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Hyde Park – A Short Walk To The Centre Of The Universe or ‘Sometime In London City’

September 3rd, 2012 No comments

There was a moment when I was in the crowd of 80,000 for the final Olympics concert in Hyde Park, on the evening of the closing ceremony, and New Order were playing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, when the last of the late August sun fell over the crowd’s faces  – a crowd who were singing along to the song – and a realisation came home to me which had been growing for the last couple of years. Slowly but surely, Hyde Park has become a concentration of wonderful energies from around the world.

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When I was a kid growing up in London it was a dull place, a place of nannies with prams and the Round Pond and not much happening.

But slowly and quietly things have been changing.  It began with the outburst of emotion over Diana’s death when the railings of the park spilled over with flowers;  her memorial fountain  – treated more as a long water slide by delighted kids – and flower walk softened the martial regularity of the place.

With its intricate system of paths all radiating out from one another in complex geometrical patterns, rather like those children’s games where you make a point and then swing a compass to see where you can get to next, it is a park one can get lost in constantly and discover new surprises:  the Lido where the hardy can still swim the Serpentine;  the beautiful new statue beside it, unveiled in 2009, of a 10 foot high bronze ibis;  the many families from the Middle East who feed the ducks as a Sunday outing, carefully avoiding the Rasta-locked rollerbladers who swing along the tarmac;  Speakers Corner, where fundamentalist Americans wearing khaki debate with sober Hasidic scholars wearing suits.  The joggers of every nation pass the couples sitting on a bench, or the students playing Frisbee.

The park technically speaking is made up of two republics joined at the hip, like the old Czechoslovakia;  Kensington Gardens to the West and Hyde Park itself to the East.  But to all intents and purposes Londoners treat them as the same contiguous park, regardless of bureaucratic distinctions.  The Serpentine that snakes between them, with its strange boomerang shape, is not so much a border as a binder.

By happy chance Yoko Ono currently has a show in centre of the park, at the Serpentine Gallery beside the lake, with ‘peace trees’ outside, festooned with the notes and wishes of visitors.  The show not only demonstrates that she was doing conceptual art of great simplicity and rigour when the new sensationalists like Hirst and  Emin were just a gleam in the art teacher’s eye, but encapsulates the feeling that what used to be the preserve of Central Park in New York – the internationalism, the love, the casual mingling of nations, many wearing rollerblades – has now come here to the centre of London:  the park as a world of its own; the park as the centre of the world.

 

Doing it without the Fez on

June 10th, 2011 1 comment

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The last place I was expecting to go for a party in Morocco was Moulay Idriss.  It’s the holiest city in the country, named after the man who founded it and brought Islam to Morocco.  Until quite recently, non-Muslims were not supposed to sleep within its whitewashed walls, although they could visit by day.

So it’s a bold move by those behind the popular Cafe Clock in Fez to open a restaurant, the Scorpion House, to try to attract more visitors both here and to the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis.  Mike, the owner, invites my children and me to attend the opening party for staff and friends.

The restaurant has a truly spectacular position on the terraces above the green-roofed mausoleum of the saint.  The music and dancing are intense.  At one point a young woman gets overcome by the emotion of the moment and faints, apparently overcome by the djinns, spirits.  Once he’s checked that she’s all right, Mike seems pleased:  “shows it’s a real party.”

This stay in  Morocco is a chance to check out what the impact has been of the Arab Spring.  Aside from the bombing of a cafe in Marrakesh, there’s been little in the Western news about its effect on one of the Arab countries that is most visited.  The King and his government pride themselves on an ecumenical approach – there are Jews and Sufis in important positions – but power is still not equally shared.  No one would call the country truly democratic.  And many Turkish families still send their daughters here to be educated, as while wearing a veil in Turkish universities is banned, as befits a secular state, it is perfectly permissible here.

The King is well-respected and has announced a wide-ranging review of the constitution, but Morocco has a potent mix of foreign investment and visitors, and a well-educated younger generation with a desire for equality.  Expect more djinns to be released.

See Getting Lost in Fez text or as printed 

Another dissolute memoir

January 24th, 2011 No comments

Another dissolute memoir which turns out to be a travel book in disguise.  It seems only a few weeks ago that I posted on Howard Marks’s High Times (no I wasn’t referring to mine…).  But I have a particular interest in ‘Life’, this autobiography by Keef (I had never realised this was a self-appointed nickname):  before publication his managers had been talking to me about possibly directing the forthcoming documentary that will complement the book.  Talks went on for a while but were then blown out of the window when Johnny Depp said he wanted to do it as his first directing job – clearly rather a better name to have over the marquee and an old friend of Keef’s anyway. 

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Life is fun – some good stories told with the trademark louche bonhomie, either travelling through the Badlands of the southern States or downtown Kingston.  And one of the most memorable passages is when he takes us to Morocco, Tangier and Marrakesh for a key moment in his story, the love affair with Anita Pallenberg when she leaves Brian Jones for him, almost pulling the Stones apart in the process. 

Someone has to make it into an opera – the beautiful but tempestuous boy (Brian), the beautiful and even more tempestuous Anita (“she certainly made a man out of me”) and Keith himself, the picaresque hero, with the story played out against a sixties Morocco that he describes well — the kef and hash, the orange trees, the sheer alien nature of the place just a slip of a way from Europe (“it could have been 1000 years ago”). 

As it still is.  I have been over to Morocco three times in the last year and it never ceases to amaze me how such a wild country can be just a few hours on a no-frills flight away (Ryanair from London Stansted). 

For my feelings on how you can “get lost in Fez”, see the recent feature I did for the January issue of Conde Nast Traveller

But one particular moment in Keef’s travels particularly intrigued me – when he fetches up in, of all places, Urubamba, the small town in Peru where I lived with my family five years ago, as recounted in Cochineal Red:  he and Mick have to sing for their supper (and a room for the night) as no one knows who they are.  

It’s a story I’d heard when staying in Urubamba but always discounted as one of those tall stories.  Sure the Rolling Stones came here and played here in the small corner cafe on the square.  Pass the Inca treasure will you…

With Dylan along the Cuban coast

January 7th, 2011 No comments

Been sailing along the Cuban coast – although I’m in a powerful boat, the island of Cuba is so long (getting on for 1200 kilometres) that it has taken us 24 hours to sail along the shore before we head south through the Westward Passage and towards the Panama Canal.

Seeing the lights of Cuba twinkling alongside us at night, I’ve been remembering some wonderful times I had at each end of the island in the past — both in Havana to the west but also in Santiago de Cuba right in the far east, the Cuban Oriente, home of son  and so of salsa, and a place like New Orleans which is just busting out with dance, music and musicians wherever you look.

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Perhaps oddly it also makes me think of Bob Dylan.  Why?  Well I constantly play him anyway when travelling and I’ve just been reading an intriguing new book, Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz, which is a reminder of what a musical magpie he’s always been – sometimes controversially as in recent years he’s been accused of plagiarism, which is as absurd as accusing TS Eliot of doing the same in ‘The Waste Land’.

It helped me realise why he likes The Clash so much that he played ‘London Calling’ (to my great surprise) at the last concert he gave at the O2 – a song completely unsuited to his voice but very suited to the rough rock ‘n’ roll quality of the Hawks-like backing bands he now favours .  Perhaps it’s because The Clash, like him, are just such musical magpies who pick and choose from a huge variety of musical styles, and also viewed themselves as the troubadours and custodians  of a whole range of styles of older music, from ska to rockabilly to the whole Sandinista library.

What’s this got to do with Cuba given that ‘Dylan does salsa’ is almost as unlikely a thought as ‘Dylan does a Christmas album’ (except that did actually happen and in fact Dylan has often strayed south of the border, ‘lost in Juarez and it’s Easter time too’, with Latin touches to his music and facial hair – that gaucho moustache).  Cuba too is an extraordinary melting pot of musical styles, far less homogenous than people suppose.  Santiago in the east regards itself as the musical heritage city, again much like New Orleans, with an authentic earlier form of son which was later much adulterated and commercialised in Havana by the nightclub owners and pre-revolutionary Batista American gangsters who ran the place.  

The American State Department is contemplating relaxing the current stringent restrictions on American citizens visiting Cuba.  What better way to celebrate this if it does happen than for Dylan to play Santiago de Cuba as the first visiting American musician? Probably one of the last places in the world he hasn’t played yet on his ‘everlasting tour’ and sure the Cubans would take him to their very large hearts as un músico con corazón e alma y cojones.  I’d love to be there to shake a tambourine.