Leonard Cohen

I remember, back in the seventies, my father thought one or other of my sisters must have been particularly depressing / depressive because they had either bought or borrowed an album, a  vinyl LP, by Leonard Cohen, who was part but separate from, a growing band of musicians like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and of course, Bob Dylan, who wrote their own primal ballads instead of pandering to the masses. In common, they could all perform as soloists, using either piano or guitar (in Cohen’s case) for accompaniment but this trimmed back, spare notion of their music also served to accentuate an aura of directness and to distinguish them from the more mainline rock and rollers of that time.Certainly, Leonard Cohen’s appeal had far less to do with his guitar playing or (limited) vocal range but more to do with his personality and that is probably true for the other singer / songwriters mentioned above.Document_2021-06-24_173108 (3)

So taken was I at the time back in the seventies that I bought Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, but in all honesty, I have to say that I didn’t understand or appreciate anything in it. All I can remember now is that the paperback had a plain red cover!  Whatever mournful aura my father perceived hanging around Cohen at that time was balanced by superb songs and lyrics of love and regret on the 1975 album Greatest Hits in songs like Suzanne

And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China / 

and just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her / 

Then she gets you on her wavelength …

or the beautiful break-up line from Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye

its just the way love changes / like the shoreline and the sea…’

I have to admit using that line or a variation in my clumsy attempts at immature breakups!Handwritten_2021-06-24_173211

Cohen’s personality and distinct variations as artist, poet, novelist, singer, author and songwriter was compelling  and his voice was so subtle in his own versions of his songs that no other artiste attempting to cover his material could convey the same emotions and depths of feelings and the sense of urgency and impending doom. Nevertheless he then kind of drifted away from my mindset until a friend insisted that I listen to The Future (1992) and I was blown away by songs like the title track with raw anger and despair expressed so blatantly in lines like –

‘Take the only tree that’s left / And stuff it up the hole / In your culture / 

Give me back the Berlin wall /Give me Stalin and St. Paul / 

I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder’

or the harsh honesty in songs like Be for Real

‘Are you back in my life to stay / Or is it just for today? 

So don’t give me the world today / And tomorrow take it away. / 

Don’t do that to me, darling.’

While the final track, the instrumental Tacoma Trailer soothes and calms the anger and hurt expressed in the other songs. His seeming passivity towards love and relationships and the helplessness he expresses through both humour and a mature insight perhaps stem from the fact that he was already an established poet and author before he released his first studio album when he was already in his thirties.

The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) is full of the frustration and bliss of love as in Closing Time

‘And I just don’t care what happens next / Looks like freedom but it feels like death  / 

It’s something in between, I guess… /

And I lift my glass to the Awful Truth /

Which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth / 

Except to say it isn’t worth a dime…

The sadness and recognition of loss is beautifully captured in Alexandra Leaving with lines like 

Even though she sleeps upon your satin / Even though she wakes you with a kiss

Do not say the moment was imagined / Do not stoop to strategies like this …

Do not choose a coward’s explanation / That hides behind the cause and the effect …

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost

Document_2021-06-24_172958 (2)Recently, on a whim one afternoon in a Perth Mall, I bought Cohen’s last studio album You Want it Darker (2016) made before he died. The title track is both accusatory yet suffused with a dull acceptance

‘A million candles burning / For the love that never came

You want it darker / We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame’

Treaty, the second track, mourns the barrenness of his relationship, despairing of the inability to connect with his love

‘I’m angry and I’m tired all the time

I wish there was a treaty,

I wish there was a treaty

Between your love and mine’

and the same wish is repeated in the last, semi-instrumental, track, String Reprise / Treaty.Document_2021-06-24_172806

An unhappy man, Cohen seems constantly torn in On the Level between love and the rejection of both gratification and temptation

‘You smiled at me like I was young / it took my breath away’

yet, nevertheless,

‘They ought to give my heart a medal / For letting go of you

When I turned my back on the devil / I turned my back on the angel too’

and 

‘I was fighting with temptation / But I didn’t want to win

A man like me don’t like to see / Temptation caving in’

The only genuine love song on the whole album – If I Didn’t Have Your Love – where the world appears dark, cold, sterile and bare without a sustaining and creative love

‘Well that’s how broken I would be / What my life would seem to me

If I didn’t have your love to make it real’

but almost immediately he swings back into loss, accepting it and acknowledging both his own and his lover’s faults in Travelling Light

‘It’s au revoir / My once so bright, my fallen star…/

I guess I’m just somebody who / Has given up, on the me and you … /

I’m just a fool, a dreamer who / Forgot to dream of the me and you

I’m not alone, I’ve met a few / Traveling light like we used to do’

Old age and the increasing futility of chasing something so ephemeral as love strikes a resigned note of acceptance of the finality of relationships in Leaving the Table 

‘You don’t need a lawyer / I’m not making a claim.

You don’t need to surrender / i’m not taking aim … /

I don’t need a lover, no, no, no / The wretched beast is tame

I don’t need a lover / So blow out the flame’

Throughout all of Cohen’s songs, the overriding theme seems to be one of loss, rejection, and a love that fulfils yet torments but this last studio album, You Want it Darker seems to be the bleakest of all his albums (with the exception of the love song mentioned earlier), and yet somehow transcends despair and hopelessness and speaks to all those who have ever loved and lost. True poetry can never be nihilistic and Cohen brought poetry into mainstream music, not just through the beauty of the words but thought the inflection and the subtle variations in tone, his voice, so low and husky, so close and intimate in one’s headphones.

Document_2021-06-24_173435 (5)

Time Changes Everything

I wrote a blog a while ago about the pleasure of music in the most general sense when I actually sat down and did nothing else except listen to an entire album – The Rolling Stones Let it Bleed (1969) in a deserted tropical beach-front bar rather than just listening to a random selection from Music – Songs – Shuffle in the library on my phone or desktop which is what I usually do. I don’t know when I last listened to the full album but the same eerie memory of dread from that time remained. I’ve always enjoyed the Rolling Stones but gradually became more attuned, I think, to Keith Richards, lead guitarist, some writer and half of the writing duo the Glimmer Twins with his lifelong friend and musician Mick Jagger. So when Richards produced his first solo album Talk is Cheap back in 1988 or thereabouts, I bought it as a cassette, long since lost of course. Main Offender (1992) was next and I bought that on CD – and still have it! Vintage Vinos (2010) was next and somebody gave me a copy and I have just come across Richards’ latest and third solo studio album, Crosseyed Heart (2015).

So it was with some expectation when I recently bought – actually bought – among other things*, – both his Talk is Cheap and Crosseyed Heart albums which I listened to on an actual physical CD player.  Of course I have already transferred them into iTunes on my phone and desktop but I enjoy looking at the cd insert and, the first few times anyway, reading the lyrics and details of backup vocalists and session musicians while listening to the words. I don’t know, is it weird to actually sit down and listen to an entire and specific music CD? I mean, you sit down, usually, to read a book or newspaper or to watch a movie, for example. You do these things attentively in that you don’t read a book while exercising or watch a movie while driving a car! 

So, why does listening to music feel different?  Or does it? Is it me? Whether it is or not doesn’t matter because that is what I have started doing recently! {Is it an old man thing, like The Father?}

A big contrast to the way I usually consume music – on my headphones, any time of the day or night and usually while I am doing something else, like walking or cooking or listening to the radio while driving. 

I don’t have Spotify nor do I buy music on the App Store so, rather than some abstract stream, download or view of music, the physical items are anticipated and their arrival is always welcomed with surprise or excitement. I must be reverting to the teenage years when hip kids would walk around with collections of artistically covered LPs under their arms. 

Similar to the two other CD’s I bought recently (more about them later, maybe**), the two most recent acquisitions are the first and the most recent (or last?) album of a singer, in the twilight, as it were, of his 78 years or so.

Anyway, I thought I’d look for a common theme – love, lost, or just get on with it? – in Talk is Cheap (1988) conveys the Richards philosophy of sure, life is hard so toughen up!

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Not a great man for a soft heart, his take no prisoners approach to his world fending off unwanted advances but in Make no Mistake along with the featured vocalist, Sarah Dash, my heart was swept away be by lyrics like ‘No words can convey your lips melting into mine /… I’ve made up my mind about you’/. I sensed, nevertheless, an implied threat lurked there for whoever not to screw up this time in ‘I’m talking to ya baby / Make no mistake.’

The cynical anger in You Don’t Move Me ‘It’s better that you kill the light / You’re giving us all a fright’ is picked up later in Crosseyed Heart’s Blues in the Morning ‘Got a picture of your face and I hold it up to the light / But on a good day, baby, it sure gives me a fright.’

How I wish is the only love song on the entire cd with lyrics like ‘If I could see you, Oh just now and then / If I could feel you, I’d do my time again / Oh Honey, honey, honey, Yeah’.

In my stiffened and arthritic form, the slow, hypnotism of songs like Rockawile with Sarah Dash again and Locked Away with Waddy Wachtel on guitars welcomes me into an entranced gentle swaying exercise!

A justification of his hard-nosed attitude to society in general is Richards’ determination to live and enjoy the little things in life and if that is not good enough, too bad!

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Mocking society nearly three decades later with Crosseyed Heart, the third studio album in 2015 with the X-Pensive Winos, ambiguously named, I feel, Richards’ devil-may-care attitude soars for a while with short bursts like the title track Crosseyed Heart ‘Oh, she’s a sweetheart but she drives me round the bend / I go round the corner and find another friend’ and Nothing on Me  I’m walking out the door / Cause you got nothing on me, nothing on me.but begins to waver between not caring at unsatisfactory love to a sneering disdain in Trouble ‘Even though you are still inside I can get you off the hook / But I know when I get you out I won’t get a second look … Too much trouble’.

Old Age has brought doubts and fears too and wild swings between desperation in Love Overdue ‘And now I am a prisoner of loneliness … I don’t know just what to do, honey, yeah’ to an accusatory tone in SuspiciousNo matter what you do I’m still a part of you / You will never be free of me / … I told you from the start you better barricade that heart’.

As Sarah Dash took featured vocals in  Make No Mistake so too does Norah Jones takes lead vocals in a sublime duet with Richards in Illusions on this latest album.

Resignation in later years sinks in too  as in ‘I’m here if you want me’ sort of thing in Just a Gift. One of the most extraordinary things though about both the first and most recent albums is Richards’ ability to code switch, not just with his guitar skill but with his vocal range so much so that in Goodnight Irene, the old Ledbelly song from 1936, he transforms himself  into a southern Blues singer rather than the Londoner he was born.

The last two tracks, Substantial Damage and Lover’s Plea seemed amazed at the inappropriateness of the relationship along with a puzzled annoyance as to why his love is not trusted.

Superb guitar, vocals and backing from a host of wonders among the X-Pensive Winos, together on all three studio albums, with contrasting views expressed on the same topic  in his youth through the eyes of a contemporary songwriter, poet, guitar riff player and connsumate survivor. Well done Keef!

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** You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen 2016

** Rough and Rowdy Ways & Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan 2020

Chords – A New Category !

I seem to have run out of steam recently – and it is certainly not because I have been too busy! The pandemic powers on worldwide and where hope looms in a few places, disasters surge elsewhere. So, along with a slow recovery from several self-inflicted injuries (I still have no clear idea how I ruptured my Achilles tendon so badly) and quarantine restrictions I have been, for the most part, cooped up in my back yard – thank god for glorious WA weather – and I have just dried up in all creativity areas and hit a block with my scribblings, readings, cooking, celtic stuff, curiosity and, of course, travel.

So it is almost the last month of a beautiful Perth autumn and I have decided to jump start things by adding a new page,or whatever it is called, Chords in this blog thingy. It is going to be about music in the most general sense and only referenced by music I actually have accumulated over the last … Well, when did CD’s become commonplace and eliminate cassettes?

I probably acquired a CD player in Brunei Darussalam back in the mid 1980’s or so and since then my music collection swelled and sank as I moved here and there around the world. Certainly CDs – and later iTunes of course and MP3 players dominated during the early 2000’s – making music mobility much easier but when I just went through the remnants of my former CD collection, I was disappointed to find so many of the iconic cd art lost – think of the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) or Blood on the Tracks (1975) – while their spectral remains still somewhere in the depths of a hard disk.

I lay no claim to be a music critic nor can I read, write or play any form of music whatever and my taste is mostly plebeian popular so I make no excuse for including or ignoring giants of the music age and I may occasionally ramble on about a particular piece of music or some quirk about a musician or singer or look for connections between common themes or styles. Please feel free to disagree or comment as you will.

The banner photo for this page is just a random selection of actual CDs spread out on my kitchen table and my rambles might encourage me to actually buy more CD’s despite the fact that the age of the CD is over and acquisition is a waste of world resources! Here goes anyway, my meagre effort to spread wealth!

PS. Just saw the movie The Father with Anthony Hopkins. Wow! Cuts a bit close to the bone at times. I’m just thinking of the opening scene of the movie and the basic premise of my next post, already begun and 90% finished.  Is it just an old man thing or just a dream?

Slow-Cooked Lamb & Potato Rösti

It has been almost a year since I posted anything. I have no idea why I stopped posting the usual medley and I certainly can’t say I was too busy. If anything I have had more time on my hands over the last year than I have ever had. Between Covid lockdowns and a reverse shoulder replacement – if you would credit it, where my right arm, instead of ending in a ball which fits snugly into the socket on my shoulder, now holds the socket while the ball is screwed into my shoulder blade – which took quite a while to recover from and then further major surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon on my right leg which involved another 14 weeks of very restricted movement. So for nearly eight months I have been house bound, sitting around on the back deck, reading, dozing, listening to music and doing bugger all else while the garden and the rest of the world go to wrack and ruin. Thank God for fantastic West Australian weather! No chance of me catching Covid, I can tell you, restricted to the back deck and unable to swim, drive or walk anywhere. And then, last night in bed, of all places, I was imagining a succulent lamb roast for the long Labour Day weekend here in Perth so here goes for my first blog in nearly a year. 

I love lamb in that I feel it is the most free-range of all meats, unlike poor old cows herded into dusty feed lots and fed with minced pig brains or some such muck, or wretched battery chickens cooped up in appalling conditions, or gross sows rolling over and suffocating their squealing piglets. No, lamb, for me is the essence of  good red meat and I like to envisage lambs romping and skipping over the springy turf. (God, the temptation to use ‘gambolling’ to describe the wooly little brutes frisking about in sun drenched meadows was almost overpowering!)

Recently however, whenever I roasted a leg or a shoulder – sometimes with garlic and sticks of rosemary and cinnamon pushed into knife stab holes, sometimes slathered with anchovies which dissolve in the roasting, other times coated in spices, honey, nuts and yoghurt – it has turned out tough and not particularly good – I ate it anyway, of course. Perhaps it is my gas oven, maybe the door is not a complete seal or the temperature gauge is not working or else, God forbid – it is me and my cooking methods? But how can you go wrong with lamb?

Anyway, after another disappointing roast last weekend – tasty but tough and chewy – I decided to try a new approach and I fished out my ancient Slow Cooker, acquired from David and Elaine B (Hi Guys wherever you are !) when they were leaving Brunei Darussalam to return to the UK in the mid eighties.  For the most part, I have only used the slow cooker for things like corned beef and an occasional chunky veg soup and each time, this battered but venerable, 35 year old appliance  has worked wonders so I decided to try slow cooking my rolled, boneless half leg of lamb.

First up was to throw a tin of tomatoes, a generous few slugs of Shiraz, a few stalks of rosemary, a good splash of balsamic vinegar and a decent spoonful of smooth Dijon mustard and a whole head of garlic, with just the tips cut off, IMG_3877into the crock pot, aka slow cooker, and left the lot to heat up while I browned the meat in a wok. A bit messy and splashy but it began to smell lovely as the fatty outer layer of the roast began to brown. Gorgeous smell.IMG_3874 I tipped the meat into the slow cooker on top of the gooey mix of tomatoes etc, put on the lid and planned to leave if for at least five hours.

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Unfortunately, I knocked the wok with the hot oil onto the kitchen floor, giving the worn jarrah floorboards a slippery sheen, nearly breaking my other leg as I slithered across the floor. Note: Be careful when browning a roast in a wok!

IMG_3880Next up was the Swiss style potato dish – Rösti. I used three peeled potatoes – any type of spud will do for this dish and I just picked up the first few spuds I saw in the market this morning. I grated the spuds coarsely and then roughly squeezed the excess water out of them. I ended up with about four or five handfuls of grated spud which I tipped into a bowl, along with half the grated white onion.

InIMG_3922to that, I added a good teaspoon each of ground black pepper, sea salt and dried Italian herbs, along with a bit of melted butter.

More butter and a good splash of oil into a frying pan and let it get really hot before I tipped the grated potato and onion mix into the pan and smoothed it out as best as IMG_3923I could with the back of a wooden spoon. IMG_3925I didn’t bother to stir or shake the pan, I just left it on high for about 10 minutes before carefully tipping up one edge of the stuff to see if it was browning nicely on the bottom. It was, so I carefully placed a large cutting board over the pan and flipped it over and then slid the rösti back into the pan so the other side could get browned.

While all that was happening, I turned off the slow cooker, fished out the lamb, practically falling apart after nearly six hours, and forked it apart with two forks. IMG_3924I poured the juice from the crock pot into a small saucepan and brought it back to the boil to reduce down and then stirred a spoonful of cornflour to thicken it.IMG_3926

The rösti slid out of the pan onto a cutting board and made a satisfying crunch when I cut into it with a pizza cutter. The pulled, tender, succulent and juicy lamb piled on top of the rösti with a velvety smooth, rich, meaty sauce,  a side dish of steamed spinach (and the rest of the bottle of Shiraz) made an excellent dinner.

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Disclaimer

Looking over the above, while every word is true, I have to admit my photography has room for improvement. My only excuse is greasy hands, a slippery floor and an Iphone 6 with an annoying habit of turning itself off!

Ingredients:

Lamb leg, rolled roast, 1,25kg, Tinned tomatoes, Balsamic vinegar, Red wine, (Shiraz), Dijon mustard, Garlic, Rosemary

Rösti, 3 spuds, 1/2 onion, mixed herbs, salt & pepper, Butter & oil

A ‘Pick Me Up’ for Hard Times

There is something about Easter and chocolate, isn’t there? Cadburys apparently made over 477 million chocolate eggs and probably the same amount of chocolate bunnies and I am sure Lindt and other manufacturers did something similar. In Belgium, the self proclaimed chocolate centre of the world (!), chocolatiers were declared essential workers in an otherwise locked down economy and chocolate bunnies were adorned with white chocolate face masks. bunEaster alone here in Perth without family, grandchildren and friends for lunch was no excuse for not indulging myself so I decided to treat myself to a slow roasted leg of lamb, creamy mashed potatoes and minted peas followed up by a fancy dessert.

Nearly a quarter of a century before – yes, really that long ago – two of my students were junior chefs from the Italian part of Switzerland and one night during a Sinners and Saints party at my place, they made a tiramisu and scribbled the recipe down which I recently discovered among old papers.

Anyway, for those that don’t know (or care), Tiramisu (Pick me up, in Italian) is a light, coffee flavoured dessert and is as classic an Italian dish as Spaghetti Bol, or Pizza Quattro Staggione or Saltimboca or … whatever.

I had tried the recipe a few months ago when I was having my son and daughter around for a Sunday lunch but it was a complete disaster, everything curdled and the resulting mess was soggy and unappetising. This time would be different, I swore, and the secret? Seperate the egg yolks from the whites and beat each separately! Simple as that!

OK, Ingredients firstIMG_3523

  • 5 eggs – all I had left in the fridge as my chickens have taken a break from laying
  • 500g mascarpone ( a light cream cheese, similar to Philadelphia but much nicer)
  • 6 dessertspoons of fine caster sugar
  • double shot of espresso coffee
  • l packet of Savoiardi sponge (lady) fingers
  • a scoop of Nutella
  • a double shot of Tia Maria coffee liqueur
  • a bar of dark chocolate, melted
  • …and a dusting of cocoa powder on top

IMG_3521First off, make the coffee. I made a double espresso and then ‘cooled’ it down by adding a double shot of Tia Maria. Next, separate the eggs, and place the egg whites in one bowl, and the egg yolks in another. I broke each egg into my hand and sort of dribbled the albumen from hand to hand and plonked the yolk into another bowl. I wasn’t able to keep them completely separate as I managed to leak a spot of yolk into the whites making them very difficult to beat, according to what my mother used to say!IMG_3524

Add 3 dessertspoons of sugar, whizzed in the blender to make it extra fine, to the egg white bowl and use an electric beater to whip the egg whites to stiffish peaks. Hopefully, after a couple minutes of whipping, the egg whites will start to thicken, in my case, barely, because of the drop of yolk, but I didn’t want to over whip the whites.IMG_3526

Set the stiff egg whites aside, and switch over to the egg yolk bowl. Add 3 more dessertspoons of sugar to the egg yolks and beat this for a couple minutes, until it goes from bright to a pale yellow.

Mix in the mascarpone and the Nutella IMG_3529(I used all that was left in the jar, but use as much as you want, and then mix thoroughly with the electric beater again before gently folding in the stiff egg whites, as slowly as possible.IMG_3530

Place the espresso and the Tia Maria (use any spirit your like – Sambuca, rum, brandy or nothing at all) in a small bowl, and then dunk each of the sponge fingers in the coffee and booze mixture for literally a second or two or the biscuits can become too soggy, (I like to see a dry core inside the finger when I break it in two), and lay a layer of them in the serving dish. IMG_3532Then pour a layer of the mascarpone mixture to cover them. IMG_3533Lay another layer of biscuits on top of that and cover again with the mascarpone. I threw the broken bits of dark chocolate into a small bowl in the microwave to melt and then dribbled the melted choc over the creamy mixture before adding a finely sieved spoonful of raw cacao powder over the lot. IMG_3536Bang it into the fridge and leave it for a few hours to sets as this lets the layers soak into each other and allows the mascarpone cheese and everything else firm up.

When cut into squares later, it should be fairly set, certainly not runny or goopy (like my first disastrous attempt).

IMG_3538Cheers!

Crises We Have Lived Through

My Irish father and mother were born in the last century, in 1911 and in 1914 respectively so my father would have been 7 years old at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 which appears to have been the worst global pandemic since the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which ravaged Europe and killed 25 million people between 1347 and 1351at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Back in 1918, approximately 20,000 people died in Ireland from the Spanish Flu while 800,000 were infected out of a population of about 4 million but I have no recollection of my parents ever mentioning the effect of the pandemic on their lives or that of their parents or grandparents.

And then there was WWII and my parents, along with most of neutral Ireland, survived that too, although my mother had stories of crouching, terrified, under the stairs when Germany bombed the North Strand in Dublin in 1941, only a few hundred metres from where she lived in Whitworth Road. My father, on the other hand, mentioned that while he was in the  Irish equivalent of the British Home Guard or Dad’s Army, the Local Security Force (LSF) the worst thing he had to endure was the filthy language some of the men used!

Then in 1958, when I was 5 years old, the world was rocked once again by the Asian Flu Pandemic with 2 million estimated deaths worldwide but once again, I and my family remained untouched.

In 1967 I jumped out of the second floor of an abandoned building in Sea Point, near where I lived at the time, and broke three bones in my left leg and left arm and spend the entire summer, lying on my back, swathed in plaster of paris and the Hong Kong Flu Pandemic, with another death toll of one million, passed me by once again, although I do remember the public warning advertisements on TV of ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’.

HIV / AIDS struck in 1981 or thereabout but I was living in semi isolation in a kampong on the north-east coast of Malaysia at that time, without newspapers or radio (I didn’t get a telegram telling me of my father’s death until a week after he had been cremated) and was totally unaware of what was happening world wide where 25 million died of AIDS while millions more are living with HIV.

Then in 2000, I moved to Hong Kong to live and work when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2003, infecting over 8,000 people in a matter of weeks and taking approximately 750+ people’s lives. I remember being ‘inconvenienced’ in several ways then – my favourite Australian bar in Kowloon closed down, I had to wear a face mask when teaching and my new wife refused to accompany me back to HK in April 2003 after we got married in Perth, Australia but once again, the angel of death seemed to have passed me – and all of mine – by once again.

Although SARS did not claim a large number of lives, it changed the way the world responds to global spread of infectious diseases. Like today’s COVID-19, SARS was caused by the coronavirus, and was spread much like the common cold, through close person-to-person contact and respiratory coughs and sneezes.

In November of 2019, I managed to tear the Achilles Tendon in my (again) left leg and while that was getting better, I somehow ruptured the tendon in my other leg in late February 2020 and have been wearing an orthopaedic ‘moon’ boot ever since. So this recent COVID-19 pandemic, of which I took a fairly unalarmed view initially until my nursing daughter compared it to the Black Death, has once again passed me by as I am house-bound, barely able to hobble around the house and garden. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lock-downs and social isolations the world is experiencing, the incredible impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and livelihood, the mounting loss of life worldwide and the ever increasing restrictions on daily life imposed by governments in an attempt to stem this tide of disease, death and destitution is impacting upon us all.

Home isolation is easy for me now, crippled temporarily as I am, as are the other restrictions but I wonder how well I will cope once I am mobile again.

Throughout history, there have been tumultuous waves of change (The Flood?) – from the wave of agriculture that transformed the world from that of hunters and gatherers to that of the industrial and later technological and communicative waves that revolutionised the way we live. Other waves too, of mass emigration for example, which so recently threatened to overwhelm Europes’s borders, have threatened to swamp us, ever since the first people left the Rift Valley in Africa and set out to people the world, and the barbarians broke through the natural frontier of the Rhine to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century but, like all waves, pandemics too typically slow and come to an end on their own, though the process may be accelerated through effective preventive strategies, such as the measures world governments are putting in place right now.

So, in the words of, I think, Winston Churchill, ‘if you are going through Hell, don’t stop, keep going’ and, above all, stay safe and well.

Dublin Coddle and other Irish Staples

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Well, it is that time of year again – Saint Patrick’s Day – March 17 – and for those who don’t know, Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, who, it is believed, brought the Christian faith to the far flung western isle 1,588 years ago.

Celebrating everything Irish all over the world with parades, music and food, this year the Irish Government has formally cancelled all parades and public gatherings in the interest of public health and safety due to the coronavirus pandemic. A similar thing happened nineteen years ago when the annual parade was cancelled due to the outbreak of the highly infectious foot and mouth disease.

As usual, St. Patrick’s Day occurs halfway through the Christian Lenten period before Easter – a time traditionally when many practising Christians would voluntarily give up something – as kids it might have been lollies, sweets and candies, later as adults, cigarettes, milk in the tea or coffee,  alcohol and so on. But then along comes St. Patrick’s Day (yippee!) and all bets are off. Recognised by the church as a holy day of obligation, the feast day had a special dispensatory clause which allowed all fasting people to resume their ‘vice’ for that day only – hence the widespread popularity of the day which led to widespread drunkeness and debauchery in some cases! Not that I know anything about that, of course.IMG_3467

Anyway, in honour of my country’s patron saint, I have decided to cook some traditional Irish food – Dublin Coddle and Irish Soda Bread which, when eaten together and washed down with a Guinness is about as Irish as I can get in this scary, pandemic time.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2020 to everyone!

Dublin Coddle

Ingredients

I kg. Good pork sausages

2 Tbsp. Of oil

450 g bacon rashers, roughly chopped

2 large onions sliced thickly

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

2 carrots sliced thickly

4 large potatoes, sliced thickly

Black pepper to taste

Chopped parsley

Bunch of fresh herbs – rosemary, thyme, sage

375 (at least) ml dry cider

3 Tbsp. plain flour

Method

  • Put the flour into a strong plastic bag and season with salt and pepper.  Cut the sausages into thirds and then dip into the seasoned flour.IMG_3472
  • Heat the oil in a thick-based pan and quickly seal the floured sausages in the hot oil for about three minutes.  Remove and set aside.IMG_3474
  • Soften the onions and crushed garlic in the oil for a further 5 minuteIMG_3470s.
  • Put the sausages, chopped bacon, onion and garlic in a large pot with the sliced potatoes and carrots.  Tie the herbs together (use any herbs available or in, desperation, use ½ tsp. of mixed, dried herbs) and cover the lot with the dry cider.IMG_3476
  • Bring to a point of boiling and then reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer for at least an hour, or until the vegetables are cooked but not mushy.
  • Serve in deep bowls and garnish with chopped parsley.  Accompany with draught Guinness and homemade soda bread.

(serves 6)

Irish Soda BreadIMG_3477

Spread generously with butter and thick strawberry jam, Irish Soda bread evokes childhood memories of summer when the weather was so hot that the tar on the road would bubble.  We’d put used ice-pop sticks into the tar and then chase each other around, trying to smear the tar on each other, knowing that whoever got smeared would be in trouble with their mum that night.  Anyway, I digress…

Ingredients – Basically divided into two types – Wet and Dry ingredients.

Dry

3 cups of wholegrain flour

1 cup of plain flour

1 level tsp. of Bicarb of Soda

½ tsp. of Salt

1 tsp. of wheat germ*

1 tsp. of crushed bran

WET

1½ cups of buttermilk (500 ml)

2 Tbsp. Of oil.

1 egg

Method

  • Sieve together all the dry ingredients into a large bowl.  Go easy on the Bicarb of Soda – less is more in this instance! By sieving the ingredients, a finer mix is achieved as well as adding air to the mixture. * I didn’y haver any wheat germ so I used two teaspoons of chia seeds instead.IMG_3479
  • In a separate bowl, mix all the wet ingredients.
  • Add the wet to the dry. IMG_3480The mixture should be fairly sticky, so mix using a a flat bladed knife or a wooden spoon initially and then use your hands to make a smooth dough.IMG_3482
  • Turn it into a greased baking tin to get a loaf shape, or more traditionally, shape the dough into a flattish round shape and then make a deep cross cut in the dough.  Sprinkle with a handful of plain flour and put in the middle tray of the oven (gas 200) for about 55 minutes.
  • Turn out onto a wire rack to cook.  Eat while still warm if possible.

IMG_3485

(serves 6)

Islands in the Sun

Moher
Cliff of Moher, West Ireland

I love islands and island life, possibly because I was born on the far flung western isle (Ireland) or maybe because my childhood was suffused with island adventure tales – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s escapades on Kirrin Island (and the slightly more mature Adventure series – The River of Adventure, the Mountain of Adventure and, inevitably, the Island of Adventure with Philip, Jack and his parrot Kiki, Dinah and little Lucy-Ann) – and followed up with R.L. Stephenson’s Treasure Island and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (which was the first book to ever make me cry when Bloody Bill, the pirate, died!).

 

Then again, perhaps it was the magic of flying on a two engine Fokker Friendship prop plane from Dublin airport to The Isle of Man with my parents for another childhood holiday. One time we flew from Collinstown, later to become Dublin International, and once, more exciting, left at midnight from one of the city’s quays on a ship that seemed to loom immense in the glare of lights. Magical gardens and bridges where a fairy toll is ‘demanded’, cats with no tails and a unique ‘Q-Celtic’ Manx language – sadly now extinct, the last native speaker having died in the mid seventies – Manx was related to Scottish Gaelic and Irish as opposed to the ‘P-Celtic languages of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. I still remember the  buzz and roar of the annual TT motorbike races around the island and the excitement it generated.

On the other hand, it may have been the summer picnics to Dalkey Island2 (the closest

Coliemore
Coliemore Harbour

island to where I lived in Dublin as a child) which seemed to require such advance planning on the part of my parents. The No. 8 bus from the heart of the city would go past our house on the corner of the Monkstown Road and on through Dun Laoghaire, Sandy Cove and eventually the terminus at Dalkey and from there the walk, lumbered down with tartan rugs, picnic baskets, flasks of hot tea, buckets and spades, to the harbour at Coliemore from where my father would bargain with brawny men to row us across to the uninhabited island of Dalkey Island* crowned with a Napoleonic era Martello tower. Uninhabited except for a few goats, a Martello tower, a freshwater spring and a ruined church. Family picnics, diving off the small, whitewashed rocks where the rowing boat left us off and picking up fresh mackerel for dinner on the homeward trip.

 

Whatever it was, it seems that those most magical times have extended into my adult life and have all been centred on islands. Simple man, simple dreams3, I suppose. By horoscope, I fall under Cancer – a water sign – and in the Chinese zodiac I am a (water) snake and despite having enjoyed myself in mountainous regions worldwide – The Himalayays in Nepal, the Andes in Peru, the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border, I feel my strength and vitality are at their peak when I am close to water, especially salt water!

With so many thousands of islands in Indonesia I have explored so few, Bali ages ago and more recently, the Gilli Islands off Lombok – an easy four hour direct flight from Perth here in West Australia and then a 90 minutes taxi ride to the port at Bangsal from where the public boats set out for the islands. Bali is a subtle blend of festive Hinduism and local traditions, Denpasar and Kuta being over commercialised  but it is still easy to escape to central Ubud and the black sand beaches along the north shore at Singha Raja. Everybody seemed talented – whether it was in dance or performance, wood and stone carving, music or hospitality and fluent in so many ways. I had to buy extra bags in Bali to accomodate all the carvings and knick knacks I acquired the first few times there.  I recently came across a few thousand rupiah from that time and when I produced them in Lombok last week, people laughed in incredulity at my crumpled bills. They have been out of date for almost forty years! IMG_3295I headed off initially to Trawangan, the party island, with plenty of bars and loud music and the furthest out from Lombok but after two nights of drinking cheap cocktails – two for the price of one – made with local spirits – I had a vicious headache and decided to try the delights of Menos, the middle or the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ island, the smallest and the quietest the three. Beautiful, semi unspoilt islands – no cars or motorbikes only bicycles and little pony and trap carts and a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the other side of the island. Three days on Menos and, with my time running out, I spent the last three nights on Air, the island closest to Lombok itself. IMG_3310All three islands were unique in their own way and were small enough to stroll around in less than two hours and all offered scuba training and day and night dives and probably excellent value if that is the kind of thing you like. I’m a bit different – I just wanted clear, deep water and that’s where the islands fell down for me as, for a hundred metres or so around all three islands, the water was shallow and while appearing to be sandy, was, in fact, made up of dead and broken white coral shards which made getting into and out of the water difficult and painful. Coral cuts tend to fester easily and reef shoes – which, of course I didn’t have – would be an absolute necessity. As it was, the water was so shallow that trying to swim overarm out to deeper water my finger tips brushed the broken coral with each stroke. Not ideal unless you want to lounge by the swimming pools most of the resorts provided.

A relatively new ‘discovery’ for me, Lombok is the large island next to Bali and, in theory,IMG_3317 should be just as beautiful. Certainly a fantastic ride from the airport skirting the capital and rushing past small villages and up over a jungle clad mountain with monkeys on the roadside, attracted by heaps of durian on sale, glimpses of the coast as we head down to the port. I am sure there are gorgeous beaches there too but I was set on new island horizons, the three small islands off the north west of Lombok.

Samosir, on the other hand, was almost an island, in the middle of Lake Toba, near Medan in Sumatra, practically the far end of the Indonesian archipelago from Lombok. My son fell, fully clothed, off the dock once we arrived and I had to jump in after him. That’s all I can really remember except for some really ratty accomodation.

So, on to all my favourite islands and how to rank them – by cost? (Rottnest island off Perth in WA is hideously overpriced); by beauty? (most S. E. Asian islands); by ease / difficulty of access? (although that has changed with airports springing up everywhere); by people? (all of them!). A listing in no particular order and with distinct memories of times past and present.

Lamai Koh Samui
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

Ahh, Asia, every other island paled into significance once I came across Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Samet.  Those tropical paradises, first visited in 1981, originally by slow, flat-bottomed overnight ferry from Dongson to Koh Samui before a pickup truck ride to Chaweng or Lamai or Bo Phut beaches still represent earthly paradise to me. Back in the early 80’s, I’d pay something like a nightly 30 Baht for a beach-side hut on stilts and have banana pancakes for breakfast, Tom Yam soup for lunch and barbecued fish 

Lamai
Lamai Beach, Koh Samui

for dinner, all washed down with icy Singha beer in cold frosted glasses and Mehkong whisky and soda water. Beautiful sandy beaches, relaxing beach massages and a gentle shelving beach so that you could run and dive straight into crystal clear waters. Now you can fly from most places into Ko Samui airport – one of the most appealing airports I have ever been in. Prices of course have gone up since my first visit and many beach side resorts also offer that abomination – a swimming pool! Koh Phangan was, I think, the ‘party’ island north of Koh Samui – the originator of the full moon parties? Koh Tao consisted of three tiny rocky islands connected by sand banks at low tide. I swam around the largest island once. There used to be just a handful of beach huts and a restaurant; now I believe it is packed but it must still be beautiful. All I remember of poor old Koh Samet are mosquitoes and ants!

 

I lived in Malaysia for three years and evocative names in Penang like Batu Fennenghi and Jalan Chulia where I bought my first ever SLR camera still stir me but it was off the east coast of northern Trengganu that the real tropical paradises of Perhentian and Redang lay. Deserted, at the time and  used only by local fishermen for its fresh water supply – hence the name ‘Perhenti’ / Stop, in Malay. I used to hire a local fishing boat from Kuala Besut, where I lived for three years and would make almost weekly trips (on a friday) to the island and come back to the kuala, sun-burnt, salt bleached and dehydrated to revive myself with large bottle of cold Anchor beer, served from metal tea pots into heavy ceramic cups in the only Chinese cafe in the kampong. I camped on the island for nearly  a week once while trying to study for my Graduate Record Examination into an American university, thinking I would have no distractions! Even further out than the Perhentian islands lay Redang. it was once used as a detention centre for Boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. I much preferred the Perhentians where I swam with sting rays, turtles and small (leg-long) sharks in waters no deeper than three or four metres. Gorgeous!

A fast ‘coffin boat’ from Brunei Darussalam would bring me to Labuan, a duty free island off the coast of Malaysian Sabah in Borneo – an absolute haven away from alcohol-free, strictly Islamic, Brunei.  I used to treat myself and stay in the golf course hotel. Alternatively, I’d go over with some friends in their boat, depart Brunei legally, arrive in Labuan, stock up with up to 50 cases of beer (ballast, we used to call it) and return to Brunei illegally after dark when the customs had closed, off load the beer on a deserted beach where other friends were waiting and then report to Brunei customs the following morning, claiming the Evinrude engines had been giving us trouble and we had only just arrived! Another world, another time!

And then, of course, there is Hong Kong and with this view from my rooftop, what more could anyone ask?HK1

Lamma island, just off the bottom of HK’s 

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Fish farms off Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma, HK

southern bottom, was such a laid-back spot off frenetic Hong Kong. ‘Draw-string pants, mismatched socks and guitar music’ I once heard someone describe the lifestyle there compared to HK’s bankers. One ferry from HK Central would arrive at Sok Kwu Wan on the north east side of the island with its fish-farms and quayside restaurants. I used to walk from there to the other side of the island with its ATM, bars and more seafood restaurants and a different ferry from Yung Shue Wan back to HK.

HK4
HK mini Buses

 

Lantau Island had the big Buddha (the biggest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha in the world,) as well as a great South African barbecue beachside restaurant with jugs of Margaritas. Cheung Chow, One of Hong Kong’s favourite suicide spots for some bizarre reason. Punters would rent a small chalet, close the doors and windows and light a charcoal barbecue and suffocate themselves.

 

Phu Quoc, off the most south westerly tip of Vietnam, looks closer to Cambodia and was fairly unspoilt and quiet when I was there about 20 years ago. So much so that the ‘resort’ I was staying in offered to sell itself to me after a night’s drinking with the owner! I choose what I would like to eat the following day from an ‘oral menu’ and he would make a trip to the local market just for me! The island boasted of its famed peppercorns and fish sauce which, locals zealously informed me, could not be brought on board an airplane lest the bottle break and its pungency imperil all on board!

Singapore was definitely my first ever S. E. Asian island! Gaping, like some yokel from the sticks, I went shopping along Orchard Road and bought my first – and only – portable typewriter – an Olivetti – there back in 1981.  Do those things still exist? The incredible humidity in the air – like walking into the bathroom after somehow had a long, very hot shower with the door and windows closed and the coolness of the Long Bar, in the Raffles Hotel, surrendering to Singapore slings, was a blessed relief after the turmoil of shopping!

I did an MA in the State University at Stony Brook, half-way out on the north shore of Long Island, a long spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic from New York City and did my drinking in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson and my swimming in the creek on the northside and in the Atlantic on the south side.

I worked one summer on the island of Sylt, the jewel of the ‘German Riviera’! I was ‘ein nacht portier’ at Hotel Ursula in the main town of Westerland. Long, windswept sandy beaches where elderly people played volley ball in the nude and where I was eventually fired when it was discovered that I didn’t really speak any German but it took nearly three weeks before that was discovered!

The Île de Noirmoutier is not really an island as it is connected to the French mainland by a causeway flooded daily by the incoming – and fast – tide. Famous for its new potatoes, I remember it for lazy afternoons drinking white wine with a touch of Cassis with old friends.

Slow, laid back, very patchy wi-fi, Cuba offered differently aged Habana rumsIMG_0631(apparently Bacardi sided with the Batista government forces against Castro and so signed their death warrant on the island) in generous mojito cocktails. Music in the bars at night – and everywhere – extravagantly old American cars lovingly tended (or rusted out heaps beyond repair), fat women squeezed into tight lycra and old men and women smoking cigars the size of a baby’s arm.

From Puno in Peru I went out to the amazing floating islands made of bundled reeds on Lake Titicaca, part of the border between Peru and Bolivia.

IMG_0089
Floating Reed Island, Titicaca

 

Trampoline-like under foot, the reeds were used for their shelters as well as their boats.

IMG_0088
Reed boat, Titicaca

 

 

Half an hour by fast ferry off Fremantle in West Australia,  Rottnest island is clearly visible from the mainland and like the Gilli Islands, there is no motorised transport – just bicycles and beautiful beaches, fresh octopus and, the island specific, quokkas (a type of small, short tailed wallaby). While beautiful and charming, the island is, in my opinion, mega expensive for what it offers..

Hainan
Hainan Island

Hainan island is China’s most southerly port and submarine base and I stayed in the same hotel where the Miss World beauty contest was once held in the southern city of Sanya. Parts of the beaches were cordoned off by the military, as I discovered when I ignored shouted warnings strolling along a sandy beach. Only the clunk-clunk of a pump-action shot-gun being cocked brought me to my senses.

 

Macau casinos held no 

Macau3
One of the fancy casinos

 

attraction for me but Portuguese food and wine certainly did in the area around the old harbour as well as crumbly old ‘Fawlty Towers’ type hotels. I’d return to HK laden with chorizo, olive oil, tinned anchovies and bottles of a slightly sparkling white wine.

 

Almost directly opposite the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen is Penghu County, a drab island claimed by Taiwan and reached by a three hour ferry trip from Xiamen itself. One of the most heavily shelled / bombed places after 1949 when the Nationalists retreated. The main culinary delight seemed to be  oyster omelettes!

Next up, after the Thai Islands mentioned above must be Puerta Galera in The Philippines. A half day bus trip out of Metro Manila down to Batangas and then a ferry over to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Fantastic! I stayed at the end of a rocky promontory with a floating bar a 100 metres away. Cold San Miguel beer cheaper than a coffee or a coke, mellow Tanduay rum, tiny, bitter little calamansi limes, green skin, bright orange inside with slippery pips, friendly people and crystal clear, deep water – perfect.

In late December, the sun rose around twelve noon in Reykjavik, Iceland and set again at about four pm. Ideal in some ways – use your imagination – the hotel in the small town of Hverageròi where I ended up for some reason, was overheated and I pushed the window open to let some air in and the window froze open overnight, as did the lens of my camera later that day. Amazing to come across hot houses growing bananas and tropic plants benefitting from underground thermal power.

So, a retrospecive look at islands sparked by my recent trips to the Gilli Islands, Indonesia.

1 Islands in the Sun – Harry Belafonte

https://www.last.fm/music/Harry+Belafonte/_/Island+In+The+Sun

2 Dalkey Island Photos – Niki McGrath

EFFECTS

3 Simple man, simple dreams – Linda Ronstadt‘s Asylum album released in September, 1977.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLk90r2sJMc

Let it Bleed

How do you listen to music? With the rise of things like Spotify – and ITunes  etc., I am not sure how music is consumed nowadays. Lately, I just go to my iTunes library, pick songs, shuffle and then play. Before, I would wait until a friend passed me on an album – ‘listen to this – they will be greater than the Rolling Stones in a few years.’ (He was taking about the rise of U2 back in 1980). I moved to a small kampong on the west coast of Malaysia in 1981 and as a result I don’t know when I listened to a complete album – just shuffled songs from different genres and artists. Most music now is streamed, I suppose – God knows when I last bought a CD or – God forbid – an LP or a single 45rpm disc – but last night, I was sitting in a beach-front bar on one of the Gilli Islands off Lombok in Indonesia (more about the islands in a later post) and I listened to The Midnight Rambler by The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed album from 1969. God, it sounded fantastic, so much so that I played the whole album from start to finish. 

OIP.bAUJXLB38IjwtScD_xTEqwHaGoI’ve always been a Stones fan from when the Beatles wanted to hold my hand but the Stones wanted to spend the night together, much to my father’s disgust – ‘you wouldn’t know if those lads were men or beasts, would you look at the hair on them,’ he used to humpf.

Anyway, for music that is more than 50 years old, it has managed to not only withstand the test of time but to surpass (in my view) much of today’s music.  That is not to say that I understand any of the lyrics, let alone actually hear some of the words but in that I know I am not alone.  Who on earth can understand Jagger’s voice when he gets into his groove. I remember an old Whoopi Goldberg movie (was the movie actually  called Jumping Jack Flash?) where she replayed the track of the same name, desperately trying to understand  or decipher the words where she had to give up in frustration (C’mon Mick, speak English please). Next to impossible in my case last night despite being ably assisted by moonlight on the waters of Gilli Air and a few large bottles of Bintang. For years I used to sing along to Little Red Rooster ‘I am the little red rooster, two legs across the bay’ until I discovered the lyrics were actually ‘I am the little red rooster, too lazy to crow the day’!

God knows what I thought I was hearing last night with the Midnight Rambler (and why on earth do we all have to go – and to where? – but the underlying tone of violence ‘I’m going to stick my knife right down your throat’ was unmistakable along with a half reference to the Boston strangler but beautifully tempered with the lyrics from Love in Vain and ‘You got the silver, I’ve got the gold’.

What an amazing song writing duo Jagger and Richards were under the moniker of Nanker Phelge (along with other members of the band), as far as I remember.

Happy New Year / Decade?

23:22 on Tuesday Dec 31 2019 as I write this.

Happy New Year – being in Australia, I suppose we are among the first to celebrate the New Year of 2020.

But here is a thought – certainly, it is a new year – who can disagree with that? – but is it also a new decade? Is tomorrow the start of ‘The Twenties’ or do we have to wait until this time next year before the decade kicks in?

There was no year 0 A.D. when Pope Gregory XIII instituted his new calendar in 1582 to replace the increasingly erratic Julian calendar. So, the first decade would have been from year 1A.D. to year 10 A.D. The next decade would have begun in year 11 A.D. and so on. Does that make sense? So, ‘following’ that line of thought, the decade called ‘the Twenties’ should not begin until 01 January 2021.

And yet tomorrow / today is 01 January 2020  and if it sounds like Twenty, looks like a Twenty and appears like a Twenty, surely it is ‘The Twenties’? Am I being a pedant here?

Who cares.  Happy 2020 everyone.