Friday, June 22, 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Singapore Swing

Changi Airport in Singapore is outside of time. It's the sort of place that people seem to pass through on their way to somewhere else. In the past I've been on my way to or from KL, Kuching, Jakarta, London and Auckland. The longest I've spent there is about eight hours, the shortest, about an hour. There's something about the tinted windows that limits the amount of natural light. Whenever I'm in the airport it seems like it is either 7am/pm (it's impossible to tell the difference - and most of the time my body clock is so confused it wouldn't matter even if I knew), or it's just dark. 7am/pm will drag on for hours. Besides, time is dictated entirely by Boarding 2220, Gate F31. Essentially, time spent in Changi Airport is a hiatus, a stasis.

On Saturday, transit and stasis was from Kuching, Sarawak to London Heathrow. From Kuching the hiatus was half filled by Knut, a German based in Edmonton who works for the Asian Development Bank and spends half the year in Assam and Dhaka. Knut was on his way to Dhaka. At Changi he was focussed on spending the contents of his wallet on chocolate. He had to exactly spend the contents, $Sing47.20 on chocolate. How very German. I was happy to indulge him. After much consideration and mental gymnastics, he arrived at his selection. Much to his frustration he could only come to a combination that amounted to $Sing47.40.

After we explored the free automatic foot masseuses in Concourse F, he efficiently and precisely marched off with his chocolate to Concourse E and Dhaka. I promptly headed for the bar to fill some more lost time.

So, on Saturday night, I'm heading home to ask my girlfriend to marry me and I am sitting on a plastic deflated basketball of a seat the 'Sports Bar'. On the bar in front of me is a half finished pint of Carlsberg and the godlike AA Gill's new book, Previous Convictions. Behind me is a grand piano, which I suspect is there for decor purposes. The pint glass is slowly being drained when the piano starts up. At first, I'm thinking, 'you intrusive bastards', especially as the first track appears to be 'A Groovy Kind of Love' by Phil Collins. However, in contrary to every expectation, Phil's tune becomes passable and then quite enjoyable. I rotate my deflated plastic basketball round to face the band. The bassist is standing right behind me and is a Mexican looking guy in fifties. His little inverted v-shaped mo' decorates a face that is a study in concentration, but his eyes are twinkling. To his right is the pianist. This guy is a stocky Asian guy. He's a lot younger. He's got spiked hair and his pointed buckled shoes are mashing then tap-dancing the pedals. Beyond him, the lid of the grand piano hides the singer. Around the bar, fingers are tapping on bar tables, an Art Garfunkel double changes seat to get a better view, and conversation stops. Beside the bassist an Indian guy is having a great time. His hands are slapping the table and his grin is getting broader.

From Phil Collins, they move onto an outstanding version of 'Georgia on my Mind'. At this point the bar is filling up, passengers are standing in the terminal around it, there's some Antipodeans leaning against pillars, and there's a sense that there aint no better place to be right now. By the time 'From Russia with Love' has finished, the bar tables are starting to buckle as we tap and pound away in time. Most eyes are closed and smiles on faces are universal. Well, nearly universal. The Indian has been joined by two pretty Indian girls, and they want to go. Something about a 'flight leaving now'. Madness. The Indian really doesn't want to go. The two pretty girls persuade him. Right now, I'm feeling for his dilemma. Eventually the music loses out.

A dozen or more years ago Grant, Ben and I travelled down the West coast of New Zealand's South Island to Wanaka, and then on to Te Anau and Milford. In a youth hostel in Te Anau,
Grant brought out his guitar and was playing away quietly. A Japanese guy asked Grant if he could have a go. On handing over the guitar, the guitarist proceeded to play Eric Clapton's Unplugged. Exactly as it was recorded. There was no doubt that there was talent on display, but it was nothing original. I think if Grant had let him, he would have played the whole album from start to finish, and without interpreting a single bar. It was soulless and it was sad. The difference between the guitarist and the band couldn't have been more striking. Every note, every rest, every key change was played with passion and with a love. There's a lot to like about a band that enjoys what they do. I've seen it most prominently in Prague at U Maleho Glenha, where half a dozen jazz musicians crowded onto three square metres of stage and played their hearts out for three hours. It was no band, it was jam night. These guys made it all up, they shared it all around, and the sparkle in their half-closed eyes accompanied smiles to light the smokiest jazz club. I've seen it when the Go! Team played Oxford, and I've seen it when Ben Harper played the Apollo, albeit with ardent fervour, rather than warm feeling. I've seen some of the 'greats' - Elton, McCartney, U2, and it's felt mechanical. Good, but not memorable. Stale, not fresh. Flat.

By the time they finished up with 'Here comes the sun', it'd got dark outside. 7am/pm had clearly been 7pm. The singer finally emerged from behind the piano. He turned out be a short man in his forties/youthful fifties. He looked quite the cat - stylishly dressed, with flat cap and thick framed glasses. There was a quick debrief and acknowledgment of the applause and handshakes before they wandered out into the terminal, their fame and adulation dissolving as they got beyond the row of pillars and the antipodeans holding them up. It'd been a mere 45 minute of hiatus, but it was the best 45 minutes I've ever spent in an airport.

(For the record, she said yes. I'll be married in January.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What would Jesus do?

While unpacking my suitcase in my hotel room I came across this:

I'd just got to my red Che-Guevara look alike T-Shirt of Jesus with 'Be the Revolution!' emblazoned on the front. Probably not the wisest or most sensitive T-Shirt to pack when travelling to Malaysia.

From where I sit


The view from my bedroom on the fifteenth floor of the Crowne Plaza, Kuching. The Sarawak River to the North and the cloud and (the beginnings of the) highlands of Borneo to the East.

Honestly, guv, I've been working.

From where I sat






The interior and exterior views of the Luna Bar, Kuala Lumpur. Next time I go out at night I'm taking my bloody tripod.