Travel & Popular Culture



Not Waving But Drowning

17 March 2017

I had always managed to resist the lure of Thailand with its reputation for bumptious backpackers and sex tourists wearing sandals. In “The Beach” Alex Garland asked “One of these days I’m going to find one of those Lonely Planet writers and I’m going to ask him, ‘What’s so fucking lonely about Khao San Road?'”. From Istanbul to Phnom Phen if you have ever sat in a Cuban theme bar surrounded by Bob Marley tee shirts and thought this could be anywhere then welcome to the mothership. Short hand for the sort of soul crushing hegemony that mainstream guide books have created with their recommendations.

While managing to coincide a visit with a year long period of mourning for the deceased King Bhumibol took the edge off this it only succeeded in bringing the oppressive nature of the military junta to prominence. Thankfully I missed the initial 30-day period when people were to avoid “festivities” and the wearing of black seemed to have taken on cult proportions, but still managed to get caught up in numerous road closures involving forced sit downs as the national anthem played while convoys of cars sped by. One of these may have contained Bhumibol’s son Maha Vajiralongkorn who may have made his pet poodle an air chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force but the generals decided to cultivate as a successor. Perhaps predictably this is back firing as Vajiralongkorn seems to fancy ruling like an old style absolute monarch.

The military will still see this as preferable to the alternative power base. It might be difficult to see billionaire and ex Manchester City owner Thaksin Shinawatra as the answer to inequality but his commitment to universal health care contributed to his overthrow. In 2014 the army took over from the dynasty in the shape of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck. That the family draws much support from more rural areas is unsurprising as the levels of poverty increase to match other South East Asian countries the further away from Bangkok you travel.

Within Bangkok the rich avoid the impoverished by using an elevated railway which costs about 10% of the average wage per ticket. To meet their needs work and services have developed in little pockets at Skytrain stations. This is part of a phenomena which is becoming increasingly pronounced in Asia and has been described by Stephen Graham in his book “Vertical” as “class war from above”.

I can’t help wondering whether the amount spent on enormous images of the late king and Sid Little lookalike that are scorched on my retina couldn’t be better spent. Of course it is important to appreciate the culture of other countries but it is difficult to know the Thai peoples view as the countries lese majeste law means anyone who criticises the royals can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. A piece the local BBC service did on Vajiralongkorn resulted in internet access being blocked. While I was there the Thai TV which was on in every bar consisted of the sort of non-stop maudlin music and soft focus poor people greeting that would have made the Soviet Union hierarchy envious.


In Bangkok two groups from a different demographic but with much in common illustrate a side of Thailand that doesn’t make the holiday brochures. What is left of the Fort Mahakan community seems to be deliberately hidden away behind advertising hoardings and a citadel which was ironically built to defend the city against intruders. Expect to be greeted by one of the roughly 300 remaining residents at the entrance as they take turns to look out for state officials acting on a royal degree for land expropriation. Then you will be welcomed to see the teakwood homes and the artisan professions that have been here for about 200 years. From the intricately painted bird cages and images of the Por Gae hermit worshipped by performers who may have featured in the playhouse for “commoners” this is living and history. With people happy to share their experience rather than guides telling you what they have read about.

So what have the Bangkok authorities been knocking down houses in the last few weeks for? Only to complete the building of a tourist park with more shops and cafes that you can’t avoid in every high street where we live. Information from the Mahakan Fort Community Committee about similar developments in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and Finland illustrate the global nature of this struggle.


If some residents accepted compensation and then offered to return it after seeing the back of beyond they were being moved to it is not surprising. This is a community which still has an area for washing clothes which has never had anything stolen and homes like the one of a lady who goes out to sell fish soup every day but leaves it completely open.

Of course it can be fun to prick the pomposity of the self-styled traveller by being part of a nose to tail guide book convention bearing down on a landmark but maybe we could vote with our feet before colonisation means there is nothing to do but stare at each other and real estate developers. Publishers stress how much they care about carbon footprints but could do more to consider how they cause such a number of actual footprints that they change the whole nature of long standing communities. Maybe nation states and the tourist industry don’t want us to see that there are different and more interesting things to do.


Across town and in pursuit of some loud guitars I managed to locate the 24-hour bar and hostel called The Overstay. Open for the best part of a decade and winner of the red rag to a bull name prize for most of them it was described on social media as having line ups that might attract the police. If that meant the turn on a baht coin hardcore of LowFat or garage punk of Deadtown Trash then it was a risk worth taking.

Unfortunately the police had got there before I did: in a dawn raid at the end of October over 100 soldiers, police and a TV channel woke the owner Yuval Schwot before discovering 20 grams of marijuana and scales which he maintained were for brewing beer. The junta order did this after giving the army warrantless search powers without oversight if they suspect criminal activity. It also allowed for the detention for interrogation of anyone they consider may be linked to crime. Exploiting this to its maximum saw half a dozen of the guests test positive for marijuana and given two-week prison rehabilitation centre sentences.

That they came from as far afield as Russia, Ghana, Hungary and Germany was testament to its international feel but on the Friday night when I went people were nearly outnumbered by the homeless dogs which they provide shelter for. A seed of paranoia and intimidation which the authorities have sown meaning that even though the initial period of mourning for the king had passed they were exercising caution by refraining from live bands. This was understandable as the barman who considered himself “resilient” after travelling the world spoke about his fear at being taken into a Bangkok prison cell.

For the police to use the threat of terrorist attacks after bombs in the south of the country as justification for the raid seems as plausible as thinking this about a handful of dope smokers. It’s a state which is flexing its muscles and sending out the message that it will not tolerate dissent. Let’s hope it doesn’t put the Overstay out of business but Yuval Schwot is now awaiting trial for being a drug dealer and running a hostel which “creates instability in Thailand”.  

It was this air of unease generated by such a heavy police and army presence which characterised my stay and seemed more pronounced than countries generally associated with oppressive regimes. That isn’t to suggest not going as the world is so fraught with madmen and contradictions we would all have to go on holiday to Denmark. It’s just worth remembering that behind the land of smiles is sometimes a gun in the back.

Stewart Lee: Leicester Square Theatre, London

11 February 2017

Here we are then. The liberal elite waiting for Lee to impale a post Brexit Britain outdone by an America determined to do everything bigger. Playing to the curse of the comedian’s lot that is the weekend crowd intent on just going out and not hanging on their every word the stage was set for a master class in precision disdain.

I saw Doug Stanhope here on a Saturday night and a crowd that were throwing up before they got in went to the bar when they wanted. Perhaps surprisingly then tonight’s mobile phone warning carried more of the air of the mischief which went on to characterise the set. Lee’s crowd know not to let their guard down completely though. Asking if anyone has a Sky subscription prompting shuffling in seats and showing a sudden interest in the Leicester Square Theatre carpet. I could be wrong but we do look like people who usually enthuse about the production values of “Westworld”.

Digi box and phone dependency were returned to later but more as self-contained pieces than a reference to something from half hour previously which showed we had been paying attention. Indeed they are an integral part of a show which with a backdrop of a thoughtful man staring wistfully onto atomised indifference in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above a Sea of Fog” may have been overtaken by world events.

Repetition is used to bludgeoning effect at the start of each act as Lee uses the twisted visions of Farage and Trump and simply swaps names around. Otherwise if the likes of the anti- immigrant powered EU vote makes him feel some of his set seem less important Lee is having his cake and eating it by refusing to let such material go. Thankfully when it’s as good as “Content Provider” this is more than forgivable.

Performing in front of a pile of other comedian’s bargain bin DVDs shows Lee still knows it but he illustrates his own disposability by reference to the BBC’s preference for remakes of “Are You Being Served?” over his cancelled “Comedy Vehicle”. That the organisation prioritises the death of Tara Palmer Tomkinson above that of Hancock and Steptoe writer Alan Simpson is no surprise. Lee’s observation that the criteria for returning stuff that doesn’t work should be widened meant we had to listen to Deacon Blue at the interval. 

The dismissal of “Game of Thrones” could have fell flat because as we had already indicated our contempt for Sky nobody had seen it but as the premise was you could discover all you need to know from a merchandising slogan this was alright. Rational enough as you don’t need to hear Elbow or read an Edith Bowman book to know you don’t want to. His contempt for the under-40s who are attached to a mobile phone and its myriad of solipsistic uses involved the sort of phone fingering visual comedy that Lee is not usually known for.

As close to conventional in delivery as Lee and a lengthy piece on the history of bondage can be proved the highlight of the night. As the work involved in our pervy ancestors getting their own masks and harnesses reached a hysterical pitch it took on the air of a quaint cottage industry compared to today’s Amazon sweat shop society. If everything is immediate even smut has been devalued.

Of course there is a danger with this of lapsing into what a more astute Daily Mail might describe as a “grumpy old polytechnic lecturer”. It’s avoided by a deftness of touch and being very, very funny. All without his characteristic need to deconstruct the material and with such a glint in the eye as to make critics accusation of smugness almost redundant. Perhaps being at his most accessible when not planning to be recorded for TV is the evidence that the old contrariness is alive.

How telling the declaration that “I am coming to hate the character of Stewart Lee” is will only be revealed next time. As he rises selfie stick aloft to obliterate Friedrich’s painting with himself the past months could be the vindication of a misanthrope or fuel for one serous broadside. As to keeping pace with developments, best of luck with that. The vicar’s daughter and a mean spirited, old country, desperately whoring itself around the world’s despots anyone?




Marx, Maradona and Me

13 March 2016

After a short queue with the rest of the proles and a shuffle around Lenin's tomb during which I was told to take my hands out of my coat pockets the sight of a pickled gherkin in a new jacket poured into sometime during 1999 was a little annoying. Having said that what may or may not be Vladimir Ilyich has been stuck in there since 1924 barring a short retreat from Moscow to Siberia during World War II. Presumably to save on air conditioning costs as they could have just stuck him outside there. Indeed this may have been preferable to the period from 1953 to 1961 when he shared the space with Stalin like a stern pyjama less version of Morecambe and Wise. 

Following this and a drive past the former KGB headquarters the Lubyanka some light relief was in order. Being told in an ominous tone that the building had the best views in Russia as you could see all the way to Siberia from the basement came close but it was the sight of the aforementioned Vlad and Karl Marx hanging out on a street just off Red Square which really tickled my fancy. Now as a keen student of political history I knew this version of Zombie Apocalypse was unlikely as they didn't knew each other and Lenin seemed to be telling Karl it was his round next.

It quickly became apparent that these imposters expected to be payed for having their photographs taken.  Now while they debated whether the nearby GUM shop or former State Department Store had any offers on I opted for the role of  KGB operative and got a sneaky picture in. In the words of  sadly defunct agitprop band and full time commie bastards the Redskins “Take No Heroes! Take Only Inspiration”.

In Argentina however Diego Maradona is revered like a god and has a full time impersonator  with his own celebrity status who frequents the barrio of Boca in Buenos Aires. Whether he sports a Che Guevara tattoo like the real thing I don't know but he was outside a bar near the home of Boca Juniors when I was massively overcharged for a drink. This is the Boca Juniors whose derby match with River Plate was abandoned after a member of Bocas most committed followers or  barras bravas sprayed home made mace down the tunnel shielding the away team before they ran onto the pitch.

As a consequence of  the memorabilia inside the bar it was clear the bar staff were also pretty keen and after one attempt to get my money back a rush of adrenalin decided a photograph of  their mate was the only way to recoup some of  my loss. Thinking I was being discreet I took a shot over my travelling companions shoulder before realising he had a face which would have resembled Maradonas if his legendary Hand of God goal had been disallowed.

Now in Argentinian football  there is the concept of viveza or craftiness which is seen as part of the game and applauded. Indeed the somewhat tongue in cheek Church of  Maradona has 250,000 members and its baptism ceremony entails recreating the handball.  Whilst manoeuvring my bemused partner through the crowd with a display of footwork the equal of  Maradonas mesmerising second dribbled goal against England didn't however seem the time to contrast it with a Corinthian spirit of fair play.

Taking refuge in a throng of tango dancers and finding that my previous fleet of foot had deserted me I considered what it was about these photographs that had been strangely satisfying. Finding the world's greatest ever footballers eccentricities and scatter gun anti establishment rants entertaining it wasn't that I disliked the actual man but conversely didn't consider him or anyone else sacred. It was also unlikely to be motivated by my understanding of complex theories of identity. Similarly I had always liked the sound of Samuel Johnson's  “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” and I was really only ever so slightly bothered about England losing 2-1 to Argentina in the 1986 World Cup.   

So why I take exception to these lookalikes while scrupulously observing all other aspects of tourist etiquette seems to come down to their lack of imagination rather than the personalities involved. The wholesale stealing of someone else's persona legitimising the photographs. Its the same “Stars In Their Eyes'” dreariness which leads me to recoil from tribute bands unless I have drunk more than is good for me. Now painting yourself silver and pretending to be a statue before jumping out and scaring a small child is a whole different ball game.

A Steady Rain: East Riding Theatre, Beverley


21 November 2015

Who would have imagined it? A theatre in true blue Beverley providing an alternative to the heart warming tales of rugby league folk which has seen Hull Truck's role as a northern cliché generator help to cement the image of the city as some sort of small minded backwater. At a cost of over 1.75 million in bail outs.

Perhaps the people of Hull are proud of their heritage but don't necessarily want to watch their lives distorted back at them on endless patronising repeat and “A Steady Rain” at the East Riding Theatre certainly isn't guilty of that. This is the story of two Chicago cops and a lifelong friendship turned on it's head as a sequence of events drag them further into the void. All the familiar noir tropes are present and correct but at it's best the genre uses this as a framework to dig deeper into the human psyche rather than spread itself flabbily over a larger territory. This is very much a drop of the good stuff rather than the poisonous Sterno or canned heat made from denatured alcohol referenced in the play.



With Adrian Rawlins as Joey and the Artistic Director of the theatre Vincent Reagan as Denny comprising the entire cast the production has an immediacy which makes it feel personal. This was in no small part down to playwright Keith Huff's dialogue which is relentlessly street smart and evocative as expected of someone who has worked on the likes of “Mad Men”. Further complimenting this and making up the entirety of an experience which moved seamlessly from the rain which was lashing down outside the theatre was the sparse but evocative set design and lighting. In any setting Italian American Denny describing sex with a breast feeding prostitute as a near religious experience would have impacted with Scorcese like force.

The end of the performance was greeted with a standing ovation and much hollering from the man next to me who seemed to have had a cracking Saturday night out. He might be a patron of the Old Vic for all I know with my limited knowledge but the fact we were both there is probably the point. Challenge the snooty vested interests by getting the box set generations attention so the theatre and the balance sheet look a lot healthier.

Many years ago “The League Of Gentlemen” ridiculing the cosy parochial tedium of John Godber prompted a loud cheer from a Hull City Hall crowd but despite relinquishing control after accusations of the truck theatre being dominated by him the perception of the place hasn't changed. “The League Of Gentlemen” skewered small town life with humour and pathos. Since then Hull born Reece Shearsmith has gone on right up until the most recent series of “Inside No 9” to demonstrate the sort of macabre originality that would translate brilliantly to the stage.

Now he has indicated that he would attend a horror festival as part of Hull's City Of Culture year in 2017 so why don't those in a position to do so ask him to curate one or better still put something on for it? After all George Romero's “Dawn Of The Dead” dramatised the stupefying nature of modern capitalism far more excitingly than the usual worthy but dull sanctioned fare. With zombies.





Contact details:

Contact via Steve John at: