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…!