I lost my debit card last week in Bangkok. Foolish I know, but it’s only the second time I’ve lost my card since Dominican Republic back in February 2009, so don’t be too harsh. In fact, I lost both cards to the same lousy trick. Some cash machines have this bastard habit of giving you your money and THEN your card, rather than the eminently more sensible other way around – card then money. Because of the increased likelihood of you taking your money then wandering off with your card still in the ATM, there are very few countries that have this system. Dominican Republic is one, and Thailand is another. There is a circle of hell reserved for ATM designers who do this. Anyway, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice; Dude, Where’s My Card?
So today I had to trek all the way over to the airport to pick up my replacement card from the good folks at DHL. Irritatingly enough, my Barclays back-up card, which I hardly ever use, expired last month. Haven’t used the damn thing for about two years and when I need it, it’s expired! Bloody typical! So my mum (Gawd bless ’er) sent off my replacement HSBC and Barclaycards here to Singapore so I could get some money out of a hole in the wall without having to resort to using my cash-advance?-that’ll-be-a-fiver-you-little-cretin credit card.
The whole process of getting to and from the airport took about two hours, which would have been worth it had my new Barclaycard not been instantly swallowed by the first machine I tried to use it in. Grr…
Oh, the joys of travel.
Anyways… after last night’s shenanigans I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out again, but it was Nate’s last night, so we headed over the road to the Arab Street quarter with Christoph and Kuni in tow. The Blu Jaz Café was our base for the night. We sat out on the pavement enjoying the live music and drinking overpriced beer. Around 11pm, Nate hit the road and soon after Kuni called it a night. Christoph lasted until maybe 2am and then flaked out. Once again I was the last man standing, or rather stumbling. I was chatting with a group of musicians from Spain, Mexico and Cuba – a conversation that spilled out onto the street, late night kebabs and then ended with me and a Spanish guy called Matheus having a rather animated discussion about the rather dubious merits of moral relativism. Who am I to say what’s right and wrong? I’m the good guy, that’s who.
Gangsters. I hate them. I hate their pathetic lust for money, their shocking insensitivity to the misery of others, their child-like desire for trinkets and weaponry. But I especially hate their taste – yes I may sound like a rambling old lord bemoaning the trashy habits of the nouveau riche, but sod it: these people are not just morally bankrupt, but creatively bankrupt as well. The kind of goons who would erect a tasteless golden statue of themselves as though it’s not going to be melted down the minute they shuffle off this mortal coil they’ve done so much to ruin for others. The kind of goons that buy cars that look like glorified roller-skates, spend more on sound-systems than looking after their kids, hang out with women more plastic than Barbie and wear shirts louder than Krakatau.
One of the reasons I want drugs legalised is to strangle the main income stream of these lowdown lowbrow lowlifes, but in some cases the damage has already been done. Las Vegas, that trashy Blackpoolzilla of the desert, founded by gangsters who had their goodtastebuds removed at birth, with its shitty bastardised versions of some of the greatest buildings in the world, the air-conned epitome of what the daily exploitation of human greed and a shoddy grasp of statistics can buy. If Las Vegas’ effect on the world was restricted to that wretched hell-on-Earth where dithery old fogeys go to waste the money they’ve wasted a lifetime working for, I honestly wouldn’t give a fat flying crap. But unfortunately for humanity, Las Vegas, the world epicentre of gold-plated kitsch and a lifestyle that only cretins could possibly find aspirational, has spread its pernicious tendrils from Macau to Melbourne to Manila.
Yes I know that Las Vegas is now run by Disney and Halliburton (probably), but the form of modern casinos originates in the grotesque pipe-dreams of gangsters. Look at Tony Montana’s gay nightclub of a house, the gold chains and cheap shell suits of Tony Soprano’s goons or the hang-glider-like collars of Fredo Corleone. What these (admittedly fictional, but art does imitate life) people think is attractive, beautiful or necessary should never, NEVER, be allowed to sully the landscape of Hoggart’s Farm, never mind the skyline of a great city like Singapore.
Yup. It’s a Sands Casino/Hotel/THING.
Three ugly-as-f— domino-shaped towers. With a surfboard plonked on top of them that’s supposed – get this – to look like a SHIP. Oh my giddy aunt. Is this a joke? Because, seriously, if it is, it’s about as amusing as cancer.
But should I be surprised that some moron thought this was a good idea? Should I be gobsmacked that some spawn-of-Satan architect designed it? Should I be shocked that the morons in the government gave it the green light? Should I be bewildered that men toiled for thousands of man-hours with a budget that could have pulled an African country out of the shite to build something akin to a fanciful folly of a fat spoiled rich kid, what happens when Homer’s brother puts him in charge of design, the architectural equivalent of an episode of that nightmarish MTV show My Super Sweet 16?
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, IT’S THREE TOWERS WITH A SURFBOARD DUMPED ON TOP!! LORD, GIMME STRENGTH.
No. No, I’m not surprised. And I’m sure there are people willing to sacrifice all dignity, any shred of perceived integrity, manners or decency by saying ‘well I think it looks nice’. If that’s your opinion, you seriously don’t deserve opinions. Or, for that matter, oxygen. Put the crayon down and please stop designing buildings or I’ll have to put you on the naughty step.
It’s crass, it’s tacky, it’s pathetic, it’s moronic, but most of all… it’s just f—ing ugly.
Ugly like a British soap opera. Ugly like a civil war. Ugly like a car accident. Ugly like a divorce. Ugly like a heroin overdose. Ugly like the lecture hall of a 60s polytechnic. Ugly like disease. Ugly like a the mind of a gangster.
But is this a huge shock to me? That in the 21st century people are still willing to build such monumental crap? No. No it’s not.
I’ll tell you what was a shock to me. THIS:
Often in my travels, often to defenders of modern architecture, concrete and “clean straight lines”, I have thrown down The Graham Hughes Modern Architecture Challenge. It is simply this: name me one building, anywhere in the world, built (not restored) in the last fifty years that is beautiful?
And nobody, NOBODY has ever come up with an answer. A single one! ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!! Seriously! A single building built by any of the 7,000,000,000 souls on the good ship Earth. NOT ONE!
Well butter my balls and call me Bongo. It’s taken three and a half years, 197 countries, 18 territories and 250,000 miles but I think I may have found it.
I give you ParkView Square, Singapore:
What’s this? Well-wrought statues adorning the courtyard? Dali, Beethoven and Churchill immortalised in bronze? Why the hell not eh?
Chinese motifs on the façade? Awesome. Let’s go inside.
Oh sweet bliss. Hand-made brass frescos, art-deco styling, the highest wine-rack in the world – one that comes with ‘wine angels’, barmaids who don a harness and bungee and float up like fairies to get your bottle of plonk?
And this is an OFFICE BUILDING? Are you kidding? No?!
Okay, okay, Graham – we get it, it’s a very nice building, but why are you so excited about all this?
Because ParkView Square, known affectionately as ‘Gotham City’ by the locals, was built FROM SCRATCH less than ten years ago.
You see, I don’t care that the internal structure of ParkView Square is made of concrete in the same way I don’t care that Scarlett Johansson’s internal structure is made of blood and guts. The Liverpool Liver Building and the Liverpool Gothic Cathedral also have concrete rattling around in their bones, but you’d never know unless you cut them open – and that’s the point.
Of course, mealy-mouthed modern architects will talk this place down in the same way that literary critics will dismiss Lord of the Rings (the third best selling book ON THE PLANET – fact!), but that’s to be expected isn’t it? However, from where I’m standing, all I can see is a building that inspires joy and wonder, a soaring monument to human endeavour and ingenuity.
I walked through this building every day on the way from the Bugis train station to Kuni’s place, and each time I noticed something new; a detail I had missed, a facet I had overlooked, something that put a smile on my face. Like a what the chaps at Weta did for the Roxy cinema in Wellington but on a truly epic scale, the Chinese owners and New York architects (who, I feel, are in desperate need of some serious high-fivin’) of ParkView Square deserve nothing but respect for showing the world what I’ve been banging on about in all of my many rants about modern architecture: THERE IS NO GOOD REASON THAT MODERN BUILDINGS HAVE TO LOOK UGLY.
We have to put up with ugliness every day of our lives: bombs going off, child murders, internecine strife, car accidents, war, famine, disease, EastEnders… must we ALSO live in a world whose buildings are dictated by the obscene fetishes and peccadilloes of architects and politicians? Gibbering morons happy to dress like this:
This is the world of gangsters, bling, marketing, lies, and cocaine. This is what happens when people with no taste or decency are permitted to build things. These are the diseased brainspunk of our parent’s generation and it’s high time we ripped down this garbage and built something beautiful in its place. Give me the neo-Gothic, give me the Baroque, the Romanic, the Spanish Mission, the Country Cottage, the Florentine, the Art-Nouveau, the Tudor villa, give me Gotham City… just, for heaven’s sake, give me something that looks BEAUTIFUL!!
Today, Kuni, Christoph and I went for a mooch around town. At the end of a long hot day, Christoph and I ended up in the famous Long Bar of The Inimitable Raffles Hotel. Peanut shells cover the floor and automatic fans waft cool air gently down onto the patrons. It’s a whopping $26 (£13) for a Singapore Sling, but when in Rome…
As every Morrissey fan knows, there’s nothing more fun than a good old bit of navel gazing to make the universe seem even more cruel and indifferent than it actually is.
So kick back, relax and wallow in the happy misery of feeling blue as I take you through ten of the the best songs about love, loneliness and lunacy you’ll ever stuff into your brain.
1. Untitled (Hidden Track) – The Aliens
Hidden away at the end of ‘Astronomy For Dogs’ and running for just over a minute, played with nothing more than the upper scales of a piano accompanied by a violin, this ghostly melody is a riff from ‘Honest Again’, just the words ‘how long will it be till I see you again?’ repeated over and over… it KILLS ME. After travelling around the world for three and a half years alone and unaided, it’s the question I ask myself every day – The Aliens seem to know this and have made this track just to taunt me. Bastards!
Unfortunately nobody’s uploaded it to YouTube, so here’s ‘Honest Again’, just listen to the first minute or so and you’ll get the idea.
2. If The World Ends – The Guillemots
The Guillemots are renowned for making love sound like a mental health disorder, but this one goes beyond everything they’ve done before or since, we’re talking THE END OF THE WORLD here! Apparently it wouldn’t be so bad if you were by my side. Hell, “I think we could laugh enough to not die in pain” (that’s an actual lyric!). This is seriously bleak stuff, so epic, so tragic, so fucking miserable – Christ I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
I don’t think I ever heard you speaking, because I was too wrapped up in the dream I was dreaming…
3. Me Ne Quitte Pas – Nina Simone
You could really do with knowing a little French to get the full impact of this song, as the English-ised cover by Dusty Springfield really doesn’t do it justice. DO NOT LEAVE ME sung in plaintive tones, the sadness of this song goes beyond common sense and descends into stalker-like insanity… I’ll be the SHADOW OF YOUR DOG if it meant I could stay by your side. THE SHADOW OF YOUR DOG! Pure tragedy – the longing, the humility, the tragic depths you’d stoop to in order to keep that person in your life – this is a song about crawling naked on broken glass, reaching out for deliverance and being slapped in the face instead.
4. Exit Music – Radiohead
You could probably pick any Radiohead song and put it on this list, and to be honest Exit Music was neck and neck with Fake Plastic Trees and No Surprises, but this Romeo and Juliet-inspired masterpiece has the edge, something that can chime with teenagers in mad angry sexy love everywhere in the world… TODAY WE ESCAPE, WE ESCAPE. Thom Yorke on the altar, about to be sacrificed to the music Gods, building up to that final defiant cry WE HOPE THAT YOU CHOKE. A song that says KILLING YOURSELF is the only way you and the love of your life can be together, sung by RADIOHEAD!! Damn if your heart wasn’t ripped in two by this song the first time you heard it, you should possibly check for a pulse.
5. Bless His Ever Loving Heart – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
If I ever write a top ten funeral songs list, this Nick Cave B-Side would have to be number one. It’s probably the only track on this top ten that’s a straight love song (no death or tragedy in this one), but there’s something so tragic about it, something that exposes love as the mad, exhausting, pathetic calamity it is.
It’s sung by the one who got away, that dangerous crazy drug-taking motorbike-riding rocknroller that your father never approved of, meeting you for the first time in decades and imploring you to stay with your boring old husband because the rocknroller knows he’ll just break your heart again – it’s his nature. Brief Encounter through the medium of song. Epic.
6. The Desperate Kingdom of Love – Giant Sand
A cover of the PJ Harvey song, there’s something in Howe Gelb’s voice that floors me every time. Love as a terminal illness for which there is no cure, the bluesy piano solo – this is the sound of the old man with the white beard sitting at the end of a whiskey bar lamenting his life: the ones that got away, the trials and tribulations, the agony and the ecstasy. Wishing, praying, hoping for another shot – a second youth that he knows he’s never going to get.
7. Hope There’s Somebody – Antony and The Johnsons
It’s the middle of the night in the local mental asylum. One of the inmates has broken out of his room, his straight jacket torn to shreds. The nurses set off the alarm, but it doesn’t take long to find him: he’s hammering away on the piano and singing to himself in the dark, empty activity room.
Whereas most sad songs are about love and loss, this one is about your own death, specially the fear of dying alone and unloved. It would be tragic enough, but have you seen Antony? He looks like a Gorg from Fraggle Rock. It’s a bit like a a horrible monster raising up from the salty brine and singing you a song about nobody loving him in the most beautiful voice imaginable.
It all builds to an epic crescendo in a desperate bid to shoo away the ghosts and demons tormenting him. But it doesn’t work, and as the orderlies drag him back to his padded cell he knows he’ll be left to walk that final tragic journey alone.
8. Mad World – Michael Andrews feat. Gary Jules
Well, you can’t have a top ten miserable song list without a Christmas No 1 to really bum everybody out. The musical equivalent of Arthur Fowler crying himself to death in a jail cell, if you didn’t well up during the Donnie Darko Mad World Montage, you really should go and ask for your soul back.
But what’s really mad about Mad World is the weirdly upbeat original version by Tears For Fears. It’s quite frankly bizarre – these are some of the most depressing lyrics of all time: THE DREAMS IN WHICH I’M DYING ARE THE BEST I EVER HAD and Curt Smith is prancing around like Drunken Master on crack.
9. Slow Show – The National
Songs about loneliness and distance are always hit a certain resonance with me and Slow Show by The National is no exception. I WANT TO HURRY HOME TO YOU but I’m too busy getting drunk at a wanky party and trying to have sex with hollow people who don’t care if I live or die.
I MADE A MISTAKE IN MY LIFE TODAY – there’s no man in the world who can’t relate to this song. There’s someone in your life, maybe now or maybe from your past who you just want to return to, make them laugh and hold each other through the night.
But it’s the end when the epic tragedy of the song really kicks in – YOU KNOW I DREAMED ABOUT YOU FOR 29 YEARS BEFORE I SAW YOU? He’s waited 29 years for her to come along and now she’s gone, he’s alone in a room full of people, lying in the gutter screaming at the stars. EPIC.
10. Tiny Tears – The Tindersticks
Along with Radiohead, pretty much everything by The Tindersticks is guaranteed to make you quit your job, down a bottle of pills and go fling yourself at the sky, but Tiny Tears occupies a special place – this isn’t about tragic epic unrealised love, this about the everyday end of a relationship, the little things left unsaid and undone, the interstellar distance between two people only inches away.
All these small things have been building up over the years. YOU WERE TOO BUSY LOOKING INTO YOURSELF TO SEE THOSE TINY TEARS IN HER EYES – she’s going. She’s leaving. She’s signing the divorce papers and taking the dog and IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.
Today I met up with Maryanne, the CouchSurfer who shared Mike’s flat with me in Hong Kong. Together with Kuni and our new CouchSurfer Callum we headed over the Haw Par Villa Theme Park to go see the TEN COURTS OF HELL!!
Hell isn’t an exclusively western concept. What happens to you after die has obsessed the upright ape since it first climbed out of the trees, touched the monolith and killed off all the Neanderthals. In some instances the fanciful fables of the hereafter have assumed the status of myth (that place religions go when they die), but for many people on this planet hell is as alive and as real as Disneyland. So why not make a theme park out of it?
That was the idea of brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the developers of Tiger Balm, who came up with the idea of Haw Par Villa in Singapore in the 1937 – a venue for “teaching traditional Chinese values”, or in other words, a venue for “scaring the shit out of children”.
The English translation said ‘Ten Courts of Hell’, and I only counted ten, but I was assured by our Chinese-speaking friends that there are indeed 18. And how wonderfully gruesome they are. Saw meets Hostel meets Hellraiser via the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but all done out with delightful little mannequins. Guts being pulled out, tongues being cut off, heads being sawn in half down the middle… and the place was full of KIDS! Seriously! Man, there’s some sweet-assed nightmares right there. I guess this is where you take little Timmy if you want him to wet the bed.
Personally I hate the idea of hell, I find it an insult to the forward march of science and logic. I hate that kids all over the world are lied to by their lazy hack parents – is ‘doing good makes you feel good’ not a better line? No, kids are told (pretty much) ‘do as I say or you’ll burn in hell’. F—ing lovely.
“BLAH BLAH BLAH you don’t have kids, Graham, you don’t know what it’s like.”
Yeah I don’t have a million dollars and a coke addiction but I’m still happy to point and laugh at celebrities who do. Teaching kids not run into the road by slapping the backs of their legs is one thing, having some asexual freak in a frock tell kids that the universal punishment for ‘being naughty’ is TO BURN FOR TRILLIONS OF YEARS IN A FIERY LAKE OF POO is another entirely. What the hell is wrong with these people?
There are a vast number of chumps who seriously believe that all ‘non-believers’ will burn for billions of years in a boiling reservoir of excrement. Thanks a bunch, pal. I don’t go home and fantasise about Fred Phelps falling into a super-sized Glastonbury portaloo that’s just been set ablaze, I just kinda hope one day someone lobs a grenade at him. While he’s having sex with a rent boy. In Sweden. Oh and don’t forget, the list of ‘non-believers’ doesn’t just include atheists like myself, it also includes people of the ‘wrong’ faith and people of exactly the same faith (but a different denomination).
So the guys who think this God character wears a blue hat are firmly convinced that those LUNATICS(!) who believe God wears a red hat will, for the ‘crime’ of Christ-Knows-What, be tortured for ETERNITY. That’s a jolly long time. I know your brain ain’t too good with large numbers (I’m assuming you’re human) but have you ever stopped to consider how many human lifetimes actually go into an eternity? Ever heard of a ‘googol’? It’s a big number. A one with a hundred zeroes after it – and therefore a bigger number than the number of molecules in the universe. A bit abstract for you? Here:
That’s a googol. Now that’s a long time expressed in Earth years. But most religious people don’t just desire MORE THAN A googol of years extra bonus post-death life. Yes, they are that greedy, that bizarre, that full of themselves that they believe they will not only magically survive their own deaths, but they will also live for ETERNITY. Which is a hell of a lot longer than a googol of years.
A ‘googolplex’ is a one with a googol of zeroes after it. I can write it like this: 10googol (ie 10 to the power of a googol), but if I tried to write it out in long form it would take me more time than the universe has left to exist. Just to give you an example, here is a one followed by a 1,000 noughts:
Now copy and paste all of these zeros out 999 more times. Then you’d have a one followed by a million noughts, a number that doesn’t have an official name so I’m going to call it a Moogol. A Moogol is quite hard to conceptualise, so I’ve written it out in long form for you:
The crazy thing is that a Moogol is nowhere NEAR an googolplex. Seriously, if you clicked on that link just to see what a one with a million zeroes after it looked like, you could times that big long number by A MILLION and still you’d only have a one with 1,000,000,000,000 zeroes after it – nowhere near the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
zeroes you’d need to make a googolplex.
Considering the UNIVERSE has only existed for 13,700,000,000 years, it would seem that people who believe they will continue to exist for eternity are living in cloud-cuckoo land. A googolplex of googolplexes and you’ve still not reached 0.00000000000000000001% of an eternity.
If I was a Christian, I’d honestly spend every waking moment praying that Christianity wasn’t true, since I have no vested interest in the continuous torture of dead people and I really, honestly, don’t want to magically survive my own death and then to continue to exist – EVEN IN HEAVEN – for 101000000000000000000000+ years. If you do, you’re either a dimwit or a whack-job. I hate to sound so harsh, but COME ON BE REASONABLE!! If you grant me that there is no tooth fairy and there is no Santa Claus (sorry to break it to you!), then death absolutely, totally and utterly IS the end. All that will survive of you are your deeds and, if you’ve managed to breed, some of your genetic material. Deal with it, kiddywinks!!
But like I say, hell isn’t just as Christian idea, the notion of post-mortal justice has entertained the minds of the twisted and deranged for millennia. In ancient Greece, poor old King Tantalus (whose only ‘crime’ was to murder his own son, cut him into bits, cook him in a pot and, erm, serve him to the gods for dinner) was thrown into Tartarus – the nastiest bit of the Underworld, and there he was forced to spend eternity hungry and thirsty while the most sumptuous food and drink would float agonisingly just out of reach above his head (that be where we get the term ‘tantalise’ from!). There’s Hindu hell, Buddhist hell – hell, there was even a Viking hell – for warriors who died dishonourably (presumably while having a poo).
The Chinese hell is more logical than the Christian concept, but to be honest that’s like saying 2012 (the film) is more logical than The Core. It’s still a terrible movie, but at least in Chinese hell you get judged, horribly tortured for a limited time and then you get reincarnated – no googolplexes for the maths-savvy Chinese. The mad thing is that before your re-incarnation you get your memory wiped, which kinda makes the whole torture bit rather redundant. Can we skip the judgement/torture/memory wipe/reincarnation shenanigans and just have bad people in the world, you know, just die? I don’t want to live in a world where Hitler is still alive as a squirrel.
That evening, Christoph and I headed off to Singapore Zoo for the Night Safari. As 80% of tropical animals are nocturnal, it makes a lot more sense to go and see them after dark. As flash photography isn’t permitted, my night-vision function on my camcorder came in incredibly handy.
There’s a war going on. Did anyone tell you? Bet they didn’t. The UN wouldn’t tell you, because then they may be called upon to do something about it. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) wouldn’t tell you, because then they’d perhaps feel a tad silly for issuing advice akin to the hilarious ‘Duck and Cover’ leaflets distributed in case of a nuclear strike. Your local retailer won’t tell you, because even if there is now a 20% shipping surcharge slapped onto every product you purchase, they still make the same amount of profit. The insurance companies won’t tell you, because they can now charge a hefty premium on any ships crossing the Indian Ocean. The only ones really losing out are the mariners, the people of an already war-ravaged East African country and YOU.
I’m talking, of course, about the Somali pirate situation. Whereas the pirates in the Straits of Malacca are essentially thieves who come on board to see what they can nick, Somali pirates take a more novel (and much more profitable) approach: they hijack entire ships and hold their crews hostage for weeks or even months. There are currently 30 ships and over 500 mariners being held hostage RIGHT THIS MOMENT by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The money they can command from a single vessel is staggering: some are ransomed for over $10 million.
How did we get into this mess? While we should all share some collective responsibly for the UN’s and NATO’s inaction in supporting what little government exists in Somalia, it’s a badly kept secret that many pirates were originally fishermen who had their livelihoods literally STOLEN from them by irresponsible Chinese fishing practices. Technically Somalia has got a navy, it just doesn’t own any ships – so it can’t patrol its territorial waters. Knowing this, large-scale trawlers came over from China in the early noughties and half-inched all the bloomin’ fish from the coast of Puntland in the North-East of Somalia – and by ALL the fish, yes, I mean ALL THE FISH. As in ‘So Long, And Thanks For…’
With nothing more than a wooden speedboat, a few AK-47s and the steely desperation borne of knowing your family will starve to death if you fail, the Somali fisherman began launching attacks on a few big cargo ships. Piracy in the Indian Ocean has now grown into an industry that ‘employs’ over 10,000 people. It’s gone from being from a headache for mariners passing through the Gulf of Aden to a full scale armed conflict zone that encompasses a vast chuck of the Indian Ocean, to 77° East of Greenwich to 10° South of The Equator.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s because the next and final stage of my journey will involve me travelling through the heart of the Somali Pirates’ sphere of operations. Today I said my goodbyes to Kuni and the gang (see what I did there?) and set off to the port in order to join the good ship Kota Wirawan, the PIL freighter that would be taking me to Country 198 of The Odyssey Expedition: SRI LANKA.
Wirawan. God that’s hard for me to say. WI-RA-WAN… nah, just comes out as ‘Wiwawan’. I’ll get it in the end.
I quickly familiarised myself with the ship and the crew. It was an amazing assortment of nationalities on board. Usually you get three or four different nationalities on board: this ship had 12. Captain Heri was from Indonesia, the Chief Mate was from Russia, the Second was from India and the Third was from Pakistan. Then we had Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Burmese, Bangladeshis… and the two guys running ship security were from Singapore.
Ship security? Yep, in order to travel safely across the Indian Ocean, many of the larger container firms are turning to putting armed guards on board their ships. On this voyage I learnt a LOT about ship security. Bobby Teng, the guy in charge of the operation is ex-Singapore army, and he’ll be leading a team of four armed guards on the trip from Sri Lanka to Kenya and back.
So far, no cargo ship with armed guards on board has been taken by pirates, and the escalation of violence that many feared would happen has not (as yet) occurred. Bobby took me on a tour of the ship, showing me the preventative measures they use to stop the pirates coming anywhere near them. First up: a HUGE banner with ‘STAY BACK – THIS SHIP IS ARMED’ written in Somali, with a silhouette of an armed guard to back up the point.
Then there are two scarecrows (I called them Butch and Sundance) who stand guard on the wings either side of the bridge.
There’s also eight different firing positions, four on the wings, two on the aft, two on the foredeck give the guards vantage points which allow them to pick off any would-be pirates (after firing a warning shot) with an accuracy that the pirates, bobbing up and down in their speedboat, couldn’t hope to achieve.
Bobby explained to me that the are trained not to shoot the pirates themselves, but to shoot the engine, thereby disabling the pirate’s boat. However, if the pirates get too close, the armed guards are, in theory, free to kill the would-be hijackers. This, so far, has never happened. The pirates, like most people, would rather go for the low-hanging fruit: unguarded oil tankers with a low freeboard (the distance from the water to the deck). But when all ships have armed guards on board, this situation might change drastically.
The armed guards, the patrols by British, American, French, Chinese and Russian navies… all this is made necessary by ONE THING: The United Nations inaction in Somalia. Now we’ve all grown up knowing that the United Nations is the most wretched hive of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley Spaceport. We remember the horrific Rwandan Genocide of 1994 in which 800,000 people were hacked to death with machetes in the space of just a few weeks. We remember the UN spokesperson – that mealy-mouth wench – saying it wasn’t genocide, it was ‘ethnic cleansing’. We remember the UN’s inaction in Bosnia, as Sarajevo was put under siege for months on end, or when they turned a blind eye to Ratko’s goons slaughtering hundreds of innocent teenagers. We remember the mass-murder in Kosovo, something that was only stopped by NATO (tellingly not the UN). We remember the dreadful civil war that would have engulfed the whole of Sierra Leone had one British commander not said ‘no more’. We’ve seen the tragic lack of balls when it came to the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, the Afghan civil war of the 90s or, coming up to do date with the failure to tackle Mugabe, Gaddafi, Al-Assad, Al-Bashir, Kim Jong-Il… instead allowing them to murder their own people with impunity (until their own people or old age despatch them off this mortal coil).
Since Somalia has no police, no judiciary and no prisons, it has not the capability to deal with its pirates. Kenya don’t want them, and neither do Yemen or Seychelles. The Royal Navy can’t keep hundreds of pirates locked up on board the RFA Fort Victoria for a six month tour.
I’m not calling in some wanky ‘Get Kony’ kind of way for something to be done by somebody, somehow. There is a simple roadmap that I could dash out on Microsoft Word in a few minutes. It would go something like this…
• From now on, anyone caught committing acts of piracy or attempting to commit acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean will be taken to a floating prison ship (a decommissioned and converted cruise liner) off the coast of The Seychelles. There they will be given a fair trail (streamed on the internet) and, if found guilty, sentenced. They will remain on the ship until their sentence is over. This will all be conducted (and paid for) under the auspices of the United Nations.
• Secondly, the United Nations will do what it does in East Timor: provide the army, navy, air force and police force for the Somali government. We’re not taking regime change here, we’re talking about keeping what little government Somalia has and giving that government a mechanism to do the job that they can’t do themselves – root out the war lords and bring peace. Working with African Union forces (already in control of vast swathes of the west of Somalia), this could end the reign of terror that has been in effect since the warlords took over in 1991.
• Thirdly, the de-facto state of Somaliland would be recognised as an independent state. They deserve it.
Fair? Undoubtedly. Do-able? Indubitably. Would it stop the pirates in their tracks? YES. YES IT WOULD.
My journey on the MV Kota Wirawan would take me up to the tip of northern Sumatra and then due west to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. We’d get phone reception on the first day of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Let me tell you why I’m not a republican…
Today marked the start of the 4-day Diamond Jubilee celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year as Head of State of The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and numerous Commonwealth realms.
It’s given the British people a couple of days off work, a free concert and injected some much-needed joy into a otherwise perpetually depressed nation. There are some that argue that the royal family is an anachronism, that it’s irrelevant, that it’s out-of-touch. So would I! But then, let’s face it, those adjectives could be used to describe every political institution in the world, not least the United Nations.
I’m not swayed by arguments wrung out by Daily Mail-types who believe that to criticise the monarchy is akin to collaborating with The Nazis. Nor am I swayed by arguments wrung out by tub-thumbing Trots screaming off with her head – these are arguments borne out of emotion, of jealousy, hatred, fear, misguided patriotism and xenophobia. These do not interest me.
As a graduate of History and Politics and well-travelled absorber of all things groovy and novel, what does interest me is political systems: ones that work and ones that don’t.
I want to convince you in the course of this essay that republics – democracies with an elected head of state – are a deeply flawed political system, and that constitutional monarchies – democracies with a un-elected head of state – are (perverse as it may sound) a fairer, more sensible and more democratic way of doing things.
When you’ve finished picking your jaw up off the floor, I’d like to refer you to the Democracy Index. A list of the most democratic nations in the world. Notice how 7 of the top ten most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. In fact, 4 out of the top 5 most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. Weirded out yet? I hope so.
This goes against all common sense – how can having an un-elected head of state be more democratic that having an elected one?
The answer, as with most things in life, is politics. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch has no political power. Nor should they have – after all, they are just one man or one woman, who are they to frustrate the will of hundreds of elected politicians? Who are they to frustrate the will of the millions of people who didn’t vote for them? Who are they to steal the country’s natural resources or unilaterally declare war on another country?
The system that works the best is when the Head of State and Head of Government are two clear and distinct roles, the former having no political power and the latter not being in direct control of the army.
A presidential system naturally cedes far too much power into the hands of one man.
In the USA, which I believe has one of the worst political systems this side of North Korea, you have a situation in which the Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of the Armed Services is one man. ONE MAN. Let’s think about this for a moment.
ONE MAN can veto each and every bill that has spent months – maybe even years – passing through both houses of Congress. A bill that would have been carefully formulated, gone through committees, sub-committees, debates, re-writes, collective bargaining and been voted on by a majority in both the House of Representatives and The Senate. ONE MAN has the power to say ‘bollocks to that for a game of soldiers’ and throw the bill in his drawer and forget about it. You might presume that this amazing and unbelievable power would be something that happens maybe once or twice in an entire presidency.
Not so. George W Bush vetoed 12 bills.
That’s nothing: Clinton vetoed 37. George Bush Senior 44… and Ronald Reagan? 78.
In contrast, the Queen of Britain has vetoed exactly 0 bills. In 60 years. In fact, the last time the British Head of State vetoed a bill that had passed through both houses of parliament WAS in 1708. OVER 300 years ago. The power of veto is there in case of emergency, say if we get a loony Hitler-type in charge of parliament who wants to kill all the Welsh, but that’s never happened… and is rather unlikely to happen because the armed services of the UK do not swear alliance to the Prime Minister, they swear allegiance to the Queen. They have a right to say no. Unlike in the USA where…
ONE MAN can order the armed services to invade a foreign country FOR SIX WEEKS before having to seek permission from Congress for his actions.
You might want to rub your eyes and read that sentence again. SIX WEEKS!! Of course this rule was invented when it took six weeks to cross the Atlantic, and the British were running around burning down the president’s residence (according to scuttlebutt, the Yanks painted it white to cover the scorch marks). NOT when the USA had the capacity to WIPE OUT ALL HUMANS ON THE PLANET in the same given time frame.
Don’t forget: ONE MAN HAS THIS POWER. This is a presidential system. It is the reason the USA scores below the UK – which still doesn’t have an elected upper house, AND has a monarchy – in the Democracy Index.
It is the reason why France and Italy aren’t even down as ‘full democracies’, but rather ‘flawed democracies’ along with Cape ‘frikkin’ Verde. You look at the monumental corruption of Berlusconi, Mitterand, Chirac et al and then you look at how remarkably incorruptible the Queens of Britain or the Netherlands or Denmark are. Incorruptible because they aren’t greedy career politicians in it for the money, or the power, or both.
The line that sticks with me is in Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius Says to Maximus that he wants him to lead Rome back to democracy. Maximus says he doesn’t want the job. That, says Marcus, is why it must be you.
You see a job like that of Head of State naturally attracts the wrong sort of people. So does Head of Government, but at least in a parliamentary system the Head of Government can be over-ruled by cabinet or their own party… and can be gotten rid of as soon as they cock-up big style. Contrast the axing of Maggie Thatcher over the Poll Tax compared to the unbearable unpopularity of that dickwick George W Bush in his second term. Could the US voters get rid of Bush before the end of his term of office? NO. Not unless they could prove he broke the law. Being excruciatingly BAD AT YOUR JOB isn’t enough to fire a president – after all, he’s Head of State.
So let’s lay my cards on the table. In my humble opinion, the USA elects a dictator every four years. A dictator that has a phenomenal (and grossly un-democratic) amount of power. But the US isn’t alone in this madness. Look around the world – presidents are almost universally bad news (note that NONE of the top ten democracies are presidental systems).
In most countries in Africa, where a tribal-cum-parliamentary system would be best, you have a guy who is a member of one particular tribe – usually the biggest tribe – and he’s president. And he will look after his tribe to the detriment of all others. The corruption that stifles development in the third world is almost always linked to a presidential system. One man. Head of State. Head of Government. Head of the Armed Services. Let’s have a coup d’etat! Let’s kill the opposition! Let’s change the constitution so I’m president for life! This is not the way we should be conducting matters and running countries in the 21st century.
Yes a monarchy is anachronistic, yes it’s probably out-of-touch and yes I quite frankly hate Prince Charles. Maybe other political models work better, but that’s not the purpose of this piece. I’m merely telling you why I’m not a republican. It is because I find republics IN PRACTICE to be a one-way ticket to tyranny. Give me the checks and balances ensured by Constitutional Monarchies around the world anyday.
In closing, I’d just like to say that I once met a Jewish guy from the lower east side of Manhattan. This was in 2005, a few months after George W Bush was re-elected president. I suggested that he must be rather miffed that that walking disaster for the world had got back in.
“No”, he says, “I voted for him”.
My years of political study about voting patterns, demographics and political loyalty went flying out the window.
“WTF???” I scream, half in horror, half in sheer disbelief.
Well, says my Jewish friend, “you have to rally around your leader at a time of war.”
AT LAST! COUNTRY NUMBER 198! And in the grand tradition of saving the best till last, it is my duty to report that Sri Lanka is officially several shades of AWESOME.
After sitting at anchor for a couple of days, the MV Kota Wirawan finally pulled into Colombo port on Monday afternoon. It would be 9pm before I was off and cleared. I said a fond farewell to Captain Heri and the crew and set off to find my CouchSurf host, the enigmatic Sachal Mir, owner of Sachal Mir’s Bed and Breakfast in Negombo, a beach town an hour and a half up the coast from the capital.
It was about 11pm when I arrived and if first impressions are anything to go by, I’m going to have a fantastic time here. Sachal greeted me like an old friend and introduced me to the Negombo massive. It’s low season here (on account of the monsoon, although it’s been remarkably dry) and so I’ve really got the run of the town. The beer is eye-wateringly cheap (£1.50 for a 600ml bottle of Lion at a bar, 75p in the shop), the food is magnificent, the people are hilarious and the transport costs are ridiculously inexpensive (three hour peak-time train ride in Sri Lanka: 95p, three hour peak-time train ride in the UK: £270.95).
Sachal put me in a room of my own, with air conditioning AND a hot shower. GRATIS. This me likey. To the Arabic Traders crossing the Indian Ocean a thousand years ago, Sri Lanka was Serendib, the ‘Island of Jewels’. It’s from where we get the word ‘serendipity’ from, meaning a happy stroke of luck. I see why they gave Sri Lanka this name.
Your parents probably know Sri Lanka as Ceylon, but ‘Ceylon’ was a bastardisation of the Dutch and subsequent Portuguese name for the island. This place was always Lanka. That name was restored in 1972 and to sweeten the deal they added the prefix ‘Sri’ – a respectful title, the Sinhalese equivalent of the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’.
I’ve often mused about how cool it is that Britain has a ‘Great’ in its official title (although yes I’m aware that it was originally to differentiate from Brittany in France), and wondered why other countries don’t do the same. Groovy Super Happy Funtime Rocket Japan or Mega Supersized Skyscraper With Fries USA. It would be brilliant! Much better than ‘The People’s Democratic Republic of BLUGH’.
Anyways, this week my task was clear: to get on a ship to The Maldives. There are three shipping companies that could help. They are Hayley shipping, operators of the Morning Viship which plies between Colombo and Male’ on a weekly basis, there’s Lily Marine Shipping, who also operate a weekly ship there and back, and then there’s our old friends at CMA-CGM. Unfortunately, their ship is one-way – I don’t mind being stranded in Sri Lanka where it’s cheap and cheerful, but if I get stranded in The Maldives for more than a week, the buttons that are left for me to spend off my credit cards are going to evaporate in less time than it takes to say ‘HOW MUCH?!!’
So Hayley was my first port of call, so to speak, and on Wednesday I headed over to Colombo for a meeting with Captains Mahendra Ranatunga and Lasitha Cumaratunga. They were spectacularly helpful, but alas the Morning Viship has a full complement of crew and since there would be no space for me on the life-boat if A Perfect Storm came along to ruin our game of cricket.
They put me in touch with the agents for Lily Marine, in the hope they would let me on their ship that was leaving on Saturday.
Before any meetings on Thursday, I got up extra early in order to watch THE TRANSIT OF VENUS: an astrological event that will not happen again in my lifetime. I had invested in a pair of welding glasses and at 6am I was standing outside Sachal’s B&B waiting for a gap in the clouds. A gap that never came.
Oh well, I’ll see if I can catch it again in 105 years…
Later that morning I met with Ikram Ghazali of CMA-CGM, the plan being that if I could get to The Maldives and back to Sri Lanka on the Lily Marine ship, I could then hop on a CMA-CGM ship to The Seychelles and onto Kenya: next door to South Sudan: the final country of The Odyssey Expedition.
Ikram was a lovely guy and said he would do everything in his power to get me on that ship – it’s a tall order: it would take me straight through the High Risk area of The Pirate Ocean. DANGER WILL ROBINSON!! MY ARMS ARE FLAILING WILDLY!!
On Friday had a meeting with Mr Raja from Neon Shipping, the guys who work with Lily Marine. He hoped to get me on the next available ship to The Maldives: however, the one leaving the next day would not be possible as there wasn’t enough time to organise everything. So it would be the weekend after. No worries say I, and begin to look forward to an easy week in Sri Lanka watching the Euro 2012 tournament which was due to kick off this weekend. Little did I know at the time, it would be a little longer than a week…