Twenty Five Years and Counting

September 15, 2021

Yet another year without cigarettes. Twenty-five years today, wow.

It might seem tedious to keep harping on this year after year, but frankly I think giving up smoking after 35 years of two-pack-a-day slavery to the habit was the smartest and bravest thing I ever did. And I know for a dead certainty that I would not be here writing this today if I had continued smoking the way I did.

So I’ll keep celebrating my freedom, year after year!


Buying A Cheap Vote

September 10, 2021

I was waiting at the bus stop this morning with a few other people, most of whom were clearly pensioners. Along came two guys from the local seniors’ home who loudly proclaimed that they had just voted.

“We voted for the guy that’s giving us a $500 bonus pension,” said one of the new comers. “You’ll all be daft if you don’t vote for him, too,” said the other.

Most of the audience nodded.


And Then The Blitz Began

September 7, 2021

The German Luftwaffe attacks against London known as the Blitz began on the afternoon of September 7, 1940 — eighty-one years ago today.  They went on essentially uninterrupted for 79 days, and expanded across Great Britain.  Here can be found the Guardian‘s report of the first night’s bombing.

The German airmen apparently have orders to loose their bombs whenever they feel they are over the area called Metropolitan London.  Certainly 90% of all the damage done was to non-military objectives.

About 43,000 civilians died during the Blitz. Almost 140,000 more were injured, and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed. Even when the Blitz itself was over, the Germans continued to bomb London  for several years.  My parents spent much of their teen-aged years running to air shelters, sleeping in the Underground stations.  My mother went to the school which suffered the first V2 rocket attack.  Thousands of younger children were evacuated from London to “safer” country towns.  A dozen or more years later, when I was a kid in the early 50s in west London, all my “playgrounds” were bomb sites that still hadn’t been rebuilt.

Those of us who are lucky to live in North America have no conception of what this could be like. Imagine, perhaps, the events of 9/11 happening all over the country every day for two months and more. And all of this just one lifetime away from us.


Forty-Two Years On

September 1, 2021

In the late fall of 1978, I came to BC to work on a job in Stewart BC. The twin otter I flew in on was the last plane to land for about a week due to bad weather, and it snowed several feet every day.

The local mine up on Tide Lake had recently closed and the tiny town was populated mainly by hunters and trappers. For a city boy from London, it was all very strange.  For Christmas that year, we were sent down to Vancouver for a few days and over the next few months I grew to love both BC and its people.

When my job finished in the following February, I went back to London and then on to Israel where I was under contract for another job.  During that spring and summer of 1979, I decided to move permanently to Vancouver and it was forty-two years this week that I arrived and formally immigrated.  It was just before my 30th birthday and now, passed seventy, I don’t regret the move for one moment.

Thank you Canada and Vancouver for taking me in, making me very welcome, and making my life so much better than it might otherwise have been.


Memoir: Marrakech Express

August 22, 2021

It was 1971 and Ken and I took the ferry from Algeciras to Tangiers. We looked as if we had been on the road for months but, in truth, it had been only a couple of weeks — we had just let ourselves go on the easy road down through France and Spain. A man in his late twenties — which we considered to be very close to middle age and possibly wisdom  —  whom we had met near Barcelona, told us that the Moroccan authorities were targeting long-haired Europeans. This didn’t bother Ken who always kept his hair short.  But here I was on the windy deck of a Mediterranean ferry with half-way-down-my-back-length hair tied up in string and stuffed uncomfortably inside an oversized cowboy hat I had found near Valencia.

When we arrived, the customs officers barely looked at us, stamped our passports and waved us through. But our Barcelona sage had not warned us about the swarm of ragged boys who descend on arrivals, shouting their wares, begging for attention, pulling at sleeves. Most seemed to be about ten or twelve.  I cannot recall any other passengers on the ferry  — although there must have been — and the crowd of boys seemed to concentrate on Ken and I, circling us with their pleading hands and eyes, until we were brought to a stop on the quayside. Ken pointed to one boy indistinguishable from the rest. It seemed to break the spell and the others slowly dispersed.

“Francais?” he beamed through broken teeth.  We shook our heads.

“Am’rican?”

“English”

“Anglais good, very good!” We were following him down the quayside now, toward the intersection where the souk gate led off to the right, and a more ordinary seafront stretched to the left. And all the time he was listing off, in a musical melange of English and French, his perceptions of our wants and how available they might be.

“You want hotel, yes?”

“Yeah.  You know some?”

“Bien sur. Many hotel, many fine hotel for ‘ippy.”  I looked at Ken and Ken looked at me. We had no real idea why we were following this kid, but neither of us had any alternative suggestions.

tabgier-soukBy this point we had reached the entrance to the area of the Petit Socco. Following the child-guide now meant pursuing the unknown deeper and deeper into alleyways that we could never hope to find our way back from.  Not, at least, on this, our first day. But follow him we did, and it was not too far into the market when he pulled us into a building sporting a colourful sign in Arabic and French — “Pension d’Petit Socco”.

The kid did the deal for us. It was even cheaper than we had expected and within a few minutes we were in a room with two mattresses on the floor, no other furniture, and a window onto a rubbish-filled courtyard where a very young girl was struggling to put heavy laundry through an ancient hand-operated wringer.

“You want keef, yes?”  Not daring to voice the thought, we just nodded. He gave us a huge gappy smile.

“Vingt dirham. I return in quarter hour.” He thrust out his hand. Ken gave him the money and the kid ran out of the room. Ken looked at me, and I looked at Ken. What the hell had we done? Would the kid bring the police to bust us?  Would he just steal our money? Shit! What had we done?

The mattresses were dirtier than anything either of us had experienced before. We didn’t need to actually see the bugs moving to know they were there in force. So we didn’t sit down. We stood at the window watching the girl work, smoking the last few of our English cigarettes, thinking our own thoughts of what the inside of a Moroccan jail would be like.

The kid was back in ten minutes. Closing the door, he threw me a huge brown paper bag full of deep green leaves, and a pack of ZigZag papers. His smile, if anything, was broader than before.

“You want girl?  Young girl maybe?  We shook our heads.

“Not my sister.  Honest.  Virgin girl, very good!”

As he said this he looked so young, far too young to understand what he was offering. But he seemed clear enough.   We shooed him out of the room, but not before he had wheedled another 10 dirhams out of us for finding the hotel.  In the end he seemed pleased enough with his morning’s work.

We stacked Ken’s huge back pack against the door.  Then for another ten minutes we stood there, staring at the bag of kif, sure that this was when the police would actually arrive. But our resistance weakened with every passing minute. I took the ZigZags and created a three paper spliff into which I tipped the last English cigarette. In the meantime, Ken had cleaned a small pile of leaf and we added this to the mix. A good tight roll, a piece of the now-empty Player’s package as a filter band, and we were ready. We took turns toking, leaning against the back wall, watching the door, expecting the gendarmerie at every moment. But the kif was good — very good — and our fears gradually drifted away like the thick aromatic smoke.

We stayed in Tangiers for four days, becoming ever more confident in our trips along the steep alleyways and covered lanes that tumble over the hillsides. We explored the Grand Socco, a large square with a permanent market that attracts visiting tribesmen and tourists alike; we tramped the precincts of Moulay Ismail’s minaret which dominates the souk, reveling in the sight and feel of its cool polychrome earthenware tiling;  we even wandered south to the tourist beaches where we leaned on iron balustrades and fantasized about the buxom daughters of German burgher tourists who were obliged to sit on the sand in the wan January sun. But most of the time we sat around outside Café Maroc in the P’tit Socco, just a few steps from our hotel.

Café Maroc was a happening place. It was in the youth of its career as a meeting centre, social club, and bulletin board for the ever-increasing number of young travellers from all parts of the world making their way through Tangiers. At the Maroc you could find a lover, a good deal on dope, a ride on a Harley through Afghanistan, a tip on the best place to stay in Bombay or Katmandhu or St Louis, and, most important of all, friendship and company. You could also get the Hippy Breakfast (a huge omelette and an orange for a couple of dirhams), one of the best tajines in the whole of Morocco and a fine cup of hot sweet mint tea. It was, perhaps, the aroma of heated mint from a score of cafes and market burners that best defined the P’tit Socco.

It was at the Café Maroc on our third day that we heard about the train to Marrakech. I had spent the whole of the time it took to slowly eat my omelette listening to a Canadian fellow’s grand idea of hitching his way around the entire perimeter of Africa, south from Morocco, down around the Cape, up again through Egypt. It was a grand plan fueled by several chillums of calculation. When he left, Ken and I started thinking about what we were actually going to do, now that we had arrived in Africa. I was keen on reaching Kenya somehow, maybe working on a game farm; Ken had his eye on South Africa – he never did have any politics. Nothing seemed too hard to imagine, nothing seemed to difficult to try. Ken walked back to the hotel and returned with his map. Over more tea and another sweet kif spliff, we traced various routes on the map which was so small that sometimes our fingers covered whole countries.

It was at about this time that someone at another table mentioned the train to Marrakech. We waved him over and plugged him for information. He had just returned from the southern city, he told us, and taking the train back had been a trip: cheap and colourful, and a heck of a lot quicker than the trucks he had hitched to get down there.  He couldn’t tell us much more before he was drawn away into another conversation. Ken and I peered at the map.  Marrakech was a long way south of Tangiers.  That was a start.

 

****

When I left England, I wrapped three T-shirts, three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks and some washing gear in my bedroll. In the small Army pouch I’d purchased from a Surplus Store, I kept my money, my passport, and my copy of “Siddhartha”. Ken, on the other hand, had purchased the largest back pack I had ever seen. In it, he crammed enough clothes and camping gear to last him at least three years after any nuclear holocaust. It weighed 40, 50 pounds! By the time we had spent three days hiking through France, he must have realized he had brought too much gear. But, at every stop, he would unpack and re-pack the whole darned thing. I spent our last night in Tangiers lying on my bedroll on the floor — we had stacked the mattresses in the corner — smoking and dreamily watching Ken go through his ritualistic packing. It was if he thought that to pack it differently would somehow reduce the weight. I fell asleep laughing.

We arrived at the station early the next morning only to discover that the train didn’t leave until late afternoon. Ken didn’t want to carry his pack (which mysteriously had lost no weight through repacking) all the way back up to the souk, so we sat in the huge cool ticket area and watched the crowds milling around. At that time of day, everyone looked to be just like businessmen everywhere. It would have been really boring if we had been straight. Sometime around lunchtime we decided to buy tickets.

“E” class was  half the price of third class. In third class, you were able to fight for a seat:  in “E” class there were no seats. The carriage was definitely not a cattle car — it had a full complement of windows. Rather it appeared to be a regular train car with all the seats and fittings removed. We thought we had gotten on early but the carriage was already full. Tribesmen in white shirts and pants, their heads swarthed in dark cloths, carrying ancient long barrelled rifles, sat on wide wooden boxes. Dark robed women squatted amid goats, their eyes and their hands — both moving always — the only visible expression of their personality. And dark-eyed, ragged-kneed kids everywhere it seemed, their apparent malnourishment and bright white teeth a lasting memory. Ken and I stood in the doorway for a long minute, surprised and a little scared, until another group of women and their goats pushed us in from behind.  At the far end of the carriage we found a spot and sat down, trying to claim as much space as we could in the crowd.

It was dark when the train pulled out with a sudden shudder that threw me awake from a sitting doze. Ken looked down at me from his perch atop his backpack. The smell of too many close bodies and goats mixed with the coarse smoke of Casa Sport cigarettes assailed me first. I have always been sensitive to smells. It was not unpleasant on the whole, but there was a lot of it. I fished in my pouch and lit my own Casa, turned around to look down the length of the carriage. A dozen small lamps had been lit as soon as we were away from the station. They swayed in the hands of children or perched threateningly on boxes, throwing a warm, golden light. And as I watched the shadows play across the roof and along the creases of flowing garments, I slowly became aware of the low hum of voices, of muffled snores, of children playing quietly.  I closed my eyes and imagined I was in some transplanted hobo novel.

As the slow night moved on, family groups seemed to close up together, leaving a little more space on the floor.  I unrolled my bedroll and lay flat out on it, snoozing almost immediately with the gentle swaying of the train.  As I was drifting off, I vaguely noticed Ken lay his pack down flat, and rest his head on it.  And then I was asleep.

I’ll never know if it was the sound of Ken’s head hitting the floor that woke me, or whether the youth ran over me on his way to the door that separated our carriage from the next. Whatever it was, I was wide awake and watched as the kid struggled to get Ken’s pack through the narrow door. Ken was still rubbing his head as I swiftly rose and went after the boy. Passing through the now-swinging entrance and gingerly stepping over the gap, I pushed open the door into the next carriage and looked for the kid.  He wasn’t there;  and he had certainly not had time to run the full length to the other end. From the bleary looks I was getting, it seemed that I was the only disturbance the travellers had seen that night. I stepped back into the gap between the carriages and looked out into the dark.  We were travelling quite slowly and as my eyes accustomed to the dark, it looked like the passing ground was flat.  Ken joined me.

“He jumped,” I said.

“Jesus God,” he whispered.

We must have stood watching the dark night pass by for an hour or more without speaking.

 

 


The Petticoat Lane Spieler & The Modern Novelist

August 19, 2021

When I was a lad in East London in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of my favourite experiences was to visit Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday. It was — maybe still is — a great open air market specializing in shmutter; thousands of cheap clothes on racks. But there were also stalls selling everything from jellied eels and junk, to carpets and suitcases. It was always packed.

The modern TV infomercial salesmen have nothing on the spielers down the Lane. My favourite was always the china seller; I could listen to his spiel for hours. He would be selling dinner services and tea sets, and he did it by adding each item one by one to a precarious pile on his stall or, most famously, on his arm. “You also get six side plates,” he’d yell, and somehow add them to the pile. “And wait, we’ll also thrown in ‘alf a dozen tea cups, and the saucers wot goes wiv ’em.”  Eventually, he would have dozens of dishes and cups and plates and soup tureens and sauce jugs in a miraculously balanced heap. And he would sell them all for a bargain price.

It was a great show and one of them is featured at the very beginning and very end of this nostalgic short about the Market:

The whole point of the spiel was to sell the dishes of course, but he did it by showing how clever he was piece by piece. Oddly, I was reminded of this as I read Alvaro Enrigue’s 2013 novel “Sudden Death“, which ranges in time between the conquest of Mexico and the Counter-Reformation period of Europe straddling the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I enjoy erudition and learning new stuff but, in this case, at least through the first half of the book, I kept thinking that the author was trying too hard to show how clever and learned he was by piling one exotic fact on top of another, over and over again. The book is certainly more full of facts than it is of plot.

The link through the book is a pallacorda match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball stuffed with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.  Much of the artist’s early career is covered in episodes, as is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Papal politics leading to and from the Council of Trent.  The book swings back and forth in time and location, and the author occasionally breaks through the fourth wall by directly engaging the reader with twenty-first century concerns.

It took me a while to get into this book. The style, while choppy in narrative, is lively and vulgar and delivered in short bursts. Many of the passages are lyrical and, it cannot be denied, an enormous erudition is brought to bear on questions of art especially. What stays with me most is the view of the Conquest from several Mexican points of view.

When I was in my teens, I always finished up my visits to the Lane with a drink at Dirty Dicks pub. It gave me the time to recover from the excitement of the crowds in the Lane and to contemplate what I did and didn’t buy. Similarly, I think it will take me some time to fully appreciate the quality of Enrigue’s work.


Double-Decker Memories

August 19, 2021

I grew up a Londoner and therefore, almost by definition, I am an admirer of the double-decker bus. My own nostalgia is greater than some, I guess, because for an 18-month period I was privileged to be a double-decker bus driver. One of my standard routes was from Uxbridge to Shepherd’s Bush and back. Interesting days, strong union, lots of brotherhood.

Anyway, I was reminded of all this when I came across this post from Londonist all about re-purposing the old double-deckers.

afternoon tea

buses 2

 

There are a range of city tour buses, of course, but there are also cafes, afternoon tea houses, wedding/drinks buses, a realtor’s office, an oyster bar, a puppet show theatre, and a pizza bar.

Good stuff. I am glad people are putting these wonderful machines to use.


To Be A Canadian

August 18, 2021

Thirty-five years ago today I became a Canadian citizen. perhaps the proudest and most satisfying day of my life.  In about two months from now, I will have lived in Canada, in Vancouver, for forty-two years — much more than half my life.

These lengths of time seem strangely enormous to me looking back because I had had a quite long and interesting life (with wives and children and a career) in England and Europe before I ever came here.  And that previous life — during the fascinating 1950s, 60s and 70s — now seems like a necessary and irreplaceable prologue to what my life became afterwards.

There were seriously important people and things that I left behind; but I don’t believe in regrets because they have no value. Even if I did, I cannot imagine that my life was anything but greatly enhanced by moving to Vancouver.  I am still a proud Brit, an unreconstructed Welsh Londoner, but I am prouder still of being — by choice — a Vancouverite, of being Canadian.


A Real Trip Down Memory Lane

August 15, 2021

Neville, Richard, (1968), OZ 11, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 36p.

Neville, Richard, (1970), OZ 31, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 48p.

You may have to be as old as me — and possibly brought up in London — to remember OZ, one of the greatest magazines that, between 1967 and 1973, straddled the period from the summer of love to the much harder seventies.

OZ exemplified that era so perfectly with sex, drugs, politics, progressive art, and rock n’roll oozing between its covers, eager to be free. It was in OZ that I first became acquainted, for example, with Robert Crumb’s subversive drawings, and with so much more.

I lived then in a suburb of west London where it was almost impossible to find copies of OZ, and so it also became a great reason to adventure into downtown to find a store that carried it.

Now, Richard Neville, the original editor, has made all copies of OZ available online. Marvelous memories on every page.  We are really lucky to have this artifact of a very different time.


Food As Memory

August 15, 2021

In the late 1990s, I spent a lot of time in Bukowski’s, a raucous bar and restaurant at Commercial & Grant that is sorely missed. I went there to drink, to eat, to party, and, just about every week, to shout my poetry above the din of the bar crowd. If your performance could grab attention at Bukowski’s, you were doing really well.

With the likes of RC Weslowski, Shane Koyczan, and Angus (the Svelte Ms Spelt) Adair also performing, I was never the best or the most popular, but I had a wonderful time; and that period of my life was heady and life-affirming and just plain fun.

patatas bravasI am sure my memory has gaps, but it seems to me at this distance that all I ever ate at Bukowski’s was their wonderful patatas bravas, a dish which, when Bukowski’s closed, was lost to me. So it was a joy the other day when I was looking through some food videos on Youtube and came across a patatas bravas recipe from Food Wishes, one of my go-to video chefs.

I made it last night (with some deliciously sauteed chicken) and it was, all modesty aside, just superb: I could eat that sauce with just about anything. More, all those memories of Bukowski’s came flooding back to delight and entertain.

Proust was right.

 


A Great Day To Remember

August 12, 2021

Twenty-one years ago today, at sunset, the Everloving and I stood on the dock at Trout Lake and plighted our troth. There were a few friends with us, we sang “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life“, and we had our wedding supper at Wazubbee’s.

Her mother said it wouldn’t last a year. My mother said it wouldn’t last a year. Just goes to show, mothers are not always right.


Fun With “Windows Security”

August 10, 2021

I don’t know how many times someone claiming to be from “Windows Security Department” has called me but it has to be scores of times. I guess they keep selling my telephone number to the next bunch of scam artists. I used to get annoyed, but these days I treat it as cabaret, a break from the day.

The scam is to get you to log on to a url which, I assume, downloads malware onto your system that will steal your identity or do something equally dastardly.  I have great fun wasting as much of their time as I can.

I usually start by asking them for their phone number; I tell them I will have Microsoft security give them a call to sort out their problem. That used to be enough to make them run away but they are better organized now: they will usually be able to give you a number, often local.  However, today’s chap didn’t know how to parse the number properly. He told me it was “604 – 26 – 30 – 651.”

I then follow up by asking where it is they are calling from.  Today, that was enough for the guy to cancel the call. But often they will be ready with “Vancouver” or “Portland” or whatever.  That leads me to ask whether the hurricane caused as much damage as I’d heard. They know by then that they have been caught and they usually give up.

On a few occasions, I have allowed them to supposedly talk me through what they expect me to do — log on and sign on to the url (which I would never do, of course). At some point I get bored and tell them I am not going through with it, and they usually then threaten to terminate my internet service. I tell them to go ahead, and then say nothing more as I supposedly wait for them to destroy my system.  Usually there is pleading from the other end, begging me to log on, but this nearly always collapses quickly into a torrent of unimaginative abuse before they slam the phone down.

I sip my tea and get on with the day, waiting for the next time.

 


On Matters Medical

August 5, 2021

Yesterday I had to undergo a cardio stress test. I had done the treadmill test before, a couple of years ago, and this time I had a test where they inject chemicals into your body to stimulate the heart to pump as if doing strenuous exercise. All the while, the doctors are looking at pictures of my heart via a sonogram (I believe).

They first look at the heart at rest. Then, via an IV, they deliver the stimulant along with a “contrast” chemical which helps give a clearer picture. Finally, there is another chemical that helps the heart recover its normal non-exercising pace. The whole thing took about forty minutes and — apart from the IV which always gives me trouble because I have “fugitive veins” — was completely painless. The doctors, the nurses, and the assistants were all kind and patient and courteous.

Throughout the procedure I had two recurring thoughts — about anti-vaxxers, and the cost of US medicine.

I have heard and read a number of anti-vaxxers explain their refusal to vaccinate by complaining that doctors wanted to “put chemicals” into their bodies, and they won’t allow that. I wonder what they do when their doctor suggests this kind of test? Do they refuse or are they really hypocrites? And how many of them smoke cigarettes, I wonder?

On the second matter I was contemplating while they were testing me, I noted yet again that this procedure was costing me nothing – not a cent bar normal taxes. The same would be true in the UK and most of the civilized world. I can’t imagine what a US hospital would charge, but I bet I could not afford it.

This year I have already seen an endocrinologist, a kidney specialist (twice), my COPD specialist, and a cardiologist; I’ve had this stress test, and I have a full panel of blood work every two months. Before the year is out I will see the cardiologist, the COPD doctor, and visit the Kidney Clinic at least once more each. Total bill — ZERO. In addition, because I am a low-income senior, my various prescriptions, including a lot of insulin, are fully covered beyond a reasonable deductible.

I’m pretty sure I would be dead through penury by now in the States.


The Quiet Dark

August 2, 2021

I spend some of my waking time with my eyes firmly shut.  I find it peaceful, and it allows me to concentrate on what I want to think about with far less distractions from the outside world.

I shut my eyes through a large number of TV commercials, most TV news, and, indeed, a wide range of general programming.  I shut my eyes when I am relaxing outside on the patio, listening to the neighbourhood. I shut my eyes when I am listening to the radio, when I sit at my desk doing nothing in particular, when I am traveling on my usual bus routes. I am not usually asleep (though I guess it is always worth checking), but nearly everyone who sees me in this condition assumes that I am. Usually I am not.

But I can understand this assumption because almost everyone else spends the entirety of their waking lives (other than blinking) with both eyes resolutely open, and for most of you sleep, yoga practice and prayer seem the only reasonable excuses for keeping them closed. Perhaps you all don’t want to miss anything, or are fearful of the dark, or something.

I really enjoy being awake with my eyes shut. External audio — TV, radio, the street — can be trained to be just one of the thought-threads running through your mind.  Shutting the eyes allows one to focus on the available audio or simply to ignore it in favour of your own thoughts. Visual stimuli, with the eyes open on the other hand, seem far more difficult to overcome or channel.

Don’t get me wrong; I am a painter and photographer: I love and often crave visual stimulation. But there are times when I just need to shut it all out  — and closing my eyes is simple, immediate and always available.  I urge you all to give it a serious try.


The Heat Made Me Do It

August 1, 2021

I am not one for sodas or soft drinks of any kind. In a usual month I drink only tea, water, and the occasional beer. But in the last few weeks I have discovered the inestimable joy of the peach quencher at Timmies.

Tim Hortons launches new Tims Real Fruit Quenchers in Strawberry Watermelon  and Peach flavours to keep Canadians refreshed all summer long!

Don’t want to sound like a jingle or an ad, but it is a great drink — not at all sweet, with a powerful peach flavour, and totally deserving of the name “quencher”.

I know that by summer’s end I will have drunk far more of them than I should. Oh well.


Shooting The Moon, 52 Years On

July 20, 2021

On this day in 1969 I was in Yugoslavia working as a Third Assistant Director on a movie called “Kelly’s Heroes“. I was nineteen years old and having a wonderful time working with the likes of Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Telly Salvalas, and a whole wild bunch of American actors. like Harry Dean Stanton and Dick Davalos.

We were living at the Petrovaradin Hotel in Novi Sad and most nights I joined the Americans in games of high stakes poker. We took over one of the small banquet rooms and several of the hotel staff were deputed to look after us with drinks and food. These games were a useful but expensive education for me; over a few weeks, I managed to lose several months’ worth of per diem expenses.

Apollo_11_bootprintOur game on the 20th July 1969 coincided with the first manned landing on the moon and we arranged to have a black and white TV set up in the room  so we could follow the action.  I remember that, just as Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Eagle and on to the moon, we were in the middle of a game with a good-sized pot of American dollars piled in middle of the the table. We agreed to pause the game to watch the historic moment.

Several of us took the opportunity to stand and stretch for a moment. As I did so, I noticed that the American actors were glued to the TV screen intent on cheering their countrymen while the hotel staff ignored the TV and were all staring at the big pile of money, mouths agape.

It was an unforgettable night.


Celebrating Canada Day?

July 1, 2021

Talk about conflicted!

In a month or so I will have been a resident here for 42 years. I have been fortunate enough to live and work all around the world, and there is no place I would rather call home than Vancouver. One of the proudest days of my life was 35 years ago when I became a Canadian citizen; I cried with joy that day, and I am tearing up now as I think of it.

So far as I recall, I learned nothing about Canada at school other than the death of Wolfe and the bravery of the “colonial” troops at Dieppe. Canada only began to exist for me as a real country (as for so many others my age) when Pierre Trudeau, the patrician-hippy, launched himself onto the world stage and danced around the Queen. When I got a job and first landed here in 1978, Canada was genuinely a new found land for me, so different from the class-bound society I grew up with.

In the last four decades I have tried to learn as much as possible about this country and its history. In the beginning, I was proud that Canada’s treatment of the First Nations did not descend into the genocide practiced by the Americans. Like many others I have been aware for a long time that the Residential School system was a despicable attempt to rob the original peoples of their land, their language and their heritage. That was bad enough, but theft, discrimination, and forced assimilation seemed to be the limit of it. Now, especially now, we know that that might have been the least of it.

The unmarked graves of one thousand children have already been found, and I am certain those numbers will grow by leaps and bounds once proper searches are completed. It is certain already that many or perhaps all of those “schools” — operated by “Christians”, for God’s sake — were in fact factories of death and degradation, designed to eliminate the indigenous population one way or another.

Combined with the ongoing refusal to this day to provide proper housing, education and water to many “reserves”, the legacy of the Residential concentration camp system is a deep and indelible stain on our history.

I am proud to be a Canadian and I love so much about the place and its people. But that stain makes it impossible to sing our praises on Canada Day.


Celebrating Canada Day?

June 24, 2021

Talk about conflicted!

In a month or so I will have been a resident here for 42 years. I have been fortunate enough to live and work all around the world, and there is no place I would rather call home than Vancouver. One of the proudest days of my life was 35 years ago when I became a Canadian citizen; I cried with joy that day, and I am tearing up now as I think of it.

So far as I recall, I learned nothing about Canada at school other than the death of Wolfe and the bravery of the “colonial” troops at Dieppe. Canada only began to exist for me as a real country (as for so many others my age) when Pierre Trudeau, the patrician-hippy, launched himself onto the world stage and danced around the Queen. When I got a job and first landed here in 1978, Canada was genuinely a new found land for me, so different from the class-bound society I grew up with.

In the last four decades I have tried to learn as much as possible about this country and its history. In the beginning, I was proud that Canada’s treatment of the First Nations did not descend into the genocide practiced by the Americans. Like many others I have been aware for a long time that the Residential School system was a despicable attempt to rob the original peoples of their land, their language and their heritage. That was bad enough, but theft, discrimination, and forced assimilation seemed to be the limit of it. Now, especially now, we know that that might have been the least of it.

The unmarked graves of one thousand children have already been found, and I am certain those numbers will grow by leaps and bounds once proper searches are completed. It is certain already that many or perhaps all of those “schools” — operated by “Christians”, for God’s sake — were in fact factories of death and degradation, designed to eliminate the indigenous population one way or another.

Combined with the ongoing refusal to this day to provide proper housing, education and water to many “reserves”, the legacy of the Residential concentration camp system is a deep and indelible stain on our history.

I am proud to be a Canadian and I love so much about the place and its people. But that stain makes it impossible to sing our praises on Canada Day.


Day Trip To M’Hamid

June 22, 2021

It is so hot in Vancouver this week that I was reminded of a really hot day decades ago.

* * * *

Late May, 1971, and I had been living in Zagora, for a few weeks already. Zagora lies close to the indistinct border Morocco shares with Algeria.  Further south, and the last habitable oasis before the Great Desert, lies the village of M’Hamid.   During the months I had lived in Marrakech, I had heard tell that the camel trains to Timbuktou gathered at M’Hamid before heading south for Mali and the Upper Niger.   I was determined to find out.  In fact, I was determined to get to Timbuktou.  To do that, I decided to hitch a ride to M’Hamid on one of the heavy trucks we had seen occasionally head south.

Zagora, an oasis famous in the history of the western Sahara, is a hundred miles or more south east of Marrakech, and on the farther side of the High Atlas.   My friend Ken and I had gotten here by hitching a flatbed truck south all the way from Djema el-Fna in the big city.  We had no idea that the truck would take the steep and curving mountain roads at 100 miles an hour, nor that we would literally have to tie our belts to the truck and then to our wrists simply to hold on as the flatbed careened wildly from side to side.   I was only 21 but I knew right then that I would never be so scared again in the whole of my life.

After the incredible noise and crush of Marrakech, Zagora had turned out to be a zone of peace.  A garrison town, it had a couple of thousand or so permanent residents, a few hundred conscript soldiers, an assortment of Taureg coming to and from the weekly market, and a half dozen hippies.    Ken and I, two Frenchmen and two Dutch girls lived on the south side of town, in a grove of trees along the slow, brown Dra River.  The Dutch girls lived in their VW microbus, while the rest of us slept on the open ground.  During the day we hung our groundsheets in the trees to create shade, and we kept the few groceries we could afford — watermelon, mainly — in the river.

I had left England the previous winter with a small army pouch, a bed roll and thirty pounds.   By the time we arrived in Zagora, I still had my bedroll, I had no clothes but the djelaba I wore, and I had the equivalent of five pounds in dinar.  Life was good:  We ate cheaply and well at the local cafes, drank orange juice by the bucket, mixed with the locals, made friends with the Bluemen, made fun of the occasional Land Rover Adventure Tourists.  We were stoned all the time, from morning til night, each of us having stocked up on the necessary supplies before leaving Marrakesh.   Life was indeed good.  But now I wanted to move on.

The road to M’Hamid was also on the south side of town, bearing off from the river road, the two paths demarcated by a low stone chip wall.   I arrived at the junction in the early dawn.   The view was bleakly magnificent:  dunes, rock slabs and shimmering dust hanging in the sunrise.  I sat down, leaning against the wall, rolled a thick joint, and waited for a truck.

By eleven the sun was high, bright and scorching.  The hood of my djelaba was pulled low over my face giving me the only shade available.   I smoked another joint and watched a local farmer mercilessly beat a donkey about half a mile away.  For the longest time I couldn’t work out what he was farming.  Then, with a flash of kif wisdom, I realised he must be farming for stones.  And all the time he beat his donkey.

I must have fallen asleep because it came as a shock to me that the sun was so low in the sky.  I was sitting in a wide pool of dampness, the sweat from my body soaking my djelaba and the ground on which I was sitting.   I tried to stand up, but couldn’t. I wasn’t sure why, thought it might just be a stiffness from sitting so long with my knees hugged to my chest — the better to create a tent-like space under my gown.  I tried again and my feet just wouldn’t push me upright.  

The faintest tingling in my feet made me look down.  My toes looked like tiny stalks of stewed rhubarb, purple and fat.   While I sat there through the heat of a desert day, the hem of my gown had failed to cover my toes: they were badly sunburned and I had immediate and detailed and horrifying visions of rough amputations taking place at the fort medic’s office.   I gently covered my toes with the edge of my gown and wondered what to do.   Just about that time, Ken and one of the French guys came looking for me.

It was about a mile to our river encampment and they carried me every step of the way.  Once there, they gently placed me in the river so that the heat in my feet could be dissipated in the cool stream.   I screamed at first, but quickly relaxed, lying full length in the water.    Later, the Dutch girls brought me food from the nearest café and made sure I drank as much water as I could.   Even later, we were joined at the riverbank by one of the locals who had become a regular visitor, sharing our kif and telling us news from the outside world.  he listened to my story, a smile playing across his face.

“The caravans have stopped for the year,” he said.

“What?”

“Sure.  They finished last month.  They start again in September.  No one tries to cross the erg in summer.”

I looked at my blackened toes, took another toke and learned another lesson.


Happy Father’s Day 2021, Dad!

June 20, 2021

He has been gone 21 years now, but I seem to speak with him more often these days than I ever did when he was alive.  He was a wonderful man who saved my ass more times than I can count, and was, I now recognize, a marvelously supportive parent; an attribute that I was too dumb to notice far too often when I was younger.