Why Bourdain loved my favorite restaurant

Anthony Bourdain. Pic: Neeta Linda

Anthony Bourdain. Pic: Neeta Linda

I didn’t go to Anthony Bourdain for his food or drink stuff.

Discovering a hidden basement bar in London, watching the work of master sushi chef or seeing Barack Obama eat Vietnamese food was a bonus. But what I liked most about Bourdain was his common sense – his basic ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ belief.

This attitude elevated the everyday people he met and worked with, while also pricking the pomposity of the various toadies, politicians and scenesters he’d occasionally come across.

To that end, of all his writing and television work, his CNN “Parts Unknown” programs appealed to me most, probably because they afforded him the most leeway to propound Bourdainism – that uncommon philosophical mix of Bruce Springsteen and Thomas Keller.

One of my favorite clips from “Parts Unknown”, and one which has returned to my mind repeatedly in recent days, was his 2016 visit to my favorite restaurant, St. John in London.

Bourdain got St. John. He understand its simplicity and practicality – and the culinary knowledge that underpinned the no-bullshit approach. (Its chef, Fergus Henderson, pioneered the now-everywhere concept of nose-to-tail eating 20 years ago, and he hasn’t strayed far from that since then.)

To put it another way, the place is a beacon of common sense. That’s why Bourdain returned to it again and again, in print and on-screen, over the past two decades. That’s why my wife and I do the same; every time we are in London we make it to the small narrow premises – a former smokehouse – near the former Smithfield market in Clerkenwell.

And – this might sound histrionic (if it does, you haven’t eaten there) – it’s why we’ve more than once echoed Bourdain’s words in this clip:

“St. John, I love you and I need you now more than ever.”

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Running up that (30-degree incline) hill

Washington Park, June 2018

Washington Park, June 2018

I’ve been running regularly for years but I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every day.

The more I think of it – I doubt I enjoy half, or even a quarter, of my outings. Usually there’s something in the way – in the evening I’m tired after the workday, in the morning I’m hungry because I’ve yet to eat. At the weekend I’ve other plans or chores to contend with.

Last weekend I found myself lacing my shoes in Seattle, on a Sunday morning at the end of a weeklong vacation (which involved some late nights and a lot of good food). On screen the night before, a short run around Washington Park looked fine. In reality, it looked hilly.

At 7 a.m. the following morning, if I’m being honest, my heart was sinking. A run in another city, on terrain and in an area I wasn’t familiar with, without feeling too good to begin with – all signs pointed to ‘meh’.

Then I started, straight into a 30-degree incline outside the door of our accommodation. Once I made the top of the hill, instead of my all-too-usual irritable, morning running mood, I felt a strange lightness. And so I continued, around the outskirts of the park, stopping occasionally to check signposts for directions.

After 5 minutes, running alone on a Seattle Sunday morning, skirting a beautiful green space, all my irritation had evaporated, replaced instead by – to quote the “Parklife” lyric – “a sense of enormous well-being”.

Twenty-five minutes later, by the time I descended the hill back to my lodgings, having run through the silent, people-less park, my mind was reset. The lethargy was gone. Even my usual aches and pains – born of years of jogging – seemed to have disappeared.

Yes, of course there’s a moral to this story. Of course it’s always better to get out than stay in – even when every urge is keeping you in your bed, or with your book and coffee, or playing with your puppy. But simple as it is, it’s a lesson I somehow regularly forget. And sometimes it takes a steep hill in an unfamiliar city on a tired morning to remind me.

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One last shot love song

John Prine

John Prine

Every time I tire of the more-faster-newer-now (which is often) I turn to someone like John Prine.

The 71-year-old songwriter has been releasing records for almost half a century and, with 50 years experience, his voice is a sane, even and empathetic one – tinged with just the right mix of reason and sentimentality.

The characters in his songs are not unlike the grace-seekers of Raymond Carver‘s fiction: ordinary people, likely losing more than winning, but more often than not trying. Their hearts are “like washing machines”, their luck’s never boundless, their sons die and their husbands leave and return, they have habits that sometimes they kick and sometimes they can’t.

I wrote about Prine very recently, and this post is an addendum of sorts – an acknowledgement of how one of his new songs stopped me in my tracks this week.

“Summer’s End” is – in the truest country music fashion – a lover’s plea for reconciliation. But not just any lover or any plea – this is an entreaty from a person in their senior years, with a voice of gravelled experience, someone who knows this call might be – in every way – their last shot.

And, weathered, sad and loving – it’s also a beautiful listen.

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Memorial Day, Eagle Rock Boulevard

When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.

John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,

The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,

Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.

The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,

In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.

That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.

The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.

All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?

The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.

Not that we should stop trying.

—–

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Prine cuts of country

John Prine. Pic: Ron Baker

John Prine. Pic: Ron Baker

Those who know, know. But those who really know, know John Prine.

And plenty do. The 71-year-old songwriter is touring the U.S. this summer and the cheapest ticket to his Portland show is a handy $107.

Which is as it should be, of course. Prine’s songbook rivals some of far bigger stars – there are few writers who could go toe-to-toe with Springsteen or Young or Petty, song-for-song.

And yet, there’s a feeling that this musician and his songs should and could have been on the same FM playlists as the above named. But, perhaps because of his country arrangements, or wordy (in an intelligent, not a verbose, way) lyrics, or inability to write a song a simple song about a car, a girl, or a hometown, without attaching a razor-sharp edge, he never made it that far.

Not that it matters to those who know. After a battle with cancer in 1998, Prine’s fans have spent the last two decades simply happy that he’s around and touring – and the fact that he’s releasing albums is a bonus.

On the latter note, he’s just released his 20-somethingth album, “The Tree of Forgiveness” (named after a defunct restaurant near Greystones, this Irishman was interested to learn). A quick listen indicates it’s more of the same prime Prine, with a little more mortality thrown this time.

The album is what brings him to Portland this September but – for most of those with tickets for his show – it’s the early songs that will fill the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

His first batch of albums produced an array of Americana (he’s the true owner of that belabored moniker) classics: “Sam Stone”, “Hello In There”, “Angel From Montgomery”, “Souvenirs”, “The Great Compromise”, “The Late John Garfield Blues”. And on, and on.

Today though, I’m listening to his ‘let’s all be decent to each other’ classic, “Everybody”. It’s a song that contains the perfect Prinesian couplet, which when heard to music sums up all the ironic, melodic talent of the man.

“I bumped into the Savior And He said ‘pardon me’.
I said ‘Jesus you look tired’. He said ‘Jesus, so do you’…”

_____

 

 

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Waiting out ‘May gray’

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Spring is in full swing in Oregon, which means more light and heat and greenery.

The greenery is ever-present here, but the high, diffuse May light is not. The bright gray above reminds me of the Irish Midlands, where whole childhood weeks would pass under the off-white dome.

Back then it usually meant dry weather, which meant football outdoors. Now it’s almost oppressive, however, particularly when temperatures warm into the 70s and the heat seems trapped by the uniform sky – or lack of one.

Under the gray this morning my memory – which may or may be accurate – called to mind Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice”, and the oppressive skies above the Lido that provide a backdrop for the main character, Aschenbach’s, fall.

While the absence, or concealment, of the sun worked as a metaphor for Mann, it’s also what’s most oppressive about ‘May Gray’ (as the Californians call it). Without the sun in the sky, there are no shadows, time seems to slip off schedule, there is no clear dawn or sunset.

Nothing to do but wait, of course. Until the end of the hour, or the day, or the week, when the clouds clear and high blue returns. And with it, hopes and memories of summer.

_____

 

 

 

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Raymond Carver

I’ve just told my wife
That we need to visit Clatskanie, Oregon, your birthplace.
And I often think to myself “I should take a trip to Port Angeles
And see the great, gray light on the Pacific and visit his grave site”.

But then I think “What’s the point?”
Why bother with places, the faint traces of memory on streets and buildings, with plaques on walls?
All we have is the words, you wrote,
And they better be the right ones.
_____

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Immigrant songs – Heaney, Joyce and Ronnie Drew

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

As an Irishman, it’s rare to find a fresh take on emigration. The culture of leave-taking and return, post-Christmas news reports from the departure gates at Dublin Airport, regularly thinking eight hours ahead, finding yourself in an Irish bar at 6 a.m. watching a sports game “from home” – most of these are familiar to the Irish emigrant.

Along with the songs and stories of course – from John Healy’s “The Grass Arena”, to Ronnie Drew’s recording of “McAlpine’s Fusiliers“, to the granddaddy of them all, James Joyce’s “Ulysses’, written in three continental cities but a chronicle of only one.

Historically the message has usually, ultimately, been one of exile – whether by force or choice. This ‘push’ story has often obscured the ‘pull’ narrative, the story of the return to Ireland: there are not as many songs about the prodigal Irishmen and women who came back.

This “pull” is the subject of a short, early poem of Seamus Heaney’s. “Gravities” appeared in Heaney’s first collection, “Death of a Naturalist”. It’s a poem that examines the “strict and invisible” force that pulls people back, to relationships and to countries.

Reading it also reminds me that even some of Ireland’s most famous exiles, Joyce and the monk Colmcille, for all their achievements in other countries, never escaped the pull of the home. (Even if, in Joyce’s case, they would never return.)

“Gravities” 

High-riding kites appear to range quite freely

Though reined by strings, strict and invisible.

The pigeon that deserts you suddenly

Is heading home, instinctively faithful.

 

Lovers with barrages of hot insult

Often cut off their nose to spite their face,

Endure a hopeless day, declare their guilt,

Re-enter the native port of their embrace.

 

Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece

Joyce named the shops along O’Connell Street

And on Iona Colmcille sought ease

by wearing Irish mould next to his feet.

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Death mask in North Great George’s Street

Death mask.

Death mask.

It’s himself.

In a black box, glass-faced, placed in a room on the top floor of a Georgian house.

Looking peaceful.

Little sign of the ulcer that killed him, or the stress of the years unpublished in exile,

Or the pain of the eye operations.

It’s not the original death mask – instead the product of revisions and iterations.

But it’s his parting glance to the world.

Smaller than his stature suggests, and gentler,

James Joyce sleeps in a quiet room, four storeys up, between Eccles Street and Nighttown.

Oddly, he looks at home.

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Rest stop

We arrived the night after a hurricane’s last winds

Had whipped their way over South Carolina.

The beach and the trees were still and empty – the summer washed away,

A clean slate for Autumn.

We had driven from California, three weeks across the country,

And this driftwood beach and empty tourist town was ‘it’, the moment we reached the other coast.

We had arrived.

In 24 hours we would move on. For now, all was clear and endless.

The years of college were over, ahead lay possibility, calm water, storms, inconceivable events,

We ate by a beach campfire, and slept heavily that night, unburdened.

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