Friday, 17 February 2012

Country piles, bitches of cities, and other irritations

All's well that ends well ... got a run in the end at Roads and Kingdoms, so posting the link here for posterity   http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2012/three-cities/




This was a piece commissioned by the Asian Literary Review, written during a high period of stress as a Bangkok flood refugee. It was to be an impassioned screed arguing that city life is not all it's cracked up to be. A companion piece by another writer extolling the virtues of cities was supposed to accompany it. The magazine then folded, and its new online incarnation's editor basically said 'don't call us, we'll call you'. Here, then, are 3,000 words that I wrote for nothing and laboured over for days while camped out at a friend's house. Enjoy. 



I WAS COWERING in a corner of my upstairs bedroom as the floodwaters stole into my yard, crept inch by inch up the driveway and then began to lap at my doorstep. I maintained a sad vigil at the window, knowing my new home was doomed. And when the first filthy fingers of the flood slid under my front door, I knew I had to go.

In the time it took to sling my hastily packed bags over my shoulders and unlock the front gate, the waters had already risen two inches and covered my floor. My wife and I had only just bought our house in Nontaburi province, a backwater to the capital’s north-west where villages nestle amid verdant rice fields and the klongs, or canals, flow with something approaching actual water, not the poisonous black ectoplasm that runs in the capital’s veins. We had moved in just three months ago. For weeks we had watched as a vast water table oozed inexorably towards us from the massive lake that had once been the ancient capital of Ayutthya. And now, all of a sudden, I was moving out. For how long, I knew not. Days? Weeks? Months? We were at the mercy of the waters.
   
In what used to be the front yard, I saw a baby snake cut sinuous arcs through the oily brown soup. A pink teddy bear floated past, with a red centipede coiled on its belly. I was feeling venomous myself. My home was one of the thousands sacrificed to keep Bangkok dry, part of a vast makeshift moat now ringing the capital, although this moat wasn’t protector – it was the invader. A home that had been my exit strategy, my first wary move to escape the big city’s clutches, a base from which to dart in and out of town and present a moving target to the city’s slings and arrows; an attempt to slow down and smell the roses, or at least some cleaner air.

Now, threatened and besieged, Bangkok was angry, her famous angels turned into shrieking furies. As she slammed down the sluices and piled on the sandbags, the flood runoff pouring down from the north couldn’t find its way out to sea and so swelled like some slow-motion tsunami. After days of watching the water rise gradually, the speed with which it marked its final arrival was scary. As I slogged more than 3km to dry land, it rose from my knee to my thigh to almost my waist in places. I saw cars ruined, pets stranded, and homes submerged to their eaves. Most of all, I saw the spectre of creeping misery and crushing hardship descending even as my Thai neighbours affixed their customary smiles in the face of adversity. So forgive me if I’m not feeling too charitably disposed towards cities just now.


EXISTENCE in any modern metropolis is a tale of two cities. We love them and we hate them. They are the best and the worst of times. Any sort of civilized existence is all but impossible without these teeming piles of people, this much we know. Cities engender inspiration, fuel ambition and fire creativity. They stoke the engines of commerce, potentiate politics and drive nations. They bring our dreams sharply into focus, dangling that big swinging dick of success just beyond our reach, making us crave for better and more, especially more. Cities provide the yardstick against which we measure our abilities, and a road map to chart our course through the material world.

But cities are selfish. They are mean and pitiless and they amplify the worst in us. They trample trust and kill kindness. They take and they take and it’s never enough. They divide us and subtract from us, drain us and maim us. They are anonymous, autonomous, automated. Mostly, they are unforgiving. Cities are the rat race that leaves us rat fucked, the hive mind that makes us faceless drones. Cities are swollen with an inflated sense of their own importance; ends that didn’t justify the means. Cities arrogate attention. They hog the limelight and crave the spotlight. Cities chip away at the spirit, corrode values, erode the sense of self… beguiling, bewitching and bewildering with their bright lights and late nights, their gleaming icons and dark secrets, their sound and fury.

Which in the end signify nothing. You are never more alone, perversely, than when you are in the city. “The abyss of the human species,’’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau called them. A thousand souls might be packed in above, below and around you, but you are all by yourself.  “Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing,’’ wrote Martin Amis in The Information, as plangent a cry against the crushing void at the dark heart of cities as you are likely to find. “Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and sob probes, and you would mark them.’’ Amis knows that cities can be shit, all right. “Now in the dawn, through the window and through the rain, the streets of London looked like the insides of an old plug.’’ The Manic Street Preachers put it another way: “Under neon loneliness, motorcycle emptiness.’’ A fitting soundtrack to many a dark night of the soul in any number of soulless metropolises. Andy Warhol, that pale cipher and city slacker, said of LA: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

And then there are the tattered sheaves of cliché and warmed over panegyrics to the Big Apple, that wonderful town and its grasping multitudes who could make it anywhere, clawing their way to the top of the heap or at least ceaselessly scrabbling at the greasy pole. “Let’s hear if for New York,’’ warbles Alicia Keys. But buggered if I’m applauding that rotten Gotham with its teeming hordes of rodents and untimely showers of pigeon poo, queens of mean and hard bodies corporate, horns and sirens, whores and suits, marks and muggers, its urine-soaked alleys and graffiti-strewn subways and cabbies who manage to be at once offensive and incomprehensible.

Many are the sob probes that would have marked me as I raged in tiny rooms against the indignities and inanities of urban existence. We’ve been sold a pup. Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow but the only urban cowboys are lurking in leather bars. Deep down, we want something else. A bit more room to manouevre. Some grass between our toes. Air we can actually breathe. People who talk with you, not at you. Or simply some peace and quiet so we can hear ourselves think.

Cities, those bitches, give me the seven-year itch. Oh yes, at first it’s all rose-tinted sweet nothings and soaring choruses, sunrises and sunsets, vistas and visions. We get drunk on their glittering lights and can’t wait to drink in their sights. We make grand plans and utter foolish promises. We see past their shortcomings, tenderly overlook their faults, swept along in the giddy waltz of first love. But somehow it always turns bad.

My three great love affairs and bitter bust-ups have been with Brisbane, Hong Kong and Bangkok. The former, home to my first two and a half decades of existence, the latter pair my primary places of residence for roughly ten years apiece. Each in its own way once had me smitten. All still exert a powerful pull, tugging me in different directions, summoning vivid memories of highs and lows. But in the end it mostly feels thin and sour, a bittersweet toast charged with the dregs, the lees of life. Christ, but the highs ...


WHEN I FINALLY DEPARTED Australia in 1992 for the helter skelter of Hong Kong, it felt like the last plane out of Brisbane was almost gone. The urge to broaden my horizons had swelled to a kind of reverse vanishing point. I didn’t just have itchy feet … more like athlete’s foot of the soul. A dull ache in some hidden hollow place that suburban bliss in Brisbane was failing to fill, and a nagging fear that if I didn’t get out and see the world soon, perhaps I never would.

It wasn’t that life was boring. By my mid-twenties I’d been a ballet dancer, a university student, a journalist, a surfer and a husband. I tried telling myself I was living the dream. My career at the daily newspaper was simmering along nicely. I had a beautiful wife. We had bought our first home, a quaint old worker’s cottage and renovator’s delight, upon which I unleashed my limited handyman skills. But something was missing.

Life went by in a blur of backyard barbeques, home improvements and sun-and-surf-soaked weekends at the beach. “Queensland, beautiful one day, perfect the next,’’ was the advertising slogan du jour, a boast based on the state’s unusually high average of sunny days per year. But as those dazzling crystalline days accrued into years they became brittle and fractured, as the first cracks in our marriage began to appear. I was beset by a dull and unfocused angst; a sense that I was rusting away. Gradually the rolling hills and pretty homes of Brisbane began to assume an oppressive menace. The manicured lawns became flypaper, pinning me down.

I threw myself into work and pretended all was well. We moved to a bigger house, as the dream dictated; an ‘Old Queenslander’ that was all rambling verandahs and crumbling charm. Its steady march towards entropy was a constant and accusing mirror help up to my life. The termites and borers that dined on its foundations might as well have been eating me alive.

By night, I tossed and turned. Shafts of moonlight through our bedroom’s stained glass windows bathed my wife’s peaceful perfect features in a lambent glow while my mind roiled and raged. Was this all there was? Had I become just another suburban clone with a Stepford life? At least once in a lifetime, I wanted excitement and chaos, passion and danger. But underneath the seething unease, all this water flowing underground, a small voice was also whispering: Be careful what you wish for.


HONG KONG HIT ME like it was raining bricks. I was convinced she was the one. I was head-over-heels and boy, we had us some times. But Hong Kong had me on a trajectory I couldn’t sustain. I crashed and burned hard; blowtorching the candle at both ends until the melted mess met in the middle. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, then I’m pretty sure I left an important part of my brain in some dark corner of Wan Chai.

Wan Chai is Hong Kong’s black hole; a place that exerts its own gravitational pull. Just as fraying galaxies at the edge of the universe cannot resist the absence of matter, so the average Hong Kong party animal, absent of sense, is drawn to the dense centre of Lockhart Road. And it was on one or one hundred foolish endless nights and cruel bitter mornings in The Wanch that Hong Kong dumped me.

Wan Chai was where the wicked things were, the predatory habitat of big-livered shellbacks and other rough beasts slouching towards bedlam as temptation importuned at every turn. It wasn’t the world of Suzy Wong. It was a neon-bathed netherworld of gang-bangers, glad-handers and chrome pole clutchers, brokers, bankers and other wankers, drunken sailors, broken poets, dai pai dongs and all night discos, wizened Vietnam War whores and pneumatic Brazilian hookers, chattering packs of maids on the make, rave parties and monster raving loonies, drug-fucked nutters, triple-trio triads and bus uncles who hawked smack in the shadows of basketball courts.  At first, it was awesome.

But eventually the shine would wear off. You’d swear never again, and yet there you were in some fetid den sneaking furtive glances at your watch and counting off the diminishing hours still available for sleep as you got another round in. You’d wince as your credit card took another body blow, then you’d dust it off to go and do more blow. You’d cruise. You’d wander. You’d want to stop the madness and get off. But you couldn’t. You’d tell yourself you might get lucky, but you weren’t going to. Ever. You’d order another beer and a shot. You’d slope off to the Worst Toilet in Hong Kong, paddling through puddles of piss to clog your sinuses and fry your brain with another rail of crap coke. Then you’d look at your watch again and wonder how it could be five or six in the morning already.

Time behaves strangely the closer you get to a black hole. It compresses, distorts, folds in upon itself. You might as well be wearing one of those melted Dali timepieces. You would pat your pocket to see if you had remembered your sunglasses. You would know it was almost light outside, and you would also know that your shades were like a superhero's cloak of invisibility, shielding you from the withering stares and disgusted snickers of the early birds.

Welcome to the wormhole; the non-event horizon. A smoke machine would hiss and through fits of strobe you’d discern sinister leering faces of people who were not your friends. There would be no quantum of solace. You were simply in Wan Chai, adrift and alone. Again.


BANGKOK WAS A DIFFERENT AFFAIR. More of a slow-burning simmer than love at first sight. After Hong Kong, from which I’d fled for my life, tail wedged between legs, Bangkok felt rough and primitive, clogged with traffic, beset by beggars, overwhelming you with its juxtapositions of lurid luxury and grinding poverty. But bit by bit I fell for its unexpected pockets of beauty, its hidden leafy lanes and polished teakwood homes, its unhurried attitude and its wide, ready smile.

Nor was the end of the affair brutal and short. As the City of Angels had slowly encircled my heart, so she gradually began to let it go again. There was no sudden flame-out here, just a light that slowly faded; a candle guttering down some dark receding klong, borne beyond my understanding on currents I couldn’t read.

If there was one night where I fell out of love with Bangkok, it was probably my midnight visit to the vicious slums of Klong Toey in pursuit of a story about drugs. Bangkok was in the grip of a methamphetamine epidemic, a city on a bender, cranked up on candy-coloured pills called ‘yaba’, or ‘crazy medicine’. Klong Toey was Bangkok’s black hole, the drug trade’s Ground Zero, a garden of earthly horrors where even the angels feared to tread.

Ramshackle huts perched over sludge and garbage strewn ponds, rats ran riot, and at times it was hard to discern whether the glittering eyes peering from the gloom were human, rodent or something in between. I remember the police officer I had persuaded with a handful of baht to be my guide turning to me and asking: ‘Can you smell it?’’

The acrid urine? The stench of rotting garbage? The cloying waft of poisoned klongs simmering in the relentless humidity? The dead dog beginning to decompose under a precarious catwalk of warped planks? Or the sickly turpentine tang of yaba, the faint but unmistakeable top note of Klong Toey’s persistent perfume? “The smell,’’ he said with a cruel crocodile grin, “of fear.’’

Klong Toey counted its addicts in tens of thousands, from doddery senior citizens to emaciated, gimlet-eyed whores, from gangs of young thugs on tweaked motorcycles patrolling late night mean streets like werewolves to child junkies with wired smiles and old eyes. We came across a group of the latter in a dark and reeking alcove, cowering behind a pile of packing crates. Treacly strips of foil lay crumpled on the ground. Their eyes were wide and glazed. The cop aimed a vicious kick at one of the kids and connected just above his kidney. He barely flinched. I looked into his eyes, but there was no one home. No spark. No hope. No future. Something fundamental had checked out for good.

I’ve seen bad stuff as a journalist. Dead and mangled bodies. Assorted horrors. But something about the look in that kid’s eyes shook me, stayed with me, and stole a bit of my own humanity. I didn’t chide the cop for his kick. I just turned and walked, and then ran, as hot tears welled, overjoyed that I still new how to cry.


I REALLY DON'T want to live in cities anymore. People are nicer outside their dizzy limits. The big smoke is just fumes and hot air. A cancer. The human condition doesn't seem quite so fatal in more laid-back, thinly-spread locales. Folks just seem more interested. Engaged. But because of the flood, because of that selfish bitch Bangkok, it looks like I’m headed back there. At least until we can hose out the mud, scrub and scour, rebuild and repaint. For now, home will be another constrictive urban bolt-hole. Just when you think you are out, cities pull you back in.

It's said that moments of crisis bring out the best and worst in people. As I trudged out of my village through the floods, I clocked the odd shifty scumbag or two with looting in their eyes. But mostly I saw resigned smiles and acts of kindness. Two chaps with a boat took our bags and ferried my wife and I over a kilometre. Wouldn’t hear of payment. In a minimart, a crinkly auntie gave me a free beer and a snaggle-toothed, we're-in-this-together grin. We struck up easy conversations with people toting their som tam works or their dogs or their entire earthly possessions in little floating contraptions.

Amidst the mounting tragedy, there have been moments of high farce. Such as Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, scion of a Prussian-educated dynasty of rationalist bankers, presiding over an ill-advised ceremony to appease the Water Goddess Ka Kang. The excellent satirical website Not the Nation purported to have obtained a memo from the goddess, who was highly offended.

“Her Holiness The Water Goddess Ka Kang completely and without qualification rejects the appeal from the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority,” the story read, citing pollution, mismanagement, overfishing and years of abuse as the principle violations of the sacred pact she had with the Thai people. “Your appeal for salvation is that of the ant to the child whose flesh it has bitten,” the memo concluded. “And so shall you be trampled beneath the feet of vengeance that have displaced forever-lost innocence. Fuck you, Bangkok. The Water Goddess has spoken.''
http://roadsandkingdoms.com/2012/three-cities/

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