30 April 2013


I have racked my brain but I am pretty sure that in real life I have never met a detective - neither a police detective or a private investigator. But I have met plenty of cleaners, bartenders, bus drivers, nurses, double glazing salesmen, air hostesses and of course teachers. And I have also never witnessed a murder or known anybody who was unfortunate enough to be murdered - though I have known plenty of people who have been hospitalised for various reasons.

But getting back to detectives, why is it that hundreds of TV drama series around the world have focussed on the work of detectives from Maigret to Colombo and from Sherlock Holmes to Kojak? Our screens have been awash with detective stories and the cinema is almost as bad. It is as if media moguls believe that everybody is interested in tales of cunning detective work, forensic science and the war against the world's criminal underworld. But to me all this stuff is on the periphery of real life and the more I see of these damned detectives - Inspector Morse, Barnaby Jones, Dempsey and Makepeace, Lewis, McCloud, Cagney and Lacey etc, etc, the more I dislike them. They are just not reflective of everyday life and where it is not so easy to make drama out of ordinariness, it is surely child's play to make dramas out of well, drama - if you see what I mean.

I wonder what proportion of England's working population are detectives? I would hazard a guess at 0.001%. However, television appears to suggest that about 75% of us are detectives and that every sizable town in the country has a few hundred murders each week. It's all bollix.

If perchance any media moguls have happened upon this blogpost could I urge you to cease all these tales about detectives? It has all been done now and there are no new detective stories to tell so please give us stories about roadsweepers, family life, the mundanity of work, nursing, health and safety, bloggers from darkest Georgia or Angola, working down coalmines or buggering off to France to paint sunsets over Provence, stories of love and childhood of death and cancer of marriage and making homes and getting drunk, of birthdays and curry houses and of real people coping with real life - the highs and the lows, the laughter, the tears and the boredom. Those are the dramas I want to see - not bloody detectives!

There! Rant over. I feel a lot better now.

29 April 2013


He was there for a week - the man from the shadows. Whenever I went past, he was just sitting there cross-legged, next to the bus shelter in the shadow of the concrete pedestrian bridge that arches over Ratchadaphisek Road. Next to him were his tattered bags - containing who knows what - but I could see the blue tops of several water bottles peering out.

In Bangkok you don't see many beggars, "down and outs" or men of the road but if you look you may notice them - lurking in the shadows as brightly coloured taxis, Mercedes Benzes and silver Toyotas flash by. Who knows what their stories are? Sometimes I'm sure it's about mental ill-health or breakdowns that have left them on their own, surviving on these hot streets.

His bare feet were literally blackened with ingrained dirt.His gnarled hands were not much better. He wore raggedy clothes and bizarrely a thin green motor cycle helmet - more like a German World War II helmet than a modern one designed to protect skulls from tarmacadam. He just sat there for seven days as plum coloured bank workers caught buses and working people like me strolled down to the Major Cineplex Centre with money in our pockets. Nobody seemed to notice him.
I wanted to give him something so one evening I poured all of my accumulated loose change into a plastic bag and placed  this in front of him as I walked by. He formed his hands into the traditional "wai" greeting - showing thanks and respect. There must have been two hundred baht in that bag - about four English pounds. It would surely help him a little on his journey through the shadows. 

The following day he was gone and I haven't seen him since. His story. My story. Lines that cross. Perhaps I should have given him more, brought him food, brought him back to my little apartment for a shower but I must admit that I was wary of him. You wouldn't know what you were letting yourself in for. Maybe best to just leave the bag of coins and slip away.

25 April 2013


In Thailand, folk seem to be obsessed with uniforms. There must be huge factories somewhere devoted to the manufacture of work and school uniforms. Across the road from my little apartment there's the headquarters of the Siam Commercial Bank - a collection of tall buildings clad in mirror green glass. Like worker ants, this complex teems with bank workers and they all wear the regulation SCB purple uniforms. Lord knows what they do in there all day - probably write out extra uniform requests. I see them busying about, often buying or eating street food - another national obsession..There are thousands of them. All as purple as... as plums!

Where is Mr Pudding?
We need some extra tuition
When I was first here - back in 2011, I would often see strangely mature young people in school uniforms riding on the subway or the Sky Train - white shirt and black trousers or black skirt with the school belt. It took a while before I realised these older school pupils were in fact university students! Yes - university students in uniforms! I don't think that would go down too well at the University of East Anglia or Kent State, Ohio!

Within this school - where I am writing this particular blogpost during a free period - our army of ancillary workers all sport bright turquoise polo shirts. However, the maintenance men have grey polo shirts with side stripes in black and orange while the security men and the kitchen staff have their own distinctive uniforms which include face masks.

At the nearby "Major" shopping and leisure complex there are about thirty cafes and restaurants. In each establishment there is a different uniform. This might include vaguely Japaneses style uniforms in places that serve Japanese food to Frenchified uniforms with little white pinafores. The cinema staff wear smart cravats and silky gold waistcoats while the supermarket workers, "Starbucks" and "Dunkin Do-Nuts" people all have their unique uniforms too.

Then there are the taxi drivers and the road sweepers, the police and soldiers on leave, hotel workers, bus drivers, subway workers, gardeners, even the photo company team that visited the school this week - all in their own uniforms with particular colours and logos. And of course the children in our school are all in a uniform that includes ties, socks and leather shoes. Brilliant in such a hot climate. Not.

I have never been a big fan of uniforms even though I accept there are a few occupations where uniforms are pretty vital such as catering, hospital nursing and cricket. However, I prefer to think of a world where people are allowed to express their individuality not only through their thoughts and spoken words but also in the way they choose to dress. But hey - what do I know? Maybe I am something of a dinosaur still attached to the hippy dreams of the late sixties, still singing along with Richie Havens..."Freedom! Freedom!' 

23 April 2013


Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone
A long, long, long way from my home...
Richie Havens has died of a heart attack at seventy two years of age. He assaulted songs with a rare passion and had a unique guitar strumming style. Lost in the music, he closed his eyes and rode the wave of his own artistry born from a sense of the beauty of the world, the injustices we must fight against and a firmly held belief that we are all together. He was a campaigner, a poet, painter, friend to many influential musicians but above all he was his own man and as he leaves this living world, I for one salute him.

22 April 2013


If you like shopping, you would love MBK - one of Bangkok's mega shopping malls. With a footprint as big as The Houses of Parliament, it has six floors devoted to the city's shopping religion and let's throw in a multi-screen cinema, a hotel and enough eateries to feed the entire population of Switzerland at once. One of the good things about MBK is that it is cool and you don't have to brave the city's sultry streets that will often have you sweating like the Trevi Fountain after just ten paces.

The mega-mall doesn't just house familiar corporate stores, it is also home to hundreds of small businesses selling anything from roller blinds to camera accessories and from sex toys to cuddly toys. Arlo Guthrie once sang, "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant" but he was probably thinking about MBK.

So on a bright, sweaty Sunday morning what was your Yorkist correspondent doing at MBK? After all he is an awkward bugger who often derides the world of commerce. Well I was there chiefly on behalf of the French brother who had requested that I purchase two "knock off" or imitation Rolex Submariner watches for him. 

I prowled the fourth and fifth floors like a tiger in a jungle. At the first little shop the attractive female assistant kept grabbing my arm in a rather un-Thai way, urging me to give her her first sale of the day. But she was charging 3000 baht per watch. It was at perhaps the fifth little shop that I went in for the kill after I had pressed the assistant down to 1500 baht per watch. I hope the French brother will be happy. Personally, I have never seen the attraction of fake goods.

After the shopping bonanza, I went to the fifth floor food court and enjoyed a delicious lunch - a fresh young coconut, pad thai in an egg wrap and my most favourite dessert of all time - freshly sliced mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. Mmmm!
At the Jim Thompson House
Next it was on to the "Jim Thompson House" near the National Stadium. This is a group of traditional Thai buildings assembled by the legendary Jim Thompson - an American immigrant who single-handedly revived the Thai silk industry after the second world war and then in 1967 disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Malaysia. It was here that your faithful correspondent nearly lost his wife's camera after leaving it on a garden bench but fortunately it was rescued by two German tourists - a small reparation for World War II.

But the shopping spree was not over. Being a fashion conscious trend setter, I then  took the Sky Train (BTS) to Asok at Sukhumvit to pick up my two tailor made shirts from "Harry's":and then time for two refreshing pints of "Tiger" ale in the ex-pat favoured "Game" bar before heading back to northern Bangkok where whiteys like me are thin on the ground though commonly not in the belly.

19 April 2013


There was a time when as a solitary traveller you would strike up conversations with strangers in bars, in transit or in restaurants. You'd be passing the time of day, maybe exchanging stories, adding to your appreciation of life's rich tapestry - for we all have different stories to tell and how one man or woman sees the world will be different from the next though sometimes it is comforting to find common ground.

"Have you come far?"..."What do you think of the beer?"..."Are you American?"..."Aren't you staying in my hotel?" and so on. And then conversation would be sparked and you never knew where that might take you.

But today it is different because of mobile devices. The stranger plonks himself or herself down and yanks out the obligatory i-phone, tablet or notebook and retreats to a virtual world of Facebook, i-Tunes, email, Skype, digital photos or online games. The immediate neighbouring world where other people really exist is blocked out, somehow deemed to be inferior - less worthy of attention. So the random conversations have almost ceased and there is far less opportunity to connect with strangers. Ironic really when the familiar mantra is that digital devices enhance communication.

I know I have banged on about this before so sorry if I am boring you. But it won't be the last time I consider this modern techno-hypnotic behaviour that is, in my view, spreading like a terrible epidemic around the world - changing what it means to be a human being.

In Sri Lanka there was far less MTO (mobile technology obsession). People were looking outwards as they have done through the centuries, having time for strangers like me - living in the here and now instead of scurrying to their little screens. But in Bangkok, the subway trains and sky trains are filled with goons in technological trances, forever fiddling with their touch screens, grinning about stuff they are hearing secretly through their headphones.  And where ever you go you see workers - security men, cleaners, airport workers, taxi drivers perpetually checking their phones and mini laptops for messages from outer space.

I know it's not going to change. In fact it will only get worse and there's nothing that I or anybody else can do to halt this slide into self-aggrandizement and superficial techno-babble. But like King Canute, I would urge people to switch off their phones when in genuine social situations, to really look at the world we live in and to find time for strangers as our forebears did. There is more to life than the phone or the tablet computer...isn't there?

18 April 2013


Just two days back at work then two more weeks and my contract in Bangkok will be over. I'm returning to England on May 9th having factored in a five day break at the end of my time here. But where to go? Where to go? It's a nice problem to have though I guess that rampant Thatcherites out there in bloggoland will tell me to go to hell. Koh Lipe? Luang Prabang? Singapore? Vietnam?

Returning to school after a holiday contains none of the half-remembered trauma of yesteryear when you'd need to steel yourself for the term ahead - don your metaphorical emotional armour and prepare for the battle ahead. I am not thinking simply of the many recalcitrant youngsters I had to serve but also the endless paper work, the spreadsheets, the mountains of A4 ring binders, the soulless Thatcherite witch who was my last headteacher. 

Here it's so different. I strolled along the street at seven o' clock without a care in the world, confident that everything would be okay and I could leave my psychological armour mouldering in the bottom of my wardrobe. A frog in the shubbery tried to croak along to the Thai national anthem at morning "flag". Year Eleven boy Peem was keen to show me his holiday snaps from The Maldives and in Year Nine Marisa and Mandy were "giving it tons" in the drama room as they improvised a scene of conflict between a mother and an awkward teenager. They were roundly applauded. The Year Tens began constructing their own crosswords following the simple demonstration I provided via the whiteboard. No fuss. They just got on with it as I circulated suggesting words they could fit in.

I had lunch with Mr Jon in the school canteen - chicken, rice, vegetables, egg stew and fresh pineapple chunks. Mr Haydn told us about his trip to Indonesia. Earlier Mr Jon had filled me in on his trip back to England where his wife Denise and Alexa his baby daughter are presently residing. Seeing them seems to have put a smile back on his face as he looks ahead to his next international school contract in Taiwan.

I have a free afternoon until my little tutor group of nine students returns for the final ten minutes of the day. Gradually,  I have been drawing caricatures of them all in a family group that I shall leave as a goodbye present when I go. Being here has once again reminded me why I became a teacher in the first place - what's good about the job -  and it has also reminded me that teaching is in my blood - it's something I do very well. I have a talent for it and it was always there. As the author of "Angela's Ashes", Frank McCourt said....
Frank McCourt in "Teacher Man"

16 April 2013


So here I am at a free internet station in Colombo Airport waiting for my flight back to Bangkok and it is time to say farewell to wonderful Sri Lanka. Farewell to the curry and rice with those traditional accompaniments. Farewell to babies on buses and women passengers squeezing between my open thighs and bags of rice and knapsacks thrust onto my lap and conductors weaving down crowded buses like lissome snakes and horns hooting. Farewell to the awesome temple mountain of Sigiriya and to the long white beach at Nilavelli. Farewell to tuk tuk drivers driving me mad as they touted relentlessly for business. Farewell to "Lion" lager and to "Three Coins" and arrack and to tropical fruit breakfasts and pots of fresh Ceylon tea with jugs of hot milk. Farewell to sweat oozing from every pore. Farewell to souvenir sellers and to the genuine smiles of ordinary people who welcomed me to their country and engaged me in hundreds of unexpected conversations. Farewell to the lush greenery and the paddy fields and to swimming at Unawatuna and Jungle Beach. Farewell to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy and to the man who beat designs on sheets of brass, to the fire eaters and the traditional dancers and to the monkey troops and to the dogs who waged war against the monkeys like Tamil Tigers. And farewell to Chamith and Wasana and Sadali and Kumara and to Hasin and Shani and Bertie. Farewell Sri Lanka - I shall never forget you and maybe - who knows - I may return... one day. Thanks for everything.
The Fort, Galle

14 April 2013


My aversion to Margaret Thatcher was something I felt deep down in my gut. Something instinctive -not cerebral. To hear the weasel who is David Cameron declare that Thatcher "saved our country" is an appallingly distorted view of British history in the nineteen eighties. In fact, I would argue that Thatcher damaged the social fabric of our country irrevocably, waging a spiteful and expensive class war against ordinary working people. She was a leader who once declared, "There is no such thing as society" and she was a leader who used the Falklands conflict cynically to bolster her position in the opinion polls.
"The lady's for burning Bert!"
Her affected upper class English accent cocked an unhealthy snook at her Lincolnshire origins. And it is worth remembering that her greatest contribution to science - as others were dying for freedom during World War II - was - as part of  university team - to find new ways of bulking up ice cream to inflate ice cream manufacturers' profits.
Thatcher was horrible and it pleases me greatly that "The Witch is Dead" from "The Wizard of Oz" is suddenly Britain's best selling song with thousands of "YouTube" hits too. There will be no silences at football matches to remember Thatcher because the authorities are well aware that such a silence would be the worst observed silence ever requested at any set of weekend football matches.
So farewell Thatcher and good flaming riddance! If I were in my local pub in Sheffield I'd have been celebrating her disappearance from the living world. The hurt that woman caused was immeasurable and unnecessary. "Thatcher! Thatcher! Milk Snatcher!". The Witch is Dead... at long last!

12 April 2013


Hey ho Trincomalee
Hey ho Trincomalee
Hey ho Trincomalee
Trincomalee my darling!

So many traveller's tales I could relate as I sit here in this little internet cafe in the north eastern port city of "Trinco" but let's go back four days to the nameless spit and sawdust pub I visited in the inland town of Dambulla. I doubt that any western tourists have ever been in this dark and dingy establishment before. I had just returned by public bus from the iconic volcanic plug mountain known as Sigiriya - a fortress and a temple with a history that reaches way back before Jesus or Mohammed.
I had sweated buckets and was desperate for a bottle of "Lion" lager. So I go in to the "pub" and manage to buy my drink, noticing that the cave-like bar is populated by rough men with whiskeys, very strong beers and cigarettes. What the hell! It's five in the afternoon. Anyway, I am sitting at a formica table when Cyclops arrives. He just stands there glowering down at me. Beer gut. Open shirt. Very much inside my "personal space". It's rather uncomfortable but then in very broken English and sign language and interpretation by another guy, Cyclops manages to show me his various scars and injuries including his missing right eye. He keeps pulling down the lower lid to show me the damage. Nice one Cyclops! He is the best fighter in town and the two bartenders are clearly very wary of him.

He is as drunk as a Tory MP at a fund raising shindig and he offers to fight me just for fun but of course I decline and buy him a beer instead. Then he insists through the interpreter that I give him two hundred rupees (one pound) to assist him in his purported plan to get a glass eye to hide his gaping butcher's shop socket. Then I am his best friend. His thumb is up and he shakes my hand and hugs me before I leave. The beer was cheaper than anywhere else but the ambience couldn't have been more different than The Royal Hotel in Kandy.

Ah well, a day in Trincomalee then back to the lovely white beach at Nilaveli. I was up at 5.30 this morning to see the sun rise deliciously over the Indian Ocean. Tomorrow, onwards to Anuradhapura. This has all been such a wonderful adventure. I am so glad I picked Sri Lanka and am keeping my fingers crossed that nothing will go wrong before I fly back to Bangkok next Tuesday. You never know.

8 April 2013


"Excuse me sir. Where you from?"

I am at the magnificent  Royal Botanical Gardens of Sri Lanka in Peradeniya and a delightful sixteen year old schoolgirl has just accosted me. She is from a distant town and she is on a day trip with her school. Soon I am surrounded by about thirty of her classmates. Beautiful brown girls with teeth as white as their starched school dresses. They want my address. They want their photos taken with me. They want me to teach at their school. We laugh. We shake hands. We move on. The Empire is not dead after all.

I visit two cemeteries. One is the Second World War Cemetery maintained by two men who follow me around as I investigate the graves  The two guys do a brilliant job of  tending the beautiful graveyard. There are 107 British casualties of war, three Italians, a French chef, several Africans, a Jew, a couple of Canadians and about twenty Sri Lankans. Like all war cemeteries it is very sad and tears form in my eyes as I wander around humming a tune that always returns to me at such moments. I wish I could show you my pictures but I am using Shirley's little Nikon camera now and I am afraid I don't have a lead for downloading.

The second graveyard near the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy contains the remains of numerous nineteenth century British colonialists. One was killed by an elephant, another died from "severe diarrhea (sic)". It makes you wonder about such people. They travelled on sailing ships so far from home to begin coffee and tea plantations, to build an empire in something resembling outer space. In many ways, they must have been both brave and foolhardy. There were several dead children and young wives. It must have been so hard for them. The heat. The mosquitoes. The tropical ulcers and other unfamiliar diseases.

Earlier, I ate a wonderful lunch in DJ"s restaurant - Florida chicken salad - beautifully presented - and then negotiated a fare back to Kandy with a young tuk tuk driver who had impeccable manners, didn't even attempt to cheat me and ought to run special training courses for his rapacious, obnoxious  colleagues who are all clearly conspiring to pester the CENSORED out of me! Tuk tuk sir? Why you walk? Gimme your money honky! Tomorrow onwards to Dambulla.... and the cave temples. It feels so wonderful to be here. To be alive.

6 April 2013


Negombo Beach
Lady Pudding was duly deposited by tuk tuk at Colombo International Airport, following a night at Gomez Place near Negombo Beach. Funny why there were no other women in that hotel and we wondered why the two middle-aged German chaps were holding hands at breakfast and furthermore why was the intense  middle-aged English fellow in such deep conversation with the young Sri Lankan beachcomber? Mmm... quite fishy if you ask me but a certain Welsh chicken farmer of our acquaintance might have felt curiously at home there.

Our last dinner was at the lovely "Ice Bear" close to the beach - described by "The Lonely Planet" as a "colonial anachronism". There was a rusty old gate that led directly through a white arch to the fading Indian Ocean sunset. On the veranda, we ate fresh tuna steaks (grilled)  and french fries with local salad, all washed down with delightful "Lion" lager - one of Ceylon's best kept secrets. Shirley and I fell back into our comfortable patterns.

With Shirley safely through security, I travelled back to Negombo bus station to catch a public bus bound for Kandy - the old colonial capital which is where I am now writing - in bizarrely - "The Prince of Wales Internet Cafe".The bus fare was the equivalent of seventy five British pence and the winding, perspirational journey up to the central hills took three and a half hours. Now that's value for money!
Royal Bar and Hotel, Kandy
Arriving in Kandy, I was determined to walk the mile to my humble accommodation but a hundred tuk tuk drivers seemed intent on thwarting my plan... "Want tukk tuk sir?", "Where you going? ...Very far - take tuk tuk!" and "Oi! Whitey! Jump in me tuk tuk or I'll have you!" (Not in the Gomez Place sense of the word I hasten to add!)

So I'm here and it feels cooler than the coast. I had two pre-dinner beers in the exquisite Royal Hotel - a throwback to the languid days of the British Empire. Afterwards I met Enzo - a restaurant pimp dude who led me to a locals' place for an authentic Sri Lankan curry. I gave  him a hundred rupees for his trouble.Did his wife and youngest child drown on Boxing Day 2004 at Trincomlaee? You know, I really believe they did. There was a genuine sadness in his eyes as he told me the story.

2 April 2013


Seventy years ago my father was in Ceylon. It was during World War II and he was working for the Royal Air Force as a meteorologist. Mostly he was based in Delhi but he also got to travel around and found himself in Kandy and Colombo and panned for semi-precious stones in streams that ran by tea plantations.

And so here I am with Shirley, sweating in a little internet cafe in Unawatuna south of Galle before we toddle along to the beach for "happy hour" and more swimming in the tepid Indian Ocean. It's lovely here. Laid back and friendly even if the tuk tuk drivers and occasional charlatans have to be swatted away like flies.

We visited a tea plantation this morning and saw the whole process unfolding from picking to processing and finally we sampled about thirty teas in the factory museum. Our guide was a lovely Sinhalese man called Chris who had once managed a large section of a far bigger plantation in the interior. A downside was that our irritating tuk tuk driver kept following us around instead of patiently awaiting our return and then as we drove back to our hotel he kept trying to argue for extra money over and above our agreed price.

Finally I had to say to him, "Now you listen to me! We agreed a price and I am giving you that money with a hundred rupee tip and that is all you are getting! We have worked hard for our money and I object to being treated like some kind of cash cow. And so that's it mate. End of!" And we ambled back into the hotel...