I am a self evident, self confessed Eurovision addict even though it almost sends me mad with frustration and sometimes just plain boredom. Won by what I felt was a rather limp offering from Denmark on Saturday, this year’s contest was characterised by the continuing demise of western Europe. It was all about former Soviet republics and Scandinavia who absolutely dominated with only minor breakthroughs for a couple of pleasant songs from Malta and the Netherlands. Former Eurovision giants, Ireland, came last!
The principal funders of Eurovision are what are called the ‘Big Five’ countries; the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. All but Italy were at the bottom of the heap this year and that was probably because the Italian singer was a very handsome young man in an excellent Italian suit. You can’t really argue with a handsome Italian in my experience. But he didn’t win, in fact he got nowhere near the top of the leader board. Oddly he was overtaken very early on by a man singing on top of a perspex box which contained another man who was clearly trapped in the box and needed to be let out – urgently. But he wasn’t. The whole experience was worrying and, for a western European like me, dire.
So what are western European countries like the UK, Spain and Ireland to do about this apparent international rejection of their Eurowares? We’ve thrown both known and unknown artists at them and Ireland have even treated the world to a rubber turkey, but to no avail. Where on earth do we go next? Well if we want to win (and I cringe to speak his name) I think that maybe the UK should call in ‘X Factor’ mogul and pop Svengali, Simon Cowell. Unlike Dan Brown I don’t think that the symbol for the Antichrist is hidden in some painting in Venice but resides at the back of Cowell’s oddly shaped head. Not only creepily cruel he also brought us ‘One Direction’ which proves he is the Great Beast. At the moment the spot cream scented miasma that is ‘One Direction’ would win.
But I don’t think that we should aim to win any more. What we do is not appreciated and so why put ourselves through the stress of going for gold only to get shit? Therefore I think that the Big Five, plus Ireland, should mount a race to the bottom. We’re all very pragmatic countries, most of whom (with the exception of Ireland) have had empires in the past which means we have been derided for decades. So why not go for it and if we cause some offence both at home and abroad along the way, then all the better.
Ireland had the right idea some years ago, as I said before, when they entered ‘Dustin the Turkey’. A childrens favourite, rubber turkey Dustin sat in a shopping trolley and sang ‘Irlande Douze Points’ a blatant and chaotic plea to the rest of Europe to give Ireland twelve points in exchange for a bit of Irish stew. It was genius on so many levels. It was tacky, obvious, loud and some Eurovision enthusiasts even said that it was offensive because it was so bad. Excellent. Next year I think they should go even further and have the fine actor Frank Kelly reprise his role as Father Jack Hackett from that brilliant comedy classic ‘Father Ted’. For the one person who doesn’t know, Father Jack is what is known in Ireland as a ‘Whiskey Priest’ in other words a drunken cleric. In the case of Father Jack, not only is he drunk, he is also wildly offensive as he leers at young women, imbibes toilet cleaner and shouts out ‘Feck!’ ‘Arse!’ and ‘Drink!’ to anyone in his vicinity. I really think that Ireland should enter Father Jack maybe with a ditty outlining the pleasures of a damn good stomach pump called ‘Fecking hell me duodenal ulcer’s bastard bleeding again!’
Here in the UK the pattern should also be one aimed at the bottom of the table and peppered with open offence. And seeing as there is such a massive hoo hah across Europe about gay and transgender marriage at the moment, I’d like to suggest a row of besequinned transsexual vicars high kicking to a song in praise of Queen Anne Boleyn’s vestigial fingers. She was a bit of a goer, even if Henry VIII did cut her head off, and I think she could make it to, albeit belated, gay icon status if the UK really puts its back into it. Part time Dobby the House Elf and full time President of Russia, Vladimir Putin won’t like it one little bit – he’d like to make all forms of sexual difference illegal in his country – and will probably have to do a bit of light judo with an underling in order to calm himself down. But then I think that’s great. If we can help the oppressed of Europe through our bad Eurovision songs then our myriad humiliations will not have been in vain.
So spread the word blog readers. Send this post to all your friends and colleagues and let’s make sure that next year in Copenhagen, we make people’s pants explode with righteous indignation.
There’s a black fluid that keeps the Nordic countries functioning. I don’t mean the stuff that’s pumped out of the depths of the North Sea by bearded roustabouts, but that other black liquid that’s the staple cliché of every Nordic crime drama.
Wallander more or less set the pace, functioning on a diet of coffee and not much else. But it’s not a cliché. Life in the Nordic countries really is lubricated by the ubiquitous oils and essences of the coffee bean and Iceland is no exception.
Years ago there were a couple of brands of coffee in Iceland, the best known being Bragakaffi that most people bought in catering-sized bags and which was percolated into the black fluid that accompanied every aspect of life. Well, not quite. Let’s say every aspect of life that didn’t involve something that had been distilled.
It was easy then. Coffee was made with hot water and a filter, or occasionally with a machine that fizzed and steamed until it produced a jug of black stuff that went into a thermos to be dipped into at intervals. Everyone drank coffee and anyone who didn’t was generally deemed to be slightly odd. Tea was an aberration, something that old ladies might sip, although the strongest, thickest coffee I have ever been served, guaranteed to keep you awake for the best part of a week, is made by a lady now close to her hundredth birthday who has undoubtedly never let a drop of tea pass her lips.
But then, in the years after I left Iceland, things started to change. Icelanders became coffee connoisseurs. Now there are coffee bars everywhere serving mochas, lattes, cappuchinos and a whole bunch of other oddities that have passed me by. It’s all a little 101.
That’s 101 in the sense of the central postal district of Reykjavík 101 where the smartest and trendiest people live and work. When asked what sort of coffee I’d like, I look baffled and ask for old-fashioned coffee-style coffee, which generally elicits a look of pity from the barista and out comes the thermos they keep under the bar for for country bumpkins like me.
The expression ‘lattelepjandi’ (latte-lapping) has even entered the language as an epithet invariably applied to the sensitive liberal types of downtown Reykjavík 101. It’s generally good-natured, but it’s meant to highlight the disconnect between city dwellers and much of the rest of the country. According to (probably wildly inaccurate) local legend, the hipsters of 101 don’t like to even step outside their district, essentially limiting their horizon to an area the size of a few streets on a postage stamp crowded with coffee bars.
But the hardest part to deal with is the office coffee maker. In the past there would be a canteen and a percolator. There was always coffee there, even though it maybe wasn’t always piping hot. Its place has now been taken by a hulking silver-grey machine, all brushed aluminium, buttons, switches and drawers, that glares back at you, daring the faint-hearted user to touch its buttons with their trendy minimal indications of what their functions might be.
Looking at it, I feel as helpless as Arthur Dent confronted by the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser. The only difference being that the coffee machine doesn’t engage you in conversation, yet. But if it could talk, it would undoubtedly be to sneer and pass sarcastic personal comments about the abysmal dress sense of the hapless inferior being in front of it who just wants a cup of ordinary coffee.
The editor of one magazine told me mournfully that he had switched to tea after the new coffee machine had been installed in the canteen and that his assistant editor had been sent on a two-week course to learn how to use it.
Selected coffee beans go in one side of the flashing and humming machine. Milk goes in a secret compartment. If another drawer is full of used beans, then a light flashes and the machine throws a tantrum, refusing to budge an inch until its needs have been pandered to. It may well roll on its back and expect its tummy to be tickled, but I haven’t seen that happen, yet.
There are a dozen different permutations of black fluid depending which buttons are pressed and in which order, making the machine whirr, grind, growl and finally dribble into a paper cup, and it doesn’t seem to matter a great deal which buttons are pressed and in what order as the resulting liquid always seems to be a dark brown soup that is almost like old-fashioned coffee-style coffee, but not quite.
I dread to think what Kurt Wallander or any of the other dour Nordic coffee-swilling sleuths (my rotund heroine included) would make of it.
Your mother, Susan, who is a long-time reader of my books, asked me to suggest a reading list for your 16th birthday. What books would I recommend for a 16-year-old? Every author and reader would suggest a different list of authors and titles. Choices such as these will be contentious. No list is ever complete. What I’ve recommended are a dozen authors as your son’s first steps of the long-term journey into the world of creativity and imagination.
Some authors combine ideas or thoughts with creativity to create works of pure imagination. Other authors draw upon their experiences processed through a vivid, compelling imagination to create art. Others still like Orwell found political ideology and expatriate life the source for his imagination to take hold.
I’ve included a number of expatriate authors who have found that life inside another culture has given them a creative space for their imaginations to take flight. I pass along a list of recommended authors and titles with a warning: any attempt to create categories is a risky and dangerous business. The dangers have much in common with the idea of considering books according to genre. In that ghetto, books are confined to categories, for example, literary, crime, science fiction or historical.
In reality, works of genius transcend literary categories. As you can see from my recommended list, Orwell and Miller are found under more than one category—illustrating my point that genius refuses to be pigeonholed.
My categories, in other words, are broad guidelines, and aren’t to be taken too seriously. They are rough signposts and signal my own personal taste and development as a writer. When I was 16 years old, I would have liked a nudge as what to read during my teens. You will no doubt find your own favorite authors and books along the way. Read them, too. Avoid, if you can, the latest fashion or trend. Books come and go. Only a few have the staying power to be read by another generation.
The works below have such staying power. The list isn’t meant to be definitive. The list is a start; not the end. It is also eccentric and personal reflecting to my own biases, interests, values, and experience. Given that limitation, over the next year of your life, you might set aside time for reading each of them. Each of the works, deserves to be read at 16-years-old, and again at 26-years-old. Read them and reread them as you grow older and through this process, you may discover ideas, images, thoughts and visions that you missed in the earlier readings. And you will discover new things about yourself that life has bestowed.
If I had read them in the sweathouse of my youth, I can only wonder what impact that might have had on my life. As a birthday present, I send this list with the hope that your life long pursuit of books will benefit from this early start.
Thought and Imagination:
Jorge Luis Borges: The circle of Ruins, The Immortals, and The Library of Babel
Jose Saramago: Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series
Experience and Imagination:
Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of Night
Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer
George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris
Alice Munro: Runaway
Politics and Imagination:
George Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm, The Hanging, Homage to Catalonia
Margaret Atwood: the Handmaid’s Tale
Expatriate Life and Imagination
Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer
Graham Greene: The Quiet American
Lawrence Durrell: The Alexander Quartet
Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Six Pence, Razor’s Edge
This week’s discussion examines the nature of good and evil, and how as writers, readers and viewers of the crime genre, we may become so entrenched in the evil world of noir and its inhabitants, that we forget , there are indeed some good people in the world. Read the newspapers or turn on the news and this is compounded. Media outlets the world over prey on our fear. It’s what gets (and maintains) our attention. It’s what keeps advertising space at a premium. Our fear is their profit.
Edmund Burke was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher who served for many years in the British House of Commons. Burke also published a philosophical work where he attempted to define emotions and passions, and how they are triggered in a person.
I am not a fan of Edmund Burke or an opponent. I don’t know enough to judge. All I can say is he left his mark on the world, one which has provided us readers and writers of crime (as well those who enjoy the genre on either the big or silver screen) with a careful use of words and a selection of philosophical quotations on law, politics and how people think, act and behave.
“All it takes for evil to succeed is for a few good men to do nothing….”
This is probably the most quoted statement attributed to Burke, and a number of variants of it exist, all without any definite original source. These remarks may be based on selection of Burke’s ideas, but he is not known to have ever declared them in such a succinct a manner. It is, if you will, a paraphrase. Not a bad one either, but for the time being let’s not allow the truth to get ahead of us, because in any case, the sentiment is highly emotional and does trigger a certain sense of right and wrong.
Part of the quote itself was even adapted into a film with an all star line up.
“You can’t handle the truth!” is probably one of
Jack Nicholson’s, indeed Hollywood’s, most
famous lines. So does “truth” mean “right”?
I suspect not, as I have covered in previous discussions, but moving on…. I want to focus more on the “good” in people and the notion that we can all make a small difference. In the west, there a many phrases or proverbs that summarise this noble intention:
What goes around comes around. Swings and round-abouts. Love thy neighbour. Do unto others as you would expect others to do unto you.
These are all highly sentimental and in the wrong context, one could be considered a fool for believing such naivety. In the right context, they can make your day. They can even change your outlook on life. They can even, if put into a different framework, inspire another blockbuster Hollywood classic… Pay it Forward.
The simple notion that if everybody does something good each day for someone else, perhaps we can all make the world a nicer place.
Point in case. While on vacation recently a young woman ran two blocks in 38c (Approx 100F) heat and spent 20 minutes on the beach trying to find me, as I had left my ATM card in her store. I thanked her, but she disappeared before I had the chance to offer her a tip. In the end I had to chase her almost 2 blocks to give her a tip – perhaps that makes it even!
And just yesterday, while eating sushi in a food court, a Japanese woman ran up to me smiling, and handed me my wallet. Somehow I’d left it on the counter. Obviously I need to be more careful with my possessions, but it got me thinking. What is it in a person that makes them choose to do the right thing or the wrong thing? Is it innate, part of some internal moral code? Is it our upbringing, our experiences in life? What would you do in these situations? Is there a ‘finder’s keepers’ code in all of all, or just a few?
When was the last time someone did something nice for you? When was the last time you paid it forward?
“Tolerance is good for all, or it is good for none….”
The above is another Edmund Burke quote, one which I think the following example personifies.
My brother is an airline pilot who naturally travels frequently. On a recent trip he noticed a confused man of Asian descent having difficulty with a rude and curt Australian Airport security officer. (For those who have yet to grace our shores it’s unlikely any of our Customs, Quarantine or Airport Security personnel will ever receive a Nobel Prize for outstanding customer service). On this occasion, the officer was demanding that the passenger remove his “laptop” and place it in the tray. The passenger didn’t understand and the security officer became more obnoxious. My brother, who has previously lived as an ex-pat in Taiwan for a number of years, leant over and explained to the security officer that in Asia laptops are referred to as “notebooks”.
Hearing the word “notebook”, the Asian passenger smiled, nodded and removed his “laptop”. The security officer said to my brother that he didn’t care what “these people” called them because “This is Australia!”
As previously noted, not exactly a candidate for any customer service awards there.
Now, my brother, not one to suffer a fool or back down, sent a complaint email to the Airport Security Company and received a reply thanking him, stating that the officer in question would be referred to cultural sensitivity training. Hopefully the security officer cleans his act up, although it seems a systemic issue in Australia, as similar scenarios regularly occur when security officers request “mobile” phones, not “cell” phones, as they are known throughout most of the world and when they become distressed at how “these people” can’t read or write English. Perhaps they all require some cultural sensitivity training, and a reminder that “these people” effectively pay for their salary…
Sorry Mr Security Officer, we know you have a job to do, but if you don’t enjoy your job, either find another one, or just have a can of coke and put on a smile. It’s not that hard.
“Laws, like houses, lean on one another…”
I must admit, I like this quote, as people are the same. We lean on each other when we need help. But what happens to those who have no one to lean on? Recently I agreed to sponsor a young boy from Burma through a reputable NGO known as the Blood Foundation. www.bloodfoundation.org
I was referred to this particular NGO based on transparency, due diligence and the notion that all of the money goes direct to the people, not to finance a large corporation-style charity that drives it’s “volunteers” around in Hummers and SUVs, spending less than 20% of all donations on the people they claim to support.
The sponsorship is part of a program pioneered by fellow blogger and internationally renowned writer Christopher Moore. His publishing company made a recent decision to turn something arguably “wrong” into something “good”. A total of 275 especially designed copies of his classic book “A Killing Smile” have been produced using the leather from the booths at the original Thermae bar in Sukhumvit, Bangkok, where A Killing Smile is set.
With the book comes the option to sponsor a child for one year. Most people who purchased this special edition book (including myself) have agreed to an ongoing sponsorship commitment for the time the orphanage keeps the kids in school. Some, including Christopher Moore himself, have taken on multiple sponsorship arrangements, meaning more good is being poured back into the world about which he and other authors write. If you wish to look into this yourself, see the link below. http://www.heavenlakepress.com
The boy who I sponsor is named Nong Kham Bang. He lives with his older brother and grandmother in a small hut on an orange farm on the Thai / Burmese border. Without sponsorship, Kham (surnames names are placed before given names in many Asian cultures) can not attend school, which means his choices in life are few. Living in the Golden Triangle, drugs and human trafficking are major influences when school isn’t a choice.
“People never give up their liberties but under some delusion or lack of choice…”
My sponsorship buys him uniforms, stationary, a lunch box, food for each day and ensures he learns English, Maths, Thai and gets a decent amount of physical exercise. He enjoys volleyball, art and has a genuine desire to attend school. I have no children of my own, but embarking on this journey is heart warming and one day I do hope that I can meet Kham and his small family, and perhaps share a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from their farm. Until then I’ll settle for the regular emails I receive and pictures of his progress. He began his first day of high school this week, and I wish him all the best.
NONG KHAM BANG, Age 13
“Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny…”
This next section is actually written by mother, who has endured more pain and suffering in the past few years than most western people will in their lives, and yet her capacity for kindness and an open heart seems limitless….
Another way to frame this is through what appear random acts of kindness. Are these really just transient or do they actually leave footprints on our memory?
We live in a world filled with real crime, murder, rape and of course wars that encompass all of these despicable acts. The call to arms is always the necessity for the continuance of democracy and the freedom of speech. Whilst freedom of speech is something we Australians take too often for granted, it doesn’t hold a monopoly on random acts of kindness.
Flowery words perhaps but when we experience extended to us, we are more likely to want to extend that to others, even in war torn countries.
I was fortunate to spend a week in Taipei a few years ago where my son was working. He and his two companions decided to take me on a tour to the National Museum. When we left the Museum we were guided to a certain taxi that was designated to take us to the train station. This trip itself was a pleasant enough memory but what was to follow was truly a random act of kindness and worthy of note. We left the taxi and caught the first train and half way to the next station I noticed that I did not have my son’s camera and he didn’t have it either. I was considerably upset as my son had lent it to me and it contained all of his memories as well.
Neither of us said anything for some time and then simultaneously we both decided that we would return to the Museum in the hope of finding it. The other two companions just laughed at us saying there was no way we would find a camera after such a long trip in such a busy place, but we returned on the next train and continued down the enormous staircase at the entrance of the train station only to be met by what seemed like a sea of taxis. All of a sudden a man tapped me on the shoulder and holding up four fingers shouted something in Mandarin. I thought he was trying to tell me that the taxi my son was trying to get was for four people. What this man was really trying to say was that he remembered us and that we were the party of four that had caught his taxi. He simultaneously produced the camera with a beaming smile and to our amazement what seemed like a sense of pride and excitement.
We were so amazed and grateful that we immediately offered him (in fact we insisted he accept) a reward for his honesty. He refused the reward, continuing to smile all the way back to his taxi parked about 20 rows back from where we were. He must have found the camera and then joined the queue of taxis in the hope that we would return to look for the camera.
I can still recall vividly his smiling face and the wave of his hand as he took off in his taxi. When I think of the evil that exists in real life and portrayed in fiction, his smiling face gives me strength. If a few more good people did a few more good deeds that this world would indeed be a better place.
I see many folk going about their daily lives randomly acting kindly towards others and whilst its tempting to be overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering that is occurring in our global village, its timely to be reminded of the small acts that contribute from afar. In my suburb there is a Fair Trade Shop that is run by a group of volunteers, its called ONLY JUST, a not-for-profit “fair trade” shop.
It aims to help communities in the developing world build micro businesses that get them out of poverty. I often buy gifts and cards from this shop and every time I walk out hoping that, somehow somewhere, I have thrown a small rock into the lake of poverty and the ripples from my small rock lap at the feet of someone who needs it. You can visit the store here: www.onlyjust.com.au
An inspirational book I am currently reading is ‘The Open Gate of Mercy’ by Fr Joseph Maier.
This is a collection of stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum. The parish Priest who lives beside Bangkok’s main slaughterhouse is the founder of the Human Development Foundation – Mercy Centre. In this book Fr Joseph has recounts stories from the people he has come to know over 40 years of service.
Father Joe, Bangkok.
In doing so, the reader is transported and journeys with the residents, as we witness their daily lives. These are real stories, and at times we are taken out of our comfort zone by the reality that drives these people to embrace life, despite often being devoid of privilege. The random act of kindness that Fr Joseph offers, as described on the cover of this book, lies in the way he portrays everyone as possessing an inner dignity.
A big special thank you to my mother, Gayle, who continues to battle the punches life throws her way, but maintains the heart of an elephant with a new born calf.
Perhaps the nicest act of kindness my mother ever did for me was to give me life, and be a wonderful mother. So what about you? When was the last time someone did something nice for you? What random act of kindness fell upon you? Did you paid it forward? What was your good deed for the day? Maybe you let somebody in take that car park you had your eye on. Perhaps you chased somebody down the street to give them something back. Or maybe you just smiled at somebody and spoke to them nicely as you went about your job. Whatever it is, do it again tomorrow. Do it everyday. I bet you’ll feel a lot better… until you read the newspaper or watch the news!
Have a lovely day and spare a thought for those less fortunate than you.
Oh Lord have mercy, I have to have an eye check up or they won’t give me any more daily contact lenses. But what is wrong with that, I hear you cry? Surely that is just a sensible precaution against eye disease. Well yes of course it is. It’s a good thing. Unless you have some sort of medical phobia. Unless you’re me.
Maybe it’s because I worked in hospitals for many years or maybe it’s because my mother is a massive hypochondriac, but whatever the cause whenever I have to have any sort of medical examination I almost lose my mind. Last night I had a dream about being trapped on a hospital ward indefinitely, waiting fruitlessly for tests to take place and then losing my bed to an enormously overweight man because I made a complaint. Sat on the floor and forbidden from using the toilet I was raged at by a nurse who was so vile that I eventually lumped her one. She bloody well deserved it and had I really been in that situation I would have done exactly the same thing.
So how does this phobia manifest, well there are many and various ways. I can get a blinding headache, my heart pounds, I sweat, I have a dry mouth, I cough, I can’t breathe properly and I think that I’m going to have a cardiac arrest. Once I actually passed out, but having a complexion the colour of grass is common. Occasionally I can have all of the above together but that is usually when a test like that for blood gases is required which I can’t even describe without throwing up. So I won’t.
When I’m actually in hospital, my first question is always, ‘When am I getting out?’ But then once I’ve been allocated a bed and the first serving of the food whose taste passeth all human understanding is served, the professional in me usually kicks in. Last time I was incarcerated, and in spite of being on a drip, I made sure that other patients were fed, called doctors to them and went ape crazy in order to make sure that a dementing old lady was given morphine for the fracture in her leg which was almost killing her. Don’t get me wrong our National Health Service is fantastic and it has saved my life on several occasions, but there are not enough staff to do the job effectively and this means, from a patients’ point of view, that it is every man for himself. But of course that isn’t really relevant to my visit to the opticians today.
So why I am so worried about trotting along to a branch of Specsavers in my local town to have a routine eye check up? Well what if they find something wrong with my eyes. What then? What if I’ve got some ghastly parasite based eye lurgy which involves things like cockroaches growing in my head? What if I have glaucoma? Macular degeneration or even a brain tumour? I know you’re saying ‘well what if you don’t?’ and I can understand that. But what if I do? And what if that means that I have to go to hospital where I have to fight not just my own condition but also the forces of lack of staff, mixed wards featuring poor demented people who expose themselves to you at 4am and beds that frequently collapse due to advanced age (yes that happens).
I know this is all frightfully neurotic of me and that I should pull myself together. I know I risk becoming a character in a Mel Brooks film if I’m not careful, although if he paid me enough to cash to be a British version of the hypochondriac, Blum, in The Producers, I’d do it. How would that look? Well I imagine that instead of hanging on to a security blanket whenever things got tough the British Blum would try to go to the toilet as discreetly as possible and only scream when the door was firmly shut behind him. There would also be at least a vague attempt at maintaining a stiff upper lip even though this would break down in a flood of hysterical weeping and possibly even a swoon at the end.
So anyway think of me as I have my perfectly routine eye examination and thank goodness that you’re not like me. If you are like me then let me know and maybe we can go mad together some day – or share Rescue Remedy, booze or in fact any sort of crutch we can get hold of.
I’m writing this on my aunt’s kitchen table on a Thursday morning and I’ve been here in Iceland since Thursday last week. By the time this is being read by the Reality Check’s hardcore fans (gaman að sjá þig um daginn, Óli Eggerts, og takk fyrir síðast) I’ll be safely back within sight of the English Channel.
But in the meantime Iceland is screwing with my head. I arrived a week ago and it was winter. Proper winter with grey skies pregnant with unfallen snow, a bitter wind that cut like a knife and the TV weather forecast loaded with hulking magnetic black clouds. Flights were delayed and there were closed roads. Coats and hats were the order of the day. It wasn’t quite long underwear weather, but it wasn’t far off. One weekend later and the sky is a unique shade of blue that belongs to these latitudes at the height of summer, a pale duck-egg blue over next door’s rooftops fading to the deepest cobalt higher in the sky, courtesy of a blazing sub-Arctic summer sun. There are people on bicycles everywhere, T-shirts and shorts, people basking in the sunshine outside Grandakaffi as they flip through their free copies of Bændablaðið (Farmers’ Weekly), eyes half-closed against the brightness. Some of the tourists walking around Reykjavík even unzipped the vast anoraks they brought with them as defence against the cold rain and snow. There are even locals casually working their way through colossal ice creams in public. And three days ago it was winter, as cold as a witch’s left… you know what I mean.
It’s not just the inexplicable climate that’s difficult to fathom. There were elections here a few weeks ago and there’s still no government. The representatives of the two main parties are negotiating, according to the press that has resorted to reporting which party leader’s summer house they’re meeting at and the fact that they snacked on pancakes during breaks in their tough discussions.
Such is the nature of a weekly blog with a lead-in time of a few days that by the time you read this, Sigmundur Davíð and Bjarni Ben may well have parcelled out who gets which ministries in their new government as they start to dismantle the mess left by the previous administration, which in turn inherited an unholy dog’s breakfast left by the previous bunch.
A lot of election promises have been made that they are going to have trouble keeping, although nobody I’ve spoken to about all this seriously expects them to actually keep those promises. A politician keeping a promise? Come on. Get real. That really would be a surprise. But in short, Icelanders can expect the new government to do its damnedest to reverse the new resource taxes levied on the fishing industry. Big business (aluminium) is looking to start building new smelters and as there isn’t enough power to go around, they’ll be looking to dig holes everywhere they can for geo-thermal power. So a few more of those areas that had been protected will become energy parks, and there are a few question marks over the environmental credentials of this so-called green power. What hurts is also that the power is sold to the Bacofoil Billionaires at knock-down rates that aren’t available to any local businesses.
Will the rich kids with the keys to the toy cupboard help ordinary cash-strapped and debt-ridden Icelanders? Probably not. I’m sure they’d like to, but somehow I don’t reckon it’s a priority now that the voting is over and in any case it’s far from being a simple, clear-cut issue.
Apart from that I’ve seen a lot of old friends, although there wasn’t time to see everyone I had wanted to and a virulent strain of flu kept some of them in self-imposed quarantine. A good few hours went into browsing second-hand bookshops and a few long sought-after gems were obtained to add to the To-Be-Read pile.
But the big news of the last week, which did in fact make it to Iceland’s main daily newspaper Morgunblaðið, is that the Icelandic chapter of the UK Crime Writers’ Association has held its inaugural meeting, aptly held in one of Reykjavík’s best curry houses, Austur-Indíafjelagið. Ragnar Jónasson, one of Iceland’s up-and-coming crime writers, and Peter James, chairman (until recently) of the CWA, cooked the idea up between them at CrimeFest last year and all as I was on the spot, the decision was taken to hold the first meeting. Michael Ridpath also attended, making the trip to Iceland specially for the meeting.
Those at that inaugural dinner (which will now undoubtedly go down in the annals of crime fiction history) were Helgi Ingólfsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Michael Ridpath, Quentin Bates, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Ævar Örn Jósepsson, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Ragnar Jónasson and Solveig Pálsdóttir. Arnaldur Indriðason, the kingpin of Icelandic crime and a very private character, was unable to attend, and Eiríkur Brynjólfsson, head of the Icelandic Crime Confederation, had been laid low by flu.
A good trip. A few bridges have been built and rebuilt, a lot of information has been gathered and scribbled down on the backs of mental and physical envelopes, some new friends made and there have been some fine meals and good times with old friends. Now there are interviews to transcribe, notes to be written up and a few ideas that need roughing out. These holidays can be hard work. It’s time to get back to work for a rest.
An investigative journalists in Southeast Asia is like the person walking point into a jungle filled with booby-traps, snipers and ambushes. It takes a very special person to volunteer for walking point.
Bopha Porn is such a journalist.
She is a reporter for the Cambodian Daily. She is also a very brave journalist. Recognition of that bravery came this week with the announcement by the International Women’s Media Foundation of 2013 Courage in Journalism Awards. Three awards were given for courage to three women from around the world. Bopha Porn was one of the three. She is the first woman in Cambodia to receive this award.
The citation that comes with the award reads:
“In [April] 2012, Phorn narrowly escaped with her life when the vehicle in which she was traveling came under heavy fire. Phorn was investigating claims of illegal logging in a protected area of the Cambodian jungle with another journalist and an environmental activist when gunmen with AK-47s sprayed the car with shots. The activist, Chut Wutty, was killed. Phorn’s reporting on land and environmental issues, as well as her stories about criminal activity and human rights abuses, have made her the target of other life-threatening attacks.”
I had an appointment with Bopha in Phnom Penh in April 2012. I arrived a day after Chut Wutty had been killed. I didn’t know at that time the circumstances of his death or that Bopha had been next to him Chut Wutty when he was killed. We were meeting to go over final edits of her short story, Dark Truths, for the anthology Phnom Penh Noir.
When I rang her, Bopha said she couldn’t make the meeting. She said she wasn’t in Phnom Penh. She asked if I could meet her where she was staying. I asked where she was, and she replied, “Near the Vietnamese border.” Then she told me the entire story and how she was concerned that returning to Phnom Penh might be risky as she’d witnessed the killing of Chut Wutty, who was attempting to expose illegal logging. Twenty-four hours later, she was back in Phnom Penh. She couldn’t stay away from her job at the Cambodian Daily. Hiding out wasn’t in her nature. We had lunch and she told me her story.
In this part of the world, where illegal logging is often linked to government officials, witnesses to the murder of environmentalists, human rights activists, and others seeking to expose official wrongdoing are danger. She was absolutely right to find a temporary shelter away from officials who might seek to clean up the loose ends.
We talked several times that day and Bopha decided to return to Phnom Penh. The news of Chut Wutty’s murder had gone out on the wires. It wasinternational news
Following an extrajudicial killing, officials in this part of the world don’t normally issue an order to kill a journalist who witnessed the murder once the eyes of an international audience are watching. If that possibility isn’t open, other options present themselves.
According to Asian Correspondent the Cambodian legal system found that “Rattana was accidentally shot by a former employee of Timbergreen. The employee was sentenced to two years in jail on October 22, 2012 with 18 months of that sentence suspended. He walked free less than two weeks afterwards. While local NGOs called it a “mockery of justice”.”
Bopha Porn has continued her investigative reporting from her base at the Cambodian Daily in Phnom Penh. Her courage makes her a role model for journalists throughout Southeast Asia. Reporters find themselves in situations where powerful vested interest with impunity from the law intimidate, bribe, or threaten the most brave of them. No one is ever paid enough money as a journalist to take a bullet for justice, freedom and fairness.
For someone like Bopha Porn, it has never been about the money. It has been about exposing those who have accumulated wealth at the expense of their nation, murdered others to increase that wealth, and destroy the natural resources along the way. Asia needs heroes in this struggle.
This week’s discussion is a tribute to David Simon, one of the greatest writers and story tellers of all time. Simon’s biography reads like that of a legendary novelist at the top of the crime writing game, yet he is not a crime fiction author. Nor is he a Hollywood icon. And it is this, I think, which makes his work all the more iconic and powerful. I would even go as far as betting (and I am not usually a betting man) that in 50 years his work will still be followed, read and watched as widely as it is today.
Yet ask most people who David Simon is or mention the name of his partner in crime writing, Ed Burns, and I doubt they’d know, even avid readers. However, a quick and simple prompt of just two words is usually enough to extract a knowing nod and a wide-eyed look of recognition. Oh yeah, I know the guy…
Those two words… The Wire.
As one critic puts it so succinctly, either you love The Wire or you haven’t seen it.
True fans are also familiar with most of David Simon’s work, including The Corner, another HBO cult classic. Simon also adapted the non-fiction book Generation Kill into an HBO mini-series and served as the show runner for the project. Simon also co-created the HBO series Treme, which began its third season in 2012.
Fans are also familiar with the methodology he uses as background to both his writing and on screen adaptations. One word describes this… Embedded.
The term has long been used in a military setting in reference to reporters with access to various conflict or war zones, which is why I use this word in this ‘peace time’ context.
In a miracle of slicing red tape that not only restricts progress within, but also access to, any western law enforcement agency, somehow David Simon gained permission to spend an entire year shadowing the homicide squad in one of the most violent cities in the United States.
The city was Baltimore. Twice every three days another citizen is shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death. Most of it is drug and organised crime related, but often ‘tax payers’ are caught in cross fire. At the centre of this crime hurricane is a small brotherhood of hard men and women who fight for whatever justice is possible in a very real and very deadly world.
The detectives were initially slow to accept him, but he persevered in an attempt to “seem like part of the furniture”. However, he soon ingratiated himself with the detectives, saying in the closing notes of the book “I shared with the detectives a year’s worth of fast-food runs, bar arguments and station house humour: Even for a trained observer, it was hard to remain aloof.”
The end result… a 646-page long and over a quarter of a million words bundled into a masterpiece called Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
The book won the 1992 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book. The Associated Press called it “a true-crime classic”. The Library Journal also highly recommended it, and Newsday described it as “one of the most engrossing police procedural mystery books ever written”. Simon credits his time researching the book as altering his writing style and informing later work. He learned to be more patient in research and writing, and said a key lesson was not promoting himself, but concentrating on his subjects.
“They’re immersed in the respective cultures that they cover in a way that traditional journalism often isn’t.”
As a writer, I respect this strategy and suspect it has much to do with the outcome and success of both the book and The Wire. Working with co-producer, Ed Burns, an ex-homicide detective, together with a team of acclaimed crime fiction writers, they deliberately steered clear of Hollywood and from the outset wanted a show that would reflect what a year on the “killing streets” had taught them; that Baltimore had another name – Body-more, Murderland. Or in short B-More, as in, Be More Careful.
The theme of institutional dysfunction was expanded across different areas of the city as the show progressed. The first season looks at drug trafficking in the city’s housing projects. The second season focused on the death of working-class America through examination of the city ports.
The third season reflects on political processes and the idea of legalising drugs. For the fourth season Simon again turned to Burns’ experience, this time his second career as a Baltimore public school teacher in examining the theme of education, asking the important question of “where do all the gangsters and drug dealers come from?”
Many grown men are not afraid to say they were reduced to tears in watching this season. The fifth season looked at the media, as well as continuing themes such as politics from earlier seasons.
Of note also is that Simon and Burns broke all the traditional rules of translating a book into television. First, they employed real cops, gangsters and killers to act in the show. Second, they used the real names of the detectives that they worked with and wrote about in the Killing Streets, and they threw in as much of the subplot from the book as possible.
Interrogations of suspects and the craftsmanship of breaking down or tricking criminals into confessing are covered brilliantly, and with a high degree of accuracy and humour. It has been said that many criminals study The Wire in order to better their chances of evading arrest. Further, other commentators have stated that if criminals were smart enough to read such a large book (or any book), then they would be much better at their chosen profession (referred affectionately to by the writers as ‘the game’) if they studied the Killing Streets.
Being a writer and also working in the justice system, I cannot agree more. The Killings Streets is no ordinary book. It is a manual, a lexicon and a diary of epic insight. Many universities across the world now include in their law and criminal justice studies as a subject.
Also included in the Killing Streets are some quite well captured scenes of the ‘dark humour’ homicide detectives possess in order to survive and cope with the stress of so many murders.
One especially funny moment occurs when a detective asks a patrol cop at a crime scene whether the victim was dead or alive when they arrived (a standard question), to which the patrol cop says “Yes, he was alive.”
The Detective again asks a standard question: “Did he say who shot him?”
“Yeah, he did.”
At this point the detective reels back, because this is not usual in the gangland community.
Recognising this, the patrol cop smiles and says, “He said it was a guy with a gun.”
The detective laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard all year. And it probably is, as it proves the Murphy’s Law of policing; dead victims are often more reliable and easier to deal with than the live ones.
Many viewers will not get these ‘in jokes’ unless they have read the book, which is why I’m plugging it. So for all you fans of The Wire, do yourselves a favour and read Homicide: A year on The Killing Streets.
Unlike some other adaptations, I’m not saying the book is better, but it completes the picture and I promise you’ll learn a lot, be thoroughly entertained, appalled, saddened and impressed.
This is something of a steal from Barbara and the Snowbound Books post she wrote a few weeks ago, and it set me thinking. If I had to be washed up on a desert island, what books would I want to find on the beach, washed up (preferably in pristine condition) from the ship’s library? Of course the practical option would be copies of ‘Desert Island Survival for the Over-50s’ and ‘Fundamentals of Raftbuilding.’
But if it had to be books that were meant to pass the time, presumably the long years before a passing Taiwanese tuna fisherman passes and decides to drop a rescue boat, eight of the longest, thickest, most demanding books would be ideal. Not that there would be a lot of time for reading during daylight hours with huts to be built, sharks to be caught, filleted and dried, coconuts to be harvested and killer ants to be avoided.
So here are the choice eight I’d like to find on the beach in a waterproof box that happened to float free from the ship’s library. Note, these are today’s choices, scribbled down quickly on the back of an envelope. Eight books chosen next week or even tomorrow could well be a very different bunch.
It’s not a flounder. The fish Günter Grass wrote about is actually a turbot (Scophthalmus maximus) but I suppose the Flounder makes a better title. It traces the history of parts of the Baltic region that have been alternately German or Polish for generations, and have been fought over back and forth for thousands of years. It’s about food, history and so much else, not to mention the Flounder’s wisdom as he allows himself to be caught by a hapless fisherman every few hundred years and carefully guides the course of history. The recipes would make me yearn for dumplings, pork, beer and sauerkraut, all of which on the desert island would be half a world away.
An old favourite, a way of escaping into the Napoleonic era. The stories themselves are rollicking stuff and there’s no shortage of these tales of grapeshot-lashed decks in every library. But nobody did this stuff as well as CS Forester and the key is the character. Hornblower himself is an irascible (in his later years) man who struggles to deal with the setbacks life throws at him, tone-deaf and plagued with self-doubt who hides his better feelings. In spite of his shortcomings, he’s a deeply endearing figure, presented as a child of his own time, not an 18th century character loaded by a modern writer with anachronistic 20th century morals.
Nothing but the collected works will do, or, at the very least, the collected short stories. Saki is wonderful, a pure escape. HH Munro, to give the man his real name, wrote these brilliant short stories in the years before the First World War, satirising Edwardian society and producing some sharp portraits as well as some deeply macabre stuff that’s as chilling as anything featuring fangs and black cloaks.
The Good Soldier Švejk
Jaroslav Hašek’s rambling and unfinished masterpiece is something that I can dip into almost anywhere and be immersed in that distant and half-forgotten world of the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire. There’s something enormously endearing about the idiot-savant and former dognapper Josef Švejk as he meanders to and fro from one posting to another, with that look of sweet innocence on his face.
The IPCRESS File
Len Deighton’s original spy thriller with his unnamed, working-class hero who became Harry Palmer when played by Michael Caine in the films. I’ve read this one a couple of times at roughly a ten-year intervals and never fail to be charmed and impressed by just how smart this book is. Even fifty years on, and despite the sixties backdrop, this is as fresh as new paint.
Anthony Burgess came up with some astounding stuff, but for me Enderby the ruined poet is the finest creation. The way he plays with words is magnificent, to the point of being able to produce a sentence in which the word ‘onions’ is used three times, consecutively, and it still makes perfect sense.
‘His breath smelt startlingly of (startling because few hosts serve, owing to the known redolence of onions, onions) onions.’
I rest my case.
There’s so much to choose from. Which of George Orwell’s work to choose to put in that box on the beach? It’s almost an impossible choice. There’s his reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia, or the novels, starting with Animal Farm and the terrifying vision of the future that is 1984. So I’ll forego the choice – any piece of Orwell will suit me fine.
I notice there’s no crime fiction in my eight choices, apart from the Ipcress File which is a thriller rather than a whodunnit. But these aren’t the books I’d pick up for a train ride or a flight. These are old favourites that I’d hate to be without, even if they only get dipped into at intervals of years. It’ll be a wrench to not take Simenon, Evelyn Waugh, Maugham, PG Wodehouse, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Hardy and a few others to the desert island, not to mention the vast spread of the growing To-Be-Read pile. But I’d probably be best to fall back on those old castaway favourite bestsellers ‘101 Seagull Recipes’ and ‘Beer from Coconuts!’
Some criminals start out young as they embark on a life of crime. Many reasons can be found to explain why someone turned ‘bad’ and adopted the life of an outlaw. One of those reasons is financial. The criminal wants a certain life style that takes money. He has a choice—find a job, save up for the car, the condo, the holidays, to support his partner and dependents. Or if his plans are grand, then no regular job will finance the structure of a life that only the wealthy are able to afford.
Occasionally, there is a criminal who has a broad vision of his future. His life plan could only be financed by winning a super lottery or by crime.
The Bangkok Post carried the photograph and story by ace reporter Sunthon Pongpao about the arrest of Saichol Mailuan.
Saichol (in Thailand people are referred to by their first name) was cornered in Wang Noi district, Ayutthaya by the police in a drug sting. The suspect opened up with his .357 hand gun at a number of police officers. The spent shells indicated he fired 5 times (keep that number in mind, we will come back to it).
The report said that the police were unharmed as they wore bulletproof vests. But there was no mention as to whether the fired shots by Saichol struck anywhere near the vicinity of the arresting officers. If they’d bounced off the bulletproof vests, I have a feeling the vest with the holes would have been displayed for the media.
Saichol’s shooting skills are a valid subject of inquiry, as one of the 5 rounds (remember the number 5, we are getting there) resulted in a self-inflicted wound to his left leg.
In other words, the suspect shot himself in the left leg resisting arrest by a small army of policemen.
That degree of accuracy doesn’t suggest he was a trained marksman or professional gunman. In the photograph accompanying the article (you’ll have to go to the earlier Bangkok Post link to see it, as it is copyrighted, and we wouldn’t want to breach a copyright), Saichol is seated at a table, a crew of non-smiling Thai police officers standing behind him and at his side, the .357 handgun on the table and box of shells spread out so everyone can see exactly what a .357 round looks like.
Saichol was photographed wearing a T-shirt with the words—I Am Awesome. That may seem like a young man’s bravado. It would have been quite wrong had the T-Shirt said—I Am a Crack Shot. Awesomeness is something few people can rightly claim at any age, while anyone can learn to shoot a gun.
What did the police discover in their investigation of the suspect’s background?
First, he’s quite young–25 years old. I know I said that before. How much living did you have behind you at 25? I’d wager a bet it doesn’t come close to Saichol.
Second, he’d done 5 years in prison for attempted murder, as well as drug dealing and theft (as also reported by Thai-language newspapers). Matichon reported that Saichol confessed that he had been to jail 5 times. The fact he’s a lousy shot may explain the prior attempted murder conviction.
Third, his ability as a drug dealer rivals his shooting ability. He sold yaba (‘crazy drug’), the Thai phrase for methamphetaimes pills.
Fourth, and here comes that most auspicious number 5 in Saichol’s young life, he has 5 wives. The wives live in 5 different households. 5 houses. 5 rice cookers, 5 TV sets, 5 dental/medical bills, 5 motorcycles/cars, 5 wardrobes. That takes some serious cash. Economies of scale aren’t in his favor. Note to Ministry of Education—mathematical courses ought to teach scaling, power laws, and how to buy food and other stuff in bulk.
Fifth, there is no mention as to which one of the five shots hit his leg. Was it the first shot? That may explain why he squeezed off 4 more shots without hitting any of the cops. Was he trying some kind of fast draw and pulled the trigger before removing the .357 from his holster? Or was it the 5th shot, and that ended his shooting spree?
Odds makers in Saichol’s hometown are offering higher odds for the self-inflicted shot coming from rounds 2, 3 or 4. Was he left handed or right handed? If the cops are standing in front of you, how do you shoot yourself in the left leg? It’s these kind of questions you’d think someone would put to the suspect. Perhaps they were but answers are never reported. Why is that? Maybe the sequence of the round will come out in evidence at his trial. Though he will likely cop a plea and there will be no trial and the mystery of the number of the round that hit his leg will remain.
Let’s summarize what we know so far: Saichol is a high testosterone 25 years old, who is a bad shot. His left leg suffered a self-inflicted .357 hole from one of 5 rounds he fired. He was nabbed red-handed with 1,000 yaba pills.
On his earlier conviction Saichol spent 5 years in the monkey house. He supported 5 Thai wives in 5 different households. He’s been in jail 5 times.
Karma and the number 5 are finely woven into Saichol’s life.
One would have to begrudgingly concede that Saichol has earned the right to wear his T-shirt in his meet the press with the police glowering in the background.
Rumor has it that all of the underground lottery tickets in Ayutthayawith 555 were quickly snapped up after the news of his most recent arrest broke. There has been no word on how his 5 wives will support themselves as their common husband returns to prison. Note to the Press: Visitation rights should be an interesting story to follow up. Will the gang of 5 wives have to draw straws or can they visit as a group? The BBC, CNN and others would follow like a pack of hungry wolves should they appear together wearing T-shirts—He’s Awesome.
The question is whether Saichol will again get another 5-years stretch in the big house, and at age 30 emerge a changed man. Can he go straight? Will he have learned his lesson? Which of the 5 wives will be waiting to greet him upon his release? Can this be turned into a Reality Show?
As for that T-shirt—I Am Awesome—it might be the one shirt that he doesn’t want to wear inside the big house. He might think about a tattoo.