The Soul of my Suit

There seems to be a bit of a fashion note creeping into these missives of late, and indeed this particular bunch of virtual scribblings will be no exception, as we proceed through the sickly events of this past week up to your humble correspondents encounter on Saturday last with…
The tailors of Ambre!!!

The pained coughs, wheezes, snorts, splutters et al that accompanied our family visit to Siem Reap to celebrate my birthday (and were compounded by our otherwise lovely driver Socheath’s attempts to cryogenically freeze the lot of us with his state of the art AC on the way back) carried blithely over into the following week, rendering the entire family prostrate at one point, somewhat resembling the Fort Knox gassing scene in ‘Goldfinger’, and effectively knocking Ani and myself completely out of action for a few days.

Poor Ani had to stumble back to school for the latter part of the week, where to compound her already overwhelming miseries a caring parent decided to celebrate their little darling’s birthday with a cake. Not just any cake, but a Durian cake. No, for those reading this in western parts, that’s not a misprint, the parent was not a major fan of dodgy 80’s blow dried Diana -gawd-rest–‘er-soul favourites Duran Duran (of whom more later – can you wait? Please don’t expire from excitement!), but rather a fan of the so called (around these parts anyhow) King of Fruit, the Durian. The Durian is a fruit which is, and here I will steal wholesale from Wikipedia, ‘distinctive for its large size, unique odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk.’ The part that should concern us regarding this particular application of the fruit, is the ‘unique odour’. What can I say? The majority of expats I have talked with on the subject seem to agree that the closest verbal approximation of this olfactory experience would be the stench of extremely ripe, cheesy and smelly socks… to be honest, I personally don’t find the smell too offensive, just slightly reminiscent of the boys changing room in Thurso High School circa 1969… but that’s another story…

Meanwhile, back at the classroom, there was a bit of a scenario going on. The Durian smell and taste had combined with the wonderful creation of a cream-and-icing-sugar horses head surmounting the cake to induce both hyperactive behaviour and projectile vomiting in many of the children who had wolfishly consumed this ‘treat’… ah, the sad lot of the early years teacher… I was glad to be at home, completely inert in bed, unable to even summon the strength to rotate the click wheel on my I-pod… yes, that’s how ill I was…

As we’ve just touched on the subject, we’ll briefly pause here for this week’s music recommendation, which is a double album of staggering wonderfullness called ‘Nigerian Rock Special – Psychedelic Afro-Rock and Fuzz Funk in 1970’s Nigeria’, which is on the Soundway label and is absolutely everything the title implies and more… simply loonpantfully magnificent! Do check it out if you yearn for the past joys of a well trodden wah-wah… ok, ad break over, back to the blog…

Saturday dawned, and we decided that although still hacking and sputtering, we would venture forth into the balmy Phnom Penh day and do a bit of shopping. In July we are going to decant briefly to New York, to attend a reunion and celebration of the Indian branch of our family tree, and of course the big question that hangs around this event, looming ominously and even larger than ‘where are we going to stay’ is ‘WHAT ARE WE GOING TO WEAR?’. Now, in my mind that had translated into ‘what are Ani and little O going to wear’, as I had already mentally commited to the universal ‘trousers and shirt, any colour’ for the formal, and ‘jeans and t-shirt, any colour’ for the informal aspects of this family gathering, hoping against hope that no-one would remember I was Scottish and attempt to force me into kilted garb… but lets face it, I’m not really built for a kilt, leaning more toward the Russ Abbott than the Mel Gibson (good Scotsmen both, eh?). However, a sneaking suspicion lingered that perhaps I might just have to make a bit more of an effort on the formal wear front…

So Saturday afternoon it was into the good Chairman Mao’s black wrestling-sticker bedecked Tuk-Tuk, first stop the Russian Market, to buy some material to construct (is that the appropriate word?) a suitable garment for Otis. We spared him the excitement of the market, though truthfully we actually spared the market the ‘excitement’ of the young Oti. He’s fifteen months old now, and at the stage where everything is in reach, by fair means or foul, and equally everything must be investigated fully and tested, tasted, prodded, pulled, poked, stretched, bent, bounced… you get the picture, I’m sure. He is, I have to say, generally very well-behaved in public, indeed a veritable charmer, but in the warren-like confines of the market where an inopportune tug could cause the very fabric of the building to collapse upon itself it’s best not to take any risks. We sweated and haggled, and came away with some very nice white linen and also some very wonderful yet bizarre material which combined skulls, swords and flamingos to startlingly weird effect… should make a very nice waistcoat for the wee chap and a talking point for the nannies…. We left the market in cheerful spirits, then Ani announced that she wanted to visit Ambre.

Ambre is an incredibly stylish designer fashion shop located in a beautiful town house in Phnom Penh. Here one can marvel not only at the rainbow-hued glamorous designs of the stunning Ms Romyda Keth, but also greatly marvel at how she can possibly stand, let alone walk, in her incredibly high heels, and indeed further marvel at the attempts of the manifold western women who are trying to squeeze into designs which are plainly targeted at the delicate sylph-like lines of the asian female form. I firmly believe that a survey would reveal the most oft-quoted line the staff in Ambre hear would be ‘do you have that in a bigger size?’. We were sheperded in, shielded from the by now driving rain by umbrellas, and entered this urbane and urbane oasis of cool. As Ani looked around the many rooms in search of inspiration I sat there feeling even shabbier and scruffier than usual as vertical feet Romyda and her team whisked and fussed around their clientele looking impossibly chic, though I was cheered that unlike the other western men there at that time at least I wasn’t garbed in the appalling uniform of long shorts and shapeless t-shirt. Ani came back to find me sitting disconsolate outside the changing rooms (that sounds bad, doesn’t it, but the truth is that this place is so chic I didn’t even realise I was sitting outside the changing rooms – none of that M&S ‘only four items at a time and thousands of coat hangers lying around’ malarkey here). ‘OK, lets go’ I ventured, gearing up for a sprint downstairs and out the door as fast as my fake Birkenstocks would take me. It was not to be.

‘why don’t we have a look at the men’s stuff’ she said.
Somewhere in the distance a muffled bell tolled. A door slammed, and a lone tumbleweed bounced forlornly past, small eddies of dust following in its wake. The silence seemed to last for an eternity. Without looking up, I replied.
‘No’
‘come on’ said Ani, ‘don’t be silly. Just a quick look, then we can go.’
I should have just wriggled away from those ensnaring words and leapt the finely-wrought bannister to freedom, but I did not. I grudgingly followed her down the steps to the mens department, trying to remain hovering just outside the door but ultimately failing and being drawn inexorably into a world of immaculately tailored suits and shirts.

Her eyes had already alighted upon a white suit racked near the door, and almost before I set foot inside had whisked it from its hanger to proffer before me… I had no time to splutter my usual stream of negatives before a tiny and pristine Cambodian man in a beautifully fitted pink shirt and white pencil thin trousers appeared, apparently from nowhere, in what to me was an eerie echo of Mr Benn’s shopkeeper. What bizarre adventure was I going to be hurled into?, I pondered as he expertly fed my unwilling arms into the crisp white sleeves. In my feverish imagination I was now firmly in the stereotyped domain of ‘The Fast Show’, of “Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width’, the ‘Rag Trade’, Grace Brother’s menswear department and every other camp cliché abounding around mens tailoring, fully expecting to now hear Khmer variations on ‘oooh, suits you sir’, ‘which side does sir dress??’, ‘let me just warm my tape measure…’ et al. What I actually received was a ruthlessly efficient fitting, interrupted briefly by a French man(ager?) who had been watching from the door and momentarily imposed his views on how to stick pins into me upon efficient pinkshirtman. In these situations, where I am clearly out of my depth and have no control whatsoever over unfolding events, I sink to using puerile humour to (mainly) reassure myself. This was no exception. Everything from mirror based attempts at humour (“you looking at me? Who you lookin’ at then?”), to every tenuous white suit related association I could muster (“haven’t you watched any Ealing films? Look what happened to Alec Guiness! Just call me scarface… Hi, I’m Tony, Tony Manero… ch’wanna dance? ‘Her name is Rio, and she dances on the sand…’, ‘lets all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born…’, the name is Bond…Basildon Bond… I was very, very drunk at the time…). Yes, I acknowledge that Simon Le Bon wasn’t actually wearing a white suit in the video for Rio, but he should have been, shouldn’t he? Fitting almost completed, and if truth be told now feeling slightly pleased with how the suit looked expertly cossetting my elderly frame, it was clearly time to try on some shirts. A striped b & w effort suggested by Ani just didn’t feel right, and pinkshirtman re-iterated this somewhat brutally as he snatched it from my fumbling grasp… ‘Tsk tsk! Too young!’. Eventually a plain black silk number was deemed appropriate by all, and what had appeared initially to me to be an ordeal a thousand times more agonising than the comfy chair of the Spanish Inquisition was fast drawing to a good humoured close. Suit and shirt would be ready in one week, and then I would be free to do my John Lennon Abbey Road impersonation (minus the hair and talent) as much as I wanted. Yay!! All the stereotypes flitting around the dusty attics of my brain department had long vanished, and it was with an unusually cocky swagger that I made my way toward the door. As he turned from folding the garment to say goodbye, pinkshirtman smiled and provided the icing on the proverbial cake…
‘ I must say sir, you know when you wear that suit, it make you look really…’

… Cool? Dashing? Manly? Debonair?

No.

‘… it make you look really cute…’

Exit. Stage left.

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Messin’ with the Kid

… so I’m sitting next to this young monk, and he’s nodding, smiling and somewhat enthusiastically pointing at my trousers. We’re perched on the edge of a reservoir in the first gallery of Angkor Wat and have been bonding over bottles of water and our growing mutual disbelief at the behaviour of many of the mostly Asian tourists who are milling around in front of us. One group have just re-enacted what appears to be the curtain call from ‘A Chorus Line’ on the steps leading up to a prayer area, oblivious of the chanting kneeling people, heads bowed in supplication just metres from them. Another two men are poised in what they believe are Olympic diving positions on the plinths adjoining the prayer area as their friend pushes people out of the way to get the best angle on this momentous pictorial. I’m still not quite sure what my trousers have to do with gaining the approval of the monk, as his English is somewhat faltering and my Khmer is still disgracefully lacking (now if he had been a monk driving a moto or a tuk-tuk we would have had less problem communicating – I can do all the ‘left, right, straight ahead, thank you’ stuff pretty convincingly now. However, I have yet to see a monk driving either of those vehicles…), so many and curious thoughts are flitting through my mind. Does he like the cut of the material? Maybe he was a tailor before the priesthood called… does he want to swap? That rather appeals to me, entering the temple as a crumpled, white-clad, bumbling Palin-ish figure, kroma draped around my neck for mopping the waterfalls of sweat mingled with sunblock that cascade down my face, leaving as a saffron-robed meditative, perhaps a tad incongruous in my socks and Timberland boots. And white face. Then realization gradually dawns as he continues gesticulating. I am almost the only man there not wearing shorts. Or a singlet or ‘muscle’ t-shirt. His approval is down to my seemingly modestly appropriate apparel. I smile and nod agreement with him. I don’t do (and never have done) the shorts and muscles bit. The unkind amongst you will sneer and say, ‘that’s because he hasn’t got the legs or the muscles for it’ and you will, of course, be absolutely right. But even if I did, I wouldn’t. I am a firm believer in the archetypal Graham Greene-ish Englishman abroad (Scottish variation, of course) look, linen suit, cotton shirt, something to mop the brow with, Panama hat and ‘thank you so much, a large Gin and Tonic would be most welcome…’ to follow. I find myself wondering what my companion would have made of Tomb Raider dear Angelina and her somewhat racy costume… I raise my bottle of water to my new young friend; smile and grin at the changes all around, pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday, get down on my knees and pray…

A new restaurant cum pub has opened in Phnom Penh, close to the holy shrine to the founder of the city, Wat Phnom. It’s called ‘Wat Sup’. Yes. Witty, eh? Foreign owned, of course. Sums up the attitude of many to a culture or religion that they simply don’t understand, or don’t want to understand. Angry of Angkor despairs at the way that so many tourists trample all over the cultural sensitivities of a people in order to get the best shot for the family album or the digital slideshow or the back garden son et lumiere or whatever, but maybe that’s the way the world is now, one great theme park that once you’ve paid the entrance fee you can do whatever you damn well like with… I shouldn’t moan, really. I’m as much the insensitive tourist as the next man or woman, albeit without the grotesque shorts or inappropriate cleavage (that of course could be an untruth, as many of you will not have seen me in the flesh for some time now… perhaps I look like Genesis P. Orridge now…). Please don’t think that my temple visits were all about sitting around grumbling either, as they were not. I had some very spiritually uplifting moments of peace and serenity amongst the ruins also. A potted résumé of the birthday weekend follows, to avoid boredom (mine) each paragraph will be lovingly pastiched in the style of a well known author… have fun guessing!

On that day, which was a Friday, the old man, James, packed the suitcases and waited for the taxi with the child. When it came it was not the usual driver.
‘You are not the usual driver’
‘No. His wife is sick’
‘Ok’
They drove to pick up the old man’s wife, and then out into the provinces. When they arrived in Siem Reap, they could not find the hotel.
“I do not know where it is’
“Neither do I’
“Maybe we should call them and ask for directions?’
‘That would be good’
They did so, and soon the dark limousine pulled into the dusty car park of the Pavillon D’Orient, which was to be their home for the next three days. Tired from the journey, they unloaded the car to the sounds of the surrounding crickets and frogs murmuring a welcome…

oh god what a wonderful hotel with a pool and lord knows what lovely staff lolloping around thisway thatway everywhim catering. ah saturday no sitaround day we had an earlystart, up with the lark and away to the temples queues like whoknows clogging and otis coughing and a spluttering in the back. the bairn is ill, ani’s ill and I’m not as chipper as I should be but lollapolulu we’re here to see some temples and by lord that’s what I’m going to do Angkor Wat what Wat what an amazing site and sight over the causeway we go lord so many people oh my this is certainly not dublin quick talking to get the better of the temple kids sharp as pocket knives could talk you into buying anything you don’t need but yes we’ll have a coke and a seven up nicely chilled if you don’t mind two dolla please mista and on to the bayon crumbling yet splendid a bit like yersel’ I can hear ani thinking too hot in the mid morning sun so back to the hotel for a resty rest rest….

Of the further exploration of the temples, and of the repast enjoyed by all that evening.

Upon awakening from their mid-day slumbers, the formerly weary travelers, although still wracked by wheezes and coughs, decided they would further explore the manifold splendours of the temple complexes surrounding the town. Mr. James summoned the carriage by means of his cellular telephone, and once Ms Anita and the young master Otis were ensconced in comfortable positions in the rear, Mr. James took position at the front with the driver and they began the trip. ‘What ho! What magnificence!’ These and many other similar cries passed the lips of Mr. James with increasing frequency during that afternoon. Although his wife and child were pale of countenance and in plain sufferance of the ague, or some such malady, they too expressed wonder at the glorious antiquities unfolding in front of them. Mr. James found several moments of incalculable peace in particular during his exploration of the temple known as Ta Phrom, a wondrous sight whereupon the jungle had encroached upon the very buildings in a manner which could only be described as organically magnificent. He sat in splendid isolation for five full minutes, contemplating the wondrousness of the scene around him and finding some inner solace in the still calm surrounding that holy place. All too soon it was time to return to the hotel, thence to dine, which they did in the splendour of the nearby Alliance café, and in the French style so much enamoured of the high-born. “I do say, Ms Anita, that was the most splendid filet mignon I have ever eaten.’ remarked Mr. James, chuckling as he observed the young master Otis attempting to catch the tails of the restaurant cat and her kittens as they played under the table ‘I’ll warrant one would be hard-pressed to find a better restaurant in all of fair France!’ he exclaimed loudly for the benefit of the many customers and the owner who stood nearby. ‘Oh, Mr. James, you are such a card!’ observed his wife, if one might say just a little embarrassed….

Sunday. The first time I laid eyes on the National Museum in Angkor I was impressed. Very impressed. It was my birthday. A man needs to treat himself once in a while, and why the hell not on his birthday? So I climbed the steps up to the entrance hall and went in. The attendant was the usual smiley character in a yellow jacket with the name of the museum stitched across the front in red. Twelve dollars lighter I was standing in the room of a thousand Buddha’s. “Buddha can you spare me a dime” I thought. I’ve always been cynical. Dames like that in a man. I wandered through the galleries, each one more awe-inspiring than the last. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not big on culture. Hell, one headless armless statue looks like another, just like one headless armless stiff looks like another. But this was something else. Did it change me? Hell, no. I’m too old for change. It impressed me though. That was really something. ‘You English?’ That was the dame in the museum shop. ‘Nah, pretty close.’ I said. Never give too much away. You know what careless talk does. I bought a present for the kid then called my cab driver. Back at the hotel my wife and the kid were still sick. I let them rest, then called the cab again. We needed to get out, the four walls were closing in. First stop, the Dead Fish Tower. Reminded me of the warehouse where Pretty Boy Kaminsky’s mob all bit the bullet courtesy of the trigger happy boys from LAPD and thanks to a tip off from me. They were scum and deserved it. No dead fish here, but a pit full of live crocodiles for the kid to taunt. After a burger that was so rare it was running around the table, we called the cab again and headed to a high class joint, the Raffles Hotel, for a couple of cocktails. You could tell by looking at the rubes and dames in there that this was not going to be two shots of redeye for a dollar fifty. Hey, the kid liked running around joints like these so who are we to stop his fun? He’s only a kid. My wife wanted to get back to the hotel. She’d been acting kinda edgy. I wondered if the mob had got to her. I started to feel edgy too. I didn’t have a piece with me. That’s a no-no when the lead starts flying… she called me to come to the hotel reception. My mouth went dry. This was it. The hit was on, and I was the schmuck in the firing line. I turned the corner, wondering how much I would feel as the slugs started to rip me apart…
‘Happy Birthday to you…’ My wife, the kid, all the staff, lined up with a birthday cake and balloons. I could have cried. But I didn’t. She’s kind. She looks after me. That night we went to a classy French joint, Le Bistrot. It’s good to eat well and in good company. I’m no saint, but I’m lucky that I’ve got people who love me and care for me. Hell, I love them and care for them too. Later, back at the hotel, I settled down with a fancy drink and loosened my metaphorical private eye tie. ‘You know James, that was such a good birthday…you’re a very lucky man’ I reminded myself, before that big sleep drew its dark veil over me…

Thanks for inspiration (and sincere apologies) to Ernie, Jimmy, Charlie and Ray, and once again thank you to Ani for arranging what was a wonderful birthday weekend and to Oti for, well, for being Oti!

Thanks also to all who sent birthday wishes… I do appreciate them very much, despite appearing to be a curmudgeonly old cynic…

See you next time, take care…!

I Travel

This coming weekend one old ruin is going to drag himself along to see another bunch of old ruins, albeit much more awe-inspiring and significant than him. Yes, to celebrate his 52 years on planet earth (feet on the ground, head in the stars!), Ani is taking James and Otis to Angkor Wat for a weekend of temples and relaxation. Which is absolutely wonderful, and will be an undoubted highlight of what will have been a few weeks of pretty intense traveling for your humble correspondent. April saw visits to Laos and Sri Lanka, both beautiful yet troubled countries. Laos was work, but there was the opportunity to travel to the Plain of Jars in the north where my organization is conducting archaeo-clearance operations and to be awestruck by the extent of the aerial bombardment of this tranquil place, that in its green hills and craggy scenery in many ways reminded me of my homeland, the Highlands of Scotland. I stood in a scrapyard where literally thousands of potentially deadly projectiles, mortars, grenades, cluster bombs and other ordnance were scattered around the ground or stacked up in rusting piles awaiting disposal… I saw many things that will be difficult to forget in both of these places, but also met up with many, many good people who are simply trying to make things better by getting on with it. We were absolutely delighted to find that a good friend, G.G., had survived the Sri Lankan Tsunami and had restarted his tour business (G.G. Happy Tours, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka – gg@gghappytours.com – highly recommended if you are visiting Sri Lanka!). We had not been able to get in touch with him after the disaster and had assumed the worst, but thankfully he had not been at his shop in Unawatuna on that morning. Of course he has been deeply affected by events; he seems to have lost much of the faux-wide-boy sparkle he had previously, but one can only imagine the terrible things he must have seen and dealt with in the days following the deadly waves. He was also lamenting the effect that the conflict in the north and the bombs in Colombo and elsewhere were having on tourism… it was true that we saw very few other foreign faces this time compared to previous visits. We said our goodbyes and went back to our hotel a few kilometers away, the Sri Geminu, a wonderfully friendly family run enterprise situated in a staggeringly beautiful location. It was hard to equate the unfolding horror of the images we had watched on our TV screens only a few years ago with the gently lapping waves in the lagoon near our hotel, where we introduced Otis to the sea…
‘Oti – this is the sea’
‘Waaaaaaaaaah!’
I have to admit he wasn’t too keen at first on what must have appeared to him to be a giant infinity pool, or indeed on this ‘sand’ stuff, but after a few days he settled into the pace of life on the beach with the ease of a sun-bleached traveler, even doing his peculiarly individual take on dancing to the riddums of Bob Marley, ears right up against the bass speaker at a tumbledown beach shack, underneath a huge Rasta flag pinned to the wall. He became a firm favourite of the staff at the hotel for his funny little ways (his favourite activity was playing with the tap next to the steps leading down to the beach – who needs beautiful azure lagoons when you have your own controllable source of water?), and they were as sad to see us leave as we were to be going… on the last morning they had decorated our tablecloth with flowers and leaves spelling out ‘goodbye’… it almost brought tears to the eyes of this hardened old cynic. Almost. Our last day was largely spent in Colombo, shopping under the watchful gaze of the heavily armed military patrolling the streets and then spending sunset and early evening at the magnificent Galle Face Hotel, haunt of the late Arthur C. Clarke and many other iconic personages, where again the little O worked his charm on the staff as a spectacular thunderstorm began to develop around us…
Mentioning Mr. Clarke (whom I had not realized at that time had recently died… it’s so easy to become disconnected from world events when on holiday) reminds me in a fairly convoluted way (which I shall spare you the details of, dear reader) that it won’t be long until the release of ‘Iron Man’ the movie. I have to confess that I am looking forward to that in a way that is not really befitting the dignified aura that should surround a man of my age. As a young chap I was an avid reader of comics, and of one in particular called ‘Fantastic’, which was a weekly British compilation of stories from the U.S. Marvel Comics group, which at that time were quite difficult to obtain in the UK. My absolute favourite was ‘Iron Man’, the story of how billionaire scientist and all round playboy/dodgy character Anthony Stark became a force for good as a metal clad superhero. The writing and illustration were uniformly superb, and I have long thought that it would make a magnificent movie if the right balance were struck between the action elements and the usual Marvel character soul-searching that took place in the finely etched frames of the stories. Robert Downey Jr. seems a really good choice for the main role (troubled, intense, hedonistic, dry of wit – yes, ticks all the boxes), and I am so pleased that they are planning to use, hurrah!! ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath as the theme… one of the all time great truly heavy metal riffs… the countdown is on to it’s release, and I daresay a dodgy DVD version will be on sale moments after I have finished typing this – that’s right, I’ll be first in the queue!
… and so to this weekend, where I shall follow in the footsteps of such great explorers and archaeologists as Angelina Jolie, and, with thumping techno soundtrack thrusting me forward, elbow many thousands of Korean tourists out of the way as I dodge huge stone balls rolling toward me and poison tipped spears whistling past my ears, clambering through the vine bedecked chambers of the ancient temples, halting only to shoot hundreds of digital photographs in search of capturing that elusive yet defining ‘moment’…. No, no, no, I really must try to pause, to breathe in, to breathe out, to stop the frantic world spinning around me, to put down the camera, put aside the trappings of this materialistic world that we only appear to live in and to take time, seconds, minutes, perhaps even hours to actually savour the experience, and to share the unique communion of one ancient ruin with another…
Cosmic, dudes!!!

red-headed stranger

You may well (indeed almost certainly) have noticed that the titles of these blogs often coincide with the titles of some well known songs. On occasion there is some diversion into music discussion within the blog with an often at best tenuous link to that song. Yes, I freely admit to being one of those terrible I-think-I–know-it-all people like Mark Ellen or David Hepworth. That’s why we have magazines like The Word and Mojo and television programmes like ‘Later with Jools Holland’. It’s for people like me who publicly scoff at people like them but are much more like them than we would care to admit. I am so bad that Ani insisted on one of our wedding vows being that I could only bore her with little known but useless facts about the wonderful world of popular music once a day, a vow that I now publicly confess to breaking, yes, you’ve guessed, on a daily basis.

So, to ‘Red Headed Stranger’, the title of this latest blog (though I do think that ‘blag’, or even ‘blah’ is probably a more accurate description of these rants). A Willie Nelson tune. So, are we headed for a digression into country music once more? Are we going to off on a tangent to discuss the outlaws of country music, those maverick souls who bent the boundaries of the rollin’ redneck prairies? No. Will we wander into the fabulous world of those red-headed strangers who have brought beauty and mystery into our lives, the Rita Hayworth’s, the Dylan Thomas’s, the Ben Sheridan’s…?
Well, sort of.

Close your eyes tightly, click your heels together three times and repeat over and over in a very loud voice ‘there’s no place like Phnom Penh, there’s no place like Phnom Penh…’ and we will travel back in time to last Saturday in Phnom Penh, when the little O and I were in the house together whilst mummy Ani was out visiting her Thai friends in street 240 who give her a ‘glamorous Hollywood starlet of the 1950’s’ wash and blow dry on a regular basis (and give me an ‘0h God what can we do with this but pretend to snip a little and push those wispy bits around to cover the wide open spaces’ haircut on a slightly less regular basis). We were getting ready to go out and I had showered as Otis played in the bedroom, making contented little ‘broom-broom’ noises and seemingly quite absorbed in whatever new skill he had developed in the last few moments. As previously mentioned I am now severely follicly challenged, but that did not prevent me from picking up mummy A’s hairbrush and running it jauntily through the few remaining strands whilst slipping into a nostalgic reverie for the days when I would have given Rick Wakeman a run for the money in the ‘that man is wearing Harmony hairspray – no he isn’t. Yes, he is!’ beautiful blonde tresses stakes. Snapping out of that bit of foolish reminiscence (but pausing to remind you that one of the truly great organ solos of all time can be heard on ‘Roundabout’ by Yes, played by that very same blonde bombshell. Rick Wakeman, that is. Not me. Obviously. I can’t play organ, but boy can I bore with useless information…) I scooped the O up, tucked him under one arm and carried him down the stairs. He giggled as we went, looking up at me with a naughty boy grin spread across his cherubic features. At the foot of the stairs we paused, ostensibly to play peek- a – boo with his reflection in the large mirror at the bottom of the staircase, but really so I could have one last check of my rapidly fading grandeur before heading out into the unforgiving blazing sunshine.

Jebus! I nearly dropped the by now hysterically chortling O as I gazed at the red headed stranger who faced me in the mirror. No…not even red. What little of my former tonsorial glory that remained was now crimson. Crimson and erect, like a pathetic middle aged attempt at a mangy Mohican, a Kings Road original gone to seed that not even a hopelessly myopic Japanese tourist would bother to photograph…I am so sorry God, please forgive me for criticising the UK Subs in that last blog, I didn’t mean it, I take it back, please restore what little dignity I have, please…please…

Thankfully it was not a punishment for excessive sarcasm handed down by God. It was a punishment for not paying attention, handed down by little O assisted by Max Factor. As I was trilling tuneless versions of various 70’s hits from KC and the Sunshine Band through the Sex Pistols and even some Fox (remember them?) and swallowing mouthfuls of soapy water in the process, little O had been smearing mummy’s lipstick liberally over the hairbrush in preparation for the grand humiliation of daddy that would surely result. I had to wash my remaining hair a total of 6 times to remove all trace of the caked on crimson, although my scalp remained tinged with red for several days after…

I am writing this in the cool (ha ha) of a winters evening in England, as we have flown back to the Yoo-Kay for the festive season. Our flight was a little fraught, as the young master decided that if he was to be put out by overnight travel on a jumbo jet, then everyone else in economy class should suffer also. That meant incessant high pitched screaming coupled with frequent attempts to crawl over under sideways down into every nook and cranny on the plane. Nappy changing during turbulence is also not recommended, although he seemed to enjoy the many push that-pull this-turn that-press this delights of an aircraft toilet cubicle more than most of the toys we have bought him in these last few months. Efforts to calm him by feeding proved mostly ineffectual. One cabin staff member, a very smiley Thai woman, seemed to completely fail to understand my accent as on each occasion that I asked for ‘some baby milk, please’ or ‘some breakfast cereal, please’, or ‘a sandwich, please’ she shook her head affirmatively then offered me some Singha beer. Maybe she just expects every middle-aged man who wanders up to the galley at three in the morning to be looking for beer… anyway, the flight was hell but we are here now and girding our loins for the coming Christmas extravaganza. We went into Basingstoke briefly this afternoon, but everywhere was monumentally busy with incredible queues, and everyone just looked so wholeheartedly miserable that the experience was probably marginally worse than being tied into one’s seat for every date of the Black Lace reunion tour then made to buy the T-shirt afterwards. And wear it.

Still, mustn’t grumble. ‘Strictly Come Dancing – the Final!’ is on telly tomorrow. It’s so good to be back in a country whose cultural heritage has inspired the world…

As this is probably the last blog I will write before Christmas strikes (I’m not sure if that is really the appropriate terminology to use, but what is appropriate about Christmas anyway? Baby Jebus hardly gets a look in on his birthday these days…), may this eternal Ebenezer Scrooge wish all his readers a big ‘bah, humbug!’ and truly a very Merry Christmas and if I don’t blog before then, a very Happy New Year 2008 to you all.

‘I mean it, ma-a-a-n!’

Identity

‘Once upon a time there was a lonely girl who lived all alone, except for her nameless cat’

I’m paraphrasing, for sure, because my memory is most definitely not what it used to be, and of course I am absolutely unable to remember what it used to be, although it must have been better than it is (I think), but George Peppard’s character Paul types something vaguely similar when he is writing his book and describing Miss Holiday Golightly in the movie of Truman Capote’s wonderful novella,‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. It doesn’t really matter what I think of the movie – I could list ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ until the metaphorical cows and pigeons come home, but there is no doubt it is a flawed (the seriously miscast Mickey Rooney leaps to mind), yet strangely moving and uplifting creature – not unlike the character of Holly Golightly herself. Of course, she is not at all what she appears to be; she has come from somewhere else to re-invent herself, but is still trapped by that re-invention …

‘I-den-ti-ty!!’ Oh thank you, Poly Styrene, sometimes it does need to be screamed at the top of your lungs against a barrage of noise… if not X-ray Spex then it’s the outer world that sends the needles on the dials spinning into the red on the db meters of our lives as we repeatedly ask the question ‘ Who am I?’

Otis was unusually reluctant to eat any porridge this morning, and a throwaway humourous comment from Ani on how un-Scottish that was set the cogs in motion within my ever diminishing grey matter. When I lived in Scotland I believe I felt ‘Scottish’, whatever that was, although not conforming to many of the clichéd assumptions that allegedly define masculine ‘Scottishness’. For example, I do not like Whiskey, Football or Haggis. Whiskey and Haggis because they physically disagree with me. Whiskey makes my inner demons rise from their slumber, Haggis brings heartburn and indigestion. Football I dislike because my dad was a football referee. Many times in my childhood I had to endure hearing the torrents of verbal abuse directed at him, and, as I grew older and more visible lurking in his car parked by the touchline, at me. The fact that I wore spectacles made it even worse (I was going to append ‘in the eyes of the crowd’ there, but that would probably be just too much …). References to blindness accompanied by bursts of often inspired profanity meant that the Highland League and all its far-flung venues were an equivalent to one of the circles of hell for the skinny, pale and unduly sensitive Scottish boy I was back then. Then Charles Atlas made a man of me, and I went back to every piss-ant football ground in every drizzle-drenched crookit little village slumbering in every grey and tragic misty glen and penalty-kicked the living daylights out of my tormentors. In reality, no… in my head, yes. So, football mostly stirs a seething cauldron of far from pleasant memories for me. Throughout my Scottish life, many friends (yes, at one time I had many friends…and many non-friends) referred to me as ‘peep’, or ‘peep junior’. The logic behind this? My dad was called Robert. Robert = Bob. Bob becomes, through the liberal use of his referee’s whistle and a corruption of the nursery rhyme, Bob-peep. Hence ‘peep junior’. I accepted it, as mostly there was no real malice behind it, but I did not like it. Something similar has happened here in Cambodia. Amongst colleagues and others involved in mine action here and in the UK I am known as ‘Jamie’. I grudgingly accept this for three reasons, one being that I still feel like I am an actor playing a role (‘Jamie’) in my life, as I (James) regularly have to pinch myself even now to believe that I really am a) living in Cambodia and b) working in mine action, and the second being because I liked the character Jamie (Frazer Hines) who was an early companion of Dr. Who (and a bit of a cliché of dour Scottish manhood, if truth be told… ‘och, Doctor, it’s only a wee Dalek – dinnae worry, one whack wi’ ma caber and he’ll be as much use as a chocolate fireguard!’). Number three, and perhaps the most surprising, is because it does sound, well, a little… Scottish. So I suppose what I am trying to convey here is that I believe we all appear to others, at any one time, just constructs of our environments, both physical and emotional, yet given that, we still have at our core who we really are (or really believe we are) and where we have really come from. And perhaps, just perhaps, we actually do know where we’re going. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, my huckleberry friend…

All the above has woven a tangled web around the point of this particular missive, which now follows.
I would really like to say I am very sorry to anyone I may have offended (now or in the past) by assuming that my self-centered interpretation of your construct is really who you are, because only you truly know who you are.

And me?

I’m neither Peep, nor Jamie…

I’m Lula Mae Barnes…

I think…

Rip It Up

…And start again. As I get older (losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greet – stop it! Be still, my Beatling heart…) I start to have so many more of them. Preconceptions, that is. Rip them up and start again, or at the very least leave them at the door, that will be my new philosophy.

On Saturday we had a somewhat cultural day, firstly visiting the International School of Phnom Penh International Day. Ani wore her Sari, Otis was decked out in his wee kilt with Sutherland Clan crested kilt pin, and I looked like an American. That is, until I took the Stetson off, then I just looked like a white male, 50-ish, medium build, receding graying hair, no distinguishing features… ‘He just looks like any outa town rube’ Kincaid sneered as he crudely rolled the body over with the toe of his badly scuffed boot. Brett stopped and lowered the camera from his eyes which narrowed with disdain as he squinted at Kincaid. ‘Never forget, Mr. Kincaid, that this was someone’s son, maybe someone’s father… we should show some respect, no matter how hardened we’ve become down the years…’ Kincaid shrugged, embarrassed at this outburst from the normally reticent photographer, and spat his chewing tobacco from the side of his mouth into the same dirt where John Doe had struggled for his last gasps of air…

Sorry, got sidetracked there briefly. Yes, in the riot of colour that characterized International Day I was a mild protest of drabness. However, the day, or rather the morning we spent there, was extremely entertaining and well worth the $5 entry fee. (Note to self; I’m becoming just a little obsessed with vfm these days… a worrying trend – gone are the carefree days when I would go out and splash $10 on trivialities…) The food was good (excellent somosas!) and the performances were exemplary. Ani’s class did her proud in their gosh-gee-whiz-aren’t-they-cute way, by performing a very strange piece about hats and monkeys. Unfortunately I missed the apparent highlight, as I was informed by Ani, which was three (female) senior students performing a hula dance. Apparently every male in the audience resembled the big bad wolf in that old Betty Boop Little Red Riding Hood cartoon, eyes out on stalks and tongues dragging on the ground. At that exact time my eyes were also on stalks and my tongue dragging on the ground in the International Food room, where I had just encountered the Belgian chocolate display next to the New Zealand chocolate cake…

Otis drew his usual admiring glances and was his usual charming self as we flitted from country stall to country stall. The face of the woman in the room dedicated to India was a picture as I informed her of Otis’ Indian heritage. You could read her mind ‘… this man is crazy; he comes in here with the whitest baby in the world and expects me to believe that the child is part Indian…?’ So we did the rounds, nodded and smiled, piled as much food as we could under the buggy then rode off into the mid-day sun…

We did a little shopping in the afternoon, going to the Russian market to buy some winter clothing for Otis. The temperature has dropped to around 20º in the evenings now, and is hovering around 30º during the days so we thought it time to get him some long sleeved woolens and mittens and scarves to ward off frostbite. Ha ha ha. No, but we are returning to dear old blighty soon, and it is apparently a bit chilly around those parts, so time to stock up on the winter woolies. That done, we went off to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) so I could finish typing up my dispatch to send it out with the Reuters journalist on the last chopper before the sun set and the rebels mounted their assault on the Palace under cover of darkness… Or alternatively I could have a Tiger beer and a poke of chips. I settled for the alternative. It’s hard to imagine what places like the FCC must have been like ten or fifteen years ago. Probably pretty horrible actually, bursting at the seams with gung-ho foreign correspondents and their ever expanding egos. As a younger man, I used to imagine myself one day having an ‘Our Man in Havana’ type existence, rushing about in a hot place in a crumpled linen suit mopping my brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and masterminding incredible feats of espionage in a kind of bumblingly endearing James Bond manner, whilst confounding those damned journalists at every step. Pretty much what I do now actually, albeit more in the manner of the drunken elderly ex-consul lampooned by The Fast Show…

I had noted earlier in the week that the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh was to take place in the Titanic (!) restaurant on 1st December. And it was free. Major VFM, no less. The cynic in me leapt at the opportunity to spend some time guffawing at what the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh would present for our edification. We were promised a German band called Diva International, fronted by a Debbie Harry type singer and influenced by Bowie and Iggy, a ‘nylon punk’ band (!) from Thailand called Bear Garden, and PP’s own Thom Thom (or Josie and the Pussycats as I call them). Oh boy… a German punk band called Diva International… the laugh-o-meter was cranked up and ready to go! I used to be a big fan of German music of the early 70’s – I would go round to my friend Eric’s house (where and how are you now, Mr. Law?) to listen to Aamon Duul II and Can and Neu and Tangerine Dream. These albums were serious pieces of work, with fantastic cover art and great titles – ‘ Dance of the Lemmings’, ‘Tago Mago’, ‘Monster Movie’, ‘Phaedra’… then came the wonderful Nina Hagen, eventually she gave way to the still tolerable Nena and her 99 Red Balloons and then, as far as I was concerned, it all went wrong. It seemed as if most of Europe didn’t quite get punk right, and Germany were no exception. Die Totden Hosen. Oh Holy Jebus, somebody please tell them that the UK Subs are not the kind of role models to build a career on… so German rock music and yours truly drifted apart at that point, until…

…now! It’s 8pm in the quite wonderfully but bafflingly named Titanic Restaurant (considering it is perched on a jetty at the riverside – visions of the whole shebang sliding slowly into the dark waters as the bands play on swim before my eyes ), and I have just missed Thom Thom. Not to worry, they are playing an acoustic gig later this week so opportunity to catch up then, but as I arrive a rap duo, a young man and an older man, both Cambodian, are performing a rap about genocide to the smallish crowd of mostly German expats. Some people are enjoying a Saturday evening meal, apparently oblivious to the frenetic rapping and scratching coming from the dynamic duo on stage, who I find out are DJ Sday and his young protégé, MC Curly. This is their last number for the moment, then Curly introduces Thai duo Bear Garden, a young woman playing bass and singing and a young man playing a vintage Casio mini keyboard. They’re pretty good, a little like a cut price B52’s crossed with Sadistic Mika Band ,and I find myself doing some on the spot restrained Dad dancing to their plinky-plonk rhythms and bass popping. Good stuff. Another rap from Curly, who is now genuinely amazed at the gathering crowd, and then he announces Diva International. Nothing happens for about five minutes, then the black clad rhythm section amble on, look about them a bit then walk off stage again. Perhaps they are a little upset at the neon sign above the stage that somewhat erratically flashes the words ‘Titanic Band’ and variations thereof above their heads in electric blue. A young man with dark curly hair and a permanently worried expression is obviously the band’s gopher, and he rushes over to fix whatever has been displeasing them so much that they have telepathically communicated it to him before retreating. They return, and now they are four, skinny guys dressed in black with low-slung guitars. Where is Debbie Harry soundalike? Utilizing the old ‘dramatic pause before entrance’ routine perhaps? Well, no. It’s clear that as the band start up that there is no female front person, just the skinniest of the skinny foursome with low slung Telecaster untouched round his neck, see-sawing his microphone and stand up and down in the grip of first number nerves, cigarette smouldering in his left fist and laconic Lou Reed/David Bowie vocal tics firmly in place. They are good. I eat my thoughts. They are really, really good. All you could really fault them on would be the horrendously cheesy between song patter. Every cliché is being expounded, and I don’t really think it’s worth wasting your or my time repeating them. Come on, put your hands in the air and ROCK AND ROLL if you agree with me. Are you having a good time reading this? I can’t hear you… come on, are you having a good time??!! Hello World, are you ready to rock tonight? One, two – more monitor… Yeah! You’re the best crowd who has read my blog ever! I love you! Goodnight! I’ll be back!!

There is one deeply surreal moment when the singer shouts from the stage ‘hey…. anyone here tonight from… Bristol?’ but all becomes clear when moments later they lurched into a growlingly electric version of Portishead’s “Glory Box’. Curly Roadie is kept endlessly busy attending to the whims of the singer, who cannot plug his guitar in, light a cigarette, pick up a plectrum, turn up his amp or indeed wipe sweat from his own brow without help, but that’s ROCK AND ROLL isn’t it, and he is forgiven as they are so good. It’s a short set, but they win two encores and get MC Curly and Roadie Curly to join them in a scrappy yet exciting jam at the end, and their whole veneer of distant cool and arch pretension has long since dissolved in the sweat lashing from them. I congratulate the singer as they come off stage, telling him how much I enjoyed their performance and how good the cover of ‘Glory Box’ was, and he puts me exactly in my place and reinforces that I need to really keep an open mind when it comes to perceptions or preconceptions about music (or indeed anything) – ‘Thank you’ he says ‘ it’s really difficult to do this when it’s not your own language’…

On another subject, Orange Juice (spot the easy connection) once had a whimsical wee ditty called ‘you old eccentric’, and thinking about that got me wondering, where are the eccentrics of my generation? Maybe I’m not thinking quite hard enough, but have my generation not spawned any George Mellys, Ivor Cutlers or Spike Milligans? The only one worthy that I can think of right now to follow in those hallowed footsteps would be old irascible John Lydon, but there must be more – write in with your ideas, and we’ll put together a list of current great eccentrics to give us hope and inspiration when the real world becomes a tad too crazy for our own good.

In the meantime, be good, clever or both at the same time (sound of sock full of custard hitting brick wall).

Thank you and goodnight from Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia.

welcome to the jungle

8.53 on Sunday evening, and outside the Sutherland-Mathur residence the traffic sounds are finally beginning to fade, signifying the end of the water festival for another year. For the last two hours it has felt like the M25 has been relocated to the street outside our house, as streams of two-wheeled traffic has hurtled past oblivious to even the slightest notion of road safety, simply fixated on heading home from three days of water, water and more water. Well, what do you expect from a water festival? I jest. It’s the three-day Big Day Out for Cambodia, and now the rural population (3 million or so) are returning en masse to the provinces, mainly by motorbike which (hurrah!) have far outnumbered the 4×4’s over these last three days, so, a veritable welter of horn honking and tyre screeching going on, but in our neck of the woods, no accidents. Amazing. There doesn’t even seem to have been any injuries from the flurry (is that the correct word?) of gunfire we heard from the street outside last night. Life sure is exciting in these parts. As a late-middle-aged-grumpy-as-hell-unfit-fat-bald white man, the water festival has little to offer me, mainly being focused around physical exertion and FUN, which I am now legally unable to have due to encroaching senility (I have the papers to prove that around here somewhere, but I can’t remember where I left them…).

However, we decided to go out earlier today and catch some of the buzz around the final day, so we exited the lofty portals of 18A to search for our trusty Tuk-Tuk driver, ‘Chairman’ Mao. The Chairman confessed in a slightly blurry manner that he had been, and was continuing to do, something called ‘partying’, although to be honest he seemed to be considerably more cogent and sober than on a normal weekday. After his usual (failed) attempt to terrify Otis by getting him to stroke his wispy beard, he entrusted our transportation to his trusty Lieutenant, a lovely and smiley chap who unfortunately is to Tuk-Tuk driving what Apollo 13 was to American confidence in NASA… and off we went! I wore my straw sunhat (Wrinkly Michael Stipe look-a-like time! In your dreams, sunshine!) and Otis wore the foam plastic Chinese mandarin hat that we bought for him on our Saturday trawl of the waterfest market stalls (we also bought him two windmills, one foam General’s peaked cap, one wind-up Vietnamese aeroplane and a ‘Tom’ cat mask – $5 well spent, we thought…). Sartorially splendiferous within our own heads if not in actuality, we headed off into the hazy heat of the afternoon, in search of….
…food!

We arrived a short Tuk-Tuk ride later at… well, not quite where we should have been, for despite the lengthy drunken instructions from the Chairman lovely Lt. Smiley-Driver overshot our turnoff so we had to go round the block one more time before arriving at our destination, Le Duo. Formerly located in a villa in the expat quarter, this little gem of a restaurant has now relocated to… to be honest, I don’t really know, but it is just around the corner from a regular haunt of ours, the SOS clinic. Great name for a clinic, eh. Save Our Souls. Thankfully they don’t take the title too literally, and apart from a considerable pile of well-thumbed copies of The Watchtower in the reception area, there ain’t much preachin’ goin’ on round these parts. We’re like family to the folks in the SOS. Coughs, colds, inoculations, fevers… whenever we feel the wind changing or when we need to have Otis coo-ed at, weighed, measured etc etc then we truck on over to the SOS and the efficient though bemusingly confusing staff therein. For example, they have largely decided to call Otis by his second name, Joseph. That’s fine by me, as long as we know who we are talking about. They have also managed to verify that his height (or in truth length, as they lie him down to take the measurement) fluctuates up and down from visit to visit. Don’t they realize that Otis has Yogic control of his musculature and skeletal framework which enables him to contract and expand his length at will, a bit like a baby version of Mr. Fantastic? … or maybe it is just that the vinyl measuring mat contracts and expands with the heat in the room … I’m sure that one day science will have an explanation – probably something quite simple – I recall we attempted to measure him when he was much younger and spent several days worrying that we had spawned a giant, when in fact the tape measure had been folded over a bit…

So, around the corner from SOS lies Italian restaurant Le Duo. Yes, that’s correct. An Italian restaurant with a French name. Only in Phnom Penh, eh. The décor is magnificently, well, magnificent. It transcends taste, being I’m sure the only pseudo-Greco-Roman villa with swimming pool, scale models of the Coliseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Juliet’s balcony built inside a former Kiln house in town. No competition. Service is a little slow, even by the laid back ‘hey, no worries, tomorrow will do’ standards that we are all used to here, but my goodness, the food is worth the wait, it is truly mouth-wateringly delicious, concocted from the finest fresh ingredients. Ani went for a medley of grilled and barbecued fish with tagliatelle in a duo of sauces, I had penne with asparagus and pancetta in a cream sauce, and lucky little Otis had the best of both worlds. We then allowed him to crawl to the chiller cabinet (he would most definitely have crawled into the chiller cabinet, if the lip-smacking noises he was making were any indication) to choose dessert. He made the perfect choice, bless him, a chocolate mousse trio that was simply perfect in every way and a fitting end to a magnificent meal. We washed the young master’s grubby little tootsies in the swimming pool (common will out, you know), said our goodbyes to the amiable host and went for a quick spin around Wat Phnom (or as we refer to it, ‘the estate’) before returning home. A grand way to spend a Sunday…

If you want a food-related laugh, and particularly if you have small children, please allow me to recommend the movie ‘Ratatouille’, which we all chuckled heartily at last weekend. It really is very beautifully animated and very wittily scripted, with a most unusual premise and is well worth investing in (though having paid only $1.50 for it I would say that, wouldn’t I). On a similar theme (watch the movie and you will understand), my colleague Rivann was gazing out of the office window last week when she suddenly commented on a cute mouse that was sitting on the windowsill. The Khmer are masters of understatement, for this was most definitely no mouse, rather a very, very large and maybe slightly cute rat. Later that day I was outside making a cellphone call when three of them ran past in front of me into the long grass of the garden. I mentioned this to one of my colleagues and his deadly serious response has put me into serious Daktari mode, searching for my pith helmet and jodhpurs.
‘ Maybe we should get a snake’ he said….

Mousse, mouse, rats and snakes…

It’s a jungle out there….