Saturday, 9 June 2012

TravelSexStrife I: The Marine, Meth and Me

Originally published here June 8th, 2012

TravelSexStrife is a three-part series about "bad romance" on the road. As Guest Editor, my first contribution to TravelSexLife will be these embarrassingly true cautionary tales!
One of the richest experiences travel can offer is crossing paths with someone you fall for, someone who you never quite forget, someone who is a slamming hotty from head to flip-flopped foot.
Cautionary tales come flying out of experiences like this. Shit happens. Sometimes it's funny shit, sometimes it's just shit. But I collect bad experiences like Tom Jones collects panties, because I'd love to be wise someday.
Please read, enjoy, take heed, and feel free to comment...

(1) "The Marine"

I didn't notice him at first. When it comes travel romance, even ones you find yourself writing about years later, the moment you meet is rarely spectacular.
Cheer and chatter filled the bar at Njaya Lodge. Four Malawian staff and seven backpackers watched the England vs France football match through the static of a tiny tv. Carlsberg beer bottles and creamy Kahlua cocktail glasses clinked, empty, onto the concrete floor. The owner's friendly Rottweiler wandered about, sniffing at nothing in particular. Timm patted him on the head and scratched behind his ears, a fixture of the typical traveller scene.
Timm's eyes were chocolatey, humble and kind. They didn't match his body, rippling with the kind of muscles you get when you run five miles down the beach and swim back before breakfast - on an "off day". He seemed to have no idea that when he stood near other men, it looked like a before and after shot. His looks would have been intimidating if not for the goofy, curly hair and socks with sandals. I'm English, so to find the American accent sexy is a cardinal sin. So I'm not saying his accent was sexy. You've got nothing on me.
He made me laugh with his highly specific comments. He carried a huge vat of coleslaw to the barbecue and said "Oh no! I got coleslaw juice on my freshly-showered shoulder!", where a simple "Shoot" would have sufficed.
From around midnight, as our fellow travellers, volunteers and nomads started to turn in, we found ourselves sitting together on a rock overlooking Nkhata Bay. Lake Malawi stretched across the entire world. The stars were so bright I wondered why no one ever mined the sky for diamonds.
I learned all about him - or so I thought at the time. I learned he was Timm with two m's, because his family was Danish. He grew up in Connecticut. He was a Marine. He'd travelled everywhere. He'd walked from Georgia to Maine the year before. He had fallen 60 feet from the top of a waterfall. He was gentle, laughed a lot and was an engaging storyteller. I liked the way he used my name when he talked to me.
"Look!" he said, touching my arm and pointing at the sky, "a shooting star! Did you see?"
"No! Damn it! I've never seen one before."
"You will. Just keep looking up, Erica."
That night I saw seven shooting stars.
Days turn into nights so quickly by the lake. A lunchtime beer becomes a nighttime cocktail. An afternoon swim becomes an after-hours dip. Sunbathing becomes star gazing.
Lunch in the village with my travel buddy Kate became drinks in a hammock with Timm. He kissed me on the beach in the pinkish glow of the sunrise. For our two weeks in Nkhata Bay we were Timmnerica, never planning to meet but somehow crossing paths every day. We would spend 18 hour stretches together. Strolls to the village became boat trips to nearby islands. Our nights were lit by stars and fireflies.
But the clock was going. Kate was getting restless. Having just split up with her boyfriend back home, she coped surprisingly well as we flaunted our intense romance in her face. The road was calling. I tried to break the news breezily, as if it were just an idea I was floating.
"You're leaving in three days?"He leaned back and looked away. I saw the edges of his eyes moisten.
"I don't want to. But I can't ask Kate to stay any longer."
There was a long pause.
"I hadn't thought about you leaving. hurts."
I didn't say anything. I didn't want him to hear my voice crack.
He sent me letters at university. He wrote vividly about playing with the Kampala rugby team in Uganda, his two-day journey in a rattley old camper van and the delights of his first month in India.
The third letter was distressing.
Someone in India convinced him to make a trip to New Zealand to drop off a two-kilogram "package". The Kiwi authorities searched his bags and were unhappy with what they found - to the tune of eight years in prison
"Apparently this crystal meth stuff is really bad," he wrote, "and it's causing big problems here in New Zealand..."
He was safe, and had made his peace with his new "fixed address". But the oddness of Timm landing in jail resonated with me. I had never met anyone I liked so much or so quickly. Yet sweet, gentle and romantic Timm turned out to be - in one, but highly significant, way - an idiot.
"You're very lucky to have so many good qualities," I had told him, sitting on my backpack while Kate thumbed down a ride. Tears prickled my eyes. "Use them wisely."
"Well the same goes for you, Erica. Use yours wisely," he said, putting his hand on my cheek, "Don't waste them on anyone who doesn't deserve them."
Next time someone gives you good advice, tattoo it on your goddamn face.
Because as it turned out, we were both idiots.
------ week, Part (2) The Hacker

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Tales of a "fire slut"

Originally published May 1, 2012, here

JIMMY POUTS WHEN HE PICKS UP the notes of paraffin in my clothes. He gets a stomp in his step. This happens every Tuesday and Thursday. He throws a small tantrum as I leave the house.
I’m going to fire dance outside Durham’s nightclubs.

It isn’t jealousy, or possessiveness, or because fire dancing is sexy. It isn’t because dancing through a paraffin mist is a fire hazard. It’s because I get paid £120 a week for it, and he knows I’ll exchange it for a plane ticket. A few days ago he heard me humming “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and he cried a man tear.
It’s the last year of university. I’m leaving England, and him. “What are you going to do?” is a question thrown at final year students around ten times a day. It’s like being pelted with boiled sweets. Because “I don’t know” isn’t the right answer to that question. Neither is “I’ve lost my way, give me a minute to look at the map.” So to escape it, and my worried parents, and my dead friend,
I’m moving to Mexico. Why not? At least if I seem lost there, I can smile and say “tourist.”

Klute was the second-worst nightclub in Europe at one time, but the first has since burned down. Klute is now worst by default, and really is disgusting. The carpet squelches and sticks to your shoes, soaked with years of spilled drinks. Sweat runs down the walls.

The people who go there love it. Not the way they love quality things, like butter chicken or photography. They love it in a post-modern ironic way. The same way they love Abba and the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s fashionable to enjoy patently awful things. They say “Ya, oh my god, love it!” and glug cheap drinks. They are the most privileged students of Durham’s student body, yet somehow adore rolling about in this muggy dungeon of an establishment. They are mostly Oxford and Cambridge rejects. They don’t think having stables makes them wealthy.

They are bankers waiting to happen.

Those arriving at Klute are often alarmingly drunk, which helps. You have to stand on the squelchy carpet to queue at the bar. It feels like a slow trudge through a swamp of mouldy grapefruit. A certain level of drunkenness is necessary to call that ‘fun’.

Photo by ejmc

I only go inside to get paid. My patch is outside the door, where people queue. Bored, drunk Brits standing in line are less likely to smash bottles and argue with the bouncer if they have a distraction. That’s the theory, and that’s where I come in.

I shiver as I set up. I didn’t bring a sweater because I’m about to spend two hours within circles of flame. It’s my fire jacket and it’s time to put it on. I fill a small plastic container with paraffin and take the bags off the ends of a long, silver pole. The ends are ‘wicks,’ blocks of canvas black with soot. I submerge them in paraffin one by one, and watch the fuel rush into every crevice.

Poor, thirsty wicks.

By this time, the people in line have started to notice my odd ritual. Elbows poke ribs, fingers point. Here comes the fire, I think. Then the amazement and clapping, then the questions, then the requests to light their cigarettes, then the heckling and outright abuse. Then their rubbish night at Klute and the greasy kebabs from Dirty Jane’s, to line their stomachs for the stinking hangover.

Thursday I perform the same ritual outside another club — Loveshack. It’s more upmarket than Klute, but then so is syphilis.

Loveshack has a sixties theme. People squat with their cocktails on benches inside camper vans reminiscent of Scooby-Doo. Crowds of friends totter on stiletto heels, waving their arms in the air singing “Loveshack, baby loveshack…” At first, they are happy enough to stand in line and anticipate the night ahead. The line winds around me in a giant circle as I prepare for the show.

Photo by the author

I balance the pole on my open palm. Drops of paraffin fall to form tiny puddles. I flick my Zippo, and hold it under the wicks until they ignite. I let the flames grow, inhaling the marvelous scent of burning fuel. I place my other palm on top, a pole sandwich between my hands. I pull my upper hand back with force and the pole spins, which sends a paraffin spray into the air. Huge balls of fire are released with a whoosh and the crowd gasps.

This is the best moment of the night. A flaming figure eight whirls around me and I am separate from the crowd. In here, amongst the flames, I can be alone. I can conjugate Spanish verbs. I can work on standup comedy segues.

But flaming solitude doesn’t last. It’s never more than ten minutes before someone stumbles over with their arms outstretched. Do they think the flames are made of beer? Now I begin another show, called ‘Don’t Give Clients a Concussion.’

Drunk students try to walk in a straight line through the staging area like I’m a dancing hologram. Keep smiling, keep dancing, don’t let anyone wander into the path of fire, or worse, the heavy metal pole, which flies around at a blurring speed. Trying to save these people’s skulls, hair, clothes, and testicles from their own sozzled stumbling is the most tiring part of the job. It’s where I really earn that plane ticket.

Then come the heckles. “That’s easy!” yells a man who can barely stand straight, “I could do that!”

A few other men begin to sneer, and there is only one way to shut them up. I drop to my knees, and spin the fire over my head like a helicopter. I lean back on my knees until my back meets the floor. The flaming helicopter spins inches from my face — I am caught between a rock and a hot place. With a small thrust at the waist that silences the heckles, I throw the spinning pole into the air and flip myself upright in time to catch it.

After a pause, someone yells, “Fire slut!”

I smile to myself. Fire slut? Has anyone else, ever, been called a fire slut?

It doesn’t matter, I think. I spin around and around, deliberately losing my point of focus. The flames roar around my waist, through my legs, and over my head. They sing to me.

"Leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again..."

Saturday night on the London tube

Originally published April 18, 2012, here

London tube

“FUCK THE GAP!” bellows a slurring, hoarse voice in response to the safety instruction. The laughter that follows is the kind a sober person might reserve for, say, the funniest thing he has ever heard in his life. But for the last Tube on a Saturday night, it is little more than an acknowledgment that words have been uttered, a last hurrah before the body takes its morning-after revenge.
* * *
Seats are available, but a boy and a girl choose to stand face to face by the doors and allow themselves to be thrown around by the rocking of the train. She chatters about the imminent snowstorm. The train slows to a stop and his eyes close as he hugs her goodbye. After a moment’s hesitation, he slouches off the train.

The doors stay open. The girl’s eye wanders to a poster of Poems on the Underground. Her pupils twitch left and right as she reads. As the doors beep to signal they are about to close, the boy reappears. Like Indiana Jones risking his life for a hat, he rushes to the door, leans in, kisses her, and is gone. He leaves her stunned behind the closing doors. A few people gasp. The train pulls on and they pretend not to watch for the verdict. They are too loaded with English reserve to admit their excitement at the Tube Theater.

At the next stop, she smiles.

At the other end of the carriage sit two young tourists. They speak in rapid Spanish. They are dark-eyed, dark-skinned, and share a Lonely Planet guide to “Londres.”

A lad in his late twenties boards at Kentish Town. His pants are so baggy he could stuff a dwarf down each leg. White socks grasp at his ankles over tired Adidas trainers. His oversized baseball cap barely touches his head and rests at a hilarious angle.

He chooses not to take any of the free seats and towers over the seated folk, standing closer than good manners allow. For no clear reason his expression darkens; he grits his teeth and starts to huff. In a sudden burst of inarticulate rage, he turns to the tourists and coughs up xenophobic bile. “Wot the fuck you doin’ ‘ere? You dun’ speak my language, so ge’ aaht my cun-tree!”

The carriage is silenced. Jaws drop. Eyes are averted. One of the tourists rolls his eyes. The other frowns, confused.
    “Que pedo con él?” (What’s the matter with him?)
    “Es que no tiene cabeza.” (He hasn’t got a brain.)
The young man stomps his way to the doors. He hawks and spits expletives. Passengers blush, tut, shake their heads, and throw apologetic looks at the tourists. The men shrug the incident off, and discuss what the difference must be between Camden Town and Camden Road.
* * *
“You’re lying,” hisses a goth girl as she boards. With her heap of dreadlocks, thin frame, and giant platform shoes she resembles a Japanese cartoon.

“I’m not. I’m not,” the man replies blankly, resting a tin of lager on filthy jeans and an old, shabby trench coat. He is older than her, yet seems emotionally to be working his way through puberty.

“Stop lying,” she repeats. She curls into the nearest seat, crosses her legs and fixes her gaze on the floor. He sighs and sinks into the seat beside her, staring ahead blankly. She cradles her head, and faces as far away from him as she can twist. A silence passes. Stops come and go. The pause is so long many of the passengers stop eavesdropping.

Finally, he speaks: “I’ve got a girlfriend.” She gets off the train without word or glance.
* * *
The London Underground shuts at 12:30am. Cautious last-Tubers roll on just after midnight. They are the ones trendy enough to go out drinking in central London, but won’t risk the horror of the night bus.

A young couple sit, sparkling with melting snow. The boyfriend’s Hugh Grant-esque accent jars with his glugging from a bottle of cheap red wine. His teeth and tongue are stained. His eyelids are drunk.
    “You shouldn’t drink on the Tube. It’s not allowed anymore.”
    “Fuck the mayor!”
    “You’re such a chav. And you’re posh. That’s worse.”
She lets that marinate, then pipes up, “He gets on the Tube sometimes you know! The mayor. On his ‘I’m-one-of-you’ rides. I hope he gets on and calls you an oik.”

As they alight, bickering, at London Bridge, a thick cloud of booze gets on, with a group of men in their early 30s somewhere inside it. They ask each other, “Wazzuuuuuup?” No one answers very thoughtfully.

The Underground staff have turned up the volume on the pre-recorded announcements. Health and safety cautions rattle the antiquated speakers.

“Mind the gap.”

Happy Birthday George - Celebrating the life of George Carlin

Originally published April 2, 2012, here


In 2008 the world lost George Carlin, one of the greatest and most important comedy legends of all time. This year would have been his 75th birthday.

Influenced by the UK’s Monty Python, he continues to be a great inspiration to comedians both sides of the pond.

His death at age 71, while a wonderful feat for a man with his heart problems, was a terrible blow to comedy and his loving fans. Russell Brand and Louis CK were among those who blogged that the news had reduced them to tears.

We had the great honour of chatting to George’s daughter Kelly Carlin, a broadcaster and performer, about her father’s influence and legacy.

We know George would think it ridiculous to celebrate a dead person’s birthday – the idea would no doubt set him off on a hilarious rant. What better way to honour his memory? Happy Birthday, George!

The Apprentice - You're Tired!

Originally published on March 22, 2012, here

Does anyone still think The Apprentice is an intellectual business game show, a week-by-week seminar on how to succeed? Unless the contestants are actors, the answer, bafflingly, must be yes.

The Apprentice opens with trumpets, people in suits walking with hard-set expressions, and tall buildings with shiny windows. It looks clever. It looks businessy. In reality the business tips are about as useful as watching the Teletubbies flop about in biscuit mixture. In fact, I have unwittingly described an episode in the last season, in which contestants had to invent and make a new biscuit – because obviously real business people are also skilled bakers.

The prize used to be a job in Lord Sugar’s company. Now it’s an investment of £250,000. As impressive as that number sounds, it’s a much cheaper prize than a job. It seems even Lord Sugar is feeling the sting of the recession.

The show starts with the classic formula: meeting the contestants, who sell themselves with poorly written, well rehearsed lines. “I am a meaningless adjective, a pointless noun and an absolutely rubbish metaphor.” Katie said, “I call myself the blonde assassin, because I let people underestimate me just so I can blow them out of the water.” An assassin is a murderer, not someone who is underestimated. But at least she made a point about her hair colour. It smacks of relevance.

8AM. The board room. Lord Sugar announces they are not playing a game of Where’s Wally, but doesn’t elaborate. He divides the teams by gender as usual. Perhaps next season, for variety’s sake, they could divide them by race, religion or sexuality?

Team names are decided. The boys come up with Phoenix, so they can rise from the ashes. Which suggests the feeling in the team is “This is going to be horrible, but hopefully we’ll win anyway.” It bodes ill, but at least it proves he’s watched the show. The other team name, Sterling, came to Jenna in a dream. She looks surprised when this doesn’t warm the cockles of Lord Sugar’s heart. Next season’s team name – Naked at Work Again.

Phoenix print “THIS IS A” over a picture of a bus on t-shirts and bags and decide to “sell it to a gullible tourist”. The girls flog t-shirts with scrawled pictures of monsters, and put such immense pressure to buy on a poor shopkeeper they get told off by a passer-by.

The girls lose, and the boardroom suddenly resembles an episode of EastEnders. There is shouting, sniping and eye-rolling. Bilyana begs to stay in the process, at length. Lord Sugar decides he really, really wants her to stop talking. Asking her to doesn’t work, so eventually he goes to plan B, “You’re fired.” Plan C was probably some kind of bag-over-the-head situation, also ending in being bundled into a vehicle and driven from the premises.

Despite there being no job offer (at a time people need it most), Sugar still goes with “You’re fired”. If you pitched a business idea and the investor decided he wasn’t interested, you’d be genuinely baffled if he pointed at you with his ET finger and announced that you were fired.

The saddest thing about the new series of The Apprentice is the lack of laughs. I miss lines like “Three for a pound, there’s only two left!” I miss hilarious boardroom explanations, like “When I was producing, that was production.” I miss Melissa’s mind-blowingly poor use of language, “I am a mixed bag of nuts and this task speaks to this bag.” I miss Brent-ish Stuart Baggs and his “field of ponies”.

Is there potential? Absolutely. Gabrielle told the cameras “I will literally roar my way to the top.” Literally. I am very excited for the board meetings to come if that’s true. On a serious note, the incorrect use of this basic word is quite infuriating. Every time it happens I literally get annoyed, and figuratively vomit.

So maybe it’s not tired. Perhaps it’s just groggy. Either way, I’m watching.

They had me at Where’s Wally.


 Originally published March 16, 2012, here


It may sound like something from one of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian satires, but recently marketing agency BBH Labs New York strapped Internet transmitters to homeless people and sent them out as “wifi hotspots”. And we all have to live with that.

Clarence Jones, 54, was such a participant. He was made homeless – or “houseless” as he prefers to call it – by hurricane Katrina. During the “charitable experiment”, he was paid $20 a day for six hours work plus the PayPal payments for those using the wifi – or “him”. Because as well as the transmitter, he wore a t-shirt saying “I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot”.

To be clear: the t-shirt did not say “I’m Clarence, and I’m running a 4G hotspot by wearing a transmitter, but I am also a person with organs and a personality, who walks around and says things.” His t-shirt, along with all the other houseless participants, said “I am a 4G hotspot.”

A wave of criticism has since crashed over BBH. Clarence told the New York Times he didn’t feel like he was being exploited, “It’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.” Despite Clarence’s approval, there is overwhelming opinion that the scheme, while earning homeless people a much-needed $200+, was exploitative and dehumanising. 

Is it exploitative? Surely a scheme designed to find (short-lived) earnings for the down-and-out, funded entirely by BBH with no profit for them, should be applauded? Can it all really be contemptible because of the wording on a t-shirt?

There is no reason to doubt the intentions of BBH. Well-meaning as they are, some have defended them by comparing the homeless hotspots to the people employed to stand in Piccadilly Circus holding up signs that say “THEATRE TICKETS “. But those signs don’t say “I’m Malcolm, a ticket machine”. Why on earth would it claim Malcolm is a ticket machine, just because he is employed by an organisation that provides theatre tickets for a fee? That doesn’t make him a ticket machine. His name is Malcolm. He has legs and preferences. Malcolm is not a ticket machine, which is the main reason no one has called him one.

So why is Clarence a wifi hotspot? In what world is it ok to call Clarence a wifi hotspot, but not call Malcolm a ticket machine? In an ugly world, where Malcolm is a person, an employee with a salary, and Clarence is homeless and will get what he’s given.

Another problem with the model is the potential for cringeworthy behaviour. Technology is frustrating; no matter how incredible the feats of a new gadget, within seconds we feel we are owed them and throw tantrums when they break down. The merest blip in the Internet service has even respectable adults squawking with irritation. Homeless hotspots not only have the ability to get up and walk away, they have the right to. How soon before an inbox-crazed Blackberry basher screeches at Clarence to stay where he is until she finishes her latte?

 The main defence put up by BBH is that the scheme was an attempt at “modernising the Street Newspaper (like the UK’s Big Issue) model”. Generally, taking anything from print to digital is seen as a modernisation, but they forgot one thing – the content. In other words, the point. The Street Newspaper, The Big Issue and the like, are written by homeless people. It gives them a voice and gets their message out. The wi-fi home page has no links to articles written by or about the homeless. It is not a platform.

BBH’s Saneel Radia said street newspapers weren’t an effective model because “thousands of people walk by street newspaper vendors ignoring them”, and many of those who do ‘buy’ a paper give money and let them keep the paper. This “ineffective” model has been replaced with wi-fi and the exact same outcome – people giving money to, but not listening to the voice of, the homeless. At least the newspaper model gave people a chance of hearing the message.

BBH’s argument is that the experiment has been a success because in light of the controversy caused, “these people are no longer invisible”.  But “being” a wifi hotspot does not get the homeless message out there – unless the message is “I am homeless and therefore treated and ignored like an object”. Is this the discussion BBH wanted us to have? Has the experiment achieved that very aim? Has the scheme of homeless dehumanisation in fact been subversively brilliant?

We’ll let you figure that one out.

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XCity Arts & Culture Magazine's website.

My features include my video on George Carlin, an exclusive interview with his daughter Kelly Carlin; a video on regional humour, a damning review of The Apprentice, showbiz news and a Reverend getting tweety...view all my posts here.