Out Now!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Mitch Miller and raw fish

God invented Fish and Chips with vinegar and salt. The Devil invented the deep fried Mars Bar in batter, and with it seduced the Scots. The Japanese unleashed raw fish on the world, and I tried it for the first time at the Chicago Food Festival in 1982. The lime juice helped.

What didn’t help was the Mitch Miller Orchestra, Mitch himself conducting the ‘Worlds Largest Singalong’ Maybe he’d been inspired by the World’s Largest Crucifixion in Wax at Niagara, though as I travelled through America, I came across ‘The World’s Largest…’ quite a lot.

To give you a flavour of Mitch at his best click here, and imagine it even bigger and louder, and you with raw fish in your mouth.

Roland, Birged Modler, Daghmar Baron and Evelyn Deidrich shared a similar interest in good food for almost nothing, and may even have been turned on by Mitch Miller. I remember a warm, vibrant and exciting night, moving as a group from stall to stall - a great experience for someone as greedy as me – Chicago’s finest eateries ‘giving away’ food at knock-down prices, and all of us humming along to Mitch - (even if he does look a lot like Ming the Merciless from Planet Mong)

And here he is conducting the people of Mong.

And wondering which fool persuaded him to eat raw fish.

Friday, 21 May 2010

The cocktails became larger, more varied and bizarre

July 3rd.

We were blessed and cursed by the presence of Roland, a man who came second in the Austrian cocktail championships, a genial sort, who took charge of our drinking. We paid into a kitty and he mixed bottle after bottle into a very large tub. The cocktails became larger and more varied as the journey progressed, verging on the bizarre by the time we reached New Mexico. At this stage they were merely exciting, and did the job.

We washed down Niagara and the worlds largest crucifixion in wax with grog in the coach, and, according to my diary stayed up until 4 am.

The next day I felt terrible.

We drove through Ontario, across the border and into Detroit. Detroit looked how I felt, and it was there we dropped off ‘Detroit Bob’ a friend of the driver who’d bummed a lift overnight.

As the journey progressed I realised I’d been granted my wish, experiencing the sheer scale of America. On the map we’d travelled less than a finger nail, but that’s not how it felt. The country outside was largely pasture and forest, unremittingly green and incredibly boring, and you knew that this ‘green’ went on and on, and however fast you travelled the greenness would always be there before us. Complacent, and just there.

Eventually we made camp.

It was a forest clearing half filled with camper-vans and strategically based benches and tables.

Men, some women, sauntered out and regarded us with interest. It was a different America, slower and more measured.

He was white haired and burly and wore a green plaid shirt, but I forget his name, and the face remains blurred. We drank Coors from the can beneath a heavily starred sky and talked of Vietnam. The fact that I can remember nothing else about him is just unimportant. What remains deep within me is the memory of his quiet pride in America, and a 'wisdom' the old know how to put on.

The night ended with fireworks, and Maria, a girl from Madrid, held my hand, though I can’t remember why. Nor can I remember why Roland served us all rum and strong coffee before going to bed. Maybe he couldn’t sleep and wanted some company.

Anyway, who could sleep? Tomorrow was Chicago!

Friday, 14 May 2010

S+M Monks

July 2nd.

We had set up camp on the U.S side of the ‘Falls’, and established the procedure that would operate throughout the entire trip. We divided into rotating groups: ‘F troop’ packed and unpacked the bus, and set up the tents. A, B, C, washed the bus, helped in the cooking and washed up. D troop rested. Sue, a plump and jolly lady, having completed her training as an Aventour cook left us at Niagara and was replaced by Barbara, a lean and attractive woman with a huge smile.

Breakfast in the open air. Brilliant. Then into Canada. Passing through the American-Canadian customs, reminded me of an episode of Frasier – the one where they’re crossing the border in Martin’s camper-van and smuggling Daphne back as an ‘American’. We had two irregular visas: Veronique a cheery Dutch girl and Doritaa, a more intense Israeli.

We stopped, and took our pictures and then looked down into the cataract below. I saw a tiny boat bobbing dangerously close to the falls, several times vanishing in spray. It was the Maid of the Mist, and later that morning we were on it.

Kitted out in water-proof rubbers and hoods, we looked like a weird bunch of S+M monks. After a thoroughly good soaking we went back to camp and consumed huge amounts of ‘grog’

Huge amounts of grog: Irresponsible perhaps, but necessary. That afternoon we walked around Niagara.

God or, if you wish, the last ice age gave us Niagara. Man, small, entrepreneurial and tacky added what God lacked the foresight to provide.


There were seven waxworks ‘venues’ in one small street alone. One boasted the ‘World’s Largest Lady’ but that was trumped by a Biblical Waxworks which advertised ‘The World’s Largest Crucifixion’. What’s with Niagara and waxworks? Why would anyone go there to see a…waxwork?

We spent the evening in a local Honky-tonk bar. The band was really bad. I like heavy metal. I like Rock to be loud. But this band had spent too long in the waxworks.

We stood in a gloomy space deafened by the banal and I became more and more bad tempered. God, I’m sad when I’m bad tempered.

Eventually we moved on and found a Holiday Inn Disco –much to the delight of a bored DJ playing music to an empty floor. Unexpectedly he now had a crowd – and inveigled the Dutch, the French and later the Germans in a series increasingly bizarre dance routines. They needed little persuading.

I joined them but have little recollection of what happened next.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

And I thought of Natty Bumppo

July 1st

Tudor Hotel

I was thinking of goldfish and how long they might last without food. I had forgotten to feed Ron’s goldfish, and Carol Abamont in the adjacent apartment wasn’t scheduled to feed them until…when? I’d forgotten that too. Maybe I should have been in that tank, swimming from corner to corner, forgetting where and who I was, wondering about food. But the Tudor hotel was approaching, the sleek coach standing outside waiting for me.

Registration and formalities took place in the hotel lobby. They were easy and very low key; future companions blank-eyed and ‘incurious’, furiously assessing each other in sidelong glances that veered onto walls and soft furnishings rather than risk eye contact. There were a fair number of Europeans – Dutch, German, French, Spanish,two Australians, and three Americans girls: seventeen of us in all, sharing a thirty-six-seat coach.

I sank into a window seat, stomach fluttering in excitement. This was the way I wanted to see America – a six week circular tour, camping under the stars – the only exception being Las Vegas where we stayed in a dingy motel with a fridge full of roaches and mould. On top of the fridge was a well thumbed guide to local prostitutes, complete with prices and their respective specialities. But that’s a different story. This story is how I wanted to see America, grasp its space and complexity in a way you never would on a plane.

The tour guide, Greg Faletta, began the 'bonding' as we drove out of New York. Introductions involved changing seats and talking about ourselves to attractive strangers. Luckily we all spoke English – in a fashion.

The journey to Niagara Falls was long, and through it all I stared out the window, dreaming, the mind registering what the eye didn’t see. In Britain the country-side, though beautiful, offers no sense of space. If a road passes through a forest you may see nothing but trees, but you know that beyond them are fields, and then pretty soon houses, and beyond that a town. The landscape is complex, dense in history, but thin.

So why was this different, staring through walls of thick woods on either side of the road? What I ‘saw’ was trees. What I sensed was the rich and brutal immensity behind them. And I thought of Natty Bumppo.

Fennimore Cooper’s 'Leather-stocking Tales' have a peculiar appeal. They fail every test but one. The writing is dense, often flowery, plots meander and in ‘The Prairie’ the plot is just downright bizarre. What attracts is the magic of the archaic, the language, vocabulary and rhythm conjuring up a culture and mind-set.

I imagined the eighty-six year old Natty Bumppo – better known as Hawkeye in 'Last of the Mohicans.' He’d left the dense forests of New York and Delaware because he wanted to be in a place where he wouldn’t be able to hear a tree being chopped down. The book was published in 1827 when presumably the forests were still largely virgin and the population sparse – but this eighty six year old man felt crowded, pressed in by people. The book has him traipsing around the prairies of the far west – walking from the banks of the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains in a single day – and rescuing sundry people from sundry Indians in a plot which goes nowhere in particular.

This was my holiday: a plot going nowhere in particular, and proceeding even more slowly than the iron-framed, eighty-six year old Natty Bumppo. It took us a day to reach Niagara and that was in an air-conditioned coach travelling at speed on good roads. What would it be like travelling from the Missouri to the Rockies? Could we do it in a day? Could a bunch of effete Europeans match the sinewy guile of a bionic Bumppo who took quantum leaps across vast spaces?

And would the goldfish survive?

Bumppo on steroids.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Gifts and goodbyes

A poor picture, which doesn't do these characters justice. There are more of other classes, when I sort out the slides.

June was a month of gifts and good-byes. Joan Marus a shy, gruff woman with one hell of a smile presented me with a large Western Anthology which I still have and still dig into, and when I do I think of her, and how she made my life so easy in her role as Head of Resources.

Harry Cisler He even made the New York Times. Scroll down a paragraph or two.

Harry Cisler taught English, an aesthete and hedonist, he always put me in mind of a merry monk. His gift, a biography of Thomas Merton, I regret to say I didn’t enjoy. It reinforced my feeling that I perhaps lacked spiritual depth. Whilst reading it I just thought ‘No….No…. Why are you doing this?’ – referring to Merton, not me reading the book. The life described chilled me. Harry promised me we’d one day meet up again. Maybe I’ll be able to return the favour with a biography of Gordon Brown.

There were emotional send-offs from classes CD, KL and IJ, an 'I love New York' mug and T shirt from Lidia Furcik and Suzanne Collins,* hugs from Kris Osbora, Liz Kirk, Laura McGregor and Joan White…and then I stopped counting.

I had my last American hair-cut in a dusty subway booth; dry cleaned some trousers, along with Ron and Annette’s couch covers, and thanked Bob and Tom when they agreed to water the plants during the time I’d be away.

It’s interesting, listing the ‘tedious’ because, in some way, it captures how slowly time goes when you’re waiting for the next big adventure to begin. I remember supervising the last exam of term – chemistry – with Mary Mack. I was in room 202 and looked out the window for what I knew would be the last time. Directly opposite were clapboard houses and white picket fences that could have come from the pages of Tom Sawyer.

So much had happened: St Agnes end-of-term parties, where glasses were colour coded (red for alcohol, blue for soft drinks) so what the Sisters were drinking could be seen at a glance. It was not a fool-proof system as Sister Peggy Linane’s raucous laughter testified. Graduation Day, too, knocked me out in so many ways. First of all the condensed pageantry of it all: flags and gowns and mortar boards – and over in under 55 minutes. And the attention to detail, even so far as to finding out which Welsh university I went to, and acquiring the right academic gown.

In the course of those 55 minutes I discovered why ‘academics’ on these occasions, walk in such a grave and stately manner. It’s the mortar boards. They’re not secure; no grip; the slightest nod sees them sliding down your face. I walked like Eliza Doolittle.

I said goodbye to Ron’s parents and they took me out on their boat on Great South Bay, drank for the last time in Pub 74 and saw ‘Feud’ and ‘Haywire’( where are those bands now?) The days were creeping by…Ron’s bathroom cleaned…then the apartment…then the bank and my 2000 dollars spending money – boosted by a five dollar gift (a drink on her) from Sister Vera and an eighty dollar gift from Sister Kathleen.
And then it was over.

In the taxi taking me to the Aventours coach I passed familiar streets. I thought of John Scanlon, his disappointment that I didn’t find the mustard in McSorley’s Old Ale House particularly hot, his track coaching with Kathy Godish and talented runners like Maureen Murphy…In fact we passed the street where I saw him heaving and white, having just finished a New York Marathon. That was weird, all of them draped in tin-foil looking like exotic insects, barely able to stand…Even on my way to somewhere else, my mind wouldn’t let go. I was leaving New York and hating it.

The oldest pub in New York (1854) serving really nice beer. John told me Abraham Lincoln had a drink here. Shame he didn't drink there more often instead of going to a theatre

* I stil haven't out if it's the same Suzanne Collins the present, best-selling YA author.