The Roquefort Files

Travels to the pub and back

September 10th, 2011

King Creosote

The ‘Fynn is coalescing. Whether or not we’ll pick up our instruments any time soon is debatable (no sense in killing the goose that laid the golden eggs by releasing new material while the royalties from Calling it a Day are still literally dribbling in. Speaking of which, have you bought the album yet?) but with Doug and Charlie both working in Edinburgh, it’s markedly easier to marshal our forces for the odd trip to the pub.

So it was that Charlie, Doug and I met up at the Grand Ole Opry for King Creosote’s first post-Mercury Award gig. That’s the Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow. And what a godawful venue it is.

On the way in, the stewards directed everyone past a queue snaking all the way from the entrance into the auditorium. What’s this, I wondered? The cloakroom? But no, this was the queue for the bar, ringed as it was by bewhiskered old gents wearing badges emblazoned “Committee” who sent everyone to join the queue all the way back at the front door. Why it was the usual gentle scrum was not permitted to develop I have no idea.

The stage is flanked by two giant embossed cowboy heads like faces on a pair of silver dollars. That would be weird enough, but their ten-gallon hats are so disproportionately small that it appear that the upper portions of their skulls have been removed and their hats balanced delicately on the resultant flat surface. I spent the gig trying (and failing) not to look at them, sort of like a car crash on the opposite carriageway of a motorway.

Then, to round things off, the “Committee” saw fit to allow in (without tickets, I’m pretty sure) a load of knuckle-dragging regulars who stood at the back and talked loudly about how the music was pish, and why didn’t they fuckin play something that aw cunt kent. They spoke like James Kelman writes, only informed by aimless vitriol instead of wry social commentary.

The evening’s saving grace was that the music was, in general, pretty good. King Creosote was a chatty and witty host, deploying some in-song mockery to quieten a couple of overly vocal hecklers at the front, and keeping the real fans rapt throughout. Have a listen!

* * *

Chris, Leyla & Scarlet are visiting at the moment. Coba Fynn coalesces across time and space. Tremendous!

July 24th, 2011

Two Weekends (#2)

A few weeks couple of months back I was in Istanbul, probably for the last time this year. Leigh is safely back in Edinburgh, and this was a final visit before her fellowship ended. I was there to function as Leigh’s arm candy at the end of term party (where’s that irony mark when you need it?), and other than the party we had a couple of days to ourselves to wander around and drink tea like it was going out of fashion.

On the first day we crossed Istiklal and stole through the precinct of a Greek Orthdox church (it was open to the public, but I still felt like we were trespassing) to a little café in an alley shaded by awnings and lined with low tables and stools. We ate tost (‘toast’, or Turkish panini type things) and drank little glasses of tea. After a walk along Istiklal and down to the Galata Bridge we turned left along the waterfront and after an hour or so of leisurely pottering we came to a dusty promenade overlooking the Bosphorus.

The waterfront was pedestrianised, ratty and buzzing with life. We sat at plastic garden chairs belonging to a café run from a rusting metal shack and ordered more tea; as we drank, we watched fishermen casting their lines into the Bosphorus and donating small fry to patient stray cats; we watched ferries, cargo ships and dinghies plying the river, and we raised our eyebrows at the cars, scooters and vans which brazenly ignored the whole “foot traffic only” thing. The people watching was peerless too: weather-worn old gents shuffled by in their worldwide uniform of shabby, slightly-too-large blazer and drab trousers; gypysies wrapped themselves in layer upon layer of clothing and headscarves even in the 30-degree heat, and the young Turks who passed by were almost all dolled up to the nines.

We talked about this for a bit, and I finally realised what it was about Istanbul that I’d been trying to articulate for my last few visits — it’s this striking gulf between the level of personal and social wealth which had been perplexing me. The fabric of the city is noticeably less well kempt than the threads of the young people who promenaded along the waterfront: paving slabs are broken or missing, the roads are a patchwork of potholes and botched pothole repairs (okay, so not so different from Edinburgh), and most obviously of all, town planning is utterly absent. Sure, certain individual buildings are terribly ostentatious and well-finished, but they’ll be in an unsuitable location and within a few years they’ll be left to fall into steady disrepair like all the others. It feels as if nothing is ever maintained much beyond its construction, and the approach seems to be that it’s far easier just to tear something down and build a shiny new replacement for it. Rinse and repeat.

We talked about this for a while longer then headed back to the research centre for the night’s party. I dressed up as much as I could (that is to say a short-sleeved shirt, a pair of jeans and grubby Vans), discovered that it was rather more of a suit-and-tie/cocktail dress affair, as I was in possession of neither a suit nor a cocktail dress I spent the rest of the evening apologising to people for my attire and getting drunk to mitigate my embarrassment. Leigh made me dance at the end of the night. I think she still likes me.

The next day we did almost nothing until it was time for dinner, where upon we visited a series of cool, elegant bars set in high-rise tower blocks and sultry courtyards, each of which was inhabited by singularly blinged-up punters, and each of which was cursed by singularly awful toilets. The real Istanbul is never very far away.

June 6th, 2011

Two Weekends (#1)

I have been neglecting the RF, and for this I can only apologise. The Project is occupying all of my attention these days; that, and gallivanting around Europe like I’m some sort of crazed middle-class professional determined to screw the environment with high-altitude CO2 emissions before this sort of irresponsible behaviour is outlawed for the good of future generations.

Oh, wait. That’s not like what I’m doing — that is exactly what I’m doing.

* * *

Leigh was in the UK a couple of weeks back for a conference down in Durham, and so I caught the train down there to meet up with her on the Friday evening. I gave my Dad a call on the train down. He answered and said: “Oh, good. You’re alive. We thought you might be dead.”

Apparently, about a week previously a 32-year-old cyclist had been killed in a collision with a bin lorry on the road to my work. My parents’ frantic phone calls to me had gone unanswered; unbeknownst to them, I was in the air on a flight to Istanbul at the time.

“Maybe next time you’re planning to be abroad, you could let us know…?” he suggested, and I agreed.

Central Durham is, it turns out, astonishingly picturesque. On Saturday we had coffee in the sun by one of the old stone bridges across the Wear, walked up the hill to the ancient, massive and intricately decorated cathedral, and finally descended to the riverbank to visit the endearingly amateurish archaeology museum, complete with a laughable/unnerving mannequin dressed untidily in the manner of a Roman soldier. I’m being flippant, but Durham really is worth a visit.

That afternoon we got the train to Newcastle to meet up with a old friend of Leigh’s, and again I was amazed by how pleasant a place central Newcastle is. Let’s face it, this is not a city which presents a particularly attractive prospect to passing train passengers, but having spent an hour or two pottering around in the shadow of the Tyne Bridge I was converted.

We were back in Edinburgh in time for a drink in the Basement and then dinner at l’Escargot Bleu on Broughton Street. It was an excellent meal. This particular Saturday evening was apparently the culmination of a week-long visit to Scotland by a load of student chefs from Breton, and the menu was devised for that one night only. We started with mussels with white wine and lardons (Josh would, I suspect, have been rendered teary-eyed with untrammelled joy), followed by an enormous pot au feu and then some entirely unnecessary and entirely awesome crêpes with ice cream. It was faultless. Go there.

On Sunday I’d planned to drive us to St Andrews, but this plan faced a succession of ludicrous obstacles. First, the car wouldn’t start. It was parked nose-in to the pavement, rendering a normal jump-start impossible. No problem, I thought, I’ll pop open the bonnet and charge the battery with this portable battery charger, bought with just this eventuality in mind. Unfortunately, having opened the bonnet, the battery was nowhere to be seen. Surely it’s hidden by one of these bits of plastic cowling for which I don’t have the correct size of screwdriver. I’ll borrow one from the café down the road. Oh, I see. Now that I’ve removed the plastic panels I see that the battery is not, in fact, in the engine bay at all.

At this point Leigh looked up from thumbing through the GTV’s maintenance manual and said, “It’s in the boot.”

I opened the boot, found the bit of carpet concealing the battery and hooked up the charger. We sat in the car to wait for the battery to charge, Leigh wearing an expression of amused contempt the whole time. “Let’s give it a go,” I said after a few minutes, and turned the key.

The engine cranked sluggishly but did not catch.

“Alright, let’s let it charge up for a few minutes more”.

This time the engine turned over with a little more vigour, but it was clear it wasn’t going to start up.

“Balls.”

I caved in and called Neil. He and Vanessa were in town with their own car, and they agreed to drive by and help us jump-start the car. A jump-start was possible, of course, only because of the car’s nose-in attitude and the situation of the battery in the boot. Irony is my co-pilot.

Neil & Vanessa rolled up fifteen minutes or so later. “Thanks, guys. This is amazing,” I grovelled, “I’m really sorry to have to drag you over here.” They were gracious, and Vanessa indulged only slightly in the mockery to which she was entirely entitled. Neil, however, fiddling with the bonnet of his own car, was perplexed.

“How do you get the bonnet open?” he wondered. We all attempted to help, and I was reminded of the scene at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene with the monkeys.

Eventually we got the bonnet open, hooked up some jump leads and started the car. It turned over and caught almost immediately. I was overjoyed. We arrived in St Andrews about 3pm, after a…spirited drive, and spent a couple of hours wandering around the castle and the ruins of the cathedral. I’d been to the cathedral innumerable times as a kid but had never really appreciated its scale, but having visited Durham’s own cathedral the day before I was suddenly able to visualize how it must once have been. It’s a shame that so little of it is left; it must have been huge in its day.

We drove back via Anstruther, stopping for some fish & chips — again, excellent food, if less studiedly so than at l’Escargot Bleu — and then home to Edinburgh. On Monday we met up with Austen, Maria and (for the first time) Leo for breakfast at Peter’s Yard, then spent the rest of the day pottering around to no great effect. It was, in short, a fantastic weekend.

May 1st, 2011

Barcelona? So Gaudí!

Leigh & I spent the week in Barcelona a month or so back and is my wont (the Project is occupying all my writing time these days), I’ve only just managed to get round to writing about it.

Our pension was right at the top of La Rambla, Barcelona’s main pedestrian drag. On our first night we took a left down La Rambla and walked halfway down it to Plaça Reial, a square formed by colonnaded arcades, furnished with some Modernista lampposts (Gaudí’s first commission, as it turned out) and lined with open air cafés. We found a table, ordered a couple of beers and sat down to watch the endless flow of people as they crossed the square. There were a few study-looking metal chairs scattered about, apparently in lieu of the benches you might otherwise expect to find in a place like this, and most of them were occupied by homeless people looking for somewhere for a surreptitious pull on something alcoholic. One chair just across from our table, though, bore a youngish guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He was out for the count, head thrown back and mouth open in a drunken stupor.

After a while, he woke up and stood up unsteadily. A waiter from the nearest café asked him how he was, and satisfied that he wasn’t about to kick off, left him alone. Then, in front of the many, many people enjoying an al fresco drink in the square that night, the wobbly drunk guy stuck his hand down his trousers and had a wank.

This was unexpected.

Finished, and presumably satisfied, he lurched off down the nearest street leading off the square. We left shortly after that too, heading home in the opposite direction.

* * *

Each day followed the same relaxing template (although drunken wankers were mercifully absent from the days to come): we’d have a coffee in a café just down La Rambla, do a bit of touristy wandering, have a late lunch then a siesta and finally head back out for drinks and dinner. The city was packed with tourists but also, if you ventured off the beaten track a little, a lively place in itself. By comparison, Edinburgh seems quiet and reserved away from Princes Street and the Royal Mile.

We went, as I believe is legally required on any visit to Barcelona, to la Sagrada Família. I was prepared to be underwhelmed; I’m not an art nouveau kind of chap, and anything hyped up to this degree, I thought, whether a building, painting or sculpture, is surely bound to disappoint.

I was wrong. The studied insanity of this building is breathtaking to behold: if any modern building is capable of causing Stendhal syndrome in a visitor, then this is it. You enter through the precisely fluted arches of the ‘Passion’ façade, and this entire aspect of the church defined by a sort of CSG explosion of hyperbolic curves, planes and polygonal surfaces. The idea that Gaudí could have designed, drafted and supervised the construction of these intersecting shapes before the advent of computer modelling is almost inconceivable. This façade also has a pyramidal arrangement of the Stations of the Cross, with angular, anguished figures by Josep Maria Subirachs depicting various episodes from Christ’s final journey to Golgotha and the crucifixion. There’s an almost cheery figure of Christ ascendant perched jauntily on a lofty crossmember between the façade’s two central towers; I read that the sculptures provoked controversy upon their installation, and I can’t help but wonder if the spectre of the recently deceased Son of God apparently having a gay old time up there had a little to do with it.

The interior is restrained by comparison, but it’s still an amazing display of detail and scale. Each of the walls reflects the style of the corresponding façade, so that the ‘Passion’ wall is all straight lines and regular curves, while the opposite wall has a much more traditional feel to it. Pass through its doors and you look up to see the ‘Nativity’ façade, where Gaudí took your common or garden Neo-Gothic cathedral and melted it. It’s astonishing to behold — I hesitate to say that I liked it, but it’s certainly a spectacle and a half — with traditional statues perched on ledges reminiscent of frozen rivuelts of molten candle wax. The was the first façade to be completed, back in 1930, and they’re already having to conserve it even though the building won’t be finished until around 2026.

Gaudí only ever drew rough sketches of the third, final and largest ‘Glory’ façade. Reproductions of his drawings are on show in the museum in the bowels of the church where his workshop used to be, and I am happy to report that the ‘Glory’ façade will be just as monumentally bonkers as the first two. If you only ever see one thing in Barcelona, go to la Sagrada Família. It’s both awesome and fantastic, in the literal senses of the words.

* * *

One blazing hot day later in the week we walked down to the port to visit the Museum of the History of Catalunya, set in an old warehouse on the waterfront. There’s an amazing amount of stuff crammed in there — maybe a little too much, in fact — and it could easily occupy an entire day. As it was, we ate a late lunch at a little café nearby on one of the squares which pepper the city and then headed back for a siesta.

In the evening it was out again for dinner. We had a couple of exorbitant drinks at a disappointingly dull basement bar called Les Gens Qui J’aime in L’Eixample, the upmarket area just north of the Barri Gòtic, and were, to be frank, a bit pissed off about it. Happily, the restaurant we eventually ate at later that night erased any ill feeling: Tapaç 24 is the best place I’ve eaten at in ages. It was bright and bustling, with a nifty typographic menu listing traditional tapas elevated just a little out of the ordinary either by great preparation or careful tweaking of an otherwise standard recipe. We ate mussels, a McFoie burger (this is what it sounds like, and what it sounds like is awesome), lentil and chorizo stew and a ‘bikini’, or croque monsieur, with truffle oil. We finished with xocolata — chocolate truffles served with olive oil and salt. I’m salivating even now as I write about it. The night was saved, and in spectacular style.

* * *

The rest of our time was spent in other similarly enjoyable pottering, eating and drinking. We took the train to the ancient Roman colony of Tarragona and spent an afternoon exploring the ruins; we ate a luxurious meal (and paid for it!) in the fin de siècle surroundings of Los Caracoles, or “The Snails”; we visited the Barcelona History Museum for more Roman’ around subterranean excavations; we sat fully clothed and out of place on the scorching sands of the beach, and we drank beers while the other tourists around us struggled with their absinthe, water and sugar cubes in Marsella, one of Hemingway’s favourite Barcelona hangouts. Leigh continued to awe me with her compendious knowledge of anything remotely historical, and through it all, of course, Ally G periodically popped up in his capacity of knowledgeable expat to show us around and provide much excellent chat.

After spending nine days there I couldn’t help but entertain the (entirely fastastical) notion of buggering off there to lead the dissolute life of a writer in exile. It was a great holiday!

April 21st, 2011

Water of Leith Walk

I’m part of a team doing the Water of Leith Walk on May 8th for St Columba’s Hospice. It’s a great cause, and it would be fantastic if you could donate a bit of money to help us out!

March 26th, 2011

Roman around Istanbul

A few weeks ago I was over in Istanbul to meet up with Leigh. It was a good weekend: Istanbul is vibrant (yes, I used the term ‘vibrant’; this is what estate agents write when they mean ‘louder than you might think’), intriguing and infuriating all at the same time. And also there was a lot of Efes involved. A lot.

The flight over was uneventful enough, although the process of getting from the plane to Taksim Square had a goodly smattering of unnecessary aggravation. You queue for a £10 entry visa (no, you may not obtain one online — you’ll bloody well wait in line with the other 199 passengers who have also just disembarked); subsequently you are directed in an officious and patronising tone to the distant passport control, and once there you choose an arbitrary queue. The other queues are of course much faster than your own, due to the glacial pace with which this particular border guard processes each passenger, and which could charitably be ascribed to an unprecedented attention to detail but is more likely a consequence of his inability to read without moving his lips. The growing agitation of the others in your queue, involving much muttering and exaggerated displays of watch-checking, is studiously ignored by the surprisingly large number of uniformed airport staff just…hanging around in the midst of this bureaucratic clusterfuck. Someone in uniform eventually hangs up their mobile phone to open another queue, things speed up marginally and you find yourself in the concourse.

I found the appropriate stance for the Havaş bus to the city just beyond the taxi rank; of course, when the bus arrived it stopped at a different stance. A gaggle of men in bus company uniforms waved us over to the new one in an officious and patronising manner. I paid the (very reasonable) 10,00 TL fare, settled back into my seat and watched the barely-ordered chaos of Istanbul slide past on the way to Taksim Square. Scooter drivers plunged bare-headed into full lanes of traffic, and the side of the road — bus stops, slip roads and the hard shoulder included — was littered with awkwardly parked or just plain abandoned cars.

Leigh picked me up at Taksim square and after leaving my bag at the research centre we went for pizza and Efes at Urban, a neat little bar in the mould of a traditional Parisian streetside café, in an alley just off the bustling Istiklal Caddesi. After that it was back to the centre for a party in honour of one of the fellows’ newly-awarded PhD, whereupon I quaffed bottle after 66cl bottle of Efes with gay abandon. The fun we had!

* * *

The next morning was not so gay. I don’t really want to talk about the next morning at all, if that’s okay with you.

On Saturday afternoon we went out for a potter around Beyoğlu (no, me neither; turns out you just drop the ‘ğ’) and Eminönü, walking south-west to the end of Istiklal and following the narrow, precarious streets to down the Galata Bridge. It was a damp and drizzly day, with a thin layer of gray mud coating the uneven pavement and making my singularly ill-chosen shoes slippery and untrustworthy. We crossed the bridge and wandered around the spice bazaar then headed home, defeated by partly by the persistent cold and partly by my still-apocalyptic hangover.

The evening was far more successful: we ate a hearty, restorative meal at a curious little restaurant called Fıccın (after a traditional pastry dish), where the restaurant comprised three separate dining rooms all served by a single kitchen and all sited on one alley off Istiklal. After that we crossed Istiklal to a crammed little bar on the 2nd floor of a tenement-style building, resembling for all the world a residential flat with all the internal walls knocked out, where the rest of the fellows had reserved a table to watch some traditional Greek and Turkish music. (I’m aware it may be cultural heresy to conflate the two, but I stand by it. Come at me — I’m ready.) Cigarettes were smoked furtively inside if the creaking, minuscule smoking balcony happened to be full, waitresses threaded their way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd with surprising sanguinity, and the table was covered with bottles of Efes and glasses of milky, diluted rakı.

It was loud and friendly, and even I ‘danced’ at the end of the night. I think Leigh still likes me.

* * *

On Sunday we took the tram to Sultanahmet to see the Basilica Cistern. The cistern is an underground reservoir left over from Byzantine times, with the roof supported by row upon row of columns. It’s an atmospheric place, cannily lit and well-presented, and we had an enjoyable stroll round wherein I asked stupid questions about the Romans and Leigh graciously pretended to ignore my utter lack of historical knowledge.

That evening we ate with the other fellows in the research centre canteen and went out to a rooftop bar called Peyote for a mercifully restrained night of chat and a few beers.

Istanbul is, again, an intriguing and exhausting place: it has an overwhelmingly young population who party continuously in refined cafés and need-to-know bars. Hundreds of years of historical tumult are evident wherever you look. It is — and has been — the perfect setting for a spy thriller. In short, it’s cooler than you are, but hey, that’s okay — have another Efes and don’t worry about it.

February 28th, 2011

East Fife! (clap clap clap) East Fife!

It was my Dad’s birthday just before Christmas, and this year Ruth, Mum and I clubbed together to get him a VIP trip to Bayview, the storied home of mighty East Fife Football Club. I say ‘him’ but really I mean ‘us’; I say ‘storied’ but really I mean ‘ten years old and already falling apart at the seams’; and I say ‘mighty’ but really I mean ‘crap’.

On the day of the match Ruth, Andy, Dad and I took Dad’s car down to the ground. Bayview — technically the new Bayview, since the club sold up and moved from upper Methil down to the docks a decade or so ago — is set in a commercial park adjacent to the decommissioned coal-fired power station which looms over Leven’s promenade. On the other side of the estate, a solitary wind turbine thumbs its nose at its predecessor.

We skirted the puddles in the car park, passed through the crowd of men smoking outside the entrance and waited by reception for someone to show us in. A series of white-haired men in East Fife ties walked past us in one direction or another, each of them nodding gravely at us as we looked at them expectantly; eventually, one of them stopped and escorted us upstairs to our table in the function room. The elevated viewpoint gave us a magnificent view of the pitch, not to mention the derelict bulk of the power station beyond it, unspoiled by such inconveniences as a second stand.

The man who had showed us in — the head of the supporter’s trust, as it turned out — gathered us up along with the rag-tag bunch of other corporate guests and took us on a tour of the ground, showing us the control room, the changing rooms, the pitch and the boardroom.

‘The Fife’ is a club which knows — which has to know — how to look on the bright side of life. A plaque above the tunnel doors, intended to spur the players on to glory, lists the club’s achievements over the years: following two successive Scottish Cup wins in 1937 and 1938 (the only such victories for a Second Division team, or so I’m led to believe) the general trend was slow, steady, and downwards. On the corridor walls are framed newpaper cuttings celebrating losses and occasional draws to more famous teams; one in particular stands out, recording a 0-4 defeat to Manchester United on the occasion of a testimonial match for an old Fife player, notable mostly for the first appearance of a young midfielder named David Beckham. Pride of place in the boardroom is taken by a plinth bearing an old, brown leather football used in the 1937 cup final, or rather, it should have been. The football was absent. Our guide gestured to the plinth. “Methil museum have borrowed it for some sort o’ exhibition,” he told us. “They close at 12.30 today and promised to bring it back before every match, but obviously they havnae bo’ered.”

The symbol of East Fife’s long-past competitive pinnacle recast as a prop in a local soap opera, or maybe a farce. The walls were practically painted with pathos. I felt proud and heartbroken by turns, and this is no small admission for someone who generally feels complete indifference towards the world of professional football.

It’s just as well the drink was free; a few beers took the edge off the maudlin reminiscences of past glories, as did a cameo appearance over lunch by the current manager John Robertson. As kick-off drew near we were shown out to seats marked “Directors Only” and settled in for a resolutely lukewarm performance against second-placed Brechin City.

At half time we were shepherded back to the function room for coffee and ‘snacks’, where here ‘snack’ is equivalent to ‘scotch pie’. (Quick pie review: made by Buckhaven butcher R & I Moreland, the crust and filling were both of excellent consistency but the filling was let down by a lack of spices and overgenerous seasoning with salt. Good, but not a patch on Stuarts.)

The second half was a little more engaging but ended goalless. In the function room we sank another drink before the bar closed and then wandered out into the grey afternoon to walk back up the road. It had been a fantastic day. I can’t claim to be any more interested in football than I was before the match, but the chance to see this local institution from the inside out had been enlightening and entertaining by turns. Over lunch, Andy claimed that he’d read somewhere that East Fife’s hospitality package is the best value in Scotland, putting such heavy hitters as Aberdeen and Motherwell to shame; I’ve got no idea if that’s true or not, but I can’t remember a better Saturday afternoon spent in Fife for a long time.

February 8th, 2011

CCCP

I don’t much like doing the traditional blog-as-comment thing, but just this once I’m going to put up a link to this gallery on the Guardian. It’s a series of photographs of buildings in the old Soviet Union taken by a photographer called Frédéric Chaubin, and it is absolutely amazing. That is some serious futurism right there. Is it any wonder they got into space first?

February 4th, 2011

Coba Fynn achieve unprecedented legitimacy

Incredible news on the ‘Fynn front — we’re now on iTunes, Spotify and a whole host of other online music services courtesy of Davis’ backroom machinations. Amazing stuff.

January 22nd, 2011

Brisbane II

(Right: it’s about time I finished off documenting the ‘Fynn’s Australian adventure. It’s hard to imagine how different things must be after the horrific flooding earlier this month — thankfully, Chris, Leyla & Scarlet are fine.)

After having spent Friday messing about on the water, Saturday was a designated drinking day. That afternoon Chris guided us to Brisbane’s West End, a cosmopolitan area with cocktail bars, tattoos and singlespeed bikes much in evidence, and we proceeded on a geographically short but alcoholically intensive pub crawl. We kicked things off with an excellent meal in a quiet music bar called Vinyl, then moved across the road to Archive, a so-called ‘beer boutique and bistro’, where we were intrigued to see a waitress working the floor while carrying an enormous tray of — well, of meat. A barman accompanied her with a book of raffle tickets. Chris nodded towards them.

“It’s the meat raffle,” he told us.

“Wait, what?” we asked him. Consternation reigned until the pair arrived at our table.

“What’s the meat for?” we asked him.

“It’s the meat raffle,” he told us.

“A meat raffle? A raffle for meat? But why?

The barman was unperturbed by our obvious incredulity. “It’s the meat raffle.”

“Is it for a good cause?”

“It’s for meat.”

This stylish establishment might position itself as a high-concept ‘beer boutique’ but underneath the gloss it was Australian to the core: if you pricked it, did it not bleed Bris-bonian? If you tickled it, did it not emit a hearty belly-laugh and throw another shrimp on the barbie? We giddily bought tickets and awaited the draw, which we lost. I might have been disappointed had I not become quite drunk in the intervening period.

After Archive we decamped to the nearby Boundary Hotel to shout “Crossroads” at the resident blues band and finally pitched up at a decidedly slick cocktail bar named Sling. We sat outside and perused the menu. What would Don Draper do, I asked myself?

“An Old Fashioned! I must have an Old Fashioned,” I told everyone as I read the menu, “apparently with a Hand-Crafted Ice Cube.”

The waitress took our order.

“Can I have an Old Fashioned, please? And what’s so special about a ‘Hand-Crafted Ice Cube’?”

“I’ll ask for you,” she replied without a hint of irony. And so she did, returning five minutes later. “Basically the ice is purer than water, you see, and so, uh…and also they cut it to fit the glass.”

Miss, I wanted to say, miss, please. The purity of the ice is independent of the means by which it is shaped. Sadly, such a retort was beyond me at that point, not least because I was by now having difficulty forming basic words. “I’ll take one,” I managed instead. When it arrived, most of the glass’s volume was occupied by a monolithic, roughly sculpted cylindrical ice cube; the remainder was occupied by a cocktail not a million miles away from neat bourbon. It was anticlimactic, but in the spirit of the evening I knocked it back. We drank on, taking in stolid White Russians, kitch Tiki drinks and arty molecular cocktails as we ranged through the menu, and at a certain point a primitive survival mechanism clicked into action in my foggy head.

“Guys,” I said, “I have to go now. I’m absolutely hammered.”

I left them to it, taking a taxi home from the rank next to the bar. Finding the side door open, I crept stealthily through the garage and quietly called to Leyla (so as not to wake Scarlet) to let me into the house. I fell into a drunken slumber as soon as my head touched the pillow.

“You know when you came in last night,” Leyla said the next morning as I crawled downstairs with a raging hangover, “I’ve never heard anyone so loud in my life. You shouted ‘LEYLA! LEYLA!’ from the garage, worked out how to open the door yourself and slammed it behind you, then talked to me at full volume as I was trying to get Scarlet to sleep.”

Oops.

* * *

The next few days were necessarily low key. I borrowed Chris’ brother-in-law Darren’s bike for a couple of rides; we barbequed sausages on the deck, played cards and generally pottered around at a laid-back sort of pace. Then, in the middle of the week, Leyla took Doug, Davis, Scarlet and I to the South Bank on the site of the old Expo ’88. There’s an articifial beach and a paddling pool there, and after lunch we sat by the water to soak up the rays and make sandcastles with Scarlet.

Alongside the South Bank runs the Queensland Cultural Centre, an interconnected stretch of concrete edifices housing the State Library, the Queensland Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. In concept, it’s not unlike the gaggle of newer buildings clustered round Edinburgh’s George Square with their multi-level layout and hidden tunnels, but the experience of walking around the place could not be more different. Brisbane’s version is amazing: the concrete is broken up by lawns, trees and ponds, while airy passages cut through the buildings and seem to blur the distinction between inside and out through the use of consistent materials and clever layout. Key to it all, thought, is that the sunlight keeps everything warm, bright and inviting; much as I love the architecture in George Square, in this respect Brisbane has got it firmly licked.

That evening we chaps headed out once again, this time to Caxton Street, a diverse stretch of watering holes that encompassed fixie-riding hipster hangouts, multi-level sports bars and strip clubs. And reader, our evening would also take them in.

Things started off gently enough near Caxton Street’s eastermost extremity in a sprawling multi-level place called , before we headed out looking for some food. Aiming for the Barracks, a converted jail and army base, we gawked into the various restaurants available to us before Chris unilaterally decided on an outlandishly baroque-looking place called Libertine. What he said to us, in essence, was this: “We’re eating here. I don’t know anything about this place, what the food is like or how much it costs, but we’re eating here.”

Libertine, we found out, was a seafood-based French/Vietnamese restaurant with fairly lofty ideas about its station in life. After some horse-trading to manage the 50-50 seafood/you-must-be-joking split in the group, we ate an intriguing meal of soft-shelled crabs, foie gras and a variety of other tasty but challenging dishes. I don’t think I can say we enjoyed all of it, but at the very least it won our respect.

Next up was an Irish bar called Kitty O’Shea’s. We shouldn’t have bothered. The four of us found ourselves forming roughly half the audience of a dreadful ‘comedy’ show which started shortly after we arrived. Doug, Davis and Chris formulated a plan to escape this ghastly spectacle, sidling outside one by one ‘for a cigarette’. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell me about this plan, and so after ten minutes spent wishing quite specific forms of harm upon the performers, I turned round to find the three of them laughing at me through the window. I got up and left, making ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ gestures at the jokers on stage.

Having extricated ourselves, the night picked up. We crossed the road to a tiny coffee/cocktail bar called Cartel. I’m not sure how convinced the others were, but I could have stayed there all night: it had a relaxed indoor/outdoor layout, a decent selection of beers with a South American bent to it, and most importantly of all the toilet key was attached to a set of drop handlebars. (If you know me at all, you’ll understand that this discovery made my night.) From Cartel we hit Calypso just down the road for a jug of sangria (that’s how we roll, yo), which Chris lobbied the barmaid to have spiced up with extra brandy, and where he further endeared himself by haggling over the price and then accidentally smashing a glass on the floor. We drank more cocktails at two formidable multi-bars, the Caxton Hotel and Hotel LA, before finally wandering out into the night air and heading back down to Calypso for a nightcap.

Davis and I were about to cross the road to take a seat at an outside table, and waited for Doug and Chris — lagging behind to light a cigarette each — to arrive. They seemed to be taking an awful long time. As we watched they each took a final drag, stubbed out their cigarettes on the ground, turned around and walked straight into the only strip club on the street.

Oh balls, I thought.

Davis, to his credit, suggested that we get a drink and wait it out, so we crossed over and took a seat. Calypso had — rather unfortunately for a cocktail bar — run out of tequila, and so we ordered a pair of extravagantly gauche strawberry-flavoured cocktails while we waited for Doug and Chris to emerge. As our glasses neared empty, we saw them come out. They each lit up, smoked a cigarette, stubbed it out on the ground, turned around and walked straight back into club.

Oh balls, I thought.

We gave in. We paid for our drinks, crossed back over the road and went into the Velvet Cigar (yeah, you probably want to avoid that link if you’re at work) to find Doug and Chris deep in conversation with one of the strippers. The place was dark but not gloomy and had an unexpectedly upmarket feel about it — to call it ‘classy’ is probably going too far, but it did have a certain Moulin Rouge air which I suppose isn’t entirely incompatible with its primary source of income.

Davis and I walked over to them.

“Guys!” said Chris, then pointed me out to the girl he was talking to and declared: “This man hates strippers.”

And so I found myself plunged into a long, rambling conversation about strippers, strip clubs, moral relativism and my imperfect knowledge of feminism. Of course, at least one of us was sorting out another round at the bar this whole time, and so by the time the first girl had headed off to perform and been replaced by a Geordie physiotherapy student who found that stripping was an excellent way to support her studies, I was completely blotto. I tottered unsteadily back to the pool room near the entrance, collapsed into a high-backed armchair and attempted to focus on the game of pool being played by a hopeful punter and a visibly bored stripper.

When it became apparent to me that it was going to take a lot longer than I would have liked to sober up, I decided that it was time to call it a night. I walked back into the club proper, could not for the life of me find any of the other guys, and headed out the front door to find a taxi. The journey home was an exercise in restraint; restraint, that is, of the contents of my stomach, which were agitating for freedom. I got home to find all the doors locked and my phone gone from my pocket.

“Balls,” I said to myself. After a few minutes spent evaluating my options, I went down the outside stairs and collapsed on the hammock under the deck. An hour or so later I was woken up by the sound of Doug and Davis’ taxi pulling up. They found me in the hammock.

“Dude, you know there’s a spare key under the big plant pot on the deck, right?” asked Doug.

Christ, as Doug is wont to say in an Italian accent, Christ. What an evening.

* * *

I made a round of Skype calls the next day to try to find my phone. The first was to the taxi company, and was relatively straightforward (“Have you found my phone?” — “Sorry, no”) and the second was to the Velvet Cigar. I was in the downstairs bedroom and Skype was on speaker. The receptionist’s first, very loud question:

Where were you in club? Did you have lap dance? Did you have lap dance?

“No, I didn’t,” I told her. She didn’t believe me.

Are you sure? Did you have lap dance? Did you have lap dance?

I could have died. And they also did not have my phone. Le sigh.

We left a couple of days later, saying goodbye to Leyla and Scarlet at the house and Chris at the airport. It had been an amazing holiday, as much for the opportunity to see Charlie, Penny, Annabel, Alex, Chris, Leyla & Scarlet as it was for the chance to bask in the sunny, relaxed Aussie way of life for a few weeks. It’s wrenching each time we have to leave, and this time was no different. Thank you all for having us, and I can’t wait to see you all again!

FIN