Category Archives: Travel

Tucson, Arizona

Here in the UK, the dreadful shooting in Tucson, though powerfully tragic, is a distant atrocity, far away in cultural as well as geographical terms. We look on horrified through that odd hue all American TV footage shares and in particular, however sad we feel, I think sometimes the distance wrongly allows us to accept our lack of understanding. Even the accents on local reporters accentuates that gap. It has similar resonance to the murder of Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan – although rendered bigger news by the dramatic dominance of the USA over our culture (and by how awfully commonplace ideological murder is in Pakistan).

Reeling today, like everyone, I’m convinced it is far too easy for us to sigh and dismiss Tucson, Arizona as some near-alien place of hate-fuelled violence, to fall once again into the heartbreaking pajorative British trap of believing this is ‘normalcy’, that “Americans are stupid and/or dangerous”. You can smell hints of it in even the most sympathetic or liberal of UK newscasting today. Especially when even America itself, hurt and trying to gather perspective, is describing Arizona in such generalised, very negative terms.

This is so damn wrong. Today I need to write this: I’m a middle-class lefty Brit and (at least until the Coalition this year was catalyst for a protest rennaissance) I have long found far more opportunity to talk politics, ideology and social issues in measured terms in the USA than here in the UK, especially with younger people. Whatever their background (though I accept I come into contact with more white, privileged people than other kinds), in my experience it is a complete fallacy to write off yanks – including those away from the two coasts – as dumb or disinterested or isolationist. It is a sceptical (and stupid) mis-reading of sincerity, ambition and indeed cultural language.

And I need to write this: Tucson, Arizona is one of the most beautiful, welcoming cities I’ve ever visited. I haven’t been a lot, just passed through all-too-briefly, in the usual way as touring musician type. Yet for me it is the city of the Airplane Graveyard; beautiful little underground collective-run party shows; of Calexico; being driven up into incredible local desert by publisher Dan; of servers in Mexican cafés who hug spirit into you like a big sister when you leave their diner (in an Amma sort of way, not a Milf sort of way). In San Francisco I gigged with lush, clever prog-folk band Seashell Radio from Tucson – who immediately, unhesitatingly offered strangers a place to stay the second they found out we were coming to town. Albeit in a remote Internet-nurtured way, these are people and places I love and miss.

But I won’t also forget one aftershow conversation in Tucson with three young punk guys, last year – especially vivid and uncomfortable reflected in the light of this tragedy. They were atheist, anti-war, anti-racist and at their core socially progressive. Not trots/commies as we’d understand it – not so tax friendly, much closer to a Libertarian viewpoint – but they had no time for (no interest in) the GOP, religious extremism, FoxNews, big business or any of the reactionary mush. Yet at the same time, a key issue of liberty for them was the Second Amendment: the entire crew each owned guns, could use them comfortably and passionately believed in their right to carry one for self defence. This wasn’t boasting to the Limey – just one part of a broader conversation – what did make them boast excitedly was the bands they’d seen and roadtrips they’d done. The gun stuff was matter-of-fact, an attempt to explain. It was the single clearest social difference I saw between these Tucson guys and, say, southern Californian stoner kids of similar attitude and taste, who’ve (dickheads aside) never seen a gun in real life except on the belt of a cop or school guard.

I don’t claim any generalised presumptions about this, it was just one conversation at one gathering. And I remember being shocked and even, to a certain extent at the time, persuaded – if not of the rightness of it then at least of their sincerity and belief in the ‘right’ without ill intent.

But, no.

Tucson is not ‘to blame’. Deep down I know Palin, Beck, Limbaugh and O’Reilly aren’t ‘to blame’ either, although the cumulative effect of FoxNews’ relentless rabble-rousing rhetoric and persistent repetition of violent metaphor while encouraging direct action needs urgently addressing. No, it is the availability of, love for and culturally endemic pervasiveness of guns that is ‘to blame’, in as much as it is the major fulcrum that turns anger and murderous intent in disturbed and alienated people into actual murder.


not so bad

Last night, half-listening to – without watching – one of those TV programmes where bratty errant Brit kids are sent off to unusual camps run by caring Christian Americans…

What would happen if you tried to make today’s young generations fight the First World War? The thought is hilarious, beyond impossible; you’d get laughed at and resisted and ignored completely, with no amount of state or legal persuasion having any effect. And that’s good. When people suggest national service or say “we need a good war” (or even offer less militarised ideas such as civic duty or national community service) as solutions to the ‘problem’ of youngsters today, it has the opposite to the desired effect with me: reminds me that I’d rather see generations of venal, selfish (or at least self-aware/self-absorbed), materialist hoodie kids loping around the place, than the sort of generation who picked up guns, abandoned their families en masse and got on boats and planes without question, to go kill foreigners ‘for their country’.

Yes they’re admired for heroism and our kids miss out on that. But overwhelmingly, the vast masses on all sides were valueless cattle fodder who put themselves through the worst hell imaginable for unexplained ideologies and feuds, to prop up monumental injustices and inequalities of old, massively exploitative systems that they didn’t understand. The little shit with an iPod up too loud on the train doesn’t seem so bad.

True, there are serious, real problems at the extremes that need sorting out and rolling back; drink and drugs and knives, willful ignorance and burgeoning nihilism.

But I don’t think we ought to wish away fiery independence, or strong sense of self-worth, or noisy exuberance, as buffers to our ridiculous modern world.

And true, it’s worth looking back to those times for lost skills and humility as life gets harder.

But I don’t think we ought to over-worship the humble, thrifty, quiet, devoted, loyal, faithful, monstrously stupid motherfuckers who, when the aristocracy demanded, blindly shouldered the burden of killing that was World War One.

January 2011: Unjazz piano recitals – a call for venues/hosts

November sees my final bunch of Love Is Not Rescue gigs with the ‘Words Fail Me’ tour. (If you’re a promoter up for doing a gig on that tour, please contact asap)

Then this coming winter ‘between records’ I’ll (finally) release the improvised piano album Unjazz which I’ve worked on for the past year. It’s done and will be compiled/mastered in the next few weeks. So in January 2011 I want to book a run of small & unusual ‘recital’ shows to perform improvised piano live.

Are you interested in putting on one of these gigs? I’m looking for peoples’ homes, small arts or community centres, unusual spaces, village halls, church halls, galleries, whatever.

The dates are: Tues 18 Jan –  Mon 7 Feb.

The rules are:

1. I just need a real, good, in-tune piano.
2. I want the tour to be as freeconomy as possible: especially if you can feed me / put me up, the fee will be ‘much lower’ than normal. If you have a lovely idea for a recital but you’re concerned about cost, please get in touch anyway – I primarily want to have some fun playing in a different way.
3. Gigs without PAs / unamplified pianos are totally fine, preferable even.
4. I don’t expect a big audience! This will be an hour’s improvised recital, then max 3-4 actual T-T songs at the end to say ‘thanks for listening’. Also, I can’t imagine Unjazz getting big reviews or many Radio 1/XFM plays! There will be a nice poster though, with your gig included, that I can send you some copies of.
5. Either private parties or public gigs are fine.

So that’s the score. Got a possible recital for me? email:

Thanks a lot. x

My 11 most despised ever Desert Island Discs ‘luxury object’ picks

If you live down a well with no radio, on Desert Island Discs famous/important people pick eight pieces of music they’d take to a desert island. Then at the end of the programme they pick a book* and a ‘luxury object’, meaning something that won’t help them escape or communicate with the outside world but will improve their stay on the island.

My 11 most despised ever Desert Island Discs ‘luxury object’ picks:

Gok Wan – lip balm
What a spluttering gasm of fool. Mind you, the number of fashion and media thickies who’ve picked one or other named brand of beauty product makes me want to throw up.

Anthony Julius – San Pellegrino water on tap
Because a familiar tasting brand of springwater is just that tiny bit nicer than, say, completely new water such as an actual spring. Or learning to de-salinate.

Piers Morgan – a cricket bat
No ball or stumps, nobody else there to bowl to him, just a cricket bat. Perhaps he’ll roger himself with it. Several other people have taken complete cricket sets but they’re usually smart enough to include a bowling machine.

Vince Cable and George Michael – an Aston Martin
Huh!? On an island with no roads? This isn’t Top Gear, are you just going to sit in it?

Ruthie Henshall – a jar of Mayonnaise
Aw Ruthie, you’re a genius. One jar. No fridge. Catching and cooking your own food. Two weeks later, driven insane wishing over and over again that you’d picked something less stupid.

Pen Hadow – a six inch nail
Almost impossibly brilliant. I have no idea why he wanted this, perhaps he just got bored doing the interview? No hammer, either.

Antonia Fraser – strings of false pearls
What an absolutely stunning fucking psychedelic numb-nut.

Paolo Coelho – a trip around the desert island on Concorde
And in one fell swoop, I travel from being completely disinterested in Paolo Coelho to wanting to stab him repeatedly in the face with a blunted, slightly rusty model of that aeroplane. He wants a flight on Concorde around a small desert island?

Jan Morris – a hot water bottle
It’s a desert island Jan, not Snowdonia.

Fred Hoyle – a big photo of a lot of people at a race meeting
I know it was a long, long time ago, the Internet hadn’t been invented and he’s a man from a different age. But this is just shit.

Sir Aaron Klug – a pile of mixed Greek and Imperial coins
Mind you, I don’t actually know who Sir Aaron Klug was, perhaps he made beautiful intricate steampunk statues entirely out of ancient coinage.

By the way, since I was trawling Desert Island Discs archives, here’s:

My 10 favourite Desert Island Discs luxury object art thefts

Dame Stephanie Shirley – Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child

Mary Beard – The Elgin Marbles
Presumably to stop any chance of Greece ever getting them back.

Colin Pillinger – a picture of Clifton Suspension bridge
Almost made it into the top section it’s so daft, however I have to accept it’s a nice bridge.

Posy Simmonds – the Crown Jewels
Hahahaha. She’ll probably use them as dildos. Cornelia Parker gets an honorary mention at this point for somehow getting away with asking for a solar-powered vibrator. AND that was back when Sue Lawley did the interview.

Monty Don – Rembrandt’s Hendrickje Bathing
I really thought Monty Don would’ve picked something less aesthetic, more grubby and real.

Jack Vettriano – Francis Bacon’s Triptych May-June 1973
“Please sir, I *am* edgy”

Christopher Frayling – The V&A
Because one art theft just isn’t enough. What a greedy guts!

Christopher Ondaatje – Justin Deranyagala’s The Blue Nude

Bob Champion – a bronze statue of the racehorse Aldaniti
Again, nice.

Arthur Scargill – the Mona Lisa
I fail to understand why Scargill would pick not only a painting but such a boring shit one, surrounded by minging tourists.

Ps. I found three particularly sad ones:
David Walliams – gun to shoot himself
Nigella Lawson – liquid tamezepan, to give her the possibility of a ‘pleasant exit’
Stephen Fry – a suicide pill

*as well as the book of their choice, they’re given The Complete Works Of Shakespeare and The Bible, or occasionally an alternative religious book of their choosing. Although several guests have picked Darwin or Dawkins as their book choice, so far nobody has tried to argue that they should get this *instead* of the religious book and still get another book.

what augmented reality can do for real reality

In a conversation with Anth Melton a couple of months ago about augmented reality, Anth said something that turned my view of the technology on its head. It’s stuck with me, got to be shared and he won’t be bothered, so here goes.

We tend to come at augmented reality from the point of view of the benefits ‘within’ it, ie. what it does for you once you’ve got your Google Goggles or iSpecs on and you’re wandering around a world you’ve programmed, seeing a range of content and adverts picked out and filtered for you. But Anth suggested we should regard the development of AR from the other direction, from a town planning / eco-improvement perspective. Perhaps it offers an incredibly powerful tool (or at least impetus) to sort out the real physical world. I honestly haven’t heard this perspective on AR anywhere else and it amazes me, the more I think about it, it’s almost Mayer Hillman counter-intuitive.

You know the way that sometimes urban spaces look suddenly, unexpectedly beautiful if you look up above the ground floor? The truism that if you’re walking around a shoddy town centre, overcrowded with consumers, full of advert hoardings and with every building covered in shop signage, that the buildings themselves are actually gorgeous? You just have to look slightly upwards – to the first floor and above – to get smacked in the face by how lush these streets of varied historic architecture are, especially at a quieter time of day. For me Oxford Street and in particular Charing Cross Road are like that early morning, when there aren’t the usual bucketloads of numpties. Brighton is like that too because we have ramshackle, alleyway architecture which fades into the background when the town is rammed brimful of tourists and shoppers.

So what we do is migrate all extraneous commercial and social signage onto augmented reality, provide everyone with the means to view it when needed, then enjoy an improved real world that we can drop in and out of as suits. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two months, imagining the extent to which the exodus online of commercial industries could go hand-in-hand with renewal of (both urban and rural) spaces. Someone needs to get the ball rolling with a trial space.

Pick an area, such as a small progressively-minded town. Then digitise as much commercial traffic and transaction as possible, not simply to improve its efficiency or make the same advances everywhere else is trying to make, but with a conscious aim of ‘cleaning up’ the physical world. Trial this small town free of any advert hoardings or roadsigns, which are all in a town-planned augmented reality space. It becomes illegal to drive a car without your council-supplied AR iSpecs on.

Go nuts. Hoodied yoof gets hold of special AR spraypaint apps to graff up the ARscape. Gig promoters and theatre managers flypost and billboard their shows in the same ARscape as newspaper sellers posting up their headlines. The only dogs you’re allowed to walk around town exist in AR, so the shit is deletable. Political campaigns and letterbox junkmail are in that space too. Parents can limit what their kids’ glasses pick out, so that they’re not exposed to the more adult-oriented promotional material, while similarly filtering the childrens’ adventure games out of their own AR.

Meanwhile we can switch civilisation off and opt out, temporarily or permanently as we feel, choosing to breathe in an uncivilised alternative.

Just for a start, out a little challenge to all the hi-tech digital conventions (that may be inevitable anyway): run your events with no physical invasion of the space you’ve descended upon, other than the people themselves. Imagine South By Southwest 2012, not a single leaflest, nor goodie bag, nor poster. Just hundreds of geeks in shades, knowing slightly more (and deliciously slightly less) than the rest of us.

Anyway, I liked it. Only downer is, it reminds me of the paperless office that never happened. But never mind, it has staved off post-tour blues for half a day.

the right kind of tired.

It’s left me queasy in the stomach and cut-up and physically very knackered but I had a brilliant, totally different day today: up on the steep-sloped Sussex downs, clearing back brush and cutting it down to the roots for the Sussex Wildlife Trust. The company for whom I write charidee fundraising guff organises a staff volunteer day and invited me to get in on some rural hard labour action. Couldn’t resist. The SWT also has more seasoned volunteers who work every week on clearing miles of the valley. So far it’s taken four years. But they regularly chuck groups of slack-handed city corporate types and students up there as well for much needed fresh air. Voluntary? If Michael Caine is going to bang on about national service (pay your taxes mate, contribute properly yourself before you start barking opinions on sorting the kids out) then what about making this kind of environmentally sound contribution a compulsory part of the curriculum? Or the whole curriculum? But, in the words of Ronnie Corbett, I digress. Apparently the staff at Brighton Amex went along with a huge Waitrose picnic hamper, packed beer instead of water, were totally fucked up by lunchtime.

Anyway, the work involved chopping and sawing brush away from its roots, creating huge thorny balls of unhooked plant, roughly the size of a small cottage, then rolling them down to the bottom of the slope like a giant snowball, where they were chucked onto a big bonfire. Basically, since the war and mixymatosis in the 50s, no animals have grazed the southern downs properly. Now the whole thing is becoming a National Park, they’re trying to recapture what downland should be like. First get rid of the overgrown nonsense, then bring the animals back to graze. SWT have their own sheep and cattle already on the job – however apparently regular farmers can get paid to allow their livestock to graze on the downs.

If you know Sussex, we were up behind the white cliffs of Lewes.

While I was there, sawing away, the details of next year’s single, album and tour all got remarkably smoothly ironed out and fell into place during an email conversation between the guys at ITB and Xtra Mile. It was weird because the normal music industry organisational discussions all took place with me joining in on email while actually rolling around in sheep shit and getting thorns in places thorns should never ever go. I even got the iPhone covered in rabbit droppings at one point. Although it was tempting just to stop and concentrate on music things, I would’ve looked a right dick sitting on this gorgeous piece of empty downland tapping away at my phone.

Now, I’m the right kind of tired. Don’t get it very much, certainly not at home. 95% of my life, my brain gets tired by the end of the day but I haven’t really exerted myself. Even on tour, when we’re carrying gear around or performing or what not, it’s not truly heavy exercise – and comes in small doses. But spend a day doing reasonable (not even particularly extreme if I’m honest) physical labour and the kind of tired I feel at the end is so much better, so much healthier and more balanced, it’s a stark reminder the depth of the koyaanisqatsi we find ourselves in most of our days. I don’t watch Hugh Fearnley-Wotsit very often because of how much he loves to eat everything alive. But I hadn’t realised he was behind the land-share project, where people who have spare land let other people make positive use of it. Genius. Let’s connect younger, hipper companies and collectives either to the kind of volunteer projects I sweated on today or, even better, get them involved in sharing land and putting it to good use.

A campfire micro-tour circuit. Create a series of spaces across the country where small gatherings take place through summer to share unamplified music, like tiny miniature folk festivals. Keep them responsible, fewer than 50 people, nothing like an actual festival, and base the whole thing around a campfire. Make it a “between ‘proper’ festival” tour circuit. Include stand-up and storytelling and non-stage theatre… but make it tread lightly, take its litter home and don’t fuck up the land. Could be epic.

So anyway, I got home as inspired as I was cream crackered.

why Vauxhall Astras suck arse

I’m hunting for a new car rental place, ever since Brighton Budget on Lewes Road shut down. It’s sad because they were great lads. I got so regular they used to let me grab a car, drive off, no money or paperwork and I’d pay when I got back days or weeks later. They were a touch, um, UKIP, but never minded me. Much missed to be honest, I got cleared by the Sussex cops to join a gun club with one of them (!) but never found the time to go.

For my tour I’ve rented a Ford Focus from Brighton Thrifty, paid up-front online. Except when I showed up to collect it, they gave me a Vauxhall Astra. The small print said ‘Ford Focus… or similar’ and I was in a hurry, so I didn’t argue, just took it and hoped for the best. Now I’m sure it is ‘similar’ in stature/price-range to a Focus – and I don’t know much about cars beyond driving them – but the Astra is just total clenching shit by comparison to a Ford, regardless of Henry Ford’s nazi history. Fucks me off! All the things wrong are tiny on their own but add up to a fat whole, especially with a lot of driving to do over a period of weeks.

I can’t see the indicators or fuel gauge because they’re obscured by the steering wheel. Add to this the unreliable indicators that sometimes stay on when you think you’ve switched them off, plus a very quiet ‘tick’ and the result? I continually have to scrunch down, every time I accelerate out of a junction, to check whether I’m still indicating or not.

Because I can’t see the fuel gauge I’m habitually using the ‘miles left to empty’ on the digital display menu instead. On the Astra this display menu is incorporated with the CD/radio information but for some unknown godforsaken reason, you can’t switch between items on the menu when the CD or radio is actually on. Why on earth would they do that? Surely that’s extra work for a programmer / electrician to make something palpably worse!?

So I’ve been using the manual mileometer on the dash rather than the shitty digital display to calculate my total trip mileage – which is fairly important on a tour for accounting. But when I left the car unused for a day off, the motherfucker reset itself to zero. I’ll have to ask Thrifty what the overall mileage is when I take this wheelbarrow back.

The seats are another piss-up-a-rope. It’s a 3-door and the front seats fold down and forward easily enough, however to raise them back up to normal again, you have to lean down and pull the lever under the seat to the front as well as the handle on the side. Talk about finnickity, especially when you’re doing it a lot to get gear/people in/out of the car. The seats are an odd shape for the car too, they don’t seem to fit properly, so sometimes they get caught. An utter fucking pain.

The doors are unwieldy, long and low so that even getting in and out is more effortful than the Focus. I have no scientific comparison but it feels like the blindspots are massive compared to the Focus as well. I’m missing people moving in certain places and having to lean around a lot more often.

Initially I liked the tinted rear windows until I realised they’re not tinted enough to actually conceal anything. wtfp.

And the straw that snaps the camel’s cock is, I can’t even fit my guitars in the boot properly. In a Focus, even in a Fiesta, I can squeeze at least the acoustic in the boot, so it is hidden when I park. This tour, both guitars and my borrowed keyboard are having to come into every hotel and can’t be left even for a few minutes because it’s so obvious there’s gear there.

The drink holder (and there’s only one of course – passengers can hold their own fucking coffee) is in the stupidest place I’ve ever seen, right between the seats but really far back so you have to stretch your arm round at a weird double-jointed angle to grab your latte.

Even the fuel cap is pissing me off: it’s an old fashioned loose screw-up one, so you have to put  on the roof while you’re filling up, inevitably resulting in an embarrassing chase across the forecourt if it’s windy and the risk of just losing the little shit. It’s the 21st century and they’ve got the same fuel cap as a 1970s Renault 4.

There’s more, so much more, but I keep forgetting bits. A general point: every time I’ve driven in the USA the car has a digital compass on the dashboard, so you know what direction you’re going in. This massively helps if you’re navigating through a town, even with maps. I don’t want to SatNav and lose all my (already pissingly small) navigational ability, I want to use maps. If cars had a compass in there too, mapreading would be 10x easier… or is that one just me?

So there you go: give the Vauxhall Astra a miss and get the Ford Focus. I’m not being endorsed by Ford, haven’t talked to them or anything (though hi, fancy giving me a free car to drive around Europe in? I’ll shut up about your founder’s fascist past!) but touring solo in a car, you need a haven as well as just an A-To-B device, you need to love it and feel comfortable whatever the scenario. I’ll never knowingly hire an Astra again and if Thrifty – who were otherwise perfectly charming, efficient and good value – can’t guarantee the car I ask for then they’re off the list.