Point Blank Steve

Back when I was living in Krakow, a band search on Myspace (yes, that long ago) brought me to an outfit going by the name of Alien Autopsy, who were plying their trade in Poznan. A few legendary collaborative gigs later, FG and AA were firm friends. Teaming up with the improbably named Jerzy Michal (George Michael) on drums, Steve’s bass held the beat like a champion, particularly on my favourite song “Abducted“, in which the protagonist apologises for his tardiness with the novel excuse of having been waylaid by alien skinheads. Believe it if you will!

I couldn’t help it baby, I was abducted baby…(Music: Alien Autopsy Lyrics: Ignatius Rake)

But bashing the bass was not enough for Steve, who soon found himself at the helm of operations for Point Blank Poznan. I caught up with him over the interweb in his new old home of Teesside.

TM: Steve, what on earth possessed you to start up an English/Polish language local music fanzine in Poland?

SB: Quite simple, really. When I was playing in AA, it got to the point that I was only going to gigs that I was playing at, so starting up Point Blank Poznan seemed a good way to get myself on the scene a bit more, see other bands, meet other acts and do interviews and gig reviews. Since moving back to the UK, doing Point Blank Teesside has been a great way of getting involved in the scene over here.

TM: Why did you choose the name Point Blank?

SB: Back when me and my mate were ‘Us Vs Them’ teenage punks, we had an idea to publish a DIY mag called ‘Point Blank’ in which we’d spew out our socialist ideals and change the world. It never really happened! But the name stuck and I eventually used it for my music zine many years later.

TM: Nice. So how about funding? It can’t be a simple job getting the money to finance a free magazine.

SB: I’ve dabbled with advertisers over the years both in Poznan and here in Teesside. Sometimes the zine pays for itself, sometimes I find myself well out of pocket. It depends. But it’s always been 100% DIY and non-profit. That’s one thing that sets Point Blank apart from most other music publications and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s built up a reputation.

TM: What bands in the Poznan and Teesside areas should we all know more about?

SB: I was a little worried about how the scenes would compare moving from a bustling city like Poznan to Teesside, but there are so many bands here it’s incredible and such a great feeling of community. One positive thing about the Covid virus is that I’ve done a lot more writing and a lot more local bands have come forward for interviews. Some of my favourite local acts here on Teesside are “Benefits”, “The Thieves”, “Ceiling Demons” and “Avalanche Party”. “Bajzel” from Poznan is an amazing one-man act and has to be seen live to be fully appreciated. He’s been to Teesside twice and I’ve helped him get a couple of gigs over here.

TM: How big would you want Point Blank to grow in a perfect world and how do you see the future of live music after coronavirus?

SB: Ideally, you just want as many people as possible to appreciate what you do. The same as any artist, writer, band etc. I guess. I’m just hoping that once things get back to some kind of normality with Covid that the scene will come kicking back as strong as ever.

TM: Thoughts shared by many I’m sure. So a little more about you. Let’s start with an easy one. What’s the best gig you’ve ever been to?

SB: Wow. So I’ll go with Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros at Leeds Town and Country in 1999. Being a huge Clash fan, seeing Joe Strummer performing on stage was very emotional and it was one of the few gigs I’ve actually cried at (when he dedicated ‘Rock the Casbah’ to former Clash drummer Topper Headon). It was a perfect mix of new songs peppered with old classics such as ‘Safe European Home’, Rudie Can’t Fail’ and ‘Bankrobber’.

TM: Which of your own songs are you most proud of?

SB: During my 13 years in Poland I played in three bands, all great for different reasons. With Alien Autopsy, most of the songs were written by singers Shanny and Dave. However, it was when we formed Dead Members that song writing became more a ‘team effort’. So the song I’m most proud of was a Dead Members song called ‘Mary Black’. Me and guitarist Dave got down to the practice room early with an hour to kill. Dave jumped on the drums, I picked up my bass and we banged out this simple tune. The rest of the lads joined us and then the song took shape over the next couple of hours. It was poppy, it was positive and it got a great reception at gigs. I love it to this day as I basically helped write and shape the song.

Steve Blank’s favourite song with songwriting credits

TM: Cheers for the interview, Steve!

SB: Cheers! Take care.

(In a cyclical quirk of fate, I just so happened to interview Steve on the day he was publishing the 19th edition of Point Blank Teesside. He had ended up on a total of 19 with Point Blank Poznan, so the most recent issue brought balance to the schwartz).

I couldn’t resist putting up another AA track, which all those who have worked in call centres will sympathise with.

Spent all day…at the call centre (without social distancing)

Point Blank Teesside website – Free PDFs
Point Blank Instagram – For bitesize goodness
Dead Members/Alien Autopsy YouTubePlaylist
Bajzel Video (Poznan recommendation)

The Aliens: Steve is on the far left, Dave far right standing, Shanny right at the front and Jerzy Michal far right.

Where next?
Byeongnan’s battle to become a national artist in South Korea
Read about Mark, who’s helping to grow rugby in Poland.

European Football Roundup 5/5/2020

Despite the UK looking likely to be the worst affected country in Europe in terms of deaths, the Premier League is working on “Project Restart”, which could see the resumption of fixtures at neutral grounds behind closed doors as early as June. However, many players are not so keen due to obvious safety concerns, with Sergio Aguero and Glenn Murray having spoken out publicly against the idea. There is also a rift between the big six, who are very keen on the fixtures being concluded, and teams involved in the relegation battle, who believe it is unfair that their fate could be determined without the support of their home crowds. (TABLE)

Spain has also been extremely badly hit by the virus, but like the Premier League is aiming for a restart to proceedings in June. Testing on all La Liga players will commence today (Tuesday) as they begin a staggered return to training. Should the matches begin as planned, there will be a minimum of 72 hours between matches for each club after a previous proposal for there to be just 48 hours was ruled out due to the heightened risk of injury to players. (TABLE)

Italy has been in the same boat as both Spain and the UK during the pandemic. The highest profile coronavirus sufferer in the league is Juventus’ Argentinian superstar, Paulo Dybala, . All twenty clubs voted in favour of a restart on Friday and individual training began yesterday, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Turin from his hometown. However, the sports minister maintains that a restart is still very far away and a leading Italian expert in infectious diseases has spoken out against returning to action any time soon. (TABLE)

Germany has rightly been lauded for the efforts it has made to contain the coronavirus, with extensive testing available to the population from the outset ensuring the country fought the disease with its eyes wide open. As a result, the Bundesliga is the league closest to a restart, although the plan to begin this weekend seems to have now been shelved amid opposition from fan groups, who consider moving medical staff out of hospitals and into stadia at this time as highly irresponsible. A meeting involving Chancellor Merkel is scheduled for tomorrow (May 6th), with the possibility of a restart behind closed doors on May 16th under discussion. (TABLE)

At the other end of the spectrum is Ligue 1, who have already declared the season over, awarding Paris Saint-Germain their ninth title. The final league table was calculated based on an average points per game model, after an alternative approach of taking the standings after 19 matches as final was rejected. This formula puts OM and Rennes into next season’s Champions League with Lille, Nice and Reims occupying the Europa league positions. At the bottom, Toulouse and Amiens have been relegated to Ligue 2 (to be replaced by Lens and Lorient), but Nimes have been spared a relegation playoff. Although Toulouse’s relegation and PSG’s title were never really in doubt, legal action is being taken by both Lyon and Amiens, the teams worst affected by the abrupt end to proceedings. Lyon’s claim rests on the fact they had more home games remaining than their rivals and that they had already played PSG twice whereas others had faced them only once. Amiens also had more home matches remaining and, even more crucially, they were mostly against teams in the bottom half of the table. (TABLE)


August 2015

Kyoto, the old capital. Its name in Japanese simply means ‘capital metropolis’, as opposed to Tokyo, the ‘eastern capital’. The two are even anagrams of each other, so I don’t know why I was expecting a small place full of old buildings and little development. It certainly is not what I got.

Both the centre of town and the main station are full of imposing ultra-modern architecture and this is what you are met with when you arrive. I turned up late in the evening, having caught up with a friend from training in Nagoya for an afternoon drink on my way from Shizuoka. I found K’s House easily enough, a place I had chosen after a great stay at their historic onsen building on the Izu Peninsula.

The place was full, but it was so big and busy that I failed to find anybody I wanted to start a conversation with: a few families, groups of Chinese, a load of Dutch people playing a drinking game and speaking Dutch (didn’t want to make 20 people speak English), lots of French in their own cliques and a few kids on GAP years who, from a brief listen to their conversation, would not have had much in common with me.

That wasn’t a problem, since it meant I could get up early to have a crack at the city on foot. I started off with a walk to Southern Higashiyama and Kiyomizudera. The crush of people going up was too much for me, though, and by the time I got to the entrance gate I decided to just turn around and leave. There were an awful lot of other temples and I doubted they’d be as busy.

Down into Gion I went, where I espied my first geisha. She was having photos taken with a tourist on some of the most historic streets. I watched the proceedings for a while, admiring her practised movements and elaborate attire. Then I continued on through Maruyama Park and up to a couple more shrines, one of which had a ceremony going on at the time. The monks inside were chanting at great speed to the ritual beating of a drum and the timed striking of wood blocks. It was wonderfully atmospheric and a far cry from the push and shove of earlier in the morning.

With the aid of the GPS on my phone, I navigated my way via a few more temples and shrines to Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. This was not anywhere near as crowded as Kiyomizudera and I could enjoy the gardens at a more leisurely pace. Japanese gardens are so perfectly manicured that they almost appear unreal. If the Japanese were a mythical race, I think they’d be elves, such is their ability to harness the beauty of nature.

Receiving a last minute recommendation from a friend on my phone, I chose to walk the Philosopher’s Walk back south. It’s a wonderful path following a stream with overhanging cherry trees, which must look amazing during Hanami.

Near the end of the trail, I took the metro and then a train across town to Arashiyama. I’d come to see the bamboo forest, but a lot of other people had had the same idea. I ended up spending so much time dodging group photos, selfies and selfie sticks that there was no room for any peace or tranquility at all. After almost being run over by a human pulled rickshaw, I headed back to the station to catch a train towards perhaps the biggest tourist draw in town of them all.

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, is a wonderful sight. I arrived just before closing time, so it was relatively peaceful. The best view is immediately after entering, as you come out on the other side of the lake to be confronted with the temple at its most picturesque. There follows a brief walk through gardens. Some girls in yukata were trying to hit a target with coins in some kind of game as I passed through.

Kinkakuji is a very long way from the main station, but I decided to just wander through town in that general direction to see what I came across. There were many atmospheric old streets bereft of tourists and a big complex of empty temples which I had all to myself. After passing through the busy, modern centre, I reached my accommodation again. I’d covered over 50km on foot (in flip-flops) and taken three train rides, but could not pretend to have even approached seeing all of the city.

Still, my visit to Taiwan was imminent and I was staying with a friend in Osaka the next night, so I had to move on. I realised afterwards upon being quizzed by various Japanese people that I had missed a very key sight, the Ryozen Kannon. Next time.


August 2015

Osaka is a huge city. You can’t really understand how huge it is until you get here and see the map of stations and all the different public and private lines for yourself, then board train after train flying over endless big city landscapes. It’s all quite daunting, but it somehow connects up and with the aid of a site like hyperdia.com, you can just about make your way through it. Coming from Nara, it came as quite a shock to me.

My visit was just a short one before catching a flight to Taiwan the next day, but I had decided I’d like to see the bustling centre around Shinsaibashi and the American Village (amerikamura). Shinsaibashi was a massive, crowded arcade that seemingly went on for ever. I got a delicious cold (tsumetai) ramen from a vending machine place there and that combined with about ten minutes of pushing through crowds passing designer shops I’d never dream of going into was enough for me.

The American Village was a little quieter (but still busy) and not under cover, with Triangle Park ‘square’ as its centrepiece. Skater and baseball fashion rules here, but I wasn’t wearing the right uniform, so didn’t linger too long. That left me with some extra time, so I remembered what everybody had advised me to do before coming, which was to visit the aquarium.

I’m not sure if I’d ever been to an aquarium before (perhaps as a small child, perhaps not), although I had definitely seen dolphins in a dolphinarium in Lithuania. The ‘Kaiyukan‘ is definitely worth a look, with its wonderful tanks of seals, dolphins, whales, penguins, sharks, jellyfish, otters and other sea creatures. One of the highlights was the fish of the Great Barrier Reef area and I lay on the ground with others to peek under the water in hypnotic amazement as the colourful schools swam by. Then there are the whales in the main Pacific tank. Watching them move is something difficult for your brain to fathom, their massive size hard to comprehend. At the end you’re allowed to touch baby sharks, but not on the mouth.

Afterwards, I met up with a friend from an amazing hostel in Malaysia I had stayed at a couple of years previously. He was kind enough to put me up for the night in his spare room/classroom. Unfortunately, he was just getting over jet lag from a trip to the States, but he still found the strength to take me next door to his mother-in-law’s bar for drinks and food. This had the feel of real small town Osaka, even though Tennoji was not that far away and it was great to get a taste of life in this little pocket of town and to hear the differences between people of the region compared to others. Osaka residents are thought of as the most gregarious, friendly and outgoing of the Japanese and it was clear that this was the place for him!

After breakfast I headed off to the airport to catch my outrageously cheap flight to Taiwan. Thank you, Peach. Next time I hope to make it to Shinsekai, which means ‘New World’ in English, but is in reality anything but. It sounds a fascinating part of town.

Update (2018): The castle is also well worth a visit if you have time. I stopped there on the way back from the Philippines.


August 2015

Deer are to Nara what beef is to Kobe or the castle is to Himeji. A few moments after you leave the Kintetsu station on your walk up towards Nara park, you pass clusters of them on the pavement with tourists snapping photos (selfie + deer seems to be very in) and feeding them deer biscuits. There are warning signs everywhere that they could be dangerous, but the ones I saw were all very passive and having them ambling around certainly adds a certain charm to the place you can’t find elsewhere. The only downside is naturally the mess they leave, a very rare sight in Japan.

The day I visited did not start out too auspiciously. Thinking that the 5 pieces of paper I got for my Seishun-18 ticket were all tickets and not just one ticket with 4 information slips, I foolishly had thrown the top part away in Kyoto. I asked many times to get a new one in Namba, Kyoto and Osaka Airport, but was politely turned down on each occasion. Understandable I suppose, but frustrating to lose 4 days of ‘free’ travel with such a careless error. Still, these things even themselves out in the long run.

Nara is easily walkable and you can cover the main sights in a day at a leisurely pace. The main attraction apart from the deer is the ‘Daibutsu‘ (Big Buddha), who is very big indeed. He also has a very nice house, as tends to be the way in this part of the world. In fact, I found this building to be the most striking thing in the whole park. On the inside, there were two elements more intriguing to me than the massive statue itself.

The first protrudes out of the back wall and seems to be a Buddha hand with middle finger upraised, I’m not exactly sure what for. Maybe he’s just sick of the deer. A little further along there is a hole in a pillar that is supposed to bring you good fortune if you can squeeze through it. Most children got through while I was watching, as well as a rather lithe young Japanese fellow. Most of the others got stuck and I think it would definitely have gone the same way for me had I tried. Not wanting to have firemen tug me out of a holy piece of architecture, I decided to give it a miss.

Nara is a mini Kyoto plus deer. There are still plenty of tourists, but not in the same overwhelming numbers as Japan’s tourist mecca and I probably enjoyed my day out here more. Make sure to have it on your itinerary if you’re in this part of the world!


August 2015

According to my pre-trip reading, this was supposed to be one of the most, if not the most livable city in Japan for expats, but lacking in major attractions. On reflection, I’d say that was a fair call, although it was hard to judge the standard of life here on just a flying visit.

The station in the centre of town is Sannomiya (although the Shinkansen arrives at Shin-Kobe) and since I had the cheap JR Seishun-18 ticket, it was here that I alighted. A short walk up the hill brings you to a strange district known as Kitano, which contains various examples of western style houses from France, Italy, England, Denmark, Austria etc.

Having grown up in Europe, these houses looked remarkably normal and unimpressive to me, although it was admittedly a little intriguing to see the Japanese eagerly snapping photos of them. Naturally, I did not fork out the steep entrance fees to go inside the buildings, but I did climb up to the Shinto shrine at the top for some nice views out onto Osaka Bay.

I may have had some beef with the houses, but I had no beef with the beef. Kobe is famous across Japan for its marbled meat and I purchased a little of it (a proper serving at a restaurant would have blown a few days’ budget) in the souvenir shop at Shin-Kobe station  to eat at the nearby waterfall.

Well, that was the plan. I was a little blasé reading the instructions to get there and went over the station instead of under it and ended up following a completely different road uphill.

After climbing for about 30 minutes, drenched in sweat, I decided I had probably gone the wrong way. By this time, I was way up in the mountains by a stream all on my own, which was, as it happened, a perfect place to stop for food.

I descended then ascended again, this time the right way. Nunobiki Waterfall was fairly impressive, but full of Japanese tourists and a few noisy children. I was not too disappointed I’d gone the wrong way earlier for my lunch.

The other thing that Kobe is known for is the devastating earthquake that struck here in 1995. I can still remember seeing images of the damage on TV in England as a 13-year-old. I witnessed no lingering effects during my visit and the town seemed to have confidently moved on.

Kobe. It was nice enough for a day out, but all in all nothing spectacular.


August 2015

There’s pretty much one reason that people come to Himeji and it stands there right before you at the end of a long broad avenue as you exit the train station. On the steamy hot (mushiatsui) summer’s day I came here, the six white storeys of the castle’s main keep set against a backdrop of majestic blue skies and white clouds were simply breathtaking.

On the long train journey back home to Shizuoka afterwards, I kept looking with almost religious reverence at the photographs I had taken. This was a building it was possible to entirely commune with in mind, body and soul. In fact, it was so perfectly conceived it was barely of this world, seeming to exist on another plane entirely, perhaps halfway to heaven. If you only see one castle in Japan (a highly improbable occurrence), make it this one!

As uplifting as the views of Himeji Castle were, the actual sightseeing was more of a hard slog. Visiting during Obon, the impossible number of visitors meant that the whole trip into the castle, up the wooden floors to the small shrine at the top and back down again consisted of one massive queue. The best part of the trip was, in fact, at the very end, when the attendants were no longer urgently ushering you on and it was possible to enjoy the edifice in (relative) peace.

The hostel I stayed at was Himeji 588. It was reasonably priced by Japanese standards (2700 yen) and had free coffee, tea and water, a godsend in hot weather. The beds in the dorm were Japanese style mattresses in small cubby holes one up one down and the showers had free soap and shampoo. There was a bar downstairs and a small area to meet other guests, which I did. The one downside was that guests are asked to leave from 1000 to 1600 for the staff to do cleaning, not so great if you were partying the night before.

For dinner, on the recommendation of the hostel manager, we headed down to an area just northeast of the station where there was a cluster of izakayas in one of the colonnaded shopping arcades. I was joined by some other hostel guests and after being told they were full up in most places (it was Saturday night), we finally went down a random set of stairs and found a great little underground cavern bar. The menu was only in handwritten Japanese, one of the hardest things in the world to decipher, so I just asked the staff if they had this or that and what they recommended (‘osusume’) in Japanese.

We then went looking for another place and came across a Latino bar with a suitably cheesy name, ‘Bar Tropicana’. Drinks were not free. I had a chat in Spanish to the friendly Peruvian owner from Cuzco, who had married a Japanese lady. There weren’t too many people there, but there was one young Japanese guy, who for some unknown reason was keen we took our shirts off. The Swedish fellow I was with happily obliged, despite or perhaps because of his massive girth.

We left as soon as we’d finished our drinks, but the owner said it was his birthday the next day and encouraged us to return. I was sceptical as to whether that was actually true or not, but my holiday had come to an end. It was time to get back to Shizuoka.

Who is the Travel Mongrel?

I often refer to myself as a mongrel, due to the rather disparate origins of my family. My mother is American, my father English, but my maternal grandparents were Norwegian and Swedish and my father’s family comes from Wales. Further complications arise from the fact my brother’s wife is Chinese and I was born and grew up in France, not mentioning the fact that I have lived in 10 different countries and never held down a job in England.

I am not a typical travel blogger, as I try to spend as long a time as possible in different countries and try to learn their language as best as I can during my time there. This endeavour is aided by the fact I am both an English teacher and a freelance translator. My interests aside from travel are sport, music and writing.

I decided to start up this site to keep a record of my adventures across the world, share some of my thoughts and give some advice to those hoping to explore the places I have already been to. One small issue is that at the age of 18 I decided not to use a camera and I stuck to that until I was 32, when I was given a free smartphone by a friend. I don’t regret doing that, especially when I see the mess of selfie sticks at tourist spots nowadays, but it means that there are not too many pictures I currently have access to.

Obviously my experiences are personal. I may have come to a place at the wrong time or been unlucky with the people I met, but I try to remain impartial as much as possible. The top ten rankings will change as and when I find a place more deserving than the current spots on the list, although they will retain honourable mention status.

I hope you find the site informative and fun and that it can help you out on your own travel adventures. Please let me know if things have changed in the places I’ve written about by adding a comment.

The Travel Mongrel