Friday, 18 November 2011

An ore inspiring fairy tale

New piece in Time magazine. See the published version here:,31542,2099511,00.html

Photo: Cedric Arnold 
Ashley Sutton is built like an Australian Rules footballer, covered in tattoos, swears like a sailor and was once an iron-ore miner. He also believes in fairies.

It has been a long journey from his native Fremantle, near Perth, Western Australia, via New York to Bangkok, where he is now the darling of uber-chic Thonglor district thanks to The Iron Fairies Wine Bar and Restaurant (395 Thong Lor), part workshop, part wonderland, born of imagination and happy accident.

Walking into the bar in full swing is quite a trip. The titular Iron Fairies are everywhere, cast in China but buffed and finished in vices that jut from bar tops. A New Orleans jazz band voodoos around a wrought iron spiral staircase to nowhere. Hand-tooled leather books recount arcane fairy legends.  In the bathroom, an exquisite beaten copper and wrought iron bathtub that reputedly belonged to one of Marilyn Monroe’s lovers bobs with candles. Patrons dine on the kind of hamburgers you find in classic Australian milk bars and sip Absinthe.

Sutton, 37, first went away with the fairies during his peripatetic youth working in the iron ore mines of Western Australia, unforgiving places with deceptively poetic names like Marble Bar. “You’d be underground for so long you’d just about lose your mind,” he recalls. “I started thinking about fairies, and then I started doing some sketches.’’ Then he lost part of his left hand in an accident (not his drawing hand).

He put the sketches aside, moved into the glass business, and then to China, where he ventured into steel, selling up everything to fund a wheeze to sell steel and iron balustrade grids as yuppie doormats. They sold like hot cakes and made him rich.

When his sales manager saw his fairy sketches, he urged Sutton to turn them into a book. Some months later, the first Iron Fairies volume was born (now a three-volume set which has sold over 200,000 copies in four languages. Part journal, part poetry and part mystery, it is about some unlucky miners who strike iron ore instead of gold and set about making fairies. Mischief and mayhem ensues).

First from a store in Perth, then New York, and now Bangkok, in tandem with his foundry in Dalian, Sutton says he has made and sold millions of his iron fairies. They are beguiling things, at once coarse and delicate, heavy yet looking like they could take wing at any moment.

“This was my workshop,’’ he says, gesturing around the bar. “Friends would come in to watch me work, and I’d get some wine, and then I put a little kitchen in so I could make some food. That was four years ago. Now I’m making money 24 hours a day. The place is always packed, and when the customers go home we make fairies.’’

On the back of The Iron Fairies’ success, Sutton has opened two more Thong Lor hotspots: Fat Gutz (1/F, Grass Thonglor, 264 Thong Lor 120), billed as a ‘fish and chips saloon for sexy people’ and Clouds (SeenSpace, Thong Lor Soi 13), a minimalist bar of glass and steel built around a venerable Banyan Tree. He has been partly bought out by Novotel and plans to work on F&B concepts for the hotel chain, and is also in the throes of creating a black magic themed bar in Thonglor. Not bad for a bloke who has spend most of his life away with the fairies. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tetchy Mutant Ninja Genius

A recent piece for the South China Morning Post's Rewind column.

When I was a kid, my parents had an impressively hefty coffee table tome purporting to contain all the world’s artistic masterpieces. I would pore over it for hours, drinking in the visceral horrors of Brueghel the Elder, the chiaroscuro canvases of Rembrandt, the luminous Renaissance art of Titian, Raphael and Tintoretto, and the unequalled imagination of Leonardo da Vinci. But time and again I was drawn back to the stunning fold-outs of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

For something separates his art from the rest, and even though he considered himself a sculptor not a painter, his frescoes on the soaring vaulted arches of the Pope’s private chapel stand alone as perhaps the greatest single creative masterpiece the world has ever seen. What at first looks like a confusion of writhing flesh reveals itself to be a peerless tableau of human emotion, from the unsullied innocence of creation to the eternal agonies of the fall from grace.

Watched by a profusion of prophets and sibyls and biblical notables, the central frescoes depict in Michelangelo’s inimitable style the travails of Noah, God dividing the light and dark, the heavens and the waters, the sun and the planets, and of course the most iconic image of all, God creating Adam, fingers outstretched, at once impassive and impassioned, white beard swirling like storm clouds, somehow seeing all the pain ahead for his beloved creation.

A far more flawed creation is Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, a sprawling epic starring Charlton Heston at his craggiest and grumpiest as a Michelangelo beset by dark nights of the soul and a rocky relationship with the bellicose Pope Julius II. Reed attempts to lay bare the creative process of a genius, and partly succeeds.

Heston’s tetchiness might partly be ascribed to the inch-long chunk of rebar he wedged up his hooter in an attempt to ape the Florentine’s famously twisted nose, broken by a jealous childhood rival. As many critics have noted, the film is as generous with the agony as it is mean with the ecstasy.
The film spans the heyday of the Renaissance, perhaps the greatest flowering of creativity the world has ever seen. We meet Michelangelo’s rival Raphael, depicted here as an insipid figure waiting in the wings for the great man to fail, and some of the Medicis, the period’s great secular patrons.          
When his first attempt at the ceiling ends with him drunkenly destroying two apostles, Michelangelo disappears into the hills of Carrara to work with the marble miners. The Pope mounts a massive manhunt, and the artist flees higher into the mountains.

It is here that the most powerful scene in the film takes place, one which should be laughably cheesy but somehow achieves a transcendent beauty. Stumbling out of a vaulted cave with swirling ceiling shapes which hint at the artist’s sinuous bodies, Michelangelo is confronted by an amazing cloud formation which we see form itself in his mind’s eye into God creating Adam. With the swelling score and some slick cinematography, we are transported for a moment onto the highest plane where genius dwells.
Alas, from there the film becomes a rather drawn out affair, all spilled paint pots and dodgy scaffolding and interminable rows with the Pope. After the scene with the clouds, the final ‘reveal’ of the ceiling is almost an anticlimax .
Creativity is an ephemeral and elusive thing. Most artists know it for the briefest of seasons. Michelangelo was blessed – and perhaps cursed – with a full live lived at the headiest heights. This film affords the briefest glimpse of his genius, and for that we can be grateful.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Mos Eisley Cantona

This piece records my frustrating and ultimately futile mission to get up close and personal with that great footballing enigma, Eric Cantona, when he journeyed to Thailand for a spot of beach football. It ran in the South African and Australian issues of Sports Illustrated, as well as in the South China Morning Post.

The trawler steamed through Thailand last week, but the seagulls went hungry. French football deity and Renaissance man Eric Cantona wasn't giving anything away. One of the many strings to his bow is that of philosopher. And arguably the most famous of his metaphysical utterances runs thus: 'When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think the sardines will be thrown into the sea.' The great man is the trawler and journalists the squawking, insatiable gulls.

If there was any lingering uncertainty about his attitude to the media, he cleared it up when he told two French sports journalists earlier this year: 'I p*** on all of you.'

But 'Cantona in Pattaya!', as the Bangkok free-sheet shrieked, sounded too good to miss. Little did I realise it was to prove an ill-starred mission that would end in much gnashing of teeth, intemperate language, vein-popping frustration and heat exhaustion.

'Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona will lead the French beach soccer team against local football heroes in Asia's first Pro Beach Soccer event,' the free-sheet said. And suddenly Cantona's seaside aphorism seemed fresh and piquant. Images swam before my eyes of flabby white Germans in g-strings fighting over loungers, sun-bleached sand, unlimited alcohol, hooligans with rampant libidos and, in the middle of it all, gazing magisterially over the maelstrom from under that granite-hewed brow, pigeon chest puffed out - ooh, aah Cantona.

The first disappointment arrives after a couple of phone calls. Cantona is to visit Pattaya, but only fleetingly. His primary destination is Muang Thong Thani, a soulless cluster of low-rent condos on the edge of Bangkok's sprawl and home to the Impact Arena. It is here the inaugural Tipco Pro Beach Soccer match will unfold, despite its distance from any of Thailand's beaches.

I contact organiser Paul-Dominique Vachirasindhu, who has smouldering Eurasian looks, an expensive collection of suits and a shaky grasp of what journalists hoping to cover his event would consider pertinent.

'Allo? Yes, the match is on Saturday. Fax my office and they will put your name down.' With that, he hangs up. I try to call back, but get an answering service. Oh well, I think, Cantona mustn't be arriving for a day or two or he would have said something.

Later I turn on the evening news to see scenes of chaos at the airport as that familiar form towers over a red sea of screaming fans, each sporting enough pirated Manchester United clobber to give Sir Alex Ferguson apoplexy. I may be the only person in Bangkok who isn't at the airport.

My mood doesn't improve the next morning when I learn Vachirasindhu failed to apprise me of the previous day's press conference. Not that I appear to have missed too much. Cantona, it is reported, seems tired. 'I am living in sport. That is the most exciting thing,' he says, after repeating his explanation for quitting top-level football: 'I lost the passion.'

Asked whether he wants to succeed Sir Alex at Old Trafford, he knits his mono-brow gnomically for a moment then says: 'No. But maybe 'yes' tomorrow.' It's all downhill from there. Who else could take on Sir Alex's mantle? 'John Woo.' Which players should the club consider purchasing to bolster its ranks? 'John Woo.'

He does divulge, despite his obvious affection for Hong Kong action fare, that he's lost interest in acting following a string of minor roles because there's 'too much hanging around'. He still dabbles in painting and poetry, however.

I set off for Pattaya the next day, hoping Cantona will be more forthcoming once he's unwinding by the beach. Bangkok's lunch-hour traffic means I don't reach the resort until well after sundown. This means I've missed Cantona being handed the keys to the city. I've also missed him ploughing into a lissome Thai liaison officer with his jet ski. The mass circulation Thai Rath splashes the next morning with pictures of a bedraggled Cantona, 35, being helped to shore as the liaison officer is taken off to be treated for minor injuries. The jet ski operator is paid 4000 baht (HK$680) compensation. Another local paper has concocted a wild and implausible tale in which Cantona rams the woman's jet ski in a jealous rage because he's besotted with her and can't tolerate her flirting with other members of the French team.

My timing is impeccable. I finally track down the team and Cantona's in a world-class funk, refusing to say anything to the press and threatening to cancel the rest of his programme if the media prints another word about the accident. Organisers make clucking noises and smile sadly when I ask if there's any chance of an interview today.
Back to Bangkok.

I trek out to the stadium. It's mid-afternoon and there is no air-conditioning inside the arena. Conditions are somewhere between a sauna and a steam bath. and the Thai team is practising on the 'beach'. There's no sign of the French, who are still back at the Oriental hotel. A scan through the French team doesn't ring any bells, apart from Cantona's younger brother, Joel, who played for Marseilles. The Pro Beach Soccer Web site says the sport is 'fun, healthy and very, very spectacular', with a shot on goal every 30 seconds on average, a goal scored every 3.4 minutes, live music during the tournament, and regulated by FIFA rules of fair play.

             YOU MUST BE THE
The pitch measures 28 metres by 37 metres of soft sand. There are five players aside, including the goalkeeper. The game is divided into three periods of 12 minutes, with unlimited substitutions. Yellow cards mean a three-minute sit-out, free kicks are always direct and there are no draws. France are the current world number one team.

It's after 4pm when the French team arrives. Cantona leads them out in a white singlet, looking a tad over his fighting weight of 87kgs. Women with rakes scurry about the pitch, faced with the Sisyphean task of keeping the sand level. Cantona lazily swings his leg back and 'thump', a bright orange ball crashes over the crossbar and into the PA system.

With a chorus of Gallic grunts and shouts, they go through their paces. It's fast and furious, the balls zipping about like tracer rounds. They divide into two teams, blue singlets versus white, for a practice match. It is relentless, compelling, but far from elegant. When the ball hits the sand, it lands not with a bounce but a deadened splat.

Dribbling is an ankle-twisting ordeal, so volleys are the favoured method of attack. There are no boots or shin-pads, and the sickening crack of bone on bone accompanies most tackles. Former Thai national team striker and Bangkok celebrity Piyapon Piew-on is watching from the stands. He will captain the Thai team, who have only been practising for three weeks. He looks shell-shocked. 'Do you think we have a chance?' he asks, not really expecting an answer.

The teams are tied when the time is up. 'Golden goal,' yells Cantona. Just before the added minutes run out, the other team scores. His face darkens and he storms toward the sideline. This is my moment. There are no other journalists about. I've got the great man to myself. I step forward, tape recorder at the ready. 'Merde,' he snarls, kicking a plastic water bottle into the stands as he marches past and into the dressing room. I try to follow, but grim-faced security men with big sticks bar the way. 'Never mind,' consoles Vachir-asindhu. 'He'll definitely be talking to the press tomorrow.' When? 'The best time will be in the afternoon. You should get here around three or four.'

Match day dawns, hot and sticky. After lunch and I'm about to head out to the stadium but decide to call Vachirasindhu just to confirm the previous day's instructions. I've been pestering the man for days, but he's making noises like he has no idea who I am I jog his memory. 'Ah yes. You will be able to talk to him after the match, for sure. There will be a press conference,' he says and hangs up.

The match starts around 8pm, so I figure leaving around 6.30pm should get me there in plenty of time. I figure wrong. There may be clear afternoon skies over the middle of Bangkok, but above Muang Thong Thani, a fierce storm is dumping the heaviest rainfall of the year.

They've already kicked off by the time I get there. There's a crowd of about 3,000 - far fewer than expected, with many deterred by the storm. The game is being beamed live across Thailand and the local media are out in force, determined to give beach soccer, ahem, blanket coverage. The score is 2-2 at the start of the second phase and the Thais seem to be holding their own against the vastly more experienced French side.

Cantona is strutting around the midfield like a colossus, blue shirt emblazoned with his famed number seven. Something doesn't look right, then I realise it's his collar - he's got it folded in the normal manner rather than turned up. He hasn't scored but each time he touches the ball the crowd goes berserk. There's a furious beating of bongo drums and the stands bleed red.

Chants of 'Eric, Eric' vie with 'Ooh, aah, Eric Cantona' sung to the tune of the Village People's Go West. 'Me, I love to caress, stroke, tease and make love to the ball,' Cantona wrote in his autobiography. But this is ugly, more like rape; a grunting, grubby tumble in the dirt-brown sand. He's getting frustrated, as the tenacious Thais cling to his legs like limpets. It's not until the third, er, third that Cantona's array of flicks and trickery actually lands a ball in the back of the net. The roar is deafening.

               IT DID WONDERS FOR
The score is five apiece. A draw would be a major upset for the favoured French. But Cantona reverts to match-winning type after his slow start and heads in the deciding goal with 11 seconds left on the clock. Pandemonium ensues, naturally. A local television type named 'Green Bean' is dressed up, pantomime style, as Napoleon and his horse. He careens around like a dervish on his spindly legs until four French players crash-tackle him. That seems to be the sign for the pitch invasion. Cantona fumes and glowers when one upstart grabs a signed ball from his hands. The security staff seem hopelessly outnumbered and the crowd are baying for autographs. The guards form a human chain around Cantona, as posters and scarves and shirts and postcards and picture books and even bared chests and bellies are proffered.

The successful few who managed to snare his moniker look like they've just had multiple orgasms. The chaos is brought under control just long enough for Cantona and his team to watch a lip-synced number by local chanteuse Ya-Ya Ying. No sooner has she put her ya-yas away, however, and things are going seriously pear-shaped again. Cantona's shooting savage glances at his minders, as hundreds of wild-eyed fans press ever closer. A speech drones on and on, some doddering football luminary oblivious to the anarchy all around.

Suddenly Cantona's had enough. He grabs the trophy, holds it aloft and then, followed by his teammates and a phalanx of minders, sprints for the dressing rooms. A quick change and they file on to the bus, then go haring off into the Bangkok night. With them go all hopes of a quote. I'm despondently kicking sand about as a keen young thing from one of the Thai television stations bowls up, cameraman in tow. 'So, when's the press conference with Eric Cantona going to be?' she asks me brightly.

I point over to the shiny black knot of Hugo Boss and Armani, which unravels slightly to reveal Vachirasindhu and his cronies deep in mutual congratulations, and I mutter: 'Ask them.'