Ballerinas Across the Andes, or The Great Ecstasy of Werner H.

We lost the first girl before we even got on the boat.

We’d been stuck out on the Argentinean pampas for a week, waiting for the steamer that was going to take us up the river. We spent our days sitting on the hotel porch drinking pisco sours and staring into the vast landscape as the ballerinas smoked cigarettes and told obscene Russian folk tales.

It was Svetlana who bolted, of course. Gloomy, nervous Svetlana, with her pale, wheat-coloured eyes full of the Ukrainian steppe. Maybe something out in all that immensity reminded her of home.

Her note said she’d run away with one of the local capybara herders.

We never saw her again.

She was one of the lucky ones. Continue reading “Ballerinas Across the Andes, or The Great Ecstasy of Werner H.”

Green Grow the Rushes

Burton is drunk again and explaining to the barmaid about astral projection.

It’s Friday night and the tiny, one-room pub is half empty. Burton is telling the barmaid about the impossibly thin thread that ties her to this mortal realm, and about the wonders we could all experience if we could only shake ourselves loose of our attachment to this mundane version of reality.

‘Dawn breaks behind the eyes,’ he tells her – he’s quoting now, his hand on hers, leaning across the bar, and, oh, that voice – ‘From pole of skull and toe, the windy blood slides like a sea…’

It’s not the first time he’s used this approach. It may not even be the first time with this particular barmaid. In the three weeks they’ve been filming in this forgotten town in the middle of the marshes, the twenty-five-year-old Burton has managed to seduce two schoolgirls, a postmistress, a fifty five year old widower, a landlord’s wife – and at least four barmaids. He’s also started five fights, crashed two cars, been banned from three pubs and performed Hamlet at four in the morning to a field full of surprised cows. Continue reading “Green Grow the Rushes”

The Love Song of the Predator Drone

If there was one thing Mary had learned in three years in Afghanistan, it was as banal as this: Love and war are a terrible combination.

Also: never get into a Chinook helicopter piloted by a drunk member of the royal family.

Mary was as an official war artist, just like everyone else. Due to a British Council error in late 2009 hundreds of artists had been sent to the country to interpret the conflict. During the second Helmand offensive you couldn’t set up a mortar emplacement or sweep a road for mines without tripping over a mixed-media collagist or a site-specific sculptor.

Eventually the army decided they’d had enough and revoked everyone’s visas, so the artists all drifted up into the mountains, where they held community outreach events and private viewings and opening night cheese-and-wine parties for the bemused local tribespeople. Occasionally a performance poet or someone who worked in ceramics was kidnapped and beheaded by the local Taliban franchise, but for the most part relations were good.

And it was in the mountains that Mary had fallen in love with a United States MQ-1 unmanned Predator drone. Continue reading “The Love Song of the Predator Drone”

Special Economic Advisors, in Love

We met in the air, of course. Cocktail hour in first class, thirty thousand feet above Frankfurt or London or Paris. All it took was a spot of turbulence and a moment of mutual understanding. It was Friday night and off our starboard wing all of Western Europe was lit up like Christmas.

Forty five minutes later we were on the ground and ordering champagne up to our room.

You’d been on your way to consult on another round of bailout talks and I was coming back from a guest spot at the World Economic Forum. We were young, beautiful and stupidly rich. We spent the weekend playing ‘you show me your fiscal stimulus policy and I’ll show you mine’.

“My position on interest rates,” you told me, breathlessly, “is very flexible”.

We agreed on further exploratory talks. Continue reading “Special Economic Advisors, in Love”

God, Grant Me The Serenity

My love affairs were starting to get out of hand. My love affairs, and my drinking. It was no way for a particle physicist to behave. There was nothing for it, they said, but to send me to the South Pole.

“For how long?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” they said.

Don’t worry about it? The South Pole?

“Think of it as a chance to… reassess” they said.

And then they stuck me on the plane. Continue reading “God, Grant Me The Serenity”

The Greatest Breakfast in the World

It’s two thirty in the morning when you write off the second rented Ferrari.

You leave it wrapped around a lamppost somewhere in East London and pay a passing teenage drug courier five hundred quid to lend you his BMX.

By the time you reach your mistress’s flat forty minutes later, the ketamine is already wearing off and the two highly poisonous, highly illegal Japanese puffer fish under your arm are on the turn.

You’ve had better – and worse – Saturday nights.

Barry Large, celebrity chef: you’re a monster. Continue reading “The Greatest Breakfast in the World”