Saturday, May 31, 2008

My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 3

Part 3: Bathing trunks

Evening entertainment isn’t a strong suit for Sri Lankan hotels. At least, it wasn’t at our hotel. And, if I’m honest, ineptitude wasn’t just restricted to evenings. Various amateurish, though wholly endearing and enthusiastic, performers were inflicted on us morning, noon and night.

At lunchtime we were serenaded by a Sri Lankan Mariachi band called the Bentota Bees (or something like that). Imagine the scene … three old men in enormous sombreros singing to you in Spanish when all they speak is their native Sinhalese and their guitars are cheap and a bit soggy. They were out of tune and desperately out of talent. That’s what we faced over our cuttlefish stew or ‘chicken parts’. Yup, chicken parts was one the intriguing menu choices one lunch time. And you couldn’t fault the honesty; that’s what it was. With no attempt at finesse, butchery or filleting, several chickens had been smashed up – apparently with machetes or lump hammers – and chucked into a salty, spicy curry. It tasted great but it looked like roadkill (as an aside, I did once see something called ‘Beast of Chicken’ advertised on a menu in London’s Soho … but I digress).

The Bentota Bees were a curiosity, but the magician they foisted on us one evening was unforgivable. Accompanied by a cassette tape that played nothing but TV show theme tunes – I distinctly remember the theme from The Waltons - he performed a succession of tricks, most of which we’d all seen before. His music, and the lights, cut out regularly due to the evening power outs. To make matters worse, his technique was so poor that we could all see clearly (when the lights were on) how he did things. None of his card tricks worked at all, a problem compounded by his confusion between Clubs and Spades, but, to his credit, he just carried on oblivious of our laughter and growing sense of unreality.

Another night we had a snake charmer. He had a large and lethargic python that he let everyone hold (for a rupee or two) and five cobras in baskets. Clearly, all had been de-fanged and were very old and they sleepily swayed around to the fakir’s commands. All through the performance, a small and annoyingly yappy dog growled and pranced around the baskets. The beast belonged to an obnoxious Polish woman with a smile like a slapped halibut whose lower body was three dresses larger than her top. It was as if Kylie Minogue had been spliced at the waist to Hattie Jaques. She was a very odd shape. Maybe that was the source of her constant scowl and snippy manners? She’d apparently come on holiday with three fit and attractive young men her age. So maybe she was just tired?

We couldn’t quite figure out how she’d brought the dog with her. How had it got through quarantine? Its name, apparently, was Gonad.

Our guide Linton had worked out an itinerary for us for a two day expedition. Firstly, we were going to Pinnawela to visit the Elephant Orphanage. Then, we were going on to Kandy, the older and first capital city of Sri Lanka for an overnight stay.

We didn’t get off to a great start. A huge and filthy pig elected to lie in the road in front of Linton’s aged dormobile/ caravanette/ whatever it was and resolutely refused to budge. It ignored being poked with sticks. It spurned our attempts to shoo it away with frantic arm movements. It yawned at our shouting and multi-cultural swearing. But as soon as someone waved a chicken part at it, it was off and running like a derby winner. With a judder and a clunk or two as the vehicle's ancient air conditioner sprang to life, we were on our way. But before we’d got even five miles, we had another animal obstruction-type problem ... but this time with an elephant.

Elephants are still used as heavy plant machinery in Sri Lanka. They are used in construction, demolition, forestry and haulage. And they have a pretty good life. They are pampered and looked after by their mahouts like vintage cars. This one was taking a rest having dragged a couple of logs through a village.

The love that Sri Lankans have for their elephants is abundantly evident at the Elephant Orphanage. It was created in 1975 by the Government Wildlife Department to cope with the ever-increasing number of elephant calves whose parents had been killed for their ivory. The ivory trade has all but been eradicated but deaths do still occur – often because of land mines. The far north of the island is still gripped by civil war between Sri Lankans and Tamils. When we visited the orphanage, it had some 65 elephants, some of which had been born there.

The conditions at Pinnawela are as close to the animals’ natural surroundings as they can make them. The elephants roam free and have formed into natural herds. However, there is little wild food for them so they are fed daily. The calves take several gallons of milk and Dawn got the opportunity to feed one of the youngest. They are also walked, twice a day, down to the Maha Oya river to bathe. We were in time to watch this extraordinary event.
Trust me, it’s pretty scary standing in a narrow street as a herd of 65 elephants thunders towards you excitedly. Dawn and I backed nervously into a doorway and watched with some horror as the elephants bashed against the shanty-built wooden shops which wobbled and creaked alarmingly. At one point, an adult three-legged elephant (a landmine victim) seemed to get knocked off its balance and loomed towards us. We closed our eyes and wondered if our travel insurance covered 'Acts of Elephant' but it recovered in time and was soon running as fast as the others to get to the cool water.

We took a table at a restaurant overlooking the river so that we could watch them having fun. They used their built-in super-soakers to splash water about; at each other, the mahouts and us. They lay down in the fast-flowing current and were scrubbed clean by their handlers and seemed to absolutely love every minute.

We took our leave and headed on towards Kandy. The roads were little more than dirt tracks and wound through a landscape mostly made up of rice fields. It had recently been the monsoon season and the fields were lush and green. Water buffalo are still used for ploughing in these rural districts and, in-between jobs, they lolled around in deep puddles and pools, mynah birds picking the parasites from their backs. At Paduka we were shown a working rubber plantation and got to see the white sticky latex being collected from the scarred trunks. Then, at Pugoda, we stopped at a brick factory to buy fresh passion fruit and guava. The factory consisted of a few families from nearby ‘Brick village’ gathering wet, sloppy terracotta mud and pressing it by hand into moulds made from wood or old tins. Then the bricks are left to dry in the fierce sun. It is a combination of these bricks, bamboo, any old salvaged pieces of wood and palm leaves that are used to make houses locally.

At Maligawila we got to see one of the biggest Buddhas you’ll ever see. It was carved out of the local limestone and dates back to the 7th century. More recent and much more massive was the concrete Buddha at Dambegoda. It’s absolutely huge (about 35 feet high) and is called – if I’ve spelled it right – the Avalokitheswara Bodhisattva. I may not have got the right place name either - my notebook is unusually soggy at this point and all of the writing has blurred into a blue haze.

Mr Buddha was very much on our minds as we finally arrived at Kandy. Apart from the enormous white statue of him that was watching us from the top of a hill overlooking the city, the whole place is dedicated to the great prophet. At the centre of town lies a huge temple and deep inside, hidden inside rooms and chests and reliquaries decorated with gold and ivory lies Sri Lanka’s most sacred object.

We’d see it in the morning.
Next: Temples, toilets and turtles

Oh, grow up Stevyn ... honestly ...

Three more books that I thought I'd mention about the whole designer toys/urban vinyl thing. The first (the small one at the bottom) is an excellent overview produced by MTV Overground and simply called Toys. It's by Jim Crawford and has some great interviews with several top toy creators.

The seminal work on the subject is the beautifully packaged Full Vinyl: The subversive art of designer toys by Ivan Vartanian. It's a complete history of the genre and includes, again, some great interviews plus glimpses of the original artwork that inspired the toys.

Finally, not a catalogue or an overview but a guide to creating your own plushies (soft designer toys) by Linda Kopp. Plush-O-Rama: Curious creatures for immature adults is a wonderfully clear, easy-to-follow guide to starting your own brand of soft toys including patterns and advice. It also features some excellent designs by the likes of Jenny Harada, Lizette Greco, Grace Montemar, Rachel Chow and Jason Carpenter, Rosa Pomar and Beck Wheeler.

Who wants a Care Bear when you can have Llorie the Bipolar Cloud?

The galleys have arrived

In another one of those exciting little moments on the road to being published ... the galleys for Joined-Up Thinking arrived this morning. These are the first proofs of how the book will finally look, typeset and page sorted. And they look great! Really classy.

I now have a couple of weeks to go through them with a fine-toothed comb to find the final typos before it goes off to the printers. A professional proofreader will also be doing the same thing.
The day has started well. I'm sure I'll spoil it by driving a nail through my foot or pushing the house over or something.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Two mistakes

Seen earlier today inside a teaching establishment in London ...

... and why Dawn doesn't let me do a lot of DIY. We've been building a huge decking area in the back garden for a week now (evenings after work). On the last nail - the very last bloody nail, mind you - I missed and whacked my thumb instead.

Ouch. It's very sore.

Giving it all away

I was very lucky as a child in that I had a string of enthusiastic, creative and inspirational teachers. I also had any number of old duffers, bullies and people who should have been in an old people's home, but time and my rose-tinted specs have pushed them aside. It all started in primary school (in the UK, that's aged 4-11) when I had a fairly bonkers head teacher called Geoff Helmore who was fiercely Cornish, could bellow out a song like Brian Blessed and who took part in all kinds of dramatic events, not the least of which was playing the dragon during the Hal-An-Tow.

Every May 8th in my home town of Helston, Cornwall, is Flora Day. It's a huge festival - the narrow streets are crammed from wall to wall with thousands of happy revellers - and it's a big draw for visitors every year (lots of photos here at Graham Matthews' Helston History site). The day has its roots in pagan Spring festivals and consists of a series of traditional dances through the streets (and houses) that all follow a proscribed route. It's something to do with ley lines I suspect. Every schoolkid takes part and the various dances are miles long like a huge conga line. The Helston Town Band splits into two halves; one at the head, one at the tail and both out of earshot of each other (that's how long the lines are). The people in the middle of the dance hear snatches of both, depending on wind direction, and have to constantly readjust their footwork to match the conflicting beats. Anyhow, I digress.

The day starts with the Hal-An-Tow, which wakes the town up. It's a musical, shouty, drum-beating, whistle-blowing riot of dancers, singers and actors telling the stories of various saints defeating dragons and devils. But these are newer lyrics added by Methodist ministers in the 19th century. Hints of the earlier song are still there in the chorus:

'Hal-an-tow! Jolly rumble-O
For we are up as soon as any day-O
And for to fetch the Summer home,
The Summer and the May-O,
For Summer is a come-O
And Winter is a gone-O'

... accompanied by the violent shaking and waving of foliage. In recent years the Green Man - the ancient symbol of pagan tree-hugging England - has wormed his botanical way back into the act. I'm still digressing aren't I? Right, Mr Helmore played the dragon, slain by St George. Hoorah. We got there.

Geoff Helmore was just one of many teachers at Parc Eglos School (the name means 'Field of the church' in Cornish) who pushed us to develop our artistic sides. I was only at the school for a couple of years, having recently moved from Penzance where Mr Luke - my teacher at St Paul's County Primary - had inspired in me a love of science and Mr Paltridge had taught me to sing to choirboy competition standards (I won several) and also got me living and breathing music. As mentioned in a previous post, he also had me playing women in all the school plays (it was an all boys' school) - Perhaps I was prettier than the other boys? I definitely had the fluffiest hair.

After leaving Parc Eglos, I moved to Helston School (now Helston Community College) where I stayed until I was 18. And it was here that I met a number of teachers who would change the way I thought and worked forever. Foremost among them were Fiona Wagstaffe and Judith Lassiter (English), Mike Stephens (Biology), and Phil Howells and Arthur Andrews (Art). Mr Andrews, in particular, gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I've ever had. It went something like this:

Never be afraid to give your work away as it makes you more creative.

At the time, I can't say that I fully understood what he was getting at. Giving stuff away? How could I build any kind of a career on that? But now, I get it completely. And he was absolutely right.

I presume that this advice is something that creative types have been bandying around amongst themselves for years because, in 2003 - more than 25 years after I'd left school - I picked up a book by Paul Arden called It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be ... and found the very same advice. Arden, a hugely successful marketing and advertising whiz, put it this way:

'You will remember from school other students preventing you from seeing their answers by placing their arm around their exercise book or exam paper. It's the same at work. People are secretive with ideas. 'Don't tell them that, they'll take the credit for it'.

The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually you'll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish.

Somehow, the more you give away, the more comes back to you.'

As I say, it was some of the best advice I've ever had. Other than 'Don't eat yellow snow' that is. What Andrews and Arden were both saying is that a creative person produces work for the pure love of creation; the true artist is someone who writes or paints or sculpts or composes for themself and for no one else. If others like it, that's a bonus. And if you create lots, why keep it to yourself? Some of it may sell. Most of it probably won't. So why not share it?

On this blog, I post a lot of older stuff - holiday remiscences, descriptions of places, short stories, poems, songs - and guess what? People have approached me to do work based on what they've seen and read. My blog has become a kind of showcase for my writing. By giving stuff away, more has come back.

A few years ago I did some work for gratis for the Save the Rhino charity. Consequently, I was invited to the first Douglas Adams memorial lecture given by Richard Dawkins (Douglas was a patron of the charity), where I met Stephen Fry for the first time. Stephen later endorsed my book and, undoubtedly helped me to sell it to a publisher.

See how this works?

As another example, I did some free artwork for the UK branch of International Talk like a Pirate Day, a day when we all dress like Johnny Depp at work to raise money for important charities like cancer research, AIDS research, the Red Cross etc. As the direct result of me doing the poster, I was approached by Scholastic Books to be the official artist for the 2006 Autumn National Children's Book Fair (see brochure above). I also did some pirate illustration work for a charity called Osteoporosis 2000. All paid work that came directly from an act of pure philanthropy.

The more you give away, the more comes back to you ...

Trust me ... it's good for the soul and the bank balance. You make contacts you wouldn't have made before, you even make new friends and, most importantly, you become so much more creative. I'm currently working on a couple of screenplays. There isn't a single element in either of them that I've used in any previous rejected or unwanted screenplays.

I rather like the fact that I can still work like that.

Five Blogs that make my Day

I'm delighted, chuffed, humbled, happy, grateful and honoured to have been nominated for the 'Five Blogs that make my Day' award. My thanks to the lovely Willow for the compliment. Now, the rules for this award are:

1) Write a post with links to 5 blogs that make me think and/or make my day.
2) Acknowledge the post of the award giver (Thanks again Willow!)
3) Tell the award winners that they have won by commenting on their blogs with the news.

Blimey. Lawks a Lordie. Cripes. There are so many blogs I could put forward here! How to decide? I'd include Willow's blog, Lavinia Ladyslipper's blog and also Blog Princess G's as she's always good fun. Or Punk in Writing, or Gienna or Michele Cwiertny or The Writing Factory. All good reads, every one. But some of them have been suggested before and all are outside the UK. So, I think, it would be nice to add some British flavour to the awards. So, here we go:
1. Stephen Fry. The most English Englishman ever to don the tweedy jacket with leather elbow patches. Being a polymath, national treasure and workaholic, he doesn't blog as often as we'd all like him too. But when he does, it's great reading. A pioneer of the 'blessay'.
2. John Soanes. A great writer, criminally undiscovered. He views life in much the same way as I do; inquisitive, fascinated, a bit skewed, a little twisted but always with a good dollop of humour. A thoroughly nice chap too.
3. Walls and Bridges. (Joel Meadows) Joel has almost single-handedly kept the art of serious comics critique alive in the UK with his creator-owned Tripwire magazine, now appearing as a luxurious yearly annual. Always a good read.
4. Craplister. I can't help it. For some reason, really bad music makes me laugh. It's all the more funny when the artist has been utterly earnest in their execution (a word that should be applied in a different context to many of them). This site is run by a guy called Mick - that's all I know - but he posts some real ear-bleeding gems. If you're not phased by Scandanavian language barriers, you could also visit Adolph Preussen's blog which also features more of the same dross.
And last but not least ...
5. Made you Look - Exene's Blog of Wonderful Things. I know almost nothing about the mysterious Exene. All I do know is that she surfs the web looking for things that are bizarre, cute, brilliantly designed or just plain odd. A fabulous blog to visit if, like me, you enjoy seeing bizarre, cute, brilliantly designed or just plain odd stuff.
So there you go. There are so many more I could mention - check out my tumescent links list on the right hand side of this page - but I'll end by mentioning Ricky Gervais' blog about writing, directing and starring in his first Hollywood film - This side of the truth. It's hilarious.
Thanks again for the award!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Curse you Dave Gorman (again)

Dave Gorman's I see faces spreads its net further ...

My friend, the delicious Liz from Bourton-on-the-water in Gloucestershire, sent me this one today. It was spotted by her seven year old daughter Oleena while Liz was hoovering the house. They've nicknamed it Darth Kirby.

And it suddenly occured to me that I may have beat Dave Gorman to it (I'll have to check the date of his first photo - not that it's a competition you understand)! Way, way back in 2006, on one of my very first blog posts, I described finding a curious face in a urinal. I really did (read it here)! Here's the photo. I called it Dunny Mouse.

Lastly, I had to post this picture ... it's the horrible anticipation of the viewer that makes it work of course.
Grate fun!

Previous related posts: Gorman-aghast! Curse you Dave Gorman

Saucer of milk, GM Chairman's table ..

I have no idea how real this is and make no apologies if it's completely fake. It just made me laugh when it arrived in my inbox today. As someone who uses both Microsoft and Macintosh, I can relate to this so well ...

At a recent computer expo (COMDEX), Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry and stated, 'If General Motors had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.'

In response to Bill's comments, General Motors issued a press release stating:

If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:

  1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash ... twice a day.

  2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.

  3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway/motorway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue. For some reason you would simply accept this.

  4. Occasionally, executing a manoeuvre such as a left turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.

  5. You'd have to press the 'Start' button to turn the engine off.

  6. The oil, water temperature, and alternator warning lights would all be replaced by a single 'This Car Has Performed An Illegal Operation' warning light.

  7. The airbag system would ask 'Are you sure?' before deploying.

  8. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in ... until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key and grabbed hold of the radio antenna/aerial.

  9. Every time a new car was introduced, car buyers would have to learn how to drive all over again ... because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.

  10. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, was reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive – but would run on only five percent of the roads.
Ha!

Beryl Cook (1926-2008)

I've just heard the news that artist Beryl Cook died earlier today peacefully at her home in Plymouth with her family. She was 81.

I first became aware of her work in the mid-1980s when I was a police officer in London's West End. In the quieter moments, I used to enjoy wandering around the art galleries in St James's and Bond Street, occasionally chatting to the gallery owners and some of the artists. Favourites included Chris Beetles' gallery of cartoon art and illustration (still a favourite haunt to this day) and the Portal Gallery in Dover Street. The latter was a quite a small place tucked around the corner and just a diamond's throw from the garish delights of Asprey's the jewellers. It always featured some wonderful contemporary art. But Beryl Cook's work caught my eye immediately.
Her work was naive, it was natural, it looked like I could do it (although appearances can be very deceptive - you try to replicate her style and technique) and it was dripping with humour; larger ladies enjoying a night out on the town, chubby nudists, cheating Crown Green bowlers ... Beryl had captured it all. It was as if she had taken the traditional British saucy seaside postcard, mixed it with a dash of Benny Hill and the Carry On films, thrown in some Ealing comedy and then whipped it all up with a topping of Victoria Wood wit. It was just stunning. I wandered into the gallery for a closer look and I decided there and then that, one day, I'd own one - not an original of course; even back then her pictures were commanding thousands (a current Beryl Cook original will set you back anything up to £50,000 - a price that, sadly, will now increase due to rarity). A few years later, I bought the hardback book of her work - The Bumper Edition - and it's been a source of entertainment ever since. Here's the cover of the paperback edition. Click on it for a link to Amazon.

It took me a few years but eventually I got my Beryl Cook. It's a quality giclee print, signed and numbered and called Elvira's Cafe. Dawn bought it for my 40th birthday and I just love it.

It's the little touches that make it special: the saucy look in the server's eye; the look of the sausage sandwich eater that says to the begging dog 'Fat chance, Mutt'; the contented newspaper reader enjoying a tea before work. Beryl was a painter of the ordinary and the mundane. She was fascinated by real people and real places and more of a social commentator than a fine artist, which is maybe why the fine art world never really took her seriously. However, her work was loved by us common folk. The Queen reportedly liked it too (Beryl painted several portraits of the Queen and family) and awarded her an OBE.

I shan't spend any more time retelling her life story (which is as brash and hilarious as her pictures) as plenty of other websites and newspaper obituaries will be doing that over the next few days. I will just say ... thanks, Beryl. You made me laugh. A lot.

My condolencies to her family.

Artist Photograph: Chris Capstick/ Rex Features

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Little Green Men? I think not.

We seem to be going through something of a UFO sightings glut at the moment. Mark Parsons, an old school friend of mine who now lives in Houston, Texas and who works in the aviation industry, sent me this news story by email yesterday:

'HOUSTON - Federal officials are working to find out just what happened in the sky over Houston this morning. An 'unexplained object' was reported to be flying toward Continental Flight 1544 (a Boeing 737) when it was 11 miles east of Bush Intercontinental Airport after takeoff this morning. The pilot called the tower to report an object near the plane. There are no details yet what the object could have been. The plane was at about 5,000 feet at the time of the report and the flight continued on to Cleveland. Sources told 11 News that the flight was met by Continental officials and FAA investigators to interview the passengers and crew.'

Then this from my native Cornwall recently (as reported in The Sun):

'Following our story of a UFO seen off Cornwall on December 29 we were inundated by calls from people who had similar things all over the country. Some claimed they had seen alien spacecraft off the same bay in Cornwall where our original UFO was snapped. A man who asked just to be called Edward snapped a strange shaped object which appeared to be 'buzzing' a Navy ship. He said: "I was taking photos of the ship when a helicopter from it took off, flew west then landed back on board just a few minutes later. It was only when I blew up the photos on my computer that I realised what the helicopter had gone off to take a look at. It was in the exact same bay as the one featured in The Sun earlier."

American holidaymaker Ian Mulford also believes he snapped a UFO at virtually the same spot as Edward. Ian said:"I was taking photographs and did not see anything unusual at the time, but after reviewing the pictures I found something very unusual in the background of a picture of one of the family. It didn't look like any normal aircraft so I am sure it is a UFO".’

Er ... well, if it's an object that was flying that cannot be identified, it would be a UFO, Ian. That's what UFO stands for. But that does not automatically mean spaceships or alien visitors, does it? That's why the acronym is suitably vague and noncommittal.

Then, just last week, the British free commuter newspaper Metro reported on the UK's 'secret X Files'. Basically, a whole bunch of sightings reported to the Ministry of Defence over the years are to be released for public consumption. The MOD are quick to point out that there is 'certainly no evidence that alien spacecraft have landed on this planet'. Despite this, the files include physical descriptions of incidents, statements of witnesses and drawings of supposedly alien craft and their occupants. Here are three of them:

Oddly humanoid, wouldn't you say? Even the bat/werewolfy chap is an upright bipedal humanoid with binocular vision and bilateral symmetry. The other two look like the sort of kids I see hanging around on housing estates all over London. In fact, I think I may have a vinyl figure of the middle one. He's called Ezra (above right) and he's from the In-Crowd series Young Ruffians by James Jarvis.
But to be serious for a moment ... how many more of these silly sightings will there be before we finally accept that aliens are not visiting us? And even if they are, which seems unlikely for so many different reasons not the least of which is the immense distances between us and the nearest stars, the chances of them being remotely humanoid are next to nothing. It just doesn't make any sense.
If there's one thing that 100 years of evolutionary and genetic study has shown us clearly, it's that nature is a capricious mistress. We are quite amazing creatures. We are the result of an extended series of chance advantageous mutations that have taken place over four billion years. Can you even begin to visualise just how big a number four billion is? To put it into perspective, just one billion (that's one thousand millions) seconds ago it was 1977. One billion minutes ago, it was the year 106AD and the Roman Emperor Trajan had just conquered Dacia (Romania) and Nabbatea (Arabia). One billion hours ago, it was 114,155BC and human society was in its Stone-Age infancy. We still shared the planet with our Neanderthal cousins (and would do for another 75,000 years). Now imagine how long one billion years is. It's a very, very, very long time and we've had four billion years to get where we are today ... and all by sheer trial and error. As the late great Stephen Jay Gould so beautifully put it, if you could 'rewind life's tape' and play it again from scratch, humans would very probably not be the end result. So how likely is it that humans developed on other worlds? Frankly, it's so close to impossible as to not be worth trying to calculate.
And why is it that I can vaguely wave a digital camera in the direction of something and get a crystal clear picture of it ... while every UFO photo is rubbish?
Next you'll be telling me that, despite continuous negative results from all of our advanced radar, sonar and photography technology that there's a monster in Loch Ness ...

Vinyl Mania

Throughout the past 401 posts I've occasionally mentioned urban vinyl, designer toys and street art in general. I wrote a proper essay back in September explaining it all here.

Well, I just thought that I'd mention two books that really cover the subject comprehensively: I am Plastic by Paul Budnitz and Dot Dot Dash by Hendrik Hellige, Matthias Huebner and R. Klanten. Large format and beautifully illustrated with thousands of photographs, these books aren't cheap I'll admit (around £25 each). But, the way I look at it, £25 is about the same cost as a takeaway meal for two these days so, when I'm watching my weight and a slave to the salad bar, why not treat myself with the money I would have spent on Dhansaks, Chop Sueys or Thin Crust Hawaiians?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Jesus saves, I spend

A video from my favourite album of last year - St Vincent's Marry Me. Sublime. Annie Clark is a genius.

400 not out! (And My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 2)

Yes, this post marks my 400th piece of bloggery. Where has the time gone, eh? And what better way to celebrate than with a cup of tea, high in the mountains of Sri Lanka ...

Part Two: Little England, Big Lizards

“It is very much like England up here”, explained our guide.
“You haven’t been to England have you?” I asked.
“No”, he said.

That much was obvious. Even with the windows open, the interior of the van was like a sauna.

Nuwara Eliya, known locally as ‘Little England’, is Sri Lanka’s mountain region and home to its thriving tea plantations. It is a little cooler than the rest of the island but the humidity still makes everything feel sticky. We'd had our first experience of this during the night. The bedsheets felt worryingly moist and I woke in the morning with hair like a mad woman's breakast. It didn't matter what I did with it - the air was so full of water that for my entire time on Sri Lanka, my hair took on the texture and quality of cooked vermicelli. The humidity even affected our money; the local banknotes always felt damp and grubby. We understood that the government was experimenting with plastic Rupees, but we never saw any.

On the subject of money, it did take us a few days to cope with it. Having dragged our spending money through two different currencies (Sterling and $US travellers' cheques), we ended up with thousands of Sri Lankan Rupees but had no idea how much they equated to. For the first two or three days, we were tipping people with medium-sized bills not realising that that we were giving people enough money to feed their family for a year and put the oldest child through university. Not that I would have minded that. It's a very poor country. We'd been told to take some 'luxury goods' with us for the children. By 'luxury goods', I mean pens and pencils. I took hundreds with me and Dawn and I dished them out to schoolkids whenever we saw them. They were so grateful, bless them. It's humbling to see someone so excited over a Biro.

Anyhow, after breakfast, we engaged the services of a local guide (much better than the ones the tour company provide) called Linton to take us to Little England. As a serious tea drinker I was keen to see where my favourite tipple came from. The road we travelled to get there was steep and narrow and wound around the mountains like a helter-skelter. Sri Lankans drive on the right, a left-over from the days of British Imperialism. But that was the only similarity to British roads or road usage. It was quite alarming to look out of the window and see how far we would fall if we veered off the half-made road. And that seemed a real possibility as there were no crash barriers and Linton insisted on overtaking slow-moving vehicles on every blind corner. Some mysterious and hitherto unknown physical principle allows Sri Lankan drivers to do whatever they like as long as they hold their hand on the horn. It didn’t matter that the road could only accommodate one emaciated gentleman on a bicycle – the Magical Horn would somehow allow us to pass safely by. At several times, I swear I felt the edge of the road crumbling beneath our wheels. My heart was in my mouth for most of the two hour journey. Thankfully, to take my mind off things, there was much worth seeing.

As our journey took us up above the tallest trees and bamboos, I could make out small brown monkeys - bearded langurs - sitting in the trees feasting on the abundance of fruit and foliage. At one point, we passed a tree that looked as if a hundred or so black umbrellas had been hung there by an enterprising but insane brolly salesman. Obligingly, one of the umbrellas launched into the air as we drove away allowing me to get a great shot of a Fruit Bat for my album.

Eventually, we arrived safe and sound at the top of the mountain. Praise the Horn.
We took a tour around a plantation. Well, it would be rude not to, wouldn't it? They are so proud of their Ceylon tea. We saw how it was harvested - still all hand-picked mostly by women - and then left in piles on marble floors to ferment for several days. This brings the caffeine and tannin out and gives tea its distinctive pick-me-up. Then the tea is loaded into large hoppers and dried and graded by size. The larger leaves (the freshest tips don't break up quite as much as older leaves) become the top quality tea. The slightly smaller leaves become loose tea. Disturbingly, we were told that the dusty chaff that falls out of the bottom of the sorting machines is what they sell to the tea bag companies. I'll never drink PG Tips again.

It was informative and interesting and culminated in a tasting session where I was presented with a cup of traditional Ceylon Orange Peko. I drink my tea black anyway, but the liquid tar they offered me was blacker than any tea I’d ever seen before. Utterly opaque and as dark as sin, even light seemed to be sucked into it. I took a sip and suddenly found myself wishing for a lemon. Or some sherbet. Or anything to take away the bitterness that puckered my lips and sucked my cheeks in. It felt as if a vacuum had formed in my mouth.
“It is good, no?” said the plantation owner.
"No", I replied, smiling.
He smiled back. I smiled again in a polite English ‘No but I’m not going to make a fuss’ kind of way and then headed for Linton's van, praying for something sweet and wet to rescue my ailing mouth as soon as possible. I even considered sucking on a banknote. Thankfully common sense (and a dubious yellow stain) prevented any such thoughts from becoming a reality. I suspect that their soggy currency is an ecosystem in its own right.

However, my prayers were answered during our perilous trip back down the mountainside. Spotting a roadside shack ahead, Linton asked if we fancied some fresh fruit. We nodded enthusiastically and he pulled over to the edge of the road. And by edge, I mean edge. There was no grass verge, no hard shoulder, no lay-by. If I'd got out of the wrong side of the van I'd have plunged the sheer drop into the lush forest below. While he negotiated the price of a jackfruit and some bananas, I found myself staring at the fruit sellers' hut. There was something altogether odd about it. And then I realised what it was. This little Sri Lankan jerry-build was floating on air. Its frontage butted onto the edge of the road but around, behind and beneath it, there was only air. Yet the shack hung there, defying the laws of physics and looking like some impossible creation of M C Escher. Thinking perhaps that the heat (or a tannin overdose) was causing me to hallucinate, I walked a little closer to the abyss. The hut wasn’t floating on air at all. It was worse than that. It was standing upon five slender legs made of bamboo. They were oly as thick as a man’s leg and must have been at least 50-60 feet in length, each one made by lashing several long lengths together. The whole place was supported by sticks. It looked impossible. Even though I know that bamboo is as strong as steel (they use it as building scaffolding all over the far East), it still looked like a house standing on flamingo's legs.
We ate the jackfruit and threw the seeds to another troupe of monkeys that hung around us looking for tidbits. Jackfruit look like large warty green Rugby or American Footballs. They grow like a parasite (maybe they are?) on the sides of trees. When split open, a jackfruit has the same kind of internal structure as a pomegranate; loads of seeds, each one inside a tasty, juicy bag. With jackfruit, the seed is the size of a Brazil nut and its bag is yellow. It's slightly chewy, like the texture of ham, but tastes like a cross between a melon and a banana. Lovely stuff.

Linton then took us to an Ayurveda centre for some traditional Sri Lankan massage and a spice garden. We're so used to seeing pepper, cumin, cardomom, cinnamon, coriander, vanilla and other spices in jars that we forget that they all start life on a plant. I was particularly taken with the cinnamon trees. The spice we use - either in the form of sticks or powder - is the bark of the tree. As the expert spice gatherers strip the bark and roll it for drying the air is filled with the most gorgeous sweet smell that makes you crave apple pie and custard.

Stopping once more to buy freshly roasted cashew nuts and red bananas (Sri Lanka grows four kinds - two yellow, one green and one red. The red banana is very sweet and is generally exported for use in food flavouring. So now you know why it's that colour), we sat and watched a glorious waterfall at Ramboda. Then we watched a pair of German tourists hastily pulling off their shorts and t-shirts to escape the leeches that had fastened onto them when they'd gone too close to the falls. Apparently, this particular species hangs around on wet leaves and attaches itself as you pass. Linton carefully removed the remainder while the sheepish tourists apologised for their impromptu striptease. I said I didn't mind at all. Oh, did I mention that they were both ladies?

Back at the hotel, a barbecue was in full swing. There was a huge fish on the coals with a mouthful of teeth to rival the entire Osmond family. There were steaks and burgers and some kind of chicken-based sausage (Aha! So that's what we'd had on the plane!). Most Sri Lankans are Buddhist and vegetarian. The remainder are Hindu and do not eat beef. Consequently, we never identified what the steaks were ... other than tough and undigestible. The burgers were better. We decided it was best not to ask what they were made from. But the fish! Absolutely wonderful as was all the seafood we tasted during our stay.

As we ate, large monitor lizards the size of labradors (if they crawled along the floor) waddled among us, begging for food. They turned their noses and flicking tongues up at bread and fish but seemed to really enjoy the burgers. We named them McLizards.
The sun was going down so we all headed to the beach to sit on the white sands and absorb the beauty of an Indian Ocean sunset. Almost every little seashell I picked up contained a tiny hermit crab and the beach was littered with dead and broken coral. Apparently, the reefs offshore have suffered at the hands (arms?) of a foreign invader - the predatory Crown of Thorns starfish that mooches about among the reef hoovering up the living coral polyps. As a result, the reefs are dying.

The sun eventually dipped below the horizon, painting the sky with broad strokes of orange, red and blue. Night fell very quickly and we headed back inside, surrounded by fireflies. Eschewing the curious pleasures of the world's worst disco ('Ultimate Power') - the DJ hadn't quite learned how to mix between two records and invariably chose ones with different time signatures ... and he also had to cope with the frequent power cuts that happen every night - we headed upstairs to hide from the mosquitoes and play 'Who's been drinking my water' with the geckos.

I counted eight in the room tonight. They're multiplying.

Next: The Elephant Orphanage and a Bloody Big Buddha

A matter of perspective

There are several exceptional artists out there who can achieve amazing photorealism. There are others who are masters of manipulating perspective and making us see depth that isn't there. When you find artists who can do both and who then create public art it can really freak you out.

I don't know who the artist was for this floor (it's apparently from the Worth1000 Photoshop site) ... but could you walk into this bathroom?

I do know of Eric Grohe however. He is the guy who painted the extraordinary mural on the side of the Niagara Shopping Mall that birds kept flying into. The problem's now been solved with fine netting. But you can see why a bird would be fooled. Remember - this was just a flat, featureless, white wall before he started painting.

Here are some of his other pieces. Again, bear in mind that these are FLAT walls. For more, visit his website here.

Finally, I must mention the amazing anamorphic pavement art of Julian Beever. From above his pictures look curiously stretched but, from the right angle, they trick the eye into seeing a third dimension that simply isn't there. Like this:
Visit Julian's website here. And if you want to know how he does it ... I have no idea! He must just have that kind of visualising skill. Here's what the actual picture 'Baby Food' looks like ... followed by what it looks like from the right angle (with added baby). Fantastic.