James McArthur in the studio

4th February 2013

Down to Welling for a little view of James McArthur recording his new single. Drums, piano, guitar, vocals, mandolin, violin… This is real.

Dreaming In Colour part v)

30th January 2013

Dreaming In Colour – First Impressions of Kerala, south India

v) Karikathi Beach, then Kovalam, aka The Last Resort

Rain drips from the coconut palms like thick black coffee, hot, viscous, strong, dangerous. The oil drips onto my head, hot, dirty, a little crude, Marmite black. The sky is black, then white. Bombs and sheet lightning then nothing, dark matter, empty and endless, old eyes staring into space. The mosquitos come into the mosque, shoes off, to escape the deluge. Red hibiscus runs riot up the walls leaving pink stains like white emulsion mixed with a little blood. The waves crash round the house. The tuna fishing fleet flash their lights and sing in time with the waves – we are fireflies, we are sand crabs, we are burning plastic, we are sandalwood powder, we are A.K. Naboodeer’s amazing toothpaste, come to make your teeth gleaming white, naturally. The tuna fishing fleet, hundreds of lights bobbing on the horizon like fireflies. Crack. The branch of the coconut palm falls in slow motion and strikes my right cheek bone. I fall helter skelter down the Indian Coffee Shop slide, to the beach, and into the waves. The mosque is steaming, the crows are pecking at my ankles, the sea eagle circles then drops, heading for the crown of my head. Up and down, the boats bob up and down, the lighthouse spins, swarms of mosquitos race round, following the light. Where are the fishing nets? It’s raining. A mosquito is helping itself to a blood transfusion from my right arm. The ceiling fan is off because of a power cut, and we forgot the mosquito net. Damn. Awake. Night time in paradise. And back into the next big breaker. The mynah bird is wearing a tea towel on his head. His head rocks from side to side. He smiles a beaky smile. Fresh. Fresh. He keeps repeating the word he learnt earlier from the proprietor of the Ayurvedic Treatment Centre. He is talking about their massage oil. I can’t tell if he means – yes, it is fresh; no of course it’s not fresh, you idiot; or if he is simply parroting the word, parroting, like the birds in Battersea Park, green and totally out of place. They should be here with the crows. A thousand tuk tuk drivers, heads nodding from side to side. Free. Free. We are free, they chant. The rain stops. Dawn arrives suddenly like the Kerala express pulling into Ernakulam Junction. First there is black; then a light; then the whole train arrives all at once; car after car after car – general compartment, sleeper, sleeper, sleeper, ladies only, chair car, chair car, chair car 2AC, first class. The rain has stop. Dawn has arrived suddenly to wake me. I am under the net. My arm is itching. It is the beginning of another day in paradise, the boats are one their way home, time to get up and swim before breakfast.

This is the rope that makes me one rupee. This is the rope that makes me one rupee. At 4am every day the family who live behind our de-luxe luxury apartment on the beach (sea view from bedroom) get up and start making rope. The rope is made from the stringy insides of coconuts, soaked in water for six months then wound round two ancient iron contraptions by the ancient father while the ancient mother and the pretty daughter feed and twist the scraps of dry, hair-like twine. Feed and twist, twist and wind, all day long from 4am. Each piece of rope, about three metres long, can be sold for one rupee. Feed and twist. Twist and wind. Another piece off the production line. You can’t really buy anything with one rupee, but ten or twenty is enough to make a meal. Feed and twist, twist and wind, every day in the dust and the dark, every day in the sun and the heat, every day in the heat and the rain. If you listen closely, just before dawn, you can hear the sound of the ancient winding from our de-luxe apartment (sea view from upstairs bedroom). Meanwhile, up the steps and over the hill, the rich and fat of Europe are slowly grilling in their sun loungers like freshly caught, shiny sardines on individual luxury grills. In the two weeks we have been here these are the most miserable looking people we have seen. Perhaps they should read the words outside the Ramraj Cotton (for the Prestigious People) Shop: “Don’t always presume yourself with a feeling of superiority over others. Don’t be greedy and crave more than what you need.” Thathuvagnani Vethathiri Maharishi

Feed and twist. Twist and wind. Would we Europeans be happier if we couldn’t afford to come here? Would it be better for the people here if we didn’t come? When we do come, is it possible to make a reasonable transaction when our economies are so different? Is it stupid to explain that at home we are not rich? At home we work hard to please other people. We are all the same.Trying to make our way as best we can with the skills that we have and the luck of where and when we were born. We are (mostly) good people who want to be treated as we would treat others. We want to talk, we want to help, but what can we do alone? We can’t buy enough saris and dhotis to make a difference. We can trade, cooperate, communicate, try to understand a little, talk about micro banks and Asian tigers; spices and skills and fishing boats; education and family and life long friendship. We can talk and we can listen. Listen when Alex tells us that there are no poor people in south India. Everyone here is rich because this is an abundant paradise, he assures us with a smile, pouring dark brown coffee into pale white cups. This is God’s Own Country, no matter who your god happens to be, you will be fine. Everything is in balance. There is night and day, dreams and reality, he smiles again and pours a little milk, turning the coffee to muddy brown. For every problem there is a solution. Here you can somehow live a good, simple life, and be happy. And that is enough; truly, that is enough.

“Health is wealth, peace of mind is happiness.” Swami Vishnudevananda

Dreaming In Colour part iv)

28th January 2013

Dreaming In Colour – First Impressions of Kerala, south India

iv) North Kumbalangi Island, just a short Tuk Tuk ride from Fort Kochi

Next time you happen to be in Fort Kochi, turn left on Princess Road, towards the church and the post office. Perhaps stop off at Tea Pot for a pot of tea on the way but definitely follow your nose to the essential oil shops and the women’s cooperative selling spices, remembering to hold said nose when you go over the lime green, slime green, snake green river that snakes around the town carrying all sorts of unidentified effluent very slowly from nowhere in particular to somewhere else not that far from where it started. Inside the oil shop ask the friendly assistant about dark oily black musk; fresh, clear white gardenia; complex, overflowing Kerala flower. Let essential oils drip like olfactory poetry onto your arms. Frangipani makes me sneeze. I love the word more than the fragrance – fran-gi-pa-ni, exotic, full of promise and expectation. Bitter amber to make you thoughtful; zesty lime to give you a new lease of life; coffee to clear your thoughts; green orchid for that special, sensual moment. The spice shop is run by seven women. The one husband present, all moustache and belly and folded arms, raises an eyebrow to me in the simple, international language of men, saying, simply – women, eh? – as we pile up spices, ready for purchase. Saffron, vanilla, chilli flakes, star anise, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, all go into the plastic tray. I step outside and husband follows. He tells me that he drives an Ashok Leyland bus, just come off shift, on the chaotic city streets, and wonders if there are any opportunities for such drivers in London. Wonders if the wages are good. Wonders if I can sponsor him and help him to get there. What can I say? The wages are good. He could earn in a week what he earns here in a month. But the prices are high. You can’t really make the comparison. Most of the money would go on rent and heating and lighting and a coat and boots and eating and surviving. That’s what most people do in the UK, with a little drinking and watching TV and shopping on the side. It’s just like here really, but without the goats wandering down the street and the heat and the tuk tuks; and the spices and the power cuts; and the colour and the craziness; and the smiles and the sunshine; and the creeks and the Chinese fishing nets.

The Chinese fishing nets dangle over the backwaters; wooden cantilevered constructions that look spider-like, ancient, alien, strange. At night the nets are lowered into the two metre deep, brackish, bath-warm water. A light is turned on above the nets. The prawns and small fish are attracted to the lights. The nets are pulled up. The fisherman have prawns to sell and eat. The poor allegorical prawns and gullible fish believe that when their friends and family ‘go to the the light’, as they like to call it, and never return, they are ascending to a better place, up above in the sky outside the water, somewhere high above in the place called air, where there is nothing to breathe, they believe they are going to some kind of prawny, fishy heaven.

We follow the signs to Jew Town. Synagogue 0.3m it says, and underneath – God’s Own Country. The arrow is, naturally, pointing up. The synagogue, built in the 16th century, is a new addition to our collection of religious establishments. It is a little understated compared to the really rather over the top, brightly painted Hindu temples that are in direct competition with the sparkly icing sugar white churches. There is a bunting war going in the streets around them and a sound clash at festival time. Hindu or Christian, these elongated religious services are about the only thing that you could call night life round here. Once the sun sets, around 6:30, the rush is on for home and supper, something involving prawns and spices most probably, and bed, unless there is a do at the church or the temple or the synagogue or the mosque of course.

Dreaming In Colour part iii)

27th January 2013

Dreaming In Colour, First Impression of Kerala, south India

iii) New Year’s Eve, Cardamom Hills, Western Ghats

The taxi driver takes us up 1600m from sea level to hill station. When the hills stop rolling and we start climbing properly something strange happens. My fingers, which for days have looked like little pumped up plastic bananas, start to deflate; the outside temperature is dipping into the low 30s and my body is adapting fast; moving from tropical survival mode with as much water as possible in the skin for cooling, to European mode, something closer to normal rest. Something more like me. As we pass 1000m it actually feels like I am shrinking, Alice in Wonderland style. Presumably my brain is contracting. Perhaps there is room for more thoughts to spark, for more feelings to be felt. I am definitely more me than I was by the sea. It’s not often that you get philosophical in a taxi, but when it’s a seven hour ride up a mountain there is surely enough time for a little self-examination. I think about Vishnu’s definition of the self not being the shirt on your back, which you can take off and discard; not being your finger, which you can cut off and live without; but being something other, something outside or more than your body. This of course is some kind of definition of a soul, a consciousness that is not tied to the earth. I think that the self is very much connected to the body and physical awareness and well being. This ascending, this shrinking, is a fine example of that idea in action. In this new coherent state, even the monkeys in the trees I can see out of the window don’t stop me from feeling that I am in the Alps; that this area is more familiar, more European of course. In fact, the climate is a little more friendly but we are still passing banana trees. This is still the Alps gone wild, bursting green in a thousand shades. Morning glory climbs the power lines and wraps it in flowing robes of green and purple; Angels Trumpets flow like white linen sheets over the rocks and pour down the hillside to meet the rising tide of cardamom plants lapping at the too small safety wall at the edge of the road. At points we come to a complete stop, then the car creeps forward, on all fours, over the pot-holed, pock-marked teenage skin of a road surface; at others we speed past a slow moving milk lorry, on the wrong side of the road, horn screaming – I am here, I am me, please do not be a large bus or lorry traveling, without screaming horn and without due care, on the right side of the road in the opposite direction. We have been to the temple and said the correct prayers and we have a small picture of Shiva on the dashboard and a little paste from the temple on our foreheads, so let our separate consciousnesses, and more importantly our separate and ever so fragile human bodies, remain intact inside this beautiful car, cleaned this morning, especially for the trip; and not splattered all over the not really at all European looking vertiginous slopes of this jungle hillside.

Yesterday we watched the sun fall into the mist above the Lakshadweep Sea on the Malabar Coast. Today we saw the same sun, this time tinged deep pink, sink smiling into the mist over the Cardamom Hills. Over there where the sun is setting is the coast; to our left the unexplored lands of Tamil Nadu. We are 170km from Madurai; 1.5km from the Perikanal tea factory; 500m from S.J. Tea Stall where sweet, milky tea with cardamom in tiny china cups costs ten rupees. S.J. makes it on his gas burner and pours it long, from one pan to another, to get the blend just right. This morning we were swimming in the ocean, tonight we are watching whole thunderstorms in the mountains. It’s the last day of the year and it feel like such a privilege to be here. To have been lucky enough to have been born somewhere with enough technology and with enough opportunities to make enough cash to allow us to explore another part of the world purely for our own pleasure; just because we want to and we can; even though filling our heads with these images is ultimately pretty pointless, unless perhaps we can share this feeling that life is a privilege with our friends and family back home. Who needs a new year party when nature is laying on a celestial light show, right there, flashing through the leaves of the banana trees? Who needs anything more than this and a cup of S.J.’s tea?

Tea, tea, it’s all about tea. It is possible that this whole adventure was formulated over a cup of tea and pivoted around the idea of seeing a place where tea comes from. Tea, that delicious drink that we drink every day; that delicious, stimulating drink that we take for granted; that delicious, stimulating, social drink that is the beginning of every conversation at the beginning of every visit to everybody’s house – would you like a cup of… – that delicious, stimulating, social, soothing drink that we reach for in times of stress and crisis, – have a cup of… , that will make you feel better – that delicious, stimulating, social, soothing drink that is part of the fabric of life.

So, after a light breakfast in streaming sunlight and a little light walking up hill and up muddy hill through the cardamom plantation, we are there, at the source, in a sea of tea leaves; perfectly good tips. We step into the green waves, waist deep in lush leaf and scratching branch; understanding now why the lady tea pickers wrap skirts of plastic round their waists when they take to the waves. Two leaves and a tip, two leaves and a tip, into the bag, or snip snip, give the plant a haircut with some oversize scissors with high sides to hold the crop till it is time for it to flow into the maté sack. Two leaves and a tip, we wade deeper, following a cow who seems as lost as we are, further into the flow. The patterns become strokes of the rake of an imaginary japanese bonsai zen gardener, the cow and me are bonsai too, shrinking, miniatures in this epic manicured landscape; tiny glitches in the mountain wide topiary, hand snipped by gangs of hired scissor hands. The tea climbs the hills in avenues set at ridiculous angles, spilling out of the cup in more green waves; into the saucer. We are wild elephants heading for a break in the fence, searching for the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border. We are the tea in the cup; we are the spoon stirring the tea; we are are the mountains and the sky. We are green peppercorns drying in the sun; we are red coffee beans drying in the sun; we are black cocoa beans drying in the sun; we are green chillies drying in the sun; we are brown coconut husks drying in the sun; we are rice seeds flying through the air; we are long beans hanging on the vine; we are cardamom picked and packed in sacks; we are forest green saris drying in the sun; we are the cockerel eating rice next to the dog outside the tea stall; we are peeled tapioca in a plastic pot; we are eagles on the thermals; we are dissolving into the green tea; we are disappearing into the plantation; we are lost in the leafy green tea leaves; we are tea dust; we are star dust; we are ten drummers drumming our new year beat; we are sparks from fireworks in the tea green sky; we are evergreen; we are tiny; floating like tea leaves in time and space. This is it, the pivot point, the whole point, the perfectly good tipping point, the tip top of the trip, 1700 metres high and feeling leafy and green, ever so leafy and green.

Every year, in January, there is a tiger census. The wild tigers who spend most of the year roaming through the forest, hunting and sleeping and being generally carnivorous carnivores with very sharp teeth, make their way to the state government tiger census office at Perikanal to fill in their census forms. The tigers use a claw, dripping in ink made from goats bloods and thickened with curry powder from the Malabar Food Stuffs Company factory down in the valley. They try not to rip the paper when they make their scratchy crosses on the census form. There are questions about appearance: Do you consider yourself to be: extremely stripy very stripy quite stripy not that stripy at all There are questions about reach (where the tigers have been traveling in the past twelve months): Have you been to: Matupetty Munnar Bison Valley Kurangi Hills Eravikulam National Park And there are questions about diet: In the past twelve months have you eaten: goat water buffalo rabbit egret human. This trick question always makes the tigers snigger a little. They all know the consequences of putting a bloody cross in that particular box.

Prinil is leading us down into the valley, the one we can see from the verandah; the rice paddies, the coconut palms, the orange and blue and pink houses; tiny boats bobbing on a sea of green. The long night of the soul has been replaced with dreams of a different hue. Verdant, fragrant, spicy, like bitter sweet lime chutney. Down through the deep, dreamy shade of the cardamom plantation; down past coffee plants with their red fruits, ripe and ready for picking; down past olive green pepper seeds cascading down vines wound tightly round choking trees; down past granite rocks blasted to make the houses in times long past; down to the cardamom seller in his breeze block shop, small desk surrounded by fat, white, fragrant bags of green gold. Past the paddies, flat and still in the shimmer of mid day sun; split into portions big enough to feed a family, with two harvests a year; past a ripe crop of bitter gourd, so pale green it is almost white, like the last block before pure white on a paint colour chart, bitter gourd, all mandalas and spirals spinning outwards and outwards. Beyond all this, the best ever 3D geography lesson, a trip to the long defunct Commonwealth Institute, now damp and covered in purple morning glory, lies something special. Prinil’s plan is parked in the drive of a freshly painted, bright orange house. It is a jet black bus chassis, bare and raw metal, freshly purchased from the Ashok Leyland factory, at a very good price for such a piece of quality engineering, body and wheels and engine and cab and everything. In 42 days he, or his partner, or his uncle, or his uncle’s brother will drive this hulking chunk of steel back up the mountain, from the valley floor, and down the other side to Kochi where it will be fitted with the most beautiful, well made, hand crafted bus body in the whole of Kerala and Tamil Nadu combined. And once attached to the extremely solid base with an excessively powerful engine, this bus will carry tourists around the sights of the hillside and the valley floor, the plantation and the farm land. And maybe, just maybe, one day, on such a trip, fully booked and sold out weeks in advance, tourists packed tight in the seats clutching their freshly wrapped packets of fragrant cardamom and double strength tea; one day, one of the tourists will look out of the bus and shout – tiger! – there, in the trees, extremely stripy, no more than a kilometre from Matupetty, eating a human, the census was wrong, he really is eating a human.

Isolated

24th January 2013

Isolated Mix by Orion & J Shore including first play of their version of the Chris Coco classic My Sunset.