Thursday, 31 July 2008
Getting home after a few months away is often disorientating, especially when the season has changed from dry to rainy. Thailand is so very different when in drought or flood. Now as I gaze out from my upstairs balcony the colours are bright, dominated by greens and the sky is patterned with towering thunder clouds that from time to time show us the power of nature with a torrential downpour.
The house has also changed because it hasn’t been left empty while I’ve been away. Cat and the family have been here all the time and so everything has been moved round. The buffalo cart has been put outside on the verandah, there are some new cupboards and all the furniture seems to be in a different place.
I always spend my first few days looking for everything I want that’s utterly and hopelessly lost. I’m pacing around distractedly wondering if my rubber boots have been shoved away somewhere or if it’s my grey matter that’s at fault. Stepping from one world to another when I fly to England, the details of what I leave behind are too easily deleted from my ageing floppy disc and I now feel an idiot hunting round the place like a total stranger.
The house has developed a bit since I went away but the ‘garden’ has changed out of all recognition.
In MY THAI GIRL AND I there’s a chapter called, “Is It a Farm or a Garden?” where I moan about the different attitudes to this piece of land we all live on. As it's primarily a book about the vast cultural differences between me as an urban Western male and my rural Asian wife, what exactly we do with our ‘garden’ is one of the many unavoidable stress points. Cat thinks of it primarily as a farm and I as a garden.
As I survey it four years on, it seems we have now found a good compromise. I enjoy that middle class frippery, a lawn mower, and Cat has loads of fruit trees and as big a vegetable plot as she could ever want to cultivate.
Whenever I get back home after some time away the grass is usually longer than I’d want because the mower has been belted to destruction and is in lying in the garage in bits. This time two of the three bolts holding the Briggs and Stratton engine to the chassis have fallen off and the engine is threatening to detach itself and fly off like a helicopter. A screw holding the tiny petrol tank has also dropped off and, unsupported, the tank has split and there’s petrol flying everywhere.
So a few days ago I did a run into Surin in the pickup and take it to a rare place that plays with mowers. I ask for the usual service and carefully point out in Thai and sign language that it needs an oil change, the filter and plug cleaning and the blade sharpening.
When I return for a third.time they say the mower is ready at last. It’s lying on its side in the gutter, the old black oil running out all over the engine and chassis, Yes, they have fitted two new bolts and changed the oil but they’ve forgotten all the other things. It’s still the Land of Smiles though and I smile grimly as I stand over the boy and watch him finish the job.
Home again I exult in mowing my patch. It’s a stressful time when the grass is long and growing wild and I can’t get to cut it but now I’m happy again as I can control my environment in this one small way.
I’m streaming with sweat as I roar round in flimsy flip flops (I never did find my boots), mowing manically and cursing when the machine stalls in the long grass. They all think me quite mad. It’d be much more useful to let the grass grow and cut it for the buffaloes, but it’s my garden and I think it now looks wonderful. It really is a garden but with concessions to being a farm and so after five years Cat and I are still together.
In the book I mentioned how sad I was when Cat had half the back garden ploughed with ridges for planting instead of designing something a bit more suburban. In the black and white picture that went in the book it does look pretty bleak.
But that was four years ago and now with all Cat’s hard work, it’s been transformed into something very green and pleasant. From upstairs I look down on the vegetable patch she has just redug and planted with seeds for vegetables. Around it there’s a blue net to keep out the hordes of chickens that have been multiplying while I’ve been away. Admiring all this, I keep quiet and don’t mention that our chickens are pretty good at flying… my life wouldn’t be worth living if I did.
So now after nearly two weeks back here a nine hour journey from Bangkok, I think I’ve found all my stuff except the boots and it’s become my place once more. I can’t exactly say I’m acclimatized though, because it’s very hot at the moment, even for Isaan. The rains haven’t been too good either and much of the rice is standing in dry fields but that’s another story and a much more serious one than my garden.
Monday, 28 July 2008
"Do not turn on men at work" is a never-before-seen verbal banana skin from a secure establishment within the UK. You are the first ever to see it beyond those confines.
The other two are borrowed with thanks from the ocean of laughs that is the internet. Many of these jokes admittedly are a bit bland but then I'm easily led.
Strangely I made a similar joke to the last one in my book. At page 110 of MY THAIGIRL AND I when in London and desperate for the loo upstairs in a department store I'm defeated by a sign saying, 'Dogs must be carried on the escalator',
I encounter another one.
'Customers may use the toilets on the top floor. In the event of emergency please use the stairs'.
Language is such a joy!
PS I managed to post these pics because they are tiny. A mere killer bite or two.
One of the themes of my new book, "MY THAI GIRL AND I' is the cultural isolation of living in a small rice growing village with my wfe Cat, a good nine hours' journey door to door from Bangkok.
In one of the chapters I bemoan the trauma of setting up my main lifelines, namely a satellite internet connection at home and ordering a daily copy of The Bangkok Post, the nearest copies of which are fifty miles away.
I've just got back to the village after some months in England and I'm again hit by the same problems. Cat ordered the newspaper two weeks ago and still they smile and look puzzled when I go into the shop. Maybe it come tomorrow, they say in Thai.
My TOT IPStar satellite internet is still clunking along but is now almost totally unable to attach images to Hotmail and I can't download pics to this blog either. I've tried smaller and smaller images and at last it's managed to swallow this tiny fish at 300 KB. Anything bigger it spits out, angrily displaying that dreaded white screen.
I am distraught as I've got a number of new blogs but I'm not going to post them without the pictures. So what am I to do? Go into a monastery? Become a cow-herd or take to alcohol? Perhaps in consequence I've done one of those already. It's enough to drive me to drink!
Of course there are good things about being here in the village though, and one of them is personally swallowing the three killer bite fish that Cat produced so casually and without apparent effort.
Yes, there are many good things but I need to feed my mind too. I need my newspaper and to be able to take photos and expatiate on line.
Oh Blogger! Who can help me?
It's a bit fishy but as I opened my Blogger account a screen came up saying, "Browser's cooking function is disabled. Please enable Java Script and cookies in order to use Blogger."
Cameras don't lie but computers do. My blog in fact opened despite the warning and I've got this far without enabling anything.
It's very fishy indeed!!
PS After posting this, I've just followed the Blogger Help advice and checked Internet Options... my privacy setting for allowing cookies is set at the correct level. So that can't be the problem.
As I can't attach images to Hotmail either, it must be that my internet connection is just too pathetically slow. In the past it's proved almost impossible to get any service from them and of course they insist that I continue to pay for a sub-standard service. TOT... TIT!
Thursday, 17 July 2008
Today I got back to the village and I felt as if some of the cares of the world had slipped from my shoulders.
It's a funny feeling getting back after three months away as everything now looks subtly different. When I left it was hot season, broiling and dry, the rice stubble in the fields brown and barren. Now it's rainy season, broiling and wet with the rice standing emerald green in the flooded fields.
All the trees in the garden seemed to have doubled in size and the natural world everywhere is rampant. The grass and the weeds are in control and even the little boys who run everywhere in the soi seem to have grown much bigger. The soi, our gravel side street off the big road, has just been sealed with concrete and Cat has been busy as usual, so in truth much has changed.
Cat has built a big new kitchen on the new wooden house for Mama... she did all the blockwork herself. And Mangorn, her brother has built a shop across the soi on sister, Dream's building plot for Yut and Ben. Yut is sister number two who with husband Ben and baby Bess had been living a miserable life near Bangkok eking out a living on plastics factory wages. It's far better for them to be poor back home with family around and it seems we have set them up with a shop which will, I hope provide them with a basic living.
Ben goes into the market early and his grilled chicken sells out every day. There's shampoo and soap and sardines and the few essentials found in every tiny Third World shop and though the new shack's a bit of an eyesore, it's a very sociable place. I sat out the front with Cat this afternoon feeling bleary as the world wandered by asking me when I'd got back to the centre of the world. My Thai deserted me on the first time of asking but I got plenty of practice answering the same question many times over as neighbours wandered in.
I mustn't complain that the shack looks ugly opposite our gate as it's now a lifeline for a family of four, nor that Cat has cut down the trees I begged her to keep. One gave space for the new kitchen and another, a tall coconut palm was, she said, too tall and dangerous.
And she's put my precious buffalo cart out on the verandah where I fear it will disintegrate. But this sensibly enough was to make room for her new computer desk inside (she's just started a two year course in computer graphics), so I'd better go with the flow once more and avoid confrontation, especially as today I'm a bear with a sore head.
I'm worn and bleary just at the moment because I'm dead on my feet. All of life's worries focus on a trip to UK and I had my fill this time, which takes its toll. While saying goodbye is truly awful, I've managed to survive it, though I'm now much in need of some rural therapy.
The trip gave me little chance for much indulgence but the big one came almost on the last day at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. On Friday I went to this, the greatest ever blowout for petrol-heads in the known universe. All of motor sport from inception to Stirling Moss and Lewis Hamilton was there, noisy, strident and intoxicating, its flagrant un-greenness made manifold.
Saturday was saying goodbye to Anna and Will with a gentle amble round the Regency gardens of Polesden Lacey, a National Trust house near Dorking, followed by tea and chocolate cake. Nothing could have been so very English. Then Sunday was Heathrow and a packed jumbo jet.
I don't know why people make such a fuss about longhaul flights like this one... it's not as if you have to pedal or anything like that. Never is there such an opportunity to be so inert, to recline with a movie and have red wine poured down your throat and to make no effort whatsoever.
Far tougher is taking a van from the centre of Bangkok back to a village in the North East of Thailand.
On landing I spent a couple of nights in the retro-calm of The Atlanta Hotel in Sukhumvit, catching up with Le Phoque who told me everything about all the cars I'd seen at the Festival of Speed, also bumping into Scottie, a delightful American I'd met there all of nine years earlier.
And of course I renewed my acquaintance with the City Of Angels itself. After only three months away I was shocked by Bangkok once more and its concrete bleakness... though how it glows with flashes of colour and with the crowded and vibrant energy of its peoples.
I had a meal out with Anthony and Ting at one of those amazing open air eating places On Petburi Road, served with the best-value food in the world by attentive waitresses, all of them I suspect banned from the Miss Universe contest as letting them participate would be unfair on other contestants.
And then I squeezed into the van to travel upcountry to the village. That was yesterday while today is Awk Pansaa, the first day of the Buddist Lent.
Facing a four day public holiday, literally millions would be heading for the North Eastern bus terminus hoping to spend a few days with their families. To avoid doing battle at Moh Chit carrying all my baggage and trying to find a seat, Ting had kindly booked me onto a van that was to pick me up from their flat soon after our al fresco banquet.
As we waited upstairs for the van the thunder rumbled in the darkness and the heavens opened. Once squeezed into the van it was then a long penance in endless traffic jams picking up the passengers through every tight back street of Bangkok. This took more than two hours and after navigating through floods where a boat would have been more suitable, we then began the long journey out of Bangkok.
The van journey, also overnight, was only an hour shorter than my flight from London to Bangkok and much less comfortable, though it got me efficiently and cheaply from door to door so who am I to complain.
Now it's night time and, contemplating the novelty of sleep, I'm here upstairs at my computer as Cat's gone into Sangkha to a wedding celebration that I really couldn't face.
I'm risking the quality of my prose with a bottle of Singha which is pleasantly nutty and all of this introspection leaves me wondering what I'm going to do with myself out here in the far rice fields of Surin as time spreads out before me.
Home is where you make it and there's loads of jobs in the house and garden but one of the first things I want to do is to go over and see Peter and Laylai, my nearest farang neighbours who are only an hour or so away. Phusing Pete is always good for a Sang Som and Coke and I'm sure we'll soon have the chance to sit and expatiate our fill on his verandah overlooking the spreading countryside behind his house.
It's a pleasant view dominated by a group of tall trees that I've grown to love. While my reaction is to write about them, Peter's, being an artist, is to paint them in oils.
Retirement for Peter means painting, to have the time and opportunity to lose himself in it each and every day. It really is art for Pete's sake.
The trouble is that although he has a big house he's quickly running out of walls to hang the pictures and he's thinking of doing an exhibition and selling some of them. As non-conceptual art, I'd love to have one for myself, I must admit.
They won't be as expensive as Tracy Emin's unmade bed and I think that someone will get good value and be very lucky to have a late Tucker landscape on their wall!
Sunday, 13 July 2008
Modern art can make you puke... Trafalgar no longer Square
Old car as art?
New car as art
I have to confess that though my recent stories imply I’m writing all this from Thailand, I am in fact thousands of miles away in Petersfield, a small market town in Hampshire in the South of England.
It’s really quite rural around Petersfield but it’s not like Thailand at all. There’s lots of houses but very few people, or so it seems. All they actually do here is to sleep. Every day they disperse in their big cars and on trains, intent on earning the money to finance their big houses and cars.
Quiet though it is, for me it’s always busy, even stressful coming to England as all of the life tasks I escape by being in Thailand become focused on this brief period of time. Every small process, whether tax return, car tax, insurance or banking has become so immeasurably complex that something always gets messed up. I call the enquiry number to resolve it and the recorded message gives me twenty five successive options to choose from before telling me the ‘customer service operator is busy’. Oh to be in Thailand!
A few weeks back I escaped up to London for the day on the invitation of my niece, Ponny. Arriving at Waterloo by train, I trod an urban landscape as dreadful as the worst of Bangkok before reaching the Thames and The London Eye. Turning right down the river I then did a rapid canter round Tate Modern, that most dramatic and popular of modern art galleries.
A little breathless, I crossed the river and sat awhile in a crowded St Paul’s cathedral before walking to Trafalgar Square where I ‘did’ the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. I then walked some more and did much of the British Museum before catching a bus to Islington for dinner with Ponny.
I was physically and artistically knackered but as Ponny is currently doing a masters degree in Fine Arts and having the company of two articulate young men, one of them a fellow art student, what did we talk about but art.
Our dialogue and my visit to Tate Modern once again challenged me to consider the nature and meaning of ‘art’. Was the pile of building materials in the corner of the room at Tate Modern a work of art or were they just doing structural repairs? And why unlike all other London galleries does Tate Modern have no definite article?
Yes, Tate Modern is an amazing art gallery, especially for the vast, obsolete power station that houses it and also because it’s excellent value for money. It has a huge number of visitors because admission is free and perhaps also because much of the collection is more than a little controversial.
Is a huge red canvas with a vertical red stripe down the side hanging in a vast empty room really art? Is ‘the welded heap of scrap metal recently unveiled which resembles nothing so much as the rusting chassis of a delivery van’ (The Times, Opinion, 13 June 2008) worthy of display?
Perhaps it is worth a look because it cost them Four Million Pounds and because it’s ‘one of the greatest sculptures of the twentieth century’, or so says Tate Modern’s director whose name, if I remember, is Sir Nicholas Sclerota.
But hold on a moment! I really think I do know what ‘art’ is.
Art’s old pictures in gold frames and marble statues with their clothes falling off. If you can walk round it, it’s a sculpture. If you have to stand in front of it, it’s a picture, though there my definition ends.
The trouble is that modern art has no clear confines, is not a definite article.
Then of course there’s the visual arts, the decorative arts and most problematic of all conceptual art. I’m not sure what this is exactly but if your gallery wants attention, try a dollop of conceptual art. There’s nothing like a silly stunt to attract media coverage. It challenges people to ask, ‘Is this really art?’
In contrast Tate Britain has lots of old pictures in frames but this summer it unveiled ‘Work No 850’ to much critical attention. By Turner Prize winner, Martin Creed this new work of ‘art’ consists precisely as follows. “For the next four months, people will sprint as fast as they can through the gallery at 30 second intervals. Fifty amateurs are each being paid ten pounds and hour to dash through the Tate.’ So said The Times.
And I say, ‘Art for f…’s sake?!’
In Trafalgar Square in the centre of London the ‘fourth plinth’, unlike the other three has no statue on it. In recent years there has been an imaginative scheme to place art works on it for a limited period of time and the next exhibit is by a leading British artist. His work of ‘art’ is that members of the public will be invited for a brief moment one by one to come and stand on the plinth and do whatever they feel like doing.
So again I ask, is this art? Performance art, nonsense art or what?
Conceptual art should be about a concept, an idea, be it ever so small… about conception. Thus it seems appropriate that one of its leading proponents, Tracy Emin is best known for her unmade bed strewn with soiled underwear, stained sheets and a used condom and for her tent to which is pinned the names of those she has slept with she can still remember. Conception or contra-ception?
I wish like her that I could sell my unmade bed for 150,000 Pounds to Charles Saatchi and for it later to be valued at a cool Million Pounds, but perhaps that lifts the lid on all of this. Conceptual art is just a lucrative racket, a scam.
One of the leading racketeers so far has been Charles Saatchi, the well-known advertising mogul. Described as a collector, he is in reality a dealer, an opportunist with the midas touch. When he buys and promotes something, it turns to gold.
For a young artist his imprimatur ensures arrival into the world of art. Thus The Times recently reports that he has just bought almost the entire graduation shows of three London art students. The pictures are said to be ‘infant-like daubs of faces and figures. By any known yardstick for evaluating figurative painting they are atrocious’. But soon Saatchi will be selling them on as pricey works of art.
Damian Hirst, his dead sheep and shark dissected and pickled in a glass tank are intriguing but again, are they really art? Not that it matters much anyway.
The 2008 Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy is currently featuring a number of exhibits selected by none other than Tracy Emin. These exhibits include ‘an automaton depicting a zebra having sex with a woman and a video of a woman dancing in a hula-hoop of barbed wire that cuts and draws blood from her body’.
What’s more Emin has recently been elected as a member of the Academy. To become an RA is the ultimate accolade of recognition for the serious artist.
Beds and tents! It’s inconceivable! Enough said!
Once upon a time all art was religious and had one single purpose. When art became secularised the artist was still required to master precise technical skills and to paint pictures strictly according to established forms. The romantic movement later enabled artists to break free of these strictures and the watchword became individuality, novelty and creativity.
There followed a ferment of ideas and Turner’s broad brush evocations of rain, wind and speed and the works of the French Impressionists were condemned as mere daubs before their brilliance was finally recognized.
Expensive ‘daubs’ some of them have since become though… one of Monet’s many paintings of lilies has just sold at auction in London for almost twice its estimate at Forty Million Pounds.
Where does such money come from in times such as these? Is ‘credit crunch’ a breakfast cereal? Has the world gone totally mad?
It may be silly therefore to ponder ‘what is art’ for ‘art’ is just a three letter word as the precise classification of unmade beds, scrap iron and people running round galleries is not so very important. These things are certainly not artistic and they primarily represent the continued swing away from the rigid confines of art that existed before the romantics cut the traces a few centuries ago and released an unruly horse.
What does matter today though is if students emerge from the colleges with a degree in ‘Art’ unable to draw or paint and without any basic skills. What also matters is if the new ‘art’ takes all the money and prestiege and strangles the old forms to death.
‘Conceptual art’, peep shows, wax works, circuses are all entertaining and have their place, especially if they provoke thought but conceptual art is dangerous if critics take it too seriously and equate it with traditional art forms. It is simply different and so needs a new name.
For conceptual art is not ‘art’ at all. It is what I think in future we should call ‘conceptual subvart’. If you did not already know or suspect, subvart it is a sub-variety of art, a lesser species that subverts art properly so called.
I remember enjoying the ‘Sensations’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 which was perhaps the first major showcase for conceptual art. It was memorable, entertaining and to a small degree thought-provoking but it was definitely subvart. It and its likes should not be allowed to become a flesh eating monster or to devour the rest of the world of art.
One of my great regrets in life is that I did not clip and keep the small advertisement that escaped the eye when promoting an event at ‘The Royal Society of Rats’. Typos are one of life’s great banana skins and that was a good one. ‘Conceptual rats’ would be an even better one.
My recent marathon around London’s galleries left me exhausted but I’d now be a mouse if I did not reiterate that subvart is primarily an audacious and lucrative joke. It’s time it was unmasked and renamed and to be enjoyed for what it is, a frivolous distraction from greater things.
In an age where everything is highly regulated to protect the vulnerable and the credulous consumer, conceptual subvart should carry a mental health warning. It should definitely not be given an artistic license.
Thursday, 3 July 2008
I am so sorry that Preah Vihear, the Cambodian temple on the Thai border has once again become a political football, souring relations between the two countries.
Called Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, it is just two hours from where we live and I keep on going back as for me it is truly a magical place. I’ve been there ten times in the last few years and I want to go another ten.
Though the Khmer temples at Angkor are far grander in scale, the natural setting of Khao Phra Viharn is beyond compare. It sits at the top of a cliff and as you stand there looking down at hundreds of miles of Cambodian plain and mountain spread before you, at your back a thousand year old symphony in stone, this must be one of the most remarkable places in the world.
The temple often acts as a lightning rod for tensions between Thailand and Cambodia as it is the Cambodian and not the Thai flag that flies over it. In 1962 the International Court of Justice decided a border dispute referred to it by Cambodia, ruling that the temple was within Cambodia and that the Thais must withdraw their troops. The Thais were outraged and have never forgotten this slight from the minnow to the east.
Now managed by the Cambodians in a pleasant state of sleepy under-development, little girls and old ladies wander through the ruins beseechingly selling postcards and cold drinks and whenever there are tensions between the two countries, the Cambodians assert their authority and close the temple to visitors. Whether the pretext is pollution flowing into Thailand from the stream below the temple or a Thai helicopter allegedly overflying Cambodian airspace, it always spells doom for the poor vendors who abruptly lose their livelihood.
The decision of the Court was that maps drawn up during the French colonial era and at least implicitly accepted by the Thais placed the temple in French Cambodia notwithstanding that geographically it is within Thailand. Standing on top of a gently rising escarpment and cut off from Cambodia by the cliff, it must always have been approached from the Thai plateau.
The usual presumption is that international borders follow the watershed. In this case the watershed is the cliff edge, which would put the temple within Thailand, but the Court concluded in this case that the treaty ruled otherwise. Unequal treaties by which colonial powers sought to extend their territory are nonetheless taken to be valid.
The latest saga is that Cambodia has now made an application to UNESCO for the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site and again the Thais are outraged. The new Thai government seems prepared to co-operate but the opposition Democrats have made it a major issue in domestic politics, attempting to bring down the government. Charging that a deal had been done to allow the Cambodian application proceed in return for a casino concession for Thaksin Shinawatra, the shadowy power behind the PM, the opposition has obtained a court injunction to stop the government supporting the application for listing and has stirred up extreme nationalist fervour against Cambodia.
The whole conflict is damaging for all sides. If the Thais could only accept the reality of Cambodian sovereignty over the temple and support an application for listing, there would be benefit for all, especially for the poor vendors in the temple.
The approach to the temple from the Thai side is scheduled as a National Park so the Thai authorities already collect entry fees equivalent to those charged by the Cambodians for the temple itself. As the access and the only population centres are on the Thai side, virtually all associated tourism primarily benefits the Thais. The Thai province of Si Saket is one of the poorest in the country and desperately needs its one significant tourist attraction to be promoted by harmonious progress towards a World Heritage listing.
The current dispute could now close the temple and sour relations between the two countries for years, thus doing considerable self-inflicted damage to Thailand.
The more intransigent the Thais prove to be, the more the Cambodians will try to develop the approaches to the temple from their own side. There is talk of foreign funding for a major road through the jungle, of building a cable car up the cliff and, perish the thought, of casinos in the vicinity.
When I first visited the temple seven years ago, the view from the top was totally untouched by humanity. Though the jungle has perhaps been stripped of the best timber, there was not a road or a man-made structure in view for a hundred miles in any direction. Now already there is a dirt road with trucks crawling along it like ants and small shanty towns at the intersections. I fear what the future will bring. The great charm of the temple and its surroundings is that it remains under-developed and innocent, but all that soon may change.
In recent times it has been the focus of violent conflict as it was one of the last strongholds held by the Khmer Rouge long after the fall of Pol Pot, the genocidal leader of Cambodia. Indeed one of their cannons still stands high on the hill facing back towards Thailand.
Now once again the atmosphere is laden with doom and it all seems so unnecessary. As I walk up the steep stone avenue towards the temple steadfastly refusing all offers of postcards, the little girls gaze hopefully at me. ‘Okay, mister. Not buy postcard now, but maybe later come back.’
Maybe I'll be able to but maybe not.
My heart usually melts for them or for the boy who in competent English tells me his life ambition is one day to go to school. My hand slips into my pocket for a few baht, always to be rewarded with a million dollar smile.
The temple and the simplicity of these people thus enriches me and all who go there, while the barrenness of racist nationalism and partisan politics that is now rearing its ugly head diminishes all of us. So harshly affecting this most beautiful of places, the petty behaviour of politicians could not be more grotesque.