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Things Fall Apart

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill

· musing

In 2013, trapped in Australia by the absolute imperative I held to – that is, to be a loving and attendant father – I decided to open a jazz bar.

Like all the ideas that I have seized upon indefatigably, they seemed like a good idea at the time. Made perfect sense, couldn't lose. All I needed to do was put my shoulder to the wheel, right?

Now, it might have made sense for me to work for a think-tank, teach at university, take up a foreign correspondent role, write another book, or re-join the UN in an assignment in some far-flung place.


All of those were available, and I did a number of them over the years.


But, we are a quilt-work of our private psychologies, the times in which we live, the driving egos of all those others in our lives, our personal capacities, and the tomfoolery of our decision biases. My bias was towards fatherhood, whatever that meant, which, amidst the wreckage and chaos of an imploded marriage, meant staying put.


So I interior-designed, built and fitted-out, and then ran for a time my own jazz/burlesque bar.

I wasn't alone in my enthusiasm. I was advised by a friend who had made a fortune this way, and he counselled me that, armed with a rare and new license that I managed to obtain after his advice, my enterprise would bear multiples of fruit the more I watered the tree of effort: I "couldn't lose." That's a direct quote. I'd be drowning in apples.

I was, however, alone in the burden of making it happen, alone in turning the fruit to juice, and alone, eventually, in carrying the empty can.

Otto Dix, Metropolis, 1928

I hold no grudge for my friend, because friendships are as composed of misunderstandings, abandonment, fallings-out, and forgiveness, as much as they are by conviviality, confiding, and the mutual measuring of our lives. It was natural that he should match my enthusiasm with apparent unbounded encouragement.

But, as I caution friends before giving them an opinion, or advice about their affairs, saying "yes" is the easiest thing in the world. It doesn't need to be walked back, and you will always say that you were being a supportive friend. It's validation, and it is cheaply given.

Telling the truth is uncomfortable, is a relationship risk, and robs the asker of enthusiasm. Tell a man his wife is cheating on him, and watch for blowback. Tell him you think his business is akin to the piggy-bank version of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and he'll turn to somebody else in order to manufacture the consent for his illusions. Fitzcarraldo!

A smoking wreck...

That's why people in Yugo or Russia, countries littered with high hopes and spoiled promises, will always say "no" before anything else. They learned the hard way. So much better to seize on the negative, and skip the disappointment. You can always inch your way forward.

So I leased an old 1940's disused garage, and spent ten months designing and building a bar. Every day, 16 hours a day, no days off, because when you run your own enterprise, its success or failure is entirely in your own hands.

Things fall apart in many ways, great and small. They fall apart very slowly, and then quickly. And then they're gone.

Stuff happens, things change over time, but often in our high-tensile and brittle lives, they simply convulse, snap, and crumble. The pandemic has hurried this process for millions of people, forcing them into new ways of being.

I’ve just finished reading Adam Zamoyski’s book about Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 march into Russia. For those who know about this dreadful humiliation, this a great book because of the author’s reliance on the personal correspondence of the French, Russian, German, Austrian, Polish, Spanish, Swedish, Croatian, Italian and English participants on both sides of the series of bloody running battles that lasted from hopeful Spring, to choking Summer, the signalling of an ominous Autumn when the French reached a smouldering one-third burned Moscow, and the frozen howling wastes of the Winter retreat.

Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard during the Retreat from Moscow. Adolphe Yvon, 1856

A man is only ever as worthy as his last job, and so it was with Napoleon.

His campaign was poorly planned, top-heavy, the political aims sloppily conceived, the topographic analysis fatally flawed, his troops badly equipped and uniformed (the pure tin buttons of the ungainly French uniforms crumbled when temperatures dropped below -10), his armaments substandard (Russian muskets and cannon were far better), his transport completely inappropriate for the conditions (his horses were cavalry thoroughbreds, not the small stocky plodders ridden by harassing cossacks), and his progress through Ukraine and Russia murderous for the peasant population in a way that would blow back on Boney as the wretched Grande Armée trudged back home.

There were strokes of strategic genius, but mostly Napoleon dithered, and miscalculated the conditions, his enemy, and the capacity of his forces. Things fell apart. They do for even the best prepared.

The bees were swallowed by the bear... they should never go out in winter...

Now, I would never consider my Waterloos 'great' by any means – it was a bagatelle – but we exist in the broth of relativism, and each man's Hell Soup is a private recipe. Our retreats from potential victories are cold, numbing, lonely and brutal affairs.

My forces committed, I had anticipated building a work of art, filled with jazz, which would draw like-minded people to a venue, bees gathering to the pollen of music, art, good food, and serendipitous occasion. My head filled with the largesse of shared enterprise, I even thought of employing the right staff in an ongoing profit-sharing arrangement. What could possibly go wrong?

So, I'm really just posting this pictorial journey of a minor disaster, a folly, a misconceived campaign which I like to forget, for the number of friends who keep asking me about it, and have never seen a skerrick of evidence that for two years, the Red Baron owned a bar.


In full flight...

The bar was inspired by a conceit - if Baron Manfred von Richthoffen had survived the war, might he have opened a bar in rip-roaring, shape-shifting, ambiguous Berlin, with its Spartacist and Nazi street fights, Bertolt Brecht creeping 'round the corner, and Otto Dix searing his canvas with his love of the ugly beautiful, the beautiful ugly, and politics?

[I think the notion emerged in conversations with the delightful mother of a friend of mine (the same one who advised me on the wisdom and business fundamentals of the enterprise) who was still alive then, and had grown up next to the aunts of the famous fighter ace in Germany].

It was perfectly conceived, except for the fact that we were a long, long way from Berlin...

Baron Manfred, war ace and future barista.

The customers were happy...

The drinks were worthy of the Algonquin...

It was comfortable for lounge lizards...

Otto Dix, Portrait of Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926

The food was cheap and fresh...

There was a pleasant buzz...

Catalina, 11 years old, working in the kitchen.


The bar was in an abandoned old 1940s garage...

Anna, 17, did some great work...

Der Blau Angel, the divine Ms Dietrich, my guardian angel - until she wasn't...

Deco tributes to surf life... I had panels made for the bar...

Every attention to detail...

... and had a young artist paint this mural, inspired, as always, by a literary hero...

I cleaned-out 60 years of garage filth... note the 'propeller' fans I repurposed myself...

... and I built it with Jamie... one of the best men I've ever known (he's not that tall... maybe he is... or maybe I'm that short...).

From nothing...

When my father dropped past mid-build, and saw me transforming this enormous shell with my own hands, he told me in awe that in all his life, cumulatively, he had never worked as hard as he saw me slaving. But I was a driven man, working with the same intensity (madness?) that I took to writing a book, or landing in the middle of disaster. The eye on the prize.

An $11 garden light, transformed into an old bunker light with brass screws that cost more that the lights themselves...

Originally a gift to my new-born nephew (was that inappropriate?), the Latin Lover, The Sheikh looks on...

No icon was spared appropriation...

“You have everything but one thing: madness. A man needs a little madness or else - he never dares cut the rope and be free.”

― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

I made every detail, knew the experience of everybody who sat anywhere in the bar, and my hands passed across every surface many times, as I crafted the interior...


First the Harley went... then the investment properties... then the wife :-). A bar is a folly.

At least I learned to fly en route...

Reconnected with some old friends... (I flew Bateman from Santa Fe, where he was living with the extraordinary Ali MacGraw, to manage the bar with me. He discovered within three days that his alcohol addiction hadn't really quite completely fully gone away, and I lovingly packed him back on a plane again. We're now the best of friends again, our common link being long Sicilian stretches and his Florentine podcast).

Put my daughter through school...

Made some good new friends...

Employed Zhenya, a professor of neuro science and avid kite-surfer... and a wonderful craftsman and friend...

... kept hiring that child labour...

But ultimately the tin buttons began to crumble, and the cold wind of reality crept in (I write unconcerned about other people's schadenfreude, that little tickle of delight at another's misfortune: I wonder if you're reading this?).

I was exhausted from 10 months of physical labour, followed by a year of days that ran from 6am to 1am. The hen's-tooth license I held proved hollow as the council authorities imposed destructively stringent conditions on the license – a burlesque bar that was eventually forced to stop serving cocktails at 10pm on a Saturday night – and a number of other vagaries that combined to chew away at my capacity to stay in business.

I began to fall, tipping into a vortex that consisted of falling profits, rising anxiety, vodka, sleeplessness and exhaustion, and a gigantic sense that I had failed those I cared for. It happened slowly, then so very, very fast, and I was utterly alone in my consolations.

So, I ended up in Africa working for the UN once more, exiled from my role as father and mourning that loss as though I had buried my child.

So why write about such an appalling mess? Well, to state the obvious, failure large and small is a part of our progress through life, and how we face it is what combines to give us character. Every man or woman yearns to test the mettle of their limits within the boundaries of who they are, and their deepest values. To touch one's fear, humiliation, and darkest moments, and even to brush past the abyss of life itself, is the crucible of being.

“When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seem to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.”

― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

My lake, and a willing Ibis

My solace came in my complete solitude. In Kenya, I rose every morning before dawn at 1600 metres altitude, and stood by a small lake behind my bungalow. I was as still as those waters, as bright and clear as the sky in my silence, my impassive face as calm as a Bodhisattva, reflected on the lake when I peered over the edge from a pontoon.

For hours each morning, I watched the Ibis stir then fly off for the day, small swallows making their nest with carefully stripped bamboo leaves, eagles swirling in the currents above, and wading birds picking their way through the water, pecking away like feathered chopsticks at the insect morsels of the lake.

I did nothing, but breathed and watched and gradually my heart stopped pounding, and my breath was returned to me. Mother Africa gave me everything, but most of all she gave me back my breath.

Then, I bought a safari car, and raced through Kenya and Uganda from safari park to volcanic mountain, to plains of acacia and giraffe. But that's another story.

There are many downfalls in life, for those who choose when young to follow instinct, passion, love, impulse, curiosity, conviction, and courage. Inevitably, one comes face-to-face with the obverse world of reason, judgment, temperance, patience, caution, forbearance, and sobriety, and this is our making, the furnace in which we are formed.

“No, you're not free,” he said. “The string you're tied to is perhaps no longer than other people's. That's all. You're on a long piece of string, boss; you come and go, and think you're free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don't cut that string . . .”

“I'll cut it some day!” I said defiantly, because Zorba's words had touched an open wound in me and hurt.

George Grozs, The Fight

“It's difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that; folly, d'you see? You have to risk everything! But you've got such a strong head, it'll always get the better of you. A man's head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts: I've paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head's a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. Ah no! It hangs on tight to it, the bastard! If the string slips out of its grasp, the head, poor devil, is lost, finished! But if a man doesn't break the string, tell me, what flavor is left in life? The flavor of camomile, weak camomile tea! Nothing like rum-that makes you see life inside out!”

― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Me and the Rift Valley, Kenya, 2016

#jazzbars #Redbaron #kenya #Zorbathegreek #recovery #ornithology #audubon #georgegrosz #ottodix

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