Dubai – Kalifa Berg

the trip to Kalifa berg

After a highly focused and productive morning coaching my client all morning in an anonymous suite, I break out into the Arab sunlight for my last half day here in Dubai. My sweet client offered to tour guide me but i declined, saying alone is fine for me.  But I do take his recommendation and take out down towards the Dubai Mall where the world’s tallest building so far is located. What is it with human beings and tallest buildings? 

I eat lunch in a Chinese restaurant that turns out to be an American franchise, but none the less it is okay, full of shoppers and frolickers. i sit in the shadow or the light of that tower, the Kalifa tower. i understand it was to be called the Dubai tower but the Sheik insisted that it was his money and he wanted his name up on it. I squinted at it in the sunshine imagining what it must have been to have conceived this thing here, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of already over-stuffed materiality.  I notice in the other direction the elegant shape of a luxury hotel shaped like a luxury liner. All beautiful soft curves and angles. Nowadays buildings in ship shapes are highly unoriginal but this one worked somehow. 

i leave my table and walk along the rather beautiful artificial lake, to stand under the base of the tower, only to learn that i need to access it by passing through the Mall. Now that I should have known already – always channel the visitor past the shopping. Enter and exit via the gold-plated gift-shop. I find the entrance, the check. Beyond that I see with a heavy heart the throng in front of the lifts. There are two screens above the pay gate. one asked that visitors respect local customs and cover legs and shoulders. Fair enough. The next screen is advertising the telescopes you can hire up above; and the CGI image to promote these features a glamorous western woman with bare shoulders. I am puzzled and amused by this.

When I get to the front of the line I learn that I can get up that evening, but that it would cost around $150 – to go up in a lift to see the desert and the sea essentially. I ask about this price about three times but it doesn’t change. It is a special VIP price that includes binoculars but I can do it more cheaply if I book ahead. I choose this moment to ask about the image of the woman and her shoulders. A little nonplussed at first, the ticket seller recovers to say that she is not real. The image is only to sell binoculars not the trip itself. and she is not real – she is image.

I am most impressed by this post modern turn. I ask if, were I to take offence, whether the image would be removed. She said she doubted it but she did take my point. i look at the never diminishing lift queue which was a hour long but i was told that the lift itself only took seconds so the queue was nothing by comparison. i decide to leave tallest building logic behind safe in the knowledge that there will be another taller one along soon enough.

Relieved that I am not having to endure that queue, but slightly discomfited that i have come this far and still not aloft, i walk into the fading desert light, not yet ready to go to the airport, not yet ready for the end of the light. I make my way towards the high end hotel and decide that infiltration of that place is the only possible way to go. I try to enter through the car park underground but cannot get in.  The front door is easier and not difficult to pass through and the woman in the business centre is positively welcoming, inviting to me to enjoy their seven star splendour. The whole place is thickly carpeted, wonderfully hushed after the clamour of the Mall and the tower.

I coattail into a lift behind two german woman who can afford to stay there, and exit at the same floor as they. Upstairs is even more hushed, subdued. don’t you get any excitement for $400 a night? Just all this quiet, with subservient staff in the shadows, always attentive always unobtrusive.

i leave the guest room level where discreet adverts promise ‘new levels of privilege’ – dont they have quite enough already? But then maybe you can never have enough privilege. the P drug needing ever more expensive fixes.  In the deserted mezzanine floor of The Address hotel  i sit quietly to contemplate a larger than Hepworth – but in the style of Hepworth – sculpture. It is really beautiful; some form of black marble and impossibly large, but not vulgar in this high ceilinged setting. i sit in a sofa on the edge of a sofa and meditate quietly on the wonder of being here, all so quiet and so fine. i enter the conference area and find that deserted, so proceed through the atrium, visualising hosting a fine conference of my own design, treading on these magnificent carpets, proudly glad handing my guests while offering them champagne.

I see a door to the balcony that skirts the entire perimeter of the poop deck. This is the very balcony that i admired from the restaurant earlier. Hardly believing the door pushes to, i am suddenly out here alone as the sun finishes its settling, and the lights in the tower twinkle magically. So now i am the captain of this fine hotel, captain of my destiny.  It is glorious moment that rests happily for a long time. This beats any trip up the tower which would never in fact afford a view of itself. the best things never do once you are inside of them.

i make my way via a whole series of lifts to the inevitable sky top bar with subdued lighting, to allow the view of the city beneath. It is pretty but i preferred my empty balcony. My mother would have scanned this bar for evidence of high rollers. All i could perceive though the dim lighting were ordinary people seeming to be looking for evidence of high rollers. The simulacrum, the empty experience of Umberto Eco’s propethising. 

Back then in a cab, off to pick up my bags and find the airport.  The driver is enlightening as to the lives of Pakistanis in Dubai. at the airport everyone but me is on their way to various parts of Asia, loaded up with flat screen  televisions. all day i had been feeling that i had been missing something and that was it. The cellophane wrapped telly ready to go. How could i have been so foolish?  

Bangkok: escaping the Immigration Office

I braved a further trip to immigration office last week. Decided to try jumping then by going on Friday afternoon late, before a public holiday on Monday. The deadline strategy seemed to work okay and they processed me in almost record time. My nemesis for the last three months was almost gracious in defeat, saying ‘have a nice day’ as I left, without any detectable note of sarcasm. Outside the far flung office a collection of foreigners clung together for comfort with all the taxis gone by that time of day and only the motor cycle option left.

As I climbed on the pillion a couple of stragglers asked me if it was safe – I said ‘up to you’ so we made a convoy and headed into town. It was exhilarating to find a way through all of that gridlocked traffic, even heading through crowded markets and down the narrowest of alleyways. Vraiment formidable shouted the French guy across to my bike as we moved into Red Arrows formation on a wider street though the Dutch lady still had her eyes wide shut. To our left the sobering sight of a train derailment, passengers milling about on the tracks. I guiltily want to reach for my phone camera then resist. 

Back in town i catch a train and wonder how they don’t derail more often as we sway against each other, crushed in tight, smart phones held high to be read like lanterns as passengers seek safe shelter. Back on the street i hail another bike for the final passage home. Some of these riders are really cautious others are in a permanent competitive frenzy. This guy was one of the frenzy merchants releasing the clutch before you have fully announced your destination never mind negotiated a price.

My bag swings wildly behind as we snake towards a righthand junction on an eight lane highway. He races as fast towards the light as ever this bike will allow. Just as we approach the changing light at highest speed he starts to sneeze convulsively and repeatedly. i clutch my newly stamped passport praying that the six months stay is of execution as well as of residence. 

Getting down with the protesters at Peace Camp

Getting down with the protesters. 30 03 2104 
After two days of being a recipient (not a victim) of the protesters highly successful ‘Shut Down Bangkok’ campaign, i decided to take my battered bike and equally battered body round Lumpini Park, the lung of the city where i habitually ride and now serving as the HQ of the Peoples Party.  I was allowed through the barricade of tyres and sandbags to be waved into a wonder world. This park is normally populated only by older folk passing the day with Tai Chi or dominos while lamenting the state of the world, mixed with yuppies on high end bikes and the occasional tourists who have somehow escaped the Tourist Board’s version of a temple-based Disney world of floating markets and dancing elephants.

Presided over of course with the noble permission of the conspicuous monitor lizards who long ago declared the park to be their kingdom. Replacing this usual tableau I discover instead a world of colour, vibrant sound, and lemon grass scents quite different in kind from those ever witnessed here before. Every patch of grass has a mosquito-net tent on it, every river terrace lined with sitting people, eyes alive, quietly satisfied with their day of Shut Down.  They eye me cautiously at first, as i am the only white face in this ‘country comes to the city scene.’

Cycling around my usual circular route I find that third time around i am shown recognition and smiles which i reciprocate though i mainly keep my camera in my pocket.  A band plays Thai pop music which i have grown to find a soft spot for, this wall of sound reaching every part of the park and beyond via giant mobile speakers, parked alongside the meticulous mobile toilet blocks.  All feels serene and as the music picks up, the mood is quite joyous.

I soon i find myself dancing along with the irresistible beat and the swaying crowd, thinking there are other ways to express democracy rather than the ballot box. An old lady wearing a bandana saying ‘We love the King’ smiles in beneficent union at me. Yet  i see no press, no police, no army. Outside the park yes their presence is felt but inside nothing, not one sign of the normal forces of social shaping, The sense of ‘organising’ and quietly building a society that works here is unignorable.  In fact I am rather surprised it has been allowed.

Part of me wants ‘my’ park back, another part celebrates that maybe it has gone forever. it reminds me of Cape Town post Mandela dispensation in 1994 when suddenly the once all white beaches became black, or mixed. to witness privilege being appropriated overnight is symbolically breathtaking, not least as we more usually witness appropriation occurring in quite the reverse direction.  The monitor lizards are nowhere to be seen, though i expect before too long some alternative surveillance, of social monitoring will be in operation.

Why are the press not in this camp? This morning’s editorial in the English language newspaper ‘The Nation’ was dedicated to speculation about the impact of loss of Alex Ferguson’s leadership on the demise of Manchester United.  the gaze seems to be anywhere, anything other than the lived experience of these protestors, focussing if it recognises them at all only on their leaders and their rhetoric.  I return to the sandbagged gates, threshold to the normal cacophony of traffic and fume. I think I was safer in there than I am out here. And i wish them no harm at all, but fear reform might be a long time coming.  

Breaking camp at the Peoples Park: 31 03 2014
 Returned on the trusty rusty bicycle yesterday to witness the next evolutionary stage of this democratic temporary organisation. I find the camp in a liminal state between the weekend’s total occupation and the the re-introduction of the forces of normalisation in the form of the regular park workers. The music continued to play for a while, sadly to be replaced by interminable political speech-ifying.  Despite the monotony of this – which most in the camp seemed to ignore – some of the deep groove from the day before persisted.  

It seemed that while some were reluctantly breaking camp, gathering their few belongings around then for the journey home, some seemed to be embedding themselves more deeply than ever. One man had set up a highly enterprising barbers shop beside the primitive shower block, attracting a long queue of customers. Many stalls were now popping up selling drinks, hats and for some reason denim shirts.  One woman’s entrepreneurial triumph was a push-up bra pop-up shop, though her market research team may have been a little misguided in targeting this particular market which needed little uplift.  A few stall owners improvised arches of recycled drinks bottles that magically refracted the midday sun.

The crows large as ravens that had disappeared over the weekend were now returned in full malignancy, reclaiming their ground by the river while feasting on the few scraps left behind. The clean up was total, the park being restored to pristine condition as the tents were raised, not a plant left out of place.  The fountains sprayed once more, while the  pressure sprinklers in their high arc paid their normal disregard to passers by.  One welcome but intrusive innovation was the presence of men dressed in ghost-buster outfits spraying pungent disinfectant down every drain, leaving a cloud of toxic fume behind that made it impossible to walk or cycle through without choking for those of us not blessed with decontamination suits.

The water bowsers and other park vehicles were made to check in by the provisional guards at the still sandbagged gate, though the searches of these trucks seemed congenial enough. One aspect of contemporary life still absent from the camp was the sight of people poking at smart phone screens, oblivious to immediate appreciation of those around them. I guess this absence may have been due to lack of power but it was nonetheless noticeable that this country which has recently surrendered to the smartphone was rediscovering an immediate ease and communion with each other.

 At the exit a group of happy protestors asked me if i could take their group photo, many phones appearing from pockets to be thrust in my direction.  I gently inquired if i may have a picture of their ensemble too as their beaming faces spoke volumes, but they declined. I restricted my photos of the camp once more to inanimate views. By the gate one of the guards stepped out not to admonish me for photographing – as i had thought – but to reward me with a most welcome bottle of chilled water.

In the middle of the adjoining highway the army had set up their own sandbagged post for the protection of the citizens. I boldly asked if i may take their picture, prepared to cycle off at speed if it all kicked off. They were more than happy to pose though. Perhaps they have nothing to fear from anyone.  Next weekend the Red Shirts march, perhaps with designs on the park also.  Today the English language newspaper says that the Army are considering options to bring peace to this demonstration torn land. It will be interesting to see if this report proves to be true. Meanwhile the monitor lizards remain in their sceptical deep-dive.

The Death of Sue Townshend aged 76 and a half

a number of readers have nudged me of late regarding my recent silence on celebrity death.  The truth remains that i must remain authentic to personal reminiscence. The bare confession is that i have so little to add on the sad passings of Clarissa and of Peaches, both in their own ways tortured souls haunted by their respective demons.  I could of course reference the private conversation with Lord Bob of Boomtown back in the late eighties when i counselled him on the advisability of arcane naming of offspring, with all of the attendant hostages to fortune that such appellation would attract, but typically he would have none of it: even when i arranged for him a chastening seance with the entire Zappa family, accompanied of course by John Cage who was a few minutes late. 

During a later decade and for different reasons i felt the need to direct Clarrisa towards the Floydster to help her know better the dark tunnel she was entering.  I understand their ensuing Skype conversation went viral, conducted as one half of it was from a sidecar (not named desire), while the other side swayed for different reasons. The recent deaths where i do feel qualified to add value would of course be those of Richard Hoggart and Sue Townshend. How these events come in pairs.  I take minor credit for bringing together this erudite pairing to appear on a special edition of Laurie Taylor’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ in 2009, where between them they were able to delineate the seamless thread that was the pioneering of Cultural Studies 1955 – 1982. 

The passage between Hoggart’s sympathetic but never indulgent portrayal of postwar working class warp and weft and Towshend’s anthemic construction of eighties middle class thatcherism never sagged as one generation absorbed Hoggart; while Jacobson who was propping up Cultural studies at Wolverhampton played John the Baptist (with a classically ironic jewish twist) while awaiting the arrival of the greater talent than he that was Townshend, before the wilderness years kicked in.  After the show we retired to the Green Room where Laurie made an unfortunate grab for the post-Marxian popularisation of cultural studies.  The Hogg was disdainful, while Sue suggested that Laurie acted his age (76 and a half) 

Marques is dead

I would prove to the men how mistaken they are in thinking that they no longer fall in love when they grow old–not knowing that they grow old when they stop falling in love’.

I sit in the back yard, dawn softly breaking, utterly alone. I perch on a white chair, surrounded by high while walls, the paving recently scoured clean of weeds by Louise who now sleeps, drugged from her exertions.  I struggle to clear my mind but the troubling decision regarding the corrosive pay dispute and the impending marking strike will not be subdued. A dream from last night intrudes where a foreign colleague explains that she has been completing her marking by ‘striking through’ each and every exam page with a bold pencil stroke, then awarding a random grade, some getting full marks.  Would that I could resolve my struggle between justice and putting food on the table with such a gesture.

 Alone, my mind seeks to empty, aware that soon the tourists will be abroad, on the other side of the wall that keeps reality at bay. They will be gossiping in satisfied tones that there is precious little evidence of the winters storms that they had vicariously endured through TV footage despoiling their favourite beaches, tea-shops, promenades. Little do they know of our recontouring work that will play tricks with their memories, feed their need for continuity while the sea changes everything, every day.  A decision needs to be made before they intrude. On the rooftop a familiar gull lands and flaps, gaining my attention.  In time the sky blackens as an albatross alights beside her, a delicate landing for such a creature. 

 She has some news to relate that does not concern  industrial conflict or the overthrow of education policy. She tells me that ‘marks is dead I am confused for a while saying that we all know that – but surely it does make the concept of surplus value any the less real.  No she laments not Karl or Groucho but Gabo, the man who breathed life into stories such as the one we are living.  Ah Gabo but surely Marques not Marks?  Not so she lisped in her far away columbian twang that on the out breath cat tied the scent of desolate oceans. Her speech came with difficulty. It must have years since it was necessary. For those of us who deeply know his acquaintance there is but one syllable in that name. The kezz or kwezz addition is pure baroque ornament,

A Western affectation copied by would be cognoscenti whose need for cleverness will always obscure plain truth. It is simply Marques, fully Marques. He never made the hundred years he craved, the old hundred, but eighty-seven is indivisible, as he would have known. The gull leads off, while the albatross follows, in one motion high, separate against that prefect sky. At my feet a snail traces sticky residue across the pristine paving.  I resist arising, resist reaching for the newspaper that i know lies on the mat and that will confirm through recycled Twitter tributes what i already know. I am alone with this. This reality. 

The end of Bob ’n’ Gerry. 

The end of Bob ’n’ Gerry. 
Today more bad double death-bed news bringing yet more heartbreak leavened only by fond reminiscence.  I had the good fortune to be advising Bob Hoskins on his career direction back in 1980, following his minor breakthrough in Potter’s ‘Pennies from Heaven’, a currency that i profoundly wish will rain upon Bob as he makes his gruff transit through the heavenly gates.  Bob was at a cross roads at that time, thinking about comedy but quite sure that there was scope for his dark side also. He sniffed around the idea of taking advice from Max Clifford for a while but then decided to go with a properly qualified career coach, aka yours truly.  

The first exchanges were never easy but as the early sparring settled to nose to nose exchange of views (where we usefully applied the GROW model) it seemed clear that a Sweeney type drama would be the clear next step for Bob.    While Bob loved the script for the Long Good Friday – where he would mastermind a property deal founded by the Mafia, only to run foul of the IRA – he was always a man for the method approach. Just as he had met then befriended the Kray twins in the past, he felt he needed direct access to the IRA to fill in the context, (where i helped him draw upon Porter’s five forces model to good effect.)  

Flipping through my rolodex it was the work of few encrypted phone calls to contact Gerry Adams in his Belfast hideaway to arrange a meet in a quiet pub in Stranraer.  As the beer and whisky flew tongues loosened to the point where Bob was really getting inside the IRA mind set (using guided visualisation techniques and advanced listening skills by donning a balaclava back-to-front.) While Bob learned greatly, Ideas were also flowing in the other direction towards Gerry. “You say the name of this fil-um is ‘The Long Good Friday’?

As a deeply religious man I could take exception to that but on the other hand it could be a perfect day of the year to forge a game changing alliance where Sinn Fein could drive the unification of all Ireland.  We could call it the Long Good Friday Agreement – i am sure there is some ambitious young politician out there who would enjoy the hand of history on his shoulder at the turning point.’ Bob said ‘Yeh and by that time all of this fuss and nonsense about Jean McConville should have died down too. Memories are never that long.’ We staggered arm in armalite out into the night, Gerry onto the early morning ferry, Bob and me into my souped up Granada, well pleased with our evening’s work.  

Bob’s career as you know blossomed from that point on, though despite my continuing professional support he did suffer deep moments of self-doubt, given his lowly background. He would frequently say ‘any time now I expect that 25 tons of horse shit is going to land on my head. ‘ No amount of positive affirmations could shif this fear though it never did realise, except until this morning. Is surely no coincidence that on the same morning of the announcement of Bob’s death British Security Forces decided on the state execution of Gerry Adams, just as Stormont gears up for fresh elections.

 It was surprising though that MI5 filed photos of the execution to RTE and BCC, though perhaps they were following the PR strategy of the Assad regime, to whom they are cosy-ed up .  The Sun reported under the front page last picture ever taken of Gerry Adams that ‘his last moment needed no words – merely anguished facial expressions subtly morphing from shock and fear into resignation and grim amusement.’ How redolent then of Bob’s last moments in the Long Good Friday when he realises that the game is finally up.  And so on the same day we witness the demise of two menacing hard men with a vulnerable edge.  I was glad that at lon at east one point in their troubled time on earth that I was able to bring them together for a moment of true reunion. 

The death of Robin Williams and Rick Mayall

As the heart numbing sadness from last week’s news concerning the Death of Robin Williams subsides, i struggle to put into words my recollection of my times with him and his wayward genius, intersecting as those memories do with the time Robin met Rick Mayall in my Earls Court basement late in 1988.   This meeting was no coincidence. I had been acting as confidante and life-coach to them both throughout the eighties as a i plied my trade either side of the pond.

With Rick we worked on the transition from the carnage that the Young Ones had become towards an emerging maturity as a solo tragicomic force. With Robin it was all more complex, post the charming but infantile Mork stuff. Looking backI felt that our crucial coaching session prior to his taking on Good Morning Vietnam was pivotal in his transition towards something darker and more telling.  It irritates me now to read eulogies from those who claim to have known him that he was soley a ‘depressive’, when clearly he was manic-depressive and that the comedy lay in the interstices of his mood swings.  

And on behalf of both Rick and Robin it feels insufficient for me to read praise for their ‘improvisation’ without seeking to discover what the wellspring of that impro urge might have been. As the only person ever to have been close enough to each of them to have known the truth in this – close enough to have brought them together that one and only time – then i can with confidence reveal that the source of their common gift for manic outpouring was a deep embracing of the absurd that made my Dadaist heart swell. 
i engineering the meeting between them at a time when they were each at career choice points and short of inspiration and partners that could sustain their high octane output.  Though they each resisted the thought of meeting a comic counterpart – a mirror self – each conceded that no harm would be done if the purpose was to trigger fresh purpose and direction.  The day that we three planned together stretched into two then three days. We never left the flat, but bounced off the walls sufficient to have broken them down. Robin watched one episode of Young Ones then launched into a US parody of the same set in a Frat House that would have run for years if it had ever made the TV screen.  He played every part, including the Russian Janitor, to telling effect. Not to be outdone, Rick then staged “Good Evening Crimea’ transposing all the memes of Robin’s masterpiece onto a caricature of a Times reporter dictating events to a mesmerised audience in a Pall Mall club. 

As we staggered into day three a silence descended. We were all three spent quite spent.  ‘What next? ‘ i essayed but was met with blank eyes. Each had met an equal talent and in there attempts to out-impress each other something had broken inside of each of them perhaps irrevocably.  There was clearly no next. My mad plan for the ‘Rick ’n’ Robin Roundabout’ could not even be uttered in this funereal mood. We all three of us had come to an ending. Robin resigned himself to the mawkish sentimentality that was his dreary family fun of the nineties. Rick sold out and did the New Statesman.  It took me a while for me to remerge as a force in the land, but then the chance to be life coach to Diana Spencer could not be refused. 

The death of Paisley and Rivers

Perhaps it is the fate of life-long dedication to life -coaching that your earlier clients eventually shuffle off this mortal coil, and one is left to ponder anew the triumph that was their lives.  Ian Paisley was a politician famous for his fast, self-mocking, bitchy patter, his raspy voice, and his borderline offensive material. Joan Rivers was seen as a firebrand comedienne and the face of hardline stand-up. Charismatic, eloquent, energetic and malevolent, Rivers succeeded in splitting every broadcasting organisation in which she became involved. Too arrogant ever to follow, both could only lead. And now they both face the Late Show in the same autumnal week. 

I coached each of them through many of the various explosive episodes that were to colour their lives; and I must say I felt i was earning every listening- soaked penny, especially during the Seventies. They were never to meet until 2006 when Ian had fallen so low that he was even thinking of hiring the sadly deceased Max Clifford (if your remember also a client of mine), while Joan’s plastic surgery jokes were wearing as thin as the skin on her forehead.

 I suggested to Ian that time with Joan could really help him lighten up his routine which had become hard and gloomy; while for Joan hanging with Ian would give her a template for a husband to challenge her to the core.  Joan saw potential for them doing a double act and the early rehearsals in my Earls Court basement proved really promising. They considered calling themselves the Chuckle Twins and would have toured this show had it not been for the late and surprising call to Stormont for Ian. Easily conceding the compromise to Sinn Fein none thought him capable of, he then under my advice enlisted the coaching of Joan to put him and Martin McGuinness through the Chuckles routine. The rest as you know is the hand of history. May they both ‘rant in peace.’  

Cocaine Wars in Costa Rica

I should never have brought the guidebook or worse still looked inside of it. Guidebook guilt bites deep. How could i not be going to all these recommended places? How could i hope that my random roamings would ever take me near any of these sites and sounds? I drop into a neighbourhood cafe to escape the heat and get to know the low life or at least the medium life that escaped the reach of Lonely Planet. A welcome english-speaking voice two stools down the bar leaned across to say ‘It is a hot one today – it is all the refections.’I reply ‘yes life is all reflective surfaces, avoid them though we might try.

”Ah you are a philosopher’ says he and then I listened for the ensuing three and a half hours to his fast forward chatter. I wanted to know about this city, really know about it, and he had been here thirty years. Most of the time it is worth listening to someone who has been anywhere for thirty years. So I learned of the city and beyond that i learned of his long walk across the Sahara; of his driving right up the Andes at the age of seventeen; of his time in the SAS and much else besides. Later he explained that he had not slept for four days. He and his Jamaican mate had been on a cocaine binge while conducting a protracted car boot sale for a rich old lady who had decided to sell up. Said mate arrived to hand over $4000 in local currency not from the car boot sale but from another deal. I was invited back to his farm to escape the city if not that evening then the following day. I await the call thinking he might need to sleep off the drugs and the stories. But for some reason i am ready for some more of this ..

My new best getting on for ex-best cocaine- ready friend has shown me new extremes of what over stimulation can do. He appeared at my hotel room door with the remains of an american backpacker whom he said had been robbed three days ago of all but hi passport and had been living on the street of this mean city. Cue the placing of said young american under the shower while NBF asked me ‘you are a good judge of character i am not? do you think Tony is all he says he is?’ I said ‘it is hard to know while he is in the shower. ‘Next up for a shower was NBF who had not been home to the farm for now six days. I really begin to wonder if there is a farm or whether he had bet it all away.

Tony the YA was all he said he was under the now removed layer to dirt. He used my phone to get some money wired. His dad was shouting at him. His dad is an Ex US military F 1-11 pilot. Those that did not die mid air did tend to do a lot of shouting later in life.

At that stage i think Tony was reconsidering his decision to abandon the streets.NBF appears clutching some body lotion snatched from my bathroom tray of rarely used goodies. He suggested that Tony used the lotion on his feet, battered as they were from street living. Before i can deliver the verdict on Tony NBF is back in the bathroom locking the door. i can only guess that it not only talcum powder that he craves. Meanwhile Tony in the act of applying lotion to my sheets promptly passes out on my bed.

At this point i am coming over all unreconstructed UKIP about the need to excise my wonderfully British colonial outpost of a room of all alien infestation. i waken up Tony to go get his wired money and tell NBF that there is cheap marijuana going in the adjacent side street. We exit together but do not get much further than the next bar where NBF needs to celebrate his new found cleanliness with a few rounds of tequila slammers. Tony by this point is passing out. We take him to the money lender next to the fortune-teller then NBF invites me to the casino where he tells me he always wins. I mind his blackjack hand while he goes to wash his hands and fill his nose once more. He returns even more supercharged. I did not know it was even possible to speak both Spanish and English at F 1-11 warp speed. fellow gamblers either covered their ears or left while the croupier was reaching under the table for something menacing.

My care-taking of my NBF’s hand was not that good and i beat a hasty retreat to an even darker bar that seeped disappointment. Then in a transcendental moment a three piece band bursts onto the scene in full hispanic regalia to sing and play vibrant song at full expressive volume – except there is nothing romantic in the whole place going on beside this band. It was feeling more and more like being within a Tom Waits song
Sympathy for the DevilI knew it was a mistake to let my two charges out of my sight on Friday night, restorative though their absence was. I had just stepped outside of my hotel into the morning sunlight when an apparition that might have been Tony the Young American lurched towards me.

My first uncharitable thought was that i was glad i had made it past the front door before he trapped himself inside my room one more. His appearance revealed a paradox; who knew that it was safer on the streets than it was having money for a hotel and some food? YA was sporting what he described – as far as he was in a state to describe anything – as a ‘hole in his head.’ it was vast and bloodied around the edge of the crater. Copious consumption of ganja and the local white spirit Coquique persuaded him that it was a really good idea to make more that a pass towards the wife of the local ganglord who bears a more than passing resemblance to Ray Winstone on a bad day.

Now broke once more and bloodied he was back on the streets, which i helpfully explained to him could be the safer option. I also thought it best to admire the vulture that he said was standing on my shoulder rather than brush it off as drug-fuelled delusion. Inevitably he wanted me to take him for a beer. And the vulture.leaving NBF was a mistake only in that I could not verify his tales of `his full-on assault on Friday night, though i was told on the phone i should have been there. Several times. His self report included tales of massive gambling success in every casino, the final casino yielding a moment when the most beautiful girl in town was told she could not leave her luggage behind the desk.

Ever `gallant, NBF’s report runs that he offered to store her bags in his hotel room, an offer without strings attached which she gratefully accepted. On arrival at this room the girl asked if she could shower, since it had been sometime since she left her boyfriend back at home and she was a bit stinky. I am told that while she was taking off her clothes, NBF said ‘well i may as well take mine off to.’ He agreed that she could stay but explained that no transaction would be made, for as i am sure you have guessed by now, NBF ‘never pays for it.’None of this can be verified of course so surrender in the face of this indominable torrent of words is the only sensible course.

The compensation is that the bar is humming on a Saturday, and while gentle rain falls outside we accompany an epic Tequila tasting session with renditions of the complete works of the Rolling Stones circa 1964 – 69. The owner who has parked his Triumph motorbike in the middle of the bar says the Stones are his favorite band. Cue fist bumps and extravagant hands shakes all around, In fact fist bumping has become my major form of exercise.I stupidly answer my phone to an un- recognised number. Inevitably it is NBF, his third number in three days.

If only there were some enthralling Breaking Bad scenario to explain this constant need for burner phones but the prosaic truth is that he just keeps losing them. As he talks ever onward my eyes drift towards the TV showing a Fast and Furious movie on mute, which seems to unfold in slow mo compared to the effluent of exaggeration pouring into my ear. As Sympathy for the Devil comes around for the second time, I run out of mine. NBF says he is on his way to the bar ‘to tell me all about it’ but I say i must go. ‘Where?’ he demands. ‘To karaoke’ i whisper, then ring off, while barring this latest number.

Karaoke was Connie’s idea. It came to her on the twelfth tequila. The Viper karaoke bar she explained was the best in the world and she was not wrong. The only thing which was wrong and which I had not legislated for was that her invite was freighted with virtual possession of me for the entire evening and beyond. When i cast my eye around the room, surveying the scene she hissed ‘You are looking at that other girl.’ Given that there were many ‘other girls’ mostly with husbands then I knew that this would not be a stress- free evening. My new friends and there were suddenly many who wanted to adopt the only gringo in the place were asking solicitously after my sulky, smouldering ‘girl friend.’ I shouted as loudly as i could above ” I Will Always Love yYou’ (Connie’s choice) that ‘she was NOT MY GF!’

Her screaming of the final chorus while grabbing me by the collar would seem to suggest otherwise to the watching crowd. The only way through this was to go join three guys of intermediate age who were thrilled to have me in their group for a boys night out, though i was never sure why. Cue more fist bumps, some of them bruising. In fact all me and the three amigos did was sing and bump and drink the concessionary beer. My knowledge of Spanish grew exponentially though all of this. And i can confidently report that ‘corazon’ is the most frequently used word in the Spanish language.

i put Connie who was now beyond tequila-max in a taxi three times and she reappeared three times, refreshed for more possession. The amigos were amused by this recurrent sideshow and in fact kept buying her drinks. When she refused the fourth taxi then i got in myself. As I in headed towards the hotel in grateful solitude the phone rang out with a number unknown to me.

Bangkok: the Peace Park

One sells whistles the other sells earplugs
I am dreading the main task of the day, returning a bootleg boxset to a bootleg boxset street stall vendor. i felt my claim was valid: Kevin Spacey does lose nuance when speaking confidentially to camera in Korean with Thai subtites, but i know the process of returning these goods will not prove easy. Especiallly so if the return is accepted then the vendor needs to disappear ‘far far away’ to meet his mate who burns the discs.

 Locking my bike to nearby fence I notice that this usually busy tourist street is quite empty save for four young women spaced at twenty metre intervals, each brandishing clipboards.  i realised at that moment that evasion of their charms would prove impossible, and that it might be best to submit to the first wave of interrogation rather than to have to engage in sidestep practice further down the payment.  She stands in my way in a polite but determined sort of way, saying brightly  ‘ Hello! please help me with a tourist survey!’  

I i indicate that I am open to inquiry and ask for a preview of her questions. On scrutinising her questionnaire it becomes clear that she is going to be asking me a version of the big three; ‘where do you come from; where are you going to; what are you looking for?’  This discovery brings an inner smile of recognition, as these are the self-same questions that are asked of every tourist that ever walks down this street by every purveyor ever of taxis, soapy saunas, dodgy DVDs, fools gold, fragile silks, make-believe Marlboro, elephant rides. their company short or long time, their sisters company; at some level it was heartening to know that the official tourist board was not straying too far from this trusted interrogation ritual. 

‘Where do you come from’ is not as easy as it might seem.  I ramble on about my shifting roots among the celtic diaspora. speak of the nature of my far flung family.  Listening to the final piece she essays ‘ Canada?’ We settle for this as my point of origin, tick the box and move on.  Already i am feeling happy in this new somewhat neutral identity, though wishing i were wearing a larger hat. 

‘Where are you going to’ is no easier. I indicate the bag of illicit DVDs ‘Ah you like Brad. Angelina!’ She beams while ticking the shopping box. `I want to speak of Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle:  of the impossibility of concurrently knowing where you are and where you might be going but shopping seemed to short cut most of the quandaries that quantum mechanics poses. 

‘What are you looking for’ drives us away from the world of the quantum towards more prosaic existential dilemmas, most of these covered more than adequately by Bono a long time ago.  ‘ i am seeking buddha’ i declare. ‘Oh you want to see lying buddha? many tourist love lying buddha!’ I want to say that i seek a more truthful buddha, one that eschews the merit system that keeps the poor tithed, but it is all way to complex. She ticks ‘Wat Po / royal palace’ ‘ then I am released to bypass her colleagues on the way to the DVD man.  he jumps out from his stall, excitedly repeating ‘Game of Thrones, game of Thrones!’ I think he is referred to the royal succession and admire his bravery in the face of the les majeste laws, but then realise that we back to box sets talk.

Strange to relate none of these sets have their eponymous boxes, and many of the sets are in random order, which is most unsettling. I explain about my Spacey problem. He is immediately sympathetic, and swaps it for another set he has at hand which seems to play well enough on his stall-side player but without sound. Or subtitles. 
Wearied by all this negotiation of social identity, life purpose and then unreasonably asking for basic requirements of sound and light from consumer entertainment, i retrieve my bike that lies beyond the clip board girls and point my wheels towards the sanctuary of the protestors’ park.  

To reach there I decide to take side roads and travel through an adjacent park set around an urban lake, a park that is protestor free.  i meet a young american who has paused mid jog to snap up a picture of the perfectly blossoming bougainvillaea. We fall into conversation about the silence in this park, speculating as to why no one is ever here. I notice a monitor lizard cross the path and wonder aloud  if it has escaped the protestors for a more peaceful life here.  I have never seen them here before and they have disappeared in the face of the mob from the other park. My executive american friend says he used to jog at the protestor’s camp but has not been there ‘since the invasion.’

I suggest it might prove enlightening for him, but he looks reproving saying that ‘there is no point in putting myself in harm’s way.’ True enough i think, as I move on to do just that.  Further along the lake a film crew make a commercial that involves a runner speeding along the curve in the track accompanied by one of those magic camera man trollies that speed in perfect unison with the actor. This actor is Hollister man, not unlike my jogging friend, square of jaw and resolute of purpose. Perhaps it is possible to know where you have come from and where you are going to if you have a cameraman tracking you every step of the way.  I must commission a witness on wheels immediately for the remainder of my career through life, if only to show folk when they ask me the big three. 

it feels like coming home, to return to the and bagged gates of the peace park, as i now find myself calling it.  The protestors are now the new norm, i no longer think of that time when the park was just one other  largely empty retreat for those that could afford the luxury of time and space. On the third time around I need to stop and take on some water, seeking a bench near where the bicycle club used to meet before we were evicted by the mob.  As i sit beside a fellow foreigner, two cyclists pass and wave hello, shortly followed by one other, who does the same. My seated companion observes that ‘you cyclists certainly seem to know each other.’

 I explain that we do and that while the club no longer has premises we still recognise our right to be here, recognise each other in friendship and complicity with the crowd.  He asks how i know these thais and i say through the cycling and the park.  He comments on the new friends he has made since hanging around the camp. We both share a fascination for the place, observing  how generous those who have nothing can be towards perfect strangers, while those who have everything they might ever need would kick you out of the neighbourhood if your were to ask for so much as a glass  of water. 

He is a somewhat disillusioned yet enlightened Australian academic, sixty six years old, who has recently walked the length of New Zealand chatting to indigenous people on the way and who is now planning to walk the width of Australia, doing the same, living on very little, relying on the comfort of strangers,  while researching song lines.  We talk of the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired, and of how education is increasingly attempting to commoditise it.  We talk of the nature of money and how little understood wealth is, how little you might truly need.  

We think of what the protestors aspire towards, and talk of what the politicians the educators and even the monks take from them as they pursue a ‘better’ life. We discuss how best to live in the seventieth or any other decade of human existence. We note the impermanence of life, laugh a little at those who have it all planned out and what occurs to interrupt  that smooth narrative from unfolding.  He says that while walking he writes two thousand words at the end of each day, commenting on how enlivened he feels in that process.  

Now he has so much material, more than he would he would ever  have from the equivalent months spent in a library or browsing online journals.  I empathise with this, saying that my legs are slowing now and such long range walking projects are out of my reach but i wish him god speed with his.  In this way and in our own time we cover the three big questions of existence, and find ourselves coming up with remarkably similar answers.  

We part with a silent nod of recognition shared between twin souls,  him to his trek, me to my last spin around the park before packing and heading towards the airport.  i notice near the exit two stalls adjacent to each other, one selling the ubiquitous whistles – which all self-respecting protestors must blow – the other selling ear plugs. Perhaps both things are needed to get on in  this life, when the major questions present themselves, in groups of three.