Category Archives: Travel

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.

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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.


Dear London

This isn’t an easy letter to write. I think you know, things haven’t been right between us for a while now. I’m not sure they ever were. Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of fun together. Those early days, when there was so much to discover and indulge in, were very special. So new new and exciting. For a while, I really thought you might be ‘the one.’ I thought I’d finally be able to settle down. But those feelings didn’t last. After a couple of years, all the little annoyances I used to find so charming started getting on my nerves. These days, I find it difficult just to be around you. Everything’s such hard work, and I derive so little pleasure from what we do together. It comes down to balance, I suppose. This relationship is all take and no give.

I would give you that time-honoured “It’s not you, it’s me,” line.

But that wouldn’t be fair, because it’s mostly you.

I know the score, okay? I know how things are. You are this rich, powerful, older woman and I’m just A.N. Other guy. I have to work my balls off to impress you and stay in your good graces. Do you have any idea how exhausting that is?

Didn’t think so. You act like I should be happy just to be here. To have the opportunity. But my best was never good enough. You have ridiculously high standards, and even higher demands. I know if I let my guard down for just a few moments, there’ll be a line of would-be suitors queuing around the block. Like vultures. Half the guys in the world want to get with you. That’s a lot of pressure. Plus, you go through my money like it was piss in the rain.

God, you make me feel like such a failure sometimes. On the other hand, you make me proud just to be with you. That’s the paradox of love. Anyway, enough waffling. The bottom line is our relationship is turning destructive, and it’s probably best I leave before someone gets hurt.

There, I said it.

Sorry to be so abrupt, but you broke my heart, London. At least three times, you cold, heartless bitch.

I know you are fucking other people, okay? You always were, and you always will. It’s just what you do. You don’t care. And why should you? You don’t owe me anything. You’re thinking, “You came to me, remember? Feel free to leave at any time.”

I also want to thank you. You taught me how to be humble, how to be strong, and how to grow. Along the way you taught me a few hard life lessons. But someone had to teach me, and I’m glad I learned from the best.

I’m not bitter. It hurts to know that you’re so ruthless and callous, but I get it. It’s not personal. And don’t worry, even though I knew all along you were using me I have no regrets, because I was using you, too. We were just having fun. I always knew it wouldn’t be long term. How could it? We both value our freedom and independence too much to make any kind of lasting commitment. Many better men (and women) than me have tried to have a relationship with you and failed.

Thinking about it, I suppose we were only ever fuck buddies. At first, there was only passion and lust. I wanted to do everything with you. But then, the spark died. The dream ended and reality bit down on us hard. We stopped going out as much, most of our ‘friends’ slipped away, and our sex life went down the toilet. When we did manage it, which wasn’t often, it was functional and mechanical. Like we were just going through the motions. Yeah, we’d blame things like work and family and the weather and whatever else. But the truth is, we just drifted apart. I know that you never gave all of yourself to me. There was always that part of you that you kept hidden. And no matter what I did, you were never going to reveal it to me. I could spend a lifetime trying and still not discover ‘the secret of you.’

Maybe I was the same way.

I admit, I haven’t exactly been faithful. There’s this other girl called China. I don’t understand half the things she says or does and she has these really strict parents who make things difficult, but she’s just so beautiful and exotic. Then there’s my mental ex, Wales. She was my first love, so I guess she’ll always be in my life. We went through too much together for me to ever really forget her, but we are so volatile together we fight like mad.

Anyway, goodbye, London. I don’t know where this journey will take me next, but I do hope we can stay in touch and who knows, maybe we can hook up again further down the road. The future is a place where anything is possible.

Take care of yourself, and stay beautiful.

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Rolling the Dice, Man

I don’t know how many people reading this would be familiar with the now-defunct British magazine Loaded. For men of a certain age, it was something of a lifestyle bible, and told you everything you needed to know about, well, life and style.

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In a 1999 issue they named an obscure (to me, anyway) American writer by the name of Luke Rhinehart, ‘Novelist of the Century.’ He was awarded this accolade largely due to a book he wrote called The Dice Man, which carried the rather catchy tag (on some editions) ‘Few novels can change your life, this one will.’ Until that point, I’d thought Stephen King was ‘Novelist of the Century.’ Still do, actually. So this was news to me. Loaded were very rarely wrong about such important things, so I went out and found a copy of said book in HMV. Then I stuck it on my ever-expanding book shelf and promptly forgot about it. Fast forward a few years, and I’m a mature student with a lot of free time on my hands. Enter The Dice Man.

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In a nutshell, the book tells the story of a psychiatrist called Luke Rhinehart (which makes it kind of a mock autobiography) who, feeling bored and unsatisfied with life, decides to stop making decisions. Instead, he rolls a dice, and lets fate decide which path he should take. As far as I remember, the rule of the ‘game’ is that you give yourself six options, one for each number on the dice. Five reasonably attractive things that you wouldn’t mind doing, and one thing you don’t want to do. But you have to be prepared to do it.

On the surface, its a book about freedom, the search for adventure, and fucking the system. I’m sure many of the deeper psychological concepts and themes were lost on me at the time. You kind of grasp most of them, but not with much clarity. The result is that they linger in your subconscious for years after.

I was so taken with the book that one summer I bought a one-way ticket to Spain and decided to live by the dice for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t let the dice decide anything important. That would be stupid. I just let it dictate the little things like which places I should travel through and in what order (as it tuned out, it was Alicante, Benidorm, Murcia, Granada and Malaga, in that order), and when I got there which tapas bar I should I stop at, which hostel should I stay in, and whether or not I should hit on the cute American tourist with the flower in her hair. Nothing remotely negative happened, apart from the cute American tourist with the flower in her hair saying no. But even that wasn’t a total blow-out. The two of us got talking to a Spanish gypsy girl called Estrella (Star) and I took her home instead.

Playing the dice was a liberating experience, and I spent most of the time strolling through the sunshine wallowing in a carefree attitude sadly missing from my daily life. But at the same time, it was slightly unnerving. I wasn’t in control of my life anymore. Something else was, some higher force. Call it what you want; fate, destiny, the Cosmic Joker, God, whatever. After a while you begin to wonder what path you are on, and why. Is it really all random? Or is there some kind of plan involved? Interesting times, indeed. It’s also kind of dangerous, in the sense that the dice allow you an excuse to be reckless.

Why did you do that stupid thing? 

Because the dice told me to do it.

Ironically, it was Tim Southwell, writer and one-time editor of Loaded, who said:

“A man without responsibility is like Genghis Khan.”

Luke Rhinehart is the pseudonym of George Cockroft, who has written numerous books and essays, including several other ‘Dice’ books. The original, first published in 1971, has attained cult status, and been published in over 60 countries. In 2012 he pranked his own death, the mentalist, but in reality is still going strong at the age of 83. Throw a dice for him. You won’t regret it. Actually, you might. But that’s part of the fun.

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Trigger Warning #6

I am pleased to report that my short story, Little Dead Girl, is included in Trigger Warning #6deadgirl-945x945As you can probably gather, I wrote Little Dead Girl when I was in living in China. I tried to convey some of the isolation and disassociation you feel when immersed in a different culture, and the surreal sense of  unreality that permeates everything you do. The artist who illustrated the story, John Skewes, captures the mood perfectly.

Little Dead Girl was yet another story based on one of my fucked up dreams, probably inspired by the evil Little Emperors I was teaching at the time. Believe me, some of them deserved to be kicked down a flight of stairs or three. To this day, I can still remember the dream vividly, and it still gives me chills.

You can read Little Dead Girl for free HERE

 


Wales Euro 2016 The Impossible Dream | americymru.net

The dream is still alive!

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Read the piece below to see why.

Source: Wales Euro 2016 The Impossible Dream | americymru.net


Something to Declare?

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Today is Chinese New Year, 2016 being the Year of the Monkey. Therefore, I think it’s time for another weird China story from the vault.

On September 11th 2011, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (which was nerve-wracking enough in itself) I made the journey from Wales back to my ESL teaching job in China. After getting a lift from my dad to Cardiff Central I got a National Express coach to Heathrow airport and then endured a gruelling 10 hour flight to Shanghai Pudong, where I had to get another bus to another airport in Shanghai so I could make a connecting internal flight to Changsha city, capital of Hunan Province. As you can probably imagine, by that point I was tired, stressed, and not in the best of moods.

I dragged my 24 kg suitcase to check-in at Hongqiao, where a nice young Chinese lady slapped a sticker on it and sent it through an arcane-looking X-ray machine. And then an alarm went off. Uh-oh. A couple of burly ‘security operatives’ appeared and whisked me away to a little side room where my suitcase was waiting, sitting on an oversized metal table. One of the security people motioned to a monitor where several ‘suspect’ items were highlighted, and told me to open my suitcase. He then put on some rubber gloves and proceeded to rummage around in my personal affects, placing several of my possessions on the table for further scrutiny.

The first was a police-issue extendable baton, bought for 20 RMB from a street seller in Changsha the year before. Whatever your opinion on this, in my view living alone in a foreign country where laowai (foreigners) are often targeted, necessitates some form of personal protection. Besides, it was pretty cool.

“Can’t have,” said one of the young customs officers.

“Okay, no problem,” I replied, sheepishly. Fair cop, guv.

The next item was a 5-inch switchblade knife with a retractable spring-loaded blade, kept for the same reasons as the baton (although this one doubles as a handy household tool). They are illegal to own in some places, and certainly illegal to carry. The customs officers opened the blade and admired it for a few moments, tested it was sharp enough, then stuffed it back in my suitcase and told me it was fine.

What? Are you sure? I wanted to ask, but of course didn’t. Besides, things were about to get weird. The next things pulled out of my suitcase was a meagre collection of paperback books.

For reference, the titles of these were as follows:

Horns, by Joe Hill

Breathless, by Dean Koontz

Full dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

Bookie Wook 2, by Russell Brand

Country Driving, by Peter Hessler

As the security personnel picked their way through the pile, flicking through the pages and breaking the spine on at least one (I hate that) vague notions ran through my mind. The Chinese government dislike Peter Hessler, an American who lives in China and writes almost exclusively about his adopted country, and often ban his stuff. Could this be the problem? Or could it be the fact that in 2008 the Chinese government banned ‘horror’ (whatever that means) in reaction to Steven Spielberg pulling out of his role as advisor to the Olympic committee on political grounds?

“Why do you have so many books?”

“I like reading.”

“Really?”

“Really. Why else would I carry so many books half way around the world?”

The customs officer considered this and, apparently satisfied, moved on to the next item, which was a pound of Cheddar Cheese.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a pound of Cheddar Cheese.”

“What is it used for?”

“It’s cheese. You eat it.”

“When?”

“Erm, whenever you want.”

He made a ‘yeah, right!’ face, picked the cheese up and started bending it and sniffing it. ‘Did you pack this yourself?’

“Yes I did. I packed my suitcase myself, and this is definitely my cheese.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“About what?”

“The cheese.”

“Yes, I am quite sure this is my cheese. Is there something wrong with it?”

“I’m not sure you can take this on the plane.”

“Why?”

“No why.”

“So I can take a knife on the plane, but no cheese?”

“Knife no trouble in suitcase.”

“So will the cheese be trouble in my suitcase?”

“Maybe.” He gives the matter some thought, stroking the few wispy hairs on his chin.

“Look, I would really appreciate it if you let me take my cheese on the airplane. Of course I will put in my suitcase, and not get it back out until I get to my apartment.”

“Okay. We trust you.”

I hurried off and hid in the departure lounge before they changed their minds. Angry, confused, and bummed at losing my baton, but happy I got to keep my books and cheese. Happy New Year, China.


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