitz, have to be broken to continue the financial commitment of the council.

Going towards the town centre the remains of the Charles Church which was damaged by fire during an air raid in 1941 is now encircled by a large roundabout. Yet almost because of Its incongruity and the absence of pageantry often associated with these things, it proves to be one of the most impactful memorials to victims of war I have seen. As a non-believer I’m not qualified to say whether the shopping centre which looms over it is inappropriate, but seeing the lights which hang like fingers trying to grasp the church, seems to mark our transition from worshipping one God to another. If you fancy the fun side of hell, give the couldn’t really be anything else with a name like that damnation, of the nearby Pit and Pendulum rock bar a go.

Off the roundabout some discreet steps and graffiti welcomes people to the area of Bretonside. A part of town which was named after the overnight occupation by French troops in 1403, and has on the evidence of a Sunday afternoon in 2021, been overrun by an invasion of pretend Scousers. The otherwise excellent old style boozer stylings of the King’s Head being host to a Sky branch of the Liverpool Supporters Club. That Plymouth is the largest City in Britain to never have had a top flight football team not unrelated. Perhaps with Plymouth Argyle currently riding high in the First Division, and a ‘Green Army’ support that travels further than any other, a visit to their tellingly named Home Park stadium will follow. The Sheffield Wednesday fans congregating outside the Dolphin and my window in the early hours, demonstrating the desirability of an overnight stay for an away game.

Further down the road from the King’s head, the Swallow is not so much gay friendly as friendly. Brace yourself for karaoke, conversation and an over excitable pub dog. Not too far from the actual football ground in the snickeringly named area of Mutley is the light show that is the magical Hyde Park. It already has an eye catching position in the middle of another roundabout, but the accumulation of illuminated pub signs, make it resemble London’s film prop equivalent God’s Own Junkyard, with a bar.

Outside of Plymouth, a journey to England’s highest town of Princetown, and the Dartmoor Prison Museum on the fabulously imposing Moor is recommended. A bus trip, almost improved by its convoluted nature and getting to know the driver by name, that is worth it alone for the views of savage scenery and Tors of rock shaped by Hound of the Baskervilles style rain. Breaking up the journey there was a stop in the World Heritage endorsed market town of Tavistock. Somewhere which unfortunately seemed to encapsulate the problems facing the county, as scenic Devon seems in danger of drowning in death and pasties, with house prices meaning the only people here are pensioners or tourists. Tavistock having invented the cream tea but the pasty shop is king now, and a debate about whether it really originated in Cornwall probably best avoided.

At the prison, the pleasingly lacking in computer generated activity museum’s idea of interactive, is encouraging people to take the laminated information sheets from the wall if they can’t read them properly. Real life items such as a cardboard chair that wouldn’t hurt someone one, to ingenious weapons and corporal punishment devices which would, complement this picture of prison life. A regime which was home to Brass Eye star ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and more speciality sociopathy of ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell. Sounding like a character from an EastEnders prequel, the latter’s escape being facilitated by the Krays, before they had him killed the week after for being too unhinged. In a British variant of Johnny Cash at San Quentin there is also evidence of pension punks the Stranglers playing the prison. A name which suggests something even too obvious for me, but not the observation of the Howard League for Penal Reform’s subsequent campaign, that the denial of a prisoner’s liberty was punishment enough.

Back in Plymouth, and a community event on what was the main thoroughfare into town, is highlighting what can be lost. At one end the famously uproarious and cosmopolitan Union Street is already populated by the usual cast of identikit venues. Further down the road and gazing up at the magnificent façade and tiled mural of the Armada which adorns the disused Palace Theatre, a stall holder is keen to share the stories of its past and battles with Weatherspoon wannabees to come. Walking away, I imagine the shore leave ghosts of adventurous patrons as they wander from one to another of the hundred different pubs that existed within a hundred yards of here. Linked through time to the sea faring DNA of a population who should make a song and dance about this city.

Charlie Don’t Surf

17 October 2020

Sat in the splendid isolation of an empty train carriage the decision to sample the staycation craze in a world of Covid seemed wise. Even the disembodied communication that said removing my mask to drink was permissible, or probably essential, if I wanted to avoid waterboarding myself with weak tea was entertaining. Deciding where to go had been more arduous, but eventually tucked away in a bottom corner, Kent and taking the temperature of the social distancing in the so called Garden of England, won out. More specifically a base in little Brighton, suggested by a prophetic Chas and Dave, in a song that was chillingly ahead of the curve: ‘You can keep the Costa Brava and all that palava, Me I’d rather have a day down Margate with all my family’.

Today Margate has placed great store on the draw of links with the town that painter and ‘father of modern art’ J M W Turner had with the town. The curmudgeonly cockney known for The Fighting Temeraire or punk blast of Rain, Steam and Speed attracted by the northern skies or affections of the landlady depicted in the Mike Leigh biopic. Sophia Booth being immortalised by a sea shell statue on the harbour and the guesthouse by the siting of the Turner Contemporary. A building which after leaving the station and turning onto the sea front, takes up a significant piece of a nevertheless impressive skyline, with its oversized porch like construction. 

While Turner’s journey took him all day by boat to get from London, today’s hour and a half train ride can be broken up by getting off at Canterbury. If like me your ideas come from Richard Burton in Becket, and were expecting a Norman version of York, you may however feel short changed. With little else there it being down to the Cathedral to be impressively atmospheric, in the sort of pandemic assisted desertion, that helps to conjure up the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170. A lone tour group being discouraged from improving history by being told the red marks on the stones near the spot were not blood from the Bishop.

Even here though the packing up for London, of the Miracle Windows showing pilgrimages to the town, seems emblematic of places in the vicinity of the capital that are as neglected as anywhere in the north. Indeed, with the Canterbury Tales Museum’s recreation of the ‘dark streets’ from Chaucer’s stories closed since April, today’s visitor is more struck by the number of homeless people who seem to have been overlooked on todays. The handful of antiquated shop fronts and stray tourist waiting for a flight home, adding to the impression of somewhere closed since the last plague. None of which excuses but possibly explains some of the support for Nigel Farage patrolling the shores of Kent like the evil spawn of Captain Mainwaring. 

Onwards to Margate and tucked away down a narrow alley is the Northern Belle, which as Margate’s oldest pub is somewhere Turner drank, and may have stayed in one of the letting rooms over the premises. Across the road on the seafront in 1964 was the scene of the disturbances which, rather than just Brighton, much of Quadrophenia was based. Now something of a haunt for rude boys and mods, who ironically seem to think that modernism has gone too far, it is another casualty of Covid. Closed, as its size made social distancing impossible, and castigating a ‘cunting neighbour’ on social media, for making life difficult.

Consequently, I didn’t get to ask whether this particular piece of local friction was directed at the brand spanking Old Kent Market. Space envy being perhaps particularly pronounced in the case of what claims to be Britain’s smallest bar. In reality the Little Prince is little more than a kiosk which has the ground floor to spread out into on this particular Saturday night.

Most of it being occupied by the sort of excitable Dad who, like the rest of us, doesn’t get out much these days and is making the most of the time the children think he’s funny. An adjacent pizza shop desperate for post lockdown custom just about tolerating their circling of the building to deliver an ever more exacting list of pasta sauce requirements. Eventually slumping down under the floodlit glare, after reaching a crescendo with the mouthing along to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love, on the market jukebox.

Across the road is the art gallery and the focus for much of Margate’s rejuvenation when it opened in 2011. Once inside We Will Walk combines black rural art from the American South with music from Billie Holiday and the Blues. Everyday items such as tyres or tree roots found in the yards of people’s houses proving what can be done with imagination, and Freeman Vines use of the hanging trees used for lynching to make guitars, taking on an extra layer of resonance in the light of Black Lives Matter. Sometimes the exhibiting of art for art’s sake can seem like putting animals in a zoo, but seeing the spectacular quilts made by women in Alabama, somewhere less oppressive than many major galleries, just about worked.

Unfortunately, in the foyer is a sign which suggests that the building curators are unnecessarily pleased about six per cent of visitors never having visited a gallery before. Progressively visible from the back as the tide retreats is Anthony Gormley’s Another Time. A striking solitary figure in the sea, which proves size isn’t everything when compared to the Angel of the North, it nevertheless lends itself to the sort of literal explanation that suggests suicide. Running alongside is a harbour wall which is completely colonised by blacksmiths in Edwardian trousers and poor people’s hats. Taking a break, on broken sofa’s outside cafés, like something from a living museum.


Perhaps the most important statistic is that after the surge in package holidays, Margate was in the one percent of most deprived areas during the 1980’s and, before the full economic impact of Covid, still is. Meanwhile, during a BBC documentary timed to coincide with the awarding of the Turner Prize, a local teenager with defiant cheerfulness described the town as a ‘shithole’.


The only time during the stay these worlds collided being down to the power of booze and the alchemy of the Bull’s Head in the actual marketplace. A magic that saw Eric Morecambe and the daughter of the landlord having their wedding reception in a room over the pub, and stragglers from a bar that resembled Steptoe’s Yard, being lured over by last orders. After being subjected to the same hand sanitising ritual and stare from today’s landlady, a certain leniency being granted, as some movement in and around your designated seat was permissible in the pursuit of the music for a full throated chorus to cement the ceasefire. Here’s hoping that the Bull’s Head, and pubs like them don’t become another victim of Covid, as measures in place for a reason but suiting people whose vision of nightlife is sanitised and sat down, don’t triumph. Leaving three generations of Londoners, excited over a picture on the wall of Only Fools and Horses from the Jolly Boys Outing trip to Margate, with nowhere to go.

Away from the old town and past a particularly desolate shopping arcade, the Oddfellows Club is doing its best to welcome anyone in search of sanctuary from the sort of howling gale that can make the numbers on a staycation particularly scant. Time then for the sort of social club that is ideal for nursing a hangover while the lady on the next table takes you through the bureaucracy of dealing with a dead husband during a pandemic. The country and western with a distant sound of snooker balls dropping rhythm, accompanied by a chef, sporting a Mohican which may be for charity rather than the Exploited, who comes downstairs to check food orders. A range of vegetarian options suggesting somewhere reaching out to Margate’s new arrivals with an offer which doesn’t seem to have been taken up at this time on a Sunday afternoon. Worst scenario if the arts scene gets this far, being closure and reopening with the original look ripped out and replaced with distressed fittings that are meant to appear old. Billy Childish clones eating pies they could have bought for half the price a few months earlier.

Head further away from the front for the genuinely individual Shell Grotto. Discovered in 1835 by a boy who was lowered into the hole that appeared when his father was building a duck pond, the over four million shells that cover the walls, still prove worth a double take today. Add to that, and in the absence of any definitive explanation, the Grotto being attributed to every clandestine organisation from the Freemasons to the Hellfire Club, makes for a pleasingly mysterious experience. One in which having booking ahead, to help meet the social distancing requirements it would be impossible to satisfy underground, seem entirely reasonable.

On the outskirts of town and the grounds of a Roman Fort in Birchington, is the remains of the Saxon Monastery Reculver which prompted Turner to produce a back of a fag packet type sketch. His attention perhaps momentarily drawn by a cliff top atmosphere which benefits from being windblown. Today’s unholy compromise being reached with the coffee shop and children’s playground which now encircle the site, still not stopping its forbidding majesty, from teaching the Turner Contemporary a thing about how to interrupt the sky.

At about forty odd miles from Margate, but over three hours on a train, Dungeness meant resorting to hiring a car in the gone to seed grandeur of Ramsgate. Attempting to overlook the world’s largest Wetherspoons was a challenge, but the wind did drop and while the appearance of a handful of deckchairs was unlikely to trouble any public health officials, it was good to see some life on the beach. On the road, just one satnav mistake away from leaving the country at Dover and a destination that the hire car man seemed a little puzzled by, Dungeness claims such a low rainfall as to be classed as desert. The pebble dashed landscape complimented by nuclear power stations and houses converted from railway coaches dotted around on the shingle expanse.

A section of visitors seems primarily attracted by Prospect Cottage and the garden festooned with driftwood and wild flowers, of film maker Derek Jarman, who died in 1994. Myself and two other visitors forming a Mexican standoff, as we wait for each other to take a photograph, and then move out of shot so ours will look suitably desolate. Then venturing closer to read a sign about not looking through the windows that it is only possible to see when looking through the windows. The hut like Jarman’s work providing the occasional arresting image in a largely impenetrable wasteland.

One such vision being called to mind by the sign of the Britannia that is reminiscent of Jordan as Amyl Nitrate in Jubilee. The other pub in Dungeness has a quote from Jarman recommending their fish and chips as the best in the world. Whether any of the families in the Pilot Inn deciding this for themselves, would choose to watch any of his films is debatable. Or indeed would be willing or able to contribute to the 3.5 million price the Arts Fund recently paid to preserve Prospect Cottage.

As the deserted train pulled out of Margate Station it provided a poignant view of the Dreamland Amusement Park that is closed as a Covid precaution. Ambitiously modelled on New York’s Coney Island, the correspondingly empty cars of the oldest rollercoaster in England, seeming to embody the decline of the wonderfully camp British seaside experience. Visiting Kent to consider the staycation experience during a pandemic, quickly beginning to lead to a bigger problem in Margate. Big Sussex sister grew organically and attempting to regenerate a place in the image of Tracey Emin isn’t working. It even being unreasonable for art to carry this burden, as the imposition of it suggests a modern twist on the high rise building of the 1960’s, that unavoidably leads to resentment. Festering away in a time and place, where the only thing to be positive about, is the fault line in which people have nothing in common but their tattoos.


Land Of The Free

2 November 2017

I have been to Portland before. Portland in Dorset. There is a long strip of shingle called Chesil Beach which floods and cuts it off from the mainland. Ian McEwan used it as the background to some early sixties sexual fumbling but to a teenage boy it seemed like nothing happened there. Nevertheless it still managed to sound not so bad compared to the Portland Oregon of Guardian coffee shop and craft beer repute. The “Keep Portland Weird” sentiment and signs are not only stolen from Austin in Texas but makes it sound like the sort of people who call themselves crazy and are invariably not. Time to find out for myself.

First stop was appropriately what a broadsheet writer would call a “destination hotel”. At McMenamins Crystal Hotel in the Pearl District each room is given over to a particular artist’s song and after being allocated the Gloria by Them room my initial impressions were reasonably relaxed. I didn’t particularly want Van Morrison staring at me but could console myself with the Patti Smith version. It could have been worse. Next door but one My Chemical Romance had moved in. By the time of the “57 (and counting)” businesses boast in the hotel information book I was starting to have my suspicions about the place. A passport to the McMenamin brother’s coffee brand and jam jar to fill with seasonal beer ensured a finger in every cliché but the recommendations for other people’s initiatives I had received everywhere else were nowhere to be found. Apart from the prices it now started to feel like a middle class all-inclusive complex as I attempted to locate the bar named after the mobster Al Winter who ran his empire from here in the 40’s. Eventually I blundered in wearing a dressing gown and my $2 flip flops to get a drink and sit in the saltwater soaking pool so you don’t have to.     

Having a Gang of Four At Home He’s A Tourist room on the second floor was either cranked up post-modern irony or completely clueless but all fed into the feel of an organisation which was appropriating some vague independent credibility for money. I had always taken the song to be a comment on the alienation of consumerism and the passive consumption of culture and if they have got lines like “Down on the disco floor, They make their profit, From the things they sell” emblazoned around the walls of 208 or even their own Crystal ballroom you could almost admire their bottle. So what next for the entrepeneurs in casual trousers? I suggest a fleet of Pixies themed taxis: “Of course we can get you a cab Sir but you might have to wait a little longer for the Monkey Gone To Heaven car”.

Virtually across the road is Powell’s City of Books which takes up a full city block and has claimed to be the biggest independent book shop in the world. There is certainly an awful lot to look at but with their numerous branches including one at the airport and being part of the successful opposition in a state vote to raise tax on business’ whose sales exceed $25 million some have questioned what this really means. Whilst wishing “In Other Words” feminist book shop the best of luck in trying to compete with Powell’s prices it is difficult to have much sympathy for them taking six series of Portlandia to realise their portrayal wasn’t entirely affectionate. Blaming Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein’s biting the hand that feeds you bravura militant cyclist and artisan knot maker for gentrification until the residents of the predominantly black area of Albina that this shop is in said they had started it real life evidence of tying yourself in knots.

For more real independence head north west to the fairground sideshow meets gallery space of the Freakybuttrue Peculiarium. If you can’t enjoy the theremin which produces a flatulent rumble every time someone passes to the alien autopsy which invites involvement you should get inside the simulated burial experience because you are as good as dead. That the Peculiarium is “dedicated to learning and terror” makes it sound a bit like my comprehensive but presents stuff that is much more exciting than anything there in the severed tongue in cheek style of its casket or coffin dichotomy and the unexpected poignancy of a tribe trying to encourage visitors to return with an imitation plane. Disappointingly the ice cream with bug larve dispenser seemed out of action so the Delight which I would have sampled for research was near but yet so far.  

The art on the walls features work from Manchester’s Colin Batty in a style which makes his attraction to film maker Tim Burton understandable while Mike Wellin’s makes the splendid Peculiarium maxim that “Art is anything you can get away with” explicit. Production line landscape paintings rescued from a variety of sources and transformed by the strategic placement of a variety of B movie monsters. 

A gift shop with fridge magnets designed to dress Trump, Hitler or Jesus in a variety of fun outfits is an improvement on a print of an art work on just about anything from a that’s as close as you’re going to get museum and an assistant who can’t get your impulse buys in a bag somehow part of the experience. He proves more adept at a parting photo with a suitably large Bigfoot in the doorway before I emerge into the rain fortified with the fortune teller card knowledge that my lucky Billy Idol song is Eyes Without A Face.

I could be needing it as the first port in a storm is another McMenamin’s in an area which makes me think it might have been a curse. I wouldn’t want to doubt that the Peculiarium was opened by an explorer in 1967 but wonder how much longer it can survive the tide of expensive tat and new age therapy outlets that makes up the aptly named Nob Hill area. I negotiated my way through a smog of smugness and small dogs with good grace but failed in my primary mission. For the whole stay I attempted to buy some new music but only managed to find shops selling records for at least double the price of the non-existent CD. Surely most people who like Ziggy Stardust have it by now and if you want to listen to it rather than put it on your wall it would occasionally be better to get two pieces of music for the price of one unless you have more money than sense. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate the aesthetic superiority of vinyl but when did the stamp collector wing of the party seize power?

While the impressive looking houses further up the hill were home to the sort of Halloween get ups which made it look like an up market Munster’s film set it was the signs in many of the gardens which said no to hate and welcomed people of all ethnicities that were encouraging. My own unscientific route did suggest however that the only people of colour who are likely to see this will be mowing the lawn around them. Driving a 4x4 that is still emblazoned with Bernie Sanders stickers is one thing but how this translates into real resistance I don’t know. In the few days I was in the country Trump scrapped Obama’s attempts at health care reform, threatened American Football teams with tax raises if their players don’t stand for the national anthem, discussed the possibility of revoking the broadcast licence of media outlets that disagreed with him and challenged his Secretary of State to an IQ test after he called him a moron so let’s hope someone does.

On the way is Providence Park which as well as being the site of an Elvis gig was the site of Pele’s last professional game and home to the Portland Timbers and Thorns soccer teams. Unfortunately the moving of the kick off time for television of a game with DC United I was going to attend was one way of making a disillusioned English football supporter feel at home. That the Thorns women’s team get a seventeen thousand average attendance was no use to me as they were in Florida winning the NWSL title.

Reluctantly I enquired about a tour of the ground which after a passive aggressive exchange of emails prior to arrival with Morgan the Events Manager wasn’t going to happen. The tone souring as a price of $5 for a group of twelve in 2013 had gone to a flat rate of £50 in 2016 when the Timbers won the league. After pointing out that I had been to football matches around the world for less than that a reply of “good for you” might have earned begrudging amusement. Instead I was left with a mental image of bog standard Premiership player and Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell sat on his bog wiping his arse with pound notes to demonstrate a footballer’s wealth so maybe Morgan knew how to play these things.

Free of charge is the walk to Forest Park and the Witch’s Castle or more prosaically titled Stone House. On this site in the mid 1800’s Danford Balch hired the magnificently monikered Mortimer Stump to clear the creek around their cabin but after he ran off with Balch’s daughter Anna was shot in the head on his return. Despite Balch doing what most men would do in the circumstances and claiming his wife had bewitched him he himself died in Oregon’s first legal execution in 1859.

A century later the stone structure was built as a ranger’s station on the site before being abandoned shortly after and remaining unused until teenagers understandably took advantage of the remote location to come and get drunk. Nowadays the isolation and the drop in temperature generated by the proliferation of enormous trees generates a distinct atmosphere but the paranormal sites which claim the original dispute gives rise to “wicked laughter” are most charitably hearing the static buzz of distant traffic which only adds to the Blair Witch like feel. The six mile even before you go the wrong way around the trail hungover hike an enjoyable experience even if by the time cramp set in I would have gladly crawled into a battered cab from one of the filler tracks on Trompe Le Monde.  

For full fat supernatural hokum a tour of the Shanghai Tunnels during the “haunting season” was entertaining enough. In the Williamette River docks area are tunnels in which opium dens and bars which existed during prohibition have been unearthed from the foundations of the recent construction boom. A guide who looked alarmingly like the misanthropic magician Jerry Sadowitz took the history to Most Haunted levels before a trap door which he had built from wood in the tunnels was released and a dummy which took some stuffing back in the hole made me think it might be him. This didn’t deter a young woman who collapsed in stages seconds after he highlighted a staircase as a place that spirit contact often occurred from discussing her own supernatural investigator experience moments later. None of which alters the consensus that whilst Portland did have a reputation as a dangerous port and intoxicated people were forced onto ships to act as crew there is little evidence they were dropping through deadfalls or being held captive in these tunnels.

To be fair the tours are a project of the Cascade Geographic Society which is involved with a human trafficking education center so it might be worth stumping up roughly $13 and seeing what you think. On the way to cross the river on the Burnside Bridge there is more people who are clearly in need of physical and mental health care in one place than I witnessed in the likes of San Francisco or New York a decade or so ago. As is often the case in America it seemed to be the Church trying to plug the gaps in a disgrace which is almost certainly going to get worse.

Over the river is the Doug Fir Lounge which before arrival has bells ringing as having been on the site of a punk club but its concert venue, motel and restaurant meets glam truck stop in a Twin Peaks type style just about shows it is possible to build something new and original. Its different uses seeming to attract a healthy mixture of people who wouldn’t usually spend time together.

Further east is the Hawthorne Centre and I must confess to have completely forgotten to look for the pictures behind the bar that give away its masonic past as a group who had been at a retirement do all day were making me feel welcome. Pictures of an enormous salmon complete with teeth marks from a seal that had attempted to steal a fisherman’s catch suggested he wasn’t one of us but the enthusiasm for my ramble about the rain in Olympia making it perfect Nirvana tourist weather was the most empathetic response I got all trip. The kids inside the concert hall part spending more time out of it as it being split in half to stop them drinking meant they were outside doing it and nearly getting run over.

That the United States is big, bad and dangerous to know has produced some magnificently unhinged responses. The contradictions are a huge part of the fascination and the biggest ones cause the most consternation. In down town Portland they are in danger of ironing all of these out so everything and everybody who doesn’t fit the plan are pushed out of sight. Go before it is enveloped in beer that tastes like flat Fosters. As for Dorset I haven’t been to Bournemouth for a while.

Stewart Lee: Leicester Square Theatre

11 February 2017

Here we are then. The liberal elite waiting for Lee to impale a post Brexit Britain outdone by an America determined to do everything bigger. Playing to the curse of the comedian’s lot that is the weekend crowd intent on just going out and not hanging on their every word the stage was set for a master class in precision disdain.

I saw Doug Stanhope here on a Saturday night and a crowd that were throwing up before they got in went to the bar when they wanted. Perhaps surprisingly then tonight’s mobile phone warning carried more of the air of the mischief which went onto characterise the set. Lee’s crowd know not to let their guard down completely though. Asking if anyone has a Sky subscription prompting shuffling in seats and showing a sudden interest in the Leicester Square Theatre carpet. I could be wrong but we do look like people who usually enthuse about the production values of “Westworld”.

Digi box and phone dependency were returned to later but more as self-contained pieces than a reference to something from half hour previously which showed we had been paying attention. Indeed they are an integral part of show which with a backdrop of a thoughtful man staring wistfully onto atomised indifference in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above a Sea of Fog” may have been overtaken by world events.


Repetition is used to bludgeoning effect at the start of each act as Lee uses the twisted visions of Farage and Trump and simply swaps names around. Otherwise if the likes of the anti- immigrant powered EU vote makes him feel some of his set seem less important Lee is having his cake and eating it by refusing to let such material go. Thankfully when it’s as good as “Content Provider” this is more than forgivable.

Performing in front of a pile of other comedian’s bargain bin DVDs shows he still knows it but he illustrates his own disposability by reference to the BBC’s preference for remakes of “Are You Being Served?” over his cancelled “Comedy Vehicle”. That the organisation prioritises the death of Tara Palmer Tomkinson above that of Hancock and Steptoe writer Alan Simpson should be no surprise. Lee’s observation that the criteria for returning stuff that doesn’t work should be widened meant we had to listen to Deacon Blue at the interval. 

The dismissal of “Game of Thrones” could have fell flat because as we had already indicated our contempt for Sky nobody had seen it but as the premise was you could discover all you need to know from a merchandising slogan this was alright. This seemed likely as you don’t need to hear Elbow or read Edith Bowman’s book to know you don’t want to. His contempt for the under-40s who are attached to a mobile phone and its myriad of solipsistic uses involved the sort of phone fingering visual comedy that Lee is not usually known for.

As close to conventional in delivery as Lee and a lengthy piece on the history of bondage can be proved the highlight of the night. As the work involved in our pervy ancestors getting their own masks and harnesses reached a hysterical pitch it took on the air of a quaint cottage industry compared to today’s Amazon sweat shop society. If everything is immediate even smut has been devalued.

Of course there is a danger with this of lapsing into what a more astute Daily Mail might describe as a “grumpy old polytechnic lecturer”. It’s avoided by a deftness of touch and being very, very funny. All without his characteristic need to deconstruct the material and with such a glint in the eye as to make critics accusation of smugness almost redundant. Perhaps being at his most accessible when not planning to be recorded for TV is the evidence that the old contrariness is alive.

How telling the declaration that “I am coming to hate the character of Stewart Lee” is will only be revealed next time. As he rises selfie stick aloft to obliterate Friedrich’s painting with himself the past months could be the vindication of a misanthrope or fuel for one serous broadside. As to keeping pace with developments, best of luck with that. The vicar’s daughter and a mean spirited, old country, desperately whoring itself around the world’s despots anyone?


Marx, Maradona and Me

13 March 2016

After a short queue with the rest of the proles and a shuffle around Lenin's tomb during which I was told to take my hands out of my coat pockets the sight of a pickled gherkin in a new jacket poured into sometime during 1999 was a little annoying. Having said that what may or may not be Vladimir Ilyich has been stuck in there since 1924 barring a short retreat from Moscow to Siberia during World War II. Presumably to save on air conditioning costs as they could have just stuck him outside there. Indeed this may have been preferable to the period from 1953 to 1961 when he shared the space with Stalin like a stern pyjama less version of Morecambe and Wise. 

Following this and a drive past the former KGB headquarters the Lubyanka some light relief was in order. Being told in an ominous tone that the building had the best views in Russia as you could see all the way to Siberia from the basement came close but it was the sight of the aforementioned Vlad and Karl Marx hanging out on a street just off Red Square which really tickled my fancy. Now as a keen student of political history I knew this version of Zombie Apocalypse was unlikely as they didn't know each other and Lenin seemed to be telling Karl it was his round next.

It quickly became apparent that these imposters expected to be payed for having their photographs taken.  Now while they debated whether the nearby GUM shop or former State Department Store had any offers on I opted for the role of  KGB operative and got a sneaky picture in. In the words of  sadly defunct agitprop band and full time commie bastards the Redskins “Take No Heroes! Take Only Inspiration”.

In Argentina however Diego Maradona is revered like a god and has a full time impersonator  with his own celebrity status who frequents the barrio of Boca in Buenos Aires. Whether he sports a Che Guevara tattoo like the real thing I don't know but he was outside a bar near the home of Boca Juniors when I was massively overcharged for a drink. This is the Boca Juniors whose derby match with River Plate was abandoned after a member of Bocas most committed followers or  barras bravas sprayed home made mace down the tunnel shielding the away team before they ran onto the pitch.

As a consequence of  the memorabilia inside the bar it was clear the bar staff were also pretty keen and after one attempt to get my money back a rush of adrenalin decided a photograph of  their mate was the only way to recoup some of  my loss. Thinking I was being discreet I took a shot over my travelling companions shoulder before realising he had a face which would have resembled Maradonas if his legendary Hand of God goal had been disallowed.

Now in Argentinian football  there is the concept of viveza or craftiness which is seen as part of the game and applauded. Indeed the somewhat tongue in cheek Church of  Maradona has 250,000 members and its baptism ceremony entails recreating the handball.  Whilst manoeuvring my bemused partner through the crowd with a display of footwork the equal of  Maradonas mesmerising second dribbled goal against England didn't however seem the time to contrast it with a Corinthian spirit of fair play.

Taking refuge in a throng of tango dancers and finding that my previous fleet of foot had deserted me I considered what it was about these photographs that had been strangely satisfying. Finding the world's greatest ever footballers eccentricities and scatter gun anti establishment rants entertaining it wasn't that I disliked the actual man but conversely didn't consider him or anyone else sacred. It was also unlikely to be motivated by my understanding of complex theories of identity. Similarly I had always liked the sound of Samuel Johnson's  “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” and I was really only ever so slightly bothered about England losing 2-1 to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup.   

So why I take exception to these lookalikes while scrupulously observing all other aspects of tourist etiquette seems to come down to their lack of imagination rather than the personalities involved. The wholesale stealing of someone else's persona legitimising the photographs. Its the same “Stars In Their Eyes'” dreariness which leads me to recoil from tribute bands unless I have drunk more than is good for me. Now painting yourself silver and pretending to be a statue before jumping out and scaring a small child is a whole different ball game.

A Steady Rain: East Riding Theatre, Beverley


21 November 2015

Who would have imagined it? A theatre in true blue Beverley providing an alternative to the heart warming tales of rugby league folk which has seen Hull Truck's role as a northern cliché generator help to cement the image of the city as some sort of small minded backwater. At a cost of over 1.75 million in bail outs.

Perhaps the people of Hull are proud of their heritage but don't necessarily want to watch their lives distorted back at them on endless patronising repeat and “A Steady Rain” at the East Riding Theatre certainly isn't guilty of that. This is the story of two Chicago cops and a lifelong friendship turned on it's head as a sequence of events drag them further into the void. All the familiar noir tropes are present and correct but at it's best the genre uses this as a framework to dig deeper into the human psyche rather than spread itself flabbily over a larger territory. This is very much a drop of the good stuff rather than the poisonous Sterno or canned heat made from denatured alcohol referenced in the play.



With Adrian Rawlins as Joey and the Artistic Director of the theatre Vincent Reagan as Denny comprising the entire cast the production has an immediacy which makes it feel personal. This was in no small part down to playwright Keith Huff's dialogue which is relentlessly street smart and evocative as expected of someone who has worked on the likes of “Mad Men”. Further complimenting this and making up the entirety of an experience which moved seamlessly from the rain which was lashing down outside the theatre was the sparse but evocative set design and lighting. In any setting Italian American Denny describing sex with a breast feeding prostitute as a near religious experience would have impacted with Scorcese like force.

The end of the performance was greeted with a standing ovation and much hollering from the man next to me who seemed to have had a cracking Saturday night out. He might be a patron of the Old Vic for all I know with my limited knowledge but the fact we were both there is probably the point. Challenge the snooty vested interests by getting the box set generations attention so the theatre and the balance sheet look a lot healthier.

Many years ago “The League Of Gentlemen” ridiculing the cosy parochial tedium of John Godber prompted a loud cheer from a Hull City Hall crowd but despite relinquishing control after accusations of the truck theatre being dominated by him the perception of the place hasn't changed. “The League Of Gentlemen” skewered small town life with humour and pathos. Since then Hull born Reece Shearsmith has gone on right up until the most recent series of “Inside No 9” to demonstrate the sort of macabre originality that would translate brilliantly to the stage.

Now he has indicated that he would attend a horror festival as part of Hull's City Of Culture year in 2017 so why don't those in a position to do so ask him to curate one or better still put something on for it? After all George Romero's “Dawn Of The Dead” dramatised the stupefying nature of modern capitalism far more excitingly than the usual worthy but dull sanctioned fare. With zombies.





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