Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Andrew! Leo Die!

The Thai newspapers are often filled with images of utter horror, of accidents, murders and bombings... in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka and sometimes much closer to home.

How can people go on with their lives after something like that? I cannot begin to imagine the horror of it all.

Everything is changeable but so far my life has been peaceful and my tragedies have been small. Even so, the story that follows happened many months ago and I have not been able to tell it until now. As I write I feel a tightness in my throat and am reluctant to relive it.

One day I was sitting at my laptop upstairs in our house out in the rice fields when I heard my wife, Cat walking round the side of the house. With no warning she called up to me.

‘Andrew! Leo die!’

My favourite dog is Pepsi and some time earlier she’d presented us with five adorable puppies. Cat wanted to keep one and Leo, a little bundle of trouble then became part of our lives. He was white with comic blobs of black, mischievous and bouncy and a total charmer. When tired, he’d retreat to his basket on the verandah and watch all the goings on, his cute little head poking over the side.

I marvel at the pure magic of a very ordinary dog. He was utter joy. Few things on this earth have such innocence, such appeal as a puppy. I marveled at his intelligence, his zest, his sense of fun.

In so many ways he was just like us, sharing the same experiences of hunger and fear, the same need for warmth, contact, companionship and affection. He was not a lesser being, only different, unaware of being on a mortal conveyer belt that can abruptly reach its end at any time.

‘Andrew! Leo die!’

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He couldn’t have died. He’s too young, too healthy, too much a part of us.

I rush out to the verandah and look down and there’s Cat cradling Leo in her arms. He's so still he must be sleeping.

I run downstairs and take him from her. He’s warm and soft, exactly as he always is… my puppy. But he’s limp and floppy, totally lifeless. He’s unmarked and beautiful and desperately I will him to wake up. But he never can be Leo again.

‘Big ice truck in the road,’ says Cat. ‘Go too fast.’

Why, why did he have to go so far from the house.

Only an hour ago I’d been out to shut the gate but they just don’t care. They always leave it open. If only he could have survived a few more months, he might have learned a little road sense and survived much longer.

We let Pepsi see him and she sniffs around him in alarm. It seems as if she understands. She seems sad.

Cat says we’ll bury him down the garden and goes to get the hoe. I help her dig the hole and then I take him in my arms and carry him to it. Nan and little Ping are with us and Ping is crying bitterly.

I have my dark glasses on so they can’t see my eyes but as I bend down to lower him into the hole, the tears fall into the lenses and I can hardly see a thing. Even months later I can’t get through writing this either.

Cat chants something in Thai over the little body. I know she’s distressed but she’s composed as Thais always are. And then finally we shovel in the soil and make a little mound over him. Cat has made a little cross… he must be a Christian dog, and she strews flowers over him.

For the next few days I cannot go anywhere near but Pepsi is always there, lying quietly beside the grave. I feared she’d dig him up, but no, she just seems to want to be close by. She really seems to be grieving.

Once while I was living in an African village, I heard the screams when early in the morning they woke to find their baby stone cold beside them. How intolerable that must have been. It’s always struck me that a little of my paracetamol could have saved the child, or simple oral rehydration perhaps. Death is sometimes avoidable and far too often we invite him in.

The lives of my parents were cruelly disrupted by two global wars but in comparison I have lived in peaceful times. The world has become a better place and is more stable than at any time for centuries, even while our powers of destruction increase. Paradoxically we think it’s getting worse because the media alerts us to all the horrors.

Today’s apparent conflict, a so-called ‘war’ is fought, not on the battle field, but is played out primarily in the media. Terror is a state of mind and not a state of war. It’s only becomes such if we call it a war and want to make it one.

After the twin towers atrocity the West was running scared. It was a big media event with great images and our leaders did everything they could to play on our fears, to promote the bogey men and to give them the oxygen of publicity. They told us that this small cell of deviants, a tiny cancer, was a malignant and fatal tumour that could end our very civilisation. How very foolish that was. How dangerous was their aggressive rhetoric, a desire for revenge that nourished and aggrandized the cancer.

And how foolish it was to unleash the dogs of war. Wars are rarely just and they provoke atrocities on all sides… in the heat of conflict men are not restrained by rules. Be it communism or terrorism, have we not had enough lessons in the last fifty years that you cannot drop bombs on an abstraction? You cannot assert your principles however valid they are, nor do you make friends by sowing death and destruction.

I find it hard now to grasp the sheer horror that has been unleashed in the name of freedom and democracy, but I do know that gratuitous violence solves nothing.

I’m angry too at the ineptitude of our leaders and the suffering they’ve caused, and I’m still upset about my puppy.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Amazing Thailand! Who F****d Who?

It's a tough world out there.

In my forthcoming book, “MY THAI GIRL AND I”, (which you can read about if you scroll down a blog or two), I repeat the cliché that Thailand is often a land of stark contrasts and contradictions.

The book is the happy story of my Thai wife and I setting up home together in her village, but it’s also a vehicle for my own wide-ranging thoughts and observations about Thailand.

I make many wild generalizations in it on which I constantly contradict myself by then describing incidents that suggest the opposite is the truth. I say for example that I like living in Thailand because it’s a country of gentle manners in which people are honest and non-violent, yet commercial disputes are increasingly settled with a shot in the head from the pillion seat of a Honda Dream.

From time to time as I read the Bangkok newspapers I come across a news item which again suggests that despite my good experience here, people can sometimes be venal and dishonest in the extreme. A bizarre and grotesque instance concerns a recent scam for the theft and disposal of cars on an almost industrial scale. A particularly chilling element is that the police are alleged to be involved.

It seems that the scam works like this. The fraudsters set up sham car hire firms and induce private individuals to buy new cars for them. The firm then hires out the cars and the excess of the generous rental to be returned to the owner over their financing cost promises them a tidy profit. That of course is the theory!

The reality is that the rentals do flow in nicely for a few months but then stop abruptly. When the owners then try to recover their vehicles, all of them have vanished, probably fenced across the border into Laos.

The scandal blew up in the press when ‘a victim going to file a complaint was stunned to see his missing van parked at police headquarters in Bangkok last Tuesday.’ (Bangkok Post, 18 February 2008.)

It’s not clear from the reports what the alleged role of the police in the scam was but apparently there was no innocent explanation for the van being there.

The report talks of about 1,000 vehicles having been stolen and that upwards of 300 complainants have been camped outside one of the police stations demanding action.

Perhaps most bizarre is the profile of two victims who got themselves caught up in the scam. One man and his relatives bought sixteen new cars, borrowing from a loan shark at ten percent per month. That’s 120% per annum! A mother of two aged 34 bought six new cars, again borrowing at ten percent per month.

And the name of the car hire company to which she entrusted her cars? It was Yufuku Co.

Yes, indeed, and therein could lie an element of the truth!

Frauds like this one always involve extravagant promises of unsustainable profits that clearly are too good to be true and the victims, blinded by their own greed and stupidity are often the authors of their own misfortune. In this particular case they’ve been comprehensively screwed by everyone, including the men in tight uniforms.

Ironically Thai Buddhism holds that freedom from suffering can only be achieved by extinguishing all worldly desires. Furthermore, the related philosophy of ‘the sufficiency economy’ by which both individuals and the nation state should accept that enough is enough has recently been actively promoted at the highest levels. Yet in stark contrast it’s a tough world out there and the growing urge to militant materialism means that people here will recklessly ruin their own lives for the chance of a fast buck.

Amazing Thailand. It’s The Land of Scams!

Though let’s face it, it’s the same the whole world over and, if you don’t watch your back like a hawk, the shit often hits the fan big time.

Who Flung Dung? In this case it was everyone it seems!

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Ja, ich bin ein Buffel!

Tomorrow I’m off to Bangkok to start the design work on my new book, MY THAI GIRL AND I which is very exciting. (Scan down a blog or three to read the debate about the book.)

From our village in the north east of Thailand by bus it’ll be nine hours door to door before I reach The Atlanta, my favourite hotel in Sukhumvit. It’s a civilised though eccentric place that specifically claims to be a haven for writers with a big sign outside saying, ‘Sex Tourists Not Welcome’ and a smaller one on the desk saying, ‘Complaints Not Allowed – Not at the Prices We Charge!’. I love it!

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the discussion about the book on this blog, all in response to Jerry the Farang’s comment that it comes across as a constant grumble about the problems of living in Thailand. Feedback is the breath of life for me as an author though and it’s especially valuable when the book has not yet gone to press. This is my last chance to tweak and refine it.

I very much like your quote from Kipling, Niel, which appears in your Comment below. Strangely I too quote Kipling twice in the book as I feel he often has so much to say. He’s a major figure who, apart from Disney, is right out of fashion, and I’m sure he’s due for a reappraisal. In England last year I saw a set of his complete works for sale at an antiquarian bookshop and it was outside on the pavement in the bin for penny giveaways.

Going back to Jerry, I fully understood the point he was making and while he'd had the whole book to read, I could not of course post the whole book on my blog. I thus posted a particular chapter I was most bothered about. It was then reassuring that most of you said it should be included but even so, I think I should delete it.

Ultimately some readers of the book will accept my grumbles as an honest description of how things happened to me, some will see that I’m trying to make a joke of my own ineptitude while others will just think I’m what Americans call an ‘ass hole’! That’s the peril of being so forward as to write a book about myself!

I much like Jerry’s quote from the travel writer, Pico Iyer pointing out that the distinction between a tourist and a traveller lies between those who leave their assumptions at home and those who don’t. The tourist constantly grumbles that nothing here is the way it is at home. I really hope that after twenty years in tropical countries I don't do that!

Iyer went to Harvard as I remember, but he was also educated at Eton and Oxford so he should suffer no irony defecit. In fact he sometimes strains too hard to amuse with a heavy dose of paradox and the epigram ironical. Curiously my comment in my new book, that striving too hard to be funny can distort what one is trying to say was directly aimed at him.

Nonetheless the point about leaving one’s assumptions behind is an interesting one and I’ve been thinking about it, asking myself if I’m a mere tourist. When in the book I grumble that I have no food to eat, find sleeping on hard boards with no pillow a little difficult, regret being totally out of touch with my kids in England and have no idea if and when World War Three has begun, an I being ‘assumptionally retentive’?

My conclusion is that you cannot leave your cultural assumptions and conditioning entirely behind you. What is important is to be fully aware what your assumptions are, to recognise when local assumptions are different and not to judge other people by your own assumptions.

One cultural assumption I have and cannot rid myself of is how one defines ‘dirt’. I remember the farmhouse of some Breton friends in France. If you swept the kitchen floor you’d collect at least a bucket full of dirt, walked in from the muddy farm yard. I would not though call them dirty people though; rural standards are simply different. In an urban society we spend an excessive amount of time obsessively cleaning and even here in Thailand I still feel the need to keep my house clean. I do not though condemn my neighbours in the village as dirty because they live on earth floors.

I suggested to Jerry that he had not realised that some of my grumbles in the book where intended to be ironic, by which I mean funny. His response was that I should say just exactly what I mean rather than the opposite; perhaps like Pico Iyer I've been guilty of distorting my comments by trying too hard to be funny.

When I referred to some of my stuff as being ironic what I really meant was, to use an Americanism, that I was just ‘taking the piss’. While the book should not be a white wash, at least I could try to describe my bad moments in a way that was humorous.

I also wondered if, dare I say it, there are some Americans who tend to suffer an irony deficit.

Nonetheless, some of my best friends are American. There’s Jerry of course and Terry, and Bill and Bill, and Don and Don and Don. They’re a self-selecting group of course and most of them certainly DO irony.

One of them doesn’t though and his Thai wife has just dumped him because he talks too much. He never knows when I’m taking the piss and he sees everything through the prism of his American upbringing. He has brought all his assumptions with him to Asia and is supremely confident that they are the only way to see the ‘outside’ world.

Jerry on the other hand is a great and witty writer, an old hand with sensitive antennae for every nuance. At first I was worried that he said I came across in my book as a tourist but then I’m pretty sure he was only being ironic!

One last thing. Trawling around the site meter on my blog I came across a remarkable thing. My blog was there on the screen but it was in German. Can anyone tell me how this can be?

Who translated it? Was it a German? And what’s the reputation of Germans for humour and irony? Would it be a good translation?

Or could it have been done automatically by a machine?

How would a German translating machine cope with all my irony, I wonder. Then of course it’s as likely it’s all down to Microsoft, so it must be American.

Oh well, you can’t win them all!

Bangkok tomorrow and soon the book will be in the book shops. Then I’ll really find out what people thing of me.