Thursday, September 07, 2006

Return fire

To quote more old Westerns than I can count, this blog's quiet - too quiet, and for that I have to apologise.

But here we go, a return from hiatus and with oh, so many links to talk about... but, as I said before, this blog doesn't exist for me to post links. Well, not only.

No, I'm going to (try to) write an evenhanded review of Thursday's episode of Don't Get Me Started..., the closest thing channel five have to an opinion column. Each week a different "celebrity" and a different cause; in the past it's been everything from the compensation culture to counterfeminism to the lack of religion in the modern world. Perhaps in answer to the last, five wheeled out Stewart Lee - stand-up comedian, writer, director and, in any sarcasm-based war, the equivalent of John Rambo.

Lee's one-hour documentary was focussed on blasphemy, something he's eminently qualified to present having co-written Jerry Springer: The Opera, which was hounded by Christian complaints before it was even broadcast (free-speech advocates, incidentally, might be interested in the BBC's inquiry results, which dismissed all 65,000 form letters out of hand).

The biggest failing of the programme is its tragic one-sidedness - Lee only talks to people who share his opinion, which is a wasted opportunity if nothing else. If only he'd taken the same route as Richard Dawkins, whose antireligious documentary The Root of All Evil? was vastly improved by watching Dawkins somehow not disembowel an American evangelist who told him he, and by extension science itself, was wrong about absolutely everything.

Still, Lee had some brilliant talking heads on, of whom the highlight was undoubtedly the author and noted snake-worshipper Alan Moore, who confessed that to live as Glycon desires would mostly involve "being smug". Second place goes to the vicar who pointed out that God is hardly likely to be removed from existence by Monty Python, in one of the programme's best soundbytes.

If only five ran more programmes like this, I might actually start watching TV again....


[UK-based readers may be surprised to find that five's website is located in the Ellice Islands. Strange but apparently true.]

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Never get shot with your own merchandise

Lord of War tries to be a lot of things in its two-hour duration, and it manages most of them.

First and foremost, it's the biography of fictional arms dealer Yuri Orlov, originally a Ukrainian immigrant to America who decides to become a gunrunner because "people will always need guns". It's a simple rationale, and one that carries him through most of the film - he just supplys the weaponry that everyone needs, ignoring the consequences of his trade ("If I didn't, someone else would", in essence).

He persuades his brother Vitoly to join him as a partner in the beginning, but with Dorian-Gray-like distance, Yuri remains unaffected by the horrible immorality of what he does - made especially graphic by his dealings with the insane African presidents who are his biggest customers - even as Vitoly is tortured by the guilt of what his brother has done.

Also worked in is a brief romantic comedy slash drama, between Yuri and his teenage sweetheart (now a world-famous model), which predictably is the funniest part of the film; and a serious examination of the issues surrounding arms dealing after the Cold War, political, legal, economic, and ethical. This last is the one place the film slips up - its political argument is a good one, but poorly made and lumped together. A stronger argument, put across over most of the film and not just the last five minutes, would have left a real and lasting impression. As it is, it's the only sour note in an otherwise brilliantly written and made film.

Monday, August 21, 2006

the contemplation of so many wonders

And so it ends.

After 60 hours of airports and airplanes, back in the UK, where clouds are default. Where rice is optional. Where 35°C is theoretical. Where traffic laws exist. Where rain is a constant drizzle not an intermittent drowning. Where 15B (22p) is useless. Where hills have sides, and everything. Where plugs have earth pins. Where films are £20 and start with adverts. Where diving means drysuit or hypothermia. Where pool tables cost money.

Until recently, where I wasn't.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

All good things

Now I know what Paul Carpenter feels like.

OK, so that was a little harsh - the security staff at Sheremetyevo airport don't actually demand a blood sacrifice to get access to the departure lounge - but at least the Land of the Dead has bridge club and basketweaving, instead of endless aisles of duty-free vodka and overpriced perfume.

After Heathrow's caviar-related disappointment, I noticed a new shop being built here in Moscow. This time around, construction had finished and I got a second chance at fish eggs - they've installed a twin to the LHR bar, with equally criminal prices. I refused to take the hint, and instead bought a party bag of Bounty bars. What?

Finally read Air Babylon - sequel to the well-received Hotel Babylon, and built along very similar lines - which I bought on the way out. It's written as an hour-by-hour day-in-the-life of an airline duty manager, but the sketchy plot and its swarms of disposable characters are only a framework; the real meat of the book is the collection of anecdotes about the airline industry. Some are written as asides, many actually occur in the plot (most notably two in-flight deaths), but they're all proclaimed as 'true' by the foreword and pretty much all fascinating. If even half of them really happen, it's a whole new side to flying, and one that few if any passengers have experienced.

Also completed the latest Deaver, The Twelfth Card, and he somehow managed to write another assassin-versus-quadriplegic novel and made it just as addictive, thrilling, imaginative and full of twists as all his others. This is the first one I've read, though, where the killer's motive is one of the big story elements; since the main character, Rhyme, is a forensic scientist he mostly ignores motive except where it allows for plotting. This shift means that the twists are, dare I say it, bigger than ever before? Hope that hasn't given too much away...

Two read already, and I'm only halfway home. Next up has to be The Difference Engine... maybe I'll sleep on it. Quite literally.

Friday, August 18, 2006

That's why they don't just call it a 'forest'

Three hundred metres above the palm-oil plantations crowing the former swamps around Krabi, I collapsed onto the stone bench. I could have seen for miles in any direction - the site is described as "the best view you can get, short of a helicopter" - if I could stand up.

Wat Tham Sua, transliterally Tiger Cave Temple, is a spectacular Buddhist temple complex, within 50B of Krabi town. It's comprised of several parts, the most famous of which is the Buddha's footprint shrine, located at the top of one of the limestone karsts which spike up intermittently through the flatlands, with vertical cliff faces and a strangely flat plateau. Despite this inhospitable scenario, most of the karsts are covered in greenery - bushes and hanging vines on the mere 85° slopes, tenacious trees jammed into tiny cracks on the vertical sections, and subtropical algae on the overhangs; you can rarely see cliffs anywhere, and the Tiger Cave karst is no different.

As you ascend, gazing blearily at the helpful painted markers showing how many steps you've somehow mountaineered, you quickly notice the change in climate. Below three hundred steps, you're still under parts of the ground canopy; the reputedly-kleptomanic monkeys throw sticks at you, the occasional branch needs to be brushed aside, even butterflies flit drunkenly across your vision. After the first four hundred or so, the accursed primates are content to screech at you, and the greenery - while still impressive - recedes to the sides of the path. Keep going, beyond seven hundred, and even the insects desert you; the air gets noticably cooler as you haul yourself over the thousand marker, and by the twelve hundred you could almost be back in Britain.

Of course, on finally reaching the peak (and its temple) we had only twenty minutes of clear skies and unparalleled vistas before the daily monsoon hit. Rain, seen from above, looks oddly like sunlight, the denser patches forming light-coloured columns which drift slowly around the landscape in much the same way as midday through clouds does. At this (admittedly slight) altitude, the clouds still passed above you, so we were duly drenched in the season's customary downpours, which ensured that the trip back down was cooler but much more hazardous in the impromptu streams that seem to develop whenever it rains in Thailand.

The caves themselves, a succession of limestone caverns lit with fluorescent neon and coloured ochre with the local clay, provided a welcome shelter from the cascading rainforest outside. Located around the edges of a natural bowl, the largest cave (and the temple complex) is named after the tiger's claw rock formation at its entrance. The valley is the closest I've yet got to a real rainforest, with the vast canopy-level trees and their five-metre buttress root structures, the impenetrable rhododendron thickets, the persistant noise of torrential rain and uncountable insects.

Like caves everywhere, these feel damp and musty and faintly claustrophobic, equipped with the standard set of stalagtites / stalagmites like misshapen teeth. You walk quietly around them, peering myopically into side chambers and wall cavities half-full of rubble and, in one case, a minature Buddha statue and some candles. The space is so silent you can hear, or maybe imagine, the humming of the neon lights over the distant white noise of the rainforest outside. The whole experience is one of serenity, and shelter - from the rain, if not the rest of the outside world.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Environ-mentalists, the lot of them

Today, it's the queen's birthday.

Thais do the whole constitutional monarchy deal seriously, so unlike our garden parties for old Lizzie's eightieth, the whole country essentially shut down for King Bhumibol's 60th anniversary of his coronation - and it was much the same for Queen Sirikit's birthday.

Much as Charles likes ranting about everything from civic planning to alternative medicine to nanotechnology to his aspidistra's opinions on New Age philosophy, the Queen here is a big environmentalist. So, the three days immediately preceding her birthday were celebrations of biodiversity and conservation efforts across Thailand. As a TPA division deeply involved with this sort of thing, we had to make an appearance.

We turned up on Wednesday, armed with six display boards hacked together from salvaged PVC and fish netting and covered with dense Thai script, hopefully translations of what we had worked out but given Aree's English anything was possible. Allocated the farthest corner of the tents, we set up and got ready for the influx of three thousand schoolchildren, mostly by stealing chairs from other displays and stockpiling water.

In the end, the children were more interested in us than the colourful explanations of how to plant a mangrove. In a total crowd of 4500-ish, we five were the only Westerners there, and that apparently made us special enough to warrant autographs and photos taken with awed twelve-year-olds. Fifteen minutes of celebrity are quite enough.

We spent the next day standing around in the sun, watching hordes of children run around with pictures of fish and ping-pong balls in some kind of game, although our total knowledge of four words in Thai hindered attempts to understand anything. They were having fun, at any rate. Friday was both the opening and closing ceremonies for the event (don't ask) - men dressed as turtles danced round the campsite while the Minister for the Environment gave a serious speech to some television cameras, everyone applauded, we piled into a 4×4 pickup with our display and escaped before any suggestions of photos or autographs. Spent the afternoon on the beach. This conservation's hard work, you know...
  Anonymous Gordon Wilkinson commented:

Good work Simon - very well crafted prose. Makes my life here more interesting.

  5:56 pm | Link  

  Comment on this post

Friday, August 04, 2006

Relaxing in Ao Nang

Heading into Ao Nang along the main road from the nearby city of Krabi, you find the nightlife district quickly. It's a long gravel street, with maybe fourteen or fifteen bars lining its sides, each blasting out their own mix of reggae and dance music into the hot night. It's the low season, so at most a quarter of the occupants are tourists; as you walk to the far end, countless call-girls shout indecipherable adverts at you over their drinks. You reach the end, and your destination.

The walls are cinderblocks under black paint spattered with bright orange, the better to glow in the lights; the ceiling is a forest of inverted parasols, scaled-up versions of the paper cocktail decorations that give the bar its name. Every pillar has three fans bolted to it that blast equally lukewarm air around the cable-reel tables, which need to be drowned out by the music.

Nid the diminutive DJ is playing on the free pool table; Freestyler is thumping from his deafening sound system, and everything about him follows the bassline, even the flickering lighter he holds to his cigarette. Morn, divemaster extraordinare, has lined up the corner pocket and the 8-ball, its whites fluorescing in the black light overhead. He hammers it full-bore down the table so fast most of the spectators don't even see it move, and Nid slaps the table in congratulation.

The bar itself, staffed by two constantly-grinning Thai men and a slim girl who sits resolutely behind the till, has four or five patrons. A minimum of two will be challenging the bartenders to games of Connect 4, aiming for the possibly-mythical success of winning three games in a row for a free drink. The regulars wear logo'd t-shirts with pride, and the bar staff seem to know everyone who comes in. The bar itself is a favourite with tourists, mostly because prostitutes are warned to stay away but also for the atmosphere.

The music suddenly fades; Nid jumps from the cue ball and reaches into the DJ stall. Another song starts, and two-thirds of the customers leap up and start dancing. It's the Paul Anka orchestral cover of Wonderwall. Morn starts to laugh manically.

Welcome... to the Umbrella Bar.