#1: Luang Prabang

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

Did you catch the A.A. Gill quote I’ve used to launch this new Blog of mine? If you missed it, here it is again, unfurled, in all its glory:

“People ask ‘Have you ever written anything you regretted?’ No, never. This isn’t a job for people with ontheotherhandism. First-person journalism isn’t for people who are unsure about what they think. The only thing I have tonnes of is opinions. I have fucking opinions on everything. Everything. I just sit and look out of bus windows and go, ‘I’ve got an opinion on that. I’ve got an opinion on you. That hairdo. That street name.’ ”

It’s the right quote to use to present the function and tone of this blog as a whole and to anchor this first blog post as a stand-alone piece. Here’s why: a hack of titanic proportions, A.A. Gill is a hero to many aspiring writers, and probably to a good few established ones too. I’m no different. Often replicated and never bettered. That’s not to say I’m going to attempt to emulate the voice of the late, great Scot. Far from it. I don’t need to - I’ve been doing this writing thing for long enough now. But that quote is a helpful summation of what drives me: my writing, my conversations, my pub-talk, my social media activity, my domestic disputes…my blogging. Opinions. Everywhere; like a wasp-swarm. Fluttering around the room. More often than not after coffee and well into the PM. Opinions. Pretentious - quite probably; contentious - maybe; dull - hopefully never.

Mybrow will be a platform for my take on the whole spectrum of highbrow and lowbrow culture; whatever that means, whatever culture means. Topics will fall somewhere in between the two, or possibly completely wide of the mark. The scope for discussion is infinite - so my margin for error is a chasm. A cowardly tactic! According to Wikipedia, the term “highbrow” was popularised in the early 20th century by a New York journalist, Will Irvin, who adhered to the phrenological (skull stroking) notion that intelligent people had disproportionately high foreheads. From there the terms lowbrow and middlebrow naturally followed. I myself have an unremarkable looking forehead - the ultimate accolade for a balanced opinion thrower.

Here’s one more quote from another New York writer and then the housekeeping is over and I can start sharing some thoughts:

“We all need a slash of bad taste. No taste is what I’m against.” Diana Vreeland.

So, for the sake of circularity, let’s go back to A.A. Gill and honour him a touch more before this first blog post drags to a close. I’ve been re-reading a collection of some of his criticism, The Best of A.A. Gill, a must-have for anybody with even a hint of the aspiring journalist about them. One of the first articles included is centred around the worst thing he’d ever had the displeasure of eating, entitled ‘Turtle.’ No further details needed about his chosen table-topper, you’d assume, but like all of his writing there’s more flesh to be added to the cold-blooded reptilian bones. He goes on to outline the following gut-wrenching experiences: termites, ants, scorpions, armadillo, agouti and warm Maasai cattle blood (surely this would be a high scorer in this game of bolus-based top tRUMPS for most of us?) before finally landing on a hamburger at a pop concert in Milton Keynes as the outright winner.

We can all throw our hat into the ring when it comes to this gastronomic spreadsheet. Which leads me to the third and final act of this post and an explanation for the accompanying image. My personal most weird and wonderful list starts and ends with a place, rather than a food stuff: Luang Prabang, Laos. The most idyllic, peaceful city in South East Asia. Authenticity still reigns in this Mekong-straddling utopia, but it stretches out a huge hand of warmth to the scores of tourists who bother going there. It’s not the most accessible place to reach when you’re box-ticking around the golden triangle, although there is a tiny/cute international airport just a Tuk Tuk ride away. Curiously, the only place to grab a cold beer anyway after midnight is at the local bowling alley and for the lucky pilgrims who choose it over the handful of other Laotian cities, that’s just fine.

Riverside restaurant Tamarind is the closest thing you’ll get to the Michelin man over there and they serve up the following: buffalo skin in sweet chilli paste (Octopus level chewy), marinated buffalo (as melt-in-the-mouth as any slow-cooked Rabo de Toro you’ll find in Spain) and stir-fried frog with basil (we didn’t get around to that - a tentative pull at a ligament or two of grenouille in Belgium is enough for one decade of my life). By far the most memorable dish at Tamarind was in turn the most modest: a sharing plate of fried bamboo flakes - splintered wood to the eye, as delicate and tasty as a kettle chip sent from Buddha to the tongue. If one could bottle (or packet) these tiny morsels of joy and roll them out in the UK, traditional bar snacks would be a thing of the past. The flavours and textures of Laos are complex, challenging and surprising - but their most unusual looking offering bucks that trend; the grilled chicken feet I couldn’t help but try were an anorexic disappointment. The marinade they’re soaked in and the way they’re grilled (roadside and with a smile) are all adequate enough. But there’s nothing on them - no flesh, no bite. The toe nails may act as a makeshift toothpick but you won’t find anything hanging around your gums worth stabbing at. You’ll be left feeling heroic for your macho endeavours but hollow and hungry too. And as an antidote to the munchies, following a night in one of the glorious Luang Prabang hippy bars, chicken feet are a let down. You’ll still need to top up with a pizza slice for the stumble home. So somebody said…

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