Eleven days in Asia

(This piece was written in 2004: an account of a press trip to UAE, Hong Kong and Thailand. I’m putting it up here because I think it’s very good! And most of it, I’d imagine, still applies…)

1: United Arab Emirates

Six am in Abu Dhabi International Airport, and a thought strikes: all airports are more or less the same now. They all have vending machines, escalators, big empty spaces; they all have credit card phones, tiled floors, universal symbols on toilet doors. The passport checkers are always grumpy and suspicious. It always takes an eternity to check baggage through. The duty free is always open and ready for business.

This place has a vivid, multicoloured mosaic on its ceiling, but it still feels like virtually every other comparably sized airport in the world…until you step outside, and 40 degrees of hot, damp air fills your lungs. This is something you don’t get at Shannon too often. Unbelievably, it’s that warm and humid at six in the morning, and I silently say thanks for air-conditioning.

Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates – a smallish confederation of seven emirates (or kingdoms), slightly bigger than Ireland, clinging to Saudi Arabia’s eastern side on the Arabian Peninsula. Dubai is the country’s business centre, and the one-hour motorway trek between the two (in air-conditioned bliss) offers a good opportunity to observe this young nation being almost literally borne into existence.

It’s like mankind has landed on a dusty, empty planet and simply begun to build there. Each side of the road is bordered by other roads, apartment blocks, strips of businesses, construction cranes, pipes and cables and, incongruously, verdant spaces, but beyond that is…nothing. Just immeasurable stretches of flat, brown desert, occasional wisps of wind the only disturbance of this perfect nothingness.

UAE officially became sovereign in 1971, but a more crucial date in its history is the early 1950s, when the first oil exports began. Like most Middle Eastern countries, oil is at the heart of a vertiginous drive towards economic strength (the emirate of Dubai, for instance, holds a staggering 10% of the world’s total reserves): from a poor, sparsely populated trading outpost to one of the region’s richest nations in scarcely 30 years.

And it’s obvious where the money is going. Foreign labour (80% of the population is immigrant) and prudent investment combine to serve this national imposition of will on an arid environment. UAE is building an infrastructure, laying out cities and roads and shopping malls and golf courses and parks and hotels where, until recently, very little existed. Two decades ago Dubai was a one-horse town of some 20,000; today it has a population of half a million and rising. The whole country is new, callow, partly formed; a virgin canvas in a rush to be filled.

And that’s partly a problem with the place. It’s like someone once wrote of Los Angeles: “There’s no there there”. It might be clean, neat, orderly and pleasant, but it’s fundamentally a sprawl: of shops, skyscrapers, footpaths, restaurants, resorts and walks, with no real centre. No real heart, I suppose. UAE seems too new, too plastic, too much like a perfect little Toytown for my jaded European tastes; I want history and culture and crumbling buildings, that weatherworn, comforting feeling you get from strolling round an old city. And unfortunately, that ain’t to be found here.

Not that this country is completely without charms. The climate is superb, and guaranteed; the people are welcoming and helpful; there are a myriad of resorts which cater to almost every conceivable whim (honest to God, there are plans to build an indoor ski run here); prices are reasonable and the hotels, if your tastes run to the luxurious, are fantastic. I stayed in the Emirates Towers, a futuristic architectural wonder with a mind-blowing mid-level lobby and super-speed glass-walled elevators.

I guess, ultimately, UAE represents the dividing line in taste between those who consider themselves tourists and travellers. Tourists will love the services, great shopping, grand accommodation, endless blue skies; the way everything you need, or desire, is available and accessible. Travellers, though, might find it a little too sanitised and bereft of character; too reminiscent of all those identikit airports with their identikit duty frees and vending machines. They might even find it uncomfortably blank and sterile, like the vast, enclosing desert.

2: Hong Kong

Contrast – now, that’s what makes the world interesting.

Where UAE was inert and somehow inauthentic, Hong Kong positively teems with life. It’s a raucous, rambunctious, manic place, with nearly seven million people crammed into not much more than 1,000 square km.

It’s loud and fast and hot and colourful, a sensory overload of smells, sounds and truly amazing views. It reminds me of Japan in some ways – intense, claustrophobic urbanisation bordered by the sea on one side and densely forested mountains on the other – but that’s being reductive and unfair. Hong Kong is unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

Gazing out a bedroom window at apartment block roofs and industrial yards and teeming flows of traffic, someone remarks dismissively, “Not much of a view, is it?”, but I couldn’t disagree more. This might be the grimier side of a place with more than its share of flashy, extravagant sights, but it’s all in there, all the indices of a truly great city: movement and lights and sparking nervous energy, the massive ebbs and flows of constant human endeavour.

There are so many skyscrapers here. Tens of skyscrapers. Scores of skyscrapers. Uncountable numbers of them, jammed together apparently randomly, their tiny windows and white concrete skeletons reaching high into the sky, made to appear even taller because of how low the cloud cover hangs. Hong Kong looks like something from the future – the steamy, damp, neon chaos of Blade Runner or something – but, paradoxically, feels old and bedded in, like it’s been this way for ages. As if these buildings just sort of vaulted up out of the fecund depths of Hong Kong’s enormous harbour.

It’s founded on an intriguing cultural fusion, as well. After centuries of contact with Europe – often dominated by the opium trade – the British colonised what was called The New Territories in the ninteenth century, finally striking a deal for a 100-year lease in 1897. Though Hong Kong returned to mainland China seven years ago, as a semi-autonomous region, the Anglo influence echoes still: from the faintly ludicrous presence of streets named after British royals to the widespread use of the English language and the city’s partly Western ambience, existing comfortably with the cultural nudgings of the Orient.

That’s maybe the coolest thing about Hong Kong: it all seems to work. Gazillions of people shoehorned together in squashed tower blocks: it works. A global centre of finance and free trade getting on with business while its ostensibly communist big brother breathes over its shoulder: it works. The exotic past and head-spinning future simultaneously inhabiting one of the world’s most cramped slices of real estate, each feeding off and invigorating the other: somehow, it all works.

There are tonnes of attractions for the visitor, too, one of the finest being the tram ride to Victoria Peak, the city’s best viewing spot – two classically styled redwood carriages slowly hauling themselves up a 30-degree gradient, as the city falls off into the faraway background. And then the view from the top, which is breathtaking: much of the city, most of the harbour, all of the atmosphere. Equally breathtaking is the night-time show of lights and lasers along the quays at Victoria Harbour, as hotels and office blocks strut their stuff and advertise their wares, illuminating the inky darkness and reflecting off the water.

Like any city worth the name, Hong Kong is a perfect place for just dossing around, with many winding walks to be discovered, and regular ferry crossings connecting its constituent parts: Kowloon, Hong Kong island, the New Territories and the hundreds of tiny islands dotted throughout the bay. The markets are excellent – they always are in Asian cities – with Stanley Market particularly worth a visit, as it’s compact and easily negotiable while also full of interesting, diverse stalls.

And, oddly, perhaps the single most memorable place in the city has a Clare connection. The Peninsula is regarded as Hong Kong’s swankiest hotel, and from September has been managed by Shannon native Ian Coughlan. It really is a fantastic creation, like something out of a Bond movie, and the high-level Felix Bar, created by world-famous avant-garde designer Philippe Starck, is particularly worth a visit for two reasons: the bizarre chocolate-coloured private lift, and the even more bizarre design of the toilets.

It’s hard to describe, but trust me – taking a leak was never this interesting…

3: Thailand

The final, and longest, part of the trip encompassed two separate destinations in Thailand – its exuberant capital, Bangkok, and a medium-sized resort town called Pattaya, about two hours’ drive south-east. And while some similarities existed between the two – the sweet-natured and friendly locals, the pleasantly warm weather, the happily chaotic atmosphere on the streets and in the markets – they represent quite different options for the visitor.

Pattaya was once a small fishing town which was transformed into a holiday resort during the 1960s, with the initial visits of American soldiers on R & R from the Vietnam War. It soon established itself as one of the favourite destinations of this corner of Thailand. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with army migrations, where soldiers came, sin soon followed. While there are many lovely places to visit and activities to pursue in the city and its hinterland, prostitution and other sex industries form, it seemed to me, a large plank of Pattaya’s revenue and “attractions” (those are very deliberate quotation marks).

I don’t want to concentrate on this aspect too much, as the town – and indeed the Thai government – are making strident efforts to reduce the importance of the sex industry to their tourist economy. Like everywhere else, the more wealthy a country becomes, and the more tourists visit places like Pattaya, spending their foreign currency on normal stuff like accommodation, food, jewellery and souvenirs, the less locals need to pander to Westerners’ baser instincts in order to make a living. But it would be dishonest to deny the current reality of downtown Pattaya; and that reality was pretty depressing to me.

In fairness, the sex trade is very well monitored, and more-or-less localised to the notorious Walking Street. Sober-looking motorcycle police hang around either end of this long, bustling thoroughfare, keeping an eye on things. Regular businesses – everything from vegetable stalls and noodle stands to formal suit makers – dot the street in between the strip clubs, discos and pick-up joints, where the girls behind the bar are also prostitutes if the customer is interested.

It feels really safe, day or night, which almost makes the whole experience that much weirder; there is no harassment of tourists, no dodgy geezers beckoning unwary foreigners into dark corners where trouble awaits. It’s all out there in the open, and it’s all quite casual. You want some “love” for the night? No problem. You want to just sit and drink? That’s no problem, either. And, it must be stressed, child prostitution is strictly outlawed here, with prominent signs providing police contact numbers to raise suspicions.

But it’s still inescapably grim and saddening. The fact that most of the working girls aren’t even local, but brought in from Laos and Cambodia, only accentuates this. It’s global economic inequality literally made flesh in the bodies of these beautiful girls: rich westerners pay poor Asians a few bucks for sex, who then crawl out of the poverty trap just enough to get someone else, even poorer, on the job while they serve the beers.

Having said all that, greater Pattaya itself is a charming, shambling town, surrounded by lush greenery and with some spectacular views of the Gulf of Siam. An elephant sanctuary lies nearby, affording visitors the chance to ride these magnificent beasts, while the Gems Gallery, in town, is the world’s biggest jewellery store. There’s a “ghost train”-style ride explaining the history and mechanics of gem mining, and inside the store itself, you can observe the craftspeople at work, buffing and cutting the rough gems into polished jewels. (Be warned, though: an extremely hard sell then awaits from a platoon of shop assistants.)

We also took a Chinese junk out to Coral Island, around an hour’s journey, and both the trip and island itself were superb. The resort complex in which we stayed, the Royal Cliff, was also lovely, with practically everything you could need for a week or two of sheer, pampered bliss. Glimmering pools, private beaches, in-house massage and shopping, an array of restaurants and bars, fabulous décor and a small army of incredibly pleasant, amicable staff – it really is true about the beneficial effect of Buddhism on the human character – mean that you hardly need to leave the resort at all.

So the ultimate verdict is that Pattaya is family-friendly, up to a point, but parents should be keenly aware that some parts are off-limits to minors. Whether that applies to the adults themselves, I guess, is up to each individual.

To Bangkok, then, which I could probably describe using many of the same words as for Hong Kong: raucous, manic, hot and colourful, sensory overload, movement and lights, that sparking nervous energy. It’s a big, vibrant Asian city, in other words, housing over 10 million people. Strangely, despite the fact that most Irish people who come here find it almost unbearably noisy and dirty until they properly acclimatise, I didn’t have any of that sort of culture shock at all. Bangkok is loud and grimy, the air thick with exhaust fumes and engine noise, but no worse than Dublin’s O’Connell Street at rush hour.

I felt welcome and relaxed almost at once, and most of that was probably down to the hugely friendly locals. Thailand styles itself as “the Land of Smiles” and it’s easy to see why. From the market stall-holders to the hotel staff to the drivers of tuk-tuks (motorcycle taxis with a two-seater frame for passengers constructed on the back), a beaming face greets the customer every way you turn, without ever seeming forced or cynical. Though the Thais are a proud, defiant race – the only country in South-East Asia, as far as I know, never to have been colonised – these are genuinely nice, gregarious, courteous people (it’s that Buddhism thing again). Some lessons to be learned there for the service industry in our own land of Céad Míle Fáilte, methinks.

The visit to Bangkok felt rushed, primarily because there is so much to see and do here that a fortnight wouldn’t be enough. But chief among the many highlights was a fantastic trip, in a long tail boat, along the web of canals which branch off the broad, muddy-brown Chao Phraya river. It was amazing to see how the people here have adapted to straitened circumstances, showing resourcefulness and wit in crafting dwelling places out of bits of timber, metal and other scrap.

Another wonderful attraction is the Grand Palace, nestling in the heart of the city, which houses the royal residence and throne halls, some government offices and the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Talk about sensory overload: these buildings are brightly coloured and infinitely baroque in styling, a riot of gold and green curlicues and loops and ever-declining spirals. My own tastes would probably run more to the minimal, but aesthetics aside, it makes for an undeniably impressive spectacle. The Emerald Buddha, meanwhile, is a small statue of the Buddha, hewn from jade, sitting atop an ornate altar under the temple’s high roof. It’s a calm, quiet place, a nice respite from the perpetual motion outside, filled with pilgrims and tourists, the devoted and the curious.

Just up the street from our hotel, the gorgeous Meritus Suites State Tower on Silom Road, is a massive night market, open until the wee hours, which sells just about any product you could think of, and a few you probably haven’t. And while I would forever be loath to promote the consumption of semi-legal bootleg merchandise, designer watches, cameras, sunglasses and clothes are there at a knockdown price, while bootleg DVDs and CDs are about a quarter of the cost here, not to mention six months ahead of the release dates for Europe.

Bangkok has garnered itself a reputation as the sleaze capital of Asia, if not the world, over the past few decades. And while the aforementioned sex industry is easily accessible if that’s your thing, there really is a whole lot more to the place than that. As I suggested in the first portion of this piece, some people want to check into their hotel, strap on a backpack and hit the streets, to experience firsthand all that history and culture, that weatherworn, comforting feeling you get from strolling round an old city. Bangkok, for me, is a perfect place for that, and that’s the finest compliment I could pay it.


Man, I love this bag

I have a man bag. You can tell this because it says “Man Bag” on a wooden tag hanging off the handle. (It really says this. What next? A big sign saying “sink” on your new stainless steel Franke?)

Anyway, I’d often get slagged off by my friends – actually, my so-called “friends” – for this. They’d laugh like drunken cavemen and grunt, “Uh-huh-huh-huh. Oh, is that your man bag? Huh-huh-huh.”

I’d take a sip of my pink gin and retort, “Well…yeah. That’s what it says on the tag, isn’t it? You non-literate fart-brain.”

Why would they be mocking my man bag, though? I am a man. I have a bag. This makes perfect sense to me, although then again, lots of things make sense to me but not to others. Like the voices I hear in my head, for instance, telling me to hunt down and eat one of the Wayans brothers every month in tribute to the Great Lord of Flies Azazel.

But I digress. You need a bag, don’t you? To carry all your bits and bobs around. Ciggies, spare lighter, pen, spare pen, little notebook should inspiration for a new poem strike, small tin of Vaseline/lip-balm, bottle of water, book, spare book in case this one turns out to be sucky, pack of gum, MP3 player, phone.

Those are just the basic necessities of any trip longer than a shamble down to the corner-shop for milk and this month’s issue of Nekkid Danish Farm Girls Wot Got Biz Bazoobies. (I buy it for the articles.)

Some man baggers also include things like keys and their wallet, though I like to keep those about my person. It’s very much up to the conscious of the individual, as per Vatican Guidelines on Man Bags and Transportation of Miscellaneous Personal Items, first published 1961 and updated 1998.

Should I be going to Dublin for the night, say, you also have to factor in a change of boxers, change of socks, spare t-shirt/shirt, jim-jam pants, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hair-wax, night-cream, day-cream, hand-cream, nail-cream and eyeball-cream.

And a Taser, because you’re going to Dublin for the night and so are 90% likely to get molested by a glass-chewing crack-head who hates culchies almost as much as he hates (but also loves) “de dhroooogs”.

This is why I have a few man bags, of different size. Big leather one (the one with the tag) for overnights. Slightly smaller cotton one with sexy pinstripe design, also for overnights. Smallish canvas one if I’m just schlepping around for the day.

I can’t fathom how other men manage to carry everything without a bag – even just my initial list of “things to bring when mooching around the shops for an afternoon”. Do they have magic pants with magic-er pockets, which look normal from the outside but expand to gigantic proportions on the inside?

Coz otherwise, they’re going to have sharp-edged things poking into their leg all day. Like keys, or toothbrushers, or that Taser you’re about to use on Crazy Dermo as he lurches towards you, frothing at the mouth and babbling about how “bleedin’ culchies are arter takin’ all me dhroooogs an’ anyways”.

What any of that means, by the way, I have no idea.

The only alternative explanation is that these chaps, for God knows what reason, leave the house without the full list of accoutrements as outlined by me above. But that’s lunacy. Sure, how could you go about your business without the mental/emotional comfort of knowing your lip-balm was close to hand in case your kissers felt a little bit chapped or sting-y?

You couldn’t, of course.

Regardless, I will continue to proudly wear my man bag. I may even start using that Twilight: New Moon hemp tote-bag someone gave me a few years ago. Edward looks sooooo dreamy on the side…

And that hair! My God, that hair. Higher than a pot-head on payday. Hair you could build a Pyramid on. I bet he’s got a man bag and all.


The summer makes us godlike

This is a little something I wrote many years ago, which I’m putting up here because, well, we’re in autumn now, and that’s a time for wistful memories. The song tries to capture three things: the inherent melancholy of autumn, memories of bar-tending jobs during college holidays, and that feeling you have in your twenties (especially during summer) of being somehow immortal – with a simultaneous coda that you know this feeling will soon end.

 

Pretty Different

All the crowds at the bar tend to laugh

when he spills all his coffee

Sit around dirty tables drinking beer

and listen to the singer

Gotta rush gotta go now I’m late

I’m working in ten minutes

But I might see you later up there

you can sit

on my knee

in a booth

 

Chorus:

Well the summer makes us godlike

Look at me

Yes I’m strong

Don’t be long

And it doesn’t seem so random

Taste the air

Look at me

Yes I’m free

 

All the faces are screwed-up and ugly

but all that doesn’t matter

There’s a fire burning out of control

but I’m shielded by a door

Let us waste let us squander our money

no reason to adore it

‘Cause I know I’ll be meeting her later

she can sit

on my knee

in a booth

 

Chorus

Well the summer makes us godlike

Look at me

Yes I’m strong

Don’t be long

And it doesn’t seem so random

Taste the air

Look at me

Yes I’m free

Well the summer makes us godlike

Run away

Over dust

Over dust

 

All the crowds ask the same dumb old questions

are you a boy or a girl?

I just smile flick my hair dip my shoulder

I know that I’m not flirting

Gotta rush gotta go now I’m late

but all that doesn’t matter

‘Cause I know I’ll be meeting her later


Four legs good, eight legs terrifying

I never used to mind spiders. In fact, I quite liked them. I thought they were pretty cool, with their arched legs and 275 eyes and amazing ability to shoot webs from their wrists, like a non-man version of Spiderman. If you follow me.

I certainly never feared them. For me the term “arachnophobia” signified nothing more sinister than that fitfully entertaining Jeff Daniels comedy-thriller. I could never understand how someone would have a conniption fit upon spying a spider.

They can’t kill you – at least not in this part of the world. They don’t spread disease, and if anything curtail it by eating flies and other insects. And furthermore, I always believed the old wives’ tale that spiders bring you luck, and harming one will draw misfortune on your head.

Now: I still like spiders, and am still arachnophobia-free. But I am starting to get a teensy bit nervous about the little buggers.

Or rather, big buggers – and that’s the problem. My house has lately been colonised by spiders, and they are absolutely freaking enormous.

By Amazonian standards, perhaps, these aren’t so large. Down there, deep in the jungle primeval, arachnids possess the size, strength and long-term indestructibility of the average Volkswagen Beetle (no pun intended).

But in comparison to the normal Irish spider, they’re gigantic. We’re used to tiny little things that scuttle along your hand and are so light you don’t even feel them doing it. The odd time we might spot one the size of an unusually small Malteser and be so astounded we’d take a photo and email all our friends.

“Look at this monster!” we’d chuckle. “He’s MASSIVE! It’s like that film Arachnophobia! Only without Jeff Daniels hanging around!”

Oh, the laugh’s on the other side of my face now. Actually it’s been chased off my face in sheer desperate terror, whereabouts now unknown, and replaced by a hideous rictus of horrified disbelief.

The other evening I went to pull the curtains and couldn’t, because there was a spider up there about the size of a gerbil, only with twice the number of legs. Sitting up there he was, happy out, acting like he owned the place. Which, to be honest, he sort of does now.

I mean, I’m not going to get rid of these monsters, am I? For starters I’m an irredeemable coward. The traditional Irish midget spider I can handle; an extra from Eight Legged Freaks, not so simple.

Even the thought of these yokes crawling along my skin is enough to, well, make my skin crawl. So I can’t just grab one and toss it out the window. Besides, what if it bites me, or starts punching me with its horrible hairy legs, or enmeshes me in a huge web before injecting me with some chemical that makes my intestines slowly melt? Unlikely, I accept, but you can’t be too careful.

Telling them to clear off because they’re on private property won’t do any good. They’ll just laugh at me. Or maybe they’ll leap down my throat and choke me while I’m saying it, so it comes out all muffled: “Kkkhhrr rrrff, yyyrrronn pphrrvvvdd prrrpppuuhhrree.” Then they’ll laugh even more.

And I can’t just suck them up with the hoover and be done with it, because then my karma is screwed and I’ll be reincarnated as a spider myself. One that gets sucked up by someone’s hoover.

So my standard eradication attempt goes something like this: I lean forward gingerly with a cardboard box in one hand, the other ready to slam the lid shut. I edge it towards the spider. I kind of nudge the spider. I wail, “Oh come oooon, get in the box you bastard.” I nudge it again. I recoil in fright when it recoils in fright. I give up and vacate the room until January.

See, that’s the only silver lining on this cloud of invading beasties: apparently it’s an autumnal thing. By darkest winter they’ll all be gone somewhere else. Heaven? The Amazon? My sock drawer? Who knows – at least I’ll be able to draw the curtains without suffering an anxiety attack.

Until then I’ll be reworking that line from Animal Farm, “Four legs good, two legs bad.” For me it’s a case of, “Eight legs = bad multiplied!”


A mask that eats the face

This is a piece I wrote for LA-based style/arts magazine Flaunt – their Selfie Issue – which examines different aspects of fame. It’s a non-fiction essay, employing a little construct that the writer is working on a book and making notes. The version as ran in Flaunt was somewhat different to this – I’d actually forgotten that magazines sometimes rewrite your stuff to a considerable extent – but this is my original, ’cause I prefer it! If you want to see the edited version, get your ass to LA and buy a copy of the magazine, I guess…

 

Working on a new book. Not actually typing words or anything, but the idea’s been percolating in my brain for years now, seven or eight. About someone whose life is dull and unfulfilled, and they fall into a coma (the details can be worked out later) which, ironically, gives their unconscious mind free rein to imagine a myriad of alternative lives. More interesting, more exciting, more spectacular.

Essentially, the character – first-person narrative: let’s just say “I” for simplicity’s sake – I step into a series of new identities. I put on and remove different masks. And all of them, one way or another, lead to the ultimate mask, the one which notoriously “eats the face”: fame.

But it’s a price worth paying, right? Your face being consumed, in return for entering that sublime state of grace – the very modern rapture which is fame. And that’s the whole point in some ways: you want to be annihilated, deep in the core of boring, ordinary, insignificant you; destroyed and fashioned anew, reborn in the light of fame’s Morningstar, beautiful and dreadful all in one.

So: the book. Chapter 1. I’m in the coma and…

 

I’m the Star Wars Kid. I’m hefty and awkward, cartoonish in my movements. Let’s face it, I basically am a cartoon. Something outlandish and ridiculous for people to laugh at, and they are, millions of them, across the world. The dead-weight irrefutability of this realisation makes me nauseous. Hell is other people, alright. (Wonder what Sartre would have made of my situation? “Symptom of a society being cannibalised by self-disgust”, maybe. Something like that.) I’m so denuded of humanity that I don’t even remember my own name. This is no good, it’s worse than my previous existence (the real one, I guess you’d call it, although the dreaming mind, they say, doesn’t know any difference between one state and the other). I don’t want anyone laughing at me. Hell, I can do that myself. I make a mental note to track down and “field-dress” whatever malevolent little shit-heel put this online in the first place, then I bail out.

 

I’m an Irish immigrant at Ellis Island. 1905, early October by the slight nip in the air. The weird thing is, I actually am Irish – I mean the real, the really real me, the one who’s writing this, or not writing it as the case may be – and I’m somehow aware of that fact even as I’m this other person. Anyway. Let’s call me…Tom. Good, solid name. Don’t want to distract a global readership with ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic names. I shuffle along with the rest of the line, towards a man with a walrus moustache, a brusque manner and an inherent decency in his aspect. He will, I’m pretty sure, give me a fair shot. Life will give me a fair shot. I take a deep breath and inhale stars and space-dust, galaxies entire. I think the mugginess of this room is making me feel faint. I breathe in again, deeper still: a continent-sized bolus of possibility. Man, that fills the lungs. I shuffle once more. In about forty years’ time I’ll be a regular working schlub, married, balding, bad knee, contented enough. But my child will be a huge Hollywood star. “Flame-haired Celtic goddess conquers the American Dream”: the sentimental backstory writes itself. It’ll help that she, like me, doesn’t have one of those ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic names.

 

I’m a twentysomething moron who grew up in the long, dark shadow of Reality TV. As a consequence, like many of my peers, I now believe it to be natural, inevitable – and worse, desirable – to sing for your supper. Literally, in the infernal likes of American Idol, but also metaphorically, across a broad range of shows and occupations and industries. So, little nincompoop that I am, I think this is the way to get ahead in all walks of life. My mushy young brain is filled with the telly-babble of the genre – “following your dream”, “taking a chance”, “anything is possible”, “believe in yourself”. These, I reckon, are all that’s needed to realise my ambitions, and no need for all that boring old stuff like education, hard work or professionalism. So what happens? This happens: I bring my shiny smile and oddly draining exuberance into a job interview, a proper job – PA at a typically fusty book-keeping firm. I back-flip across the interview room, then do an impressive and extremely painful-looking splits. I sob, “I love you guys!” and bow to the shocked panel of accountants, one of whom splutters their low-salt cracker all over the Gary Larson desktop calendar. I am politely dismissed, though not before one of the panel tries to wheedle my phone number from me. So dreams can do comedy too, huh? Interesting.

 

I’m Leona Helmsley, I’m in heaven now for the last seven years, and you can cram it with walnuts, pal: I still think taxes are for the little people, always will. Even St Peter hasn’t managed to convince me otherwise. The Archangel Gabriel is giving it his best shot tomorrow. Pfft. Next.

 

I’m reading an article about some kiddie super-star who plays a kiddie super-star on some kiddie show. And I’m old or oldish, and I’m annoyed, reading this. I’m annoyed because society is obsessed with youth. Hey, I get it: the elderly must make way for the young, ‘tis the natural order of things. I appreciate that, really. But still. I’m a cantankerous old bastard and I’m reading this article in some rag I didn’t pay for thank God and I am a little bit furious. Because I can see now, clear as day: we’re neurotically fixated on youth, we’re mesmerised by it, almost enchanted. And for the famous, multiply that. You can’t have fame without youth, not really. Once a star passes some certain age, that’s it, kaput, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And the culture, as far as this cantankerous old bastard can tell, is getting ever-more obsessive about youth. Movies, music, books, TV, you name it: we leer at youth, we creep on it. Chop it up and flog it off. Angelic children monetised and wholesaled. Sleazy teen voyeurism, vicarious rebellion, middle-aged idiots skateboarding to work in combat shorts. I’m about to burn this rag, get the inky taint of it off my fingers and my heart. Then my heart burns and beats me to it. Massive coronary, probably stress-related – ain’t that a bitch of an irony. I die but just before I do, I flip the finger at all of humanity and growl, “Youth fades, assholes, and fame is fleeting. You’ll see.”

 

I am a celebrity’s abs. Well, technically I’m a Reader’s Digest-style article about this celebrity’s abs, but let’s not get too meta here. Keep it simple: I am a celebrity’s abs. If you saw me from the inside – like a surgeon might, or God, or inner-body bacteria and globs of alien matter – you’d think I was nothing remarkable. Just muscle, that’s all. Indeed, if you saw me from the outside – say, between my cropped top and shorts, across from you in the gym – you still wouldn’t realise that I was anything special. You’d probably think, “Yep, they’re unusually well-defined, alright. But, you know, still just tummy muscles.” However, if you saw me in my natural habitat – on my owner’s YouTube page, which has clocked up 147million hits and counting – then you’d understand. Then you’d know that I’m not just any set of abs, but abs which are famous because of who owns them. And in a nice “circle of life”-type loop, this person is famous solely because of me. It’s symbiotic. It’s parasitic. It’s poetic and it’s copacetic. Abs and celeb: we’re one, but we’re not the same. And we got to carry each other, carry each other. On, on, ever on, down the marble halls of fame, mirror-imaging into eternity like a Borgesian nightmare.

 

I’m Andy Warhol. Cool. On my to-do list for the day/life are: invent the cult of celebrity as we’ve known it for the past four decades. Make popular culture a valid subject for artistic expression: from “culture” in the sense of TV, movies, media etc., to the flotsam and jetsam of the broader culture – advertising, industrial logos and so on. Articulate the mechanisation and atomisation of society and humankind. Reflect and partly initiate the saturation of post-modernism, in which everyone from Mao to Marilyn is of equal value. Fashion the artist as his own artistic statement. Create countless iconic images which will be pastiched and homaged to kingdom come. Develop at least two distinct forms of visual art, screen-printing and absurdly realistic drawings of coke bottles et al. Make groundbreaking movies which challenge notions of narrative and audience expectation. Rewrite my personal history and constantly negate my own utterances (a quintessentially modern thing to do, n’est pas?). Realise that, for good or ill, the image and the substance are now the same thing (hello, Baudrillard. Take a seat, McLuhan). Produce one of the most seminal albums of all time with The Velvet Underground and Nico; and don’t forget the “banana” cover, which becomes as famous as the record itself…I love that, it amuses me. And finally (for now), be as slippery, contradictory and ultimately unknowable as modern life itself. I’m Andy Warhol. The self-created myth deconstructing the self-same myth. The most sincere ironic-nod-and-wink that was ever made to the fame-hungry masses.

 

I vant to be alone. There’s nothing left of my face now, and what little is left of my soul vants to be alone. Turns out it wasn’t worth the price, after all.

The dream ends. The book ends. Everything ends, in the end. The End.


Gay sex boffin shocker

I used to work part-time in a tabloid newspaper, once upon a yesterday. Don’t worry, I wasn’t a Page 3 stunna – though I could have been – or a shifty bloke in a raincoat sifting through other people’s rubbish bins. (I do enjoy that from time to time, of course, but purely as a recreational thing.)

No, I was a sub-editor. For those not in this business we call The Media, that doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that you’re the deputy to the editor or anything (those are called, eh, deputy editors). It means you read, edit, proof and rework the copy – i.e. the articles – as they are filed by reporters. You also write headlines, source pictures and give out about every aspect of the job ceaselessly, especially the reporter who just filed a piece of rubbish on abattoirs or something that’s so offensively crap, it moves past bad to genuinely “offal”.

Sorry. I did say I’d worked for a tabloid.

And apart from employing puns so lame they’d probably qualify for some sort of disability payment, the other great staple of tabloid subbing is the use of the word “boffin”. It’s one of those weird media terms which are instantly recognisable to everyone, but never actually spoken or written by anyone in normal society.

Like, have you ever said, “Oh my nephew is studying science at college – he wants to be a boffin”? No, you haven’t, admit it. Nobody says gibberish like that.

Anyway, to get back to the point: tabloids love a boffin story. And there is a literally endless range of such creatures: space boffins discover this, biscuit boffins prove the other, octopus boffins, wheelbarrow boffins, cornflake boffins, probably a few boffin boffins too, which is a lovely postmodern twist.

But the best, of course, are sex boffins. We used to picture what, exactly, these pioneers of carnal exploration would look and act like, every time we’d have to sub a story on some new piece of research. (You know the type of thing: “Sex boffins’ new findings show that 78% of men think about Angelina Jolie 63% of the time while having sex with 94% of women etc. etc.”)

The most common way that information on the world’s sexual habits is gathered, I’m fairly certain, is by having people fill in questionnaires anonymously. Some of the tabloid stories, though, suggested a bit more of a hands-on – ahem – approach.

Like, there was this one story about how homophobic men, ironically, were more turned on than straight men when viewing homosexual pornography. And the report was full of the usual “boffins carried out a series of tests on a selection of men in laboratory-controlled conditions” and so on.

Christ. Imagine that being your job? You’d get home from work, crack open a brewski and spark up a well-earned coffin-nail, and your wife would ask, “So, how was work today?”

And you’d reply, “Yeah, it was okay. First I put on my white lab coat and Joe 90 glasses, as per standard operating procedure. Then I had to attach electrodes and wires and things to three dozen, well, wires and things, found in the trouser departments of a group of straight men, gay men, and straight men who hate gay men but in actual fact are attracted to gay men so maybe they’re not straight men after all. If you’re still following me, because to be honest, I’ve confused myself at this stage. Then we sat through four hours of hard-core pornography and monitored any or all stirrings in the aforementioned trouser departments. Marked them off, made little ticks in the correct boxes, the whole thing. We even measured the extent of arousal by a method so icky and horrible, my mind has now blanked it from memory forever.

“Then we broke for lunch. I had the salami.”

What a way to make a living. And I say this as a man who once shamelessly cashed in on Princess Diana’s tragically young and horrifically violent death by selling drawings of her while living in Japan. I used even put stuff like “Diana, Queen of All Our Hearts” across the top.

But at least I never had to work as a sex boffin. Which is good, because I think I’ve already seen all the homosexual pornography ever made, so the job would be really boring, having to watch the same stuff over again.

I wonder, actually, if these sex boffins really exist, or have they just been invented – possibly by a group of sex boffin-boffins – in a laboratory somewhere, then transplanted into the pages of The Sun and The Star.

Perhaps I’ll ask cheery stunna Gemma, 21, from Tipton, for her opinion the next time I meet her.


How not to get burned by holiday romances

I’m not sure what the name for them is, but I love those magazines that deal in true stories. You know the ones: really badly designed, more stupid than a block of wood, and filled with puzzles, baking recipes and real-life stories of bizarre things that happened to yakkety English women with no sense of privacy.

Yeah, they’re great.

Around this time of year they always feature at least one story about a “holiday romance”. Naturally, these have gone grievously wrong in some way.

“Turkish stud bedded me – and took all my money.” “Sizzling senor told me he loved me – but was only after one thing.” “I thought our romance would last forever – then I realised he was a dead crab half-stuck inside a coke bottle, and not a person as I had mistakenly believed.”

This sort of thing is generally accompanied by a terrible photo of a woman still suffering the lingering effects of both emotional anguish and the kind of sunburn that was actually made illegal in 1970, when they discovered that roasting yourself with gamma rays from a giant ball of fire in the sky could be potentially harmful to health.

However, much as I may snark and sneer, there is some truth to what these hysterical scaremongerers say. Holiday romances don’t always end well.

Let me give you an example: me. I once had a summer romance. (Technically it wasn’t “on holidays”, because we were all poor back then so nobody ever went on holidays. But it was during “the” holidays, so it counts, within the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.)

How did it all go? As Milhouse said on The Simpsons, “We started out like Romeo and Juliet…but it ended up in tragedy.”

If that fiasco had been in a true-story magazine, they would’ve had a bad photo of me, more sunburned than a red-head on the hot side of Venus, looking forlorn and depressed, possibly holding up a different but equally bad photo of me and her “in happier times”. Underneath there’d be a caption: “I thought it was forever – it didn’t even last as long as Frank and Roo’s fling in Home & Away.” (Ask your parents.)

I got burned, and burned bad. In both senses of the word. So to prevent that happening to any of all-a-y’all, here are my Top Tips for Holiday Romance:

  1. Don’t drink too much while on holidays. Alcohol makes us do very foolish things when it comes to sex and love, e.g. have the first or fall into the second with someone totally unsuitable.
  2. Golden rule: if you seem to have more than ten fingers or toes, you’ve drunk too much.
  3. He who looks like Johnny Depp through the reality-warping lens of your beer goggles, will look like Johnny Rotten in the cold, harsh light of the dawn.
  4. Never believe it when a charming waiter tells you he’ll follow you to the ends of the earth if only you’ll allow him the singular honour and privilege of gaining access to your undergarments and the palace of heavenly delights which dwells therein. He won’t.
  5. Ask him to write you some poetry, though. That guy’s got a way with words.
  6. Golden rule number 2: if you’ve slept with more people than you have euros in the bank by the third day, you’re probably being a bit indiscriminate. Get picky, guys!
  7. Yeah, oral counts.
  8. Don’t offer too much personal information to your holiday paramour, e.g. your email address, birth certificate, bank account number and sort code, PIN for all your cards, log-in details for online shopping etc. Not that he’ll steal any of it, but a little mystery’s always good in a relationship.
  9. If you catch your new man offering to sell you to his uncle for some camels, run away very quickly.
  10. Actually, hop onto one of those camels. Four legs are quicker than two.
  11. Golden Rule number 3: if you think you’ve just met the life of your life during a foam party at Costa del Scumball, you almost certainly haven’t.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.