Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Grace's Birthday | Ku-Ring-Gai Chase

At the end of the scenic road, along which we have dipped and dived into valleys and bushland; zipping round sharp corners that follow juts of sandstone, alongside rivers beneath canopies of gum leaves; past ‘bush fire threat level: high’ signs (a level I am almost certain is never dipped below); and after 20 minutes of barely seeing a soul and passing only one other road (itself a dead end further into the national park to the North), we reach sea level. Just before the sailing boats and seaside homes perched on the banks of this crenelated coastline, before the populace of the northern beaches and Pittwater impact the land, there is one last vestige of the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase: a picnic site, overlooking McCarrs Creek. Here, with a thin sliver of wilderness behind us (a vast wilderness before us), picnic benches sit in the shade of eucalyptus. The water is turquoise and transparent, and in it a chocolate Labrador, playing fetch with its human companion who stands on the shore along from us. On the far side, olive-green vegetation blankets a steep bank and rises high above us, held up by scrawny white-brown tree trucks and topped off by a cloudless sky. And over on that far side, only two sounds: bird song, and the constant chirruping of cicadas. In this beautiful spot are only a handful of people, including the Labrador and its owner, and three other souls: a mum, a dad, and Grace.

Today, Grace is five.

We know this because a makeshift sign on the road points party-goers this way. Next to the picnic benches a small gazebo has been erected, and from it float balloons, proudly proclaiming “5 today!” A feast is being prepared, perhaps even party games too. What a spot, I think, to be able to congregate and celebrate.

We are complete strangers, only stopping by on our way to Avalon and Palm Beach. Expecting this secluded spot to soon become rowdier – and as small people and pushchairs start to arrive - we decide it is time to move on.

Saturday, 17 October 2015


zadar i

First, there is the geography. Protected from the wilds of the open ocean by a concertinaed Earth, a Golgi body of long, thin islands that form natural defences, arranged as stepping stones for a giant, should he wish to bound from the city and belly flop into the Adriatic.

Second, there is the city behind, a fusion of Illyrian, Roman, Venetian and modern history; protected by its four guardian saints; a base for countless battles over centuries.

But most of all, there is what lies beneath. The historic city survived, but the promenade fell victim to the ravages of World War II under Italian rule, replaced unceremoniously by blunt concrete. In 2005, this changed with the construction of the Sea Organ, a design of architect Nikola Bašić - beneath your feet pipes of air meet columns of water controlled by the sea, and from holes in the ground an eerie music chimes.

In Zadar, you can hear Nature sing.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015


"That plane's silver!"
"It is. Do you remember what colour our plane is?"
"Um... purple!"
"That's right!"
"What are those people doing?"
"They're loading people's luggage into the plane. See they're putting the suitcases on to a conveyor belt that goes up into the plane."

We begin to taxi.

"Where's the silver plane gone? I can't see it!"
"It's probably behind us now. We've turned around."
"We came from over THERE!"
"Daddy, daddy, look! Another silver plane! And a blue one!"
"We're not going very fast!"
"We're moving to the runway. That's where we go fast."
"Is this the runway?"
"Not yet."
"I can see a BIG PLANE!"
"Because we're almost on the runway. We're about to FLY!"


The engines rev. The plane begins to rattle as we hurtle down the runway.

"Are we in the air yet?"
"Are we in the air yet?"
"Are we in the air yet?"
"Are we in the air yet?"

And I have to say, the excitement of the 3 year old boy in the row in front of us was somewhat infectious. Never again shall I allow myself to forget how exciting it is to be human - a terrestrial being not blessed by the gift of aerodynamics, built of the ground and designed to stay there - yet flying. We saw the world from far, far up above. We entered the realm of the clouds ("LIKE CANDYFLOSS!"), a vast and magnificent domain with its own mountains and ravines. We tiptoed over mountains. We looked down on the labyrinth of islands along the Dalmatian Coast, each surrounded by clear waters. And then we landed, in another country, mere hours after Luton, emerging from this miraculous metal tube.

"When do we get to Croatia?" the little boy asked.
"We're here!" replied his Mum.

For some, it's the journey not the destination.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Inside Out

Um. Right.

Today is my birthday. I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about something different: mental health.

Last weekend we went to Birmingham, where I studied for my degree and my PhD, collectively spending eight years of my life there, the longest of anywhere I have ever lived save for where I grew up. It’s a city I know and love, and though it will always be a city in continual change — there are substantial building works taking place in the centre at this time, and there are more plans to follow — it will always remain familiar and comfortable. That’s a surprising thing for me to say, coming from the country, and I’ve certainly not been converted to city life, but it became home through good times and bad. Since those eight years we’ve moved house twice, moved towns twice, and are only now feeling remotely like we’re finding community again.

To revisit Birmingham this weekend, however, was a challenge. Our reason for going was to attend a ‘reunion’ barbecue, for it has been 10 years (well, nearly 11) since my degree started, and several old faces were getting together. It was very nice to catch up, certainly, but it was difficult too. On the wall at the party were photos from those early university days. I didn’t recognise myself in them.

People change. That’s a given. But I don’t even remotely remember the person I was then. Part of that is down to stress — certain aspects of work that I have experienced since, including my PhD, haven’t done wonders for my mental health, and in periods since I have needed extra help. The upshot of it all is that I struggle now to have emotions, to be happy or to be sad, and most pressingly I struggle to be excited. About anything.

So to see myself from back then was like looking at a ghost, someone who used to have all these emotions but someone long lost. To go back to Birmingham for the party was a wonderful nostalgia trip – and hard-hitting too: nowhere and at no moment since have I felt so comfortable. Hearing our old neighbour’s flat is now for sale, at a price we could actually afford to buy, confounded my thoughts even further: we could go back, this news suggested, raising my hopes. Except we can’t: we have lives elsewhere now.

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m aware it’s a jumble of thoughts and emotions that might not fully make sense to an outside observer, but then that’s my head – lots of life lessons and not much mental capacity to know what to do with them. And I’m better than I was, many of my issues I’ve worked through and their burdens have lifted. I’m aware, too, that many people have endured far worse than I have, but everybody has their struggles, and my nemesis is that ever-present multi-headed beast called stress, stress combined with my own high standards and low self-esteem no less. No, I’m writing this because of two further details from the weekend just passed.

On the Sunday morning we went to Rowheath Pavilion in Bournville, site of our old church. The church is still going, under new leadership since we left and with some old and many new faces. We were duly welcomed, hugs from old friends, and all was familiar. I always loved the church for its heart for its community, its wanting to share love with those in the neighbourhood, and that heart, I was pleased to see, was still there. Put simply, we haven’t found a church like it since, which has been one of the reasons we have struggled to find anywhere to call home.

In the past week they had hosted a family festival, and the service strayed from its normal structure to share stories from the three days on site. What struck me was the church’s willingness to share that love, with anyone. One of the speakers admitted talking about Jesus made her cringe. One of the festival helpers spent a few minutes talking about how playing video games had brought companionship (he’d hosted a PlayStation tournament as an activity for local children and teenagers). It gave me hope. Normal people, whatever their struggles, were just as welcome as those who have it sorted. First and foremost everyone was family.

The second detail is this: on the Saturday night, after the barbecue, we went to see the new Pixar film Inside Out. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about an 11 year old girl called Riley – except she’s not the main character, she’s the setting. Instead, the characters are five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger), which live inside her head. They’ve been anthropomorphised, such that Joy is a Tinkerbell-type yellow-coloured character, Sadness a bookish, shy and retiring blue character, and so on, and together they live in a control room, pushing buttons and pulling levers to control Riley.

Forgive the exposition, but it’s important for this narrative (spoilers alert). Whenever Riley makes a new memory, it is stored inside an orb that is produced by the machinery of her mind. The orb is coloured according to the emotion that best defines that memory (joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger are each represented by a different colour). At the end of the day, all these memories get sent to long term memory, a colourful warehouse inside the world Pixar have created. Sometimes, however, a more powerful memory, a core memory, is formed, one that establishes an aspect of Riley’s personality, and these orbs get stored in a central, secure console, powering ‘Personality Islands’. In the vast cartoon world of Riley’s mind these are literally islands, sitting alongside other important aspects such as Imagination (a theme park) and Abstract thought. All of this, I promise, makes more sense if you see the film, and see it you should.

Joy has been in charge ever since Riley’s first emotion (giggling as a baby). But circumstances suddenly change as Riley’s family move home: all of her friends and loves have to be left behind, and this causes an imbalance in her emotions — literally, Joy and Sadness get locked out of the control room, leaving Disgust, Anger and Fear to run the show. Things go from bad to worse for Riley, with the Personality Islands literally crumbling away inside her mind as the core memories are lost, and, because of a well-intentioned but badly thought through idea by Anger, she considers running away. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness, lost amid long term memory and other aspects of Riley’s brain, have to learn to work with each other to get back home, an action romp involving a literal Train of Thought and a Hollywood-style Dream Theatre. Again, this makes much more sense if you see it, and see it you should.

The film is inventive, clever and funny. It takes complicated ideas and, through a silly cartoon, brings them to life. Most importantly, and most startlingly for a family film, it has a very different message to your average blockbuster, that is: it is OK to be sad. In fact, sometimes being sad is important. In the end it is Sadness, not Joy, that is able to help Riley find a footing in her new life.

I cried.

It was a silly cartoon but it spoke right through all my confusion, my stresses and my inability to react with emotion. It told me that being sad was OK. It told me that not knowing what to do was OK. But it also gave me new ways of thinking about what I struggle with. Taking about mental health is difficult, and if allegories with coloured orbs and Personality Islands are what is needed to make sense of the fuzz then so be it. Riley’s long term memory largely glows yellow as most of her experiences have been joyous, but I wondered what colour my mind would be. More strongly purple I presumed, with extra dashes of blue. I could see how, just like Riley, my Personality Islands had crumbled over time, and wondered how I might rebuild them. It didn’t give me answers, but it helped me make sense of it.

And so I left the cinema a wreck, but better for it. It also (again, go and see it) left me humming a really annoying advert jingle.

It’s my birthday today. I’m 29 years old. And thanks to Pixar, a weekend of nostalgia and a demonstration of love in action, I understand myself a lot better than when I was 28.

With love to my parents, who will read this, and to whom I have not previously confided much of the above

Monday, 25 May 2015

The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

I was leaning against the railing on the Victoria Embankment, the River Thames behind me, a little tipsy. It was December, our office Christmas party had recently come to an end, and in this corner of London I had chosen to stand while I waited for my wife, who had the key to the hotel room. It was dark and cold here, at the mercy of the winter breeze coming from the waterway. I hoped that I might be let indoors soon.

It was at this moment that my phone received a message.

“Hey Simon, did you see Rob’s tweet?”


Like many others, I first came across the music of Rob Dougan (then Rob D) through The Matrix, the 1999 sci-fi/philosophy/kung fu mashup movie by the Wachowski siblings. The soundtrack, along with the film, struck a chord with me in my teenage years; one song, in particular, changed everything. That song was Clubbed to Death (Kurayamino Variation), which featured during the 'lady in the red dress' scene and was, in the words of my school friend Emily (who was not known to mince her words), 'orgasmically good'.

A full album, Furious Angels, followed in 2002. It could not have been more different to what one might have expected. In Clubbed to Death and the titular track there was the recognisable fusion of classical music and beats, yet elsewhere the music was a very different beast, erring more on the side of classical than dance and with added deep, husky, immersive vocals and themes of darkness and despair. Rather than an album of radio friendly dance tropes, as many of my friends had hoped for, it was a masterpiece of thought, obsession and detail. For many it was difficult to penetrate: for me it instantly became my favourite album, and it has stayed that way ever since. It has been with me as my revision jam (along with Lisa Gerrard's Whale Rider soundtrack) through A Levels, a degree and a PhD; and it has been with me through good and bad jobs, good and bad times, through seven house moves, a wedding and many adventures. I wrote of it in 2006 in a blog post called A Turquoise Chord, describing how, as an album, I feel it tells a story (and not necessarily a happy one), of how the presence of a track of thirty-three seconds of silence is absolutely essential, and of Drinking Song, a moment of nakedness for the story's protagonist as he reaches his nadir in the narrative and pours out his soul. Rob himself once said kind things of my review. He has, since that time, also said kind things of my travel writing via Twitter.

And then, nothing.

It has been 13 years since Furious Angels. There was a single new track for the second Matrix film, and an accompaniment for a short film for the jewellery designer Solange Azagury-Partridge, but otherwise silence. Internet forums and fan sites discussed a new album, but none were forthcoming. Rob himself turned his detail and dedication to, among other things, the La Pèira vineyards.

And then, in December 2014, that message. It had come from Michael McGarrity, owner of fan site robdougan.org, drawing my attention to the following:

After so long, it was a startling tease. Further correspondence with Michael, who has been in contact with Rob for years, suggested new music might be imminent, perhaps over Christmas. I was to be travelling then, so I asked him to keep me in the loop in case I missed any announcements. None came. Finally, in May, the message came: there was a new EP, The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, including five new orchestral pieces recorded in 2014. Again I was travelling, without means to listen. I would have to wait until I returned home in a week. Then I would set aside time to listen properly, to absorb whatever was on offer. After 13 years, the music deserved my full attention.

I returned home. I purchased The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. And then the dishwasher broke. I did not feel the music deserved to be first experienced with my hands covered in stagnating water, feeling around among bits of old food trying to reach submerged filters and valves. Then the bins needed doing, or other jobs got in the way. My next opportunity: my walk to the train station - but it was not to be without event, and after an initial taster, a natural lull in the music was punctuated, with perfect timing, by the station announcer: "Please do not leave baggage unattended. Any items left unattended will be destroyed."

My point, in a roundabout way, is that I wanted to find a moment of quiet from everyday life to invest in these new five tracks. In the accompanying booklet to the new release, Rob explains some of the reasons for his 13 year silence:
"Circumstance – and circumstances – (both fell and clutch) meant that there was never the money, nor the peace, nor time to record."
As someone who likes to write, but who has lost his mojo of late, and as a fan who desperately wanted to set aside time to listen, yet was unable owing to life's distractions, I understand the need to find that peace, and how difficult it can be to find. Yet my trials are but nothing compared to following up a Grammy-nominated and much-loved masterpiece. And how do you follow up a piece of work into which you have poured your soul? How do you live up to the expectations of fans who have been waiting for so long? Rob continues:
Also it’s possible to be so precious about following up something you held dear yourself, that you can lose your way, or take too long, or run out of steam. So this was a chance to release something before that happened.
I realise now that, as one of those fans calling for a follow-up I have only been adding pressure to the situation. The solution: this EP. Furious Angels was re-released as the album plus accompanying orchestral tracks, stripped of vocals and some electronic tinkering. This time the orchestral tracks are coming first and, over time, we will be allowed to see their evolution into an album. A mechanism to counter the expectation: take the fans with you for the ride. It is an exciting prospect.

Although this means that I cannot spout rhetoric of a story I have conjured that fits the music - the album is not complete, and though the orchestral versions are complete in themselves they are not necessarily the final songs - the tracks are not without imagery. 'Vale' (Ave Atque Vale), for example, takes me to a black-and-white Parisian café, the scene of a love story told retrospectively, twists of intrigue and mystery and longing and heartache in there also; A Drawing-Down of Blinds-Valedico takes me into a fantastical dream, a gentle sunrise ahead of a magnificent journey that entails an epic battle, with dragons and fire and chain-mail and swordplay and flying and forces of good fighting forces of evil and light penetrating the darkness when all seemed lost and oof I think I need to sit down for a bit.

What of the name? The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is Catholic liturgy that included, in 2014, Psalm 63 ("My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God")? Will there be themes of spiritual longing? And what of Rob's announcement of the EP on Twitter with the words "Nature repairs her ravages, but not all", a George Eliot quote that continues "To the eyes that have dwelt on the past, there is no thorough repair"? What is to be made of these themes, if any? Tease.

Elsewhere it's just as much fun to wonder how the music itself will change. With Frescobaldi's Toccata it is possible to see how verses might be introduced, and with 'The Return' we are offered two versions - with and without percussion - two glimpses of what tinkering might occur. My own hope, upon early listening, is that - should the version with beats be used - a vocal only prelude be added, like a calm before a storm. Where the music goes, however, is not up to me.

With the recent release of Jupiter Ascending, it is my opinion that the Wachowskis, without whom I would likely never have heard of Rob Dougan, have retained ambition but suffered ever poorer discipline. Not so the musician their breakthrough film introduced to so many. The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is only five songs, but every one has been sculpted, crafted and refined, created with care and attention and, consequently, oozes quality. More than that, the pieces are intense and, satisfyingly, just as radio-unfriendly as the bulk of Furious Angels. Rob is doing what he wants to do, and he is doing it his way.

More music is promised soon, although with no time frame, and an album will arise from the orchestral recordings in due course. I shall wait another 13 years if necessary. I am impressed.


The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
by Rob Dougan

Available for purchase from robdougan.com

Furious Angels
by Rob Dougan

Available from all good record stores (and Amazon)

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Lonely Suitcase

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Myeongdong (or, 12 Hours in Seoul)

“Do you have coat?”

The airline official looked concerned. It was, after all, minus 8⁰C outside. His observation was correct: I had no coat. Twelve hours previously I had been in a different hemisphere and an opposite season. Now I had neither coat nor notion as to what I was about to experience. What I knew was that I was in Korea, Incheon to be precise. Our airline, by necessity, was to provide us with a hotel. We knew not which hotel or where that hotel would be, we knew only to wait here, by this door, by the man so concerned by my lack of coat, until the bus was ready.

And so began a curious 12 hour visit to Seoul, in which we were given but fleeting glimpses of a curious city while being shepherded from pillar to post. As punishment for being pesky tourists who knew how to get a free hotel, we were at the mercy of a rigid, prearranged system — this bus, this hotel, this limited dinner menu. But this is not the moment to grumble: far from it. It was an exhilarating ride.

First, there was the bus journey. Blasted by an overly efficient climate control system, we sweated our way for an hour along — as it was evening — brightly lit motorway. Neon green and red signs directed drivers to unknown locations in indistinguishable Hangul script. Warning lights for road works not only flashed but swung on robotic arms, desperate to garner attention. Having had the fortune to travel a great deal, but mostly to English-speaking countries or, at the very least, countries using Roman script, this was a rare glimpse at the quite considerable rest-of-world. I knew my observations were simple, but I was mesmerized.

We approached Seoul. Everywhere were residential skyscrapers. Bridge after bridge spanned the straight Han River. On and on went the cityscape. The river itself was surprisingly wide, separating two halves of a city by so much that I could imagine two distinct cultures. (I later learned that the per capita income south of the river is double that of the northern bank: two cultures are indeed separated by the Han.) Every freeway was buzzing with traffic and both sides of the river were lit by thousands of windows reaching into the sky. And yet nothing was frenetic. Seoul was noticeably more built up than Incheon, but everything kept moving calmly. There seemed not to be overwhelming hubbub on either side of the Han — although it was hard to tell, given the river was so wide.

We turned inland, and that’s when we saw the colour. Everything was illuminated. True, indeed, that Christmas decorations, many flashing, many halogen, were still lit, yet even without them it would have been wall-to-wall vibrancy. Through these streets we weaved, straight to the Royal Hotel, in the centre of the shopping heart of the city — Myeongdong.

Given that we were at the mercy of the airline, it is at this point I should be saying that the Royal Hotel was rudimentary, that it did the job and that I can’t complain given that it was free. But I do not need to, for it was luxury. All staff were extremely friendly. Rooms were deluxe. There was even one of those fancy toilets with dozens of electronic buttons in a language I cannot read*.

A brief dinner later — free, if limited in options (we were clearly on the airline's menu, rather than the restaurant’s) — and we were ready to explore. To Myeongdong, without a coat!

Ten seconds later, we were inside again. As it happens, minus 8⁰C is not entirely comfortable when unprepared. But worry not, it was 10 pm and everything was still open. Myeongdong is wall-to-wall shops, some familiar, most not. We dipped in and out of them, each full of brightly colourful wares. Cosmetic shops lined the road of our hotel, full of products based on cute characters and unusual combinations. Outside, street vendors, swamped by overcoats, tended their stalls. Meats were being grilled. Pomegranates were being juiced. Everyone was friendly, if bemused by our inappropriate attire. Everywhere movement, sound or smells. Above us, hoarding after hoarding, illuminated, in unknown lettering and in every primary colour. All of our senses were stimulated.

We could last only 15 minutes, as the cold had cut through to our cores almost immediately. We returned to the hotel.

Breakfast was mushrooms, kimchee, bok choi and fish; cereals (Fruit Loops), fry ups and fruit. All, as we were coming to expect, were picture perfect. Not only was everything the colour it ought to be, but it was the perfect, most vibrant shade, and the archetypal shape too. The Royal Hotel was one for precision.

And then we were back in the bus bound for Incheon, a second chance to see what we had missed on the journey that previous evening — churches and cathedrals nestled among the skyscrapers, the mountains that frame the city and the islands that pepper the gulf between the mainland and the airport. The sky was perfectly blue and vast, untarnished by cloud. It was cold, but the sun smiled, just like the toddler in the seat in front of us as we played the hide-behind-the-seat-pop-your-head-up-and-act-all-surprised game.

It had been a whirlwind 12 hours, put where we were told and efficiently provided for in the gap between our flights. For most of it, we had been asleep. Yet our snapshot of Seoul had been tantalising — we had seen barely anything, but knew that it was a bright and exciting place. It was clean and extremely friendly. We were agreed, one day we will come to have a proper look.

*Yes, I did.

Practical Post: Free stopover hotel in Seoul on Asiana Airlines