A Favorable Juncture of Circumstances

At the crossroads of happenstance, ambition and aspiration one may find opportunity. While many of us may drive continuously through an eternal grid of indistinguishable meandering roads, most of us never get there. Some of us may come close, but we either dead-end or get scooped onto the highway to dwell.

Bert Keith realizes this, as for him, opportunity “beckons like a whore.” “Just reach out and take it,” he cries persistently, his voice almost breaking with frustration and sincerity. Underneath, the bass pumps and drops and the 70s-sounding rock guitars riff haltingly, like a braking locomotive. “Where do we go from here?,” Keith barks. Where indeed.

Written by Steve Mackereth, Alex Smith and Bert Keith, Opportunity was produced by Dragan “the man” Stojkovski.

A Soul For Every Sleeper

“Churchill will win,” he yelled irrepressibly after constant taunting by the vicious guards, and in return he swiftly received the most severe beating of his life. “You don’t do that twice,” he said decades later. “You quickly learned anger management in the camps.” After the ocean liner Empress of Asia was attacked by a fleet of nine Japanese dive-bombers in the Banka Strait, Mick G. was one of the fortunate survivors, who was then unfortunate to make his way to Singapore just before it fell to Japan on February 4th, 1942. Many of those prisoners were conscripted to build the infamous Burma Railway, or Death Railway, as it became known.

A Soul For Every Sleeper by Two Worlds Apart features Steve Mackereth on Vocals, Alex Smith on guitars and Dragan Stojkovski on percussion.

Free My Trade

Bert “Stands With a Fist” Keith creates another solidarity classic in his tribute to working men and women everywhere. On the back of an upbeat groove, folkster Keith croons “Let me work, you know these hands can work.” While the world may be turning upside down on who gets employed and who doesn’t, his chant is not about nationalization or globalization. More essential than politics, more vital than industrialization or automation, it is about application of the human skill, putting to use practiced hands, hands that have been trained for years—through apprenticeship, through mentorship, now prepared for the short span of a human career. Not to be confused with the current political nationalist fervor, it is a more fundamental ode beyond Walesa or Lenin.

Produced by the brilliant Dragan “Less is More” Stojkovski, who brings out the simple clarity of the music with a paucity of instrumentation, augmented by hammer-like percussion during the breaks, reminiscent of the mechanics of construction.  With Bert Keith on vocals Alex Smith on guitars.

Cultivating Colocasia

I’ve always liked elephant ears: Big rubbery, flappy happy-go-lucky heart-shaped semaphores that appear designed solely to convey optimism and joy. So rapidly do they appear in North America’s summertime that one day there is nothing, the next small packs of fine Cohibas unfurl here and there, and by the end of the week you’re in the Day of the Triffids.

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And thus the quintessential English landscaped garden is transformed instantly from order, symmetry and standardization to a haphazard playful phalanx of emerald and avocado. It is perplexing how such gangly, delicate fronds endure high winds, incorrigible children, darting dogs, and inept conscripted gardeners. Nonetheless, when one is damaged irreparably it quickly and calmly makes way for a new leader, restoring order, beauty and balance to the herd.

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With the dawn of a new year, I thought I’d start a new series of paintings, somewhat more novel than previously attempted. In my mind, such a bold shrub deserves to be tackled intrepidly with suitable tools and materials; more knife than brush, more board than canvas, and mixed media to boot. Since oil paint takes so long to dry, especially when mixed liberally with linseed oil I will attempt several projects simultaneously. Shown here are the first three in the series—all unfinished at this time, and I am considering various oversized print applications.  I will update as I make reasonable progress.

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The Glasgow Voyager

I think it was Billy Connolly who famously said that Scotsmen only sing about Scotland when they’re far away from home. Well folk crooner Bert Keith has taken that a bit further and written a gusher of a Christmas song, all about life and the streets of Glasgow and, to the best of my knowledge, he has never been! Now Glaswegians might think, gonny no dae that, but I would urge them to give this a good listen first.

I have to say, when I hear him chant I do think about wintertime Glasgow, where rain-veneered streets reflect a leeching mix of soft amber and stark white streetlights, and there is a distant echo of a can being kicked inadvertently down some nearby street by a stranger hussling to catch the last bus home.

I believe Bert has played folk music in various pubs in Ireland, but I wouldn’t compare the stark streets of Belfast or the brimful byways of Dublin to the fortitude and grit of Glasgow. No, if I had to make a comparison to my Scottish hometown I would say it was more like Philadelphia, though with fewer Americans.

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Whenever I think of George Square there are always leaden skies and Traffic Wardens.

Nevertheless, this provenance is no more a stretch than some short Australian playing William Wallace in a County Antrim field. On a side note, take a look at the foreboding size of William Wallace’s sword in his rock star namesake monument. Sorry, but no way Mel: Just not plausible.

Confidently reaching for the highs, his liberal legato and relentless retention of those last notes, Bert appears to have captured that authentic pub-enthused croonerism that your Caledonian dad and uncles would indulge in—usually after a few whiskies at any commemorative occasion; with an audience of at least one and devoid of musical accompaniment. Geez a song Big Yin.

The Glasgow Voyager by Two Worlds Apart. Lyrics and vocals by Bert Keith, music and guitars by Alex Smith, keys and percussion by Dragan Stojkovski.

The Cambodian Chronicles (Part I)

Amid thunderstorms and choppy dark seas she struggled valiantly to line up her F-14 Tomcat on an unusually steep approach to the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.  It had been a long slog of a night on a marathon weeks-long mission, discharging precision ordnance in the direction of the evasive Bosnian Serb Army in support of Operation Deliberate Force. This was her third successive landing attempt in an uncooperative Adriatic sea, which pitched and rolled the carrier’s deck unremittingly.

Finally, the Tomcat smacked violently onto the wet metal deck, the tail hook barely grasping the arrestor cable, but just off center causing the jet to crab somewhat, but within normal operational limits. However, the restraint on the ship’s port side suddenly malfunctioned, sheering all four of its large retaining bolts causing the taught cable to slice erratically as the Tomcat dragged it several hundred feet down the rain-soaked surface. Only after coming to an abrupt halt and deplaning did she realize the scale of the collateral damage: Two Navy servicemen were dead, killed instantly when the cable cleaved diagonally across the deck decapitating both of them.

“Oh my goodness,” exclaimed Timothy, “what a tragedy! What a story!” “But wait, there’s more,” Stacey said, sipping her drink intermittently between lengthy episodes. She went on to tell him that after completing a difficult assignment in the Balkans, she retired from the Navy and went on to obtain several marksmanship awards from the National Rifle Association back in the States. The petite blonde then saw success and accomplishment in a creative variety of otherwise impressive endeavors as a horse trainer, an executive movie producer and a singer songwriter with a substantial investment in a recording studio.

Timothy was engrossed from the commencement of the Bosnian conflict and it was only after hearing about her intriguing sources of song writing inspiration, he realized he had not even touched his squash stuffed roasted poblano. Since his unexpected divorce last year he had dated a stack of women; nevertheless trim, attractive Stacey, his twenty-third on-line arranged first date, had the most remarkable life story by far. By. Far.

As Timmy recited his tale in lucid but jumbled detail, we passed power tiller after power tiller—those strange looking two wheel tractors with Peter Fonda style handlebars, awkwardly pulling trailers full of unrecognizable vegetables and rice to some hitherto unseen markets. Our enduring views of the bucolic Cambodian countryside were punctuated only by our driver’s innate need to lean on his horn when we rapidly came up behind anything with wheels. He also honked at stray dogs and wandering cattle, although I sensed a difference in his animal staccato.

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Had I asked a Monk to pose, this’d be it.

Tim and I were traveling together throughout South East Asia for a couple of weeks, catching up on our important life events amid temple and shrine visits and assorted idolatry. He had started yakking about a couple of his twenty-three dates earlier when we left Phnom Penh, but with hopeful grace, I had listened only peripherally as it wasn’t really that interesting. But when he got to Stacey I was all ears.

After the Stacey power-lunch, driving back to his newly purchased home by the Spokane River in Washington, Timmy was oblivious to the changing scenic fall textures all around him as he replayed portions of Stacey’s incredible life story in his mind. What an amazing woman he reflected; she had told him so many profoundly stimulating sagas that he kept overlooking then recollecting whole chapters of her adventurous past, albeit in seemingly randomized sequences.

Following a lovely but lonely dinner for one as the sun set gently on the Spokane River, he ruminated on the day’s events and recalled some of the more dramatic moments—her two failed marriages and recent beastly boyfriend experience. Husband number two had divulged to her late one night that demons commanded him to murder her, causing her to fly the coop, and her recent ex-honey horribilis, who was a disgraced ex-cop, had pulled a knife on her over some trifling squabble during dinner. Then someone stealthily poisoned her two large Great Danes, twice. Nevertheless somehow the dogs, named Rock and Roller managed to survive the rat poison, but it was touch and go apparently. Lying in bed later that night he slowly realized that Tracey hadn’t inquired about him over the overrated stuffed pepper dish: Not a single question, now that he thought about it. Nor had he the opportunity to butt in and ramble about himself during the Stacey Show.

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Like a kitten in a tree, getting up is the easy part.

“That was odd,” I interrupted, “that she wouldn’t want to know anything about you.” We seemed to be now wedged in a dry dusty traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, just north of Lake Tonle Sap on the road to Siem Reap where Toyota Camrys and Lexus Rx300s started outnumbering the trudging tractors. “Yes,” he replied, “I didn’t realize until afterwards that I didn’t get a word in edgeways.” Then he continued, somewhat hesitantly, “and I tried to check her out online and couldn’t corroborate much of anything. She said the pooch poisonings were in the local paper, and you would’ve thought the sailor beheadings would have made the news. Couldn’t find anything on her extensive movie production career either on the IMDb website.” Glancing furtively left and right at the clogging chaos all around us he continued, “The only thing that really checked out was a description of her house—a rental ranch on four acres at the edge of town.”

Recollecting that Stacey had mentioned, between career changes, that she would be out all the next morning taking her poorly pooches, Rock and Roller, to a veterinarian in the next town, the Timster thought that it would be a nice touch to deliver a small floral arrangement while she was gone. Sensing a post first-date inkling of magnetism and knowing roughly where she lived, Timmy thought this’d be a wooing no-brainer.

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At first you think the praying and idolatry isn’t you, but gradually you just get into it.

Six miles out of town and around the leafy winding road he saw the house as accurately described to him less than twenty hours earlier: A long white hacienda on a sprawling flat tree-lined lot just beyond the bridge. “It was worse than the Beverly Hillbillies,” he remarked matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders. “The closer I got to the property, the dingier it looked: Dingy as in abandoned. There was an old trailer sitting haphazardly in the brown dirt with old cars and other non collectable objects strewn around, and I had to walk around some automobile that was parked right up at the front door,” he continued. “The screen door at the front of the house was made of plastic that probably used to be clear, and was covered in sun-faded stickers.”

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Tim was always looking for a restroom.

Standing awkwardly between the front door and the old car, Tim momentarily inspected the yellow flower arrangement in his right hand while wondering if he had come to the right house. He squinted at what he thought was an old washed-out NRA sticker when unexpectedly inside, two large dogs bounded to the door snarling raucously. The door immediately swung inward and a large, white haired man filled the doorway and blurted, “What you wantin’?” Unnerved Tim said, “Oh is that Rock and Roller?” nodding in the general direction of the barking bedlam as the unknown white-haired man just glared at him. Tim spluttered, “I brought these, er flowers for um…” as he retreated proficiently, clearing all vehicular obstacles without looking back.

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Sometimes you just come across something novel, and for me it was at the end of a long, hot day in the Angkor Thom temple complex.  With most of the tourists gone, we turned a corner to see two frolicking, dancing, happy Chinese ladies.

As our car passed by the oversized night market and endless tee-shirt stalls, we finally approached our rustic hotel in the center of Siem Reap. Tim said conclusively, “The guy looked like he lived there, and I don’t know if he was the demonized husband or the knife wielding disgraced ex-cop, and I wasn’t waiting to find out. Ten bucks I paid for those flowers,” he went on, “ but a good investment to find out that she’s a fucking nutcase!”

Twenty Nine Years

Twenty Nine Years by Two Worlds Apart

A quote attributed to teen-popster-turned-naughty-girl Miley Cyrus is, “A true friend is someone who is always there during the ups and downs; I actually have a song called True Friend.” Well, she really is a damn good singer and we are all probably pleased to hear about her friend status, though to be fair this quote was from the younger, more innocent Miley and Cyrus. TWA songs can be a tad more sinister and complicated albeit significantly less popular. Sung by the keen folkster fixture Bert Keith, Twenty Nine Years is no exception on a shady scale of surrender and despair.

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While the song generally has a melancholic minor musical progression, Keith’s singing vacillates between contemporary folk and neo progressive rock in some parts. When he is on top of the world he is vaguely reminiscent of that eons-old one-time hot band Marillion from rural Aylesbury in the UK. The instrumentation, seemingly by design, is threadbare—mainly one acoustic guitar, gracelessly strummed in a Cobainesque fashion, some oblivious guy having loads of fun with a cranked-up Rickenbacker bass, and the spotty kid next door on the drums. However, the overall sound is tight, even campy, and while the overused genre is life’s ups and downs, Twenty Nine Years is a fairly big down, but it’s not a downer.

Twenty Nine Years by Two Worlds Apart, with Alex Smith, Bert Keith, and Dragan Stojkovski.

Rise of the Mangalyaan

Festooned with a dazzling array of technological gadgetry including precision photometers, meticulous mass analyzers, thermal imaging devices, multi-spectral cameras and glitzy gas sensors, a shiny new spacecraft elegantly entered Martian orbit in late September 2014. Intended as a tiny baby step in planning for future interplanetary travel, the first attempt for this rapidly developing democracy is a ship that would likely enthuse my demanding satellite specialist friend, Kevin Ginley, if indeed it is possible to excite him with anything not involving Fairport Convention (the auld English folk band). By most standards, the astronomical mission execution was flawless and it cost less than a run-of-the-mill Adam Sandler B Movie, such as 50 First Dates.

Launched by the Indian Space Research Organization the spacecraft is named Mangalyaan, from the Sanskrit combination of “Mars” and “craft.” So proud is the hopeful Indian nation that, among other things, they commemorated this memorable celestial event by featuring the launch on the new 2,000 Rupee note. Probably, much of the Indian population is not familiar with their country’s new spaceship, and likewise the 2,000 Rupee bill, which at $35, is twice the average daily wage: Comparable to a hypothetical $200 bill in the States. However, since November 8th, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly banned the 500 and 1,000 Rupee denominations, many Indians and others have had to become very familiar with their purple-hued, two-large Mangalyaan. So too have the tourists.

Now, the very popular President Modi was merely following up on one of his tough election promises to carve out a huge black chunk out of India’s economy, which is estimated to be over 20% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). He did this by suddenly delegitimizing the very popular 500 and 1,000 Rupee bills, and on Wednesday November 9th, these were all but worthless: No longer legal tender—as useful as a Zimbabwean Two Billion Dollar note. So that certainly made some inroads into the ill-gotten, under-the-counter, black marketeering crowd. All the Samosa-stained black money stashed away in tatty suitcases inside and outside of the country no longer had value. Brilliant said the pundits; he sure stopped the criminals in their stride.

However, for the rest of us it was a real pain in the arse. Firstly, any 500 and 1,000 bills in our possession were instantaneously worthless, and secondly, legal tender now consisted of scarce 100 Rupee bills and plentiful purple 2,000 Mangalyaans. Certainly it was not Modi’s intention to make everyone go broke, so his plan allowed for folks to go to banks retroactively to deposit or exchange the newly illegalized currency, up to a certain, extremely modest daily stipend. This, in theory, would allow authorities to give traceable credit back to legitimate hard working citizens, and disenfranchise the criminal with ill-gotten dough-filled portmanteaus. Furthermore, folks were allowed to withdraw modest daily amounts of 100 Rupee paper, for which demand now vastly exceeded supply—much like Superbowl tickets.

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Possible indication of nearby ATM.

At this juncture I’d like to point out there are over one billion citizens in India, many of whom now had to go urgently to the banks and ATMs every single day to surrender, exchange or get their hard working hands on cash. For those living in highly organized countries, like Denmark, India may seem disorganized at the best of times: But now there were Justin Bieber lines around hot and sweaty, dusty, dingy blocks for every ATM and Bank of Maharaja. I think lines formed on an inkling that there might be an cash machine around the corner.

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Mahatma Gandhi famously didn’t need much in the way of cash, but I’m sure he’d feel the pain of his fellow citizens.

For touristy types, like moi, it was a novel challenge worthy of a one-season over-hyped reality TV show featuring William Shatner and Henry Winkler. I am somewhat tempted make a poor taste joke about begging in India, but I shall refrain and just say that I had to work really hard to get a few hundred Rups out of the hotel cashier’s tight little mitts. Even then, as a cashed-up, pumped-up traveler I was walking around with a handful of hundreds and two-grand Mangalyaans. That’s like walking around in the States with only quarters and Benjamin Franklins. Try getting an ice cream or a taxi with that and NO ONE has change, so don’t even ask. Perhaps, and only perhaps, if you spend 1900 you can break a Mangalyaan. Also, NO ONE has change. NO. ONE.

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Thinking here that if I only have a 2,000 note I’m going to have to hire this guy for a week.

Now having observed this firsthand, the Indian people were very gracious with an amazingly patient and understanding populous waiting in lines for hours each day for days and days and weeks to come. I can’t image that discipline in the USA—I just read an article about some guy losing it big-time back in the States because his Latte took too long at Starbucks.

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Hoping he appreciates the foreign currency detritus I snuck in the collection box.

So that was how I finished writing up this little adventure on my laptop on an airplane, ending with an ode to overpopulated humanity based on my experiences in Mumbai. Unfortunately, when I next logged on the Internet the story in the Times was all about chaos and near riots in New Delhi. Oh dear.

See the Delhi link here – http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/11/12/world/asia/ap-as-india-currency-chaos.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

The Book of Kells

Ireland’s indisputable finest national treasure deceivingly looks like a small stack of tatty old hardbacks. But within those tomes is a vibrant and colorful monked-up retelling of the teachings of the Gospel. Written in the eight century, the four calligraphic volumes of the Book of Kells have survived the pillages of Vikings and the wanton destruction of all things considered Catholic by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.

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After twelve hundred years, the Kells continue to present their spiritual teachings within the scholarly confines of Dublin’s Trinity College library.

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Dublin’s nearby magnificent castle displays an impressive array of period architecture dating from the twelfth century.

 

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Many rivers including the Liffey and the Dodder greet the Irish Sea at Dublin Bay.

The Home of Golf

The magnificence of St. Andrews in Scotland is reflected not least through the largest public golf complex in the whole of Europe, and is frequently home to the famous British Open Championship. The charming town also features the oldest university in Scotland, dating all the way back to 1411.

About one hundred years earlier, in 1318, the shrining cathedral of St Andrew was consecrated by none other than King Robert the Bruce, only to be later sacked by a mob of drunken Rangers supporters in the late 1500s. Next door to the cathedral rests the imposing medieval castle, still standing guard against the powerful North Sea after seven or so centuries.

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Notable alumni of the university include Alex Salmond, Kate Middleton, Prince William, John Cleese and Chris Hoy.

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St Andrews Cathedral was Scotland’s largest and most magnificent in its heyday.

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During the Scottish wars of independence the fortified castle changed hands several times.