Sunday, 28 August 2011

No business like shoe business

Lady shopper considers smash'n'grab
I wasn't in the UK during the riots (your honour) but I did see some highlights on the TV when I was in Hungary. It's strange seeing a load of kids in hoodies and balaclavas smashing up and then looting places you know. And it's even stranger to watch these riots spreading across the UK while you're exploring a European city riding the trams, eating ice cream and having a honeymoon in the sunshine.

When I was a kid there were still cigarette machines outside newsagents, and I'm sure in those days looters were shot. It was like glass bus stops: as they started to get smashed up on a regular basis by the angry youth so everything that wasn't nailed down was moved out of reach.

Now benches are chained down. The computers are chained down at a college in Manchester town centre. Barbers' advertising signs are chained down in the suburbs. Why would anyone want one of those? A guy I know on the seafront in Brighton had a huge palm nicked from outside his flat - his basement flat. We played a game in Budapest: "What would an Englishman do?" and most of the time it involved smashing up a place or nicking something and then throwing up in the corner or weeing in the plant pot. (This was before we knew about the riots, incidentally..)

Also before we knew about the riots we came across (above and left) these wall displays outside a shoemaker's: glass cabinets displaying his wares, like craftsmen used to do in Days Gone By. Here you can see his expertise in making boots, or snappy gents' shoes. I think that's even a two-tone pair on the bottom shelf.

Can you imagine how long a display like this would last in Britain? It's a glass cabinet - and it doesn't have shutters on it? What's the shoemaker thinking of? He's just asking for those shoes to be robbed.

One of the amazing things about modern life is that now you could send that shoemaker in Budapest an email ( asking how his love of creating boots and shoes which he painstakingly sews by hand using traditional methods probably handed down over generations squares with the crazy lack of security and the irresponsible cabinet displays that are just asking to be smashed up by a passing Englishman.

But I guess there's one way Britain could retain old-style marketing methods like this, preserving traditional techniques and ensuring craftsmen survive: move all the shoemakers inside their local branches of Waterstones bookshop ... because there was no looting there, was there?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The secret world of mushrooms...

One thing I love about life is stumbling into a world full of enthusiasts and experts: people with a passion or an appetite for something, be it an activity, a way of life or a consumption.

Arriving in Budapest recently, my new and lovely wife Daiga and I found ourselves in the city’s central market, an impressive two-storey building that’s seen its share of ups and downs but which can be supplied through thick and thin by tunnels from the adjacent Danube.

Built in 1896, it’s survived the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, two wars and fifty years of Communism and has recently been refurbished and – as you can see here – is looking great. We allowed the sights and scents of Hungary to wash over us: excellent Tokai wine, the ubiquitous green pepper, the schnapps, caviar, Bull's Blood… the fancy linen, Ferencvaros football shirts and novelty key rings jostling for our attention.

But what really caught my eye  - oddly enough, as I waited by the public toilets at the back of the market hall - was a display of specialist mushrooms, ranked according to their toxicity but offering a splendid opportunity to ponder that fine line between life and death a stroll in a Hungarian forest one afternoon might offer.

For example: these mushrooms (right). Would you eat them? (yes/no)

They’re brightly coloured, a particularly healthy shade of red, but that’s usually nature’s way of saying “Danger.”  So: Yes or no?

As I remember they are perfectly edible, yet when I showed this picture to Daiga she thought they were the highly poisonous red variety.

Who would you trust: a dangerously ill-educated Englishman who’s only ever been into a forest on a mushroom-picking trip before in search of examples of the psilocybin variety, usually buying them for his lunch from the local greengrocer, or a mushroom-hardened savvy country girl for whom making delicious mushroom sauce to go with country spuds for lunch is almost a motor reaction on a daily basis? I know where my vote goes, and I'm the dangerously ill-educated Englishman reading a sign that says they're safe.

Mushroom pickers, beware. Health and safety is the prime concern. Mushrooms can kill. Check your mushrooms at and if in doubt, don’t.

Laccaria amethystina
Here’s the next specialist mushroom: would you or wouldn’t you fry these purple mothers up in a little oil and garlic and serve them  to your precious child? Jimi Hendrix mushrooms, maybe?

This is Laccaria amethystina, also known as the Amethyst Deceiver. It’s found in North America and Europe, is edible and grows in woods or on the ground. That violet colour’s a bit off-putting though, isn’t it? And I'm not sure what the deception might be either. Perhaps that they might kill you slowly and in agony if you ate them?

The Common Stinkhorn

Now for exhibit 4, a cheeky little item.

Phallus impudicus means .. well, I’ll leave you to look that up -  but it involves ‘standing proud’. This mushroom also goes by the name of ‘the common stinkhorn’ appearing in forests and well-mulched gardens in late summer and autumn. It has a slimy olive-green head containing spores which are transported by insects attracted by its smell .. of rotting dead animals.

Despite the stink it’s not poisonous and it’s often eaten raw, pickled or in sausages in parts of France and Germany. Do they know that flies stamp around in the sticky secretions on the head and then defecate spores somewhere else?

I have to thank Wikipaedia for this next gem (and the quote): apparently the aunt of Charles Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat (Aunt Etty) used to hunt for stinkhorns in the Cambridge woods where she grew up:

“In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name. The name is justified, for the fungus can be hunted by the scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty's great invention. Armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day's sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the morals of the maids.”

So there you are: the secret world of the mushroom, and of the mushroom admirer. And if we hadn't stopped to use the loo at the market, we would have been none the wiser.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Rest Home for Injured Storks..

Top of the tree: Boss Stork

The stork in Latvia is considered a sacred bird.  Farmers try to attract them to nest in the hope that they will bring good fortune. They make outrageously big nests from twigs on top of telegraph poles alongside main roads through the country... and on tall buildings where they can.

The white stork is a common sight in the fields in the summer, foraging for frogs, lizards, worms and insects, with possibly 10,000 pairs nesting across Latvia - a healthy increase on previous years that's caused some to call Latvia 'The Land of the Storks.' But a dry year means fewer storks, as less rain means fewer frogs.

 Latvia is certainly alive with the stork and grey heron and all kinds of hunting birds. The countryside is beautiful and the stork is one reason I got married there.

Stork sanctuary: nothing to see, please move on
But I'm glad to find the stork is a bird that has protectors across Eastern Europe.
Having been married in a ceremony at the Laumus Dabas Parks near Talsi, Latvia - where white storks nested on telegraph poles and grey herons wheeled into the sky as we approached - we re-located to the banks of the Danube for our honeymoon.
And there we found, to my joy, actually, a rest home for injured storks. There they were, standing on one leg, ignoring the pony rides and ice cream-buying of the public passing the park on Margrit Island.
But that's what it was: a stork sanctuary. Here's proof - five in this picture, though there were about eight. Some with broken legs or wings and clearly finding life a bit difficult but it was heart-warming to see.
I love storks. Stoical and symbolic, they represent a simpler life for me. I love the fact that there's a sanctuary for injured storks in Budapest. That's kind of getting the balance of life right for me.

Friday, 19 August 2011

An autumn of bass

Back in the UK in mid August it's noticeably more chilly than it was in various central European capitals. I watched the rioting on television but have little appetite to see the damage for myself: in fact I've hardly left the house since I got back I've had so much to pick up.

One of the most pressing bits of business involves getting ready for recording my second album as a member of the Inca Babies.  We've been writing and arranging the material for about six months now, mostly interpreting the vision of main man Harry Stafford, but setting a studio date is like setting a wedding date: you have to be ready. As a man who's just been through the wedding side of things - very happily, I might add and without a hitch, emerging with a fantastic and enviable partner - I'm glad to get all that detail off my mind.

Now, if you'll excuse the pun, I can concentrate on my parts and make sure they all make sense. Our engineer will be a fantastically grumpy producer called Tim Woodward who runs Courtyard Studios in the unfashionable area of Stockport's Hillgate.. where the plane crashed in 1967. I've known him since my previous band rehearsed there 25 years ago, and that kind of relationship is great: we're going to record in four hour bursts because he currently has a bad back. Seeing as I've known him half my life, I think we can allow him that luxury.

 There may even be a role for my vintage Framus Star bass, a semi-acoustic from 1965 once championed by Rolling Stone Bill 'Je Suis un Rock Star' Wyman. This was given to me last summer by folk legend John Tams and which I've restored thanks to the the help of several vintage German guitar suppliers and the advice of the Framus museum.

It was designed as a bass for guitarists - it has a very narrow neck which means those sensitive guitarists can get their hands round it (but play it without any sense of what bass is supposed to do).

It's really easy to play but on a guitar this old the electrics are wildly uncontrollable.. single pick-up humbucker into a 25 year old 100W H+H bass amp with dirty pots and high gain ... the feedback just builds and builds .. it's like being Jimi Hendrix on a bass. Perhaps we should do 'Hey Joe' or 'Star Spangled Banner' or something like that after a few shots of Lithuanian 999 vodka.

Anyway once the backing tracks are down we'll be heading for some of the cultural hotspots of Europe  like Amsterdam, Rome, Milan and Warsaw, so hope to see you along the way, eh?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

B-36 Peacemaker in the desert

Not everyone knows of the Convair B-36 six-engined bomber but it's a significant aircraft, being one of the first planes capable of delivering atomic bombs, and in fact, at the centre of the loss of one or two of them.

The story of the B-36 is like an episode of 'Bigger, Better Bomber'. Design work began in 1941 and it was two-thirds bigger than the USAF workhorse, the B-29, which dropped the atom bombs. It had six propeller engines, which immediately condemned it to an early operational grave in the jet age, but could fly at altitudes of 50,000 ft plus.. carrying atom bombs.. but it wasn't fast enough to get out of the danger area in time.

These pictures are of the last B-36 built, a B-36J Peacemaker named 'City of Fort Worth' which is on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. It has wings which are SEVEN FEET thick and is a plane which operates on a truly gargantuan scale. One pilot described flying the B-36 as 'sitting on the porch flying your house around.'

I've known about the B-36 since I was a kid but I'd never seen one in the flesh until this summer. The engines were fitted backwards so push the plane through the air rather than pull it. It was a novel idea but caused problems because the engines weren't warmed by the propellers and so iced up: a backlog of unburnt fuel built up, causing engines to catch fire.

The introduction of the Mig-15 in the Korean War with its heavy calibre machine guns and high altitude ceiling hastened the end of the B-36's operational life - as for all propeller-driven pre-jet age bombers - but the nuclear capable B-36 with its monstrous dimensions fought on as a reconnaissance aircraft into the late 1950s before being replaced by the B-52.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Liberation monuments and the passage of time.. number 2

I have just returned from Budapest, a city once liberated by the Russians and consequently littered with all kinds of liberation mementos. What to do with those statues once a nation has regained its true independence, you might ask?

Budapest's solution has been to transport the statues to a park a long way out of town and exhibit them as part of a collection of 'items removed once we got our country back' including highly sensitive films shown to Secret Policemen about how to carry out bugging, surveillance and busts.. when even the projectionist had to leave his booth in case he came across the secrets.

To a society growing up with Facebook, Twitter and all modern forms of communication - which can as we know also be tracked by states seeking to quell unrest  (ie David Cameron's riot retribution) - Hungary's years in the grip of unwanted totalitarianism seem sad.

When Hungarians got the chance they took the Russian soldier  off the Liberation Monument overlooking the Danube and escorted him to this park. They also collected all the statues commissioned by the Communists and installed around Budapest and loaded them onto the back of a pick-up truck heading for Memento Park, like this one (left) which are colossal by human standards.

The capture and direction of art and artists, sculpture and sculptors and all associated art forms to the glorification of totalitarianism is something that seems deeply regrettable.

Budapest's Memento Park offers food for thought for those who think occupation is a state of mind.

Occupation of the Mind starts with the young, and here are examples of how the young have been co-opted into the 'revolution'.

A Soviet soldier with a child, the Red Star on his hat: a group of Pioneers so committed to the cause.

Get them early and they'll be yours forever, the saying goes.

Where have we heard that before?

Liberation monuments and the passage of time.. number 1

In Riga, on the side of the river away from the Old Town where the stag parties gather, there's a large monument to the victory of the Russians over Nazi Germany in 1945. A slender column and two figures commemorate the millions who died achieving this victory, liberating Latvians and Europeans alike from the murderous insanity of Hitler's henchmen. However, I doubt if all Latvians will have welcomed the return of the Russians after the 'Year of Terror' of 1939-40 and the subsequent deportations to Siberia and effective removal of the intelligentsia.
So I wonder now, in a country with a significant contemporary Russian population, where Russians are significant investors, what resonance this memorial has, almost seventy years after the end of the war?
I'm told that Russian-Latvian weddings pause here with the bride and groom posing for photographs, and that there are gatherings here on April 9, to mark Victory Day.. while Latvians gather at their own Freedom Monument across the river a day earlier, no doubt with their minds on how things might have been had not the West been so focused on Poland. Latvia's a place where the 1938 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (aka the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact or Ribbentrop-Molotov carve-up of the Baltics) still has a modern resonance, and boy did those Baltic states pay a price for that.
So while Riga Old Town transforms itself into a 'party city',  across the Daugava the ancient trams rattle past a reminder of a violent past that seems to have been sidelined.. a moment of history that certainly needs remembering but which seems strangely at odds with modern Latvia. Has anyone considered removing the machine-gun waving soldiers, to make the monument less militaristic?