kenny hodgart

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Laying low in Ho Chi Minh City’s red light district

This article can also be read at Asia Times

I’ve stopped by one of the roadside bars on Bui Vien Street, where Steve, a proud Western Australian, is telling me what makes the girls in this part of Saigon so special. His mate has just nicked his scooter and driven off home on it, leaving Steve bereft of company. The girls, though. See, the thing is, they do everything, he says. Everything: they even kiss you.

Steve is feeling a bit emotional, as it happens. He has had to leave his girlfriend – on account of his wife, who is back home in Perth, not liking her. They would have split anyway, he confides, ruefully casting his cigarette end in the direction of a passing tide of bedraggled American youths. She was getting on a bit and he refused to give her what she wanted: a child.

Steve looks about 68, at a conservative estimate. It is with boyish delight, however, that he shows me the Zippo lighter gifted him by a stranger earlier in the day. “Exceptionally rare,” he remarks, allowing me to feel its weight. “Made in 1958.” I nudge the cap off, thumb the wheel and a flame licks the air between us. Steve looks positively touched. I drink my beer.

I hadn’t planned on hanging my hat in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, which my belated inquiries (Google search) reveal to be “notorious.” Motivated vaguely by nostalgia (for what, I’m not quite sure; when I was of backpacking age I stayed home like most people with no money), I’d simply wanted to slum it a bit after staying in a posh place in Hoi An at someone else’s expense the night before. Easier said than done.

I thought I knew what I was looking for on – no rat-holes, nothing dirt-cheap, just somewhere spartan but characterful, with a touch of woodiness and that air of respectability that used to attach itself to all guesthouses in the lower arrondissements of Paris (an air that almost certainly concealed some far less decorous unknown). It seems you have to really lower the price bar for that kind of thing in modern-day Saigon, though: luxury accommodation starts at about US$40 a night. Spend a fraction more and you’re into Kubla Khan territory.

The room I have settled for, at US$15, is immaculate. Everything in it is brand new and of the sternest good quality. Cavernous ensuite bathroom included, it is about the size of my apartment in Hong Kong.

At check-in, I’d chatted to the owners’ daughter, an elfish, handsome girl of about 21. What sort of things would I be doing while in Ho Chi Minh City, she had asked me. As I was flying out the following evening and hadn’t done any research I supposed I would probably just wander around, I’d said, adding – a propos of her dubious silence – that my editor had instructed me to go and look at the War Remnants Museum.

Showing me how to get there on the map, she’d explained that the museum is a bit boring and that people of her generation never talk amongst themselves about the war, nor indeed of its remnants. Do older people never get upset about this lack of interest? Oh no, she’d insisted: they’re just delighted that Vietnam has so many young people – post-war baby-boomers – to do everything for them.

Where I come from, in Britain, I’d said, it’s the opposite; in fact, there are so many old British people that, to keep ourselves amused, we give them unlimited free bus travel then place bets on how many days it will take them to get home. Her look of reproach seemed laden with the suggestion that one must be more respectful of one’s elders, whatever their provenance.

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Ode to a Venetian sojourn

A version of this article appeared in Gafencu magazine

In 1963, aged 15, my dad was taken to Venice on a school holiday. It was the first time he had been abroad. For a boy who had grown up in Ayrshire, Scotland – then a place of cows, coal and Calvinism – it was a kind of spiritual awakening: into a world of art and architecture, sunlight and marble, operetta and open-hearted Southern European sorts.

The Venice of today is substantially the same as that of half a century ago – just as the city my dad experienced would have been entirely recognisable to, say, Giacomo Casanova, its most representative 18th Century citizen. Okay, sure, there are probably more American tour groups nowadays, muting the colour scheme with their pastels; and, of course, the African chaps selling you fake Gucci stuff are relatively new. And there aren’t prostitutes everywhere, like in old Gio’s time (I forgot to ask my dad about the ragazze in ’63). But generally speaking (and as you might expect of a World Heritage site), this most visited of cities has been preserved, the patina of its history deferred to and respected. The prospect that blindsides the pilgrim, arriving vaporetto-borne on the Grand Canal – of the Byzantine Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale, around which cluster several others of the most magnificent Medieval and Renaissance buildings on the planet – is the very same prospect that has been doing so for centuries.

For all that Venice may seem immutable to the outsider, though, immutability is not the story for the 21st Century. See, Venice is in need of saving – for some decades, people who know about these things have been warning that it is done for. The acqua alta (seasonal high tides that account for the huge puddles of seawater often to be found lolling about in St Mark’s Square like fallen Italian footballers hoping for a penalty) has been a feature of Venetian life since time immemorial, but a combination of rising sea levels and the fact that much of the city is slowly sinking into the mud on which it is built, has seen flooding become increasingly frequent and severe. Due to rising waters, the lower floors in some buildings are already uninhabitable; at the crypt of San Zaccaria, where some of the earliest doges (the city’s rulers when it was a republic) are buried, the tombs almost seem to float; belltowers lean; and everywhere the salt water that has got into brickwork is causing it to decay.

A controversial and costly project involving a series of mobile gates that will be able to temporarily isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea during high tides may partly save the day and is nearing completion (or at least they’ve reached that stage of things in Italy where the mayor has had to resign after being arrested on charges of taking bribes from the construction company). But the city’s problems don’t end there. Even if Venice survives, Venetians may not: it now has only 70,000 permanent residents, as families have sold up and moved to more affordable places on the “mainland” where they can still find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. Venice ceased being any kind of commercial or political centre about 200 years ago. Now it welcomes some 20 million tourists every year – it has rightly been called an “urban theme park”; history is at its end-point.

What a history, though. Settled by refugees from Roman cities fleeing Attila the Hun, the early Venetians were traders who fished and made salt and worked out that if they drove enormous wooden piles far enough into the mudflats they could then slap a layer of marble on top of the crossbeams and build dry habitations on a lagoon. And so they built – a city-state that would become a hub for the silk, grain, spice and pigment trades, and a staging post for the Crusades. By the end of the 13th Century it was the most prosperous city in all of Europe and it would remain the region’s dominant maritime power into the 16th Century. Its unique system of democracy instilled civic pride and traders plundered the Mediterranean to burnish the imperial city’s might: trophies from east and west speckle Venice indoors and out, perhaps most famously in and around the Basilica di San Marco (the four bronze horses situated above the church’s main doorway, for example, came from Constantinople, while another party relieved the cathedral in Alexandria of the supposed remains of St Mark himself). Building, printing and the arts – painting, sculpture, opera – flourished, and even after the Turks weakened Venice in the late 15th Century, setting it on a path of slow decline, it remained a major cultural capital. In the 18th Century it became a required stop-off on any young European aristocrat’s Grand Tour. And, indeed, his bordello.

FOR A REAL taste of all that historical stuff – and if you’ve bought the idea that Venice might soon disappear and just can’t bear the thought of missing out – you might as well check yourself in at a palazzo. The Hotel Danieli, centred around the 14th Century Palazzo Dandolo on the Grand Canal, should serve the purpose. Rooms start at €750 (HK$7,568 – pollo alimentazione!) a night, but if you feel that’s just not flexing your finances enough, you can stay in the Doge Dandalo Royal Suite, for €12,000 a night.

Built by the Dandalo family, who in fact produced several doges, the original palazzo – around which are annexed a 19th Century palace and a marble-fronted addition put up after World War II – is truly, ornately, stunningly, brazenly beautiful. Its pink facade, marble sills, white turrets and balconies are as a gift box for what’s inside: stuccoes and frescoes from the 16th and 17th Centuries, antique portraits, furniture and Murano mirrors, wooden mosaic floors and Sansovino ceiling beams. The highlight, though, is the four-storeyed courtyard, with its scala d’oro (golden stairs) and its natural light beaming in through Venetian Gothic-style pointed arches.

In imperial times, emperors, kings, princes and ambassadors all lodged at the Dandalo; after it became a hotel, in the mid-19th Century, its guests included Goethe, Wagner, Dickens, Proust and Balzac. Make no mistake: few places in Venice afford a more authentic glimpse of the city of Vivaldi and Byron, Greta Garbo (she has a suite) and, um, James Bond (watch Casino Royal or Moonraker again). Or of the city of John Ruskin, the English art critic and thinker who panegyrized the Gothic in architecture and who stayed here with his wife Effie (and, it’s claimed, encouraged her to have an affair with an Austrian army officer as an excuse to leave her).

The management’s approach seems to involve a combination of conservation (a number of the suites were recently restored by Pierre Yves Rochon and the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice), and light-touch modernisation. The rooftop Restaurant Terrazza Danieli, which offers unparalleled views of the Adriatic, has a contemporary feel and offers a menu inspired by the city’s “historic role as a crossroad between East and West”, which I think means they use a bit of saffron.

A short stroll from the Danieli is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, which with its intricately carved marble facade, lancet arches and Byzantine and Moorish influences represents the very apogee of Venetian architectural self-confidence. You could spend days on end here taking in its decorative brilliance and the paintings and frescoes that fill its rooms – but you probably won’t, because you’ll fall victim to sensory over-stimulation and end up jumping off the Rialto bridge and embarrassing yourself, or you’ll strain your neck admiring the gilt ceilings, or get thrown out for trying to pat one of the dogs in a Tiepolo canvas.

Worth taking is a tour of the Palazzo’s hidden passages, prison cells and torture chambers. You’ll see the cell Casanova (dandy, philosopher, cabalist, lawyer, clergyman, sexual adventurist, diplomat, inveterate gambler) broke out of on his way to fleeing charges of blasphemy, and get a glimpse of a grimmer Venice quite different to the idealised City of Light that seduces Henry James characters and Americans seized by an Oedipal yearning for a mythical civilised Europe.

Not that it’s all that hard to discover, this “other” Venice – a city of dark secrets, and spies, and the ghosts of medieval plagues. It’s the Venice you get in the Gothic horror of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 movie Don’t Look Now (itself based on a Daphne du Maurier novella) and Thomas Mann’s funereal Death in Venice, which is all about disappointed idealism, excess and decay. And it’s there in the bocche di leone, the postboxes adorned with scowling lions – into whose mouths citizens were encouraged to dispatch anonymous denunciations of their neighbours – that can still be found dotted around (although Napoleon had most of them smashed to show that French law held sway); and in the crumbling, overgrown necropolis Boney had established on San Michele to keep the odours of death away from more populous islands; and the slightly fetid smell of the canals; and the eerie fog that seems to settle over them at nightfall.

There’s also the Jewish Ghetto, in the Cannaregio district, from which all other ghettoes derive: there was once a foundry here and the word comes from “gettare”, meaning “to cast in metal”. In the 16th Century, all Jews were ordered to live within the area’s boundaries – hardly the model of religious freedom, then, but in reality few states in Europe at the time tolerated Judaism at all.

Needless to say, elsewhere in the city the saints take centre, left and right stage. If you are so inclined, you might hump around Ruskin’s three-volume The Stones of Venice, with its detailed descriptions of over 80 churches, as a guide; alternatively, you could just walk in any direction, or jump on the vaporetto, and discover things for yourself.

Over on the island of Giudecca, Andrea Palladio’s splendid Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore boasts pictures by Tintoretto and Veronese – not a bad strike rate, although in Venice it must be rare to be more than spitting range from something by one of the “big three” (those two plus Titian), or at the very least a Bellini or a Canaletto. Meanwhile, down in Castello, you’ll come across San Lorenzo, the church where Marco Polo (fun fact: he has a type of sheep named after him in Afghanistan) was buried in 1324, only for his bones to get “lost” when they tore it down and rebuilt it in the 16th Century.

Maybe the dead explorer knew what he was about: “lost” is not a bad way to be in Venice. It’s not like you can wander into a bad neighbourhood, and you’ll always find your way eventually. Just don’t bet on finding the same restaurant twice. I did, incidentally, mean to tell you about What I Ate On My Holidays, but I’ve drifted off-course. All you really need to know is that it’s Italy so everything is brilliant; that you’ll get ripped off at some point, so be thankful when you’re not; and that even though Casanova claimed eating fish inflamed his eyes, the seafood is safe. May the Saints be with you.

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On the (Great Ocean) Road

A version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

There is only one way to see Australia. Actually, come to think of it there are several, but I’d recommend driving unless you can get a hold of a private plane, and even then you’d miss out on the spectacular minutiae of that stretch of coastline, an hour and a half south-west of Melbourne, that they call the Great Ocean Road.

They take their freedoms seriously, the Aussies, and there can be few greater freedoms than that of the open highway between Torquay, south of Geelong, and Warrnambool, 150 miles to the west. In consort with the coastal formations it skirts, the road soars and plunges, here winding along cliff tops and promontories that look out on to the Bass Strait and Southern Ocean, there dropping away from eucalyptus-covered hills to the edge of some deserted beach, now slicing inland through lush rainforest or gentle pastureland. And nary the sign of a speed camera.

If that’s not how they describe it in the books, then maybe they should hire me to write them. An ex-pat friend told me before I left Melbourne that the GOR wouldn’t seem “all that” if I’d driven round Scotland. I ignored him, called the blonde (well, she used to be blonde; since venturing to the Antipodes on a working holiday visa she has gone an indeterminate ginger colour) and told her I’d pick her up in an old MG. They gave me a Mitsubishi but she got in anyway.

And so we were off, the steel, glass and bohemian chic of Melbourne behind us, beforeus the promise of rock stacks and waterfalls, sea air and summer skies stretching out beyond an absent ozone layer, wildlife and woodlands and National Parks. Everything seemed to us amenable: well-kept roads; cheap fuel; Springsteen on the iPod.

But the Great Ocean Road is of that order of things that should give pause. It’s easy now to pitch up in a Winnebago, get a few snaps of the wife standing in front of some limestone cliffs then hit the road again; or to wander the beachfront at Lorne admiring the holiday homes that cluster the hillsides and think how perfectly genteel everything looks. How soon man forgets the travails of his ancestors, or the triumph of their genius. A century ago, these coastal communities and their idyllic surrounds were isolated and unattainable except via rough coach tracks through dense bush.

That all changed when civic-minded men decided to get up a fund to finance the building of a new road, partly as a way of ensuring soldiers returning from the First World War had employment, but also to serve as a permanent monument to Australians who had been killed in the conflict. The money was raised through private subscription and borrowing and was to be repaid by charging drivers a toll until the debt was cleared, after which the road would be gifted to the state.

Work began in August 1918 and was finally completed in 1932. The soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence for eight hours’ work per day and lived in tents. They had access to a piano, a gramophone, games and newspapers and when, in 1924, a steamboat casino hit a reef near Cape Patton and had to jettison 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits, they obtained the cargo, laid down their tools and enjoyed an unscheduled two-week drinking holiday. It is sobering, however, to think of what they gave of themselves: construction was done by hand – using explosives, picks, shovels and wheelbarrows – and several men were killed on the job.

You would be pushed to think of a finer monument to the bravery and spirit of ordinary soldiers anywhere in the world, but surprisingly there is no museum about the road itself. What you will find is a museum about surfing at Torquay, and, at Warrambool, some rather lurid divertissements on the theme of shipwrecks. The treacherous stretch of coastline from Moonlight Head and Port Fairy, it is said, claimed more than 180 ships in the days before radar, but one wreck in particular, which gave its name to Loch Ard Gorge, seems to have spawned quite an industry all of its own, quite why I’m not sure. Shipwrecked, I learn, is “a multi-million dollar sound and laser show that brings to life the tragic story of the Loch Ard disaster in a uniquely entertaining presentation.” Gulp on that, all ye drowned folk.

Not far from the Loch Ard Gorge itself is perhaps the whole coastline’s most stupefying attraction. The Twelve Apostles are enormous limestone rock stacks created by erosion from the sea, the wind and the rain; one of them disappeared by the same method in 2005, leaving only eight – the other three never existed but who ever heard of the nine apostles? Centuries in the making, they are bits of the mainland that have become separated from it. Years from now, of course, the viewing areas and boardwalks on which visitors currently sport themselves – in their multitudes: it’s like stumbling on a religious convention in the desert – will also have become detached or washed away. The risk is worth running for now, though: brilliant yellow in the vapoury sunshine, the Apostles are like great gods of the sea; at sunrise or sunset, I’m told, they loom in towards you, dark and foreboding.

And if the car park and visitors’ centre feels like Times Square, the peace and tranquillity of nearby Port Campbell is little short of incredible. Where do they go, the busloads? Built around the comeliest of coves, hemmed in by two extruding headlands, the “port” is a place of changing light and quietude and its several decent restaurants and thriving fishing harbour belie its sense of remoteness. We spent a night there and I would have stayed longer but for the necessity of going back to Melbourne to visit more smug ex-pat friends.

Lorne, where we spent our other night on the road, and where – a few months earlier – the blonde fell head over heels for a surfer named Jesus – isn’t as sleepy, but nor is it Ayia Nappa. Jesus, I am told, was a very handsome man, and everything else about Lorne is immaculate, too; immaculate, but not in an unwelcoming way. An abundance of cafes and restaurants serve local seafood at reasonable prices and their hospitality generally extends to visitors in flip flops.

The coastline near Lorne may not be as sheer as the Shipwreck Coast, but it has its own lookouts on sandy bays and creeks spilling into coves and the glistening seas that stretch out to New Zealand and the Pacific in one direction, to Antarctica in the other. A detour a few miles inland brings you to Erskine Falls, a stunning 90ft waterfall set within ancient rainforest in Great Otway National Park. I was quite happy swimming in its plunge pool until the blonde started going on about snakes.

Besides Erskine Falls, Lorne and Torquay there is an Angelsea and a Peterborough on the Great Ocean Road, and a Portland. There is even a rock formation named after London Bridge. It may be a hackneyed observation that place names in Australia often refer back to somewhere in old Blighty; but after three days on the road I began to think my old chum in Melbourne might have had a point about there being echoes, not just of Scotland but of the whole British landscape: this part of Victoria seems almost like the British Isles in miniature, or at any rate an exaggerated, romanticised version of them, as though translated via the easel of a Constable or a Turner or a Horatio McCulloch. All of which is to say that, unlike many other great swathes of Australia, the Great Ocean Road throws up an astounding diversity of vivid, painterly landscapes: those rugged coasts, the wet pine forests and fern glades that might at some time have reminded settlers of the Highlands, and the verdant river estuaries and rolling hills that hit you foursquare with all the force of an English pastoral idyll.

Of course, there are crucial differences. Where in Britain can you go canoeing in search of that 100 million year-old egg-laying mammal the platypus – as tour guides will assist you in so doing on Lake Elizabeth, deep in the Otways – for example? Or eat in a winery restaurant, still far less drink decent wine from the cellars of its producers? But then not even the Aussies were doing that 30 years ago, never mind a century ago when the Great Ocean Road was still but a pipedream. Forget the ex-pats: the whole state of Victoria probably has a right to feel smug.

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Poetry, war and bicycles

This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan

It is the first Sunday in April, 2009, and my train has chuntered out of Brussels, bound for East Flanders. Ghent, famed for its immaculately-preserved medieval architecture, is less than an hour to the north, but my destination is the lesser-known hilly area to the south of the region – the Flemish Ardennes – home to the “hellingen” which provide the dramatic setting for the cobbled classic cycle races run in Flanders each Spring.

In professional cycling, cobbles are to these “Classics” what the high mountain passes of the Pyrenees and the Alps are to the Tour de France. It is on these sections of the course that the ambitions of the few are realised, the hopes of many are crushed and, in such short, steep climbs as the famous Koppenberg, near the town of Oudenaarde, that thousands fervently line the route to experience the thrill of the race as it hurtles past.

Where the colour, celebrity and scale of the Tour de France lend it a glorious, epic glamour, the grittiness of the so-called “northern” Classics has a fascination all of its own. The Paris-Roubaix race – run over an unrelenting series of punishing cobbled farm tracks in northern France – is considered the “Queen of the Classics”, but is preceded in late March and early April each year by the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish cycling week).

This festival of racing includes the Classic Ghent-Wevelgem, which features the ascent and terrifying descent of the famous Kemmelberg climb, and the “Three Days of De Panne” stage race in West Flanders. But the highlight, and the race which brings all of Flanders to a standstill, is the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

“You can either ride the cobbles or you can’t”, says Barry Hoban, an Englishman whose successes in the 1960s and 70s endeared him to Flandrians to such an extent that he became known as The Gent of Ghent. “Some guys are terrified of them. You have to ride them hard and fast and take whatever the weather throws at you. I’ve ridden Paris-Roubaix in snowstorms and I’ve ridden it in a heatwave. And when it’s hot and dry it’s worse because the dust gets up and your eyes are red for about three days afterwards.”

As someone who “hit the north” as an outsider, Hoban – whose results included victory in Gent-Wevelgem, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in the Ronde – is well-placed to comment on what distinguishes the culture of cycling there. “As a young man, I left West Yorkshire – a hard-grafting, coal-mining area – and moved to northern France and lived among hard-grafting, coal-mining people there,” recalls the 71-year-old.

“The only difference was the language and the fact that they loved cycling, because the people were exactly the same. I lived first in Bethune (in France) and later in Ghent, and at that time there were very few English-speaking riders. But I didn’t feel out of place. I learned French and Flemish and just immersed myself in it. People took me to their hearts as one of their own.”

Hoban describes his Ghent-Wevelgem win in 1974 as being as special as his Tour de France stage wins. “In that race I beat everyone, all of the guys from that great generation of Belgian cyclists: Eddy Merckx was second, Roger de Vlaeminck was third. [Walter] Godefroot, Freddy Maertens were both there. I beat them all, I beat the hierarchy of Belgium. It was good.”

He also remembers losing out against Merckx, probably the greatest cyclist of all time, when they hit the “muur” together in the 1969 Ronde. Muur means “wall” in Dutch, and the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with its half-kilometre cobbled section, scaling upwards at a gradient of up to 20% to the iconic Chapel of Our Lady at its summit, often proves the decisive battleground at the head of the race. The latter half of the Ronde features more than a dozen similar hellingen, but because the Muur comes after 250km of racing – only 17km from the finish in Ninove – those not reaching the chapel with the leaders have no chance of contesting the win.

My train into Geraardsbergen – one of the oldest “cities” in Europe, but now a modestly-sized municipality – is not busy. Few, it seems, travel from metropolitan, cosmopolitan Brussels to watch this race. But as I reach the main street leading up to the town square, I realise the party is already in full swing. It is a bright, sunny day, warm for April, and old and young mingle together in the square’s packed bars and restaurants.

The race passes through the square and it is just before it that the Muur begins in earnest, albeit the cobbled section isn’t for another half kilometre. Past the square the road swings upwards and left, and several thousand fans are packed in along the wide boulevard.

The riders are still more than 40 minutes away, but already a decisive break has formed. The biggest name in Belgian cycling, and two-time winner of the race, Tom Boonen, has missed it, but last year’s winner, the Flandrian Stijn Devolder, is present. There are black and yellow Lion of Flanders flags everywhere.

I head further on up the hill. At the end of Oudebergstraate a cobbled lane narrows and steepens, making its way up through a wooded section and round a hairpin bend which kicks up again to the Chapel at the top. This is the heart of the Muur, where the toughest riders create the fractional gaps that can quickly lengthen into decisive ten or 20 second leads. All the way up, on both sides of the road, people are tucked into the embankment, holding on to the branches of trees to stop themselves falling on to the road. Some have been there for hours, waiting like snipers for a Boonen, Devolder or Lief Hoste to pass by inches in front of them. Waiting, I discover, to unleash their noise on the Ronde.

Among the crowd the orange of visiting Dutch fans is visible; a few English voices can be heard; and a fan club of Italians is vocalising its support for the young up-and-coming Italian rider Marco Bandiera. But though the appeal of the race is international, its identity is distinctly Flandrian: the majority of the spectators are behind the local riders and chants of “Sti -jn – Devolder” ring out.

“When you’re a kid and you take up cycling you dream of making it to the Muur van Geraardsbergen in first place,” is how Boonen, a native Flandrian, explains the passion and frenzy. “Belgians grow up with cycling in their hearts. It’s ingrained in our culture like football in Italy or skiing in Austria. [The Ronde] has always been part of my life, ever since I was a kid and would watch the race on television. It’s my country’s race and it’s where I had my first great victory in a Classic [in 2005]. It was an unforgettable moment. When I crossed the finish line in front of thousands of supporters screaming my name it was like living a dream.”

As I squeeze into a spot just below the chapel, the scene is a flurry of nervous activity. Some have radios pressed to their ears and I catch the names Devolder, Boonen, Gilbert and Chavanel at various intervals. A man, fuelled by strong beer and sensing a captive audience, decides to break the tension by performing a dance with his trousers at his ankles, much to the delight of his peers.

And then the television helicopter is sighted overhead. A new expectation fills the air: the race is near, the distant roar of crowds further down the road can be heard, and as the volume increases men, women, children, even dogs strain their eyes on the road. People know Devolder and the Frenchman Chavanel are up there, and they know that Boonen hasn’t made it. A flash of colour is sighted through a chicane in the road, and the crowd slowly recognises it is one rider on his own. It is Devolder.

An ecstasy fills the air. Men roar and women shriek as he rounds the bend at the top of the Muur in a flash, sweat glistening over his muscles in the sunlight, a grimace of pain etched on his face. And his effort is not in vain: he crests the summit with a gap of some ten seconds on his pursuers and by the time he reaches Ninove it is almost a minute.

I eventually make my way back to the square, where a full-scale celebration is underway. Assuming it to be a Flandrian beer, I order an Orval, and am chided for it by a local man, who explains to me that it is, in fact, from the French-speaking Walloonian south. And maybe he is right to chide: maybe the passion and parochiality of Vlaamse Wielerweek is what gives it its distinctiveness, its enduring appeal in a world in which sport is becoming ever-more globalised and commercialised. “It’s poetry and war at the same time,” Boonen tells me. “This sport is like religion to us.”

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An Highland fling

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It was a beautiful morning in Dingwall yesterday, the kind of morning that sends city dwellers scarpering up mountains and the like in pursuit of solitude and unspoilt vistas.

And after about 9am it will have been quiet, too – quieter probably than at any time, not counting Sabbath days, since the old king chucked it. The Scottish Cup final kicked off in Glasgow at 3pm, but an exodus of military efficacy had been put in train on Friday with a bag-piped send-off for the players of Ross County that would have done the region’s martial ancestors proud.

Their mission ultimately failed, but few from the Ross-shire town were ever likely to miss the occasion for all the Highland sunshine of a dozen summers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that almost an entire community made for Hampden Park yesterday: the population of Dingwall is about 5000, but more than 18,000 “Staggies” – young and old, very young and not-so-very old – found their way to the south side of Glasgow.

In Dundee United, First Division County were up against a team who, by dint of not being one of the Old Firm pair, would ordinarily be underdogs themselves at a cup final. As I mixed with the County fans, I was reminded of that great novel about Scottish football by Robin Jenkins, The Thistle and the Grail, in which a small-town Lanarkshire club makes it to Hampden, uniting rich and poor, friend and foe along the way. But this was the fairytale romance of the cup made real and updated for the 21st century – Ross County diehards are as likely to be women as they are men with war-wounds and bad chests from smoking roll-ups.

There was a buzz in Dingwall – a buzz eagerly stoked and taken measure of by local and national media – that built to a crescendo all last week but which began the moment County knocked Celtic out of the tournament in last month’s semi-finals.

The May 6 general election and its aftermath didn’t get a look in: the town had special pies and cakes to bake, shop windows to dress, processions to organise. There was also a record out, a version of a Proclaimers song by a local band called Torridon. It was a missed opportunity for someone to form a duo called Ross and Cromarty – along Flanders and Swann lines – and shut the Reid twins up for good.

Cakes and pies are thrust in front of television cameras whenever a provincial club achieves any degree of success in the cup, but there’s nothing stage-managed or fake about Ross County. “It’s a community club, a family club, all the way,” according to Lynn Lonnen, a supporter I met on Friday night in the Mallard, a pub on the very platform of Dingwall Railway Station. “We’re a small town, people know one another, we don’t lock our doors. You see the chairman about town, or the players, and they’ll speak to you.”

County, in other words, are a nice football club, the antithesis of, say, a Millwall. They can’t not be nice even when they try: one of the songs in the fans’ repertoire makes it clear to opponents that they will be left “crying in their mammy’s soup”.

They even have an amicable relationship with their local rivals, Inverness Caley Thistle, who yesterday hung out a banner emblazoned with the words “ICT wishes Ross County all the best”. “There’s very occasionally fisticuffs with some of the younger supporters, but usually it’s because of the drink,” Arnie, Lynn’s husband, told me.

He also told me County play “probably the best football in Scotland”, and it’s true that in 2007 they did – despite topping Division Two at the time – get rid of Dick Campbell as manager because the football his team were playing was insufficiently attractive.

Sadly, yesterday they had an off-day in a game that never really sparked to life as a contest. Maybe the supporters were too nice about their team’s failings – certainly, the accustomed choruses of disapproval at misplaced places were conspicuously absent from the West Stand.

It was for the “buzz” and the much-vaunted Highland hospitality – the drink, essentially – that I was in Dingwall. Unfortunately the drinkers seemed to have been headed in the other direction as I journeyed north.

I know this because I saw what a Friday night out in Glasgow had done to them as I made my way to the National Stadium before kick-off. Our rigid laws against drinking on supporters’ buses meant, on the other hand, that there was no-one making a proper fool of himself to be amused at on the road down.

It is reassuring to report, nevertheless, that the feeling in the aftermath of defeat was that the party simply had to go on. County’s manager, Derek Adams, and their director of football, his father George, are tee-total for religious reasons and the local Wee Frees had decreed that an open-top bus parade in the event of victory wasn’t to go ahead until Monday (this in an area of the country that elects the renowned toper Charles Kennedy as its MP), but celebrations planned for last night were not being cancelled.

One woman from Dingwall told me before the game that if County won, “the town won’t sleep for a week”. Afterwards, a man confided he was merely planning on “a wee dram.” Katie MacKenzie and Jilly Murray were unwavering in their intentions, however: “We’re staying out in Glasgow tonight, without a doubt”, said Katie, with a grin that sadly I hadn’t the chance to misinterpret as an invitation. For with that, they were off into the dusk, “family final” done and dusted and mammy’s soup not even on the menu.

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Faking it in Chicago

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald magazine

Five letters, starting with a big old O, proclaim Chicago’s most exalted living scion. The very name warms hearts from pole to melting pole, kindles faith in improvement and leaves millions of Americans moist about their peepers.

Saviour of the world though he may be, we’re not talking about President Obama here. No no. Chicago is Oprah’s town. Somewhere along the line she wrestled Al Capone’s heirs off the throne, and nowadays she gets to do what she wants, with Mayor Richard M Daley’s blessing: on our visit half of Michigan Avenue, one of the city’s main arteries, was closed off for two days while Oprah partied with her celebrity friends to mark the start of her 24th “season” on television. Most Chicagoans, shuddering to think what she has planned for her 25th, went about their business; a teeming minority lapped it up, happy to hold aloft polystyrene clappy hands, ogle the slebs and stuff their faces.

Oprah, queen of empathy and psychobabble, “made it” in Chicago. The city, we are told, “made” Obama. There is, I’m sure of it, something about the place that revels in the containment of such dual narratives: tabloid talk host and self-help wet nurse on the one hand, cerebral politician and civil rights attorney on the other. Indeed, the president may have drawn up his ideological map living and working in Chicago’s South Side, a place steeped in social activism and blue collar pride, but where would his campaign have been without its populism, its implacable showbiz optimism and the saccharine “yes we can”? Oprah’s endorsement of Obama, incidentally, is estimated to have delivered him over a million votes.

There isn’t, as yet, an official Obama-lover’s tour of Chicago, although guides will point out the president’s mock-Georgian mansion (surrounded by Secret Service goons), the church he used to attend before his pastor said unhelpful things about whites and the basketball court on which he won permission to date Michelle after impressing her brother with his dribbling. Much more visible around town is the insignia of Mayor Daley, who famously responded to Chicago topping the US murder league table in 2001 by insisting that the 9/11 deaths should have been included in New York’s figures.

Given the historic scourges of gangsterism and corruption in Chicago, you can just about follow the PR logic. But Daley, whose father – also mayor – died in office in 1976 having served just a bit longer than the current incumbent’s two decades, has never been entirely free from the suspicion of corruption himself, a suspicion that is wont to linger around most political dynasties but particularly around those in cities where politics, big business and the unions have always been close.

The upside of such fellowship is, perhaps, that, in Chicago, things get done: buildings go up, people get paid, the streets are clean and civic-mindedness thrives. The city’s parks cover a total of 30 km²; one of them, Grant Park, hosts an excellent free Jazz Festival every year; and the Art Institute of Chicago houses some of the finest collections of art – European, American, Asian – anywhere in the world. The vibrancy and positivity that helps young Senators into the White House is not, indeed, hard to seek: it is there in the built environment, in the sports-mad citizenry whose baseball team never wins and in the nightlife that, according to Sinatra, not even the preacher Billy Sunday could shackle.

Chicago is, absolutely, the prototype of the modern metropolis. Razed to the ground by fire in 1871, it was rebuilt, skywards, round about the same time that it found itself at the intersection of the railroads from California to the North Atlantic and a shipping route that connected the cities of the north to New Orleans in the south. In 1900 the city’s engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River, a feat that made the Mississippi navigable from Lake Michigan. And so a town built on swampland became a major industrial player, not least – courtesy of the Refrigerated Railcart – as the nation’s meatpacking hub. Yes we can, indeed.

Today, the vertical building styles of the last century and a half collide and caress on Chicago’s street grid, a checkerboard designed by Daniel Burnham, the great American architect and urban planner who tried to put his vision of “the city beautiful” into practice in The Plan of Chicago. The neo-classical and the neo-Gothic are everywhere at street level; stretch your neck and you’ll find elegant art deco skyscrapers, among the oldest in the world, and the bombastic modernist creations, all steel and glass, of Mies van der Rohe and his acolytes. Van der Rohe wanted to strip architecture of all historical peculiarities, but his buildings have a theatricality about them in-keeping with the majesty of the 20th Century American cityscape, which is to say a skyline suggestive of endless possibilities rather than of social engineering.

Chicago’s buildings are also more visionary than those of New York, the city to which Chicagoans most frequently compare their own and occasionally find it wanting. In reality, there is little reason for them to feel in any way second best: Chicago doesn’t share Manhattan’s anger or its snobbery, it’s cleaner and less frantic, and just about everything that’s world-class in New York is as good in Chicago. Its theatre audiences can stomach more than just musicals, it gave the blues a home and invented house music and it sits right bang on a freshwater lake that’s bigger than Wales.

The city that reversed a river also gave the world McDonald’s, Playboy, rollerskates and Wrigley’s, and, courtesy of the Chicago School of Economics, the free-market ideology some reckon brought last year’s crash. Were he alive Milton Friedman might have stuck up for himself by pointing the finger at those who encouraged banks to make credit so easily available, ie governments. But as laissez-faire capitalists and Democratic Party machine politicians alike know, it’ll take something more than the laws of boom and bust to bring Chicago down.