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Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.

One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”

With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”

Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.

(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)

And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.

And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.

We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.

We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…

“Absolutely goddamn right. Never get out of the boat.”

I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.

I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.

As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):

“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.

Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…

V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.

“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”

–V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness, 1964

It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.

What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.

The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.

As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.

“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”

–R.B. Cunningham Graham, Bloody Niggers, in the Social Democrat, April, 1897

I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.

It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.

From a certain perspective the human body is little more than a conduit or a tube, taking in and emitting in roughly equal measure.

It’s an elemental conception of human life that sees two reasonably balanced, opposite streams alternately feeding the organism essentials and sluicing away waste. It’s a perspective common to Chinese medicine and Hinduism (among other systems of esoteric thought), which makes it of heightened significance to the Indian city of Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the dividing line between the flow of ingress and egress is often so fine that the distinction is blurred. To a large extent, and for a large section of the population there is very little distinction at all.

People everywhere seem to be ingesting what has previously been passed and excreting almost to feed rather than to vent. The attitude to water supply and sewage in Mumbai has been so compromised by the demands of overpopulation and the environmental rigours of breakneck growth that its no wonder typhoid is rife in the slums. In a very real, and frightening sense, there’s a kind of Faustian toxic alchemy at work, switching the poles of ‘in’ and ‘out’, mixing the waters, crossing the streams.

A wet, vegetable smell, redolent of human vomit and loam wafts into the office. Workers immediately reach for the take-away menus. “Mmmm… Shall we order lunch, guys?” A sewage pipe is simply being de-blocked outisde the building. Reports abound of food poisoning from street food in the days when the sewers are exposed.

The bathroom I use in the home I recently rented a room in in Mumbai is separated from the kitchen of the family of four by a chipboard partition that doesn’t quite reach the outer wall. When I am sitting on the toilet and the lady of the house is frying, there’s the continual possibility of a fine mist of burning fat droplets fountaining over the wall to enliven early morning ablutions.

With a bit of effort, we could shake hands during our respective processes like the first excited penetrators of the Berlin wall. I wonder how the aromas emanating from my bathroom don’t enter the flavour of the delicious food she makes. If I leave a cut raw onion in a fridge with a pot of opened yoghurt, I can’t really complain if the stuff turns out tasting more like raitha than Müller Lite, now can I?

Years ago, a very dear friend of mine came up with an ingenious method of balancing the flows. He called it the ‘Shit/Weight Plan’.

According to this system, weight can be easily controlled, gained or lost through the judicious application of weighing scales at the two ends of the process. His theory was that if one only consumed an equal poundage to that amount dropped off, a steady weight would be maintained. If one troughed more than one sloughed, weight would be put on; if one dumped more than one scrumped then weight would be shed.

The domestic setup that my landlady and I have is ripe for a field test of the Shit/Weight Plan. If she pushes them far enough to her right, Sibyl and I could cut out the middle man and share the kitchen scales, one pan each; shouting the differentials to each other through the partition as we go.

I have a confession to make.

I have become addicted to controversial TV. No, not to ‘Jerry Springer’ re-run marathons. Not to fly-on-the-wall crack den raids on Current TV. Not even to the thinly-veiled hard-body pornography of ‘A Shot of Love’ with Tila Tequila (of ‘I Fucked the DJ (He Fucked Me Till I Bleed)’ fame).

© Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com

The moment he realised he was a hero was the exact moment when he knew he would never be a hero again. It was at that instant he knew that what was necessary was almost certainly that which was furthest outside the boundaries of possibility.

As a young man, Stephen had travelled the world, rapidly, and with abandon—fearlessly, some said. Idealist. Schtick. He was big on other people’s dreams. And fulfilling them: To expose them as nothing more then received aspirations – the third-hand smoke of a disinterested Empire: To spite them.

He’d followed the trail, strung farther and farther out across the third world like a garland of adolescent spittle gobs, hiding behind a Lonely Planet – glossy shield against the appetite of some diabolical gorgon.

A pair of low green hills were shaped like a pair of breasts in the Transylvanian mountains when he was 18. He remembered wondering to himself at the time what exactly the point of travelling could possibly be:

If you could go there, why the hell would you want to go anywhere else?

If truth be told, that ambition had never really left him.

Proust reckoned, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Pico Ayer has it that, “one really travels in one’s head”. Colonial Belgian explorer of Central Africa, Jérôme Becker identified the cause of his departure as, “nostalgia for the unknown.” Rimbaud was all about, “traffiking in the unknown”, in his aimless wanderings around same.

In a warped psalm ninety-one to the hard-on of Moses; in the mistaken belief someone wanted to share his sleeping bag for the red-granite sunrise, Stephen sprinted 2000 metres up Mount Sinai with the gold meridian of the sun at his heels.

He crucified himself on a swift and frantic Siamese emigration, like a trans-hemispheric Saint Valentine’s Day martyrer – marking the anniversary of a purple and orange Balinese high with cold memories of a hot rainstorm. He wound himself round the thread of a ballet-dancing Ariadne, tearing himself out of her eyes—Theseus abandoning himself on the beach instead of her. He eclipsed his existence for a glimpse into the diamond life of a Japanese actress with lips like the plumula of an orchid.

He wandered the art galleries, museums and religious monuments of the world, flattening the ostensibly wild, varied and fascinating continuum of his existence into a psychedelic gestalt of unending indulgent stimuli:

If there was ever an aesthete, it was Stephen Darlington.

Nursing Spanish hangovers, he lusted after the Reina Sofia with Picasso’s bent eyes. He saw the womb in Anish Kapoor. He paid for Ubud primitives over the mystery of the feminine. He broke his mind on Vietnam—hallucinating that he wasn’t even there, man. By New York, he couldn’t even look at the walls: Every minute he spent not desperately trying to inveigle himself into the lives of the genetically-stellar made him feel like he had wasted his entire life.

In flight, he escaped on the wings of opened books — delving into the recesses of esoteric knowledge; mining compensatory sapphires.

It didn’t matter that everyone else’s dreams were not his own, he followed them anyway. The long, slow pixel degradation of his unarticulated ambitions exposed the dark fissures in his life, like the black papyrus absences threatening to eclipse the hieratic on the Egyptian Book of Dreams:

British Museum recto 10683

“The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure.”

-James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890 – 1935

Freud believed that neuroticism is the inability to tolerate ambiguity; that contagious magic is a delusion of the neurotic – that things once in contact with each other do not continue to act on one another after physical contact has been severed.

Keats wrote that poetry is the ability to hold equal and opposite ideas in the mind at the same time—that an equal propensity for the greatest ecstasy and the greatest despair at one and the same moment is eminently necessary.

No wonder those men had a go at the face of the sphinx: The inscrutability of the silent and unknowable ancient enigma is impenetrable and absolute. But Oedipus beat the riddle with his head, didn’t he? He didn’t rely on torso alone.

“The mind is what one must consider, the mind. What is the use of physical beauty, when one does not have beauty in the mind?”

-Euripides, Oedipus, fr. 548

In a fitting bastardisation of astrophysics, the sun rose on the British colonial interest in the West, and finally set on it in the East, more than 800 years later. The first instance of English Crown control in Ireland in the late 1100s was the first step on the grand march towards, ‘The British Empire’—an endeavour later re-branded, ‘Globalisation’.

It’s impossible to know whether the world is going the way of China or China is going the way of the world. An uncomfortable layering of capitalism and communism on top of one another, as embodied by the city of Hong Kong, is not the answer to this question.

Hong Kong is the question.

Sandwiched between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’, is Hong Kong the model for the city of the future?:

An ultra-policed, liberalised economy surrounded on all sides by a paternalist one-party state to which money flows mostly one way.

Porous borders into and out of a two-tier system in which the obscurity of the local language, even to visitors from other parts of the mainland, creates a huge industry catering for those unable to decifer it.

Boundless vertical density for a theoretically unlimited population over a maximised geographical area, perfectly positioned at the heart of the land and sea infrastructure of the world’s busiest commercial area, The Pearl River Delta.

At a superficial level, Hong Kong is like Kafka and JG Ballard getting together on a UK Garage remix of Two Tribes, with Beckett on the ones and twos.

As a reluctant British ‘subject’, it melts my head to see just how far the UK went with its economic experiment in Hong Kong; still the freest economy in the world. The creation of Hong Kong is the equivalent of devolving Anglesey from the rest of the UK, installing a mercantilist quango presided over by Nelson Rockefeller and demanding an exorbitant stipend for use of the road out.

I feel justified in complaining about most of this because we went there uninvited, peddling smack for tea, and started pissing about—so the guilt’s on the heads of my father’s and my grandfather’s generations, when all is said and done.

But territories that have been forced to adopt western systems, papering over an iron-strong, unique and irrepressible vernacular culture, as in Vietnam, Japan and Hong Kong, will simply not be beat.

The degree to which the forms and elements of commercial excess are pushed in places like (The) Ho(le) Chi Minh city and Hong Kong is testament to the resilience and the individuality of the cultures we’re still desperately trying to subsume with our hackneyed bullshit. In the case of Hong Kong and the larger cities of Vietnam, it’s as though someone local at the top finally snapped at some point and started having some fun with it.

Just like in central London, the complete absence of seats, benches or any horizontal surfaces at human level in Hong Kong is the perfect expression of the ethically-palsied western shopping ethos taken to a demented degree. The private corporation that owns the underground system also owns all the malls and luxury apartments built above the stations; designing the exits from the underground trains to route passengers into the shopping areas, whether they want to go there or not. You can’t even stop, never mind stop shopping.

Most of Hong Kong Island’s ‘public space’ has a six-lane blacktop scything through the middle of it, in spite of the fact that the city has arguably the best public transport system in the world. There’s a genuinely C21st subway, light railway and ferry network and a reasonably efficient tram system before you even get to the busses and the taxis. I would love it if someone could explain to me just where, exactly, everyone is driving to and why they would even dream of investing so much in such flash cars to do so in?

Anyone who has ever spent any length of time in the city of Birmingham in the UK will find themselves fighting off an unusual sense of deja vu on arriving in Hong Kong. To someone steeped in the culture of Great Britain (by fair means or foul), on the surface, the place feels like Manchester occupied and lightly retro-fitted by the Kuomintang. The civic architecture seems based around the model of a municipal lavatory teleported from a British seaside promenade in the 1950s, and purposely renders the entire place into a much warmer suburb of Central London.

The Chicago Loop c/o Creative Commons

The absolute dominion over the place by roads makes every intersection into a subtropical spaghetti junction; delineating with metal crash barriers oceanic concrete islands that necessitate proficient parkour to make any meaningful progress on foot.

Of course, 50-grand sterling for a Maserati for no other purpose than driving around the M25 corridor at rush hour, occasionally stopping off at convenience stores for processed snacks, is everyone’s idea of nirvana, isn’t it…?

It’s possible to tell a lot about a people by their attitude to space. Hong Kong doesn’t have any, so once it’s occupied, it jolly well stays that way, thank you very much. Turn around anywhere on Hong Kong Island with your arms extended even slightly proud of your body and you’ll be touching someone else. Lift up your feet and you’ll find somebody standing on the back of your sandals. Alter your walking pace even minutely and a concertina of bodies hits you from the rear.

The most over-populated island in the world, Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong, has so many people on it that if they all came out of their homes at the same time, they would begin falling into the sea.

This, I can only pray, may one day start happening to England.

The perennial debate on the technological threat to the institution of the novel rages on flatmancrooked.com (and elsewhere)-see Shya Scanlon’s excellent Faster Times piece here, and Mike Shatzkin’s note on ebooks-but there’s not much on this on TNB, as far as I can see…

So, in the interests of stimulating debate, I include an email exchange between TNB contributors Kip Tobin, Megan Power, and myself which took place off the blog last month.

Kaffirjimtao

By Andrew Johnson

Memoir

My best friend and I met a man on the cross-Channel ferry from England to France during a summer of blissful ignorance in the late 1990s. We christened him ‘Kaffir Jim’, mainly because neither of us could remember his name after an embarrassingly short period of time.

Like ‘Dave’, ‘John’ and ‘Joe’, ‘Jim’ was generic enough to be amusing, and ‘kaffir’ served as a convenient synechdoche for his identity as a fairly right-wing white South African; a representative of a people who, from Louis Botha to Joss Ackland’s villain in Lethal Weapon II, have had a chronic PR problem at least since the turn of the last century.

Although neither of us knew it at the time, there is a line in H. Rider Haggard’s British Empire classic, King Solomon’s Mines that refers to “a Kaffir hunter called Jim” – a designation which could refer—extending overly-generous benefit of the doubt—to a Bântu-speaking South African, but is much more likely to be a racist epithet. It is more likely still vituperative Imperialist slander against a ‘white man over-friendly with the natives’. It is exactly the type of language one can imagine coming out of the mouth of the most stereotypically reactionary white South African boor.

Whether it is solely down to effective British Boer War propaganda or other aggravating historical factors, your average white South African is viewed as not far off a mildly attenuated Obersturmbahnführer, desperately clinging to a tragically intransigent set of race-bound beliefs.

Sitting at the back of a fairly-crowded bus with his shirt off, braying convulsively like a defecating horse, as though in the advanced stages of some transcendental drug experience, Kaffir Jim chose to share with us his revelation that the world was becoming inexorably homosexual.

This wasn’t the usual spiel about oestrogen leaching into the water supply; this was a terse hypothesis of gonzo evolutionism, refreshingly free of science and reason. How far we’d get with a near-zero birthrate and K.D. Lang (sic) in the White House wasn’t expanded upon, just that more and more people were becoming gay as nature’s naturally selective measure of automatic population control. Kaffir Jim foresaw a dystopian future world ruled by lesbians, and he wasn’t happy about it.

Like most other people one tends to meet at the back of buses on the Lonely Planet trail—a pathway that at the time was merely strung around the third world like a loose garland of adolescent spittle gobs, but that now eclipses the establishment of the ancient Silk Road in the depth of the imprint it has stamped out across the globe—Kaffir Jim wore the creepy, thousand-yard stare of the serial traveller.

Just like the “political kitsch” in the “fantasy of the Grand March” that sustains Milan Kundera’s Franz throughout The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the gestalt of travelling is perpetual and continual movement. There is rarely much of talk of where you’re at, just where you’re going or where you’ve been. As soon as momentum slows to a speed that might threaten the ‘-ing’s on your verbs, the horrifying prospect of reflective thinking looms.

Hiding behind their conveniently intrepid-sounding gerund, in perpetual flight from their lives, the serial traveller seems out-of-time: “separated by an immense space from [their] past and by an immense ignorance from [their] future”

-Joseph Conrad, Amy Foster, 1901

There’s a haunting scene in the film Barton Fink in which John Goodman’s character returns to the spartan room in the flophouse he is living in as the building burns down around him—slowly turning his key in the lock and closing the door behind him, oblivious to the sweat soaking through his clothes from the heat of the flames. I always think of Kaffir Jim whenever I see this.

We met Kaffir Jim in those innocent days before social networking, and at least six months before either my friend or myself had a working email address, so, although we have no way of contacting him to find whether he believes his doomladen projections have come to pass or not, I picture Kaffir Jim still out there somewhere; as oblivious as Mad Man Muntz, half-naked; projecting the disintegration of his psyche out on to the highways and byways of the world.

It wasn’t until 11 years and one too many bouts of travelling later; sat at the back of a crowded bus with my shirt off; desperately fleeing an incomprehensible city, babbling nonsense at anyone who would listen, that I realised what had happened.

IMAGES: Screengrabs from youtube.com

I know the steward is Argentinian. I heard him talking Spanish with one of the passengers up front several hours ago. There is at least some affinity then—albeit unspoken and unacknowledged—when it is he who leans down to ask me to turn off the call light I’ve had switched on for the last fifteen minutes.

I don’t know the Spanish word for ‘smelling salts’. I’m not sure of the English word for the chemical it contains. My eyes are streaming out onto my cheeks like raw eggs. The rubbing together of the surfaces at the back of my throat is like a concert given in particularly coarse grades of sandpaper.

The fear is palpable in the sidelong glances I’ve been getting all throughout this leg of the long journey, all the way back from Asia, towards the influenza-ravaged wastes of Europe. I sneezed at stentorian volume all the way through the swine flu warning—given in hushed tones over the cabin public address loop.

The gummed-up wads of used tissue paper I have stuffed into all my pockets are not much more than germinal smart bombs as far as the other passengers are concerned. An uncovered, red-raw nose and mouth is the equivalent of a diseased cock and balls without a condom, or a used syringe. The lady sitting next to me has been wearing a surgical mask for seven hours.

I’m in so much pain that I can hardly speak, never mind enunciate clearly and intimate demonstratively what the problem is. It feels as if all the liquid conduits in my neck are being slowly injected with nitroglycerin.

I try to explain with a series of arabesques at the shape of the bottle of smelling salts that I remember being given in a similar situation on an Aeroflot flight into Moscow some years before.

This doesn’t help.

The steward suggests that maybe I would like something to chew on. I surmise he now understands I have such nasal congestion that the air pressure is forcing my sinuses to expand across my face and the back of my head to such a degree that they are pressing on my nerves and causing my head to go numb. He suggests I might like some biscuits.

I make an effort to swallow, mainly to confirm just how awful the prospect of a dry biscuit seems to my desiccated epiglottis.

Thankfully, a stewardess rushes back with two plastic drinking cups stuffed with hot towels and I gleefully press the things to the sides of my head, uncaring at the searing of the flesh of my ears against the steaming flannels; oblivious to the fact that I look like a demented child impersonating an air traffic controller, or a radical re-interpretative take on the cup/string telephone.

I stumble off the plane onto the shuttle bus, thanking the stewardess profusely, but aware that I am completely deaf in my left ear. This is something like the twentieth consecutive hour without sleep, so the paranoia levels are staring to jump, and I immediately begin to wonder if, by thanking her, I’ve given the defense some rope in the court case I am already envisaging bringing against the airline for permanent damage to my hearing.


The allergic reaction to the new air redoubles as I enter the tiny, beige terminal. I blindly follow the ‘Transfer’ signs and stagger through another baggage scan even though my connecting flight isn’t for another eight hours. I fail to understand the significance of the strange looks my boarding pass gets from the staff checking my details until well after the last flight of the night—when the scant hotel reps plying their trade on the other side of the airport have all packed up and gone home.

It takes two trips to the clinic and a series of injections of nasal ordinance of increasing potency to feel like I can tackle getting a hotel room, but it’s already well after midnight when I realise that I’ve been shepherded beyond the point-of-no-return, and unless I want to spend the next eight hours in a freezing-cold strip mall, I need to spend US$35 on a visa in order to leave the terminal and enter Qatar.

I try to draw out some money from an ATM for exactly this purpose. The transaction goes through but the money never appears, and I spend another hour online and on the phone to the bank trying to ascertain if I’ve lost the cash.

The verdict is inconclusive.

I remember vague mumblings about some kind of meal voucher for passengers stupid enough to place themselves beyond security with such a yawning delay until their next flight—us sad, solitary individuals, alone on the cheapest possible overnight connections from Asia back to Europe.


I think the wrong word is in inverted commas here…

If the night flight from New York to Los Angeles is the “red eye” flight, then this is resolutely the “dead eye”. The men here, from various European footballing nations, wear an unmistakable—and strangely familiar—expression of grim accomplishment. You see it everywhere in the North of England, from National Express coach waiting rooms to January sales queues. It’s a look that says:

“I’m saving money here, cock and I don’t care what happens to me in the process”.

I walk for twenty minutes and queue for half-an-hour until I find out I’m at the wrong restaurant. Every transaction is expressed in so many different currencies and languages, that it proceeds at a geological pace.

The meal voucher system is organised according to a protracted and esoteric logic that remains a mystery for three-quarters-of-an-hour stood rattling a set of nose pills around in my fist—devoid of the precious lubrication promised by the voucher. An official arrives and an eclectic queue ensues. He writes out each voucher by hand and I finally get my food; sitting down to enjoy it among the lads in football shirts and various stages of depravity. One familiar T-shirt reads: ‘Good Guy Go to Heaven, Bad Guy Go to Pattaya’.


I imagine this is pretty much exactly what every entrepôt station in the world has been like for centuries, from Constantinople to the Cape of Good Hope: A stark confrontation with ourselves as base animals; herded around and scrambling over each other for purchase.

I go and brush my teeth in the brackish Qatari water to try and make myself feel like a human being again.

It doesn’t work.

I add nothing but an additional suspicion of dysentery bacteria swimming around my teeth.

I manhandle my unwieldy luggage through the narrow aisles of the mall, fighting to see anything through a veil of mucus and apnoea—squeezing past the throngs of sheiks, African ladies and Chinese tourists to join the end of an immense queue of people—baskets brimming with muck and tat.

A small boy recoils bodily when he sees my swollen face and oozing cavities, backing up against a cigarette display and edging around in terror. I feel like sneezing on him. I buy some child’s nose balm and some more tablets which don’t work. For tissues, the cashier recommends I try the toilets.

Dithering in the air-conditioned chill knifing down out of the ceiling and straight through the diaphanous layer of my second shirt of the day, I decide to change and put on some more clothes in the stinking bathroom, awash with piss. The most difficult choice is whether to wear my sweat-soaked used shirt against my skin and the new one over it, or vice versa; to put my shorts on over my trousers or on under them; whether to wear two pairs of trousers, or three.

With the legs of some overly baggy bottoms tucked into my socks, I open the lid of the only vacant toilet to find a dozen anaemic flukes of variegated wan shit that won’t flush. I close the thing on its fetid contents, hitch the legs of my trousers out of my socks and up beyond my knees, step up and over my luggage on the trolley I’ve jammed into the cubicle with me; unlace one shoe on the raised surface of the toilet, and then use it squashed-down as an improvised mat in order to shift my weight over and prepare the other foot.

I am gagging so much from the stench that I feel I have to abort half-way through, but find myself standing barefoot, on tiptoes, at full-stretch, on shoes which are already soaking up the piss; laces dangling in the puddles; trousers gathered around my midriff like a bunch of skirts; naked torso shivering in the fluorescent light. I’ve stamped the toilet closed with one foot, so I have nothing to vomit into except a torn plastic shopping bag which sits gaping in the top of the trolley.

It’s when the sneezing begins again that I start to wonder if the increasing number of apocalyptic doomsayers, from George Carlin to Kip Tobin, may actually be right. As a species, I think we might be irrevocably fucked.


I used to think that we would breed out the retrograde, destructive elements eventually; surmount the religio-ethnic differences; trim the population to a level commensurate with the distribution of resources etc. etc. but after eight hours in Doha airport, to bastardise Francis Ford Coppola, I think there are almost certainly too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little-by-little we went insane.

I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.

Photo by Christopher Doyle

Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.

Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.

Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.

In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.

I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.

At what point does social conscience become interference?

When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)

A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.

Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.

Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.

A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.

A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…

Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:

“An entire room full of writers, and you did nothing!”

I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.

I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.

I walked the rest of the way home in silence.

IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com

I spent my first 10 days in the Americas, in New York City in November 2008, just after the election and right around the time the financial crisis was just starting to bear its rotten molars.

Walking around a deserted Lower Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon—along Gall Street, past the New York Doom Exchange and up around the Ground Zero mausoleum—as the sky promptly went black around 3.30pm, and the wind came howling in off the Hudson, it crossed my mind that perhaps ‘Ghostbusters’ had been intended as more of a tourist information film than I’d first thought.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man had come bounding around the corner.

The whole of Manhattan smelled fusty and decaying—like wet dollars mouldering somewhere below ground. The imposing historicist architecture and the rickety, clockwork subway clogged with the dust of ages made the experience feel like a voyage back into the dark days of the last century, in the company of Thomas Pynchon. The skyscrapers stood like pristine simulare; shining statues of the gods lining the entrance to a dead Roman city.

Like many Europeans, I get most of my cultural information about the modern United States from hip hop, and hip hop of a specifically New York bent, due to the surfeit of esoteric folklore exported by the Wu Tang Clan.

I felt like I’d been to Staten Island even before I (almost) went there.

Before, during and after my visit to New York city, I kept on encountering these frothing panegyrics to the advent of a ‘post-racial United States’, as if somehow decades of segregation and mutual hate had suddenly been magically eradicated from the record. So these ideas were clanging around my brainpan throughout my time in the country and for a long time after I got back…

I must explain what a completely alien universe I come from: I grew up in a small village in the Lancashire countryside which shares a postcode with the town of Blackpool—a place so right wing that it hosted the annual Conservative Party conference all the way through the Thatcher era. It was the venue for her infamous 1999 speech on “the callous and unjust … judicial kidnap … of Senator Pinochet” (sic).

The smoke only cleared in the bar of the local I used to drink in during my time at university in Leeds when someone leaned over to me in the last week of my course to inform me, in suitably hushed tones, that the place was “a BNP pub” – as in the jack-boot, Union Jack, shaved-head-and-a-pitbull, send-the-buggers-back, Jack British Nationalist Party.

I had absolutely no idea.

For four years.

I have to make it clear that in the entirety of my closeted Northern-English upbringing and early adulthood, before travelling to New York, the only person of African descent I’d ever really got(ten) the chance to have a proper conversation with was a Jamaican feller my auntie was going out with.

In the mid-1980s.

Unfortunately, as a great-grandchild of another empire built on slavery, and one which is perhaps still more overtly class-ridden than any other, I feel that I live and work in a white, middle-class Never Never Land most of the time.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Within a couple of hours of arriving in New York, I’d already bumped fists with and been christened ‘Big Andy’ by a purportedly-rising hip hop star in Times Square, and I’d been given a free guide to the Top of the Rockefeller Centre by the most cheerful lady I’ve ever encountered in the service industry.

Still mulling over those reports of the triumph of American ethnic integration, I saw the joyous chap dancing freely and screaming out the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ by Arthur Russell to the broad, freezing daylight air of a Sunday afternoon flea market in Brooklyn, as the harbinger of some ethnological Arcadia.

I’d heard apocryphal tales of people dancing in the streets following the election, but I did not expect that this would actually be the case.

It was all I could do to stop myself joining in…

“I wanna see. All of my friends at once!”

(So do I, mate, so do I!)

With all of those odes to the new, improved, supra-racist US of A ringing in my ears, I felt like the lead in a solarised version of ‘Coming to America’.

(That programme was worth ten freaking clams, dude!)

Standing on a train platform in Jamaica, Queens at the end of the trip and choosing to take the demographics in evidence as basis for a violent kneejerk reaction, however, I was struck by the fallacy of the notion of a ‘post-racial America’.

I do acknowledge that people dress this up as ‘more about poverty than race’, and I recognise how far towards this ‘new’ America things have progressed since the days of wholesale jiggerypokery by the Federal Housing Authority and full on white flight, but the smörgåsbord of cock cheese served up about the ethnic melting pot must be based on the diversity of Manhattan alone, am I right?

To the ignorant bystander: to someone like me, growing up in the politically correct climate of the United Kingdom of the 1970s and 80s, poorer areas where at-a-glance it appears there could be an African-American majority tend to engender the following kind of reaction:

“Post-racial America? Gimme a break, wieners! Where the Jim Crow did you get that idea!?”

Then the friend I’m visiting informs me they are off to something called a ‘Huxtable Party’ and all of this rarefied and constipated white guilt; all of that politically correct dogma and the full force of my inherent gormlessness about these things floods my psyche in such a torrent that I’m left spluttering and tongue-tied and utterly dumbfounded.

Despite what the media might say (even in the Guardian newspaper in March 2009), I can assure you, most of England is still pre-medieval in these matters.

In a not dissimilar fashion to Prince Henry of Wales, I just do not get it.

“A Huxtable Party?”

“Yeah”

“What? as in loads of white people dressing up as people from ‘The Cosby Show’!?”

“Well… Yeah. You should come”

“Thanks but I don’t think I’d fit in…”