Sunday, 25 December 2016

TOP 20 K-POP SONGS OF 2016

OK so my blog on Asia seemed to have run its course a bit (no update in over a year) but being that DAZED magazine once again posted their Top 20 K-Pop Tracks of 2016 I thought I may as well offer my own again. Especially since I felt their list was actually pretty disappointing and missed out most of the year's standouts. Sorry chaps. This list may well change in time, especially since last year I totally failed to have Oh My Girl and Closer as my number two. Despite the fact it is uniquely beautiful.

I also missed out History and Right to Die. Which fucking rocks (Warning: features six-packed Korean men dry-humping the floor). 

Anyway, 2016 was a strange year for K-pop - 4Minute, Miss A, KARA and (most shockingly) 2NE1 called it quits, whilst CL once again failed to make legway in the USA. Having a seriously dodgy and politically incorrect (re: racist) video, such as that to Lifted (in which a bunch of 'gangsta' black men swap pot with our leggy heroine) probably didn't help matters any. Come on YG - we all know that K-pop often falls arse over fist when its come to race sensitivity but this is fairly shocking...

Yet, 2016 also delivered some of my favourite K-pop songs to date. I already struggled with who would and would not make this list. Songs as good as Luna's house anthem Free Somebody, 2PM's thunderous Promise (I'll Be), Red Velvet's quirky Russian Roulette, Oh My Girl's ridiculously poppy Liar Liar, T-ara's unexpectedly whispy Tiamo, Fiestar's bouncy Apple Pie, Dia's insanely catchy Mr Potter, Hyuna's club-conquering How's This?, Sistar's Bollywood-inspired beauty I Like That and Shinee's pop-tastic 1 x 1 (odds on for video of the year) even miss my Top 20. And Shinee's Tell Me What to Do is pretty much spot-on as well. See entry number six for my explanation.

That this level of creativity is not present below only indicates that, taken in pure quality, this might have been the best year yet for Seoul-sounds.

And 2016 also demonstrated that the genre - if we can even call it such - is still producing the most exciting music on the planet. Having seen many of the acts listed here live over the past year too (including a trio of Girls' Generation concerts) it is really thrilling to also be able to confirm that fan business is as hysterical as it has ever been. Being in the midst of the K-pop boom has been, for me at least, more exciting than my youth as a drunken lad in skinny jeans trying to pull down the 'indie disco' - and if you are new to the wonders of these bands my sole urge is that you attempt to open your mind to something very new. You may well be surprised.

But be warned: this is the addiction that changed my life...

WINNER - SENTIMENTAL



It was a tough year for YG's other hit boy band - with leading man Nam Taehyun quitting the band due to 'mental health issues'. Exactly where Winner go now is anyone's guess but this hit single is one of the band's standout tunes to date with an indie-pop chorus that is absolutely infectious. Ignore the clueless pundits who described Shinee's 1 of 1 as a 'Britpop' throwback. Sonically it was nothing of the sort. But this is the real deal and it wouldn't sound totally out of place sandwiched somewhere between Menswe@r and Stereotypes-era Blur. Really. And no prizes if you can spot the Stone Roses nod in the video.

AOA - GOOD LUCK



AOA continue to push the primetime Korean censors whilst drumming up excellent pop music. Ignoring the swimsuits, bum-wiggling and long legs (yes, yes I know that is hard), this is a great slice of vamped-up vaudeville which seagues from stop-start repetition to a violently pronounced chorus that is sheer genius. The accompanying EP, which also highlights the utterly gorgeous eighties throwback 10 Seconds, is one of the year's finest short plays and proof that AOA are not just one of the K-pop's biggest bands because of their skin-flauting... (I even paid double to get an autographed copy of this puppy for fuckssake). Indeed, if 10 Seconds had been the A-side in 2016 I think I'd have pushed AOA into my top ten...

HYOYEON - MYSTERY



The SM Station, which promised a new weekly tune from one of their artists (most of them as download only) seemed like an ambitious offering but it certainly gave us some absolute gems. Surely the most unexpected of all was the first single from Girls' Generation member - and 'Dancing Queen' - Hyoyeon, a charismatic, charming and often unfairly sidelined (at least vocally) part of the eight-piece supergroup. Even more leftfield was this Middle-Eastern tinged masterwork which compliments her vocal range just perfectly. A solo debut to treasure, Mystery is indication that Hyeyeon's delightfully distinctive husky voice will have a life after the eight-piece band reaches its conclusion.

BLOCK B - TOY



This is Block B's best single so far. A more gentle and (whisper it) romantic offering than the band usually opts for (I still recall this weirdie making my brain contort when I first came across it during a trip to Seoul in December 2013. Forgive me. I was new to K-pop at the time and it was stuff like that which felt like a neon-tinged injection of awesomeness that my mind could not quite compute... I came home, went to a Cribs concert and felt... dismayed... as if I was on a drug-downer and the drunken colourful world of Gangham clubs and pubs was now as far away as the Moon itself). Toy gave us a far more human side to the group and they played it well. The epic chorus, which changes tempo at the last moment, is danceable but also skillfully emotive. Whilst the accompanying album failed to live up to Toy's excellence, this standout slice of melancholia was one of the most rotated options on my own iPad during 2016.

BIG BANG - LAST DANCE



As T.O.P prepares for military service, Big Bang completed their 'Made' album with three new tracks - of which Last Dance is the easy standout (and god knows what they were thinking with the other two). The Made endeavour is, obviously, now a very clear concept LP - and one of the most striking achievements in K-pop history (even the faults, such as that aforementioned twosome, can be seen as honourable failures in the context of the bigger whole). It was Big Bang, in effect, saying their goodbyes and weighing up the pros and cons of life as thirty-something military grads with lots of cash but a likely inability to reclaim their past success. Made was, quite tenderly, the fivesome proclaiming - 'yeah, this was as good as it gets'. The smart thing might have been for label YG to send them all into the military together, thus allowing for a two year hiatus, but with each artist having such a dominating solo career it is at least understandable why they have opted not to. Last Dance has one of T.O.P's most heartbreaking vocal performances as he admits 'one last smile' and 'It’s not like the world, that I’ve seen and felt'. Buckle up, big guy - you'll break a lot of hearts in that squaddie uniform.

(As a side note, Last Dance and Taemin's more mature Soldier indicates that South Korea's celebrity youth are now, finally, actually allowing themselves to not-entirely-subtly-but-still-carefully vocalise what that impending military service feels like. For anyone unfamiliar with the nation's culutre, this is inifintely more taboo breaking than you might think - far more so than The Sex Pistols mindlessly bellowing 'God Save the Queen' - and if Taemin's tune doesn't touch your heart you might well be made of stone. It was one of the year's edgiest and most thematically groundbreaking songs).
 
B.A.P - SKYDIVE



And this is the best Bond track since Tina Turner. Or maybe Gladys Knight. Shame that no one at Eon is ever likely to hear it. Sadly, after their 2015 return from that notorious lawsuit, B.A.P. had another rough year (with member Bang Yong Guk taking a hiatus for the same 'mental health problems' that Winner's press release also maintained). But holy shit if this doesn't rock. This is B.A.P. at their heaviest and, complete with its ridiculously ambitious ten minute music video, this was one of 2016's most bombastic and brilliant comebacks. 

HISTORY - QUEEN



The sound of decadence. Sexy. Provocative. Even a little... sinister? Boom, boom, boom... History are one of Korea's least known and most underrated boy bands. Although as with anything Korean the description of 'boy band' doesn't do them justice because One Direction this is not. This is exactly what you want from a new K-pop song. Join the fandom before History really break out - and on the sonics of something as superb as this, that time can only be soon...

EXID - L.I.E




Bubblegum at its best, Exid had a huge 2015 and have never looked back since. Another dance floor anthem that builds into two choruses - one wrapped up in lavishly produced and richly indulged high notes and another that slows down into an extended EDM chant. The two sides, however, work perfectly and after the second or third listen some of the other parts also come together brilliantly - including a token rap from LE and a nice collapse into balladry. Exid also slammed out the more sexually forthright (and outright clubby) Cream in 2016, shot in the shadow of Shanghai's iconic Oriental Pearl, but I'm going with L.I.E as their annual best. And the video is proof positive of why Hani has fast become one of Asia's foremost sex symbols. Just saying (for the curious, she's the one with the short hair who starts the song).

NCT 127 - FIRE TRUCK


I don't really get SM's NCT project. I suspect it is their attempt to establish somewthing that is a little like Japan's continent-conquering AKB48 (warning: that previous link is not work friendly) as a similarly Asia-wide thing and with interchangeable males (but actual good music). But K-pop is not J-pop and fans become far more attached to a group than the more 'meat in a skirt' thing of AKB48 which rotates members - and nationalised spin-offs - at an alarming rate. Either way, NCT 127's Fire Truck is indier than anything you will hear in any supposed 'indie' bar this year. NME writers, having had to hype years of soundalike Arctic Monkeys albums, would doubtlessly have a mind-melt trying to describe exactly what this sounds like and what it is even doing. At least one thing is for sure: turned up loud this positively burns... And the amazing thing is that this is not even the best song from the NCT experiment. For that... wait until number two...

YURI & SEOHYUN - SECRET



This is how I want my dance music. Ear-rattling, seductive and nasty... I don't know if this is the sort of thing I would even have dared tackle back in my days of Morrissey-love but this, this, is the sound of too much alcohol. The sound of 'time to go home'. The sound of attempting to recover from a night on a dancefloor. It makes me feel ten years younger. Oddly. Because ten years ago there is no way I would have listened to this. Maybe I am running low on descriptions at this point - but I loved this so song so much a little bit of my heart was chipped away when I learned it played with a Pantene advert in South Korea. Fuckssake. The impossibly perfect Yuri and Seohyun, of course, are two members of Girls' Generation - but hopefully you did not need me to tell you that.

BTS - FIRE


BTS are the heirs to Big Bang and EXO as Korea's biggest thing right now and after storming K-Con in America this year there were even some rumblings about a world tour. Would this also equate with Stateside airplay? To be honest, I'm not sure if the band is ever, much like Big Bang and EXO, going to grab a genuinelly international audience but Fire is that rare thing - an indie-rock anthem that you can honestly imagine playing on Western radio stations (moreso even than Gangham Style). It is certainly far more accessible than a lot of K-pop whilst still rocking way harder than the last stadium trudge-anthem you heard blaring out from a stuffed suit's BMW. Purely hypothetically, if I was going to spend eight (nine?) figures launching any Asian band in the English-speaking world I would, on the strength of this puppy, probably go for BTS... Give this one a twirl and see if you agree.

4MINUTE - HATE



How the hell did this flop? But flop it did and soon 4Minute were no more - with only Hyuna remaining on record label, Cube Entertainment, as a signed performer. The break-up was ugly but as far as swansongs go this is one of the very best from any band in any genre, ever. Kicking off as a tragic ballad this evolves into a really in-your-face dance thumper welcomed by Hyuna's should-have-been-iconic squeal of 'I hate you'... A brilliant work of pop-art there is no excusing bad taste - and in an alternate world 4Minute are heading into 2017 as arena-headlining heroines and one of the most commercial acts in Asia. Alas, as 2016 taught us, terrible judgement was everywhere...

TIFFANY - HEARTBREAK HOTEL


Girls' Generation member Tiffany had a troubled 2016 - although posting the symbol of the Japanese Imperial Army on your Instagram during South Korea's liberation day will, generally, get you into the sort of hot water that - say - Nazi regalia encourages in the West (unless you are Lemmy). A few fawning, begging apologies later and Tiffany made a sort-of comeback with the Far East Movement, and the excellent Don't Speak, but otherwise the Californian-born Valley Girl stayed wisely quiet. Earlier in 2016, though, she came out with this dreamy widescreen wistful amalgamation of early 90s house and Tori Amos/ Boys from Pele-era road music. It was outstanding and showed the full range of Tiffany's vocal talents too - so much so that future solo projects from the American expat (who, by now, must have had some rush-history lessons on her adopted country and its past) should be anticipated by just about everyone...

WONDER GIRLS - WHY SO LONELY



Raggae has never had the easiest transition in K-pop - the sound of dance halls and anti-imperialist ethos in the Carribean has been, largely, reappropriated via lots of beautiful Korean men and women as a sexy soundbite which encourages much boobs and bum shaking. At its very worst, we have seen Korean men in dreads pictured pretending to smoke the sort of narcotic that, in Seoul, would get them a spell in chokey, a finality to their career and largescale media and public disgust (yes, weed is taken that seriously). The Wonder Girls, however, take the form and respectfully and expertly intergrate it into a flawless 3.34 minute pop song that chops, changes and surprises at all turns. Still one of Korea's A-list bands, JYP's most enduring act looks unlikely to falter if they continue to serve-up comebacks as mind-blowing as this. And the music video is excellent.

TAEMIN - SAYONARA HITORI


Taemin, the franchise of Shinee, had a phenomenol 2016 with a superb solo album and such breathtaking indigenous singles as Press My Number and Drip Drop. Nevertheless, it is his Japanese shortplay - Sayonara Hitori - that gets the nod here. One of the most spine-tingling numbers to come from SM Entertainment - this is Taemin at his heartfelt best and redefines his image as a mature and sensitive songwriter and performer, something that his output throughout the year consistently cemented. At this stage, in fact, the Taemin image now feels as if it has even outgrown the mammoth of Shinee. And that is no mean feat. But listen to Sayonara Hitori (as well as the above-linked Soldier) and it is nearly impossible not to hear the emerging of a possible 'voice of a generation'. Hopefully SM can give the sexually ambigious - and androgynous - artist enough freedom to continue to explore increasingly more adventurous soundscapes (and themes). With this said, Shinee's really fantastic Tell me What to Do really did deserve a place on this list. So pardon my cheating...


I've opted for a Taemin solo instead - and besides, I don't want my Top 20 to seem like too much of an SM love-fest.

Speaking of which...

TAEYEON - 11:11


At this point Taeyeon is so iconic it feels pointless even writing anything here. Her gorgeous performance of Rain at the MAMA Awards in December only instigated how her very presence sends an audience into a respectful and perfect hush of admiration. When I began this list I opted for one artist and one song because someone like Taeyeon makes it otherwise difficult not to list their other achievements (for anyone curious, summer single Why is an easy 10/10 too). I have gone for 11:11 for the simple reason that it is Taeyeon stripped down, vulnerable, at her most expressive but without the stadium-filling lungs that she is all-too-frequently expected to show (for anyone who remembers last year's solo debut). The only question left for the Girls' Generation leader is exactly where she goes from here. As with Yoona, she has already slayed an entire continent (to the point it feels odd coming back to the UK and not seeing her image, or hearing her music, anywhere) but whether or not her delicate, even virginal, and certainly insanely shy, personality can break further is anyone's guess...


YOUNHA (FEATURING HA: FELT FROM WONDER GIRLS AND CHEETAH) - GET IT?



Punky foul-mouthed feminist anthem that subverts the image of the 'crazy' girlfriend (including with a hilarious video). This is forthright and angry, atmospheric and antagonistic with one of the best choruses of the year. Probably should have been one of the year's biggest hits but it wasn't - even in spite of three superior vocal performances (with Yenny from The Wonder Girls already making me ache for her next solo album) and, by K-pop standards, a more 'alternative' approach to the production (just listen to that low-fi but absolutely sublime opening).

BLACK PINK - STAY 


With four singles to date the most challenging thing was concluding on which Black Pink number to put in here. Stay gets the placement for its understated acoustic beauty - although the tubthumping instant-classic Boombayah, the midnight-hour rouser Playing With Fire and the more experimental Whistle are all tremendous. Then again, they had to be: with YG's 2NE1 calling it quits, Black Pink had to be something special. Whilst the four beauties (with dyed-blonde Lisa offering a slight exoticisim by hailing from Thailand) fit the physical perfection that detractors of K-pop often focus upon - as opposed to the more ragtag glamour of 2NE1 - the songs speak for themselves. As Black Pink go forward, it will be up to the foursome to cultivate the same dedicated fan worship that each charismatic 2NE1 personality managed to grab - but, at the very least, with debut hits as brilliant as this, they have a far stronger start than their YG compatriots were initially afforded.

NCT U - WITHOUT YOU


NCT U (not to be confused with NCT 127 or, uh, NCT Dream) introduced SM's latest brainfart with the sort of epic guitar anthem that makes pretty much any other guitar anthem from 2016 seem fairly... shite. Ultimately, this sounds so freaking massive that NCT U's follow-up number, The 7th Sense, which in itself is really quite great, was given a pitiful task in even attempting to come on the heels of this outstanding rush of sexual infatuation (cheesy or sleazy? Make your call). It still sounds unbeatable, confident, crooning and totally uplifting - making the decision for further NCT sub-groups seem pointless. After all, SM has pulled off the impossible - a band of pretty boys that sound nothing like flagships EXO, Shinee or Super Junior. Do they really need to make it any more complicated than that?

EXO - MONSTER



EXO had so many good songs this year it beggars belief that a band this brilliant remains so unknown outside of Asia (where they are bigger than boiled rice). Even after losing another member, reducing the once-twelve piece to a fit-as-fuck ninesome, their comeback with Monster was lean, mean and - right from the song's siren-fuelled start - sounded like pure unadulterated danger. And with eye-opening lyrics of sexual frustration, that one might not have expected to drool from the mouths of the EXO lads ('I’ll steal you and indulge in you/ I’m gonna mess you up/ I’m engraved in your heart/ So even if I die, I’ll live forever'), this is a testosterone-fuelled dance-rock mash that - at the year's end - plays as a deliberate 'fuck you' to any band even thinking of touching their K-pop crown. Having seen EXO live twice in 2016 I am personally tempted to go so far as to crown them as the best living band on the planet. From their remarkable and varied output over the past year, it is mouth watering to think where this group might be headed to in the next couple of years - providing SM can keep them healthy and manages to retain what's left of the band.


SPECIAL MENTION

If we are including album tracks... Well, Luna's 'Breathe' from her 'Free Somebody' album might be second only to EXO in 2016 achievements. It is so effortlessly stunning you can escape right into every perfect second.

Close your eyes and turn off the lights...





Thursday, 15 September 2016

Harare in Zimbabwe: The Dark Rhodesian Past Rots into a Depressing Post-Colonial Present

"No, no, no you see I am British"

This was the insane clarion call of an old friend of mine during Scotland's independence referendum in our conversations. The person in question, who writes books set in American states he has never and will never visit (inspired, in turn, by American blockbuster films), insisted - despite having never lived anywhere outside of Glasgow - that he was utterly, utterly British. My old acquaintance, however, seemed to know very little about what 'British' meant - at least insofar as it referenced an old Empire of colonial slavery, exploitation, brutality, concentration camps, hurried independence for the colonies (and ensuing chaos and/ or genocidal mayhem - or trained-up military vets taking power) and propping up dictators throughout the 20th century (I'll get to Mugabe). Describing this was pointless: "Liam Neeson, David Bowie and Tom Jones are part of my country" he would insist - as if name-checking wealthy pensioner-aged white men somehow indicated a national identity.

                                         You must visit Victoria Falls. You must.

The thing about white people desperately hanging on to being 'British' is that very few of them, as I discovered, know much about the sheer insanity of what the term relates to. The fella in question, for example, was in favour of the war in Iraq but couldn't tell you a single thing about the post-World War 1 meddling in the country by the good old (go on, guess) British Empire, who paved the way for the clusterfuck that eventually led to the Ba'athist regime. And for those who voted against Scottish independence... well, congratulations - your desire to put your fingers in your ears and cry 'nananananana' instead of weighing up exactly what "British" even means in this post-colonial era now makes your country a laughing stock across the world.

Believe me, I know, I travel, I get it firsthand...

In a country without a single museum dedicated to its Empire, Frankie Boyle has at least pointed out the absurdity of how Comic Relief presents African poverty. We all like a good cause but can someone offer some context to the often harrowing images? Too much to ask? Until someone does, clueless cretins - such as the fella I am referring to - will unashamedly think a democratic will to self-government is 'ugly nationalism' (damn those Kenyans! Fuck that lot in East Timor!) and associate that fictional 'British' identity with nothing more radical than Tom Jones shaking his arse to pensioners.

So it is, then, that the former Rhodesia, and in particular its capital of Harare (Salisbury until 1982), was high on my list of places to visit. Britain's last outpost in Africa. You owe it to yourself to go and visit. It should be a Mecca-like trip for everyone with a UK passport, actually, because oh how quickly we forget our presence in this continent. And the likes of Comic Relief are not exactly eager to remind anyone. Yet the paw-print of Empire is everywhere in the city of Harare. Even today.

                                          Harare, est. 1982


The current Zimbabwe was granted its independence from the UK in 1980 after the fabled Lancaster House Agreement and 15 years of government under an unrecognised UDI. The latter allowed a wily Robert Mugabe, who had fought a guerilla war with - in particular - the support of former Portuguese colony Mozambique, to bully his way into power. The 1980 elections were... bothersome to say the least. In fact, few at the time felt they were without violent intimidation. The result, celebrated even by a visiting Bob Marley, left behind a re-named capital city that, seen today, is an interesting mess. There might still be some who will defend Uncle Bob (or 'Comrade Bob' as the great Nelson Mandela referred to him). He was, after all, a freedom fighter, imprisoned and tortured by the illegitimate Ian Smith regime of Rhodesia - and he had also long rallied against the mass land ownership by the so-called white colonialists (an understandable anger which, sadly, resulted in economic collapse for the agriculturally rich country when the haphazard and hurried farm evictions took place in the late 1990s/ 2000s). But Mugabe's apologists are few and far between these days. Most telling about the last link is that the author resides in Britain. In the old colonialist city of London.

Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, which owns national paper The Herald (among others), is long out of ideas... still blaming stuff on the leftover whites (of which there are few), homosexuals, Western sanctions, Tony Blair - who reneged on The Lancaster House Agreement well aware that Mugabe was not redistributing farmland to anyone but his own corrupt army goons - and most recently Pastor Evan Mawarire... Evan was the man who, after causing a social media explosion, fled to America out of fear for this own life - and who can blame him? Add to this a cash shortage (after inflation went wild, Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar in 2009), a 90% unemployment rate, war veterans who are now teaming-up against the regime and numerous fixed elections and you have a huge mess that 92 year old Mugabe cannot possibly hope to crawl out of. To get into the country you now have a 'guilt tax' of $55 - and it is more for a double entry VISA (which almost everyone wants so they can cross to Botswana or Zambia). No guessing whose pockets your cash is going into.

But give Mugabe credit for avoiding the chop for this long. He is a smart man. Even at age 92 he is feted by other African states - largely for waging a war against Smith that many did not think he could win. He was, at his prime, a gifted orator. Well-read about history, he could have been - at the very least - a Kenneth Kuanda figure: right place, wrong approach, right exit. Zambia today has little (at least at governmental level) of the language of racism that Mugabe has attempted to provoke against the ex-Rhodesians and their kin. Just ask Guy Scott.

                                              Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Harare, Built 1927

Peter Godwin, who has written three books on Rhodesia/ Zimabwe (including the notorious 2008 elections, in which South African President Thabo Mbeki shamefully propped up corrupt ballot results to avoid a furthering refugee crisis in Pretoria) argues that Mugabe won't step down because he faces The Hague. But what is often not mentioned is that the now-notorious - but then-ignored - Matabeleland Massacre of 1983 - was carried out, in part, to protect the interests of the same white farmers Mugabe would eventually allow his Bush War vets to violently evict from their land (and in some cases kill). Discovering that lone, random dwellers - associated with Joshua Nkomo's rival ZAPU party - were trespassing, and instigating violence, on white farms was enough for Mugabe to use the 'armed resistance' excuse and go into Matabeleland with all guns blazing. At that point, with white ownership still totaling 48% of Zimbabwe proper, and the country boasting the second biggest economy in Africa, everyone - all across the world - wanted to believe in the man in charge. He got away with genocide - sending his North Korean-trained military to wipe out the Shona majority's historic enemies in Matabeleland. In 1984 he spoke at the Whitehouse with Ronald Reagan looking on. Britain continued to honour him too. He was Knighted in 1994 - just over a decade after 20,000 people were slaughtered and post-1987 elections had been rigged in his favour. Edinburgh University gave him an honourary degree that year as well. He even socialised with Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. Fuck, they even filmed Cry Freedom in Zimbabwe. A film opposed to oppression. Our own Dicky Attenborough. Was he also smitten by one of the worst living dictators?

                                          Harare countryside from atop the National Heroes Acre

All of this was in my head as our plane - an Air Zimbabwe flight (which despite popular reputation was on time, clean and offered a lovely in-air snack) - touched down into Harare. I had come from Victoria Falls where people were evidently desperate. A short taxi journey cost $10 - even with haggling - and people on the street would tail you for blocks, begging to sell you tat or asking for shampoo, spare notes or coins, clothes... anything that you could give. An entertainer at the hotel I was staying begged me to buy him lunch the next day (and I had already tipped him $20). I spoke to an old Rhodesian - a white lady who was out with her grandchild. "Don't you plan to leave?" I asked. "Where would I go? It's beautiful here" she replied. And she is correct. Victoria Falls - wrapped in a perpetual clingfilm as if being preserved from moving on from 1920 - and cleaner than you would ever have any right to expect - is gorgeous. Zimbabwe is gorgeous. In his books Godwin explains the colours and terrain that exist in his home nation and you have to see them for yourself to understand that words do not do this jaw-dropping country justice. The sky at night, the foliage, the wild animals, the smell and the sights, Victoria fucking Falls itself... outside of Vietnam I do not think I have ever seen such natural beauty.

                                         Zimbabwe at nightfall, over the mighty Zambezi River

And for all of Mugabe's anti-colonial gusto, the man who David Coltart claims still loves Cliff Richard records has kept Victoria Falls, and to some extent Harare, as colonial as it comes... from the old buildings to the pictures of Royal visits that adorn the top hotels. There is even an oversized painting of the Queen Mother in The Victoria Falls Hotel. It is all there... the scars of Rhodesia's past, highlighted but stripped of context.I overhear a lady ask if the pictures of old Rhodesia have 'something to do with the Boers'. Tourists coming and going - bungee jumping from the exact sight of the 1976 negotiations, unaware of the importance of where they are standing... that's the new Zimbabwe. Tourist cash is needed but museums are in short supply. For your cultural fix a trip to neighbouring Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) offers better education about the bad old days of white rule. Ian Smith, today, is someone the white water rafters who come to Victoria Falls in their tens of thousands will never hear about and never know existed.

Harare itself is, well, a dump.

The pomp of Salisbury past still lingers - you can see it in the old buildings and the decaying old railway station, which barely even functions anymore. "How many trains come here?" I ask someone at the station. "Maybe one or two... every few hours. In four hours maybe you will see a train." Nothing is happening in Harare now except the protests - but the Zimbabwe court, under Zanu-PF pressure, has declared them illegal. I go out for a walk on the Friday morning that a protest was scheduled to take place - starting in the African Unity Square - and riot police charge up to the area. It is about 10am sharp. People begin to flee. Just another indication of the power of the regime. Zimbabwe might well be becoming a police state. There is no action today. Just a (literal) car crash in the city centre. It attracts a lot of onlookers until the cops arrive and wave everyone on.

                                         The ghosts of Cecil Rhodes and his demented dreams

The train station in particular is a depressing sight. It looks like a rundown outlet that you might see in a small town in the UK. A Rhodesian Railways carriage sits stranded a few lines up. Rhodesia is a name you don't see anywhere but on the trains. Another, more modern locomotive doesn't move either. I am told it is broken and won't be repaired. It was only built in 1999. On the streets people look defeated. We are the only two white faces I see but no one even makes eye contact. Harare has a reputation for being one of the safest Southern African cities. I am told by the famous Meikles Hotel, itself a shadow of its former self (the nobs in the bathtub screw off at the slightest of touch), not to leave at sundown. "It is probably not safe for you out there". Certainly, there does not seem to be much street lighting. I know that if I was in the situation everyone outside is in I sure as fuck would want to mug me too.


                                          Railway station, Harare

I take a taxi to the top of the city - looking out over the view that I have become familiar with from book after book on Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe. Harare has not changed so much, I think, at least from a distance, since its Salisbury days. You can tell there is a beautiful old town in there somewhere. The dirty, cracked, broken pavements and roads need fixed. The litter needs lifted. Some buildings look ready to collapse. Civil servants need paid and employed - the refuge is in piles in some street corners. Maybe when Mugabe goes, when sanctions are gone, inward investment returns... maybe then Harare can return to fruition. I see two young female students at the top of the hill, reading their course books, talking about theory. "What are you studying?" I ask. "We are majoring in communications". Mugabe educated his people well. Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in all of Africa. He could have been one of the greats but yet here we are... a city that houses derelict buildings, pawn shops, rubble and garbage and people trying to flog old Zimbabwe dollars for US currency. "Look, you can be worth a trillion dollars" laugh the peddlers. I already have some. They will look good on my office wall.

Coke looks out everywhere in Harare. They are all over the billboards. Emirates as well. The dream of escape. I think about how cruel it is to tease a nation of jobless youngsters with a shitty life expectancy rate with the dream of foreign getaways. Zimbabweans are fleeing into South Africa. Many are taking up space in the already decrepit townships that are leftover from apartheid. You ask a waiter in Cape Town where they are from and there is a good chance they will say Zimbabwe. And everyone is so fucking nice. Maybe the years of the Bush War, or the memories that came with it and were passed down, have stopped a civil war. Maybe no one wants another Angola: a seemingly never-ending body count built around political leaders fighting for control and shooting a tonne of shit up in the process. Angola still hasn't recovered. Who knows if it will. The world doesn't remember. I would wager my 'British' pal couldn't find that county on the map.

Who will come to Zimbabwe's aid if armed fighting kicks off?

There is a saying in Zimbabwe that everyone has to have a back-up plan. Hardly anyone alive has known a leader other than Mugabe or Ian Smith. And the irony is that The Herald, on the day I arrive, is still banging on about Smith. Fuck man, he died in 2007. He stepped away from politics in 1987. Let the old racist rest. Who still blames Scotland's problems on Ted Heath? Blaming everything on Smith is surely Zanu-PF's continuous back-up plan. 'Don't look at us - the old dead guy is still at fault'.

                                  The entrance to Ian Smith's old farm. Now not a farm at all.

Then it is onto National Heroes Acre. As far as dictators go, Mugabe has been remarkably uninterested in building marquees or statues to himself. His face is on a total of one billboard in Harare. And aside from a solitary road sign, you would be forgiven for not even noticing him. True, one of the highest buildings in the city is the Zanu-PF headquarters, but with that aside, the old man does not linger at every twist and turn. Unlike Mao there are no grand paintings of him meeting foreign dignitaries or smiling as his people take to the farms, apparently in awe of his ability (re: stash of guns) that 'encourage' such diligence. Instead there is just his framed picture, peering out from hotels and tourist hubs ("it has to be there" someone tells me, with a frustrated groan), and also this ridiculous monument, constructed by Zimbabweans with the assistance of North Koreans, which looks straight out of Pyongyang. One of the 'oppressing' white people on the monument even has an Asian appearance. It is a mess. A ridiculous sign which indicates that, even upon taking office, Mugabe was fast losing his marbles. Standing in its gloriously daft shadow, all you can do is laugh. What can be said, after all, about someone who bemoans colonial influence but holds tight to that not-at-all-European Marxist ideology? Or who builds an expensive nod to the many Africans who perished to gain independence from Ian Smith but turns it into a symbol of Jouche ideology which, in itself, would never ever ever let a single black person reproduce with a local? Shit, North Korea is even more racially homogeneous than its neighbour to the South, which is no mean feat.

                         'White Rhodesians' beating up the locals. As imagined by North Korea.

Inside the small museum, there is some Zanu-PF propaganda about Smith. This time it is his government's use of chemical agents. No one doubts that the Rhodesian Bush War was horrible. An ugly, ugly, ugly conflict fought by a white supremacist government hell-bent at resisting black majority rule. Still, there is no chance Mugabe, who appears chiselled into the wall at Heroes Acre, is going to fess-up to any of the atrocities his Zanu-PF party was, and continues to be, responsible for - including the targeted deaths of civilians. The fact that Smith was so bad is what made Mugabe, at least initially, seem so good. The sad irony now is spelled out when I grab a taxi and my driver wants to know where I am from...

"Scotland" I say - albeit quickly clearing up I no longer live there. "Ah, Scotland... Livingstone... first white man in these parts..." It is not uncommon. In (former protectorate) Botawana and Zambia the drivers are quick to tell you that Britain was once here. One gentleman rattles off all the British Prime Ministers to me. He wants to know my opinions. "Horrible" I reply to everyone that comes after Harold Wilson. Everyone is shocked if you know about British colonialism. I am told that few of the tourists are even aware.

                             Atop Heroes Acre is the flagpole where the Union Jack was taken down in 1980

I ask the driver about Ian Smith. Why is he still such a live topic here? In the newspapers? Among the Zanu-PF rulers? "Ah... Ian Smith. Well here is the thing... Ian Smith was not so bad," he says. "Really?" I ask. "Well, he was a racist and everything, but... you know... things are worse now. At least the British built our roads and our infrastructure."

Shit man.

That's the state of affairs right now. And as you leave the beauty of Zimbabwe it is all you can think about. Could history have been different and can the future recover from the past 36 years? A white racist dictator in Ian Smith leading to a promising, but ultimately just as bad - and now worse - dictator in Mugabe.

One thing is for sure, the chap - my old friend - who believed British was all about ageing celebrities, would probably still be in shock to find out that the UK once had this place, all within living memory. It really is not long ago. And as long as that ignorance is true of most Brits, Mugabe and his successors can continue to draw upon the fact that their one-time oppressors - who just voted for Brexit no less to 'take our country back' - are just as ignorant about themselves, and their identity ("you keep your Great Britain and I will keep my Zimbabwe" he once intoned) as he is about running an economy or respecting basic human rights.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe continues to be a place that will inspire and enlighten. Beautiful people, a beautiful country, but a tragic situation.

                                          Uncle Bob: the only monument you'll find