Friday, November 11, 2016

The Bloody Road to Kampot (or the trouble with Happy Pizzas, or the Acid Writing Conference, or the shame about the Hula-Holigans and the fear of technological acid meltdown.)


YOU’D BE forgiven for thinking the fogs of pollution hugging Phnom Penh’s airport tastes like the aftermath of some recent oil refinery explosion before you hit the herbal haze that permeates the bars and guesthouses.

The Place
Here we are on street 172, a Chinese man walks up and down the street selling locally sourced fabric money pouches… No, I don't want a Tuk-Tuk, or to jump on the back of your motorcycle, but, hey, thanks for asking. Opposite stands an establishment named the Black Pearl, next to that a printing shop, and here we are at the White River Guesthouse.  

A Westerner with Eastern leanings wears a turban and smokes something life-enhancing in a clay pipe while his hands dance to an inaudible rhythm.

Trip Advisor has a lot to answer for.

Sign into the guestbook.

Name: James Newman
Occupation: Acid Crime Writer.
Permanent address: Here, man.

“What are you here for?”

“Here for the readers and writer’s convention.”

Bell boy nods sagely and points to my luggage and hands me a key.  

Upstairs my room, number 303, has a mirrored wardrobe that I'm too scared to open.

You know that old dead body in a wardrobe trick that the Cambodians like to pull on you?

No?

Well, you should do.

The moment you open the door and take a peek inside at the decomposing corpse you’re part of the freaking conspiracy.

Then they got you. 

The Product
So let sleeping dogs, or rotting corpses, lie, or die, or whatever they do, but never open the closet door in a five dollar hotel room in Phnom Penh.

There's a funereal party right across the street, bells jingle jangle, the intermittent wailing of holy men. Maybe they slipped the body out of the ceremony and hid it in my wardrobe?

What other party tricks do these people play?

Downstairs in the restaurant none of the staff have it in them to switch on the electric fans. One US dollar gets me a cup of rich syrupy coffee. Two locals come inside play pool and proposition the waitress, she manages to glare back and hits them both with what can only be an ancient Khmer curse. 

The first man wears a ratty T-shirt with a Lamborghini badge on the breast pocket as he flashes some local currency around but he’s kidding no one. Perhaps he is the murderer of the corpse in my closet, maybe a contract killer, foolishly throwing around ill-earned gains as his victim enters stage one rigor mortis in the mirrored wardrobe of room 303.  
  
Now my mind’s racing from a contact high from that Trustafarian who’s smoking at the bar, and that body in the wardrobe upstairs has probably been grasped out of its resting place, filched to another room, to another unsuspecting wardrobe-door-opening-mark.

Decide to order from the menu but the service is slow, wait almost an hour for a can of coke, food takes longer, apparently, much longer.

Hmm.

Must be still moving the body, then.

Or perhaps this is a trick to make the place look fuller, get more customers inside, maybe I’m being paranoid, maybe it’s the coffee?

Maybe they spiked me?

You get that feeling a lot here.

Happy Pizza joints stand proudly all over the proverbial shop in the city, alas not one single “Anxiety-ridden-terrible-fear-of-sudden-death-pizza-joint,” and not a single “Huge-overwhelming-regret-brought-on-by-sudden-waves-of-inexplicable-empathy-flooding-thru-my-mind-like-a-terrible-locomotive-of-cruel-self-realization-pizza-joint.”

Oh no, it’s all Happy Pizza.

Happy. Happy. Happy.
 
Like I say, I’m here for the Acid Conference.

I’m here for ART.

Instead of ART I gingerly tip-toe back up to room 303 and stare at that mirrored wardrobe door knowing whatever inside radiates awful malevolent properties.

One day I shall return to that cupboard and conquer my fear, for what evil within it shall be quashed by the benevolent strength of my acid-flexed psychological muscle.

But all in good time.

Next day I meet the International Man of Mystery.

International Man of Mystery


The Man, as he is also sometimes known, lives out of a suitcase and has no visible means of financial support, but is always well funded and supportive of the ARTS and at his hotel he had booked a cab and a driver to this end. 

Our driver, let’s call him Sam, was quick to tell us he was an orphan and the circumstances of how he acquired his brand new SUV were “a long story,” two hours later Sam has told us about how he grew up in his family village where the roads were filled with pot holes you could throw a pool party in. 

How these two stories gelled both a mystery to both I and to the International Man of Mystery, and probably to you, the reader too, but we’ve all been thrown some tall stories by cabbies before.  

Casually I ask our driver Sam if he is also performing at the fiction festival, and for a terrifying moment I think he understands me as he races in between lanes of fierce traffic, me and the Man of Mystery trying to keep our conversation poignant, knowing that each and every line spoken could well be our last.  

We arrive at the festival and survey the area.

First panel was Crime fiction.

“What are you doing for female authors in the region?”

Well, teaching six year olds English every day in school isn’t a bad start, I suppose. 

Being a crime writer from Bangkok has its moments, but one of the most testing is when you’re cast as a misogynist; in my books, the women outsmart the men every time, if you don’t read them you won’t know that, but making that assumption isn’t a crime – even if you’re a woman.

Crime panel over, I head off to Couch Potatoes for a well- deserved beer and a chat with the owner who along with the taxi driver had some of the best stories in town that week.

The Hula-Lady Yolanda Iseley is from Glastonbury performs magical moves with flashing lights inside her hula-hoop with arts group Hula-Holigans. 

The idea was obvious, to ask her to perform at the Acid Writing event the following night. Sadly the dance wasn’t to be. Technical difficulties at the theater, and well, we didn’t end the night on the high we’d expected and I’ll regret that we didn’t end the show with a dance, but the talks just about made up for it. 

Rapping about Burroughs and the 1960s counter culture will never be a chore, it was a joy, even Neal Cassidy got himself a mention.

And then the festival was over, the long drive back to the city, the guesthouse, and the wardrobe awaited me.

Back in room 303 I decide to do it.

Open the wardrobe door.

Inside sits one hand-rolled cigarette.

Should I be terrified or ecstatic?

Or both?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Why I Watch Cartoons....

You want to learn how to write?

How to create story?

Watch animation.

Oh yes, I have reverse engineered Penguins of Madagascar in an attempt to discover the brilliance of pure story-telling. I’ve taken Mr. Bean apart piece by piece and put him back together again. This happens when you teach English to young learners. Nemo has not just been found, that little fishy has been discovered, examined, and dissected on a petri dish piece by bloody piece. Each part of that perfect production examined under microscopic lens. My students lost in the story have little idea that their teacher is pulling it apart and discovering the beauty of story-telling.

Want to learn about economy of story? To know what parts to leave out? Watch feature length animation. You are NOT allowed to become lost in that story, oh no, you must analyze it. Watch it cold and make notes and you will see that nothing in animation happens accidentally. The cartoonist’s world is a world of foreshadowing and manipulation. Pure story.     

These films are fluid, perfect, not a wasted frame, not a wasted moment – they can’t waste time, it is too expensive. You want to learn how to write stories? Check out Toy Story, particularly the third one. I have chills thinking about how brilliant the final scenes are.

So watch cartoons. Take these films apart and put them back together again. Apply it to your own world and your own work. A story is a story whether it be for adults or kids. It is there to entertain.

How does it entertain?

By being entertaining.

Your job is to discover how.    

Took my kids, week in and week out, to the cinema, buckets of coke and wheelie bin sized popcorn containers, we sat in the theater to watch every new release.

They get to escape into another world. I get to work out this thing called story.

Perfect.  

But it wasn’t to last.

Before we knew it the boys had graduated from animation, and traversed to action and drama. Star Wars was okay, Pan was great, but Life of Pi was ultimately the best feature we watched together. Not ashamed to admit I wept as I realized the adaptation was all it should have been. Crying in the cinema, yeah, weeping because you know the filmmaker had nailed it.

Now the kids have grown up, we watch horror, and comedy. Yet I still have an ache and a need to watch animation, luckily I have my students who are happy to watch childish flicks.

Now if you will excuse me I have an appointment with Big Hero Six.     

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Words on writing...


Some years ago, living in rural Thailand I needed a desk, and was introduced to the local carpenter, who was a lonely soul and for the most part incoherent. But then again I wasn’t far behind him.

A desk was needed so I followed him to his workshop. We cracked open a bottle of beer Chang and he ushered me into his domain.

Inside were the most incredibly beautiful pieces of half-finished furniture. Hard wood teak tables rubbed and polished yet missing one leg. Ornate chairs beautifully carved yet to be upholstered and cushioned. Doors, again, hardwood, carved illustrations of peacocks etched into the wood grain.

Sun rays shone into this man’s workshop, reflections danced over his creations.

He may be antisocial, an outcast in the village, but his work, I concluded, was awesome.

I drew the plans for the desk, left the workshop, and waited, and waited, and waited. 

Four or five months the desk arrived. A beautiful piece, huge work surface, piano style legs, drawers lined with green felt. This was without doubt the most perfect piece of furniture I’d ever bought and it was well worth the wait.

The desk had to be perfect as it were to be the desk on which I’d type the novel that I’d been threatening myself to complete.  Once, that is, I’d extracted it from the battered pages of notebooks that I had assembled over two years of traveling around Asia. The novel was Bangkok Express, much of which was written on that desk in Surin, the other portions typed out in the Business Inn, Bangkok, Sukhumvit Road.

So the desk arrived and I sat down at it and began the journey.

I opened word, I opened a file, I began typing. Found a flow, two chapters turned into four, five into ten; then the material inexplicably dried up. 

The notebooks exhausted, the blank screen stared back at me with menacing intent.

What to do now?

The answer was simple. Open another a file. A new idea for a novel. This idea really had wings, hell it was better than the last idea; a boy with magical powers disappears during a game of chequers. Sounds great, yeah? I worked on this one. I worked really hard. Somewhere around chapter twelve I ran out of steam. Again the screen stared back at me like a broke debt collector on a rainy Lewisham afternoon.

No problem. Another file, click, open, this time a story about the population of Bangkok turning into humanoid lizards.

How could this not fly?

It didn’t.

No worries, another file, a cashless society, fight the government for a return of legal tender. This is high concept right here, how can it fail? Tap, tap, tap. This is bloody brilliant. Chapter twenty-three, hmmm. What about that lizard story? Maybe the lizard war is fought at a popular nightlife venue. Let’s get back to that book. Almost finished. Tap, tap tap. Maybe Bangkok Express needs some love. Back to that, back to this, back to that again.

Tap, tap, tap bloody tap.

And of course…

My hard drive on my computer resembled the carpenter’s workshop. Manuscripts in various stages of completion are littered all over the proverbial shop. He had half-chairs, I had half-novels. This is the way I work and it always will be. The best stuff comes when distracted from doing what I should be doing. This article came about because the pub I choose to have lunch in switched off their wireless internet. A neat trick, Kiwi Pub, keeps the customer traffic flowing. But little do they know most of my work is a reaction to what I should be doing. My favorite scenes written while I should have been writing, or doing something else, something important, practical, something that pays the bills.

So don’t feel to pressure to complete that novel, that article, that short story or poem. Let it bake, let it mature, grow.

Because when you force things to happen they appear forced and that’s not a good look. Take a leaf from my carpenter’s book. Keep ‘em waiting and deliver the goods.


Trust the carpenter.