Saturday, 3 December 2011

A Missive from Thailand: Everything's Going Swimmingly!

I wrote about learning how to swim in Chiang Mai, Thailand. You can read it here.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Very, Very Big Match

Racism at the highest level, countless corruption allegations, match-fixing enquiries worldwide, disrespect for our sacred poppy, the never-ending demands for video technology; FIFA is under pressure from every angle and now faces a new controversy following last Sunday's big Blues v Purples match in Surin, eastern Thailand. The Purples' tricky No.7 was both the star of the show and the centre of the controversy - let's call him, for no special reason, Luis - for three times he raced through the heavy footed Blues' defence with the ball tucked under his trunk. Twice Luis uncurled shots at goal from close range only for them to be blocked by the Blues' massive No.2, and the other time he was foiled by his own last-minute miscontrol, but the Purples' goal was scored with a similar maneuvre by the gigantic No.9 who was clearly inspired by Luis's display. Oh, this was an elephant football match, by the way. The players were all elephants. Literally elephants, Jamie. Elephants.

I made a 22 hour round trip from Bangkok to watch this match, and it was barely worth it, for it's not often you get to see a match featuring players of such phenomenal natural strength, grey leathery skin and big flappy ears; neither is it common (at least in the SPL; I don't watch English football) to see a defender caught out by a through ball because he is too busy defecating on the pitch. Fortunately for the huge centre-back, this piece of sloppy defending went unpunished.

The match finished 1-1 after a sclaffed goal-kick by the Purples' goalkeeper landed right at the toes of the Blues' really very large No.9 who, showing good feet for a five tonne septegenarian, turned and sclaffed a shot straight back to the goalkeeper, who in turn sclaffed the ball backwards and between his own posts. The goalscorer - who we'll call Zlatan, in preference to Peter, so as to not confuse readers of my next giraffe match report - celebrated by reaching his nose-arm into the crotch of a surprised team-mate, who was then lucky not to see red for a Rooney-like kick out at the offender. Direct nasal-genital groping or not, provocation is not an excuse.

At full-time the match went to penalties, which were won 1-0 by the Blues, who thereby displayed more accuracy from the spot than the Brazil national human male squad did at the Copa America. Despite their triumph, the Blues trudged off the pitch as if they had no idea what their victory truly meant. I'm glad I'm not a fan.

Back to the main controversy: does the definition of handball include the trunk-dribble? Elephants already have four limbs which are uncontroversially feet, because they are required for the elephant to stand, walk and run. The trunk is like a nose on the end of an arm, it's not very much like a foot at all. Let's ditch the legal mumbo-jumbo ("definition" etc.): it looks like handball. In fact, an elephant running at a line of other elephants with a ball wrapped in its trunk looks near-identical to a game of rugby, which would certainly not be worth travelling halfway across the world to report on. Elephant rugby? That's just stupid.

Friday, 14 October 2011

10 of the best pubs in Edinburgh

I wrote an article for Guardian Travel about Edinburgh. It's pretty self-explanatory.

10 of the best pubs in Edinburgh

Detour presents: Meursault / Happy Particles @ Glasgow Science Centre (Planetarium)

Meursault / Happy Particles at Glasgow Science Centre Planetarium (****)
Sunday October 9
live review for the skinny

The planetarium isn't just a novel location for the sake of gimmickry, since a certain brand of rock music routinely provokes descriptions like "star-gazing" or "cosmic" and can feel emotionally profound in the same vague, mindclutter-emptying way as staring at the stars.

Sunday's first band Happy Particles fit the bill perfectly: even without a domed ceiling of stars and planets above them, they might fairly be described as a space-rock band. Before they start, the seated crowd is treated to a brief introduction to astronomy by planetarium staff member Simon, who amusingly talks to all us trendy music types like we're six years old again. "Look out for Geoff the Whale!" he tells us, before the stars above start to orbit the room, and Happy Particles slowly shift between chords.

Theirs is not a clean or intricate game, preferring to play in the mud of indistinct guitar noise and heavily processed vocals, but it’s perfect for right now, gazing at flickering stars, what looks like Mars, and some dubiously drawn constellations (how can you get a dog from two dots?). Happy Particles should never perform in a wee bar again; please, talk to Simon about a residency.

Meursault, perennial kings of Edinburgh’s gentle acoustic scene, could be a less appropriate choice for a setting that encourages us to consider infinite size, and the closer, a sparse take on ‘...Fields’ familiar to any fan, is somewhat swallowed by the "endless canopy" above it. But the new songs that dominate tonight's set reveal a heavier sound than ever before, which fills the room, if not the universe. Neil Pennycook’s songwriting has taken an angry turn, so his bandmates wallop the drums and strangle the guitars, but Pennycook’s voice is still a versatile emotional tool, and some of the new piano melodies are startlingly pretty. Meursault may benefit from more intimate venues, but Detour deserve a lot of credit for thinking outside the pub.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

TV On The Radio @ ABC, Glasgow, 28 June

When TV On The Radio last played at the ABC, they were cheered by a packed and passionate crowd still enthralled with Dear Science, the band’s hugely successful third album which had come out two months prior. Almost three years on their return to this venue is met by a half-full hall, and the suspicion that new record Nine Types Of Light has underwhelmed fans, despite more glowing praise from critics, seems confirmed as the gig struggles to get going.

Six of the first seven songs, all new, elicit little more than polite applause; the oldie, an exuberant performance of Return To Cookie Mountain’s Blues From Down Here, also flounders, such is the crowd's skepticism. Somehow, the band turn it round: Province and Red Dress set up a loose and lively Staring At The Sun, and then Repetition – a Nine Types album track – is a sensation, Tunde Adebimpe’s fiery rambling vocals juxtaposing with Kyp Malone’s falsetto, while the band rushes headfirst into a cacophonous climax. However the dust settles on Nine Types, in Repetition they've an instant fillip for any awkward moment.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hard Up Down Under

Travel feature for The Skinny

My bags are packed, I’m ready to leave. Australia, I’m done. You’re turning me into a Scottish stereotype. Friends warned me that 23 days here – 10 in Melbourne and Sydney, and 13 backpacking on the east coast above – would be woefully insufficient. It was plenty. Backpacking isn’t really possible here at the moment. Let me clarify – it’s entirely possible to trudge about with an overstuffed backpack on, sleep in fusty dorms of twelve and live off a relentless diet of pasta with tomato sauce every night. But it’s futile. You may be living like a tramp, but you’ll be spending like a king.

“The economy’s too bloody strong,” was the frustrated explanation of Roger, a hostel owner who was taking me and only me to his empty accommodation one night. Well, it was low season, and other hostels were busier, but it’s true to observe that Australia has never been more expensive for a visitor than it is now. A pound used to buy two-and-a-half Australian dollars, now only one-and-a-half. So a low-range hostel dorm bed, $30, used to be a reasonable £12, but is now £20. That’s only the start. If you like to travel with a guidebook, bring one with you and guard it like a second passport: they’re $40 to $75 here. A sandwich, wee bottle of coke and pack of crisps will cost $15 (£10). It’s the same for a pack of cigarettes, and if you can find a pint for less than five quid, you’ve chanced upon happy hour. Prepare to go hungry, sober, or insolvent.

It’s fine if you work here. Many of the travellers I’ve met here have been working, too. The minimum wage is $15 (£10), but bar staff can expect at least $20, and one former barman told me he earned $57 per hour on Easter Sunday. That’s forty bloody quid!

The main attractions on Australia’s east coast are, I should say, free. Beaches are free. Swimming is free. Surfing is free (if you have a board). I saw a lot of beaches. I lay under the sun. The sun is free. Queensland is “The Sunshine State” (disclaimer: sunshine may also be received or distributed in other states). Also free and occasionally available: rain. One tourist brochure gave me inspiration for how to enjoy Queensland’s beaches: “Build an old-fashioned sand castle, creating priceless memories to share with loved ones”. So I’ll build a castle with turrets and a moat, I thought, and take pictures and post them to Facebook or something? But I didn’t want to shell out for a bucket and spade. I wavered, and chose lunch instead.

I spent money to see other beaches. I paid over $300 – that’s the going rate – for two days and a night on Fraser Island (coastline, above), the world’s biggest sand island. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – like the Grand Canyon and Angkor and Stonehenge and central Edinburgh – which means the UN guarantees it’s cool. I won’t disagree with the UN. The main highway on Fraser Island is 75 Mile Highway; it’s also called 75 Mile Beach. It runs the entire length of the island. Depending on the Pacific tide, 75 Mile Beach is up to 100m deep (or “wide”, if you’re driving along it) with another 100m of chaotic, shark-infested surf, and a 20-50m wide mirror in-between, constantly shrinking and being refreshed by the sea, reflecting the sky and clouds above. I called it 75 Mile Mirror. Contrary to bible advice, some wise men have built hotels upon the sand; they’re perfectly stable. Three buffet meals were included in the deal, so my new friends and I stocked up on nutrients, eager to improve our calories-to-dollars ratios. At night, groaning, we trundled back to 75 Mile Beach. Twenty miles away from the nearest settlement, the sky was as clear as I’d ever seen. While on the lookout for wild dingoes, we stood on the highway and watched shooting stars slice the Southern Cross. Stars are free. Meteors are free.

75 Mile Beach is not the best beach on Fraser Island, certainly. For a start, it’s a highway: all the tourist traffic uses it to get anywhere. One destination requiring most of its length is the Champagne Pools, a gathering of smooth rocks which form four or five perfect little swimming pools of frothy sea water, not champagne. While most tourists were distracted by the pools, repeatedly topped-up by the gracious sea, there were two idyllic golden sand beaches just metres away, uninhabited even while tour buses were parked nearby. Inland, a hundred metres high and through miles of rainforest, is Lake McKenzie (below), a freshwater lake of deep blue with immaculately white sand verges. Such a beautiful spot could never be a secret, so there were dozens of other people around, even in low season. But it’s easy to walk a little and find space. We were there for about an hour.

I paid to visit another beach too, for about an hour. Among the Whitsunday Islands, a thousand bus minutes up the coast, is Whitehaven Beach (below), famous for having 99% silica sand. Every travel agent in town referred to it as one of the top five or ten or three beaches in the world. CNN voted it the No.1 eco-friendly beach in the world. OK, let’s disagree with CNN. Every day, dozens of ferries make four-hour round trips shuttling tourists to this beach, bypassing many other lovely-looking and empty beaches on the way. In what way is that eco-friendly? Being a practiced skinflint by now, I bought the cheapest ticket to the island I could find. I paid sixty quid ($89) for a choppy two-hour ferry ride, on which a young boy was thrown against a bannister and lost a tooth, and lots of people vomited, to spend one hour on this beach. It was indeed a very beautiful beach, impossibly fine white sand and gently turquoise waters. I was just dozing, when a boat landed not twenty feet in front of me. “Right guys, everybody off, here it is, the number one beach in the world! I’ve got footies and frisbees, who wants one?" But Whitehaven cannot be the number one, ten or fifty beach in the world, because it is publicised as such. It is immodest. The best beaches don’t gloat about themselves. The best beaches keep mum. And the best beaches don’t eject you back onto a ferry after a quid-a-minute stay. Whitehaven isn’t even the best beach in Queensland – I may, or may not, have already referred to that already; not telling.

Millions of beaches, beaches for free. What else is there to the east coast of Australia? The Great Barrier Reef – which also has the UN’s stamp of approval – is a huge attraction for scuba divers. I can’t dive, so I can’t comment. It’s probably amazing. You can snorkel too, and kayak with dolphins, and skydive. You can eat steak pies or fish and chips or pasta. You can watch the royal wedding in a pub among Union flag-waving oi-boys and tiara’d daddy’s princesses from the home counties. You can watch a bloke with a guitar setting up and predict, correctly, that he’ll kick off with Wonderwall. I am aware which Queen’s land this is and so on; but it’s still a little disappointing to be 10,000 miles from home and have days which could have been had in Margate. Sydney’s exciting. Melbourne’s really cool. I hear the west coast is wonderful.

Best of all? New Zealand is only a thousand miles away.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Trainhopping In Japan

Travel feature for The Skinny

I could wait tables on this train, I thought. I could serve drinks, heavy drinks in tall glasses, on a tray held on one hand, using only one leg, while drunk, I thought. It’s so smooth! Sitting on a British train is like hatching a nest of pneumatic drills, I thought, compared to the flat-bottomed glide of this gleaming white shinkansen. How can I ever go back? And it’s going so fast, according to the blur of scenery in the window. I stood up, holding my water bottle in my left hand, and scouted. No-one was looking: one suit was transfixed by his laptop, a suit in front was concentrating hard on his bento lunchbox, and the suit at the back was asleep. I lifted my left leg off the ground, crouched, and hopped across a river, three kayaks and a houseboat, without spilling a drop. Take that Jonathan Edwards – you, actually, very nice man – take that jump and stick it!

I exaggerate a little: British trains are okay; what really feels like you're hatching a nest of pneumatic drills is when you're sitting on the bog when a massive earthquake strikes 450 miles away. First thought: am I ill? I can’t sit still, my head is spinning; how much did I drink last night? Then: maybe this is what a faraway earthquake feels like. It wasn't my gut or my head, it was exactly what a faraway earthquake feels like.

Although the calamities in the north-eastern part of Honshu have knocked it off any tourist’s schedule for the foreseeable future, most of Japan is continuing with life as normal. The Japanese are legendarily stoic and hard-working – Hiroshima’s tram system was up-and-running just three days after the city was wiped flat by the A-bomb – they’ll bounce back as quickly as is humanly possible. Japan itself is a beautiful country with a singular culture, more resistant to globalisation than most, and so endlessly fascinating to Western eyes. Ordinarily, this is where I'd say, "There's never a bad time to visit Japan", but the Foreign Office might disagree, so check online for the latest advice.

If you want to get the most out of a trip to Japan, you have to get a Japan Rail Pass. It’s a piece of folded card you show to barrier staff to get on any JR train – including most bullet trains and all local trains – whenever you want. So you can wake up anywhere in Japan and go anywhere in Japan that day, on a whim if you prefer, for the duration of your pass. Presently, the pass unfortunately features on its cover a cartoon representation of a tsunami, towering over Mount Fuji – two images iconic of Japan; one with a painful new association.

On my first morning in Tokyo, I handed my JR Pass receipt to Aika at Ueno station, to receive the pass itself. “Oh no!” she said, her face pained with regret. “Your train will be a Kodama, it’s the slow one.” Sadly, I would not be breaking any land speed records on my first day in her country. The sluggish Kodama is the most common shinkansen between Tokyo and Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe). It took 50 minutes to carry me 70 miles to Mishima, where I was to base myself at a friend’s for ten days; that’s 19 miles further than the Glasgow-Edinburgh train travels in the same time. The Hikari stops less, so is faster: it takes 44 minutes to cover 70 miles. But even the Hikari is an apathetic snail compared to the Nozomi (32 minutes), or the brand new Hayabusa (30 minutes), neither of which are covered by the JR pass.

But merely rattling off numbers can’t effectively convey the speed at which a shinkansen travels. Only one word bullets to mind to perfectly describe the bulleting speed of the Japanese bullet trains: “projectilish”.

Tokyo is the biggest and quite possibly best city in the world. There are 35 million people in Greater Tokyo: that’s seven times the population of Scotland; about the same population as Canada, the word’s second largest country; and almost half the number of Celtic fans who say they were in Seville. But it suffers none of the problems that too-many-people seems to cause other megacities: it’s incredibly clean, tidy and ordered, there’s no air pollution, it’s shockingly safe, and public transport is efficient and usually comfortable. It could so easily be overwhelming, but it feels less crowded than London, which has a quarter Tokyo’s people. I went to Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world, to catch an evening rush hour train to Tokyo station, expecting to see the famous pusher-oners – employees whose task it is to push as many commuters on to each train as possible – and perhaps be pushed on by a pusher-oner. Instead, I got a seat.

While Tokyo functions impeccably, its character remains eccentric. I took a stroll through Yoyogi Park on a Sunday and saw normal park activities – badminton, frisbee, picnics, couples hand-in-hand – and less expected sights: an old woman practising keepie-uppies; young girls dressed as Manga characters; groups of competitive rock’n’roll dancers, all dressed like Happy Days characters (mostly The Fonz); an old man with live fish in goldfish bowls hanging from each ear; red-favouring goths; apocalyptic preachers; karate bouts. Around every other corner in central Tokyo is a bewildering and delightful variety of bars, shops and blazing nighttime lights, using inscrutable symbols to make unknown promises. All you can do is wander, wide-eyed, and wonder; and wish to be able to sample it all. But you could live in Tokyo all your life and never sample it all.

With a rail pass in hand, you’re discouraged from trying: it’s time to move on. There are plenty of getaways outside of Tokyo, mostly in the surrounding Japanese Alps. Pelting snow greeted me at the mountainous area of Hakone, so I stripped to the nip and walked outside, into an onsen, a hot bath filled with volcanic water. Back inside the traditional B&B, known as a ryokan, I dressed in a yukata gown, drank green tea, ate a pack of delicious convenience store sushi, and slept on a tatami mat. You could say I spent that evening turning Japanese. Further north – but not within range of the tsunami – is Nikko, another wondrous mountain retreat with beautiful lakes and waterfalls, onsens and elaborate old shrines. Some people use a JR pass to cover as much ground in Japan as possible, but I wanted the pass to serve my holiday, not the other way around. I spent ten days in and around Tokyo, never further north than Nikko, before hopping on a shinkansen to Kyoto.

Kyoto is very different from Tokyo: it’s not a ridiculous size, so it’s less intense, unless you’re a serious scholar of Japanese history, in which case you’d have to spend every waking minute exploring its 2,000 (two thousand) temples and shrines. For the rest of us, we fit in what we can: a golden Buddhist temple here, a zen rock garden there, torii gates and geisha girls almost everywhere. Downtown Kyoto is as clean and modern as any Japanese city, but down its side-streets and alleys you can find flashes of old Japan, as evocative of the area’s history as the Old Town is of Edinburgh’s. Osaka, a convenient half-an-hour westward, is conveniently comparable to Glasgow: twice the size of its ancient neighbour, more commercial and industrial, and with better nightlife. This area, Kansai, also boasts the beautiful former capital of Nara, and Kobe, which you can hop between as you please with a JR pass.

In the days following the disaster, I continued trainhopping around Japan as planned. On the ground, nothing was different; it's odd to see life continuing as normal when the television shows such devastation to fellow citizens; but continue it does. Despite what some media outlets portrayed, Japan wasn't on its knees, and it isn't on its knees now. Don't write Japan off: the shinkansen must go on.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


In 90 minutes I'm going to Glasgow Airport to fly to London Heathrow and then on to Hong Kong. I won't be back in Scotland until June.

I'm not doing any more music writing, because I'm travelling the world. In fact, I'm quite looking forward to not feeling the pressure to listen to new music for the next few months.

I will hopefully write a couple of travel articles, probably for The Skinny, probably about Japan and Australia. I also might update this blog with what I'm doing. Maybe might perhaps.

Right, I guess I better start packing...