Saturday, 30 June 2007
It’s dead of night and down in the new wooden house at the bottom of the garden, the lights are blazing, the tile cutter’s screaming, the hammers are resounding and for some reason I just can’t sleep.
‘For heavens sake, why are they working overnight?’ I ask Cat who’s lying prone next to me.
‘Have to finish by Saturday,’ she says, a bit annoyed at being disturbed. ‘Saturday last day. If not have party Saturday, then cannot use house for three months.’
Once again I’m mystified, though increasingly resigned, the strange truth becoming clearer in the morning. In essence, you can’t sleep in a house until it’s been blessed in an animist ceremony that’s practiced across a vast swathe Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and further afield, and the ritual’s to no avail unless it’s conducted on an auspicious day. The coming Saturday is an auspicious day but as there won’t be another one for at least three months, completing the house is now urgent so we can go ahead with the celebration and move in.
So they’re working flat out and at about eight or nine on Saturday morning, the elders will gather and we’ll have the ceremony or bust. This'll be followed as always by the feeding of the five thousand.
Last night we sat and barbecued outside the house amongst all the builders’ mess and wreckage. Meanwhile Cat was madly building a wall of cement blocks that I’d been dispatched in the jeep to buy that day. All was cooking and other activity around us. A fire was burning piles of rubbish and vegetation from our work on the garden and for some reason that I couldn’t understand, Cat’s uncle was grubbing around in the embers. Cat told me what he was doing... he had four cows’ feet and a tail and he was cooking them in the middle of the fire. As he extricated them, all black and singed it gave me the illusion that he’d cooked a whole cow, left it on too long and that all he had left was the feet and tail.
We sat amidst the mess, the wreaths of smoke engulfing us but hopefully deterring the mosquitoes and ate the most succulent pork, roasted on the charcoal. I scoffed greedily, pestered by our dogs, Pepsi and Soda and even more by the cat, while legions of babies and toddlers raised hell around me. Their mums were helping Cat set up a big bamboo table with all the bowls and cooking things for a feast the following day.
With the table now laid out in the open and with night falling, there were a few upward glances.
‘No problem,’ says Cat. ‘No cloud, so no rain tonight.’
In the middle of the night I’m woken by the roar of the wind and the heavens open with horizontal rain. I go onto our upstairs verandah to bring in the cushions and, like a captain on the bridge of his ship, stare anxiously out into the tempest. Then there’s a bang and a flash of light. It could have been lightening, but no it was far too low down... perhaps the electric wires for the wooden house which are strung along the fence at the side and cobbled together with tape. Strange though because the lights are still on in the wooden house, so maybe it hasn’t blown completely.
Morning comes too soon when a mobile phone rings jarringly beside the bed. When we don’t get up, it rings again five minutes later. I finally wake feeling hot and clammy. It’s four in the morning.
‘Nao, nao,’ says Cat. How can she possibly be cold!
‘I forgot to kill the chicken,’ she says, and uncoils off the bed. I lie in the dark listening to the sounds of terminal squawking from successive quarters of the garden.
Soon Cat’s back in the room, telling me to get up, quick, quick. ‘We go market,’ she says. I groan in response. ‘No problem,’ she says. ‘I can drive the pickup to market, if you like.’
But it’s a new pickup and she’s never driven before, so it is a problem and I don't like, so I’m going to have to get up and take her into town.
We go downstairs and Cat unceremoniously wakes Nan who’s asleep in a bundle on the floor. We all stumble outside into a dark world that’s damp and dripping. I can’t see a thing through misted windows but somehow manage to back the big vehicle out through the gate.
First stop is to collect Cat’s helper, Naam, a university student who lives nearby. We drive to the house but the bamboo gate is shut and the place is in darkness. Cat calls loudly and eventually Naam appears.
We drive to Sangkha along puddled, rutted roads, the CD playing nineties romantic ballads at full belt. It’s still pitch black when we get there but the market is as busy as I’ve seen it, jammed with pickups and scurrying figures bearing early morning burdens.
I’m left in the pickup while Cat and her two porters disappear, taking with them half my pension. I’m almost dozing off when a motorcycle appears and stops next to the pickup. How could he carry so much stuff… he’s got vegetables and things across the handlebars, between his knees and piled up behind him. Now he’s gesturing at me through the window. Then I grasp what’s going on… looks like Cat’s bought all this food for the party. Just as we’ve just finished loading it into the back of the pickup, the three shoppers reappear.
Next stop is Daeng’s house where it seems we’re picking up some pork. But it transpires that it isn’t just some pork… it’s a whole pig which is subtly different. Fortunately it’s not an intact pig, though the head stares accusingly at me when I open the lid of a big stainless pot and look inside.
Back home, I drive the pickup to the bottom of the garden and leave them all to unload the booty. Cat’s there as colonel in chief, directing a major logistics operation… there’s teams of ladies peeling vegetables, cleaning, scraping, squatting, chatting, laughing, getting ready for the celebration and the big feast.
I’m now up on my verandah overlooking all this activity and I decide to take a telephoto picture for the record. It’s still only 7.00 am but it feels like mid-afternoon.
The new digital camera flashes unnecessary and so I sit down to try to switch it off. For this modest automatic, the instructions book runs to 185 densely packed pages. It’s one of the least amusing books I’ve ever read, though the safety instructions do give some light relief.
‘Seek medical attention immediately if a memory card is accidentally swallowed.’ What do you do if it was swallowed with malice aforethought?
And, ‘If the camera emits smoke, stop using the camera immediately.’ I thought all the malfunction indicators were on the LCD display!
I bet the camera’ll know our house party's a unique and special occasion. My other Pentax jammed half way through the raising of the first post ritual for our big house four years ago. These are automatic cameras you see and they can sense a special occasion and foul up deliberately, just to provoke me… to make me say something stupid like, ‘they don’t make them like they used to, now do they!’
The Japanese are small people which is perhaps why they're so good at miniaturisation. From transistor radios to the Sony Walkman and now digital cameras, they've got putting a quart into a pint pot down to a fine art. But is small always beautiful in all things, as the slower Schumacher (who founded The Soil Association) suggested in his book, so well anticipating the 'sufficiency economy', the new Thai government's controversial economic philosophy. ("Small is Beautiful", E.F Schumacher.)
Yes, I'm talking about my new digital camera again. To make it ever smaller, they've dispensed with a view finder and you need a separate battery charger and card reader. As a result, you have to carry with you a whole bundle of extra rubbish to use the thing.
This picture shows all the stuff my new camera came with which'll have me grumbling until the cows come home. Call that miniaturisation?
Friday, 29 June 2007
On this blog, while talking about my trip back to England, a number of times I've mentioned my MGB. A couple of people have asked me what an MGB is and, in a state of mild shock, I feel I should therefore bring light to some dark corners of the world. The MGB is one of England's greatest sports cars and I have owned the one shown here since the late eighties. They are cramped, noisy, draughty, smelly cars and not that fast... indeed they are thoroughly English and I love them.
My 'B' was bearing me swiftly through the Wiltshire countryside from Petersfield to Taunton to see Mike and Tamsyn when I saw a dramatic swathe of red poppies betwixt corn and woodland. I screeched to a halt to test my new Olympus digital camera and, I think, came up with at least one decent result. When zooming in on a distant subject, composing carefully and steadily is crucial, but the faintness of the LCD display meant that I just had to click and click blindly, hoping that I'd get something half decent. I also took a shot at the 'B' which was a hell of a lot easier.
These pics cost me a fair bit of money as they meant I couldn't return the camera by availing myself of Jessops' return policy as the camera was no longer in 'unused condition'. Funny that! Can only virgins be virginal?
I hope these pics were worth the expense. I do still have the camera though... at least I did have. Cat's got it now!
Monday, 25 June 2007
I've just got back to the village after twelve hours on the plane and nine hours overnight on the bus, then followed by a night out watching Thai boxing that got us to bed by two. I suppose it wasn't too bad because by my time clock it wasn't that late. Anyway, I'm old so I should be able to cope with this sort of thing!
The big excitement on my arrival at five in the morning was of course seeing the new wooden house Cat's been building while the mouse was away. It's even bigger than I'd expected and it fills my view as I look out of my window upstairs, sitting at my computer wasting time.
The left side of the building is an old rice barn that Cat bought and had reassembled, then there's a huge verandah we barbecued on last night and three bedrooms beyond. At the far end is a toilet and shower room that's not yet complete. They've been working on it overnight, though I've no idea why as we don't need the new house anyway!
If you've got nothing much to do, you'd better build something. You can't cut down trees like George Washington did as it's illegal and they'd lock you up. Handling new timber is a bit of a problem too and we may yet go to jail. You see, were going to have to buy a load more contraband wood for the porch Cat's going to build across the front elevation to shelter the stairs. She hasn't stopped building yet so we may still need that 'get out of jail card'!
Your camera?!! It's not yours, it's mine!
There are many stresses in a marriage and perhaps there should be added to irretrievable breakdown and unreasonable behaviour a new ground for divorce, namely 'irresoluble disputes over the camera'.
Photography is a source of tension at the best of times, such as when Daddy wants to take a family photo and like a sheep dog he's trying to move everyone into the same place and get them to look vaguely in the direction of the camera. But little Jimmy doesn't like having his photo taken and is clinging to Mummie's leg, while Mummie's worried about what her hair looks like and teenage Sandra is pouting and preening most horribly. You can see the tension in the snap shots when they've been printed and preserved for eternity, though it's so different now as you can doctor digital photos. Everyone's going to want to have their face removed from the image,so ergo, there'll be no family photo.
Of course Cat and I never ever fight, though one of the things we've had discussions over has been the use of the camera... I mean about who it belongs to and who gets to use it first. It's my first digital camera, or should I say 'ours', and it's an old Sony as big as a brick. I like it for that and for the fact it has an amazing obsolescent feature which in the olden days we used to call a viewfinder. With this cunning device, you can actually exercise autonomy and self-determination and take the photo you actually want to take. With these new digital screens or whatever they call them nowadays, you can't see a damned thing so you have to shoot blind and compose the picture on your computer when you get home. I think they're called LCD screens, though what The Lord Chancellor's Department has got to do with it I never can work out.
Anyway, Cat has an eye for a photo and as there are two thousand folk in the village who, unlike farang families, all want to be shot at dawn, the camera has had plenty of use. They stand there at attention as if before a firing squad, then gaze myopically at themselves on the LCD screen and they just love it. So Cat's camera has certainly spread more happiness than marital dissention and has been a huge hit locally. Or do I mean MY camera?
No, we really haven't fought over it, but if my dear wife were to devise a strategy to monopolise its use, it would be to hide the instruction book and to keep all the optical chargers and battery readers and cables and things in a variety of polythene bags and to secrete them around the house, moving them strategically from place to place every few days. That is what she has in fact done, though strangely I don't think her objective has been to put me off the scent as this is her usual practice with anything of mine I ever want to put my hands on and have irretrievably lost.
Now that I've just got back in the village after my trip to UK, I produced to her my new, expensive Pentax digital camera, bought last week in Petersfield high street. Her eyes lit up as she noted its shiny, cute smallness and I think I detected a hint of acquisitiveness in her expression. Yes, it's a great little camera except that in Thailand where the light is always bright, you can't usually take any photos with it as it's impossible to see anything on the LCD screen.
I've just had a look at the lumpen old Sony and noted that it has a wonderful antique viewfinder. Now we've got two cameras we should never need fight again, and I'm trying to figure how we can work out an arrangement as to their use that'll satisfy both of us. Cat likes'em shiny and small and expensive, while I crave bricks with viewfinders. So I think I'm beginning to see a way through all this that might take some pressure off our relationship and keep the shutters clicking, if that's what shutters still do. If cameras still have shutters, that is.
Saturday, 16 June 2007
In the old, old days of photography the camera was on a tripod and you threw a black cloth over your head to take a picture. Then things improved with hand held cameras producing superb quality. Next came automatic cameras that were extremely complicated and difficult to use and produced much less certain quality. I hated mine. And now we have digital cameras with digital screens that you can't see in bright sunlight... so if you want to do more than guess at what you're shooting, you have to throw a black cloth over your head to take a picture.
My favourite was my manual Pentax SLR bought in the Tottenham Court Road in 1974 which got taken by a thief who broke into my house in Exeter while I was asleep upstairs. Thank goodness I didn't wake up because it might have proved fatal had I surprised him downstairs. If I'd seen him taking my Pentax I'd have surely killed him.
It was heavy and lumpen but it was totally predictable, just like an MGB, and it did exactly what it said on the tin. You could get superb pictures with the greatest of ease because focus and exposure were so simple, and it never let me down.
As I've ranted at such length about all of this, in praise of the old and manual, perhaps I should show you a few examples taken with my Pentax in Nigeria in the early seventies, using a long 200 Tamron lens. Yes, those were the daze!
On a quick trip to London I was determined to try out my magic new Pentax digital camera that I've just bought. It's as tiny as anything... though you also have to carry a card reader and battery charger and there are no fewer than five different cables for one thing and another that leave me totally confused.
It takes some great pictures, though the trouble is that there's no view finder. 'Viewfinders are obsolete,' said the man in Jessops where I bought it. Yes, but viewfiders actually work, even with a little paralax error, whereas these new fangled digital viewing screens simply don't. Even in moderate light when I look at the screen and try to compase a picture all I see is an old bloke in spectacles staring back at me, and the screen only shows a faint shadow of what I'm trying to shoot. The screen on my new camera is simply not bright enough to compose a picture in most light conditions. It's a complete and utter disaster!
Why have they scrapped old style viewfinders in favour of a fancy new idea that simply doesn't work?
In the precincts of The Royal Academy it was shady enough to frame a picture of three dinosaurs and to get some nice ones of the fountains in Trafalgar Square. In all other respects than the viewfinder, the camera is a triumph.
As a dinosaur, I should find London hard to handle, but on the contrary I loved it. The black cabs are still there and the big red buses still run to Penge, though they have subtly changed. Nonetheless, the more London changes, the more it stays the same. I remember the underground trains were always hot and crowded, but now they're very hot and crowded, almost intolerably so.
Waiting in the quue in a convenience store I found myself standing behind the recently resigned leader of one of the three major political parties, Charles Kennedy. The place certainly has a buzz and as I came out of the shop at the foot of Big Ben and the Mother of Parliaments, I was again in love with this greatest of all capital cities.
There has recently been an official attempt to define Britishness and to demand of immigrants that they accord with the essential standards of our society. Of course this is right... the only trouble is that the essence of Britishness is that it is indefinable. To try to put it in a bottle is to destroy it. Openness, tolerance, adaptability, responsiveness to change cannot be set in stone.
There are so many and different things that are valued in different parts of this very plural society. I for one now put my finger up and say that the abolition of viewfinders strikes at the very heart of our traditional picture-taking culture. It really bugs me, even though we now don't have to pay for films any more.
Friday, 8 June 2007
This is the latest picture of our new wooden house that Cat is having built for us at the bottom of our garden out in the rice fields of Surin province.
You can see the concrete house we built three years ago in the background in the blog below and it's very comfortable. It has only two bedrooms, so now we have another house which'll be useful when we have vistors. On hot steamy nights, a wooden house is much cooler than concrete too, so I can see us sleeping there quite often.
As I'm in England at the moment and won't be flying back for another week, I'm getting impatient and really looking forward to seing it. And to seeing Cat again too!
Wednesday, 6 June 2007
My summer trip to England is nearly over and five weeks in another world and without Cat has seemed a very long time indeed. I’ve been keeping busy and enjoying seeing friends but it’s a funny sort of life filling in time and going round in circles.
On getting back to Anna and Will’s in Petersfield after a week away in the West Country, I opened my Hotmail and found two new pictures of the wooden house that my hyperactive young wife is currently building in the garden, back in our village in the rice fields. She tells me all about it on the phone but there’s nothing like seeing the pictures. She says it’s been going well but the heavy rains have made it difficult to keep working at times.
At the start of my trip away, I stayed for a few days with Peter, my old Thailand friend, at his lovely period house in the Tamar valley in Cornwall where as usual it rained and rained. Peter now feels more at home in Si Saket where he lives a short drive from us with his wife, Laylai, and so is now in the throes of finally selling the house in Cornwall. It should sell well as the village of Chilsworthy is pretty and has spectacular views, though it strikes me that it's almost devoid of people. Apart from the occasional car the street is deserted, a huge contrast to Thai villages which are always vibrant with life.
Leaving Peter, I went on to stay with Nigel and Katharine in their classic thatched cottage in Devon. With its roof of straw and built of cob, the rammed earth construction that lasts for centuries, it’s very old world. Nigel is recently retired and together they farm the acres of steep meadow and cider orchards that they always dreamed of owning. I admire them immensely as it’s tough work maintaining the land in all weathers and raising a small flock of sheep. Several of the sheep were lame and I watched as Katherine wrestled them onto their backs and administered an antibiotic spray.
The parallels with farming in Thailand were fascinating, as this too is hard unremitting work that’s not worth the candle if you want to earn a proper living. A sheep’s fleece sells for a pound, less than the cost of shearing it, and a lamb’s carcase for peanuts. All the while the farmer is entangled in mindless regulation and red tape that can only be efficient for the largest of farms. After the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the officials got a roasting so the usual knee-jerk reaction has been massive over-regulation that now overwhelms the small farmer.
My next stop was with Diana and Michael, my sister and brother-in-law, who have a cottage in the picture perfect Cotswold village of Oddington. Full of spectacular stone houses many of which, like theirs, are owned as second homes by Londoners, it was certainly not short on prettiness and honeysuckle round the door.
A visit to Hook Norton Brewery, a small family affair still powered by the steam engine that was installed over a hundred years ago was reassurance that not everything has been swept away by the modern tide of mergers and creeping urbanisation.
We also went to the ‘Dovers Olympick Games’ that take place every year on the hill above Chipping Campden, which was also refreshing for its earthy, rural feel. When the tug of war and the shin kicking contests were over and the sun had flamed down into the far distance, with the huge bonfire blazing and the fireworks hissing up into the night, there was a sense of excitement that was almost pagan.
The crowds of young people milling round wide-eyed and expectant reminded me strongly of village events in Thailand where the lads come out to see the kick boxing, to eat and drink, to be deafened by the music and eye-up the local talent. This too was a real rural crowd and it’s refreshing to know that these still exist now that the land is intensively farmed by machines and the city people have moved into the surplus farm houses.
Of course times move on and the countryside has had to adapt quickly as the source of wealth shifted from the land to industry and then to services. This was to be very apparent that day. We walked from the village past the ancient church with its fourteenth century wall paintings and across the Daylesford estate, now owned by Tony Bamford, the industrialist of JCB fame. It was Joe, his late father, J.C. Bamford who first engineered the use of tractors as diggers and together they built a rare success story in British manufacturing. The father’s initials have now entered the language and I even once had a pair of JCB socks.
The Daylesford estate, formerly the home of Warren Hastings is now the reward, the land well managed without regard to the cost. We visited the so-called farm shop, a palace no less of chic foodie consumerism which makes Fortnum and Mason in London look almost down market. A triumph of cool modern design, the shop is housed in fine old stone farm buildings and is worth a visit if only to stop and gaze in shock and awe.
Under the walnut tree as you leave the car park, scattered on the manicured lawn are several stone walnuts and the model of a dog that’ll never cock its leg. First you enter the food hall, a temple to organic food faddists and assorted nuts, offering delicacies that have never seen a farm, the atmosphere reverently drizzled with balsamic baloney.
Might not organic gulls’ eggs if laid by scavenging gulls be contaminated with the worst possible residues from rubbish tip and scattered bin bag? The magic Chinese goo-goo beans and the Tibetan nanga-nanga pulses could be perfect for a periodic detox though, and now’s the chance to neutralize our urban allergies and free radicals while we take our daily coffee enema and sweat off some excess cash.
In the airy and elegant designer clothes shop in the next barn, a little white bodice like the ones my grandmother used to knit is priced at four hundred and fifty pounds. A child’s rocking horse is a snip at four thousand five hundred. A garden trowel for digging organic vegetables has a handle of deer horn from organic deer and is somewhat more expensive than B&Q. Meanwhile as the clientele discuss their carbon footprint while eating organic gulls’ eggs with extra virgin olives, Tony Bamford leaves the office and flies home for lunch in his private helicopter.
But please don’t get me wrong. I hugely admire the JCB enterprise and the design flair of those who have created the ‘farm shop’ and I wish them every success. I only note that there are now two worlds in the countryside subsisting side by side… this showy new one and the simpler world of the muddy kneed swains in rugby shirts I watched by the light of the flames courting stocky farm girls under the stars that night on Dover’s hill.
Meanwhile, back in another other far away world, Cat works like a mad thing building our new wooden house in the garden, cutting back the bamboo to deter the cobras, preparing the timber, driving the men on to greater efforts and juggling all the demands of family and daily life.
On local wages, life in Thailand is expensive but it strikes me that our new house is cheap by western standards. Built of quality hard wood, it has three bed rooms, a kitchen and shower room. It’ll be comfortable enough for us to live in if we want to... but it’s going to cost me less than a ladies’ outfit bought at the farm shop on the Daylesford estate in the rural pastiche that is the English Cotswolds.
Monday, 4 June 2007
'... as the deadly radioactive waves of the mobile fry the soggy remnants of my brain.'
It was when I asked my seven year old to set the video timer so we wouldn’t miss Monty Python, that I realized the writing was well and truly on the wall. I had to admit I just don’t do electronics. Electrics can be bad enough but electronics are totally beyond me.
When my maker was assembling my brain, He must have forgotten to download the software needed to cope with anything digital. Maybe it wasn’t standard spec in those days though annoyingly, many older farts than me often manage computers and stuff with apparent ease.
My problem’s that I’m too logical, while sometimes computers are just plain silly, especially when Bill Gates is involved. Only an unreconstructed nerd would overload the software with so many features that ordinary souls can only manage a tiny proportion of its capacity. Okay, it can do loads of stuff if you want to be a slave to Microsoft and spend your life struggling with it, but I just don’t. And when people tell me to play around with it to find a solution, it really bugs me… playing’s supposed to be fun!
Having burdened us with his monstrous monopoly, I now think the Bill Gates Foundation should give the world free classes on how to work his wretched machines. Like Eve, I’d pick an Apple any day, though I guess that's what caused her all the incompatibility problems.
This biblical note now makes me ask if Gates has God on his side… what else can explain the success of such diabolical products. After all, God himself faces the mother of all data processing problems… like running spread sheets of our manifold sins and wickednesses. Could it be possible that He does it with the assistance of Bill ‘Pearly’ Gates himself? For software does He use God’s Word and Good Works? And was MSDos first developed as the Messianic Saviour Divine Operating System? His systems must be top notch as there’d be the devil to pay if the data gets lost… though I’m sure it never happens. As we all know, Jesus saves!
Yes, for whatever reason, computers have become our masters, controlling our lives, and it makes me mad. When my computer tells me, ‘You have committed an illegal action’ and all my work disappears, I just want to tell it to log off and disappear up its own modem. No foolproof system should lose all your work, say I, the ultimate computer fool.
Running my blog can be a nightmare too because I have to use a digital camera as well as a computer. Digital photography is amazing but it has its problems. They’ve done away with viewfinders and when the light’s behind me as it usually is, you can’t see the image on the digital screen. Then there’s shutter lag. You press the shutter but by the time the camera flashes, the subject’s got up and wandered off. Give me a simple manual camera any day.
Managing my pics on the laptop is a nightmare too. Damn and blogger, posting them onto the blog can sometimes be really difficult. It’s only because it’s so rewarding when I post a new story that I still persist with the thing.
Hotmail’s a horror story too… the screens are an appalling muddle of stuff splashed everywhere in disorder and the processes are utterly unsystematic. To send an attachment for example requires a steeplechase from one command to the next that must have been planned by a committee of gibbons. It’s all so fiendishly user-unfriendly.
Or is it me? Could I be an unfriendly user? Well, I have to admit that if I even look at something electronic, it usually goes wrong and stops working. My computer crashes and all the software has to be reinstalled. My ‘Thai Girl’ email refuses to open. My new TOT IP Star internet hardly works and in two long months of visits by technicians, I’m obliged to pay for a service that doesn’t work. Computers are so frustrating and they dominate my life.
The superb BMW I once had in England fell victim to electronics too. The central locking never worked so you had to climb in through the window, which was fine as the electric windows would never close. I sold the damned thing because of these problems and kept my early seventies MGB. It’s just carried me down to Peter’s place in Devon and it’ll still be running when today’s gleaming machines have all gone because their failed electronics are too expensive to replace.
In Thailand, I’ve just bought a new Toyota pickup and I chose the cheapest model because it has wind up widows. The locking system has special features too. Each door has a dedicated independent operational output… you can open them individually and keep the kids safe inside. You can even operate the locks and the windows when the ignition’s switched off. Quite amazing! I’d have paid extra for this special feature, though in fact it was at least twenty percent cheaper than the next model up the range.
Of course the Thais have to have all the most expensive toys in their chariots. Our friend Prasert spends his life making noodles to pay the finance on his top of the range Nissan pickup, and whenever I see him he gives me a superior sort of grin and makes a window winding gesture at me. I respond with a similar hand gesture that’s more vertical than circular.
Then there’s the car radio. It’s dangerous fiddling with a radio while driving so they make car radios with as many buttons as possible. Why, why, why? Why can’t they design stuff with simplicity as a special feature? Like a wireless you switch on by turning a knob clockwise. Why do we have to spend our lives learning how to use all these wretched things?
No, I’m a techno-phobe, really I’m not! It’s just that it’s all been changing far too fast. I’ve got my head around hi fi and video but now there’s wi fi and DVD to contend with. I’ve got a CD drive, but what’s the difference between DVD and VCD and what’s all this about them only working in particular regions of the world?
The English newspapers I’m reading now have full page ads with mega offers on a huge range of digital gismos and I’ve no idea what half of them do. Everyone’s talking about MP3 and Eye Pods… surely it should be ‘Ear Pods’. And I’m amazed by these new cameras which do such extraordinary things… you can even send emails and make telephone calls with them.
Talking about cameras again, my stone age Pentax of 1974 was the best one I ever had and the new generation of SLRs are awful in comparison. My new automatic Pentax was a total horror, my worst ever. The batteries lasted all of five minutes, the auto-focus never worked properly, (clunk click, clunk, clunk), the digital screen was a mass of incomprehensible symbols only readable with a magnifying glass and it was always breaking down, needing extensive rebuilds. And it has this uncanny way of failing at the worst possible moment. At the millennium, waiting on the Embankment in London for the river of fire on the Thames just before midnight, the wretched thing suddenly ceased to function. But never mind, I told myself as I hurled it into the river, there’s only another thousand years to wait for the next time.
If cameras make me mad, how about automatic washing machines? The one I recently bought in Petersfield has a thirty page handbook in eight languages covering a wide range of different models and it has twenty seven different programme cycles to choose from. You can’t make it do what you want it to but have to choose one of these. For example, the much trumpeted 1200 rev spin only works if you use the three hour, super-heated, global warming wash cycle. Use a shorter cycle and the clothes come out dripping wet because you can’t select a faster spin.
When we were looking for a washing machine in Surin, Cat desperately wanted the conventional ‘Fuzzy Logic’ automatic on offer, but at considerable risk to marital harmony, I insisted on buying something far simpler. It allows users to self-tailor an infinite range of functions and outputs based on your individual needs… its super-advanced technology is your servant and not your master. I think they call it a twin tub.
Which brings me to the small matter of mobile phones. These seem designed to be understood by that portion of the world’s population whose psychology is Finnish. From the Finns I’ve met on Koh Chang, if you’re manic-depressive and drunk by ten in the morning, then maybe you’ll know how to operate them. This’ll help you tackle the impossible task of taking the back off it to put in a new sim card, to understand its wretched little buttons and menus and what it means to be told that ‘you have active diverts’. In a moment of frustration my friend Peter very sensibly threw his mobile phone at the wall, but still it didn’t work properly.
The other thing that annoys me about mobiles is their social impact… my kids and all my Thai friends can now get away with never planning anything in advance. If you’re meeting to go shopping together or whatever, there’s now no need to agree an ETA and the RV point where you’re going to muster. They’ll never commit themselves to a proper plan but just drift around staring silently at their mobiles sending text messages to each other, but somehow they manage to meet up without the slightest difficulty. Plans mean nothing now that you can ‘text me baby one more time’.
I find it extremely irritating that we’re now totally dependent on mobile phones and some of my worst fights with Cat have been caused by their malfunction. Like when one of us forgets to take their mobile with them or the battery’s dead and we’re separated in the teeming ant heap of Bangkok, desperately looking for each other.
‘Why didn’t you charge your battery then? I might have never seen you again!’ I say. Cat is quite offended.
No, it never used to happen like this in the old days. Marriage was easier when the only mobiles were hanging over the baby’s cot and telephones were reliable.
When my mobile doesn’t work, I never know why I can’t get through. There’s a recorded message in Thai and Cat can’t seem to tell me what it’s saying. My blood pressure rises as I try again and Cat laughs at me as my face puckers up behind my shades in a sneer of distaste, the deadly radioactive waves frying the soggy remnants of my brain.
Maybe I’ll never get used to this wretched toy as its real purpose is removing money from my bank account. Anyway, for me, telephones will never be the same since the design museums took away the last of the big black ones with the curly plaited cables… sticking a finger in and dialing used to be such fun.
So how do I now persuade you I’m not a ranting gizmo-phobe? Well, I’ve just written this on my all-singing silver laptop, and I’m an regular internet surfer too. I’m enthralled by the universe of knowledge you can Google up with the click of a mouse even out in the far rice fields of Surin. Yes, I’m a thoroughly modern guy in so very many ways! It’s only grumpy old men who haven’t kept up with the times that sit and grumble at stuff they can’t understand.
Nonetheless, I admit that I do have a soft spot for the older style of interactive verbal dissemination device that my generation called a book. I like books because they never crash, never run out of battery and never accuse me of committing an illegal operation.
There’s one sitting next to me and I’m going to read it when I’ve finished these moanings. About the lessons to be learned from the study of pre-history, it focuses on the impact of constant change in the world and on the failure of species and individuals to adapt to new opportunities and threats. It’s by some old professor of gerontology and it’s called, ‘Dancing with Dinosaurs’.