I was in a good creative flow all day and forgot to have a shower until about 4:30, which is too early for pyjamas but too late for proper clothing so this post is coming to you from someone wearing a dinosaur onesie. With a tail.
I feel bad for not coming to say hi here more often but I’ve been writing a lot of short stories and they always take up a lot more screen time than I expect them to. It’s really satisfying to post a story every week though – I’m tentatively hoping I can keep it up until March at least. That said, there’s a very real chance that I’ll cheat and just share a haiku if I’m stuck. SPEAKING OF POETRY:
Mum and I went to the British Museum yesterday to see the Troy exhibition they’ve got on. Good points: tonnes of ancient artwork of naked people and/or gods; some medieval books that look like they should only exist in fairy tales; at least one statue of a dying Achilles; enough information to fill my brain for years. Bad points: it was quite dark and so busy that I might have to purchase the very large companion book just to understand all of the above, because there was no way to read all the plaques.
Got some pictures of my favourite Valentine’s cards while I was there too:
If you follow me on Instagram you can expect more from where that came from, just saying.
I think that’s all from me, except to say that if you like short stories and would like to commission me one, you can do if you join up to my Patreon before the end of February. Story itself can be expected some time before the clocks go forward. Ish.
My brother left a couple of things at home when he went back to uni over the weekend: a computer cable and a cold. Not one that’s bad enough to lie on the sofa declaring total uselessness, but bad enough that I would like to do that.
I promised more Malta photos, so here we go:
This is St Paul’s wrist bone, apparently. It lives in St Paul’s Shipwreck Church in Valletta (not to be confused with St John’s Co Cathedral or St Paul’s Pro Cathedral, which are both also in Valletta). I can’t tell you how much I was hoping it would move as I looked at it and extend a golden middle finger.
This is a Caravaggio painting, in St John’s Co Cathedral. I can’t remember what it’s called, nor the name of the other, much larger one that also lives in the cathedral. I don’t know what I’m looking at, art-wise, but Caravaggio’s paintings did make all the others in the cathedral look like they were done by small children. Caravaggio was a member of the Knights of Malta for a bit – I think he got expelled for swashbucking and murder – but they got some cool paintings out of it so all’s well that ends well. Except for the murder victims.
Houses in Malta have names as well as/instead of numbers and this was my favourite. Other contenders: Joan d’Arc and America (a whole street had American-inspired street names, turned out the embassy was down the road I think).
I trotted around half a dozen cool museums in Gozo’s Citadel, because you pay something like 10 euros and get entrance to a bunch of places. One of them was a museum of Christian paintings and I shit you not, every Jesus had the face of a middle aged man. Cute lil chubby baby from the neck down, sensible accountant from the neck up.
In the time it’s taken to put this post together I’ve eaten half a pot of salsa, so I’m pleased to announce that my airways are clearer and that I will probably be suffering a digestive complaint in half an hour. You win some you lose some ahhahaaa.
RIGHT. ONTO OTHER BUSINESS.
First of all, can I just say that until today I thought that Thomas Cook (the man who started the late travel company) was the same man who explored then-unknown lands and got killed by angry local Hawaiians in the 18th century. I’m never sure how I feel about the ‘explorers’ of yore who went around invading places and enslaving local people, and I dunno if James Cook (explorer) was a slave-y explorer or just someone who liked going to new places.
Ah. I just figured out that the slave-y explorer I was thinking of was Christopher Columbus. James Cook was a completely different person. I THOUGHT I WAS WELL READ HOW DID I CONFLATE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS WITH A DERBYSHIRE BUSINESSMAN.
This is a good opportunity to segue into my next item: I’m researching a new potential project and have put together a survey about it. If you have 3-5 minutes and have recently felt frustrated and/or hopeless when consuming the news, I’d appreciate your input. It’s completely anonymous and will let me know if my idea is worth pursuing. Clearly I need some help with my general knowledge, so please do take a minute to help me out…
Afternoon. You might have noticed I’ve redecorated the blog and changed the theme to something else white and blocky, although by the time you read this I might have changed it twice more and/or back to how it was.
I’ve hit a mid-afternoon slump and can’t actually remember what this blog was supposed to be about, so let’s talk about dead kings! Or princes, as the case may be. Or may not be. Who read about the Prittlewell Princely burial and felt a mild stab of pride at being from Southend? It was a fleeting stab – kind of a twinge? – but YES HELLO THAT’S A BIT OF VERGE I RECOGNISE. I’m going to the exhibition as soon as I can.
I actually remember, albeit vagually, visiting an exhibition about the burial in either Southend Museum or Prittlewell Priory 12 or 15 years ago, when it was quite a new find. I don’t remember being hugely excited but take two should be better, mostly because I now know how to read.
It occurred to me ages ago that it might be quite fun to do a series of posts about things in and around Southend that are actually quite nice (there are some excellent shops and a few interesting historical places and/or haunted places), but I never got around to it. Maybe I should start with the exhibition? Or the bit of verge under which the Saxon king/prince was buried for several centuries? The Aldi across the road is staffed by lovely people, but we might have trouble getting photographs that don’t feature traffic. Or tarmac.
Since we are celebrating a century in the UK since some-but-not-all-actually-not-many-but-SOME women got the vote, I thought I’d better use my hard earned freedom of speech and say hello. Coincidentally I am doing an Open University course at the moment (I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that?) and the current topic is Chartism. I had never heard of the Chartist movement before I read my textbook, and it turns out that is because a) Chartism was an early 19th century movement to gain universal suffrage in Britain but b) it didn’t actually work so c) no one really bothers talking about it unless they are specifically discussing history or humanities (hiii). But it’s really interesting!
In 1842, several hundred thousand people took a charter and petition with about 3 million signatures to Parliament, demanding that Parliament consider giving people the vote. Well, male people. But all male people over 21, regardless of the land they owned! The charter also demanded that any old person could run for Parliament, and that MPs be paid, so you didn’t have to be rich and bored to decide to go and run Scunthorpe or wherever. Aside from the fact the charter didn’t mention women at all and wanted annual elections (Christ what a thought) Chartists were quite the modern community. They utilised the printing press and organised grassroots local meetings. They even tried to get co-operative living off the ground to stop miserly middle class middle men ripping off the working poor. Anyway, it didn’t work. The Chartists did three or four national petitions in total, but the aristocracy was terrified that if they rescinded a tiny little bit of power, there might be a revolution as violent as the one in France, so they resisted change as long as possible.
Anyway, now we’re here. 2018! The people are in power! Sort of. Mostly? I read a fascinating article yesterday about the female-driven economy and it was simultaneously uplifting and depressing. I knew the stat that there are more CEOs named John than there are women CEOs, but I didn’t know that when airbags were first released they killed a lot of women and children because the presumably male engineers testing them hadn’t thought to test for anyone who weighed less than 250lbs.
It’s funny what a centenary will do to you: hearing the Today Programme chat to and about extraordinary women this morning has spurred me on a bit. I had a business meeting today, and until this morning it wouldn’t have occurred to me to call it a business meeting but actually it was a meeting in which I did business. I also made a video for my Patreon page and transcribed 1000 words for my giant story project. The next part of The Elastic Band Theory, by the way, is online now. Am I doing open heart surgery? No. Am doing important work that I should talk more about? Yep.
I guess I knew this academically, but I’m only just starting to understand why there are so many men named John in the FTSE 100: most men I know ooze confidence in their ability to get shit done, or at least possess the confidence to go and get shit done. Most of the women I know just get on with what needs doing without thinking much of it. I feel like women generally are more likely to say ‘I went to work then made the dinner and walked the dog, feeling a bit knackered to be honest’ than say ‘I just put in a five hour shift, cooked a healthy nutritious meal for four people and took the dog on a two hour hike! I’m feeling tired but it’s so worth it when I see my children happy!’ If my brother or dad were running an Etsy store, they would have scheduled that business meeting about two years ago. I had the confidence to send an enquiry email three weeks ago. It’s almost as though I’m socially conditioned to think less of my abilities than all the men I know are. How odd. I wonder if there’s a group of people who believe men and women are the same and should be treated as such?
One of the best things about a city as sprawling as Ho Chi Minh City, and a country as vast as Vietnam, is that you can swing from ‘adventure tour’ to ‘relaxed museum visit’ in the blink of an eye. Case in point: Cu Chi and the Ruinification Palace.
The Cu Chi Tunnels
SOME HISTORY: during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong built a complex network of tunnels across both North and South Vietnam to avoid bombing by US forces. The tunnels under the Cu Chi district of Saigon were used as military headquarters as well as living facilities for locals, and now they’re available to tour. From above there’s some jungle, an obligatory gift shop and an inexplicable shooting range. The real fun comes when your guide moves some leaf litter, hauls a plank of wood from the ground and shows you… a foot-wide tunnel entrance.
You can climb in, pull the hatch over your head, feel your way into the tunnel proper and then haul yourself out again. I had a sneaky feeling that despite being a similar size to Vietnamese people – or more similar than most Westerners – I would get stuck in the tunnel and die, so I abstained. For scale, a few six foot guys on our tour did get in, but barely.
Next we saw some of the absolutely genius, totally sneaky, every-naughty-child’s-dream-booby-trap booby traps.
Spiky McSpikeFace no. 1.
Spiky Mc Spikeface no. 2. We saw about 10 variations.
Each trap is pretty simple: when stepped on, its spikes impale the victim through various body parts. If I remember my GCSE history, the stress and paranoia of living with the threat of these traps contributed heavily to the ridiculous levels of PTSD troops experienced. I got pretty stressed just looking at them, so hats off to the war veterans in that respect.
As people lived day-to-day in the tunnels, they came up with ingenious ways of hiding their presence, like cooking during the misty early mornings to mask smoke, or putting air vents in tree trunks to disguise them. They did get flooded out – literally – but generally speaking, the Viet Cong one-upped the West for years. Of course, the tunnels themselves helped.
Before you go down into them, the guide warns that if you’re claustrophobic or suffer from high blood pressure, you should stay outside. Whatever, I thought, I‘m almost as small as the Viet Cong and I don’t think I’m that claustrophobic. Let’s go!
Turns out I’m a bit claustrophobic, and not that small.
I don’t have any photos from my brush with suffocation, because I was too busy humming songs to distract myself, checking my brother was still following me and trying not to think about suffocating. The tunnels are roughly the size of an air vent, made of stone, and frequently drop a level or move upwards so you have to haul yourself up or drop down a few feet. I’m five foot one, ish, and I nearly got stuck, so I have no idea how average-sized people managed it. I suspect that tourists over a certain size are bluntly told not to go, because they would genuinely get wedged and there’s just no way to get them out.
We survived, though, with grubby backpacks and a deep respect for the communities who spent years underground. Now, on to something more aesthetically pleasing than some rocks:
The Ruinification Palace
From the outside, the Ruinification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is basically the 1960s encapsulated in a building. I don’t like that blocky, grey concrete style of architecture at all, probably because there’s a lot of it in Southend and as a child, with drizzle stuck to my neck and a grey sky next to grey buildings filled with grey people, I decided I would leave Southend for warmer lands as soon as possible. Happily, the interior reminded me of The Man from UNCLE and appealed greatly to my unachievable ambition to have a spotless, symmetrical bedroom.
The conference room
A meeting room
Presidential living room
One of the meeting rooms
SOME HISTORY: there’s been a palace of sorts on that site since the 19th century, during French occupation, and after a bomb attack in 1962 the building was completely redesigned. The president of South Vietnam lived and worked there until 1975 when Saigon fell to the North and tanks literally rolled through the gates. The president surrendered immediately and the palace has been left as it was then, from the meeting rooms to the underground war bunkers.
The CUTTING EDGE OF TECHNOLOGY.
The CUTTING EDGE OF TECHNOLOGY.
My favourite bit is that the top floor of the palace was originally designed as an open space for the president to meditate upon various issues in peace and quiet. He turned it into a party room with a dance floor and space for 100 guests.
I am not wholly unsurprised the South lost the war.
We have now been in Siem Reap four days, and we decided to stay another night and get a night bus to Phnom Penh so we could see more. We flew in from Bangkok early Thursday morning (our Thai visas required proof of onward travel, so we paid about £40 for a 45 minute flight, which had better service than some European flights I’ve been on *cough* EasyJet *cough*). I preferred Cambodia to Bangkok the moment we landed. Siem Reap airport is very new and incredibly pretty (and I am shallow) and the city in general reminds me a lot of Greece. Everything is dusty but very green, the roads are bustling but not total chaos – there are even separate lanes for tuk tuks and motorbikes – and stray dogs are three apiece (and before you make a joke that’s not funny, no I will not be adopting any).
Maxim had been sick from some dodgy seafood the night before, so once we got into town we hung out in a cafe waiting to check in to our hostel. I experienced my first – and definitely not my last – squatting toilet, tucked down a tarpaulined alley in what felt like the Cambodian equivalent of the old York Road market in Southend.
We’ve spent most of our time here exploring Angkor Wat, which will require a post by itself, and we’ve also visited Angkor Night Market, which is right next to our hostel (no live gerbils, but lots of opportunity to haggle over t-shirts) and Pub Street.
Pub St is supposed to be quite a big deal, but as far as I could tell it’s mostly made of restaurants, tourists and people begging. Over about three hours we saw two war veterans, one without legs pedaling (literally, with his hands) a cart of books, one blind and guided by a child. Then there was a guy performing circus tricks, although he wasn’t very good and nearly set himself on fire/took his eyes out/killed passersby, and then a small child who prodded me in the armpit as I walked the market, shrieked ‘CHEEP CHEEP’ at me and would have been elbowed in the face if I’d been a second slower to realise he was about eight. A few tourists gave them money, if just to get them to go away, which obviously has the opposite effect. I’m not sure what the Cambodian government does for its war vets and its homeless (presumably very little) so if anyone from government is reading, please sort your shit out. I don’t want to see children begging on my holiday any more than I want to see stray dogs, but I know which I’d rather you fixed first.
We also visited the local War Museum, and if you thought priceless antiques sitting outside at Bangkok’s National Museum was a travesty, don’t bother with Siem Reap’s War Museum. It’s filled with tanks, guns and landmines (some still in the ground) from the Cambodian civil war and genocide, and everything is sitting outside except the guns, which you can pick up.
We’re going to the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, so I will wait until then to wax lyrical on Pol Pot and his band of merry megalomaniacs. In the mean time here is a short list of interesting facts:
In Cambodian culture some people collect the teeth of a cremated loved one and wear them on a string necklace to keep the loved one close and watching over them. When the string breaks, the deceased has moved on
During the Cambodian genocide, most of the rice grown was exported to China in exchange for arms, so locals learned to eat termites and other assorted creatures
There is a special type of shovel in existence that prisoners would use to dig a hole. Then their captor would kill them with the serrated edge of that very shovel, and bury them in the grave they’d just dug themselves
There’s a guide at the War Museum who was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. At various points he stepped on a landmine filled with ball-bearings, lost his sight in both eyes then had one of them restored by a UN initiative and put his story into a book.
I will leave this here because the wifi is cutting out a bit – I have a photo of a termite hill and everything. Maybe that will be one for the outtakes. Next stop is Phnom Penh and the museums, which I am told will make me depressed about the state of humanity. Good thing I had all that practise living through 2016 then, innit.
By the time you read this we will have started exploring Siem Reap and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but I haven’t told you an almost-amusing anecdote about umbrellas, so let’s continue with Francesca’s Edited Highlights (part one is here).
The Grand Palace
The Grand Palace, a complex of buildings which used to be the royal family’s permanent residence, is the one place everyone says you have to go when you’re in Bangkok, so we went one morning… so did everyone else in Bangkok. I’m travelling with Maxim who-needs-a-guide-just-take-photos Burke, and know little to nothing about Buddhism (and even less about Thai history) so dodging a million people in the rain – and by rain I mean HUGE DOWNPOUR – to squint up at golden pagodas through soaked glasses was a bit like walking into a chocolate shop never having tasted sugar. Everything was wonderful, but I have no idea what I was looking at. I did enjoy sitting in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is not actually emerald) and searching for nirvana, but I think it’s going to take more than a few sessions on a meditation app for that.
We also accidentally kept the umbrellas we borrowed from staff, and I was wracked with guilt for a few days for stealing from the Thai government, so I have left mine in the hostel. I wasn’t going to smuggle contraband into Cambodia.
Wat Pho, one of about four hundred wats (temples) in Bangkok is right next to the Grand Palace, and contains a couple of hundred bronze-and-gold-leaf buddhas. We paid for a tour guide this time, who told us that the Thai name for Bangkok is the longest city name in the world, and that it means ‘city of angels’. Take that, LA. We also met, amongst others, the reclining buddha…. which really reminds me of Kate Winslet in Titanic, now I think about it.
The Thai equivalent of the British Museum, the National Museum doesn’t look that big from outside. Ignore this and wear your most comfortable shoes. And take snacks. There’s a sprawling gallery dedicated to Asian art, a section filled with royal objects, a separate art gallery, a building dedicated to one of Thailand’s queens…
And more umbrellas.
I did not try to use that one. I must say, I was a bit worried about the number of priceless artefacts out in the open. What if the rain got in, or a passing child vomited? Then again I once visited a museum where a local stray would follow visitors in and curl up on the antique bed, so I guess a bit of rain isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’d still be wary of puking children, though.
Khao San Road
Khao San Road is the other one place everyone says you have to go when you’re in Bangkok, and since we’ve given the ping pong shows a miss, we did. In a nutshell, it’s like Camden Lock Market but instead of punk gear and tattoo parlours, there are street vendors with scorpion kebabs and tattoo parlours. I didn’t get any good photos, so just imagine Camden Lock, replace rain with sun and add the scorpions. The tourists were identical.
Greetings from the veranda outside our hostel. There is a bazaar directly to my right, which stocks live gerbils, and a coffee shop to my left, which doesn’t. So far as I know.
Thank you to everyone who saw my last post – if you’re family and you’re new here, please be aware that I swear here more than I do in front of you.
I am slowly starting to make friends with Bangkok, although I doubt we’ll ever be on as good terms as I am with, say, London. I suspect this is because even the thickest motorists in London usually observe lanes, traffic lights, zebra crossings and the difference between the road and the pavement. But we’re getting there. It’s been nearly a week since we left home, and I’ve learnt a lot since then, for example:
It’s possible to crack the code on your own padlock, which you accidentally reset
Tuk tuks are terrifying
I mean if one crashed and- I don’t know how they don’t – every person inside would be toast
McDonald’s in Asia is identical to McDonald’s everywhere, down to the smell (although the one we popped in to seemed to serve more fish)
It rains more in South East Asia than it does in England, which I did not think possible
Boat taxis are cheaper than taxi taxis
We’ve started to get our tourist heads on and been exploring too. We’ve seen a lot, so let’s call this part Francesca’s Edited Highlights (because the forty minutes we spent at the Vietnamese Embassy, or the forty minutes we spent stuck in a taxi on the way back from Chinatown does not make good reading).
If you hate Westfield, do not try the Siam Centre, MBK Mall or Siam Discovery. They are air conditioned to a t, absolutely bloody enormous and include everything from contemporary art galleries to supermarkets. They remind me simultaneously of Debenhams and Are You Being Served, andfeature many Starbucks.
Jim Thompson House
CULTURE TIME. A US soldier, Jim Thompson, was posted to Thailand during World War II, but I think the war ended by the time he got there or something – he had a lot of free time, so he explored Bangkok and fell in love with it, returning to live and transform the local silk industry (he came up with printing onto silks directly with moulds; previously patterns were woven in). He built himself a house and a reputation, went to Malaysia on a trip and went missing. Now his private art collection is on display in his house, which his family gave to Thailand. No one knows what happened to him, although one therory is that he was assassinated by the CIA (is anyone else getting serious Leonardo diCaprio blockbuster vibes?). Anyway his house had a pond and a potty shaped like a frog so I like him.
(I was not allowed to take a picture of the frog.)
I’m trying to keep these blogs short like me so I will leave this here… part two coming soon! Or when I’m next in a decent wi fi zone…