Monday, 24 December 2018

Lao border boogie blues (or everyone met at Alan's)

Back in the very early 90s 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.

Anyway, 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 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 P. 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. Like the characters, many of the details of the Double D and surrounding area – the Kangaroo Bar, Pappaya Girl on the poster, the limes in the urinals, the non-PC jokes, etc, etc. – are based on what I remember, and as good I can get ‘em.

The Meeting Place was –if I may paraphrase Junior Parker and the Blue Flames – a great place to sit, drink, 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 some time ago to make way for a concrete promenade, which looks rubbish.

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.       

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Transgender Elephant Blues

Meet three former British merchant seamen from Hull: Eric Suggs, Bert Fluckley and Ronald Bones

After sex reassignment surgery, the talented friends underwent a change of national orientation and became South Koran. They formed a signing trio, called themselves the Broken Blossoms and hit the road. The Blossoms toured throughout Thailand for the next eleven and a half months and proved immensely popular with audiences both young and old. Their biggest (self-penned) hit was the upbeat Elephant Blues Boogie. Tragically, the Blossoms’ promising career was cut short when their tour bus collided with a rogue buffalo outside the cement factory in Roi-Et.

Eric’s last words were, “Ladies, I think I’ve snagged my nylons…”

You can still see the bronze plaque, green with age, honouring the Blossoms in the garden of the Por Jai temple. The garden itself is now sadly neglected.  

Here’s a link to the only surviving footage of the three singers. It’s from 1954 at the old Tai Tai Recording Studios, which was on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. The Blossoms are rehearsing a cover of Mr. Sandman.


Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Meet Virginia

Date: August 1942.

Meet Virginia Davis.

Virginia is a supervisor in the Assembly and Repair Department at Corpus Christi Naval Air Base in Texas. She's hard-driving rivets into the tail section of a fighter aircraft. It's a tough job.

An important job.

She is being assisted by Charles Potter, an NYA rookie from Michigan.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Killing Time

Jack: If I'd been a famous actor in Hollywood during the 60s like Lee Marvin this is exactly how I would have dressed. Sharp suit with narrow lapels and short-brim trilby. Big gun. Very cool, very dangerous. Mind you, I would have probably taken off my sunglasses inside Mrs Von Klippenhopper's house so I wouldn't keep bumping into things all the time.