In Search of Andy Goldsworthy

Yesterday, for the second time, I failed to follow the Andy Goldsworthy sculpture trail around West Dean. The first attempt was a couple of years back, with my friend Sophie. That time we were defeated by mud and unreliable directions, with Sophie announcing  that “I’m not sure who this Andy Goldsworthy fellow is, but I don’t want anything more to do with the man.”

It’s probably a good thing we did turn back on that trip, since I’d not realised that the end of the trail would have left us about 3 miles from where we’d parked. I’m not sure Sophie would have liked that surprise.

My walk yesterday was with another friend, John, part of a day exploring West Sussex. We started with a visit to Kingley Vale and its forest of yew trees, some of them thought to be 2000 years old. Many of the tree’s centres have been rotted out by a fungus called ‘Chicken of the Woods’. And, yes, wikipedia’s entry on this does include a link to the tastes-like-chicken entry.

It’s pretty impressive to be near a living thing that is that old. Apparently the area was a firing range used by British and Canadian troops in the preparations for D-Day, and some of the trees contain bullet-holes. On the hill above the yews are some amazing views down to the sea:

Our first failure of the day was an attempt to visit the Clock Trust Museum, said to be the location of a working time machine. Sadly this is now by appointment only, so we continued on to the not-amusingly-named village of Cocking, the start of the Goldsworthy sculpture trail.

The trail features over a dozen chalk boulders along a five-mile stretch of the south downs. Some accounts say 13, others 14 – which fits in with the folklore about stone monuments being impossible to count. We set off uphill, along a stretch of the South Downs Way. I’d walked this last August but had no memory of the particular path until I turned back and saw the view towards Cocking, which finally sparked some memories.

The leaflet and map for the trail makes it sound straightforward. The first time we turned back because of mud and unsuitable footwear after finding just one of the boulders. This time, because of weather, we also stopped after one stone. While I would never turn back because of rain, John had come out only in light clothes and would have soon been soaked to the skin. We retreated to Uppark, a National Trust property in search of food and history – which we found, although we paid a high price for both.

We ended the day with a climb to see the Vandalian tower, a folly erected in 1774 to celebrate the founding of the American state of Westsylvania. When the colony failed, the site was abandoned and now lies in ruins, protected by fences and dire warnings.

At some point, I need to come back and make a serious attempt to see these stones. Not because I’m that big a fan of Goldsworthy – I like his art, but not three trips worth – rather, I just hate the idea of having failed at such a simple hike.

The weirdest thing about the day was finding myself on sections of the South Downs Way and finding it so hard to recall the landscapes. I’d have expected the scenes to stick in my head. It took a few minutes before I realised that I had also been to Harting Down.

The Lives of Three Wattles, the Life of a Hound;
The Lives of Three Hounds, the Life of a Steed;
The Lives of Three Steeds, the Life of a Man;
The Lives of Three Men, the Life of an Eagle;
The Lives of Three Eagles, the Life of a Yew;
The Lives of Three Yews, the Length of an Age.



My approach to walking can probably be summed up by my boots and how inappropriate they are.

My first long walk was in August/September last year. I’d done some epic day walks, but nothing longer. I’d been meaning to walk the South Downs Way for a long time – probably twenty years or more. Finally, I picked a date and committed to it.

I walked the route in my DMs. By the end of the fourth day, standing in bare feet was agony. I hobbled and limped my way through the last two days, aching but undefeated. And a lot of people asked me what I thought I was doing by walking in DMs. I figured it was better to walk in the wrong footwear than not at all.

The thing is, if I’d had to get the right boots, I wouldn’t have gone. Organising the walk, packing, and so on was enough trouble. If I’d had to invest in a expensive footwear, with all the doubt and uncertainty over that… the walk would not have happened. So I set out and dealt with the consequences. It wasn’t a great decision, but it was the right one. And, actually, a lot of people make hiking sound far too difficult.

Many years ago, the punk fanzine Sideburns printed a famous picture (later reprinted in Sniffin’ Glue). It showed three guitar chords and declared: “here’s one chord, here’s another, and another: now form a band”. The great thing about punk was that it made it seem easy to form a band and play music. And while punk spawned hundreds of terrible single-gig bands, it also produced raw and exciting bands that would never have existed otherwise. That punk spirit is an amazing thing.

And that’s the approach I have to hiking. It’s supposed to be simple, something anyone can do. You can make it as difficult as you like, or straightforward. You don’t even need to get to a trail: like Will Self, you can set out from your own door, and walk as far as you can. It doesn’t require exotic expeditions: Alastair Humphreys has written a lot about microadventures. You don’t even need to go anywhere new – the situationists came up with strategies for defamiliarising well-known neighbourhoods.

And I’m not the only person to have taken a slipshod approach to footwear. Even proper walkers like Tristan Gooley get this wrong. In the introduction to his Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, Gooley describes a walk made in his twenties, from Scotland to London. Three weeks in, crossing the peak district, Gooley encountered some proper walkers, with all the right gear. They warned that he probably didn’t want to continue in his “£19 trainers”, then asked where he came from. Gooley took pride in shocking the walkers by saying he had come from Scotland.

I’ve got the boots now, but I still take pride in looking nothing like a proper walker.  In my heart, I’m not walking because I’m boring or middle-aged. In my heart, walking is subversive and thrilling. I’m not a walker. I’m…

The October Ritual

At the start of the year, one of my favourite bands in the world, The Indelicates, got in touch about collaborating on a launch event for their album Juniverbrecher. We decided the best way to do this was with a magic ritual to end Brexit.

There’s a clear precedent for this sort of thing. In 1967, the Yippies set up a ritual to levitate the Pentagon in protest at the Vietnam war. Even if you’ve not heard of this event, you’ll have seen some of the photos from it, when hippies placed flowers in the soldiers gun-barrels. There are some great stories about the day, with Arthur magazine’s novella sized account being a great place to start.

One of the best parts of running this event is helping to put the bill together. One of the support acts will be John Higgs, whose book Watling Street explores what it means to be British. I now know John in person, but I read his first book, a biography of Timothy Leary back in 2010, when Scott Pack gave me a review copy. Each book since has been increasingly strange and powerful. Watling Street draws together a lot of strange threads, and talks about national identity as something positive and inclusive. It’s a great book and each time I’ve seen John talk about it has been enthralling. We will be announcing additional support in the coming weeks.

Aleister Crowley defined magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” – although, in this case, we’re going against the supposed will of the people. We’re really excited to welcome ritual magician Cat Vincent to carry out the binding and exorcism that will defeat Brexit. I first met Cat at John Reppion’s Spirits of Place event, where he gave a talk about, among other things, his 2014 working which is still leading to strange and wonderful ripples – the next one being September’s Festival 23 event in Brighton, “Is a hotdog a sandwich?”

The album itself is fantastic. The previous Indelicates record, Elevator Music was more optimistic – this is a bit more like 2013’s Diseases of England. I might use the word ‘hauntology’ to describe this new record, if that word hadn’t be banned. Besides which, this album has some great tunes, which a lot of hauntological music doesn’t bother with. It focusses on the darker things that led up to Brexit, a Britain where the figures of Mr. Punch and Jimmy Saville lurk in the boiler room. My favourite track, Everything English, contains the lyric “We told you so”. Given the scathing predictions in earlier Indelicates records, it’s amazing they didn’t use that for the title of the record; and all of the lyrics.

There might have been ways to deliver a great Brexit but what we’ve been given is a fiasco. I’ve read Daniel Hannan, I’ve tried to understand what we are getting out of this, and I am baffled. A mixture of pride, spite and arrogance is about to send us rushing into a massive, complex restructuring of our society. It’s like a GCSE student turning up to perform heart surgery. It’s a mess, a fiasco, and we’re about to be isolated and  trapped and on an island full of ghosts.

Unless… something wonderful and magical happens to stop this. If you want to see our attempt, tickets are available now…

Lonely Planet

In 1972, Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled overland through Asia, all the way from England to Australia, arriving with just 27 cents in their pockets. On returning to England, people kept asking for the details of their journey, so much so that the Wheelers decided to make a guidebook. In 1973 they worked at their kitchen table to write, type and staple ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’. (A free editions is available on Kindle) They needed a company name, so took Lonely Planet from a song called ‘Space Captain’ by Matthew Moore – although later learned that the actual lyric was ‘Lovely Planet’.

The guide book was evangelical about the idea of making the overland journey, explaining that for the price of an airline ticket between England and Australia, one could travel overland for two or three months. Only a few guides were being written at the time and 1500 copies of their guidebook sold in the first week, launching an empire. Another, more complete guide followed, establishing the reputation of the company.

The first Lonely Planet guide took 94 pages to explain the months of travelling through Asia – still finding time to discuss each country’s history and offer a quirky guide to the religions that would be encountered. It explained how to navigate embassies, how to receive post on the way, and some of the organised tours that were available – although you could make the journey alone if you were brave. It even listed countries where you could sell blood if you ran out of money (“Price for Blood in Kuwait is probably the highest in the world, sell a pint or two if you are broke”). The guidebook has a ramshackle charm, with just enough information to work with: “The most useful source of extra info will be your fellow travellers. People coming from the opposite direction will have all the latest on the hassles coming for you.

This first guidebook describes a very different experience for travellers. It suggests signing ‘passing-through’ books at embassies, to leave a trail in case one disappears. It advises carrying a good set of clothes for embassies and borders, even going as far as to recommend haircuts or ‘short-hair wigs’ for getting into Singapore without hassle. That book also has a troubling sense of ethics; talking about the Iranian carpet industry it says that “Strict child labour laws are gradually weakening the industry, so buy now while children are still exploited!”

At this point there were too few travellers to have much effect on Indian food, and Wheeler is disparaging about it. “Can be miserable. India is where you lose weight on this trip.” The Wheelers claim that street stalls and cafés might be unsanitary; the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place is described as ‘Delhi’s freak bottleneck’; The best food is said to be found on the railway stations. While the book is dismissive of Indian food, it does better than Pakistan’s, which is dismissed in three curt words – “As for India”.

Over the years, the Lonely Planet went from a scrappy publication, giving you just enough information to survive, to something comprehensive and authoritative. The latest editions of the guide to India are around 1200 pages, compared to the 94 which covered the whole route from England to Australia. The Lonely Planet is in the strange position of being by far the most successful tourist guide company in the world, worth $77 million in 2014, while also being denigrated for its effects on the world. Even the first guide was aware of the effect of travellers, complaining that “the charm of Bali shows every indication of being rapidlty eroded by tourists”.

For someone like myself, who is not a natural traveller, the Lonely Planet guides have proved invaluable. They gave me the confidence to explore places I would not have gone to otherwise. At times, they’ve mislead me in entertaining ways – some of the city maps have little value beyond showing you that there are locations within a city and they are in different places. But, while there is much debate over the problems caused by guidebooks, in my life own they have been a power of good.

More on politics and curry

I assumed I’d said everything I could about curry and politics following recent posts on May, Cameron and Brexit. But, according to Chris Parkinson, there is much more to say. Chris is something of an expert on politicians and food, maintaining a Facebook page on the Eating Habits of Politicians. He sent me a barrage of links:.

When the manager of his local north London curry house called in to ask if his curries were improving his speeches, Miliband laughed and said he thought they definitely were, before admitting that he doesn’t like his takeaways very spicy. “David Cameron takes his extra spicy,” the interviewer told him, to which Miliband replied sardonically that clearly that’s because Cameron “is a really tough guy”.

  • I knew that I’d left out Robin Cook’s chicken tikka masala speech. But that probably deserves a post all of its own.
  • An article in the Independent from 2008 uses the headline The Great Balti Bailout and discusses how “The biggest deal in British financial history was stitched together by a Treasury team working into the early hours fuelled by takeaway curries“. The food came from Gandhi’s in Kennington, which has some impressive customer comments, including two former Prime Ministers.
  • Chris went on to add: “Possibly my favourite curry in recent political history is Alastair Darlings £600 takeaway on the brink of the financial crisis, an evening that culminated in Sarah Brown mistaking him for one of her children and sending him to bed.” I’m now trying to track down a source for that story.

I assume this covers most of the stories about politicians and curry – or, at least, the ones from recent years. But I suspect there are more to be uncovered. As a related item, here is an excruciating video of an interview with Zac Goldsmith, who ran a horrendous campaign in the 2016 London Mayoral election. In this footage, he claims to love Bollywood, but is awkwardly reluctant to name any films or stars.

The worst Indian meal I ever had

Yesterday I posted about the worst curry I’ve had in the UK, and I mentioned the Mulai Kofta incident. I realised afterwards that I’d not told the story on this blog.

On my first trip to India I travelled to Khajuraho, a few hundred miles from Delhi. The town is famous for its erotic temple carvings, which draw travellers from around the world. Tourist businesses had grown up there but, when I visited, the town was quiet, shops and restaurants almost empty. There were so few visitors that touts would follow for hours, almost one per tourist. The tourists had begun to visit on coach tours, which didn’t stop long. The passengers would eat in resorts outside Khajuarho. It’s a lovely town, but you can do the main attractions in a couple of hours.

On that first, nervous trip to India I tended to follow the Lonely Planet closely and took their recommendation of a place for dinner one evening. “Nothing flash about this place with plastic chairs, but the food’s good – the mulai kofta (mashed potato balls with onion, spices and curry sauce) particularly so”. It sounded perfect. I took a seat on the roof, ordered the mulai kofta, and drank a beer. I was the only person in the restaurant but was prepared to risk it for a good meal.

Kofta is found across the middle east and Asia, and would have come to the Madhya Pradesh district when it was under Mughal rule in the early 16th century. The name of the dish translates literally as cream dumplings. As far as eating Mulai Kofta went, this was the place to do it.

The dish was terrible. The rice was weirdly crunchy, the dumplings bland and unappetising. I think the regular chef was off, and the food was reheated from the day before. As I ate a little of the sauce, I wrote up the day’s adventures in my notebook, and the waiter became convinced I must be working for a guidebook. I’m polite to a fault, and didn’t want to embarrass the man for the disastrous meal, and pretended it was all fine, having assured the man I had no connection to the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.

Years later, I was hiking in Essex with my friend Katharine and we ate at a Southend restaurant called Papadum. This place also looked a little odd, brightly lit, but the menu was interesting. It didn’t have familiar British curry dishes like chicken tikka masala or vindaloo. When Katharine ordered, she was firmly told that she should not have extra chilli with her butter chicken. I figured I would try the mulai kofta.

And it was perfect. The dumplings were soft and gingery, the sauce spicy and warm. We chatted with the owner afterwards, and he told us about his enthusiasm for proper Indian dishes, how he wanted to educate his customers away from Anglo-Indian curries. They were doing a great job, and the Essex mulai Kofta easily beat the one from India.

There’s a real irony there. The Khajuraho version of the dish should have been authentic, but the Essex version was much better. I’m all for authenticity in food, but edibility is the most important thing.

Slices of Balti

One of my favourite things about visiting a new place is trying their local curry house. Part of the fun is that it’s a gamble. The photo below was taken on a recent curry expedition with Rosy Carrick. It isn’t great quality, but it’s better than the food was.

Me, Rosy and her daughter were visiting a tiny English town. The place had two respected Thai restaurants and one of the best pizza restaurants in the country – but I insisted that we check out the local curry house. I’m going to call it Slices of Balti, which is not its real name but is almost its real name (*).

The restaurant was pretty much empty, but that means nothing. I’ve been to empty restaurants that were great. With my parents one night, I was turned away from Brighton’s Chilli Pickle when it was empty, and I hear the food there is pretty good. So, faced by an empty small-town curry house, I insisted we go in. I mean, Balti is one of Britain’s national dishes. I was even going to forgo my usual vindaloo to try the dish boasted about in the restaurant’s name.

We gave our orders to the waiter, who spent most of the meal hiding in the back of the restaurant, playing with his phone. I like to think he was searching for jobs in better restaurants. Two sad flies dragged themselves through our table’s airspace.

When the pappadums arrived, Rosy complained to use that they tasted of burnt oil. I didn’t think they tasted that bad, but Rosy’s daughter did. She didn’t say anything though, focusing instead on stopping her mum’s commentary being overheard by the waiter.

Soon, the main course arrived. It was one of the most disappointing dishes I’ve ever eaten. Almost worse than the Malai Kofta I had in Khajuraho. It didn’t taste much of curry, being more of an English vegetable stew with a little curry powder. Sad potatoes, cauliflower and carrot floated in an anaemic sauce.

Thing is, every restaurant can have its bad days. I’ve had very good curry houses serve meat in my vegetarian dishes – hundreds of other people have had amazing experiences there, including me. Maybe this place was usually much better. But there was a flop-sweat feeling to this place, that melancholy of failing restaurants.

As we left the restaurant, a couple of other people came in. I wondered if we should warn them to save themselves, to turn around and head for one of the Thai places. But then, if I was going to save anyone, it should be the waiters, who’d be trapped there all night. We should clear the kitchen, take everyone to the pub, and get so drunk we ended the night singing.

We left quietly and disappeared into the night. But I wonder if I should reach out, make a call and ask Slices of Balti if everything is OK?

(*) That is totally not my joke, but was stolen from Shit Theatre. Sorry.

Horror and Harlow

I spent several years living in Harlow. It’s a place I loathe. I would gladly see it evacuated and used for military target practise. Or just left empty to collapse as a warning to future generations.

I can only think of two good things about Harlow. One was the Parndon Woods, which were large enough to that I could pretend that the town was far away. The other was the library. As a teenager, with little money and lots of curiosity, the library was vital to me. Nowadays, the Internet would do the same job and do it better but, back then, the library was the only access I had to interesting culture.

I could borrow tapes and listen to indie bands I’d read about but nobody at school was listening to. I borrowed the first Manics album and Dinosaur Jr’s Where You Been from there. I had to order Naked Lunch in from another library. I’m not sure I understood it then (I’m not sure I get it now) but I had a chance to grapple with it. But my favourite thing was the shelf of horror fiction. A run of anthologies, such as the Splatterpunks collection, and various Best New Horror anthologies.

When I was a child, I thought that the reason horror films were 18-rated was that they would send a young mind mad. This was an easy impression to get from the video nasty panic that ran throughout my childhood. Horror seemed dangerous and forbidden. I read the back-cover blurb of books in WHSmith with dread.

The first horror story I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin at 11 or 12. I found it incredibly disturbing but, at the same time, I was amazed by the profound effect it had. All the best horror stories have that physical thrill of sensation. Clive Barker’s In the Hills, In the Cities is one of the great short stories, and gains power from the grim imagery.

The Best New Horror series introduced me to some great writing. In writing horror, many of the authors pushed the boundaries of language and imagery.  Secretly, of all my literary ambitions, the strongest is to become a horror writer. I loved those stories, some of them so very well crafted.

I’ve no love for Harlow. If someone told me they were going to use it for nuclear testing, I’d celebrate that. I can afford to buy my own paperbacks now – I just don’t have as much time to read. Those few shelves in the library weren’t part of the new town plan, but they are the only bit I thought worthwhile.

Bob Lives!

I was really happy to see this sticker a while back:


Long ago, around the turn of the century, the Bob Dobbs symbol was everywhere in Brighton. Inspired by the American Church of the Subgenius, Jim Bob began to use the Dobbs head as a symbol for parties and general mayhem. He gave an excellent talk on this at the Wellebourne Society a few years back.

As with most interesting things going on in Brighton around then, I knew it was happening and never did much about it – although I did enjoy one of their pre-election fundraisers at the Concorde 2.

The story of the Brighton subgeniuses is a fun one, with an entire movement accidentally being created. My favourite part of the story was the visit by the Church of the Subgenius’s American founders to see what was going on (and to ask about the cut of the merchandising they were supposed to get).

At one point, in the ’90s, the Brighton [group] had a whole “Bob” storefront… they almost won a local election with “Bob” – Rev. Jim in a Giant-Dobbshead mask — running under the Dobbs Free Party banner; PISS, an air guitar band with Kiss-style Dobbsheaded members, had an actual recording contract… To many [Brighton people], the Dobbshead had always signified only a great party at Jim’s. They’d no idea that there were also dozens of books, CDs and films, assembled by hundreds of Subgenii from every other place in the world BESIDES Brighton. It was an almost Galapagos-like evolutionary situation, whereby a whole species had been cut off from its fellows and had advanced along completely different evolutionary lines.

It’s good to see the Dobbshead turn up about the place again. I may not have been anywhere near this when it happened at the time, but it’s still a sign of the Brighton I love, a place of odd stories and strange societies.


David Cameron’s Curry Curse

It turns out that Teresa May is not the only Conservative leader to have jinxed a curry house. While researching the ongoing problems between British curry restauranteurs and the leave campaign, I learned that David Cameron has also brought bad luck.

There are strong links between the British Curry industry and politicians. This has a formal committee in theBritish Curry Catering Industry All-Party Parliamentary Group. The industry has strong lobbying groups, and politicians are eager to woo them – as you’d expect for an industry worth about £4½ billion). And, back in 2006, as leader of the opposition, Cameron used curry as part of his “unprecedented bid to woo the ethnic vote“.

When asked his favourite restaurant, Cameron said “You cannot beat a curry at The Khas Tandoori in Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Green, or curried goat from one of the street vendors during the Notting Hill Carnival.”

Back in the day. Gordon Brown professed a love of pop band the Arctic Monkeys, but was unable to give the name of any of their songs. An Evening Standard investigation of Cameron’s favourite curry house found a similar deception:

David Cameron may name The Khas Tandoori Restaurant as his favourite ethnic eaterie — but the owners seemed a little bemused. When manager Jomshed Miah was asked if he knows who David Cameron is he replied ‘Yes, of course’. But when asked whether Mr Cameron has ever dined in his restaurant, Mr Miah paused before replying: ‘I don’t think so. I have not seen him in here — maybe he orders take-aways.’

A big fan of Indian food, David Cameron has stated “I like a pretty hot curry.” The night of the 2010 election, which saw him elected Prime Minister, Cameron was eating in the Shaan Restaurant in Witney, Oxfordshire. In October 2013,the Shaan was raided and three men arrested for working illegally.

This is similar to what happened to the Innovation restaurant in Maidenhead, which was opened by Theresa May. If I was running an Indian restaurant, I’d be nervous about any endorsement by a Conservative Leader.