Category Archives: Life

RetView #3 – An American Werewolf in London

Title: An American Werewolf in London

Year of Release: 1981

Director: John Landis

Length: 97 mins

Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne

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Some films you see during those impressionable childhood years make an indelible mark on you. Others scar you for life. For me, An American werewolf in London undoubtedly belongs in the latter category, and not just because I was obsessed with Jenny Agutter.

It should need no introduction, but for the uninitiated, the film starts with a pair of American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking across the Yorkshire Moors (actually the Black Mountains in Wales). When night falls they take refuge in a charming little pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they find Rik Mayall having a game of darts and Brian Glover in a particularly prickly mood, but leave when things turn frosty and find themselves lost on the moors. As if that wasn’t bad enough, things take a huge downward turn when Jack is ripped to pieces by a huge wild animal, later revealed to be a werewolf. There’s no helping Jack, but a crowd from the pub arrive and kill the werewolf just in time to save David.

David wakes up in a hospital in London. We don’t know how he got there, or why he was taken there rather than somewhere closer as it’s about 200 miles from Yorkshire to London. But let’s not focus too much on pesky common sense and practicalities. It’s a werewolf film for fuck’s sake. Jack returns from the dead to warn his friend that next time there is a full moon, he too will turn into a werewolf. The banter between David and Dead Jack, fast, witty, and shot-through with humour, form some of my favourite parts of the film (example: “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”).

The anticipated change does indeed occur in a gut-wrenching yet iconic sequence which won an Academy Award for special effects (creator Rick Baker went on to win six more from eleven nominations. A record) and David goes on a bloody rampage across London. One of the defining scenes was set and filmed at Tottenham Court Road tube station, and anyone who has ever used that particular transport hub will surely agree that the only time you are likely to see it quite so empty is when there is a blood-crazed werewolf riding the escalator. David wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure of the zoo, and then sets about piecing together the events of the night before with the help of Alice (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who he somehow managed to pull at the hospital. It has to be said that she takes all the werewolf stuff remarkably well, which was just one more reason to love the woman.

One of the most terrifying scenes ever committed to celluloid is the dream sequence where David witnesses his family being brutally slayed by a bunch of mutant Nazi demons with machine guns in a home invasion. It’s as weird as it is shocking, and has been the cause of endless debate over the years. Was it included just for the shock factor? An extra element of controversy (as if it were needed)? Or is it a remnant of a sub-plot which was otherwise edited out?

It’s interesting to note that earlier on in proceedings, nurse Alice and her friend make what appears to be an off-hand Jewish remark dressed up as a dick joke, and the movie has been lauded in certain circles as a significant piece of Jewish cinema. A little digging reveals John Landis was born into a Jewish family, and with that kernel of knowledge, the sub-text swims into focus. David (the name of the first monarch of the Israelite tribes) is a walking allegory for Judaism itself. A displaced, wounded hero, a stranger in a strange land, struggling to come to terms with a tragic past. This article does a pretty good job of further exploring the Jewish connection. Personally, I’d never even considered the possibility until I re-watched it recently and started wondering what the fuck those mutant Nazi demons with machine guns had to do with anything.

When it was released in 1981, An American Werewolf in London formed one third of a holy trinity of werewolf films, which all came out the same year, the others being Wolfen and The Howling. Director John Landis (who is more commonly associated with comedy having been involved with such seminal films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places) claimed he was inspired to write the script after working on the film Kelly’s Hero’s in Yugoslavia. Whilst out driving, he stumbled across a group of gypsies performing a ritual on a corpse so it wouldn’t ‘rise again.’ At first he had trouble securing finances, with most would-be investors claiming the script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be frightening, before PolyGram Pictures eventually put up the $10 million budget. Happily, their faith was repayed as the movie became a box office smash grossing over $62 million worldwide.

In contrast, a 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which featured a completely different cast and crew, was a critical and commercial failure. As a curious postscript, in late 2016 it was widely reported that John Landis’s son Max would write and direct a remake. There’s been nothing but the sound of crickets ever since.

Trivia Corner:

In the Piccadilly Circus sequence, the man hit by a car and thrown through a window is none other than John Landis himself.

This is part three of my monthly #RetView series, following Lost Boys and Shock Waves.

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Inside Apartment 14F

My latest novella, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut), just came out. As the title suggests, it’s a partially re-written and expanded version of an earlier release. The original came out on Damnation Books eight years ago, and truth be told I was never really happy with it. By the time the publisher was absorbed by another company and consequently vanished off the face of the earth a few years later, our contract had expired and all rights reverted back to me. That meant, the story was free for me to do what I wanted with, and I felt a remix was in order.

So here we are.

I wrote the original version of Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story in January/February 2009, when I was living in the industrial city of Tianjin, northern China. Tianjin is like a Chinese Middlesbrough, only with much harsher winters. Yep, it really is that bad. I’d spent the year before in Beijing, where Apartment 14F is set, and had moved to Tianjin to be closer to my then-girlfriend. Obviously, the moment I moved there she dumped me for another dude, leaving me alone and heartbroken doing a job I hated (teaching English at a primary school) in a freezing cold foreign country far too close to Russia with no friends.

Like most teachers, during the Spring Festival period I had a long holiday. It was too cold to go out for any other reason than buying supplies and Chinese TV is a bit shit, so I decided to do something constructive. Though I’d had a few short stories published in the small press when that was a thing years earlier, I’d taken a long sabbatical from writing fiction to focus on feature writing for magazines (the money is better) and was just beginning to get back into the fiction side of things. To me, it’s always been more of a labour of love. I consider any money I make from it a bonus, but it’s so time-consuming and energy-sapping that I feel I have to justify it somehow.

 There’s a different skill-set involved when writing fiction. It’s a bit like opening a door into your mind, and I’m not always entirely sure I want people to see what’s in there. Subconsciously or otherwise, you write about some pretty personal shit. There’s a lot of my early-China experience in Apartment 14F. The sense of isolation, feeling like an imposter, or an alien, feeling strangely detached as lots of weird shit goes on around you. It all added to the loneliness and simmering resentment.

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story started life as a short story called When Eyes Lie (Did I mention how bitter I was about the girlfriend thing?). I submitted it to Damnation Books, who were then a new start-up and had just put out a submission call. They loved it, but said it was too short and could do with being bulked up. It was good advice. There was a lot more I wanted to say, and I’d rushed through the short story. At over 17,000 words, the second version was almost twice as long as the original.

I’d hate to bite the hand that used to feed (they didn’t feed me much, but a little) but over time Damnation Books developed something of a reputation for being difficult to work with. I heard a lot of horror stories from other writers, and not the good kind. It’s not my place to air other people’s dirty washing. If you are interested, you can Google it. All the negativity came later. At the time, like most writers, I was just happy that someone liked my work enough to publish it.

In the case of Apartment 14F, there were a few things they wanted me to change. It’s not that I’m precious. I’m always open to suggestions from editors. It’s their job. But I don’t like making wholescale changes on the whim of someone who’s probably spent barely a few minutes skimming my manuscript, whereas I’d been working on it for months. I could have argued my case, but if you argue too much you get a reputation for being difficult and the publisher is liable to pull the plug on your book. I learned a long time ago to choose my battles. Some things are worth fighting for, and some things just aren’t.

Two key scenes came from different dreams I had. I had a lot of weird dreams when I was in China. Still do. It’s a fucking trippy place . The first dream I worked into the story is the hair in the bed scene. If you read it, you’ll know the part I mean. The second was the fortune teller with the inventive way of telling your fortune. That was one creepy nocturnal escapade, and luckily for me, the creepiness translated well to the page. I just described it as best as I could remember. The feelings, the sensations, the thoughts that ran through my head. That one scene has probably provoked more discussion than anything else I’ve written. Discounting the time I did an assignment for the sadly departed Nuts magazine and had the pleasure of telling the world what Lucy Pinder’s tits thought of the Southampton FC back four. But that was a different kind of writing in a different world.

Apart from being forced into making changes to the story, the other sticking points I had with Damnation Books were the amount of promotion they did for the book (none) and the price they set. Both the paperback and the ebook were on sale for over $7, that’s a lot for a novella-length work by someone you’ve never heard of.

Despite being overpriced, on it’s initial release Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story did extremely well. When Damnation Books imploded a couple of years later, it was still second in their all-time bestseller list. Okay, I know it’s not like being on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it means something to me. DB released A LOT of books. But like I said, I never really felt comfortable with it. I turned a corner with my writing not long afterwards. Must have been the 10,000-hour rule in effect. I went from being a part time writer to a full-time writer, and started doing a lot more fiction as a kind of release from the day job.

Whenever I went back and read the original version of Apartment 14F, some parts made me cringe. I think I have much more insight now. I lived in china another four years after I wrote the original story. I also like to think I’ve improved a lot as a writer since then, and maybe now I can finally do the idea I had back in ’09 justice. It also has a snazzy new cover…

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As an extra little sweetener, I’m also including a bonus short story, Little Dead Girl, which was first published in a short-lived publication called Unspoken Water (2011) and later in X2: Another Collection of Horror (2015). It’s a story written in a similar vein, ironically based on another deeply disturbing dream I had whilst living in the Middle Kingdom, and also featuring a teacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown as the lead character. You could probably say they are set in the same spooky-ass far eastern universe. The two stories kinda compliment each other well, I think.

This is an edited version of an essay which appears in Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut). Available now on Amazon:

UK LINK

US LINK


Reading Habits

Like a good little writer, I read a lot. You might say obsessively. All things considered, I guess I read between 2-4 hours a day. I read widely, across a lot of platforms and topics, but mostly in the sport, lifestyle, travel and paranormal areas. These are the areas I usually work in, so being knowledgeable helps me follow trends and keep my finger on the pulse.

Newspapers

Yeah, I know they are going out of style, but I’m keeping the dream alive. For me, The Times is the best newspaper out there. I don’t agree with all their politics. In fact, I usually skip those sections. But they have excellent writers and the articles are usually not only newsworthy but informative and often a bit quirky. There’s something quintessentially British about The Times, and I love how it treads the line between broadsheet and tabloid. My ‘happy place’ is a quiet pub on a rainy afternoon, with a pint of craft ale and a copy of The Times.

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If I can’t get a copy of The Times, the Guardian will do. Or the Observer on a Sunday. I never get The Sunday times because it’s like a metre-squared fucking Argos catalogue. My tabloid of choice is The Sun. It gets a lot of bad press (ho ho!) but it serves a purpose and the sports pages are outstanding. Wales on Sunday and the Western Mail are my regional newspapers when I’m in Wales but I rarely buy them these days. The quality of local journalism has nosedived. It’s largely due to less people reading newspapers and consequently their resources taking a hit, but you could argue that one reason less people are reading newspapers is because the quality of the product isn’t what it used to be. It’s the chicken or the egg scenario. My most hated newspapers would be the Metro, because it reads like it was written by a bunch of 6-year old’s, and the Daily Mail, because that’s why.

Magazines

Ten years ago, there were eight or more different magazines I bought religiously every week or month, depending on their frequency. Sadly, most of them are gone now. Of the few that remain, the only one I subscribe to (and I have done for twenty years or so) is Fortean Times. I like the crazy. I also buy Classic Rock almost every month, and either GQ or Esquire. Both are slightly pretentious, but they are the closest thing remaining to FHM and Loaded, and they make decent toilet reading. I also like going to large newsagents and impulse buying whatever catches my eye. I grab Kerrang! Empire, Fighters Only and Mojo semi-regularly, along with the occasional travel title or hobbyist writing magazine. One day I woke up hungover, fully-clothed in my bed, covered in about £35 worth of mags. What a glorious day that was. When in London, I make sure I pick up whichever free mag is being distributed that day, Sport and Shortlist being pick of the bunch, with Escapism and Red Bulletin third and fourth.

Websites

I spend a lot of time surfing the net, but there aren’t many websites I use on a regular basis apart from Facebook and WordPress. Does Wiki count? How about Bet 365? Otherwise, MMA Fighting, Louder Than War and BBC News are probably my most visited. I habitually used Wales Online a lot until recently. But this outlet is suffering in much the same way as the print products Media Wales oversees is. In an effort to maximise profits, the quality of reporting has declined to laughable levels and the site is literally clogged up with advertising. It often takes several minutes to load, and when it finally does you are inundated with pop-ups. Sometimes you have to participate in a survey before you can even read the article you clicked on. I understand they have to (try and) make a profit, but that’s just intrusive. Life’s too short.

Books

I try to read widely, both fiction and non-fiction. I love sports autobiographies, travelogues, and rock memoirs, along with a healthy dose of true crime and the occasional tale of survival-against-the-odds.

The fiction I read is almost exclusively in the horror genre (as broad as that is). If there are no ghosts or zombies, or at least a demented serial killer on the rampage, I get real bored real fast. I’ve never been the kind of person to read one book at a time, but only when I wrote this post did I realize how bad things have got. I really should show some more composure, but there are just so many books and so little time. At the moment, I have no less than seven on the go. For the interested, these are:

Physical copies:

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, Neil Strauss

PDF’s on the PC:

DOA 3, various authors

Wild Talents, Charles Fort

And on the Kindle:

Sinister Scribblings, Matt Hickman

Unit 731, Craig Saunders

Battlefield, Amy Cross


Writer’s Block – Pros and Pretenders

For better or for worse (usually worse), I’m involved in a lot of groups on Facebook, Linked In and the like, where writers of varying descriptions flock together to discuss various aspects of ‘the craft.’ The one topic that crops up more than any other in these groups is writer’s block.

The thing is, and feel free to fight me on this if you want, but I don’t think writer’s block exists. It’s a myth perpetuated by hobbyists with delusions of grandeur. The kind of people who sit in the corners of cafes and coffee shops with expensive tablets and skinny lattes because ‘that’s where they do their best work.’

You’ll find these pretenders haunting most establishments. The trendier the better. They’ll sit quietly, smoothing their beards thoughtfully, adjusting their beanies, and making a single hot beverage last three-and-a-half hours. A smug half-smirk will be tugging at the corners of their mouths, and if you listen carefully, you might be able to hear their inner thought process.

I am a gifted individual. People envy me. I write, therefore I am. My words will change the world. But wait, no I don’t want to write any more. Right now I’d rather be checking the Ted Baker website to see if the new knitwear collection is available for pre-order yet. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. Must be writer’s block. I’m a tortured artist! The angst! Oh, dear creative Gods, deliver me from this hell!

I recently remarked to one of the many ‘WRITER’S BLOCK. AAARGH!” comments that clog up my newsfeed most days that, in my opinion, writer’s block is something that separates the pros from the pretenders. It didn’t go down very well with the supposed victim. I wasn’t being pretentious. The point I was trying to make is when faced with adversity, pros will find a way over, around, or through the obstacle preventing them achieving their goals. Whereas hobbyists, who would just as happily be doing something else anyway, will just give up.

But here’s the rub. They don’t want to admit giving up so easily. That would show weakness, and a lack of integrity. So they pin the blame on something other than themselves instead. Something intangible and unquantifiable, some mysterious ailment that only the supremely gifted can suffer from. Writer’s block is a luxury professionals can’t afford. If they don’t write, they don’t eat and they get evicted. Simple. Have you ever heard of plumber’s block? Dentist’s block? Estate agent’s block? No? That’s because there’s no such thing. Sure, sometimes they have days where they don’t feel like going to work. Just like there are times when you don’t feel like doing the washing up, or changing the bed. That’s when you put your head down, grit your teeth, rise above it and get the job done.

Just to be clear, I have no problem with people writing as a hobby. Quite the opposite, in fact. Generally speaking, I think the human race in general could benefit from reading and writing more. Then maybe a higher percentage of people would be able to spell and punctuate properly and we wouldn’t be such a nation of fucktards.

One acquaintance of mine who complained of suffering from writer’s block said the only thing that alleviates the condition is playing video games, so he did that for three months. Three fucking months. Wait a minute, are you sure you wouldn’t just prefer playing video games? Because it sure seems that way. Incidentally, this writer was unpublished, and it’s easy to see why. I’m not knocking his ability. Who am I to judge? The guy might be a very good writer. Hell, he might even be the best writer who ever lived. The thing is we’ll probably never know, because when the chips are down, he boots up Halo. How many dentists out there do you think take three-month sabbaticals where they don’t work, they just play video games?

I understand that maintaining writer’s block doesn’t exist might be a controversial view.  Message boards and chat forums, even the odd serious article or academic paper, argue otherwise. But what’s really happening here is people misdiagnosing the condition. Writer’s block is an excuse to give up when things get tough. Or, in most cases, a convenient excuse to not do something you don’t even have to do in the first place. Some people just like to blame their inadequacies on things that are supposedly beyond their control. It makes them feel better about being crap at their job or just plain fucking lazy.

I want to leave you with this thought. Real writers write. They don’t sit around pissing and moaning about how hard it is. Those that do it on a regular basis know it’s hard. It’s not the exciting, romantic existence some people seem to think it is. If you’re not enjoying it, or you’re struggling with your latest case of writer’s block, the one that stops you from ever actually writing anything, go find something else to do. Don’t take to social media to bare your soul every ten minutes. It’s boring.

If you want to be a professional, or at least acknowledged as such, act like one. Grow a backbone. Learn about sacrifice, resilience and endeavour. I’m sure Stephen King, Dan Brown and Robert Ludlum would love to kick back and spend three months at a time playing computer games, or watching Friends, or whatever the hell else floats their respective boats. But they don’t. If they did, they wouldn’t have written all those books.

You see? Pros and pretenders.

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This article first appeared on the Deviant Dolls website.


Time for a New Six Nations?

So the Six Nations tournament is in full swing. This always gets me thinking about rugby, and in particular, the competition’s format. Rugby fans might find what I am going to say controversial, whilst nobody else will give much of a shit. But as a rugby fan, I want to make my feelings heard. And before we go any further no, this blog isn’t about the self-destructing Wales team.

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You see, I don’t think the Six Nations should be six nations. Not any more. Frankly, Italy (wooden spoon winners in two of the past three seasons and odds on for a hat-trick) are not strong enough to contest and do themselves no favours by continuing to slug it out with the big boys of European rugby. From the 85 games they’d played up to the start of the current championship, they’d lost 72 and their overall points difference stood at an alarming -1553. That’s more than twice as many as the second worst team, Scotland.

It’s nothing personal. I admire the way Italy stick to their guns, often in the face of overwhelming odds. They are a strong, powerful team, and have produced a couple of top players. But this season really should spell the end of their involvement in the Six Nations tournament. Who needs it? They were effectively out of the reckoning after just two games, having been on the end of two home thrashings at the hands of Wales and Ireland (7-33 and 10-63 respectively). They usually have one good game a year, and that came last week at Twickers. They gave England a scare, more through clever exploitation of the rules than any real skill, but still ended up losing by double digits. All the evidence suggests that Italy are getting worse at this rugby lark, not better. It could be time to go. And you know what? They can take France with them.

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Controversial? Let me explain…

At several points in it’s long history (the first comparable tournament was played way back in 1883) the Six Nations was known as the Home Nations, and consisted of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Then in came the French and it became the Five Nations. Then Italy made it six. Where’s it going to end? Shall we just invite every rugby-playing nation in Europe and call it the 17 Nations? Of course not, that would be impractical. But then you have to wonder why Italy deserve a place. Georgia are actually above them in the world rankings and Romania and Russia aren’t far behind.

I want a return to the old days. But not because I’m some Neanderthal racist who hates Italians and Frenchies. Nope, I have a plan. The tournament should return to its roots, but I think we should do it differently this time. I want the home nations to play every other home nation twice a season, for a total of six games. And lets mix up the draw each year, pulling the fixtures at random, instead of having the format and fixtures set in stone. That gets boring. The draw for the next tournament can be made at the end of the previous one to give fans time to make arrangements, and thereby amping up the drama even more. Put it on live TV, make a spectacle out of it like the FA Cup draw.

Let’s be honest, nobody really likes playing the French. Not because anyone is afraid of them (though they do have a nasty habit of running in good tries), but because they bring nothing to the tournament, especially the way the team is at the moment. They currently stand at 8th in the latest World Rugby rankings, lower than any of the home nations, and haven’t been serious contenders for years. They were fortunate to beat Italy last season. If they’d lost, they would have suffered a second whitewash in four years. Not good enough, sorry.

There’s long been talk of introducing a two-tier system into the Six Nations, with promotion and relegation. If that ever happened, Italy would undoubtedly be the first team relegated. And there’s a decent chance France could follow. I suggest we take the initiative and cull them now, then put them in a separate European group with two of Georgia, Romania and Russia. Maybe even Spain, Germany or Portugal. All are emerging nations ranked in the world top 25. Playing each other (along with France and Italy) on a regular basis would improve their game immeasurably, which can only be good for the sport. The European group of four (even five or six would be manageable as these teams play less games per year than the elite) can also play each home and away, then face the winners of the British group in a grand final every year at a neutral venue. Obviously France would dominate for the first couple of years, but I the other teams would soon catch up with them.

There, sorted. Think about it. This proposed new format would benefit everyone involved. The British teams would only have to play one (or two, if they get to the grand final) more games a season, there would be more opportunity for sponsors and TV revenue, the fans would get more of what they really want (Wales v Scotland, England v Anybody), the smaller rugby-playing nations would have a framework and a chance to develop, and there would be a huge showpiece final every year to rival the (football) European Championship.

Who’s with me?


Boss Blogs #1: Meet Me in the City Tonight

For many people, seeing Bruce Springsteen live, especially with the E Street Band, is akin to a religious experience. His epic three-hour plus live shows are the stuff of legend. The vast majority of artists have their carefully arranged 16-song set consisting of a smattering of tracks from their latest sub-par album, closing the show with a few hits from when they were more popular to send the crowd home happy. They play the same songs, in the same order, every night. Even their salutations are hollow. “Thank you (INSERT NAME OF LATEST STOP ON THE TOUR)! This has been the greatest night of our lives!”

Of course it has, pal.

Springsteen doesn’t just go through the motions. Every show, every note of every song, is shot through with energy, emotion and intensity. Virtually every night the set list is different. Sometimes there are minor tweaks, sometimes there a radical overhaul. He usually does something special, making it unique for those lucky enough to be in attendance. He might dust off a rare deep cut, a non-album track, a new arrangement of an old classic, or an unexpected cover. He has an extensive repertoire to draw from, and nothing is off-limits. After Prince died last year he played Purple Rain as a tribute, in London he played the Clash song Clampdown in homage to Joe Strummer, and in Australia he played the relatively obscure INXS track Don’t Change as a nod to Michael Hutchence. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to witness him tackle a George Michael or Motorhead standard at some point. The first time he ever played in Wales on the Magic tour in 2008 he started the show with From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), in reference to the size and stature of the country.

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I’m not as fanatical as some Springsteen aficionados. I’ve met people who have seen him live literally hundreds of times, making my six gigs in four countries over twenty years seem pretty fucking weak. Still, I do have some good stories. Like the time I was on a coach coming back from Rotterdam and French border police decided to take us in a room one-by-one and strip search us all. I’d never had that treatment before, so that was an experience. As was travelling all the way from Wales to Philadelphia for the reunion tour in 1999 only to arrive at the venue to find the show had been cancelled because of a hurricane. After being shut in the hotel bar for the night, we eventually got to see another show later in the week so the trip wasn’t completely wasted. Unlike me that night in the hotel bar. At the actual gig, my then-girlfriend went out for a cigarette halfway through the show and security wouldn’t let her back in, so she had to stand in a car park by herself in downtown Philly for two hours. No, I didn’t go out to find her. A man has to get his priorities right. Besides, I didn’t know what had happened until later. There were no mobiles in 1999.

Thinking about it, my Boss gigging history has been dogged by drama. I was also at the infamous Hyde Park gig in 2012, when the council pulled the plug in the middle of a historic duet with Paul McCartney. Hilariously, the Boss started the next gig in Dublin in the middle of Twist & Shout and had a fake policeman drag him from the stage at the end. The first time I ever saw the him live was as a starry-eyed 18-year old at Wembley Arena in 1992. By some fluke, my friend and I had great seats, just a few rows from the front. But probably my favourite ever Boss gig was at the San Siro, Milan in the summer of 2003. I’ve always thought the music spoke to me on some weirdly personal level, and that show seemed to prove it. I still worked in a factory in Wales at the time. I had a car, a steady girlfriend and a PlayStation. All the things that are supposed to make you content. But man, I was so fucking miserable. I was beginning to realize it’s a big world out there, and I was frustrated at only being allowed to experience a tiny part of it. My first book had just been released and, I knew big changes were coming in my life. He sang ‘Follow That Dream,’ a song he doesn’t do often, and it almost sent me over the edge. It certainly put things in perspective. I decided to roll the dice and risk everything to pursue a career in writing. Within a few months, I’d split up with my girlfriend, sold my car, laid my PlayStation to rest (which I still think is the biggest loss) and moved to Southampton to study journalism. Strange how things turn out. I look back on that San Siro gig as some kind of tipping point.

When Bruce & the E Street Band began this latest tour, they were playing The River album in it’s entirety from start to finish, then a handful of oldies at the end. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. It was too rigid, too predictable. The handful of oldies at the end soon stretched to a dozen, then 15 or 16, and by the time he got to Europe the ‘whole album’ format had been discarded altogether in favour of a career-spanning mash-up. What’s even better is EVERY show is being recorded and released via his website. I used to collect live bootlegs. Over the year I amassed hundreds of them. I’ve always been aware that the studio albums, even taking into account the 4-CD retrospective set Tracks, only tell half the story. But they were expensive and the sound quality was hit or miss. Normally miss, to be fair. These new releases are absolutely flawless, and at $9.95 (MP3 format) for four hours of music, reasonably priced. There’s a bit of polishing and mixing going on, but if it enhances the sound quality I’m not against it like some purists are. Incidentally, if you want my opinion, I don’t think you can go far wrong by investing in the Washington National Park show.

After a few months off following the last US leg, the River tour found it’s way to Australia last month. Because, bizarrely, it’s summer there. And winds up next week in New Zealand. I’m envious of all you Australasians who were lucky enough to get tickets but I’m not that put out. I’ll just get the MP3s.

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Little Virgin Boy Pee Eggs

Today is Chinese New Year! That means it’s time for another China story from the vault. I’ve posted quite a lot here about China, like the time I ate brains and the time I got to be Bad Santa. There was also the snake shop, and when I got pulled in Shanghai airport and some beefy security guards tried to take my cheese off me. No way, mister! Even the most mundane things, like getting a haircut, take on a whole new meaning in the Middle Kingdom.

In 2009-2010 I lived in an extremely inhospitable northern industrial city called Tianjin. I imagine it was a bit like a Chinese Middlesbrough. I only went there to be closer to a girl I was dating, who then promptly dumped me for another dude leaving me alone, miserable and stuck in a job I hated. Said job was teaching English in a primary school. It wasn’t the teaching I disliked. it was the kids. There, I said it. It’s probably hard enough trying to educate children that young when you speak the same language, but at least then you can reason with them. If you don’t speak the same language, forget it. It’s like fighting a war with no weapons. Every class was anarchy.

Eventually I hit on the bright idea of rewarding the good kids with lollipops, hoping the naughty ones would see what they were missing and fall in line. It didn’t quite work out like that. Instead, every kid who didn’t get a lollipop threw an epic temper tantrum. Mostly products of the one-child policy, they were a mass of Little Emperors. They broke me. Regularly. I would cave in and give them all lollipops just to shut them up, costing myself a small fortune in sugary bribes.

One of the few things I liked about this school was the little breakfast stall stationed outside, selling a selection of traditional local food, along with some more normal fare like boiled eggs and corn on the cob. I stopped by there most mornings. It was cheap, and saved me time.

virgin-boy-eggs

There was a lot I didn’t like about the school. But the worst thing were the toilets. Toilets in China are gruesome places at the best of times. But in the school there were no locks on the doors, because the little shits would shut themselves in. That meant whenever I used it, I had a swarm of kids around me pointing and laughing. It was enough to give anyone a complex.

I noticed the boys all peed in buckets, which struck me as a bit weird. But lots of things struck me as a bit weird in China, and the buckets of piss just blended in with all the other weirdness. People would come in sporadically, carry the full buckets out, and come back with empty ones. Presumably, they were emptying them down a drain somewhere. I didn’t know, and frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t think much about it. Until one day, when I was talking to my teaching assistant and he told me something that first confused me, then horrified me to the core. The school was selling the pee. Those people who came in to take out the buckets of piss were actually paying the school for the privilege.

“What? Who would buy buckets of pee?”

“People.”

“What people?”

“Like the people at the breakfast stall where you go in the mornings.”

“Why?”

“Tong zi dan.”

“What’s that in English?”

“Not sure. Little virgin boy pee egg or something.”

He explained that in some regions of China, Tianjin included, urine from young boys, preferably under the age of ten is harvested. It is boiled, and eggs are soaked in it for a few hours. Then the shells are cracked, presumably to let the pissy goodness inside, and it is boiled some more. The practice has been going on for centuries, and is tied to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Eating little virgin boy piss eggs is said to reduce high blood pressure, stop you catching a cold, and relieve joint pain, and I’d been unwittingly eating them for months.

I’ve never been able to look at a boiled egg in quite the same way since.


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