To (as Samuel Pepys would have it) our local Thai Buddhist temple, the Buddhapadipa in leafy Wimbledon, for Songkhran, the Thai new year festival. Buddhapadipa is a stunning and authentically-designed-and-built temple and monastery set in peaceful grounds, complete with a small lake which is put to use each year for the Loy Kratong celebrations. Helped by the unseasonably brilliant weather (so brilliant in fact that I got sunstroke – but then again, I am English), it was absolutely packed with both Thai and “farang” visitors alike, making it difficult to get served at the food stalls selling the traditional soup, noodles, banana fritters and chicken satay dishes – but, as ever, it was worth persevering. There was even a queue to pay your respects in the wat itself.

Learning from the past (or not)

A recent article by Ian Jack in the Guardian stated the case for Iraq being the “cradle of civilisation”, with the British Museum‘s Mesopotamian section – ironically, rarely more popular than now – providing a home to tens of thousands of clay tablets telling the world’s first written epic, Gilgamesh, in cuneiform script, as well as the beautiful stone reliefs from Nineveh, all of it dating back to the Iraq of up to 3,000 years before Christ. I posted a link to this article to The Kraken, the newsgroup for the work of my favourite living novelist Russell Hoban (and, while we’re at it, my erstwhile virtual home-away-from-home), on the basis that the Nineveh bas-reliefs play an essential part in Hoban’s great 1970s novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz – not to mention the disturbing resonances the article has of his post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Fellow Krakenite, artist and curator of the latter site Eli Bishop responded with a shrewd cartoon and commentary by New York political cartoonist Tim Krieder, who, while with a group of artists sketching Mesopotamian artefacts at the Metropolitan Museum, realised that “[what] we were all dutifully sketching in order to honor and celebrate the ancient and glorious heritage of the people our government was about to bomb … were bas-relief steles immortalizing the rulers of the first military empires in human history — bearded, barrel-chested deity-kings with eagles’ wings and cannonball calf muscles straight out of ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way!’, accompanied by lengthy fine-print cuneiform inscriptions that I happen to know, from art history classes, consist entirely of grandiloquent and dubious boasting about their bloody conquests …” Sound familiar, George?

Dan Rhodes on writing

A good interview in the Guardian today with Dan Rhodes, the author of Anthropology, Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love and now Timoleon Vieta Come Home. He famously claimed he would give up writing following the publication of his third book because the whole process made him so miserable. Here he says: “When [writing] is going well, it’s the best thing in the world”, but adds, “That probably happens about 5% of the time.” Glad to hear I’m not alone.

Who wants to be a major fraud?

So the defendants of the Who Wants A Million Coughs trial have finally been found guilty. When it first opened, the case seemed to me a spurious PR stunt, especially when it was reported that a total of 192 coughs were heard throughout the show in question, of which only a dozen or so were supposed to have guided said military personnel to the correct answers. But as we know, mistakes are always made in wars, and now the case is closed, transcriptions of crucial bits of the show are emerging which help explain the jury’s decision, with the improbably-named “quiz anorak” Tecwen Whittock spluttering once for “yes” and twice for “no” at judicious junctures like some bizarre game-show séance. Sounds like they all deserve each other.

On The Pianist

Went to see The Pianist at the Richmond Filmhouse. An astonishing, distressing, moving, noble and humane film, despite its story of inhumanity. It was the harder to watch in the knowledge that a real war, albeit not a comparable one either in scale or humanity, was being fought by your own country as it was being screened. The transformation that Adrien Brody undergoes throughout is remarkable – he starts out in his mid-20s and by the end when he’s hobbling around the bombed-out houses and hospital he looks about 100. By the end, you really got the feeling you’d lived through the war with him. Some truly dreadful things are depicted in the first 45 minutes in occupied Warsaw and I didn’t think I could continue watching because I knew things could only get immeasurably worse when the family were taken to the concentration camp, but the whole film took a totally unexpected turn when Szpilman managed to avoid the cattle-truck. When that train pulled away I got the feeling that Roman Polanski was saying, “Beyond this point, I cannot go, and nor, truly, can anyone else. Let the ghosts of those tormented souls – both the Jews and the Nazis – rest now.” The film was, in fact, the least Polanskiesque of all his films; it made me think that – with the exception of the masterpiece Chinatown – he’s just been dicking about for the rest of his career.

What interested me about my own reaction to the film was that the brutality depicted just made me feel sick and numb, whereas it was only the performance of the Chopin piece in the bombed-out house that made me cry. That piece, both as a composition and a performance, contained everything – love, hate, pride, humanity, sorrow, faith, hope, despair, life, death, war, peace… It struck me that in this sense, the story could only have been about a musician: at the crucial juncture, when his life is finally on the line once and for all, if he’d been some other kind of artist instead, say a painter, writer or actor, I think the outcome would have been different, because those media wouldn’t have been immediate enough for him to express himself. Douglas Adams once said, “Music is the most abstract of all the arts – it can only be itself”; but in the way it was used in this film, music seemed vindicated as the least abstract, the most direct channel of communication between – in that famous phrase, so popular at the moment – hearts and minds.

At a disadvantage

The Guardian reports that lone British oarsman Andrew Halsey was taken aboard a fishing boat near the Galapagos islands yesterday after a 4,117-mile journey, setting a world record for the smallest distance travelled in the most time at sea in a rowing boat. But the Ocean Rowing Society appears to have disowned Halsey – because he’s epileptic. Halsey’s odyssey was surely the more heroic for this fact, but Kenneth Crutchlow of the ORS is quoted: “It’s a heck of a long distance for an epileptic to row. The question now is why.” Well, presumably for the same reasons anybody would have considered undertaking the challenge. Would the ORS have asked this “question” if Halsey hadn’t had this disability? And was the oarsman really a danger to anybody but himself, at worst?

Meanwhile, in a review of Walking the Shadows by Donald James in the Guardian Review, Mark Lawson writes: “James’s central device… was memorably used in Reginald Hill’s masterful novel On Beulah Height (1998). It’s unlikely that James knew this but, for the reader who does, his story starts at a disadvantage… Already, in the opening chapter, there are three technical problems… The book’s main action happens in 1985 for no compelling fictional reason… With crime fiction increasingly the province of high stylists, James relies too often on basic emotions recounted in simple prose… Much of the dialogue sounds as if has been badly translated from French…” Before I read this review I had never heard of Donald James, although Lawson explains that he is known for at least three books and is a prominent historian of Russia. Now, although I have always had my doubts about criticism of all kinds, and have not been able to make up my own mind about the qualities or otherwise of this novel, this review did make me wonder how the book had been published at all given its apparently comprehensive roster of weaknesses. Reading it both uplifted and depressed me in about equal proportions: if books with such faults are getting published, even if more so on the basis of a back catalogue than on their own merits, it makes the challenge of actually getting published seem a lot less interesting; but by the same token, it makes me less anxious about the drawbacks of my own efforts… all of which is counterproductive.

Enough already

Robin Cook continues to make the case for ending the war. “I have already had my fill of this bloody and unnecessary war,” he says according to a report in the Guardian. I remember feeling that way weeks before it had even started.


The ever-superb Robert Fisk has written a horrifying account of the aftermath of the bombing of a Baghdad market in broad daylight yesterday, where more than 20 civilians were blown to pieces. Fisk was close by at the time of the “outrage” and maintains the missiles came from a US fighter jet, but according to a story in the Times, the US is refusing to admit they were responsible, claiming the missiles could have been “a surface-to-air missile that missed its target fell back into the marketplace area.” Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks at US Central Command is quoted: “What meets the eye isn’t always true.” Well, the Americans would know all about that, wouldn’t they?

For somewhat lighter relief in these disturbing times, there is an excellent piece by Tim Dowling in today’s Guardian wondering whether the George W. Bush who addressed the US troops in Tampa yesterday was the real Dubya or a fake.

On an even lighter note, another story in the paper reports that Minister for E-commerce Stephen Timms is planning a clampdown on spam. While applauding this, Thoughtcat trusts Timms will not be too draconian, as spam can often be an unintentional source of entertainment, as highlighted on Spamcat.

What can you do?

The discussion I started on the Guardian yesterday has notched up 34 posts, thankfully some of which are somewhat more inspiring than the first few. The best one quotes several ideas from Michael Moore’s website. Even so, I have to say I’m disappointed with the feeling that there’s no one thing that any one person can do. It’s not as if this sort of situation lends itself to a Bob Geldof figure who can rise up and capture the public’s imagination: with a famine, all you basically need is enough money to buy the food and ensure it’s distributed in an effective way; with Band Aid and Live Aid, Geldof achieved that and much more. But with a war, you can’t just throw money at the situation.