Thinking and drinking

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

My last day in Cartagena, I woke up to a very nice mention in the newspaper describing my performance of Leonard Cohen’s songs as “magisterial”. It was a beautiful morning, already 80 degrees and the air as soft as a kiss. I went sight-seeing, looking for a place some locals told me about where they’d built a statue to Prince Charles and Camilla to commemorate a royal visit and someone pulled it down. The city is walled with ancient fortifications built to keep out the English invaders, so you can’t really blame them.

The night before, I’d been to another after-hours party, this one thrown by the British Embassy. They held it in the Spanish Inquisition building – a beautiful edifice but with a chilling history. There were torture instruments on display in a room downstairs and a guillotine in the garden where waiters glided round with trays of bottomless Pimms.  One of the fellow-Brits I ran into was the Guardian and Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy. I had just seem him onstage on a panel chaired by Rosie Boycott, in which five journalists – including two Latin Americans and two from the US – discussed Charlie Hebdo, the murder of journalists, the right of satire to provoke, and the fear and capitulation of some editors and governments.

Vulliamy, an extremeley brave writer who has spent a great deal of his life on the frontline, reporting on the atrocities of war and terrorism, said something that stayed with me. Laughter, he said – the punishment of laughter, the mockery of power – is the greatest weapon we have against terror of any kind, be it extremist fanatics or governments or anything. “That is the one thing they can’t stand, mockery”, he said. “If there’s no-one there to pull down their pants and moon, what is there left?” Important stuff.

And now I’m back in San Francisco and about to go to another party, of sorts. Last time I agreed to do one of these, I broke my toe. My big toe, which meant having to wear Ugg boots with my little black evening dress, being the only footwear I could get into. It’s an Authors Dinner – a charity event, a bit like a cheaper version of those Democratic Party dinners where you stump up a whole lot of money to sit at the same table as your favourite famous politician and watch them eat. Or talk to them so much they can’t eat and can only drink, which means you might get your money’s worth from watching them fall over drunk. Especially if they only have one working foot. But tonight I am bipedal, and the good cause the money is going to is Berkeley Public Libraries. Libraries are also important stuff. Also, come to think of it, a good idea: Foodstarter! Kickstarter without the kick but with a starter, and maybe a main course too cooked for you by the writer or musician of your choice! .


Confessions from Colombia

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

confession box

Here I am, in Cartagena, Colombia, being interviewed for a local TV news show. I’m sitting with Manuela, the  host of the show, in a confession box in the old Santa Clara nunnery.  Tell the truth or get thrown to the fiery flames!

I came here to talk and play at the Hay Festival of the Americas – an incredible lineup of Nobel Prize-winning novelists, award-winning journalists and a handful of musicians in the gorgeous plazas of the old walled city. I came a couple of days early and stayed in a cheap hotel on a busy road where men with microphones stood in shop doorways trying to lure in passers-by, while salsa music blared in the background.  I moved into the expensive boutique hotel the festival had booked for its guests, but I have to confess that I missed the old place!

My first morning I was up early to do a seminar in a state school 45 minutes outside Cartagena for extremely underprivileged kids aged 16 plus. The neighbourhood was run down and very poor, and some of the classrooms were prefabricated pods, while others were being built. But the kids and the staff were amazing. At the end, the music teacher asked if I would sing a song on my ukulele, so I sang Suzanne. None of them had heard of Leonard Cohen but they all seemed to like his “canciones tristes”.

The festival gave me one of the headline slots for my event – an interview onstage, conducted by a Colombian journalist, Jacobo Celnik – so that I could tag on an extra half hour to sing some songs. Brian Eno was on an hour before me in an ornate, colonial theatre. If I weren’t in a confession box I would brag about headlining over Eno!  I rushed from there to my gig at the University, which was sold-out. Walking past the long line to get in, I did my best to look as superstarry as you can if your hair’s been turned into a tumbleweed by the wind and humidity, and half your body’s polka-dotted with huge bites. The evening I arrived in the city I was bitten by two mosquitos and killed them both, and since that moment the mosquitos have been taking revenge!

My gig went great, I’m happy to say. A lovely response. Afterwards, a man came onstage and knelt and kissed my hand (not something that happens on a regular basis!) and another man was crying as he talked about my songs.Yes, that’s me,  misery wherever I go!

Afterwards, a festival aide insisted I see a doctor that she’d called about my bites.  It felt pretty embarrassing, sitting there surrounded by white coats and stethoscopes for bloody mosquito bites, but the anti-histamines and cream they gave me are doing a far better job than the gallon of repellant I’ve been spraying myself with.

More later – I have a party to go to!