On Carcassonne (Part 2)…

This is a continuation of a slightly longer blog post about a recent trip of mine to Carcassonne in France. You can find part 1 here.

I left off gushing about jousting. It was awesome. That was the Wednesday. On Thursday, I generally just pottered about. I sent postcards, bought trinkets and went on a boat tour of the Canal du Midi. It’s the Panama Canal of Europe, connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. It was rather dull. The Bridgewater Canal is more scenic, and if a body of ‘water’ that oozes through Warrington bests southern France, you’ve got some problems… That afternoon though, I happily discovered my old job had paid me exactly twice what I was expecting as a final salary, so I immediately booked an extravagantly priced guided tour of the Aude countryside. The nice tourist office lady wrote down four different spellings of my name before giving up: “Trop compliqué. In this, you are Alex. D’accord?”

In the evening, I wandered up to the Spanish Feria festival. All the local businesses were running little food stalls, so I ended up gorging myself on tapas from one run by a gymnasium that seemed to have based its costumes on those of the Power Rangers. I didn’t care. They had sangria. I’d only planned on staying an hour or so, but then the band started up. Full brass, strings, funk rhythm section, five rotating lead singers (one, if my rusty French understood correctly, from the French version of The Voice) and even a gigantic bald French conductor. Brilliant. They started out with French songs, then moved into Spanish, then English. Three sangrias in, they played a Stevie Wonder five-song medley that segued into Earth, Wind and Fire. Unreal.

All the fun of the Feria

All the fun of the Feria

I swayed off at midnight on a gentle tide of sangria. I meant to go home, but Carcassonne had other plans. I was sidling past a pub where two musicians were setting up when I saw they were having technical difficulties. Normally, regular Al causes anything electrical to spontaneously ignite by sheer proximity, but apparently Sangria Al is a technical wizard. I fixed it, and as they swayed back into focus, I realised they were the buskers from the day before: an impossibly Dutch-looking couple who looked so alike I assumed they were siblings. But no, Michiel Schotanus and Lisanne de Jong, duo extraordinaire. Insane harmonies. They’d gotten one of only ten busking licenses dished out a year by la Cite, and had come over for seven weeks to camp and to play. They were brilliant, and the fools even let me play a few songs between their sets. When I finished, two things happened. First, the even more foolish bar owner invited me back to play a more fleshed-out set with Mike and Lisanne the next day, and second, a French lady sauntered over and immediately introduced herself rather knowingly as a ‘Desperate Housewife.’ I did my best impossibly possibly Hugh Grant impression until she buggered off. Terrifying.

The final day was the all-day tour. We went first to a village called Villerouge-Termenès to see a castle where the last ever Cathar was burnt at the stake (go Catholic church), and then to a  town called Lagrasse with a 10th century abbey. As we wandered, my guide bemoaned all the tourists, quoting a friend: “the only French people in Lagrasse are in the cemetery.” My tour guide. Irony gods. But then she took me wine tasting, so I forgave her.

King of my castle

King of my castle

The winery was called the Château Villemagne – in Latin ‘the big villa,’ after the Roman house which previously stood there – and I thought we’d get one red, one white, one rosé then be booted unceremoniously out the door. Oh no. I actually lost track of how many we got: before dinner wines, after dinner wines, a specialty called ‘Blood from the Stone’ (tastes like wine mixed with whisky gasoline), identical wines from consecutive years to highlight the subtly different tastes (by this point: not a chance), award-winning vintages: we drank it all. And it was goooooood.

I was tenderly deposited back in Carcassonne in the evening, after which I toddled off to get some food before heading back to the pub. What a way to finish the holiday. By night’s end I was on guitar, Michiel was singing, and a huge ragtag crowd were shouting requests at us in six different languages. I played ‘em, Mike sang ‘em: we were there all night. There was even a pint glass for tips, and Mike & Lisanne kindly (moronically) split it with me. I went to bed forty euros better off than when I’d walked in. I also got an offer of free room above the pub any time from the owner, so long as I play. Yes, yes, yes.

You've never experienced surreal until you're a 19-year old six foot six Frenchman on his last night out before joining the Marine Nationale yells "Rape Me" at you repeatedly. Ohhhh, the Nirvana song.

You’ve never experienced surreal until a 19-year old six foot six Frenchman on his last night out before joining the Marine Nationale yells “Rape Me” at you repeatedly.
Ohhhh, the Nirvana song. Maybe I’ll play that now.

Then I went to bed. Then I went home. Best holiday of my life.

On Carcassonne (Part 1)…

Two weeks ago, I made myself an offer I couldn’t refuse.

If I got the stratospherically-out-of-my-league job I’d applied for, I’d go holiday. Offer comes in? Scour Ryanair website for a place you can pronounce and book it. Same day. No hesitation. Allons-y.

That’s how I found myself at Liverpool’s John Lennon airport last week, skulking past the carryon-weighing fascists with every one of my pockets crammed as full as physically possible. Fuck you Ryanair. Upon boarding, I was immediately (inevitably) seated next the only infant on the plane. It sized me up with its big baby blues – your wellbeing is in my hands, oversized pink man thing – then burped, threw up voluminously all over its mother and promptly passed out. For the entire flight. Had its mother not been covered in milky upchuck, I’d have kissed her for raising such an amenable little human.

I decided it was going to be a goooooooood trip.

La Cite, from the Old Bridge in Carcassonne

La Cite de Carcassonne at night, from the Old Bridge

By the time I arrived I was right proper knackered, so after I checked into my hotel – the Hôtel du Pont Vieux by the old medieval bridge, I recommend it – and some cursory wandering, I took the rest of the day off. I found a brasserie, sat outside in the afternoon sun, ate a crêpe, had a beer, read about a thousand pages of a Stephen King heptalogy, people-watched, had another beer, ordered something desperately French-sounding, eyed it suspiciously, poked at it, tried some, tried some more, devoured it, had another beer, washed it down with a glass of red, then turned in for the night. Joy.

The next morning I damn near levitated out of bed. Exploring time.

Carcassonne itself is ancient. Dominated by a huge medieval walled city that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the place has seen over 2,500 years of history – Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, Crusaders, Aragonese, French, Spaniards, cranky middle-aged American tourists – and it is simply unbelievable. Walls within walls, spires on towers on balustrades on keeps on citadels on taverns on moats on chapels on gates on barbicans. Picture a ‘castle’ in your mind’s eye: this looks like that. Unbelievable.

You beautiful thing

This was just one tiny section of the outer walls.

I started my tour with a circuit of the outer walls, which took a full thirty minutes, before heading inside and doing the same along the ramparts of the inner wall. The city is free to enter – and it is a city, it never closes and is full of real, functioning (extortionately priced) hotels and restaurants – but the citadel, the castle-within-a-castle, cost euros. So, when I came to this section I went all out and paid for a fancy-schmancy audioguide.

I spent the next two hours with the walkie-talkie jammed happily to my ear learning history. As I said, the place has seen lots of it, but at some point the city fell into disrepair. Or it did, until a 19th century architect called Eugène Viollet-le-Duc decided to restore it. His approach was…unorthodox. He did a tad of digging, a smattering of forensic archaeology, a wee bit of looking at old pictures and then – according to scientific consensus – Made It All Up. To be fair, with so much history he could have rebuilt ten castles (the 11th century one, the 14th, the 17th), but he opted for a messy hodgepodge of each. I liked that. History is messy. Aptly, this Viollet-le-Duc chap was the voice narrating via my audioguide. Less aptly, this particular manifestation spoke in an Irish accent (à la Ardal O’Hanlan) which I found delightfully surreal. I spent the rest of the day wandering round the city with Monsieur Eugène O’McLeDucahan whispering into my ear. You don’t need a history lesson about the Cathars from me, but rest assured, it was utterly fascinating. Go Wikipedia that.

After that, I wandered about the city a bit more, silently judging all the buskers I found (more on these later), then started to head back to the exit. This is when I stumbled upon the best thing in the entire city: jousting.

None of the pictures I have do it even a bit of justice, but I believe the above video clip more than accurately conveys what it was like. Jousting! Kick-ass knights, on horses, with swords, and shields, and lances! Jousting! Obviously, it was gimmicky and completely played out for the tourists, but they went at it with such vim and vigour I totally fell for it. Shields splintered on lance impact, there were full-on melee battles, show tricks, stunts, all worked into a mock-dramatic play. At one point, an actor who looked suspiciously like Medieval Bane led a leashed goat out to torture a racked ‘prisoner’ by having it nibble at his bare feet. As the most ticklish man currently alive, I can tell you it looked excruciating.

Cue fanfare

None of these bastards crowned me Queen of Love and Beauty after. Pissed me right off.

I left with the biggest, dumbest, most touristy grin on my face.

Part two of the blog post is here.

On Deansgate Detritus…

For the last six months, I’ve worked at a little place just off Deansgate Locks in Manchester. Deansgate is the main thoroughfare through the city, and is just down from the old Roman fort of Mancuniam, where the city a) was founded and b) takes it’s current name. These Locks serve but one glorious function (and probably have since Roman times): boozery. Deansgate Locks exist only to get we Northern Monkeys utterly, eye-wateringly, leg-shakingly, bowel-looseningly, punch-throwingly, police-arrestingly mortal.

There are lots of bars built into the old railway (now tramway) arches, and they are all pretty terrible. We like them. We would. Between the hours of about 5pm and 9pm they are brilliant – fun, relaxed, marginally decent – but at around 10pm all the BEST people turn up and the classiness level plummets hell-wards. Ferried in from all over the North West on the train, Deansgate is the first port of call for each and every scumbag with a (amphetamine-enhanced) pulse before they head into town, and it gets delightfully awful. Working as I did but a stone’s throw away, I got to see the morning after. Particularly on Fridays, I was going in as some were going home. Or trying to. Mostly people just leave their detritus as evidence of earlier shenanigans. I am a big jessie, so I ended up finding these discarded remnants of a likely-forgotten night really rather depressing.

These were all taken in the space of a week in early July:

1) Lonely soldier

1) “Taxiiiiiiii…”


2) Empty booze bottles in a doorway = final resting place for many a discarded fag-end. If you are American, you miiiiight have to Google that phrase a few times. Safe-search recommended.


3) Gathering. The water cementing its reputation as the lightweight.


4) My guess? Laid down when someone was caught short, then forgotten as they staggered off struggling with their flies


5) One bottle of vodka, three empty cans of Red Bull. Oh what larks.


6) The loneliest of them all. Right by the train station.


7) Green means go (home)! That it is Sainsbury’s own-brand Ginger Wine means it could only have been a truly CLASS NIGHT.

On Blues and Folk Music…

The following article appeared on the Shenzhen Local Music site on June 5th. I’m reblogging it here as I haven’t written anything in five months. Because I am useless.

Blues and Folk: Music of the People

In one word, folk and blues music is history.

In their own way, each of the two genres is the history of a race of people. That history has been challenged, corrupted and co-opted by others over the centuries, but ultimately it is the story of a group of people set to music.

Blues for example has its roots in slavery. One theory goes that the ancient African tradition of dying clothes indigo during mourning was uprooted to fledgling America, and when slaves had to dye cotton in the fields the idea crystallised. “The blues” is more of a feeling than a musical style – the profound world-weariness of the perpetually downtrodden – and this is where the genre’s sentiment comes from. It’s why ‘feeling blue’ means what it means.

Folk music is similar. The word ‘folk’ comes from the German “volk” which literally means ‘people.’ In the past, so much music was in the hands of the few – the composers, the aristocrats, the monarchy; the tiny minority that could afford it basically – that folk was the only music ‘the people’ had. Folk and blues are the musical genres of the non-privileged: while imperial nations enslaved blues-singing African-Americans overseas, they sent their own folk-singing natives into the workhouses of home. Either way, it’s the music of the oppressed, and the music tells their stories.

And what stories.

You cannot mention blues music without a discussion of Robert Johnson. Destitute, dismissed and ignored during his lifetime, he only became successful after death. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to learn the blues, and nowadays every guitarist worth the tiniest speck of salt credits Johnson as one of the most important musicians of all time. Eric Clapton called him “the most important musician that ever lived.”


The Devil’s in the Delta…

Blues formed in the early 1900’s in the Deep South, and has gone on to be one of the world’s most enduring musical genres. Artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker helped popularise it in the 1950, before the genre started to seep into rock n’roll. History came full circle when musicians from the country that had done so much to create the blues in the first place (carting half a continent of people halfway across the world has never been Britain’s finest moment) took a weird fusion of blues, rock n’roll and folk and churned out the Beatles. The Fab Four almost single-handedly created modern music, and there would be no Beatles without the blues. Simple as that.

Folk music is a little different. Folk formed out of an amorphous mass of anonymous musicians handing down songs by word-of-mouth. Over centuries. “Trad” is a word you hear a lot in British folk circles (meaning literally “traditional”) and in many recording credits you’ll see this little abbreviation. Basically, no-one remembers who wrote it because the singer is irrelevant, which is lovely as it’s the direct opposite of the celebrity-driven current raft of pop music. The song and story is what matters.

Many folk songs are brutal, telling the stories of common people as they try and eke out a life under the cosh of their psychotic overlords. One “trad” favourite of mine is the ‘Bonnie House of Airlie’ a song about war, rape, pillage and murder in Scotland. Another is “Bruton Town (the Bramble Briar)” which is about two noblemen who murder their sister’s lowborn lover. Death crops up a lot, as death happened to be the defining point of life. Imagine Game of Thrones, only with more acoustic guitars.


I got me the Hipster Blues…

Both blues and folk music have changed a lot in the last few decades. Blues went electric, and the styles and techniques the genre spawned are now found in everything from dubstep (no, seriously) to thrash metal. Folk music too has morphed, but somewhat awkwardly, with the term now meaning almost any music played with an acoustic guitar. Mumford and Sons are folk, the Lumineers are folk, Gotye is folk; it’s a bit messy.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the people hammering away at acoustic guitars, whether in the West or in the warrens of Shenzhen, that keeps folk and blues so relevant. At its heart, both genres are music played by people, about people, for people, and therein lies the genres’ most enduring feature.

On U.S. Bumper Stickers…

The third album I ever bought was Green Day’s Warning (I upgraded quickly from my second, Blink 182′s 1999 tour-de-force Enema of the State; I will never, EVER, tell anyone what the first was), and there’s a lyric on the title track bemoaning conformist automatons who “get their philosophy from a bumper sticker.” I have absolutely no idea why that line (ha) stuck with me, but (a-ha) stick with me it has, so when I started seeing all the rectangular things affixed to car bumpers during a recent trip to Portland, Maine, I went a bit snap-happy. The place was under about seventeen feet of snow when I was there, so I dutifully wandered (slid) around the city (glacier) clicking away in my hat, scarf and long-johns.* We don’t really do bumper stickers in the UK, other than chintzy “Baby on Board” dangly things stuck to the rear windscreen, so these all seemed rather quaint to me.

NB: I say quaint specifically, because if you play word-association with an American using “England,” the word “quaint” is likely to come lolloping into view in seconds. Well BUGGER YOU, you swill-bellied slummock-faced colonial humgruffins, YOU CAN BE QUAINT TOO:

1) Type A bumper sticker user: the hippie. Good going Portland, dispelling aaaaaaaall the stereotypes about you.

1) Type A bumper sticker user: the hippie. Good going Portland, dispelling aaaaaaaall the stereotypes people have about you.

04 Boring Political Priorities

2) Type B bumper sticker user: the Right-On politico. Works particularly well when unfortunate roadkill incidents lead to politicians’ names being smeared in blood.

The Hispanic Vote

3) The increasingly powerful Hispanic vote means that the traditional “Gobama” will eventually be replaced by the above. Republicans are really torn about which part of this to be mad about.

Better Priorities

4) Screw politics. This driver has their priorities straight. Also, apparently people are FAR too busy masticating to use the “u,” “g,” and “h” supposed to be in that word there.

03 Odd In-Family Banter or Unsubtle Twilight Reference

5) Odd  “remember that time Papa Cullen was at the whiskey and ran over old Mrs Dinkleberry from No. 34″ in-family banter, or unsubtle Twilight reference?


6) There are no words… Oh wait, yes there are. They’re all right there. Look.**

*Ha ha ha YES I was wearing other clothes.

**OK I cheated. This is from the internet. I promise you though, hand-on-heart, heart-on-sleeve, sleeve-on-Bible, Bible-covering-modesty, I saw a car just like this shoot past me. I blame the unreasonable cold for numbing my fingers so I couldn’t get a snap off in time.

On advert making…

I had forgotten about this until right this second. During the advertising internship I had at the end of last year, we were given a challenge. We had to come up with a six-sheet poster advert (six-sheets are the ones you get on bus-stop shelters) around the tagline “Curiosity Works.” That was all we were told, other than we had an evening to do it. The winner would get West End tickets. Here’s my hastily sketched and scribbled contribution:

I feel a kinship to cavemen, most likely due to comparable IQ levels

I feel a kinship to cavemen, most likely due to comparable IQ levels

I wrote the copy in MSWord, printed it, sketched out my noble caveman over the top, went over it in permanent marker, scanned it back in, and emailed it off with seconds to spare. Turns out I actually won as well, which was nice. Unfortunately, seeing as I was sofa-surfing my way through London at the time and because I am not a completely despicable person, I surrendered the tickets to people who had been so good as to put me up for a few weeks. They had a lovely time at Singing In The Rain. Jolly good.

On a bad, bad day…

Today Matthew, I'm going to be...

What do you mean? This IS my happy face…

Probably the worst non-China related day I’ve had in years. Appalling enough to merit entry in a blog that is purported to be about loftier things. Shut up. I’m grumpy. Hae ae gander:

  1. bring “invalid” proof of address to job interview, interview cancelled
  2. indicator on car breaks, can now only turn left
  3. go to hospital, informed surgery is required (not the cool kind I can brag about though, the minor, time-consuming, sissy kind, worthy of ridicule), have blood forcibly removed by Nurse Ratchet-alike
  4. park in the wrong place for exactly 53 seconds, receive parking ticket from hovering blue-clad hat-donned fascist
  5. plan night out, plan complicated lift schedule for night out, night out cancelled
  6. amazing guitar loop pedal my darling girlfriend just bought me broken, just removed from box, warranty only valid in USA
  7. anaesthetic used at hospital not wearing off, cannot feel/move face

Logically, that must mean all my bad karma has been depleted in one fell swoop, isn’t that so? Yes world? YES WORLD?