March 27, 2009


No! No! No! Twitter ye not, as the late, great Frankie Howerd used to say! This is serious. Why do we blog? Is it a case of narcissism - gazing into that blogospheric pool and feeding on the reflection like literary crack? Or is it because we have something really, really important to communicate?

Perhaps the answer (if there is one) lies somewhere inbetween. We write because it takes us further. Because we mix memories with fantasies and weave them into something new. Because we sometimes feel profound, at other times shallow, thoughts and reproduce them afresh. Because we don't want to forget but rather collect. We write because it gives us pleasure. And, we hope others too.

As a jobbing blogger myself, I couldn’t possibly comment on the latter point. However, I can attest to the huge pleasure - and inspiration - derived from following the luminaries of the blogosphere. The stars of the stars, as it were.

Whom do I mean? Well, take a look stage right. All the links listed there give me - and countless others - huge pleasure. And continue to do so with each post. A roll call ranging from Iain Dale’s Diary, Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, Backwards in High Heels, Belgian Waffle, Mrs Trefusis, Wife in the North, Libertylondongirl, Life happens between Books, Letters into the Ether, Jacob Wrestling, So Lovely, Really Should Know Better, The Sartorialist, Whistling, Katyboo1 to Tom Watson MP.

And as the incomparable Frankie Howerd might have put it, "Ooh, blogging? What a carry on"!

FOOTNOTE: Far easier, of course, to list the reasons not to blog. More in next post!

March 26, 2009


I never met the late Natasha Richardson, nor her uncle Corin Redgrave.

But, in a strange way, I do feel I know him. For we had, many years ago in a different life (for me anyway), a relationship. And in case libel/divorce lawyers are watching, let me clarify: a telephonic relationship.

My first lecturing post involved sharing an office - and landline in that primeval pre-mobil era - with another lecturer who happened to chair the local cell oops, branch, of the lecturers’ union (it has since merged and changed names). J (I’ll be diplomatic - all those years of Perry Mason-style U.S. legal training kicking in again) was a blusteringly bolshie bully, extremely militant, always calling for strike action or work to rule. You may be wondering where Corin fits into this. Me, too, at the beginning when I took the first call. All that I was aware of was that he was an actor, albeit a highly politicised one.

Well, Corin used to used to phone J. often, very often. For what reasons, the rest of us could only guess at (the conversations themselves took place in hurried, whispered corners) but Corin’s own Trotskyite activism was no secret, especially his involvement with the Workers' Revolutionary Party in the Seventies along with his sister Vanessa (Natasha’s mother). So we naturally concluded that J, too, was also heavily involved in the WRP.

And as for Corin, as the most powerful member of the Trotskyite Workers Revolutionary Party within the actors union, Equity, he helped create political cells throughout the acting profession. Central to this was the nature of the WRP: it was less a conventional political movement than a fully-fledged cult, which monopolised the time, energy and financial resources of its members.

So what’s my take now - many years later - on that period when I was telephonic go-between-in-chief between Corin and J? What is my lasting impression of Corin? I have to admit I was surprised. When he first called and gave his name, I was expecting arrogance, stagey luvviedom, the whole prima donna/diva package (or should that be primo donno/ divus?).

But there was none of that. On the contrary, I always encountered infinite courtesy, infinite self-control and infinite patience. (Doubtlessly, to no little degree a result of his dealings with J.)

Finally, to bring the story up to date, I was pleased to read about his remarkable return from a heart attack to tread the boards last week at the Jermyn Street Theatre in Trumbo, about the Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted for his Communist allegiances.

In an interview, Corin said it wasn't so much Trumbo's Communist politics, as his maverick, non-conformist personality that most appealed. And in answer to the question wasn't he himself blacklisted for his Marxist tendencies?, he replied: "I never was, thank heavens, persecuted like Trumbo. I was deprived of work, possibly, but not to any extent that I would wish to make a history of. There was a period when I didn't work for the RSC – perhaps because they thought there would be political trouble."

I can’t help wondering if the "period" in question coincided with that when I was fielding the most calls and J. was at his most militant (and if so, what did they get up to?). A period so suddenly recalled last week by the simultaneous news of Natasha's tragic death and Corin's welcome return to the stage.

March 25, 2009


Well, what part of the trip left the greatest impression? Of course, Unesco-listed Angkor Wat couldn’t fail to impress even the most cynical of visitors and was "truly awesome" as American tourists would annoyingly keep repeating like some Buddhist mantra. Before, that is, rushing back to their luxury hotels for luxury massages and luxury meals - serious pampering to compensate for the serious sweating - their limbs oozing over the edge of their seats like ripe Camembert.

But it isn’t memories of one of the oldest and largest religious structures in the world I’ve taken away with me. Rather it’s images of beautiful young Cambodian women with horribly scarred faces and even more horribly mutilated, limbless bodies. Victims of landmines still prevalent in rural areas, they are a constant reminder of Cambodia’s past. A past from which the current government is so keen to escape.

You see this nod to the future everywhere in the large, modern hospitals solely for children (not to mention new schools). Such paediatric medical facilities would put the NHS to shame and wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Los Angeles where I lived for a number of years. The reason, Me explained, is that the authorities are looking to the future generation to lift Cambodia from third world status to first by means of tourism. To this end, as much emphasis is placed on health care as on education - with Maths- and English-teaching a priority. (UK authorities please note as employers - not to mention university admissions departments - regularly complain about the increasing number of illiterate, innumerate young applicants they deal with.)

But why so many paediatric hospitals, I wanted to know? Reluctantly Me admitted that, in addition to malaria, thousands of Cambodian children succumb every year to lethal dengue fever (like malaria, endemic throughout Cambodia) and it was to deal with this that the hospitals were built.

To safeguard the country’s future - and fortune. If only UK governments were so concerned.

3.9 million children in the UK live in "severe" poverty with a shorter life expectancy than their peers (Save The Children, 2009).
Forty-two per cent of pupils in 2008 finished 11 years of compulsory education without achieving at least a grade C in GCSE English ie they struggled to read and summarise information accurately or use basic grammar (Department for Children, Schools and Families).

Perhaps it's this Government, not schools, that should be placed in Special Measures. What's your take?

March 24, 2009


From Laos, we flew to Chiang Rai and thence drove to Chiang Mai. The last time we did this, some ten years ago, this was a relaxing drive through quiet villages and forests not too dissimilar to those of Northern Europe. As we approached Chiang Mai, though, the scenery rapidly changed. More and more built-up, more and more ugly. In fact, just like Chiang Mai itself - always doomed to be the ugly sister, the one who'll never have to worry about growing up to become a "City of Culture".

After a few days here of R & R , it was time to head back to Bangkok for our return flight home. P wanted to take back a souvenir but his case was already bulging so a carved teak screen or winged garuda was out of the question. So eventually after a great deal of huffing and puffing, he realized he’d have to make do with just a silk tie. My, what a self sacrifice!`And what a model of restraint to others in these recessionary times…

On the way to the cartel of silk shops, I noticed a huge queue of shoppers pouring into an equally huge supermarket. But not any old supermarket. Tesco, no less. For Tesco, like Carrefour and Macro - all successful on home turf - are equally well established in Thailand.

At the time, P was busy dodging the overflowing tuk-tuks (what we at home call driving). In fact, it’s not unusual to see tuk-tuks laden with sacks of rice, bags of fruit and vegetables and live chickens, their owners sitting tight on their bags. I’ve seen them carrying furniture, even coffins, and once a pig.(It did look dead though - or in an extremely deep sleep.)

P was so distracted by the frenetic street scene that I don’t know if he didn’t notice what I’d noticed. Or - more likely - pretended not to. For letting me anywhere near street markets or supermarkets abroad (even British ones) is like giving an alcoholic the keys to a distillery. In no time, I’m unsteady, and incomprehensibility is a casualty.

Anyway, the bottom line is we made a detour and, before you translate into Thai Every little…, I was in the grocery and fresh produce aisles. Grocery and fresh produce?, I hear you say. What on earth could I possibly find of interest there? Well, actually quite a lot, since you ask. For what I like to find out is how the local Tesco - or Carrefour or whatever - is responding to the "local demographic" as marketing folk pretentiously insist on calling the locals. Would there, for example, be the Thai fast food equivalents of Tesco’s Finest range? Finest green curry, Finest Tom Kha Kai? Finest Phad Thai? Or exactly the same products you could find in any largish Thai-owned supermarket?

The answer, as far as Chiang Mai’s Tesco is concerned, is a bit of both. Amongst the rows of ready-packed meats was ubiquitous chicken, in packs as familiar as in any Tesco from Southampton to Southport. And in the fresh produce area, heaped-up slices of durian. Not open, you understand, since durian smells of, amongst other repulsive odours, putrefying flesh and the urinal. But rather vacuum-packed. Same ‘Best before date’ and labelling. Still, not what you’d expect to add to your weekly shop in Tesco in Wimbledon.

One thing, however, this Tesco outpost shares with its UK cousins is its use of music, or more accurately muzak. Thai muzak to be more precise. Whatever they were amplifying, it drove me nuts. Far from lulling me into a comatose state of willingness to part with my hard-earned baht, I simply wanted to get the hell out of the place ASAP. Interestingly, I read somewhere that hip-hop was the most popular music used as a means of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And that some U.S. railway company is trying to drive homeless people out of its stations by subjecting them to classical music. Well, as far as muzak is concerned - whether it’s in a supermarket in Thailand or the UK - every little doesn’t help.

And no, P didn’t get a souvenir either. The silk shops were overflowing with ties with prices to match - far higher than those in the UK January sales. Doesn’t Tieland realize there’s a recession going on in the rest of the world?

And anyway, I couldn't be arsed to spend any longer in such swelteringly suffocating silk shops looking at tiresome ties...

March 22, 2009


So here we were in Luang Prabang. A UNESCO-listed French colonial-style former royal capital straddling the mighty Mekong surrounded by lush, green mountains. And what a difference from Siem Reap where noise and pollution hang over you like a dirty blanket as you ricochet your way among the ancient monuments.

What do I remember most about Luang Prabang? Was it the longtail boat trip upriver - into Heart of Darkness/ Apocalypse Now territory like some latter-day Colonel Walter E. Kurtz figure swanning up the Mekong? Was it the sight of rows of saffron-robed monks silently collecting alms every morning at 6 am? Or the magnificent royal palace, a host of sloping-roof temples, cobbled ancient lanes and alleyways?

You guessed right - it wasn’t any of those touristy things. It was food. But, I hear you cry, Laotian cuisine isn’t exactly world-renowned. When was the last time, after all, you went to a Laotian restaurant in London? But this wasn’t any old food. This was street food. But not the kind you can pick up in any of the food stalls lining the streets of Luang Prabang.

This was street food from a bug cart.

P reminded me of our joint new year’s resolution to eat more adventurously. And we now had just the opportunity as soon as we heard about a wizened old transsexual selling a selection of delicious snacks from a cart. Crickets of various sizes, large, black deep-fried scorpions, giant cockroaches, meal worms and large water bugs.

But the timing never seemed right. The carts seem to appear at odd hours before vanishing into the night so, after a few days of disappointment, we’d almost given up. Then, on our last night, as we were just about to return to the hotel, a cart suddenly appeared.

Bugs! Whoopee! The vendor, the gnarled old transsexual, excitedly helped us choose the bug courses. It was oddly reminiscent of ordering from a cheese trolley full of exquisite delicacies at some Michelin-starred French restaurant. Anyway, I got a small scoop of each bug - ten in total. All were deep fried and sprinkled with pepper. Before starting to eat, we glanced at each other as if for reassurance we hadn’t completely lost it. But for those of a nervous disposition, better skip the rest now.

Two varieties of lizards. Soft and slimy. Surprisingly tasteless.

Meal worms. Like school-style tapioca pudding. Revolting to look at. Even worse to eat.

Tiny yellow snakes. Similar to eel, but more delicate and white like fish. Supposed to be good for you, I reminded P several times. An aphrodisiac apparently. A view not shared by P it transpired later that night.

Crickets. Crunchy, tasted like potato crisps. I could snack on these any time of day.

Huge grasshopper. Not surprisingly I suppose, tasted grassy like some Sauvignon Blanc wines do. Wouldn’t hesitate to try again.

Malengdaa water bug. Resembling a giant cockroach, this is the insect that’s ground into chilli paste here and in Thailand. A bug jam souvenir you can buy in any supermarket. In the event, this one wasn't remotely interesting. But the most difficult to bu-n-g in the mouth!

Various kinds of maggots. This was the highlight of the meal. One tasted like almonds, another of cream - all juicy and sweet.

Left this almost till last. Black scorpion. Couldn’t bring myself to put the stinger bit in my mouth but downed the rest of the tail in a couple of quick bites. After all the build up, a bit of a let down. Flavourless.

The rest were small and indistinguishable - maybe other types of crickets or spiders or merely bits and pieces of legs, wings and assorted antennae.

All in all, a steal of a meal at 13,000 Lao Kip (=£1)!

ADDENDUM: No dogs were involved in the preparation of this post. Least of all any known blood relatives of Lola (Sra. Noriega's "guard dog") above.

March 21, 2009


A long-delayed UN-backed genocide tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders was just about to begin in Phnom Penh, when we arrived from Siem Reap so we felt a visit to the Tuol Sleng school unavoidable.

Named by the Khmer Rouge S-21, this former prison was where tens of thousands of "enemies" of the Khmer Rouge were imprisoned and tortured, the few survivors enduring three years of forced labour. The walls are lined with photographs and other documentation found by the Vietnamese when they captured the city in early 1979. It is, without a doubt, the most moving place I have ever been to and I think only a Nazi concentration camp could compare.

It is now a museum and an intensely sad place — many people leave the building crying. When we visited, a lawyer monitoring the genocide trial almost broke down and had to be helped out.
At a mountain near Battambang, there were cages of human skulls and bones. We were also taken to the precise cliff-like spots where victims were pushed over after they were bludgeoned to death.

My final destination of the day was the real life Killing Fields, Ek Choueng, in an area just outside of Phnom Penh. Not all of the 129 mass graves here were disinterred. It is believed that 17,000 men, women and children perished; the 8,000 skulls found during excavation are on display on shelves at the memorial (a stupa).

I can’t speak for P but I was glad to leave behind so many awful memories and try our luck in Laos.

March 20, 2009


Of course, that couldn't happen to one particular temple. I’d deliberately left the iconic Angkor Wat till last (even driving past it with my eyes shut) so I could get up at dawn for the sunrise.

Shivering as we zoomed through the dark and deserted Siem Reap streets, Me and I arrived at Angkor well before dawn, following the trail of flickering torches left by others. Although the crowds and clouds made it slightly disappointing, the stillness and anticipation created something magical in the air for that half hour.

The temple, which includes a giant moat and a huge avenue-esque platform approaching it and the main structures of the temple itself, is surrounded all around by the, by now, all too familiar series of bas-reliefs telling of Hindu stories - a sort of thirteenth century Daily Mirror for the illiterate. And so I spent three hours happily exploring the temple, weaving my way through its nooks and crannies, its pillars and walls studded with giant heads and ancient carvings, like some architectural garage sale

.And how did it compare with the other sites? Undoubtedly, its sheer size is its most impressive feature. It may not have the most striking images (Bayon's faces claim that one for me) or a lost paradise (make for Ta Promh) but its looming, brooding presence dominates the whole area and becomes lodged forever in some tenebrous part of the brain.

The temples were originally built to symbolise the Hindu belief in the five-peaked mountain of Meru - home to the gods - but the influence of Buddhism spawned newer murals, sculptures and carvings that have kept the Angkor Wat close to Cambodian's hearts as the iconic symbol of their country's past glory.

Following the Killing Caves in Battambang, it was good to see the people's pride in Cambodia has survived the Khmer Rouge. However, my next stop in Phnom Penh would provide no such escape from the recent past.


Next up on my to-do list was the massive area of Angkor Thom. Rather than a single temple like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom was the site of a whole city, and includes temples, an area for mass audiences, the king’s palace and even a circus ground. I’d been dying to have an elephant ride, and what better place to do it? Perilously perched on the tiny seat, I then precariously swayed my way from the gates of Angkor Thom to the Bayon, its most famous temple.

Jayavaraman VII, who built most of the Angkorian temples, including Angkor Wat, constructed the Bayon as a cheekily self-referential temple. All around, large faces cast their gaze upon you, each beguiling smile just a bit different from the next. Although the faces, carved out of huge boulders and built one on top of the other, are supposed to represent a god, they (surprise, surprise) all look much like Jayavaraman himself.

Before returning to the hotel and P, I just had time to take in Ta Promh. Overgrown by the jungle and spectacular in its wild abandon, the asymmetry produced by stones shifting over the ages had a genuinely eerie effect.

But it wasn’t the temple, cloaked in dappled shadow, its crumbling towers and walls locked in an embrace of vast root systems, that had drawn the crowds to this most remote site. No, that prize must go to Lara Croft - Tomb Raider (http://www.tombraidermovie.comtombraidermovie/) recently filmed here. The raised decking and photogenic backdrops the magnet for all the historically-challenged wannabee Laras out there.

I watch in horror as entire groups re-enact Lara Croft running out from the ‘Lara Croft temple’. One at a time they sprint, leap and hurl themselves towards their tour guide - and his video camera. More like a stampede of Harrods clearance-sale shoppers than responsible travellers in, for my money, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world.

March 19, 2009


With P away on business, I spent the following days exploring the temples. Ducking and diving in and out of ancient carved stone doorways and stumbling my way round miniature stairways and towering temple pillars, I walked around battle-scarred temples with stunning statues, stone sculptures and multi-layered towers. Many of the corridors crumbling due to tree roots forcing their way slowly between the blocks. Temple walls decorated with magnificent detailed carvings of people, cows, wagons, daily life and great battles.

Giant granite lions, tigers, eight-headed snakes and elephants guarding the ancient steps. Next to them, sandstone gods with eight hands sitting cross-legged on lotus flowers watching over the temple ponds. I got up at 4am for great sunrises over ancient temples and stayed till 5pm for sunsets viewed from the tops of others.

March 18, 2009


Covering over four hundred square miles of temples, the ancient Angkor empire once had a population estimated to be over one million and covered an area the size of New York city. The stone temples were constructed by powerful Khmer kings as self-glorification monuments and as a dwelling for their Gods. I doubt the king himself did much of the construction, he probably awoke one morning and, after the customary breakfast bowl of rice, declared, "I have a great idea, and it’s going to take hundreds of years of back-breaking work for my loyal servants to make benefit glorious nation of Khmer".

In the ninth century work began and finally finished in the thirteenth century with the largest religious structure in the world. Each subsequent king would declare, "I have an even bigger, grander idea", and so for three hundred years each new king tried to out-do the last.

In the fifteenth century, the newly-emerged Siamese kingdom invaded, almost everyone was wiped out and the jungle reclaimed the temples. The temples remained a secret only known by the local population until nineteenth century French explorers returned with sketches of the ruins, making out they had discovered them! The Western world woke up and so began the tours, touts and thefts…

March 13, 2009


Back at the hotel, I encountered a group of guests whinging about how ruthlessly relentless tuk tuk drivers were touting for business. Walking past a row of them, the first would ask for business, then the second, then the third - just in case they’d changed their mind a second later. This constant touting is, unfortunately, part of everyday life in Siem Reap. Even Me had done it to me but in such a low key way that wouldn’t have provoked even Prescott or his fists.

One couple described how they’d haggled over a day’s driving, eventually agreeing on US $15 (the currency used rather than the Cambodian riel). The driver was also booked for the following two days - earning almost US $50 for three days’ work. The couple then read in the local paper that's the same amount a school teacher is paid in Cambodia for a whole month!

Just imagine! If you could earn a UK teacher’s monthly salary for just three days’ driving, wouldn’t you be straight out there in Torquay, Tonbridge or Tooting touting your head off too? Hey anyone, tuk-tuk?

March 9, 2009


Status update.
Mood: wretched.
Reason: fifth anniversary of father’s death this Thursday.
Possible responses:
1. Investigate teleportation. (Problematic.)
2. Go into seclusion for day. (Difficult. Can’t afford to waste a second in world heritage site after effort, not to mention expense, of getting here.)
3. Shoulder on. (Likely choice. On a positive note, just heard of article about my book and me in local paper - more on that in later post. Father would have been pleased.)

Five years ago, Thomas Johnson went into hospital with a routine medical complaint and came out soon after dead - from MRSA. I won’t name and shame the hospital. It’s already lurking at the bottom of league tables for cleanliness and clinical standards.

He was the best of fathers - kind, loyal, generous and with a self-deprecating sense of humour. A true friend. And I miss him more than words can say.

March 4, 2009

'ME' & I

Over the next few days, my moto guide, confusingly called 'Me', took me everywhere and we became good friends. We went to a lot of out-of-the way places. Places where foreigners don't go. Where restaurants don’t have menus in English.

So I ate all manner of things but, out of respect for pet owners, I won't elaborate. The most disgusting thing I tried was a duck egg, served as dessert. But first a health warning: for those of a nervous disposition, it'd be best to look away now and skip the rest.

You would crack open one end of the egg first, and suck out the ‘juice’. You could then use a teaspoon and scoop out the rest of the cooked egg. Or, if you chose to de-shell it, you could actually see the shape of the duckling with dark feathers within (though the feathers didn’t taste anything like feathers).

I think I’d best leave it to Gordon, Jamie or Nigella to include in one of their next bestselling tomes. Or maybe Heston. Cooked fat duck egg porridge, anyone?