Monday 20 September 2021

Lao Border Boogie or Everyone Met at Alan's

Back in the early 1990s I used to escape Bangkok by taking the overnight submarine-train to the end of the line at Nong Khai. Buffalo grazed by the tracks. There wasn’t a backpack in sight.
I remember taking a perverse pleasure in being the only foreigner to get off the train, and wearing brogues and a suit. I would then cross over into the People’s Undemocratic Republic of Laos by boat (they hadn’t built the bridge then) to a) try and sort out my tangled business affairs and b) make a bit of extra wedge by delivering consignments of Physignathus Cocincinus or Thai Water Dragon on behalf of an Austrian ex-con called Otto K (who makes guest appearance in Zen City).  I used to carry the little blighters in specially converted egg boxes.

Vientiane had a curfew on those days and militia would prowl around on motorbikes searching for foreign miscreants. The “Russian Club” was a wonderful restaurant overlooking the Mekong that once hosted Soviet advisers. In my day it featured an enormous blue parrot, a beautiful head waitress with very long black hair called Bernard and I was locked in the toilet (but not with the parrot or, thankfully, Bernard) by a heroin-addicted friend of mine who was being very silly. 

Men in white coats used to inspect the Vientiane watering holes, Joan Jet and the Blackhearts were on at the only nightclub in town and all the girls wore traditional pha-sin. I should add that Bier Lao on draught, not the bottled stuff, is – was – excellent.

After returning from the PUR Laos I would normally ended up spending a few days recovering in Nong Khai at a guesthouse called the Meeting Place. This was a sort of Rick’s Place – but on the Mekong not in Hollywood's Casablanca – full of nefarious characters with activities to match. It provided the inspiration for the Double D guesthouse in my second novel, Neville Changes Villages, and the sequel. Many of the characters in the Double D are based on real people, including Ivan the Mexican, the CIA folk in their natty shorts, the humourless Dutch SS helicopter pilot and, of course, the Aussie proprietor: the much lamented Alan Patterson. 
In the story, Neville meets a weird character called the Prince of Enigma. He’s based on a guy I think I met over a series of Mekong whisky-fuelled nights when Alan unwisely left me in charge of the guesthouse while he went on a trip to the Plain of Jars.The POE told me he was staying in the temple opposite the Meeting Place but later, when I asked the abbot, neither he nor his monks knew anything about him. Still, the hugely entertaining tale POE related to me over the course of those nights provided the basis for Shadows and Pagodas. Oh, yes, he also makes an appearance as a barman in the R n’ B club in Zen City. Many of the details in the Double D are based on the Meeting Place. The Kangaroo Bar down the road, Pappaya Girl poster, the limes in the urinals and the terrible jokes. 

The Meeting Place was – as Junior Parker and the Blue Flames sang – a great place to sit, drink and think...and write. I probably overdid it on the whisky, though.       

I think you can still visit the Meeting Place and even the temple opposite (the latter is a good place to do a bit of mindful walking meditation). But Pappaya Girl has long been taken down, Alan P died of cancer back in Oz, they’ve built a bridge across the Mekong and you can buy organic fruit juice in Vientiane. The Russian Club was demolished to make way for a concrete promenade which looks rubbish.

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.      

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Man in a Zen Ambulance


Crime and dark comedy in the Atomic Age 

Everyone is getting out of town. Teddy Boy yakuza fight it out with the Shoho girl gang while a Rita Hayworth film plays at the deserted cinema. The local temple being pulled down. A mean old lady wanders the streets with a mysterious shopping bag as a young barber gets his kicks out of a hand-held King Tut Multi-Speed. Out in the scrublands a nun tries to free a wartime bomber sticking out the side of a gigantic Buddhist statue. And don’t even mention those goddamn chimps doin’ that Elvis thing of theirs...

Enter Milo the Monk armed with a big gun trying to figure who exactly he’s meant to kill. The Colonel orders Luther and his bad-arsed girlfriend to take him out first. Then all hell breaks loose. Murder and mayhem as Milo, the yakuza, Luther, Rei and the Colonel all head into town for the final bloody showdown. 

The amazing work of Fred H

Fred Herzog immigrated from Germany to Canada in ’52. Fred hooked up with a medical photographer called Marincowitz and taught himself how to take a picture. Camera in hand, he travelled from Vancouver to San Francisco. 

Fred captured street life in the 1950s and 60s. ‘He used colour, to get over the way he saw the city and the way he wanted others to see it.’

There's something I really love about his work. We're in a time machine and taken back to a moment on a street corner. 

It's kind of humble and insightful at the same time.

What he gives us... an amazing sort beauty in the ordinary.