Tag Archives: bushido

LYRICS // Vonnegut’s Blues (2006)

An early attempt at a political song with Shelf Life and our first original song written together.

‘Vonnegut’s Blues’ was written as a (loosely disguised) diatribe about the Bush administration, inspired by a piece written by the late American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was still alive when the song was written. The original article that prompted the song was discovered on Common Dreams, where the writer bemoaned the state of his country under Bush Junior. What got him through such times was music – always having good tunes to take away the pain – and that was the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from him. A sentiment I couldn’t help but agree with.

…’No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.’…

The opening lines check Rumsfeld, ‘him at the top’ would be Junior himself and ‘Number Two’ bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Mr Cheney. The chorus takes on the idea of peak oil and implores the audience to speak out about the parlous state of the future. The song was an attempt to write something quite simple and direct, lyrically speaking, instead of cloaking the message in elusive imagery.

I seemed to have had the opening lines knocking around my head for years and finally found a song that they’d fit. Long after it had been written and performed a number of times, I found myself one day singing along to an old Dylan tune. To my embarrassment, I found that I’d almost exactly lifted them straight from ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall‘ (‘…the executioner’s face is always well hidden…’)!

Should Dylan and Vonnegut therefore be listed as co-writers (pretty cool names to share your writing credits with at least)? Let’s just say that they provided some useful ‘inspiration’ for the song!

The song itself can be heard on our MySpace page, and purchased from Shelf Life - Best Before End - Vonnegut's Blues. Vonnegut’s book ‘A Man Without A Country‘ is also a fine read.

Vonnegut’s Blues

The executioner’s kept hidden
He cuts from the bottom and the middle

No matter how bad it gets
We’ll have music

No matter where they take us
We’ll still have our songs

We’re on a flatout week
Until the oil supply peaks
The future’s looking bleak
So it’s your turn to speak

Him at the top is an accident
Dad and friends put him there for revenge

No matter how bad it gets
We’ll have music

No matter where they take us
We’ll still have our songs

We’re on a flatout week
Until the oil supply peaks
The future’s looking bleak
So it’s your turn to speak

Number Two is watching me and you
There’s not a great deal he’ll let us do

No matter how bad it get
We’ll have music

No matter where they take us
We’ll still have our songs

We’re on a flatout week
Until the oil supply peaks
The future’s looking bleak
So it’s your turn to speak

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Filed under 2006, Lyrics, Shelf Life

TRAVEL // Branded By The Bush (2007)

My second trip to Tanzania was longer than the first one and left even deeper impressions. This time I had some real chances to explore, including my first real safari – out in the wilderness and amongst the wildlife I’d longed to see since I was a very small boy.

The destination was Saadani Safari Lodge, a lodge in an astonishing place recently upgraded from the status of a Game Reserve to that of a National Park. The banda (beach hut) we stayed in was set on the exquisite coastal setting of the Indian Ocean, and the lodge offered safaris into the bush and out on the nearby river.

It was here that I earned my first bush stripes, on account of having gotten stuck in a dry river bed at the end of the stay and had to find our way out of the searing heat and unknown potential dangers of whatever lurked in the bush.

Back in Japan, I realised that I had a great story to tell. During the summer that followed my return, I began writing for ‘Outdoor Japan‘ and was keen to use this opportunity to tell my tale. I ended up writing a cover feature for them on summer music festivals, but the ‘survival in the African wilderness’ yarn I was longing to tell would remain untold that year.

In 2007, I started writing for Asia Player – an English-language ‘lad mag‘ based in Tokyo. Mostly, my contributions came in the form of a monthly music column, but Asia Player also finally gave me the longed-for chance to tell my own ‘Boy’s Own‘ story. It was great to also have the chance to write about ‘the bush’ and it not actually be about humanity’s ‘nemesis de jour‘!

In the end, they changed the narrative a little and the piece ended up with the perspective of the narrator making for slightly confusingly reading. However, it’s online and can be found here.

The piece as it was originally intended can be found below. All photos were taken on location by myself, except for the hammock one (taken by Hans Jamet).

Branded By The Bush

It was an unfettered paradise of such wild tranquillity. What matter now of timetables, bullet trains and pinnacles of modern convenience? His eyes drank in the vista. Still he was thirsty and still it went on. Apparently, you could sometimes spot elephants coming down to frolic in the surf.

He was there with his brother-in-law, a Frenchman keen to show the wilds of Africa to the new arrival. To get there, they had travelled through barren terrains, crossed the Pangani River on a dilapidated ferry and passed Maasai herders walking their livestock along the same centuries-old well trodden paths.

A swarthy and welcoming South African showed them around when they arrived, recommending starting with the pool. Beers in the water, lounging around in the shade, topped off with a siesta in the banda. The hut opened out onto the widest, empty stretch of long and glorious coastline the Tokyoite had ever seen. Lulled by the gentle fall of the breakers on the waves and a cooling breeze to billow the mosquito nets around him, he fell into the calmest sleep.

The purpose behind the expedition was for immersion in true wilderness – the first real safari. They began their adventure in an open Land Rover with an old British soldier and a local guide for company. Acacias and baobabs dotted the scrub. The only other signs of humanity were the tyre tracks running in parallel with the lion ones in the mud.

After a little training of the eyes, an abundance of wildlife began to appear – graceful waterbuck hiding out in the long grass, elegant giraffes striking poses against the savannah skyline, gangs of warthogs scuttling through the undergrowth, brightly coloured rollers flitting from bush to bush. That evening, with the breezes of the Indian Ocean wafting through and at tables lit overhead by lobster pot lanterns, they ate with their safari companions and drank themselves senseless.

The following day, they set out on a small boat to explore the Wami River and entered the territory of Conrad’s dreams and nightmares. Submerged hippos eyed them from murky depths. Crocs on the banks gave a flash of tail to remind of their presence. The river bank was teeming with life. Monitor lizards basked in the sun while brilliant kingfishers darted, flashing red or blue amongst the vegetation. Herons and ghostly egrets perched atop the forest canopy or loitered, stock still in the shallow waters.

They later headed out in their own vehicle, surveying the bush from the luxury of an air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser. The Frenchman was in his element, playing up his role as the knowledgeable Africa man, an expert in his field with tales to tell.

It had been an almost too perfect experience – heavenly beaches, complete immersion in raw and unbridled nature, the remarkable contrast between teeming Asian hub and wide open spaces under African skies. Something was missing. The guys that spent their lives in the bush had tales of struggles endured and how they’d earned their stripes. The Tokyoite had nothing but surface. Tick boxes in a field guide. He’d not had the bush seared into his being. It came at the last minute.

Early morning, checked out, one final safari before hitting the road. Through the open scrubland and cushioned from the searing heat in their Land Cruiser. Down a dip…must be a dried river bed…looks like tyre tracks…wonder what’s down there…let’s follow…

Immediately, the vehicle that had cocooned them from a world of hidden predators, tsetse flies and baking hot sun became stuck in the soft sand. Every attempt to extricate themselves from their trap only got them stuck deeper in. The Tokyoite tried to dig them out, but the car merely sank more. They had no choice but to walk through the bush and try to find help to pull the Toyota out of the sand.

Grabbing what they needed, they locked the car and abandoned it in the river bed. The Tokyoite covered his head with a fishermans’ wrap. The Frenchman grabbed his long bush knife and they set off, two Arab samurai ready for the elements and any surprises. A vital bottle of water completed the kit. Trekking through the undergrowth, every sound or shadow triggered an explosion in the imagination. Overhead, two vultures circled, coasting on currents and waiting for a moment of rich pickings.

A mile or two on, they came across a track, serving as open road but providing little mercy from the sun. Water was rationed, and parched throats cried out. At one point, a villager from a nearby settlement appeared on a bicycle. The Frenchman stopped him and spoke in Kiswahili. He instructed the man to fetch help, greasing his palm and promising more if he returned. The man went back to his village, telling of a white man on the road and his money, but never reappeared.

They finally arrived back at the lodge, out of water, drained of energy, but emboldened by the experience. The lodge was owned by a Greek guy, raised in Burundi who had escaped when the massacres were raging. They spilled out their story and he began to organise a recovery team – slowly, as this place ran on bush time not Tokyo time.

Back at the river bed, the car was intact. The cobbled-together recovery team pulled out jacks and winches, gathered branches to lodge under wheels for leverage, did everything in their means to free the machine – all to no avail.

At the lodge again, the two original strandees were ordered off recovery duty and sent to the pool to recuperate. Rarely had one man ever been more grateful for an hour in water. Their ride was eventually returned, hauled out by Land Rovers and bigger winches.

Back on tar, the wilderness looked less wild when seen through glass and with a road stretching out ahead. The Tokyoite was changed though, now forever branded by the bush.

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Filed under 2007, Features, Travel

ARTICLES // My Life And Bushido Ghosts (2006)

Probably the most common question I get asked in Tokyo is ‘Why did you come to Japan?’, even after having been here for almost four years. I sense that were I here for 40 years, I’d still get asked on a fairly regular basis.

It’s a fair question to ask, I suppose. During the Edo era (1603-1868), when Japan was ruled by the shogunate and populated by samurai, the country was effectively closed off from any foreign contact. From 1635, the Japanese were prohibited from ever leaving the country and if they did, prohibited from returning. It’s not a place steeped in traditions of mixing with peoples from other races.

Nevertheless, here I am. I think that something like 1% of the people living in Japan today were foreign born, so it’s still a little bit more of a unique experience living here as a ‘foreigner’ that it would be in Europe or the US for example.

In 2005, I was asked to write an article for the Hiroshima-based (and presumably now defunct) bilingual magazine ‘PEACE‘. I titled it with just that same question I am always asked, and it covered not only some of my motivations for coming here but also a little family background (much of my extended family has tended to expatriate themselves or have travelled widely) and the similarities and differences between my life here in Japan and the one I led back in Britain.

The following year, I came across another writing opportunity based on the theme of ‘Home and Exile’, through my subscription to the Brighton Fringe Mailing List. This time, it was for a new publication being set up in the UK, called ‘Don’t Look Back’. I sent off the same piece that was published in the Hiroshima mag, and they were interested enough to ask me to rewrite it and submit a new piece. This I duly did, coming up with the piece found below – ‘My Life and Bushido Ghosts’.

After submission, I never heard from them again, so I actually have no idea whether it was published or not or even whether the magazine ever went to print. I hope that they did, although it would be nice to know whether my article ever went anywhere!

The title was a Japan-slanted pun on the Brian Eno/David Byrne 1981 album ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts‘. Bushido means ‘the way of the warrior’ and commonly refers to the samurai code of conduct. The reference to ghosts comes from my feelings of finding my own ‘ghosts’, people from my past that kept springing up at the most unexpected moments as I neared the end of my time living in the UK.

In a way, writing the piece itself was an exorcism of sorts. Here in Japan, I don’t have so many of my own ghosts and the old ones have lost their spook factor too.

Perhaps next time I’m asked why I came here, I can now just give the questioner this URL and suggest that they find out for themselves!

My Life and Bushido Ghosts

Exiles, immigrants, expats, foreigners, outsiders, refugees – whatever you want to call us, we’re all displaced peoples. The square pegs, the forced out, the seekers and the wandering drifters, each uprooted and elsewhere. It happens to the biggest of us – Napoleon removed and sent to die in Saint Helena, The Stones as tax exiles in fading French chateaus. It happens to the smallest of us too – ghost ships washed up in Barbados, filled with desiccated corpses of young African men, Iraqis fleeing their home tinderbox in any direction they can.

Here in Tokyo, I label myself an ‘expat’. To me, it says that I exercised choice over my displacement. However, to the rest of this still closed global hotspot, I’m just another foreigner and that is what I’ll stay. Always on the outside, looking in. Party perhaps, to the appetiser, but never the full meal.

This is as it has always been. Born in England to an English family, then raised and schooled in Wales, I began with one foot in each camp yet not quite fully fitting into either, ‘different’ from the start. Identity is always so interchangeable and muddled through in the UK that it’s a tough job to convincingly claim to be a nationalist.

About three years ago, I tied up all my loose ends, condensed my life into two suitcases and a laptop and jumped onto a plane at Heathrow – bound for the other side of the world with a blank slate in my head and an empty diary in my bag. Leaving a childhood home or home country, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

I’ve often been asked why I came to Japan, but rarely ever why I left the UK. Most people leave home at some point and all have their reasons, whether they walked out with head held high or were kicked out with tail between legs. I did so for two main reasons. Firstly, because the world is changing rapidly and becoming ever more interdependent, I wanted to experience and understand that transition. To taste and perhaps even help shape some of that emerging global identity. To become a citizen of the future, not a relic of the past. Secondly, my ghosts crowded me out.

Even my original and later readopted hometown of Brighton had begun to teem with them after a while. They laid in wait for me on street corners, in pubs and supermarkets, in the books that I read and the songs I listened to, in the successes of others rightfully mine, and the new bonds made that I was excluded from. Most of all, they laid deep down inside of me, weighing me down and forcing me to chase my tail instead of following my nose or my dreams. I ran away to the new world and I ran away from the old one.

Of course, Japan has its ghosts too. A Tokyoite once told a tale of awakening feeling pressured, only to see the disembodied head of a samurai resting on her chest, and his body slumped in the corner of the room. Then there’s Hiroshima’s living ghosts, the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors) and the terrible tales they still tell about one fateful summer day in their childhood and its aftermath. But perhaps as Japan’s ghosts belong to others, I don’t see them in the same way as my own.

Exile, expatriation and exploration seem to run in the family. Both parents are well travelled and weave snapshots of recent human history into the family narrative. My mother, who actually recommended Tokyo to me, spent a little time in Soviet-era Moscow and Leningrad. It can be difficult to visit somewhere that my father’s not been before me. He was in Berlin a week before the fall of the Wall. My sisters, fellow siblings-in-exile, respectively live in Toulouse and Dar Es Salaam.

It goes back further and stretches out wider too. On Dad’s side, an uncle in North Carolina, a cousin born in Zambia. On Mum’s side, an uncle who sent himself to Cameroon, and another uncle in Germany, who’d rejected London at the end of the 1960’s and headed off with a camera round his neck. Hitching on some autobahn or other, he was picked up by a busload of hippies on their way to a Pink Floyd show and later married one of them.

Yet further still, the bloodlines intermingle with the bloodshed and fault lines of the last century or so. Another uncle, this time belonging to my grandmother, seemed to have lived the whole Empire boy dream. He found himself in Shanghai in the 1920’s, where he hooked up with a Russian girl he met. She turned out to be a minor royal that had fled the Revolution in 1917, and was now down at heel, selling matches on the street. Together, they fled China to escape from the invading Japanese and on to Batavia (now Jakarta). The Imperial Army had their sights on Indonesia too so they fled again, ending their days in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was).

Completing the circle, it was a visit to my sister in Tanzania, during the week that the Americans and the British began their assault on Baghdad, that I decided I was finally ready to up sticks, put Blighty behind me and head far East. At the turn of the millennium, the rock ‘n’ roll gang I fronted began getting our first taste of fame by bursting into the national media by accident. Amidst our meteoric rise, however, I was ousted in a coup and thus began my English decline. In time, my senses became dulled by my daily grind and I needed to reawaken them with new experiences. Tokyo lured me with dreams of a high-tech, glittering city of the future.

My life here is both similar and different to the old one in England. I eat more fish than I did before and am also more used to earthquakes, but as I did in the UK, I teach English for cash and occasionally still sing in a local bar band. The all-efficient technology is so pervasive, however, that it’s barely noticed after a while.

My social circle is drawn from a much wider pool than my British one was. A Californian pal tells me tales of living on otherwise uninhabited Hawaiian islands. A Nepalese friend invited me to join him and his family in celebrating the Hindu Festival of Light, at home in Kathmandu. I became the global citizen I was aiming to be.

One part of the story remains untold. As with any haunting, you can only run from your ghosts for so long. In time, if the exile is ever to come home, he must also become exorcist.

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Filed under 2006, Articles, Features