30 for 30: France

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

27. FRANCE

The view from the Sacre Coeur

The view from the Sacre Coeur

I love France and French culture. I am essentially a Francophile.

Paris. Just the word evokes images of style, fashion and romance. It occupied a lot of my thoughts before I ever went there. It is still one of my favourite cities in the world – if not the favourite.

The place reeks of cliché. Walking around a beautiful courtyard, it’s easy to see a man in a stripey shirt busking with a piano accordion. It makes me want to scream “For God’s sake turn down the French!” But why would they? French is brilliant.

The government actually actively turns up the French. No matter how rich your company is, you can’t fuck with large parts of France. Apple wanted to build a store on the Seine and was told to fuck off. It took Apple years to build their first proper flagship store in Paris. The French still hate the new modern entrance in the Louvrethe Pyramide du Louvre.

The list of marquee landmarks are as long as any city and more than most. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. The Seine. Hotel De Ville. Notre Dame. Père Lachaise. Pompidou Centre. Arc De Triomphe. Sacre Coeur. But it’s the small things. The merry-go-round near Abesses. The street signs and lamp-posts. Even the most insignificant bridge is amazing.

And the people. The most beautiful women, just walking along the street, smoking. Old American couples on holidays along the river. Trendy French kids dressed in the latest crazy fashions.

There’s not a corner of Paris that I find boring. There’s just something in the water.

Before I got there, Paris was already the main place I wanted to visit. In my naivety I thought this was true for everyone. Paris! I mean, come on!

Yet I know people who’s heart – even far away Australian hearts – belong to different places they’ve never been. Some it’s New York (Amy), Italy (Kathleen), London (Liam) or Egypt (Jeanette). This only makes me love Paris more. I studied maps of Paris before I even earned enough money in my life to afford a flight.

I don’t know why I was drawn to it, but I was.

But this is not a post about Paris. My courting with France began in, as with most things, the music. Being a huge music guy. Being a huge music guy, it’s easy to com across plenty of non English music. For me, something caught my ear with French music. It also began my interest in the language.

It’s small things at first. Nada Surf singing a French song. The original “My Way”. Que Sera Sera. The Grapes song Je M’appelle. Francoise Hardy dated Nick Drake.

Eventually you get yourself some Serge Gainsbourg. Then the chanteuses. Hardy of course. Brigit Bardot. Jane Birkin. Each more beautiful and swoonworthy as the next. Then you get some Edith Piaf. Some Telephone. Some Sebastian Tellier. And you’re stuck.

Then there’s cinema. I discovered Jean-Luc Godard when SBS showed a film of his every week for months. A bout de soufflé, Pierre le fou, Weekend, Masculine Feminine – all great (Sympathy For the Devil is also pretty good, but super weird). Amelie and the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Jacque Tatu, etc. To this day, I am happy to see almost any French film at the cinema, be it arty like Diving Bell And the Butterfly, romance like Priceless or even teen dramas like LOL. If it’s on and I can make it, I do.

I love French cinema more than French music. But there’s also the films set in France. Charade is one of my favourite movies – the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made. Before Sunset, little more than two people walking and talking in Paris – so many great moments. Everybody Says I Love You. Even French Kiss. Even the Da Vinci Code. Perhaps my favourite film version of Paris is Ratatouille. It really glistens bright like that cartoon.

I really loved the food in Ratatouille as well. I’ve tried all the delicacies and liked them. Escargot. Steak Tartare. Raclette. If it’s French I’ll try it. I have thought about getting that Julia Child book. And then there’s the wine. Even the crappiest 2 euro bottle from a shop is pretty good. And my favourite beer is Kronenbourg.

Then there’s everything else. Architecture. Painting. Cabaret. Even mime. It’s the same culture that brought us A Remembrance of Times Past and A Void. There is something about the French. They approach everything with a touch of flair. A je ne sais quoi. They lead artistic lives. If you’re going to do something, do it with class.

Man On Wire was a 2008 documentary on Phillipe Petit, a French tight rope walker and stunt artist. Amazingly, he walked across the New York Twin Towers in 1974. When the American press got to him, they wanted to know one thing – why he did it.

“Why”?

Petit did not know the answer. He barely understood the question. He was expecting “how”. He just did something amazing, that brightened people’s day and fuelled imagination and possibilities. Do you really have to ask ‘why’?

Such a French way to look at life.

I studied some French in high school, and did more years of it in London. I can get by in France. On a good day I can get by without using English at all. I even managed to buy drugs in French once. They should put that in a test.

I have a few French language podcasts and plenty of French apps on my phone. I even tried to read Le Monde every morning for a while but I thought that was taking Francophilia into Wankery. I bought the first Harry Potter book in French and I’m working my way through it – and getting better at not reaching for the dictionary. What I really want is the Roald Dahl books in French.

I will get back to lessons as soon as I can. I started to write a story in French once. I’ve translated some of my own songs into French (badly). I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to the language, but I love it. Studying something has never been so easy.

Last time I was in Paris, I had a strange feeling. In my first couple of years in London, I went to Paris almost every month. I’ve been to many other French cities too. I really got to know the place.

I have my regular things. Train into Gare Du Nord, and walk through Abesses to Tim Hotel. Breakfast pastry from that little boulangerie around the corner that make awesome chocolate croissants. I have the places I like for dinner, for drinks and all around Monmartre. It also all ends at the steps of the Sacre Coeur, looking over all of Paris. I know my spot, the backstreets, how to get anywhere from my spot.

I’m not a tourist, but I’m still a stranger.

It’s like I dated this city for long enough. Time to step up or get out. I wouldn’t have left London if it wasn’t for this. Next time I go to Paris, I have to spend some real time there. Like live there.

So, I’m going to get the language up. I’m going to save. And then I’m going to go back. And live an artistic life.

30 for 30: Newtown

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

20. NEWTOWN

"I have a dream" mural, King St, Newtown.

I lived in Newtown, a suburb in Sydney, for many years.

It was the best part of Sydney, for me, when I lived there. Bands, pubs, cafes, gigs, Thai food, coffees, record shops, video shops and more. It was the alternative hub of Sydney. I was a Newtown kid through and through, having grown up close by and having hung out there after school for years.

Newtown is divided by a big upside down “Y”, forming the three main streets – King Street, South King Street and Enmore Road. At the place where all three meet is Newtown train station.

I really wish I could show you Newtown. I could show you around.

Coming out of the train station we’d turn right down King Street, the main street of Newtown.

– past where there used to be a great Vietnamese bakery where I used to get Vietnamese pork rolls for a couple of dollars.

– then Bank Hotel, where Claire slapped me one rainy night and I had a dinner with all my cousins once.

Tree of Life where a friend worked, that new gelato place, and round the corner from Egg Records, where I found Wilco’s AM on vinyl and bought old Mojo mags. I can still see Jason outside, smoking.

– The sex shop I went into once on a very awkward first date.

Civic Video where I learnt so much – whether it was Sopranos or Truffaut. Being Newtown, it was a chain video store with the best arthouse section you’ve ever seen.

– Across from that weird courtyard with the big mural of the Aboriginal flag and the words “I have a dream”.

Thai Pothong, which won awards for food but I refused to go to out of loyalty to Doy Tao.

The Post Office where Amy and I shared a PO box when we dreamt of changing the world with acoustic music nights.

Jester’s, which was once Shakespeare’s Pies and before that McDonalds – still the only McDonalds in Australia to close due to lack of business. Go Newtown!

Café C, my favourite. I would order a country breakfast with some extras, and called it the alt-country breakfast.

HUM, where Baz worked, and the newsagent where I bought all my travelcards and other bits.

Better Read Than Dead, where I would devour the music section, buying so many books.

– The cute café, which had great soups, that was part of the Dendy Cinema, where I saw billions of movies.

Fish Records, where Casey and Jo met and fell in love, while I was browsing Randy Newman records.

– the cramped small IGA supermarket, where they kept moving the bread and eggs and the whole layout all the time, but the carpark was good for making u-turns down a one way street.

Happy Chef, my favourite eatery ever. Get the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup. I did, three times a week for around 7 years.

– Followed by my bank, the Westpac, near the Old Fish Shop, a café that was always full because it had about 5 seats.

Mitre 10, where I would try and be a tough guy and buy home hardware, and where Saul bought a chain for a Halloween costume.

– So many more bakeries and second hand clothes shops, including the one where I found my pointy brown stage shoes that I still love.

– The pawn shop that always had cool stuff because even Newtown cast offs were interesting.

– Across from Twelve, which used to be called something different, where I would sit with friends after gigs at age 18, dreaming of moving to Newtown.

– Brown Street, where I remember sitting in the passenger side with Saul driving, and me trying to practise drumming on his dashboard.

Elizabeth’s Bookshop which never seemed to close, which was so cool, buying a book at 1am, like in NYC. Except they never had much that was good.

St Vincent De Paul’s charity shop, and the similar ones on the other side of the road, where I bought most of my clothes.

So Music. My actual favourite new record store in Newtown, because of it’s huge Americana and Soundtracks section. And they would always recommend classic albums. They ordered in all those Sam Cooke SACDs I wanted.

– The bizarre gay bar that was Newtown Hotel, and Alicia’s house right on the corner there.

Kuletos, that shitty cocktail bar. If I was there, something had gone wrong with my night.

The Marlborough Hotel, where we sat out the back and tried to make bad jokes the night Jon died.

Hi Fi Trader, where Adrian and I would look in the window, planning to buy that awesome stereo system one day but never did.

Ice and Slice, the superior ice cream joint in Newtown.

– Past my old real estate agent, who were such nice people that when clients sent me bottles of wine for Xmas, I gave a bottle to them. They knew I was dumb kid trying to live on my own and helped me out a lot.

– Then we are in North Newtown, where Adrian lived and it was his part of the world. They had their own Thai food, supermarkets and all. It’s nice (especially the Vanguard) but lets turn around.

Left out of the station, down South King Street.

The Town Hall Hotel (or the Townie). The whole suburb’s local. A million memories, being hit in the face by some dude because I was set up by a so called friend in a jealousy trap. Jono telling me about his fight with cancer. Many nights of trivia.

Café Newtown on the corner, which Bruno always put me off. He saw me there once and asked if I was just eating car exhaust. I was.

– The strange small mall with a much better supermarket. Not sure the people there spoke English, which for some reason made it easier to buy condoms.

– The street where Shell and Ray lived. And I saw that girl from my morning train with short hair and red lips once, and I imagined she lived there too. I saw her once whilst on the way to a rehearsal, lugging a guitar and though “yes! She’s seen me with a guitar. She might think I’m cool.”

– My second flat in Newtown is here, above the tattoo place. Nigel, drunk and wandering home from the Townie would buzz me in the middle of the night for no reason. It was small but it was mine and I loved that little flat.

– Across from Newtown Theatre. 4 nights of You Am I and the Strokes changed everything I ever thought about music. I didn’t listen to anything new for several years. If the Strokes where what rock music was about, I wanted no part of it.

– That empty lot which was there as long as I remember. And the telegraph pole where I posed for a photo, next to a poster promoting a gig by our old band.

– That coffee shop where I’d get coffees for Craig before he’d pick me up in his car to go to work.

Newtown School of Performing Arts. If only I got in. Life would be different.

– The café which was actually the Globe back in the day, where I saw Glide a few days before their singer ended his life, and where I’d be dragged to see a million Sidewinder shows.

The Sandringham Hotel, or the Sando. So legendary. I missed the heyday, but it wasn’t too bad when I was there. I played a Gram Parsons tribute and someone told me I was the best act of the night – for some reason that compliment stuck with me. Paul and I promised to form a Jon Sebastian covers band here. A night drinking with Perry Keyes after the Born to Run reissue came out, and we talked about pianos for around 4 hours.

– the bike shop, the café that Chrissie’s husband owned, the laundrette that Dave used for decades before he bought my washing machine off me.

– That shop that just sold buttons, along with an array of antique furniture places. I would save just to buy a coffee table or a lamp.

– That big furniture warehouse where, for sake of time, I can’t explain why Alex and I lost a tennis ball there once.

– Near where Nigel and Lindsay lived. Nigel had the weirdest shower and a nice courtyard, but our relationship was really built on swapping DVDs.

Pete’s Musician Market, pretty much the only guitar shop left, and it never had anything good. God knows I spent enough time there.

– Corner of Alice street. My first apartment. Jules waiting at the front door for me to come home. Jeff falling drunk on my sofa after playing Sloan songs all night for Sophie. My piano.

– Around the corner is where Andy lived, and Saul lived.

Doy Tao, the best Thai food in Newtown. I had my birthday there, every year, without fail.

The New Theatre, where I first saw Darren Hanlon, still the only time I’ve been in there.

– The second hand store where Amber and I found a vest for me to wear for a gig.

The Union, where I had a drink with Kate before I left, where there used to be decent trivia. We’re now heading to St Peters so lets turn around again.

Finally, if we head kind of straight out of the station, is Enmore Rd

The Hub, the big beautiful abandoned theatre. It’s supposedly owned by some woman who just wants nothing to do with it, yet wont rent it out. Such a waste.

– scary punk and heavy metal shop where I’d leave my pop fanzine and run out before I was killed.

– best shop name ever, the chiropractor called “Back Together”.

Oportos. Portuguese chicken. Yum.

– The Turkish kebab place. You could smell it from my flat. Wasn’t all that bad.

– That film shop where I planned to buy around a million awesome posters but never did.

Newtown RSL, or @Newtown, or Goldmans, or whatever they are calling it now. A million great gigs and moments. A million frustrating moments with the staff. I still have my Goldman’s card somewhere.

– The somewhat awful Blockbuster across from the brothel. Casey told me that you can spot a brothel because they always have the street number as the biggest sign, not the place name. People are looking for the address.

– Turning left at the place that just sells rock t-shirts is my last house in Newtown. A great place, and too much to go into here.

– Some truly strange shops. The Cat Protection Society, and that awesome 50s hairdresser that is used in so many photos it’s turning into a landmark.

– The bus stop where Paul drove past me once, alarmed to see me wearing shorts.

The Enmore Theatre. Where I got up and played a song to a sold out room at age 16. Where I saw so many great bands. My favourite venue, probably.

– The furniture store, that proclaimed Urban Living. It closed down and the sign stayed, suggesting Urban Living was very minimalist.

The Duke. The kitchen stayed open til 1am. You could see a band and get a proper steak before bed. Where I saw a pretty girl, who I was trying to get the nerves to talk to, suddenly started talking to me.

– Another Civic Video, this one wasn’t too bad. Conveniently, it was across the road from the only decent Indian place in Newtown. Curry and a movie, that happened a lot.

– Things repeat again. Another IGA, more cafes, more real estate agents. The only thing left to note is Scrambled, the lovely café where I made myself a home for several years. And the Warren View where Tim won a local Scrabble comp.

The question is – am I done with Newtown?

Last time I was there it was still similar, but not the same. A few too many trendy sneaker shops. And most of my friends have left there anyway. I’m not 20 anymore – should I leave Newtown for the next bunch of optimistic indie hippie hopefuls? Do I start something new, somewhere else? Or will I just find myself in Newtown all the time anyway?

Sense of place is so important. I am so much happier when I have that ‘home’ feeling.

It’s on my mind.

30 for 30: Notting Hill

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

9. NOTTING HILL

Portobello Markets, Notting Hill

Portobello Markets, Notting Hill

I lived around Notting Hill for 3 years. I was going to write a piece about London herself, but it’s West London and the Notting Hill surrounds that I will always remember.

I am currently not living there. After 3 years, I decided to move on. Most of friends have gone, and I wanted to try something different. I don’t regret it, but it’s not the best decision I’ve ever made. I miss it a lot.

Notting Hill is held together by Portobello Road – a long and winding road that goes from south to north. On the weekends it’s one of the best, busiest markets in the world. At nights it’s full of great pubs, restaurants and cinemas. At other times, it’s just a collection of flats, supermarkets and cafes. It’s a different thing at different times.

By luck, my job is in West London, so I tried to find a place to live near work. I found it in Ladbroke Grove, the next suburb up from Notting Hill, at the end of Portobello Road. From here, most mornings I would walk past the markets, and if it was a weekend I would soak in the shops and the atmosphere.

The place, even when packed with thousands of people, feels like home to me.

Portobello markets is the highlight. A million Saturday mornings spent going through it’s shops, and eating it’s paella. There were great record shops – the indie/famous Rough Trade, the 60s old school vinyl fanatics Minus Zero, and the soul/reggae shop Honest Jon (part owned by Damon Albarn).

For food, there are plenty of market stalls. Fantastic paella (with a slightly scary loud lady), excellent falafel rolls, nasty but sometimes necessary spicy German sausage to a little alleyway where some woman roasts a pig on a spit every Saturday. There’s always new ones too – I saw a Ghanan place the other day.

There’s plenty of sit down places too – the Electric, expensive and posh Italian at Osteria Basilico or Essenza, the best Thai in London at Market Thai. The Sausage And Mash Café is great for a hangover a50s chic décor, or the hidden away courtyard at Lazy Daisy. I have eaten myself mad on this street.

The shame is, there is no good coffee. London coffee is dodgy at best, so for a while I tried to support Progresso, a fair trade barista. But the coffee was so bad I had to spit it out, and I started going to Starbucks.

There are, however, a lot of pubs. From north to south – The Fat Badger, right in the Caribbean end of Portobello with a big open front room and comfy sofas. The Market Bar – always too crowded but a couple of great front-facing seats for people watching. The Castle – small but lovely, bar staff are wankers but we met a great group of people dressed up once. First Floor – my favourite bar that’s in the markets, right next to Rough Trade, people spilling out everywhere, clunky revolving doors, a million great memories. The Duke Of Wellington – the old man bar where I ran once after a heartbreaking night, to head into a conversation about continents. The Portobello Star – chic, charming, small bar that’s recently been prettied up. The Earl Of Lonsdale – cheap and with a big beer garden, many nights were spent in here, meeting lots of people. But if I had to choose one, it’s the Sun In Splendour –first shop south on Portobello. Quirky, great beer garden, best food – and it’s where Monty Python would drink and write the Flying Circus.

And that to the stalls that sells comics, CDs, vintage suits, old paperbacks, antiques, Hugh Grant’s Travel Bookshop, Jesse’s Western for old cowboy shirts –  and more. Before I bore you with more details, just make a plan and visit it yourself.

Londoners are always fighting about what part of London is best. North vs South. East vs West. It gets kind of old. So I’m not going to go into why the West (where Notting Hill resides) is better than any other part of London. Except for one very important point.

Notting Hill is beautiful. Rows and rows of lovely terrace houses. Side street mews, and the wonderful All Saints Church just hidden away but over looking it all. It LOOKS like London from Paddington Bear cartoons. And, as with everything in my life, I usually go for the pretty.

As exciting as I find the place, people tell me I missed the golden days. The 50s brought with it an influx of Caribbean people – an influence that pervades the laid back, somewhat hippie culture of the area (and is best manifested in the yearly Notting Hill Carnival).

In the 60s, it was the home of Psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd, Cream and Hendrix all hung around there. Hendrix himself died in Notting Hill, in a hotel that is now a terrace building. The Electric, right in the middle of Portobello Road, was a famous avant garde cinema at the time.

Part of the reason for this was Notting Hill fell into disrepair. Large houses turned into artist slums. Leading well into the 70s, it was considered one of the worse areas of London. Clashes with police and the feeling of injustice led to Saint Joe Strummer, a local boy who created the Clash. In Strummer, I see all the great things about Portobello Rd and Notting Hill. An artistic life lived with passion. A mix of intellect and gut. World rhythms and white hot guitars. Politics and love intertwined. God, I love the Clash.

The 80s came Thatcher, and the slums and the bums were cleared out. Most of them were posers anyway, but the heart of the area stayed. Slowly it became neater, and the shops popped up. It became a buzzing part of new Britannia by the 90s – and was the home of Blur and Pulp. Jarvis Cocker wrote Common People about the influx of tourists and upper class types into the area.

Then came the Richard Curtis movie Notting Hill, which changed everything again. Now a worldwide postcard, Portobello was taken over by chain sneaker shops and expensive clothes. The danger has gone. It’s now one of the biggest tourist attractions in London.

But that Joe Strummer spirit is still there. The Portobello Film Festival isn anarchic and awesome. The street works together as a community. All peoples come together here, to dance, to kiss, to argue and to live.

A million memories flood my mind when I think of Portobello. Above and beyond the pubs – are the clubs. All of them mainly cool, and drinking spirits and dancing like a mad man to 70s funk. Be it Trailer Happiness or Notting Hill Arts Club. And walks home, buying more smokes, a bottle of water and sometimes instant noodles as well from the all night shops.

There were Sunday nights at the Coronet Cinema, mostly on my own, watching whatever indie film was on. The Hillgate, where Jay, Dan Ryan, Hampton and I ruled for months. The weird school where I took French lessons. I still get my haircuts from the South Americans on Golbourne Rd.

Many life changing scenes, both good and bad, occurred in Notting Hill. But that could be the amount of time I spent there. Many times I found myself walking down Portobello in the dead of night, and I have it all to myself. Friends made, girls kissed, girls lost, fights had, cans thrown, piss pissed, records bought, jokes told.

It’s where I think of when I think London. If any part of me is a Londoner, then I’m a West Londoner. Even if the whole place changes again, it will still be my London.