As ever, we find ourselves in interesting times. Within the space of the last week, the Northern Irish Assembly has started up, and nobody has bombed it yet. Blair has announced his resignation. A charismatic slug looks like he's going to be Scotland's First Minister, there are elections coming up in the Republic of Ireland which are apparently quite interesting and controversial, and something has probably happened in Wales.
So, I present for your amusement, the Spanish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.
I used to love Eurovision when I was a kid, probably. I certainly remember watching it, and being faintly amused by the scoring system and how it took up twice as long as the songs did. It taught me how to count in French, which is something, except for 11. It's all different now, though. Back in the day, Europe only had fifteen countries, and one of those was the Vatican City. The show took place in a small television studio, and everyone had a chance of winning, and Ireland usually did. Good old Johnny Logan with his lovely cardigans and his adamantium claws.
It all changed somewhere around the human rights atrocity which we now call Riverdance, I think. There are now three hundred countries taking part, many of which only have two people, a comedy goat and their traditional national dancers who get to pranny around in the background during the song's performance. The voting is utterly political. Britain votes for Ireland because the Brits quite like the Irish, and the Irish vote for somewhere that used to be in Russia because of the whole nine-hundred years of oppression thing. There is massive block voting by the Baltics and the Balkans and some of the songs have the audacity to be quite good now.
The show takes place in the largest stadium in whichever country is hosting it, filled to the brim with the cream of Europe's gays, there is a qualifying round, there is a massive sound and light show, and the whole performance has to look faintly professional these days, and the songs are all about war, vampires, zombies and flight attendants. It's about the politics first, the show second, and the song third.
Ten years in power, and Blair has single-handedly completely transformed Eurovision. Truly, his legacy is astonishing.
Mad Mick reckons that he's just not cut out to live here in foreign. He's lived and worked in what he describes as two main types of foreign, and it's interesting to compare and contrast the two.
Mainly he's been in countries that used to be pink in the Atlas. These were generally countries that used to be British colonies or dependencies or what have you. And here's Mick, a British guy, going in and accepting these countries for what they are, with their own identities and history, albeit a history that Britain has played a great and significant part in.
So to classify. Country A was a British territory up until some point in the last 100 years. The current environment recognises that a lot of the country's problems over the last 100 years are down to the local mismanagement of the infrastructure left in place by the British. There's an acceptance that the way forward is to redefine, rebuild and take ownership and responsibility for their own future. They're going to be huge, Mick reckons.
Country B was a British territory up until some point in the last 100 years. The current environment is actually a lot better than country A, and there aren't that many problems. However, many of the country's citizens believe that things should be better, and that the reason that they are not better is down to the x-hundred years of oppression under the thumb of the British overlords who systematically raped country B of its culture and natural resources. This completely undermines the silent majority who take responsibility for their own problems. This country is not going to be huge. Mick reckons that this country is going to shoot itself in the foot and marginalise itself.
These countries achieved independence within 25 years of each other - B before A. Since then, Mick says that one has grown up, and the other has become a petulant teenager.
My interpretation? The thing about being an underdog is that it gives you something to rail against. Yes, there were x-hundred years of oppression, and yes, there were atrocities in there. And isn't it great to blame the woes of today on them - get in to an argument with a B-citizen, and if they mention oppression you may as well walk away because they've already won. You can't win against that argument, because it's not an argument. It's an incontestible fact, and a security blanket. It's not going to go away, ever. But there comes a point when you have to stop hiding behind it and accept that the way forward is not to forget it, but not to give it power to mis-shape society. Again, and I can't say this enough, it is not an argument, it's something to hide behind.
Country B worries me sometimes.
In Scotland for the last fortnight, for one of the bestestest holidays I've had in ages. The reasons?
Well, the weather was great. Good weather always shows off a country at its best.
We were in Edinburgh, and the Festivals and accompanying Fringe were on, so let's be honest, the city was a vibrant explosion of colour, drama and alcohol. We spent many a happy afternoon in the open air, drinking Kronenbourg Blanc and being entertained by young comedians desperate to get us to part with our money. We were accosted by Oy Boys selling us fantastic oysters, and thrilled to the joy of a well hung and tender burger. But there's more.
In the umpteen years since I moved away, Scotland has addressed many of the reasons why I left. You can now get a decent coffee, for one. But all of these shows on television talking about "wonderful local produce" have rubbed off, and you can now get your wonderful local produce in many a rural town, in particular in wonderful local restaurants cooked in wonderful local ways. It may well be the same in the rest of Britain, but I haven't been there yet.
We spent last week in a theme park - a pretty city centre, with wide open streets and a Heineken on every corner, with trams to get you from one place to another, but with no actual rides.
In Amsterdam, I have learned that:
We live in a world where sometimes a place can have two names. Geography gets overlaid with politics, and the names and words that we use to describe things can become emotive and leave raw nerves.
An example would be, say, Canada. People who live in Canada are known as Canadians, and although they live on a continent called America, they are not Americans.
Actually, to get a bit more precise here, they live on a part of a continent... and the bit of continent that they live on is called North America. So when we talk about North Americans we're being inclusive, and while I have no doubt that there are Canadians who will take exception to this, on the whole the distinction works pretty well
Listen carefully people, particularly if you're Irish. Ireland is the second largest of the British Isles. Geographically.
This does not mean that people who live in Ireland are British, but it means that people who live in Ireland are in the British Isles.
The largest of the British Isles is Great Britain. The island of Great Britain covers some 216,777 square kilometres, and contains most of Scotland, England and Wales. But not all. Picking a few at random - Skye, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight.
This doesn't excuse the ignorance of people from Great Britain who don't understand that Ireland is different from Britain. It doesn't mean that they can refer to Great Britain as "the mainland" without deserving censure. But it does give a way to refer to the whole group of islands, and if other people use the term correctly, and in good faith, aiming to be inclusive and conciliatory, then it's only polite to be polite.
An interesting additional point
One of my African friends has pointed out the following additional interesting points.
Technically also, Mexicans are North Americans.
This fact was explained to her once by a Mexican who was very annoyed with the term Americans being used to refer to citizens of the United States when in fact it refers geographically to a much larger body of people.
Also, on a somewhat related topic, African doesnï¿½t mean black. Despite what some people think.
We said our goodbyes long before we left Hong Kong. Really, we did. Much as I loved Senga, her boyfriend - later fiance, now husband - made it quite clear that he didn't want to associate with gay homosexuals, and so cut half of her friends out of her life. I tried to keep an occasional friendship going, hoping that maybe he would change his mind, but it never happened. Such is life.
I'm thinking of Senga today because for most of the last five years she's been working on a single project. Hong Kong Disneyland opened today. East meets West meets magic kingdom. I hope she's happy, because she deserves it. Truly lovely person, who deserves to have every happiness. I wish I really believed that she would get it with her husband.
But we had that excellent Christmas together in her orange flat in Tower 125. We were all single then, admittedly some of us were more single than others. M gave me two mugs and a plastic coffee jar from Pacific Coffee. The mugs have gone now, although we used them for ages. The coffee jar still sits in our kitchen. It's odd, the things you remember.
He left a few months later, off to London to play off his Scottish ancestry and work for the Guardian. M was always full of stories, peopled by characters I never met, whose backgrounds I never found out. He would bring them to life through his words, and so I feel I know the full horror in the newsroom, the bickering and jockeying for position that went on in the rush to reformat the paper, although not the web site yet.
I've had my own little milestone too. Four years since I started in this job. It's had moments, but they have just been moments, little islands of pleasure in a mass of tedium. I look back at the people we were that Christmas, back at the end of 98. In some ways it was the best of times, and in some ways the best was yet to come.
There must be a flaw in this reasoning somewhere. Indeed, there are some gaping holes in it, not least of which is that old favourite, the fact that a global free market is stymied because governments intervene to perpetuate inequalities and to sustain a traditional economic base in order to remain electable, but here goes anyway...
We British barely embrace the fact that we are a cohesive nation. We're always looking for something better for ourselves, be that our country, our county, our town, our street. We complain when jobs are moved from the rich Southeast to the criminally neglected North. What hope do we have of being good citizens of the world? How can we sit in comfort watching pop concerts in Wide Screen Dolby Surround, pretending that we can sign a petition and eat some Doritos Dippers and think that it will make poverty history. We need to do more, as a culture. Debt cancellation is not enough. Encouraging regime change is a step in the right direction. Enforcing regime change is not. Put the interests of the wider group before the interests of the small sub-group we live in. Support free trade. Support fair trade.
Lord, there's a hell of a lot more where that rant came from, sorry. Off for a little lie down now.
Get up at about half past six. Perform your regular morning routine, get a taxi to the airport and check your bags in. Take two cases - one each, and make sure that they're no more than 2/3 full. Include a third bag folded up in one of the cases. Take several books that you don't really want to read, as well.
Go through immigration and security. Be fingerprinted and photographed. Don't complain about not getting your best side. Get on the plane, and sit behind the ugliest family in the world. Arrive in New York some seven hours later, unrested, and having seen Shark Tale, but without the sound due to the poor headphone quality.
Don't get a taxi from the airport, as a convenient fool has ordered a limo to take you to the hotel. Two people in a white stretch limo stuck in traffic may seem like an extravagance. It is. Who cares?
Arrive and check in at about two-ish. Go for a walk and discover that you're two minutes walk from Times Square. Find a diner. Eat typical New York Diner food, drink typical Lite Beer, and go back to the hotel for a brief nap.
Sleep through until eight on a Thursday.
Ireland, Ireland, Ireland. Invented by Dana in 1973, and over-run by Westlife since 1974. Best place in the world to live, better even than Switzerland.
This is based on income, health, freedom, unemployment, family life, climate, political stability and security, gender equality and family and community life. Apparently. But who are the Irish? Where do they live? What do they like to eat? Why are they all called "Paddy"? Stuff like that.
The Economist paints Ireland as a country of compromise, where the most desirable elements of contemporary life - political liberties and low unemployment sit beside the traditional image of Ireland - stable family and community life.
I suspect that this was written by someone who hasn't lived here. The clash between old and new is the key to the majority of the problems that I see in Ireland, and although the two can sit comfortably side by side, I've notseen much evidence that they do.
A large part of the population here - not all, by any means, but a significant part - are unhappy with the rapid "progress" of recent years. Signs of progress, of wealth, of culture, are viewed with suspicion. Civic art and architecture is swiftly dismissed with comic renaming - the milennium walkway along the Liffey becoming the "plank on the bank", the Spire becoming the "stiletto in the ghetto", sitting along side the "hags with the bags", the "hoor in the sewer", the "tart with the cart" and so on.
The success of Ireland has brought an explosion in the population of Dublin, a consequent housing boom and a crazy property market. The infrastructure is not there to support it yet, with the result that many people who work in the city are faced with a London-style commute. Unlike Londoners, though, this wasn't the case ten years ago, so people can remember what it was like before the boom. No wonder they feel that something has been lost.
Success has brought immigration, and here again the Irish community struggles. There's a lot of racial tension here, and a lot of people trying to come to terms with the fact that prosperity and low unemployment means the days of the traditional Irish washer-woman are gone, but that means that your teenage kid can't get a job in the local launderette because he's not prepared to work a 16 hour shift, and isn't it great that the office is cleaned by Indians, but do they have to live near us?
I like to be generous. I like to think it's early days. The Irish, and Dubliners have a lot going for them. Large swathes of them are open-minded, willing to embrace the new and the unknown, starting to come to terms with the consequences of their country's success. It's not perfect. It's not the best place in the world to live, not in 2004 anyway. It's a backward traffic-jam of contradiction, struggling with its own identity, not certain whether it's looking backward or forward and trying to do both.
Will it be the best place in the world to live in 2005? I doubt it, but I'll give it a chance.
Oddverse interactive: Do you live in Ireland, or have you been to Ireland recently? Tell me why you think it's a fantastic place, because I really want to believe it is. Press the red button on your remote control, or something.
In the next few days, Americans have the opportunity to vote for their President. This is democracy, and must therefore be called a good thing.
The US elections are always watched closely. After all, it's the election of the most powerful man in the world. However, this time round, the election will be watched particularly closely. There's good reason for this.
Since the last election, America's role in world politics has changed dramatically. It remains the economic powerhouse of the world, but it has positioned itself differently over the last few years, and in some cases America's role is less paternal than it was and more confrontational. I believe that this is, in itself, neither a good thing nor a bad thing - it is simply a thing. It's probably irrelevant when considering ones choice of leader, as it was largely driven by external forces, and that hydra the media as much as it was by political will. Let's set that aside, for now.
I believe that freedom of speech is a good thing. I believe this within limits, though. I believe that the limits are good things. I believe that submission to the rule of law is a reasonable price to pay for the increased freedom we enjoy. I think that everyone has the right to an opinion, and I think that everyone has the right to an opinion that disagrees with mine.
Right now, it must be tough to be an American living outside America. You see news media that's almost certainly anti-Bush (although not necessarily pro-Kerry). You see excerpts and snippets from pro-Bush media in the US that make the broadcasters look almost rabid.
You may be put in awkward positions by people you meet who are not American. They may either expect you to apologise for Bush or to defend him against a barrage of accusations. Holding an individual voter to account for the actions of a nation is a small-minded attitude and it doesn't do us any favours. It's like holding an ice cube respobsible for sinking the Titanic.
The eyes of the world are watching, but it's a decision that only Americans can make, and that only Americans have the right to make. I will be watching with interest.
I'm particularly amused by the fact that the Dublin Jack in Hong Kong is to become the most authentic Irish Pub in Asia by following the Irish ban on smoking in the workplace and becoming the first pub in Hong Kong to ban smoking inside.
The Dublin Jack is nestled under the escalator on Cochrane Street, at the bottom of a building that houses a gentleman's sauna and (in my day) a gentleman's late night hostelry. On the bottom two floors of this building, the Dublin Jack does a roaring trade, with many of the customers blissfully unaware of the shenanigans going on upstairs.
It was, coincidentally, a five minute walk from where we used to live. It was a good place to meet people, easy to describe the location of, and it had the great advantage of spilling out in to the street in an area that was predominantly commercial, so nobody really complained about noise. Although if they had, their complaints would have probably drown out the noise of the pub.
We went there quite a lot, and it's one of the places in Hong Kong that I particularly miss. And now their smoking ban just makes me feel warm inside.
Like an onion, or an ogre, I have layers. We all do, really, but I think it's important to recognise the fact. Quite what the layers are is debatable, and how far you should go in either direction is also debatable, but let's start with the basics.
There, I've said it, and I feel all the better for it. I've got the capability to grow, to reproduce, etc.
Let's skip down through a few layers. I'm animal, my phylum is chordata, my subphylum is vertebrate, my class is mammals, sublass theria, infraclass eutheria, within that I'm a primate, and within that I'm human.
At a conscious level, identification as a human is the first one that really has any meaning to me on a day to day basis. Others make the distinction at a higher point, other at a lower level. Generally, I'd suggest that making the distinction at a lower level that humanity is a bad thing, although I'm always uncomfortable with postulating moral absolutes.
There are two ways that we could go from here, so let's go down the purely physical route first.
I'm male. I'm caucasian. I'm homosexual. In no particular order. I have my particular hair colour, eye colour, body shape, age, and so on. All of this helps refine me, informs who I am.
For my current purpose, the more interesting way to analyse my 'layers' at this point, is geographical.
Geographically, I'm 'Western' (although as that's a horribly Eurocentric word. Is there a better word to describe Europe+North America?). But here comes the important one.
I'm European, I'm British, and I'm Scottish.
See what I mean about onion layers now. I'm equally comfortable about each of those layers. I'm proud of all of them. The fact that I've mentally reconciled being British and Scottish means that I don't have a problem being European. A couple of weeks ago I got into a heated debate with someone who basically accused me of not being able to do this. Bollocks. It's not hard at all.
Interestingly, I have a theory that some of my English readers may care to comment on. Because England is the majority of the UK, London's in England and the bulk of the media is broadcast from England, they've never really as a society had to rationalise the fact that England is only part of the UK. To an extent they regard the UK as mainly England, with a couple of really nice bits tacked on the edges. But I digress.
Within Scotland, it gets interesting again.
I'm a lowlander. Definitely different from a highlander or islander. It means I have more in common with someone from Glasgow than someone from Tarves. But I'm not from Glasgow. I'm from Edinburgh. There's a historical rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh that is as much perpetrated and perpetuated by the media as any perceived rivalry between Scotland and England.
I'm from the South Side of Edinburgh. I grew up in various areas, but the area I think of as home is a few streets around where my parents live. I now live in Dublin, but I don't think of myself as Irish. I do think of myself as part of a few select groups, and the key group there is 'people who live in our flat'. My world shrinks down to the level of myself and Scott, and expands to encompass the whole of humanity. There are segregations and divisions, but there are more cases than not where the similarities between different groups just lead to a greater unity. Like an onion. Layers. Although much less useful for making soup.
I didn't hear the bus as it mounted the pavement and ploughed in to the waiting queue. I was ten minutes walk away, wandering around Brown Thomas looking at plates and linen. There was no sudden silence, no air of shock fell over the city. All around us, life went on as normal, busy people leading busy lives.
I know the stretch of road where the accident happened well - most people who live in Dublin would. It's central, and always busy. Both sides of the road packed with impatient pedestrians, pushing past each other to get to the shops, the hotel, to the bus queue. Barging across the roads at the fleeting traffic lights, as the overloaded road strains with the weight of the traffic. It's a crossroads of man and machine, and something was bound to happen sooner or later. But not this.
In Lucan, an eleven year old girl, on the phone to her father, finds her conversation suddenly cut short. In a few brief seconds, five people are gone, and dozens more are hurt, physically and emotionally.
Five minutes away from this, we roll our eyes at the mad woman who is standing in the middle of the cinema queue, but having to explain to everyone that she is not actually in the queue, she just happens to be standing there and the queue happened around her. Six hours later we watch the news in stunned silence.
A major insurance company in the UK has just announced the creation of 2350 jobs in India. There is an expectation that there will be a reduction in staff numbers in the UK. Why is this a good thing?
It's a loss of British jobs, the quality of the service will go down, it's just to line the pockets of a few fat cat directors and it won't be passed on to the customer
Slightly better thought out reactions
It's a loss of British jobs, at a time when the government is eagerly touting the ease of getting a job and the low unemployment rates. The jobs that are going are mainly in areas where staff turnover is high anyway, and the jobs that are being created will bring wealth and resources in to a more deserving market. Of course, there will be people directly affected by this for which it is significantly more dramatic than I've presented it here, but on an international scale this is an equitable move.
Of course, the quality of service is an important consideration for any business. The use of an Indian call centre brings with it a number of risks, but the vast majority of calls can be handled effectively and efficiently. There will obviously be occasions when the call centre fails to be effective, as is the case with any British call centre. However, the market experience tends to be that there are more satisfied customers with an Indian call centre. That's not to say that complaints go down - if anything there is a decrease in number but an increase in severity of complaints. That's good for companies, if they're driven by the current regulations that focus on number of complaints rather than average levels of customer satisfaction. These regulations are driven by the British consumer, so this move is in the interests of consumers.
If the move lines the pockets of a few fat-cat directors, then that is probably because their remuneration is linked to the profits of the company. That's a fairly common approach, and while there will undoubtedly be some money going the way of the directors, most will go to the shareholders. The shareholders tend not to care too much about the operation of the company in question, being evil money-grabbers, focused on getting as much money as possible out of their investments. Yes, shareholders are evil. Just like property owners who want the value of their property to go up, shareholders are gripped by a need to get some sort of return out of their investment. Of course, the major shareholders in the UK are pension funds. So the major beneficiaries of this move are pensioners. So surely, that's a good thing?
The cost reductions won't be passed on to the customers, if they're already going to pensioners, will they? Probably they already have been. It's a competitive market out there, and the chances are that an increase in costs should have been passed on to the customer ages ago. It's very hard to do that, though, mainly because of all of the consumer protection in the UK. So given the alternatives of creating new jobs in an underdeveloped area or telling a million or so customers that their premiums were going up, there was probably little discussion. Always protect the consumer.
I won't argue any of these points. I know that I have not fully followed some of the arguments through. Fortunately, though, I didn't have to.
Living in Dublin allows me the pleasure of walking across the Ha'Penny Bridge on a regular basis.
The bridge is one of the oldest in Dublin, finally opening in 2002. It replaces the elastic bridge which used to cross the Liffey from 'Just By Forbidden Planet' to 'The Hags with the Bags'. That was a great bridge, that was, with scary bounciness all the way across.
The new bridge was designed in 1756 by the little known bridge designer "Lemon O'Sullivan', whose name is commemorated in the name of a pub, a street, and a drawing supplies shop. The original development and build budget was half a penny - hence the bridge's name. Due to delays the actual cost was over ten times that amount.
It now offers a fantastic view of such great sights as The Big Shiny Stick, the Funny Building with the Green Dome and That Hotel that U2 own.
Within a few yards of our home, in a twenty four hour period, the following were observed.
Sometimes, living in Dublin can be almost too cheery. The endless parade of characters that you meet, the rough types who turn out to have hearts of gold, the fantastical creatures. I tell you, if I am accosted once more by someone claiming to be the king of the faries...
Within a few yards of our home, in a twenty four hour period, the following were observed.
I'm actually thrilled by this! Hard to believe, isn't it? But I thought I'd been living a life of bland comfort, enlivened only by some scary drinking sessions where it gets to three in the morning and you're eyeing up anything alcoholic that you can see... but no! I live in a crucible of society! All sorts of shite is going on around me. Isn't that just so....
Okay, it's a bit sucky.
Miro. I'm a fan, I must admit, but I can see that he's not to everyone's taste. But I thoroughly enjoyed the Fundacio Joan Miro, and I like their web site. From there, we headed further down the hill, though, first for a brief visit to the Palacio nacional de Motjuï¿½c, which was actually incredibly awful.
Right at the bottom of the hill, at the back of a patch of waste land, just beyond the portaloo, however, is Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion, as demolished in 1930. Apparently it was rebuilt in 1986, but I prefer to believe that it's the same building but that it fell through a freak fold in the fabric of time and space, or something.
You only have to walk through the space to appreciate its importance to 20th century architecture. Despite the fact that it's utterly impractical that it could ever be used for any real purpose beyond the ceremonial, you can see ideas, you can sense ideas, and you can sit down and have a little rest. The building plays with the ideas of barriers - between inside and outside, between liquid and solid, between different materials, between museum, park bench and retail outlet.
I didn't take any pictures of the waste land outside, though.
We didn't spend long at the fort at Montjuic. The day was warm and hazy, and once we'd seen the view... there wasn't much else to do except buy a small bottle of wine and wander downhill.
There used to be a fun fair here. It's gone now, and even the cable car doesn't stop there any more. It's just a mess of concrete, a sign that once there was something there. And there's a car park.
Without any knowledge of the funfair, the car park makes no sense at all. It's just a series of roads, really, carved into the hillside. I like to picture the Barcelonois driving up the hill of an evening, sitting in parked cars, watching the sunset, cruising and picking up trade. Or perhaps not.
A little below these serried ranks, we paused for our lunch - fresh meat and cheeses bought in the market. I took some pictures of flowers. Some families walked by. The pace of life was slow and gentle, and Saturday morning drifted away into Saturday afternoon.
First stop last Saturday was the market. La Boqueria. A giant, yet intimate space, just off La Rambla.
It's a market like a market should be. Covered, but airy, packed, but clean. Clearly set out, so there is a fruit area, a cooked meat area, a fish area... and what a fish area it is. It's the sort of place that would put any British or Irish fish monger to shame. A great tourist attraction in its own right. If only we'd been on a self-catering holiday, we'd have bought the place up. But instead, we just bought enough for a picnic. And then we went for a walk.
Barcelona's Metro is a complete con. Oh yes, they tell you that there are trains that can take you anywhere in the city, but they don't mention that the trains are around three miles from the entrance to the station, so that you're walking for half an hour before you can get one. Oh no. So we went for a really really long walk. Then a train ride. Then a really really long walk. Then a trip on a funicular railway, that kind of reminded me of what the Peak Tram would be like if they cleaned the station, ripped all the seats out of the trains, and if it only went half way up to the peak. We had to get a cable car the rest of the way.
It's all just like China, really. Except it feels safer.
From the cable car, I get my first view of the Sagrada Familia, and I'm immediately awed by the scale of it. It dwarfs everything around it and dominates the sky line. As I pause for breath, I realise how tightly I'm holding on to the side of the cable car, breathe deeply, and try to relax.
I keep hearing scary news from the SAR. That's the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the Glorious and Virtuous Shiny People's Republic of China.
In one story, it seems that the chief executive of the Prince of Wales Hospital, was listed in stable condition Monday with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The streets, usually bustling, are quiet, and while it seems that now would be the perfect time to go shopping, many shops are shut.
Latest stats: 842 ill, 22 deaths, 116 recoveries. One fourteen year old boy setting up a fake website declaring Hong Kong 'Infected' and causing widespread panic.
Masks are the new black. The fashion accessory to be seen in, if indeed you're seen at all. The City of Life is, perhaps a little less lively.
Or so I'm told. I reckon they're just using this as an excuse to send me thousands of e-mails!
Our hotel was a few doors up from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Frankly bland from the outside compared to some of the finer sights of Florence, but with a hint of a garden that can be seen from outside. It was getting late in the week, and we were becoming lethargic, reading and taking long siestas.
But - predictably, I'd guess - wow.
This shot is the roof of the Sala Di Luca Giordano on the upper floor - a fantastic ceiling fresco in a room full of golden-framed mirrors, looking out over a courtyard. Light, airy, breath taking.
Given that San Gimignano is a touristy buzzy place, and always full of people, how did I manage to capture these shots of deserted streets? Did I use my charm to persuade tourists to 'just pop in to the bar there for a few minutes, please'? Or did I part the waves using my Moses-tastic powers, which I've been keeping quiet about up until now.
Maybe I stayed in the city and got up at seven in the morning before the tourists arrived...
I wonder which of these it could be...
I woke up this morning, thinking of Iraq. Thinking of the possible reasons why a superpower such as the US might want to invade. As usual, with morning thoughts, it's a very simplistic view. I'm missing out the complexities, the in-fighting between the US and UN, the pandering by the UK...
Why might this happen?
I don't know. And I'm trying not to comment on the points above, because I know that the correct answer is probably 'all of the above, and a few that you haven't thought about'.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Yesterday, I was in Belfast. I took the train up in the morning, spent three hours or so doing the usual rounds of presentation and schmoozing, and then I thought I would take my host up on her offer to see the sights.
I catch the local news from UTV here on a regular basis. It tends to focus on the city centre, with its wide streets and huge civic buildings. It all looks very nice. Occasionally there'll be a mention of the Shankill Road or the Falls Road - but not as much as there used to be. So I went to see them.
The Shankill Road is a vibrant shopping street. It's a protestant/loyalist/ulster stronghold, however you want to phrase it. It heads North from the City Centre, and just off the East side is a large housing project. In design terms it's nothing special. In fact, it's pretty dreadfully designed. There's a large grassy square, with about a dozen streets running off it. The gable ends of the end of each terrace faces on to the square.
And every gable end is painted. Really well painted, with vibrant colours and a strong message. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the sentiment expressed, you can see the expression of it. You can feel it. This is a proud community, which knows what its identity is, and expresses that identity.
According to my host, this is all a change from even a few years back, when you'd see an occasional red hand, a few 'FTP's and 'KAT's. But I wasn't there then. I wouldn't know.
The journey to the Falls Road takes only a few minutes. You don't realise that when you watch the television news. There's a peace line - a series of gates that are locked at night - and the Falls Road is, I'd guess, only about half a mile from Shankill. That makes the tension more palpable.
There's a very different feel to the murals here, reflecting the different religious & political viewpoint of the inhabitants. Here, there is less of a focus, I feel. There's a mural supporting the plight of a Turkish woman on hunger strike, with a reference to Bobby Sands. There are murals supporting Palestine, and you're as likely to see mottos in Arabic as you are in English or in Irish.
On balance, I don't know what to make of this. I'm aware of some of the history, but only in a very clinical sense. I've seen it on the news. I didn't live it. I talked with my host about growing up during the troubles. About kids playing in the streets while gun battles were going on. She had some very strong views, not all of which I agreed with. But her most interesting point was her pride in her country. Regardless of her religious background, she was proud to be from Northern Ireland.
The small purple blob towards the top left of this picture gives away the fact that it's entirely generated with 3d Studio and photoshop.
The aim was to capture the feel of rolling hills without actually going to any rolling hills or feeling anything. There are four distinct tree models here, with each one having a leaf pattern generated by a fractal algorithm. I placed the buildings myself, but the hillscape is based on a cloud formation transposed onto a 3d surface.
The small object in the foreground that look like a corrugated iron roof is left over from a previous model. Honest, it is! Would I lie to you? Or is this really the view over the Tuscan countryside from the main gate of San Gimignano?
I've got a few pictures like this.
These rolling hills, peppered with little terracotta coloured villages, this to me is Tuscany. The land that so entranced Frances Mayes that she wrote the execrable Bella Tuscany, and drove Michaelangelo Buonarotti to declare in a drunken stupor one night "Go on, David, get your kit off. I'm a big time sculptor I am. I'll get you in magazines, see if I don't. Oh go on..."
It drove me to take long naps, drink large lattes, eat mozarella and speck sandwiches on salty bread. Can't say fairer than that, can you?
This isn't what we asked for at all.
We wanted big windows. Picture windows, we said. Not pictures of windows. Just look at these. Huge frames, tiny windows. It's just not good enough.
So we called the contractor, but he was dead.
This is the facade that was added in the 19th century to the Duomo in Florence. We're not moving to Florence. Although after the day I've had today the idea of being able to get an espresso for 80 cent on the way in to work is pretty appealing.
You can see the scaffolding.
It was basically designed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century, and the Cupola was added by Brunelleschi. The facade dates from the 19th century. The scaffolding is contemporary.
For some tastes, the design is a bit gaudy, although clearly not Gaudi. Interior-wise, there is a distinct lack of MDF, and nary a scatter cushion to be seen. The garden is virtually non-existent, with a cobbled courtyard surrounding all sides of the dwelling. It is, however, handy for the shops, and convenient for a number of excellent restaurants.
We asked the estate agent to give us a guide price. She gave us a guide book. Something had been lost in translation. We asked again, and were given a girl guide, at which point we gave up.
Lugano in January isn't a tourist centre. It's not a bustling hive of activity. However, it is beautiful, and calm.
I spent about eighteen hours in Lugano, and for a large part of that, I slept. But when I was awake, I was completely in awe. Partly, this is the setting - nestled on the shores of a number of lakes at the southernmost tip of Switzerland, surrounded by the craggy beauty of the alps. Partly, it's the calm. As I mentioned, it was a clear crisp January day, and the streets were quiet. Nobody around.
And partly it was the architecture. A fantastic range of modern and traditional architecture, with the modern architecture being sympathetic to the traditional, while not slavishly emulating it.
There was something very right about this.
On a train in Denmark, I first heard the word "Jism". It struck me as odd at the time that there was a word out there - a rude word - that I hadn't come across before (please pardon the pun).
The context was this. You're on a train in a foreign country. You pick up a newspaper, abandoned by a previous tenant of the carriage, carefully discarding the slim volume of hardcore pornography contained within - after all, you are in mixed company, and you find the crossword.
And then you and your companions spend a pleasant half an hour filling in the crossword, trying to put in only real English words, and the ruder the better.
And so it was, that on a train in Denmark, that I first heard the word Jism, passing the lips of a delightful young lady called Anna.
But she didn't know how to spell it.
I realise that I know quite a lot about change management.
I was thinking about this in bed on Sunday morning, realising that over the years I have evolved from someone who was quite reactionary, who hated the idea of any change, to someone who quite relishes change in some ways. We must change, or else we stagnate, I was thinking to myself.
But that's not entirely true. We want to keep that which is precious to us. The people we love, the home that shelters us, the keepsakes that trigger memories. On the whole, though, I believe that change is good.
So, this brings me to my immediate reaction to the fire in Edinburgh.
It didn't burn through my memories, leaving a dark scar where my youth had been. That would be silly. It brought back memories long submerged, gave me some moments of pleasure. And, thinking about it even more rationally, none of the places that I remembered from ten years ago were the same any more. They'd all changed names, changed management, changed clients. And even once you take those points in to consideration... they were all undamaged by the fire. It was a block away.
Knee-jerk reaction versus the considered opinion. Always important when dealing with change...
On Thursday morning, round about dawn, I was in a plane flying over Edinburgh.
It was a beautiful, crisp morning, and the sky was that deep, yet light, blue colour that glows with its own light, yet illuminates nothing. Below me, Edinburgh was nothing but a mass of lights.
I matched the lights, the darkness, to the map in my mind. There, clear, was Arthur's seat, the Georgian grid of the new town, the apron of streets spreading downhill, northwards, to Leith and to the firth.
It was enough, oddly. The airport is to the west of the city, and I headed further west from there, so I never made it in to town, but that glimpse, the rationalisation, the association was enough.
I'd been home.
Last time I was in Bombay, the city was plastered with adverts for Clinic All Clear. This was the shampoo that promises you Zero dandruff flakes.
Indian hair is thick, dark, and generally very full. It's prone to dandruff. And so black's pretty much out as a fashion choice. The traditional Indian wardrobe is white for men, and a huge range of fantastic colours for women. All of which hide dandruff much better than black.
Of course, it's great to have the option of wearing black. An extra fashion option is always nice.
Dare to wear black. It's sexy. It's new. It's completely impractical in the heat.
In which Doctor Oddverse shows off his complete ignorance of Irish politics, and in particular the Nice vote.
If all of the posters are to be believed, there will be a nice referendum in Ireland this weekend. This is about whether or not the Irish people want to be nice.
Contrary to some of the posters, it is a different vote from last time. It only deals with one issue rather than two. This is an important distrinction.
Gone is the issue of signing-up to providing armed forces. That probably wouldn't be a nice thing. It wouldn't be popular in a country that has a stated policy of neutrality. So that's gone.
All that remains is the issue of whether or not Ireland will sign up to a reduced importance in an enlarged EU.
One side reckons that it would be nice to do this. After all, Ireland has an over-inflated importance at the moment, and is generally doing well out of it. It's only fair to share the wealth, and to help other countries, the way Ireland has been helped. More trading partners are good.
On the other hand, it's not a very nice thing to do to Ireland as a recession takes hold - yank out the funding from beneath the country. The nice thing to do is to stand firm, to fight for the status quo, and to protest the government that tries to force ratification of treaties through by presenting them again and again until they get the answer they want.
The whole issue is muddied by the advertising campaign. "For Jobs - Vote Yes" vs "For Jobs - Vote No". It's a tricky choice.
Me, I'd vote for fewer referenda.
It was hot... the turgid heat of the jungle bearing down upon me, and the pounding in my head, the thump-thump-thump of Charlie at the gates.
I couldn't bear to be indoors, but I couldn't bear to be outside either, with the flies and the hawkers buzzing around me. "Hey, Mr Johnny American, you wanna buy a book". I couldn't bring myself to buy anything, and couldn't bring myself to kick them.
Thank god for Van Bich. Short, slim, and forever smiling. She was my one hope for the future in this sweaty hellhole, the bright focus that I clung to as the malaria and the hashish worked their twin magics on my brain.
And the worst of it; I wanted to come here. I wanted to stand next to my fellow countryman. I wanted to show Chris back in Little Hump what a real 'man' I was. I've lost twenty pounds to sweat and disease. My own mother would barely recognise me. What on earth are we doing here?
The first time I went to Vietnam, I was impressed by the wide range of international restaurants along the main drag of Ho Chi Minh City. I got to know the city quite well over time, but that first trip it was a random cacophony of deco and lights, a warm dry heat that spoke to me of colonial memories that I don't have. That whole evening is subsumed in an orange glow of sunset and nostalgia, and the vague memory of a mild stomach cramp, probably caused by too much rich food before I arrived.
Nothing too spicy, I said, so we went for an Italian meal. Restaurants are set up as joint ventures, I was told, a Vietnamese partner and a foreigner. Then, when they become successful, the Vietnamese partner buys out the foreigner, or throws them out (ejects them somehow - the mechanism is unimportant). And the quality goes downhill, and the restaurant closes. I suspect the place that I went to was already in the late stages of decline.
Flashing forward to the early days in Dublin, and the pizza that we had one evening in the dying days of the indian summer last year. The same orange glow of sunset, a cooler climate, and almost the same blandness in the pizza. I turn to Mr Twinky and, in my best Cartman voice, I explain "This is like the pizza I had in 'Nam"
Yes, I too was scarred by my time in Vietnam. I came away with a deep love of the country, but also an annoying habit of flashing back and inflicting it on those that I love.
Is hard to find, Perhaps it's the fact that as a result of the superficial banality of Belgium that they have been forced to delve into the realms of beer and chocolate to make their name - still a better cuisine than most of the UK. Perhaps it is the fact that for a civilised young belgian man it is disgusting to have dirt on any part of his body.
Whatever the wonderful thing about Belgians is, it probably isn't the smile on the face of the guy cruising me on the moving walkways that run through the airport. A slender figure, with the affectation of a shaved head and a goatee, the sleeves of his regulation uniform tight against his biceps (airport ground staff, for those of you picturing this). A slight swagger in his hips, his eyes firmly on mine as he approached and passed, like so much robot sushi.
But it could have been just my imagination. Maybe I had spinach in my teeth or something, and he was staring at me out of incredulity, and not lascivity. So I turned to watch him as he sped away from me. And he'd turned too. Very, very nice smile.
Riding in an elevator with four Irish people and an Indian guy made me think about conformity again. About riding in elevators in Mumbai and being the only white face in that crowd - and usually a significantly different physical build. There was a sense of exclusion there, sure, a sense of them having a community to which I could never belong, but they all knew that I was there from head office, I was there to help them or shout at them - and so there was a hint of respect towards me. In some cases they would introduce themselves, show off their sales results, or tell me about their IT initiatives. And I was impressed and they went about their day walking a little taller.
We had big plans for the weekend, you know. Major plans. There were half a dozen people to see, places to do, things to visit. And most of it had fallen through before we even set foot on a plane. But the most important feature of the weekend was preserved; we went to Suffolk to visit my sister, owner of the world's least updated web log. And with visiting her, we also get to see my brother in law and their eleven month old son. All part of the package, you see.
There was an element of dread associated with the trip, naturally. Not because of the people, who are all lovely (except for the infant, who is an adorable monster), but because we'd picked the weekend of the 49th anniversary of the Queen's coronation to visit, and we were flying in to a London airport. So we assumed that everything would be shut for the weekend, obviously. Add to that the fact that we were trying to get a taxi to the airport while Ireland were playing their opening game in the world cup, and you've got a recipe for disaster. But everything went really smoothly, travel-wise.
We arrived in deepest Suffolk in time for a weekend of relaxing in the garden, good food, good company, and good beer. If only we'd packed our shorts...
The obvious thing to do on the weekend of the Queen's fiftieth Jubilee is to flee the United Kingdom. Of course, not living in the UK, I've done the complete opposite of sensible, and I'm spendingthe weekend in Suffolk - of which more later, I'm sure.
Having expected, with a degree of dread, the entire country to be full of road blocks to allow for ubiquitous street parties, and basic services like shops to be completely closed, the reality is a refreshing change. The weather's great, everywhere is cheerfully geared up for visitors, and we've had some excellent food. More on the weekend through the week.
Nestling in the midst of a sea of crappy modernism, the city centre of Paris is an oasis of chaos. Blessed with being the focal point of broad leafy avenues, l'etoile, home of the arc de triomphe, is a haven; a poem, if you will, on the topic of existence. Or the world's largest orbital traffic jam.
I'm in Paris for five hours. Two hours in a meeting, two
in traffic, and one hour sitting in a departure lounge. I should really have thought about staying overnight.
I spent a large part of the weekend whistling around Dublin atop an open-topped bus. The wind whistled in my hair, the sky was a gorgeous blue, and I was absolutely frozen. It was great. The highlight must have been waiting in a traffic jam while the demonstration about Palestine went past. "See," said the woman giving the tour. "we are so cosmopolitan we even have demonstrations about Palestinians."
Gosh. How cosmopolitan is that?
I hunkered lower down in my seat and tried to pretend that I couldn't speak English.
I've been thinking about Vietnam for a few minutes, and I even managed to find a picture of the view from my old office there. It's curious to think that I've not been there for over a year.
Vietnam is up there with India as one of my favourite countries to visit - despite, or because of the immense contrasts involved. Both are countries that you can believe in, in some sense. Countries with a sense of purpose, that know that they are alive.
Dublin's Front Lounge is that rarity that so many of us seek but rarely find. It's a decent pub.
By this I mean that it's not too busy, but not empty, it's got a good atmosphere, and it's reasonably priced. And it's only a gay bar up to a certain point. It just shies clear of the awful cruisiness of many gay bars, and there's a signifcant proportion of the clientele who aren't gay, which is just the way that things should be. Or I could be talking out of my arse.
"We're from the Isle of Man. We didn't have homosexuals here before the war."
I've been there now, and I think I can see why. Admittedly, my tour of the Isle of Man was much the same as my tour of most cities of the world - I saw an airport and a short bit of road, and an office. But the whole place seemed very small, as though the weight of the world was pressing down upon the island. What self-respecting homosexual would want to live in a place like that?
This comment was a lot funnier when I was thinking about it in the little Cessna on the way home yesterday. This morning I read it, and it is a lump of leaden prose, ungainly and unattractive, like a plain fat spotty teenager at her prom, dressed like a christmas cake. She's dressed up like a doll. She had her picture taken with her poppa before she left home. She feels ugly, like only a parent could love her; and she is so desparate to retain that parent's love that she stays at the prom to please them, despite the fact that she hates every moment. And, on the other side of the room, the man of her dreams in the powder blue tuxedo is squeezing the zit on his nose and wishing that there was someone he could talk to.
The largest bank note in Vietnam is the equivalent of 3.72, which is not very much at all. Smaller than the smallest banknote.
I've had three e-mails from India over the last few days. It remembers me, it misses me, and it wants to see me again. It's invited me back, and although it hasn't said why, I think it remembers fondly my sense of humour, waving suddenly between dry and sarcastic to whimsical and bringing elephants into the conversation for no good reason.
Also, it got married last month. I congratulated it, although I had some doubts about whether or not congratulations were truly in order; had it met its betrothed before the marriage? Is all well in the matrimonial bed? But these are personal questions, and not the sort of thing that one expects to ask a sizeable subcontinent containing roughly one sixth of the world's population. Some things are just not done.
I remember Adelaide well. Far too well. It was one of those places that we rolled up to and realised that we had three days there, with absolutely nothing planned. No hotel accomodation, no ideas of where to go, nothing. And a flight booked at the end of it, so no real reason to go anywhere else.
We wound up staying in a room above a pub in the city centre. There was a long, complex reason why we couldn't stay at a proper hotel. We stayed in (into the lift, carefully closing both doors, up to the third floor, left through the fire door, down the corridor into another building, round a couple of corners down at the end on the right overlooking the light well). It was small, it was dark, and it had mirrors on the walls. I think most of the other people staying in the hotel actually lived there, and possibly never left it. It smelled of the 1950s.
But we had some great seafood. We found boots. I got a haircut. We did some shopping. We shipped some stuff back to the UK, and I made some new friends at the post office. We had some great beer, and went to a Meze restaurant. There are some great museums and galleries. It was just that first night that we got there that we knew - just knew - that we weren't going to find anything better to do than watch Doctor Doolittle II.
tkts gives the world the chance to queue for half an hour to an hour for tickets for Broadway shows on the day of the show. It's usually the dregs of the tickets, but they're half price and that almost makes it worthwhile. On Wednesday, we went to see Brooke Shields in Cabaret at Studio 54, two and a half hours of sounds and spectacle, while seated in a recreation of a 1930s German night club. There's something kind of memorable about a woman made up to look almost skeletal, standing in a single spotlight, belting out that life is a Cabaret, and clearly not meaning a word of it. Hard to disassociate from Liza Minelli, I know, but still a stonker of an evening. Tonight we're going to see something else, but I don't know what yet.
On our tour of stumbling into stereotypically gay areas of the world (West Hollywood, Castro, even the gay area of Portland), we have wound up staying at the Chelsea Hotel, which is on the fringe of the most up and coming gay neighbourhood in Manhattan. It's also a famous home to the famous. Arthur C Clarke started the screenplay for 2001: A Space Oddysey here, and Jimi Hendrix lived here for a while too. In fact, as we left for dinner last night, Jimi Hendrix was getting out of a limo, and walking in to the hotel. Something tells me that either Hendrix or the Hotel is ersatz.
I now have two more states to add to my list of nice states of the United States. Oregon and Washington. I've had sadly brief visits to both, and would love to spend more time in either. While part of that is undoubtedly due to the fantastic weather that we've been having, part is due to great scenery, the small scale, the range of high quality bookshops and art galleries (a chalk sketch and two prints purchased in a three day period). The only problem would be that while I would live in Portland for the bookshop, Mr Twinky would be in Seattle for the art galleries...
We're in Seattle. We were prepared for cold wet weather, but we've arrived in the middle of a heat wave. As a result, we're overdozing on lime cocktails, white wine, sunshine and salsa, and looking forward to a weekend of nothing in particular. Which is nice.
The other day we went to Napa Valley.
Robert Mondavi's "cellar" is a load of balls. Utter balls. Surly service, high prices for the tasting, you can't offset that if you buy a bottle of the stuff, and they give you half a glass, which is way too much if you're tasting a range of wines. The wine was okay, though.
Beringer, on the other hand was fantastic. When I was in Napa in 1989, I went to Beringer, although I had no idea of that until I rolled up there on Saturday and saw the buildings. The tour was great, and included a tasting, the wine was as excellent as ever, and by the end of the tour and tasting, we'd managed to accumulate enough to get a fairly hefty sixty dollars off a case. The people there really seemed to know and love their wines. Mind you, so do I. The thing that was news to me though, was that Beringer are part of the Fosters group. I'm sure someone mentioned that in Mildura though, when we were at Mildura Blass, in the same group.
We're accumulating a nice list of wineries to remember and buy from, and I am fully expecting a well stocked cellar to emerge at the end of the day...
I have now completely forgotten about Hong Kong. I don't know where I lived when I was there, I can't remember how much a pint of milk cost, or what number of bus went from Wong Tai Sin to Yau Ma Tei. I don't even know where Wong Tai Sin is. On the other hand, Megawati Sukarnoputri wants me for her cabinet. Which is nice.
Stepping back in time, in more than one way, I'd like to talk about Horsham. This is Horsham in Victoria, Australia, rather than Horsham in England, or any other Horsham you may have heard about. You can find out more about Horsham at their web site. Or you can read some of the facts I'll present below. Judge for yourself which is more accurate.
"We've Got It All" may be true, if you like accomodation, restaurants, golf, antiques, parks and churches. However, you'll notice that entertainment is conspicuously not mentioned on the Horsham web site. For that, you have to go to the monthly Horsham tourist paper, which seems to be entirely produced by a charming lady called Val. I can say that she's charming because I met her, and frankly she was very nice. The highlight of the tourist bulletin for me was the full page advert for the adult store. Sadly, we visited Horsham on a Saturday, and so everything was shut.
Everything. No chance of buying a new razor, or some pain killers, or even a coffee. So we booked tickets for the late showing of Shrek, and went to the pub to play pool really badly.
Now Horsham is a rural place. A local place, one might even say. So, as two young, intensely attractive homosexual men, we sought to hide this when we made our selection on the Juke Box. A bit of Red Hot Chili Peppers, some Alice Cooper, perhaps. How wrong we were. Maybe half way through our second game of pool, we were joined at the next table by a couple of guys, seemingly fresh from the fields. They grabbed their turn at the juke box - straight for Geri Halliwell performing "It's raining men". To which they danced. They behaved in very heterosexual manner, by grabbing at each other's crotches as they danced around the pool table. It was verging on pornography. At this point, I realised that I have completely misjudged all men that I have ever met ever. Anywhere. I'll gloss over the part where I made a fool of myself. I'll just mention that I was drinking beer and Mr Twinky was drinking Chardonnay and leave the rest to the imagination. Moving on.
Horsham boasts a range of restaurants. Most of them were closed, though. We were left with two options. Mexican, or pub food. And the Mexican looked so far from authentic as to be suspect (plus Mr Twinky and Mexican food disagree. Mexican food thinks that it is a cuisine. Mr Twinky thinks that Mexican food is tacos and chilis and that's about it. Everything else is spelling points. But I digress...) so we wound up back in the same pub that we had originally left. There we samples such delights as mechanically recovered calamari, and my personal favourite from the salad bar, grated cheese and carrot. Some people had got dressed up to go to this place.
Horsham night life on a Saturday consists of the cinema. Since the range was either Moulin Rouge again, or Shrek (yes... a multiplex), we had booked tickets early. Just as well. The place was packed. Well, half full. Well, the last six rows were half full. The rest of the cinema, maybe thirty rows, was cordoned off. We didn't know why. The locals didn't know why. We were all too scared to ask the management why. Fortunately, the film was most amusing, and we quickly forgot the delights of the local pub. We were damn sure that we weren't going back there though, so we went home.
That night, home was the Majestic Motel. A 21 room extravaganza, where each room comes with its own roach trap, just to make you feel secure. Where you can rent a video recorder from the front desk, and a range of porn to watch on it. Sounds almost perfect, doesn't it?
I feel I have probably said enough on Horsham for now. I have exorcised a demon. There's more, but nothing quite so extreme. After all, Horsham is the gateway to Mount Arapiles - described by Val as a big rock in the middle of nowhere, like a low budget Ayers Rock - so it can't be all bad. Can it?
And so to Adelaide. Since Apollo Bay, we've been to the delights of Port Fairy, and in to the depths of Horsham. We've walked along the Grampians, eaten fine Italian cuisine on the Murray River, and indulged in wines at the Barossa Valley. We have lived life to the full, but we're staying in the sort of shitty place that makes you desperate to leave a country - and fast.
His name was Josh. He worked at Pam's Store in Tilba Tilba. He made us instant coffee that we sat and drank in the cold, while we talked about his move from Canberra five or six years ago, to help out in the family business. There was something unsaid though, some subtext going on that was hard to read. He had beautiful hands.
Two days in to the huge holiday, and already we're feeling relaxed and happy and 2000% better than we did last week. Whether it's the lack of stress, or the fact that Sydney is a pretty cool place and we're enjoying hanging out with friends, who can say? But there's flow, and we are going with it.
2nd July fly Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia.
3rd - 7th: Sydney
8th - 21st: Sydney to Adelaide by car and a pit stop to Ayres Rock.
22nd July fly back to Sydney then on to L.A., USA.
23rd - 31st: Time in L.A. then on to San Francisco by car.
1st - 4th: From San Francisco to Seattle by car.
5th - 11th: Time in Seattle then on to Chicago by air.
12th - 18th: Chicago to New York by air.
19th - 25th: New York to Boston by car then on to Ottawa, Canada by Car.
26th - 31st: Ottawa, Canada.
Mr Twinky will then spend a week in Ottawa while I visit my beloved relatives in Scotland.
There's a reason why it's called the Great Wall of China. It's a wall. It's also pretty damned impressive. Apparenly wide enough for three horses and carts to ride along it, although you wonder how they would cope with the stairs.
Saturday: We chartered a taxi for the whole afternoon. Possibly an unnecessary extravagance, but one that gave us some degree of certainty that we were going to the right places and not getting too ripped off. So first we went to the Summer Palace, where the emperor and his thousands of porcupines spent the summer months - presumably while the Forbidden City was being dusted. Fantastically beautiful place, once you plough through the hawkers outside desperately trying to flog you the little red book (which is, obviously, both red and little). From there, off to the Great Wall, at Badaling, one of three sites where it has been restored. Up to the top via a cable car, and then walked down it for a couple of miles (cunningly, back to the car park). And then, once more chauffeured back to the hotel. Pretty fantastic way to spend a day.
We've become more of a police state than usual, due to a variety of dignitaries being in town for the Fortune Global Forum. Mr Jiang has promised that China's economy will be revitalised when it joins the World Trade Organisation. About 3,000 police officers maintained a tight security cordon around Hong Kong's waterfront convention centre. Police boats and frogmen were patrolling the harbour, and a no-fly zone was declared over the venue and a hotel where the Chinese president is staying during his 24-hour visit. However, Falun Gong members staged silent protests in various parts of the city against what they describe as persecution of the movement on the Chinese mainland.
On the way in to the office today I passed half a dozen individuals in yellow tee shirts, some of which bore Pro-Falun Gong slogans. This is a test for freedom of speech in Hong Kong, and a test of the patience of the mainland authorities. I just worry that a lot of people are going to be hurt, disappointed, or both.
Manila was much the same as ever. Security had been stepped up again, so I couldn't go in to a building without getting my bags scanned and a metal detector run over my body. Which usually went off.
The security guards handling these things apparently have to pay for the batteries - presumably to stop them from stealing them. Which means that they remove the batteries to make them last longer. Allegedly. Rather seems to be defeating the point of the exercise.
The new office smells. There are shouty people behind the fire exit, which is behind my desk. So, I'm off to Manila. Beautiful Manila, where the authorities have ordered the arrest of three senior politicians, where thousands of protesters tried to storm the presidential palace in the capital, Manila. Even more excitingly, at least two police officers and a protester died during the bloody pre-dawn clashes on Manila's steets between security forces and thousands of supporters of ousted president Joseph Estrada. [Source]
Pre-dawn clashes? It's a wonder these people are fit for work in the morning!
How do you sum up Bali? Not too easily, it has to be said. We had too short a time there, that's for sure. Perhaps the easiest way to do it is using a simple catalogue of events, a list of things that we did, a simple description of the magically serene setting of the hotel, praise for the staff, who were unfailingly polite, and always addressed us by name. Perhaps it is easier to post some photographs and let them speak for themselves? I shall think about this more. The fact is, though, that this time yesterday I was sitting by a pool in paradise, drinking iced coke and reading my book, and today I'm sitting at my desk with a copy of the valuation for India. Oh well.
Thursday night, at dinner, Tom was talking about his time in Vietnam. He was 22, and based maybe 30 kilometres away from Saigon. It was 1969, and he spent 365 days here as part of his National Service. He never saw the city, he only saw the villages. I don't know if he was involved in combat. I didn't ask.
As I listened, and asked questions I thought were not tasteless, I was seated between two of our senior staff here. Both left on boats in the late 70s. Our CEO here was twelve. I was ten. I remember watching the "plight of the Vietnamese boat people" on the news. I thought Vietnam sounded like a hellish place. Somewhere I would never want to visit. God knows how Tom felt. It took a lot of courage for him to come here at all. He admits he would never go to Hanoi.
Vietnam has had a long, bloody history. There's an upside to this.
Over half of the population is below the age of 25. The country is alive, and it's vibrant. It's not a developed economy by any means, but it's getting there fast. And it's not afraid to learn from the mistakes of other countries. As a result it's bypassing some of the slow, tortuous back-roads of development that make Hong Kong feel like somebody took the nineteen fifties and suddenly gave them twenty-first century technology. It's a tremendous place.
I think I would be fooling myself if I said that there was no bitterness about the war, though. But I never see any. I see Americans with no bitterness working with Vietnamese with no acrimony. A large part of that is to do with the fact that most of the Vietnamese people here have no memory of the war (although you can rest assured that they KNOW their history). A large part of that is the fact that resentment is not really something in the mindset. There's more to life.
Next trip planned down memory lane is to go to Cambodia in May (I've not mentioned this to Mr Twinky yet, naturally). We'll see if it really looks like it did on Blue Peter.
Falun Gong killed some people. I know this because a Chinese official told me. Sure, he was evasive, but I have no reason to disbelieve him. Why does he have any reason to lie?
The initial clamp down was months ago. There was nothing said about murders at the time. It's only just emerged. And in the mean time, Falun Gong have been going around gathering symapthy. The scoundrels. All this PR they've been winning, just because the true reasons for banning them were hushed up, presumably for cultural reasons. If the world had been told the Falun Gong were murderers before, rather than just that they were a dangerous cult, then they might have been perceived as the aggressors, rather than the obvious myth that circulates that the Chinese government is clamping down on a cult of meditating old ladies.
You live and learn.
One day in power, and Bush is already tackling emotive issues with subtelty and with no fear of being contentious at all. Given his overwhelming majority, this is a wise and sensible move designed to promote unity.
In the Philippines, Arroyo is still cleaning the presidential palace.
Still on Gloria Arroyo:
Like Mr Estrada, Mrs Arroyo is married with three children. Unlike him, she is not famed for a string of extra-marital affairs.
I think I've worked out how to classify Philippine citizens. Women: Sensible. Men (1): Useless. Men (2): Useless but arrogant and power-man.
I wish I could start the year with confidence. This weekend, bombings in Manila killed fourteen people. This isn't the sort of bombings that I can cope with, though. I can cope with targeted bombings designed to cause terror and disruption, or carefully directed campaigns between rival underworld factions to take out each other, or equipment or facilities.
The bombings in Manila are random and indiscriminate, designed to kill random innocents. And they're mainly on my route to work in the morning. As a result, I really don't want to go. Sources in the intelligence community told the Phillipine Star that a faction within the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces is believed to be behind Saturday's bombings in the metropolis. Like that inspires me with confidence.
Violence is possible in Manila. Rioting and stuff. If it happens, it will be directly outside the office here. So I will get a really great view.
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Well, it doesn't really unless you're tired and ratty and you fly in to Mumbai only to land slap bang in the middle of the Bandra Fair, an annual event that lasts for a year and involves 17 million people crammed in to a half mile stretch of road that also happens to be the only piece of road between my office and my hotel.
Following my donation of 20 dollars on Friday, I have today been presented with an envelope containing one boiled sweet, a paper napkin and a dollar. I have been instructed to eat the sweet and spend the dollar before I get home. I have not been told why. I suspect that it is a token of gratitude - lucky money - to thank me for my thoughts. I still have no idea what I am consoling Annie's mother for, though.
This would be an interesting insight into contemporary Chinese traditions if I had a clue what I was doing.
The level of English in Vietnam is a lot better than you might expect, but it's far from the best in the world. I'm sure that there are times when I say something and it's completely misinterpreted. However, I find the people are very patient, and eager to learn. They don't take it badly if I have to repeat myself again, and again. I don't get frustrated when they do either. This is such a marked contrast to India, where the level of language skills is greater, but the willingness to listen is almost non-existent.
I think that's part of my problem with India. I go there to train, and to support, but I am met with arrogance and destructive over-confidence on a regular basis. Mainly from the younger people, I hasten to add. Some of the guys I work with there are in their fifties, and we get on fine. But the younger people want to learn but don't want to be taught.
I find myself wondering whether I am prejudiced by the fact that the Indian trainee is a dumpy, homely woman, while the Vietnamese trainee is a nationally famous model. It probably enters into the equation somewhere.
In Singapore, couples are to be paid for babies. In the sense of being paid to have babies, rather than being offered money in exchange for them. Apparently the island's population is shrinking to unacceptable levels, and this is the best way to remedy the fact. Now the thing is, it's not an awful lot of money. It's significant, but not enough to offset the costs of raising a child. It's being presented as a reward to families for having more children, but it's really more like a family income benefit than anything else.
Nonetheless, people are angry. After all, the world is hideously overpopulated, and any efforts to increase that can do little apart from appear selfish.