Archive for January, 2011

Crossing the Equator

January 28th, 2011 No comments

We crossed the equator off the coast of Ecuador, the country named after it.  Fitting then to have the familiar ceremony that sailors have followed for centuries — the holding of a mock court on deck in which “King Neptune” inducts his ‘Shellbacks’ from the novitiate ‘Pollywogs’, who have never crossed the equator before. 

I’ve seen the induction a couple of times and it tends these days to be a cross between an Am Dram pantomime and a University rag, with the participants covered in shaving foam and thrown in a bucket of water (or pool if the boat is large and lucky enough to have one). 

It’s a far cry from the far darker account of the ceremony in William Golding’s novel Rites of Passage,  set in the early 19th century, when it was the rite that marked a licence for moral degeneration and foul deeds;  and quite recently there have been several episodes on naval boats where it’s clearly got out of hand – as evidenced by the fact that most navies have now had to bring in regulations that prohibit physical attacks on sailors undergoing the line-crossing. 

On civilian boats, it’s still a ceremony that is particularly enjoyed by those crew members who are rarely on deck — the engine room boys or galley staff, who hang from the rails with enjoyment as they watch their more unfortunate colleagues getting dunked in the foam and water. 

My own thoughts on entering the Southern Hemisphere are coloured by what has been happening in the Pacific below us.  That rare weather event, “La Niña”, the unruly sister of El Niño, has been brewing cold water in the centre of the Pacific which has in turn caused precipitation right across the basin and over to Brazil, whose terrible floods have been matched by ones in Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Australia. 

Bizarrely, the world’s media seem to have done little to relate to these floods together, treating them as isolated incidents of Candide-like irrationality, not the product of a uniform meteorological pattern.  Perhaps it’s time we stopped being so parochial in our weather reports and followed weather maps outside of the UK – indeed ones that crossed the equator.

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. 


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…

The 19th Century Moonshot

January 10th, 2011 No comments

There’s something about a lock gate opening that always excites me, the admission to a new territory, whether it’s a stretch of the upper Thames or in this case the opening of the locks to the most ambitious canal in the world, that of Panama. 

The fact that it’s dawn and pelicans and frigate birds are circling round us as steam rises from the jungle to either side just heightens the sensation.  The red and green navigation lights are blinking to either side as we nudge our way down the channel towards the gates, and there’s an appealing pinging noise made by the mechanical ‘mules’ (electric carriages on tracks) that escort us on the shore. 

Even though we’re in a 650 foot long boat of 32,000 tons, the procedure for entering the lock is charmingly simple in some ways.  Two men come out in a rowing boat to grab some tow ropes which can then be pulled along the sides of the lock to guide the boat in. 

The ropes are thrown down from the boat by a local team of pilots who come on board.  It’s quite an art to hit a rowing boat with a rope from a distance – not least when you have a great many idle spectators to comment if you get it wrong – and on the side of the lock they’ve set up a bull’s-eye and throwing pitch so they can practise in their downtime. 

container ship travelling through Culebra Cut

Approaching from the Caribbean side, boats have to rise about 85 feet to reach the large inland lake of Gatun, man-made and created by flooding the valley, which we will then cross before taking the infamous Culebra Cut through the hills – infamous because so many men died making it – and then emerge through further locks into the Pacific on the other side. 

While still, almost a century after it was completed, one of the great engineering marvels of the world, the moonshot of its day, I find it hard to forget the lives that were lost building the Panama Canal:  a quite staggering 25,000, most of the deaths occurring during the failed earlier French attempt of the late 19th century when they had yet to get the measure of the challenge — in particular the need to provide sanitation and rid the area of the standing water in which yellow fever and malaria mosquitoes could breed. 

The French used many Chinese labourers and refused to let them take their habitual opium, about the only thing which had kept those same labourers going when working on the North American railroads.  As a result many ‘fell into a perpetual melancholy’, as one observer reported, and some committed mass suicide at the Culebra Cut.  

The real killer was of course yellow fever, from which only some 30% of those infected were likely to recover. 

The whole affair was a débâcle of the first order.  The French instigator of the canal, de Lesseps, a national hero for having completed the Suez canal earlier, badly underestimated the nature of the task – cutting a canal not through malleable desert sand but through some of the most humid jungle in the world.  When they abandoned their attempt, it was not only national pride that suffered:  the French economy nosedived after the earlier hyping of shares in the ‘ Panama bubble’, and because de Lesseps was Jewish, an atmosphere of anti-Semitism was fermented that prefigured the Dreyfus affair. 

But the waters of the lake are placid now.  There’s an island that has become a bird sanctuary and the transition to Panamanian control that was completed some 10 years ago has been a success – to the extent that they are now widening the channels so as to be able to take larger tankers.  When first opened in 1914, the Americans ‘future-proofed’ their fine new canal with channels of the then phenomenal width of around 100 feet – allowing boats of what became known as the Panamax standard – some 85 feet wide – to squeeze through.  But there are plenty of larger supertankers that have to take the long route around Cape Horn, adding 8000 miles to the trip , so are in the market for a wider canal. 

All this comes naturally at a price – around $50,000 passage fee for a boat like ours.  Not that I’m paying it.  But it does justify drinking champagne at six in the morning as we float up and enter the final lock gates that allow us onto the lake.

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.


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.