Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Literary Garbage

Shantaram. Read the back cover, and it sounds like a rip-roaring tale. The Telegraph describes it as "a literary classic". At 900 pages long, it's one of those books lots of travellers recommend, but you never meet anyone close enough to the end to swap it for one of yours. I saw many copies last year, and finally got my mitts on one this June. I wish I hadn't bothered lugging the weighty bastard about. I usually mention good books on here, as they are gold dust for people on the road. Gregory's long-winded tome is 900 sheets of spare bog-roll but, honestly, you'd be embarrassed to wipe your arse on it.

My mate Kit actually congratulated me on finishing it. She got to page 80, and couldn't stop laughing. His prose is quite laughable, Kit described it as being written by a 15-year-old schoolboy. Indeed, if I'd seen the guy's website, I'd never have picked it up: what a first-grade tool.

The story tells of how he beats heroin, escapes from a maximum-security prison in Australia, makes it to India and lives in a slum, learns Hindi and sets up a free clinic, works for the Indian mafia, fights for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, falls in love, falls out of love etc etc. All this before tea-time. Bollocks.

If he cut the book down to 4-500 pages (believe me, he could) then I wouldn't have had an issue, as the overly elaborate descriptions would have been stripped out. Every time his beloved appeared, I took a deep breath before wading through the paragraph-long description of her eyes, hair and skin. His underlying themes of Life, The Univers And Everything make your eyes bleed, quite frankly; I've hear less fishy philosophy in a Broadway Market cafe.

It recently won a Guardian bad sex award. If these paragraphs don't make you want to become a monk and never look at a woman again, nothing will:

"I held Karla as if holding her could heal me, and we didn't make love until night lit the last star in our wide window of sky. Her hands were kisses on my skin. My lips unrolled the curled leaf of her heart. She breathed in murmurs, guiding me, and I spoke rhythm to her, echoing my needs. Heat joined us, and we enclosed ourselves with touch and taste and perfumed sounds. Reflected on the glass, we were silhouettes, transparent images - mine full of fire from the beach, and hers full of stars. And at last, at the end, those clear reflections of our selves melted, merged, and fused together. 
(p658)

I pressed my lips against the sky, and licked the stars into my mouth. She took my body into hers, and every movement was an incantation. Our breathing was like the whole world chanting prayers. Sweat ran in rivulets to ravines of pleasure. Every moment was a satin skin cascade. Within the velvet cloaks of tenderness, our backs convulsed in quivering heat, pushing heat, pushing muscles to complete what minds begin and bodies always win. I was hers. She was mine. My body was her chariot, and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea. And the wailing moan that drove our lips together, at the end, was the world of hope and sorrow that ecstasy wrings from lovers as it floods their souls with bliss."

Pass the bucket, dear boy.

On his website he waxes on about how his book is a "20-layered novel". Crawl out of your own arse, pal; it's got two layers. Layer one is a barely-believable but entertaining enough action tale. Layer two is a pretentious load of hackneyed and plagiarised philosophy an undergraduate with a stupid beard would be ashamed to spout in a London Fields poetry meeting.

Utter shite: avoid.

Second Time Around & The Wicked Witch Of The West

You meet some interesting people on the road; some bizarre people; funny people; inspiring people. And then you meet some downright horrible people who poison the air around you. Miro’s German girlfriend unfortunately fell into the latter category.

I’d got to know Miro pretty well. A thoughtful, interesting lad who loves his diving, and wouldn’t let me win at chess. Ever. He’d told us about his girlfriend back home, Henrika. They’d not been together long, and he’d been reluctant to leave Germany to come and work in Coron. She’d been keen to come out with him, but had changed her mind at the last minute, which he’d been upset about.

Things started out well enough, it was nice to see them all over each other and happy when she turned up unannounced one night; a great surprise for Miro. It wasn’t as nice to see them all over each other every waking minute of the day afterwards, though; whether it was gazing into each other’s eyes for prolonged periods of time, stroking each other’s faces and gazing, or exchanging kisses and gazing. At a christening party for the shop’s new boat, a gobsmacked Filipino gentleman gestured to the star-struck lovers canoodling in front of everyone and asked me “Is this normal in your country?” I told him theirs wasn’t my country, but Westerners can sometimes behave this way when drunk. They weren’t drunk. This uncomfortable behaviour continued while he was working, and customers even began commenting on it.

To cap it all, Henrika decided she wanted to become a Rescue Diver. She’d been strutting around like she owned the place for weeks, and Karin, Rocksteady’s boss, was also getting more than a bit annoyed with her demands about Miro’s working hours and days off etc. She ignored the fact that he was there to work. Iain, my instructor friend from London, refused to take her Rescue course; he couldn’t stand her from the first minute. Gerd avoided it, but eventually relented to get rid of her. Satan help him if she ever wants to be a DM, not that she'd make it.

To begin with, I’d got on fine with her. But she was about to do something which would stir up a hornet’s nest at Rocksteady, and almost make me quit my job there. We’d also come to see just how controlling she was with Miro.

Sometimes things aren’t the same second time around, are they? Films. Books. Relationships. Work. Now being a Divemaster sounds great, but it’s not all rosy. Sure, you get to spend the day on a boat, surrounded by natural beauty above and below the surface (unless you’re diving in Plymouth), and you’re usually in the sun. But a lot of work goes into it. A 6am start, to begin with; loading and unloading heavy gear; entertaining customers, some of which you may not like the company of; and washing the gear at night before a 6pm finish. If you guide a single diver on two dives, you earn the equivalent of 4 quid. Take three divers out, and it’s accommodation, dinner and beer covered for one day. For a 12-hour shift. Fancy it? We do all this just to dive. If you descend with experienced divers, it’s great, and it’s like diving for yourself. Take inexperienced divers down, and situations can arise where you earn that money…it’s definitely still work.

The main reason for working as a DM is that, should you not have any customers to guide, but a boat is going out anyway, you can dive for free. It’s the only perk, full stop. When I arrived back in Coron this time, Rocksteady had decided DMs had to pay 8 quid for a day’s diving. I understand 4 quid a dive sounds reasonable to most of you reading this, but Dean and Helen actually ended up in arrears, owing the shop money the month I arrived. No dive shop I’ve visited since charges DMs to dive, and some were quite shocked. It makes it all the more galling when you’ve paid almost 600 quid for a flight to go and work there in the first instance. And surely, the more experience a DM has on the wrecks, the better service s/he offers? How can you find other places to show divers if you are not allowed to explore?

We’d had a German group in, very experienced divers, who knew the wrecks better than we did. So they didn’t need guides. We wanted to dive, so ended up doing the rest of the job, but paying for our fun. Sat around in a bar one evening, I brought the subject up. I said we were effectively paying to work. Miro agreed, as did H and Dean. The next day at work, I decided to raise the issue with Karin.

“When we dive with the Germans, we don’t get paid…as we’re not guiding them?”

“No” she said.

“But we get up at 6am, load the boat, serve lunch and entertain, before washing all their gear each evening.”

“Yes…” she said, uncertainly.

“So we’re doing the same work as usual, and the only bit we aren’t getting to do is the bit we love…diving?” I asked.

“I see what you mean.”

She actually agreed with me that we were still working and, as a result, we were paying for the privilege. Miro actually benefited the most from my intervention when she back-paid us, as he’d worked for the group more often. Karin accepted we weren’t happy about paying to dive, but wouldn’t budge on that front.

So now I’m seen as something of a rabble-rouser at the shop. But I wouldn’t call standing up for my principles, and arguing the toss over something I believe is unfair, inflaming a situation. Even customers at the shop thought this situation unfair. But whatever.

I returned to Coron after Truk Lagoon to an uneasy atmosphere at Rocksteady, and gleaned from Patrick that Karin had been told I was slagging the shop off, and saying things on Facebook. I went straight up there to deal with the situation. I asked her what had been said. She’d been told I’d said some bad things about a customer, and complained about the shop. She hadn’t seen this for herself, but had heard a story. I showed her what had been written, which was actually just a tongue-in-cheek status update where I called a French diver a silly bastard for not listening to my advice about Coron’s boring reefs, and booking me for two reef dives the next day (She knows I hate taking people on the reefs…I complain about it often enough) Nothing more, nothing less. She’d obviously been told it was far more than this, judging by her expression.

“But she told me…”

“Who told you?” I cut her off, knowing the answer before the name escaped her lips.

“Juliet.”

Juliet being my nickname for Henrika, because of the way Ro-Miro and her were always pawing and mooning at each other like a pair of 15-year-olds.

I was fuming. Talk about shit-stirring.

Miro was the Golden Boy at the shop, being German. As I said above, he’s a very good diver, and a competent DM. But while she was in town, standards began slipping. Gerd actually made them dive from separate boats at one point, as there had been complaints about both her attitude on the boat, and Miro’s work. The most serious error of judgment came when he had a group of friends diving with him. He briefed Henrika to dive solo, and told her where to wait for him and the group. According to these divers, he was only focused on her as they followed him down to the wreck a few minutes later. Two divers followed him into a hole, another two were struggling with a light and their buoyancy. By the time they adjusted this, Miro and the other two were gone. Instead of getting his two divers to wait in a safe place while he doubled back for the lost pair, he continued the dive to find his girlfriend. They eventually just headed back to the surface, and to say they weren’t happy is putting it mildly. Compromising your customers’ safety is not high on the list of things to do if you don’t want to end up in a court over someone’s death. The fact is, Henrika should not have been on that boat while he was working; she was a major distraction, and as far as his diving goes, he was taking his eye off the ball.

I didn’t rock the boat, as I didn’t want to fall out with Miro. Whether he reads this and falls out with me is another matter. But I regard the girl as poison, and just chose to completely blank her whenever she was around. It didn’t make for a nice atmosphere.

I was freelancing for another shop one day, and the two Rocksteady boats were at the same site. Down I went with my divers and, at the 5m safety stop, I noticed pieces of white material slowly sinking around us. It took a moment for it to (literally) sink in, and the brown matter sinking with it spurred me into motion. I dragged the divers out of the way, and moments later we surfaced, as one of the Rocksteady boats was leaving. I shouted over to the captain on the remaining boat.

“Which dirty bastard just took a shit on our heads?!” I demanded.

“It was one of the girls on the other boat, Sir.”

“Which one?” I groaned, knowing the answer.

“The tall blonde.”

Fucking bitch. I had to laugh, though…talk about adding insult to injury.

Things came to an almighty, nuclear reactive, head in their final week. We had a few customers on board the bigger boat, Dos Hermanos, and we were loaded and ready to go at 8am. There was just the Witch to arrive. She came goose-stepping down the harbour wall, and her face changed when she got to the boat. I knew straight away she would have been happier to see Hitler on board than me (they’re probably related, anyway). She exchanged a heated conversation with Miro, while the paying, confused customers waited for their day out to begin. Someone asked what was wrong.

“It is my last day diving, and he is here” she gestured sulkily at me.

“Look, Henrika” I leaned over and hissed “I can’t stand you either, but we have customers on board, and Miro is working, so let’s just avoid each other. It’s a big enough boat.”

She looked close to tears, the stroppy mare.

“But you don’t understand, I can’t even look at you.”

“Believe me” I laughed, mirthlessly “you’re no easier to look at.”

Miro told me to shut up. I told him to shut up, and reminded him he was working. The boat was going nowhere, and customers were confused and embarrassed. I was embarrassed, myself. And, considering she wanted to be a DM, she could have acted with a little decorum. Everyone at the shop had been putting up with her primadona behaviour for the last few weeks; she could have just got on with it and dived. At one point, Miro phoned the shop and asked if I could guide, so him and Henrika could get off the boat. I couldn’t believe it. Truly professional. No taking turns wearing the trousers in that relationship, then?

“My last day, and now it’s completely ruined” she huffed, puffy-eyed.

To think, there's people starving in Africa?

The customers who stayed at Crystal Lodge were laughing about the episode the next morning; turns out even her fellow Germans couldn’t stand her. A few of them had her number right from the start, with the obvious advantage that they understood every word the controlling harridan said. I’d apologised to them about the incident, as it reflected badly on ourselves and the shop. Those who’d been on the boat with her said they understood.

On a brighter note, those of us who couldn’t understand her pseudo-hippy-flower-girl habit of walking around Coron barefoot (you just wouldn’t, believe me) were massively amused when, as she left Patrick’s place one night, she stood in a huge wet turd left by his dog. Good dog.

Beijing Butlins

I like winging it most of the time, heading from place to place at the drop of a hat; it certainly feels good to be free. Planning too far ahead and buying tickets in advance is, quite frankly, a pain in the arse. Wake up in the morning bored of your surroundings? Pack your bag and do one.

After diving for so long in the Philippines, I was quite excited by a change of scene, above and below water. KL is a pleasant city; there are not many sights, but after the Philippines, it was just good to be somewhere with decent infrastructure, fantastic bookshops, and food you could actually eat without wanting to cry; it was almost a culture shock, in reverse. There’s still the seedier underbelly, and I was offered “girls…very young girls” outside my hotel one evening. Obviously he got a frown and an invitation to fuck right off. And a nice old lady greeted me one evening with the glassy-eyed mantra “Suck you…suck you…I suck you” as I came back from 7 Eleven in the wee small hours. I waved my Toblerone and strawberry milkshake at her and shook my head, as if to say I only came out for these, love. A girl’s gotta make a living, I just think her approach needs some work.

So wing it we did, heading for the bus station one evening to catch an overnight service to Tioman island. Shouldn’t be full, this late at night, surely? It surely was. So we had to head back on the half-hour trip back into town and re-take our rooms at Comfort Inn. The loveably cheeky staff there found this very amusing, and I’d walked in saying “No laughing!” mock-sternly. They joined in, and as we headed for the lift, one of them chipped “Oh, and forgot to mention…welcome back to Comfort Inn” in a sing-song voice. Their giggles followed us into the lift.

When we finally arrived at Tioman, we were to be disappointed; not by the place, as the island is lovely, and peaceful. But the onset of the next Ice Age has increased the sea temperature by two degrees centigrade, and one is enough to cause coral to bleach. I came up off the first dive, spluttering “Fuck me, it’s like Christmas down there…” Two dives the next day, and we’d seen enough. Abandon island, and head up to Redang.

Where Tioman was peaceful and laidback (so laidback that it was almost impossible to get lunch if the locals couldn’t be arsed to open), and rough around the edges (the town dump was near our beach, and mornings saw monkeys and monitor lizards fighting over the scraps of food), Redang was a different story. The diving had been recommended by fellow divers, but the island is looking to dispose of its backpacker accommodation and cater purely for the richer weekend visits of Malaysians and Singaporeans. As a result, packages of transport, diving, accommodation and food are the only ways to visit.

Leaving the ferry, we were greeted by the sight of Chinese families with screaming kids:
thousands of them. I saw four other honkies all weekend. This would mean karaoke, amongst other painful sensory torture. A slouching Chinese booked us in, and pointed out the daily itinerary.

“Breakfast at 7am, snorkelling at 9am, Lunch at 12pm, snorkelling at 2pm, Tea at 5pm, Dinner at 8pm.” Eh?
“We” peered Iain, over his spectacles “do
not…snorkel.”
Quite right, too. Snorkelling to diving is like building a joint, and leaving the grass out.

This was going to be a painful few days. The food was shocking, and for a vegetarian like Iain, rather limited. The Chinese shuffled round the place in their flip-flops, shrrff-shrrff-shrrff-shrrff-shrrff, as if they were sanding the floor with their feet; the sound was a backdrop for every waking minute. I took a walk around the resort, and was horrified. A tractor with two trailers ferried fat tourists the 200 yards between beaches. The shops sold all sorts of trinkets and tat. Get me out of here. Between meals, a siren sounded, and queues of orange lifevest-clad Chinese queued for the boats waiting to take them snorkelling. Very amusing. I suppose different cultures enjoy their free time in different ways, so who am I to judge? The break had cost us a packet, and the sloping floor in our room testament to the fact we were being mugged over the course of three days. At least in London you just get a knife at your throat and it’s over in minutes.

The diving was marginally better than Tioman, ie. not everything was
dead. But with the exception of one dive, we’d seen it all before. The jaded cynicism increases as the tally of dives rises, I suppose. And I’d been spoiled with Truk Lagoon and Malapascua.

Big Mount was the exceptional dive. An underwater pinnacle, it was late afternoon when we visited. Diving without a guide, we’d been briefed on the site and where to look. Dropping to 30m, we weren’t blown away at first. But as we rounded the pinnacle, a black-tip reef shark glided behind Iain, barely 5m away. Dropping deeper, we were treated to huge tuna, jacks and trevallies; a few of the black jacks fought amongst themselves as we passed through; barracuda hovered in the currents, silver against the darkening water. A great dive, but small recompense for the torture of three days as prisoners on Redang. I was truly glad to see the back of this polished Tourist Ghetto, which is a real shame as, with a backpacker crowd as the population, it would be a great island; it’s stunning. But that’s Progress for you, isn’t it? As Arnold Schwarzenegger did not say “I won’t be back.”

Small World & Larging It in Kuala Lumpur

I’d been in Kuala Lumpur a couple of days, and met up with a diver I know from London, Iain. He loves KL as, being gay, he can get up to all sorts of mischief here. Saunas and gay gyms abound. From what he told me of his dalliances, it certainly sounds fun being gay; apart from the shagging men bit. He told about the, quite literal, gay abandon of these places. For a fiver he can use the gym for a while, sit in the steam room and relax afterwards, spot a bit of something he fancies and be getting up to no good within minutes. Why is the straight world not as easy as this? Gym memberships would rocket, and my beer belly would be no more, I can tell you that much. Well…

We’d met a couple of expats, Chris and Helen, who ran a financial investment business here. Helen was a bit odd and intense, but Chris was very funny, and generous with the drinks…which is nice in KL because the price of alcohol is close to prohibitive. They had a Glaswegian called Andy in tow, who was new to the city. Talk about trying too hard, this fellow was a nightmare; one of those people who has to dominate a conversation and be the funniest chap in town, wringing a vaguely amusing story for laughs which turned to grimaces and knowing looks between the rest of us after a few nights of it. Chris said Andy was fishing for business with their company, and seemed to be reading from a script when discussing finance issues, as it was the same patter each time. Chris said there was no way he’d employ him. Aside from the bullshit, the lad was an alcoholic; not exactly unique in Glasgae, but stands out here. He turned up at the pool one afternoon, stinking of yesterday’s booze and carrying a can of beer…the other eleven of a double six-pack in the carrier bag. He looked a mess, and the pleasant conversation we’d previously been having was soon a distant memory as he took over.

I took to avoiding him wherever possible. We were in a bar one night, people-watching and playing Sex Tourist Or Not over a few beers. It’s not a game, more an observational time-waster, which involves one of you pointing out a Westerner with a local, and the others judge the relative ages, good or bad looks and affluence levels of the respective partners and decide whether he’s a seedy old bastard and she’s in it for the money, or not. Alky Andy approached the man we were quietly discussing, as he drank with a younger lady, his back to us (judged Not by the panel, by the way…she was no oil painting). He put an ice cube down the bloke’s back, and turned and ran back to us. He found the quite puerile prank incredibly amusing, unlike myself and Chris; safe to say the Non Sex Tourist wasn’t laughing. As Alky tried to chat to the man and smooth things over, the rest of us melted away. Quite enough of the irritating Scotsman had been had by all. I’d initially been under the impression that Chris had known him awhile, but later on he told me the guy had only been in KL four days, and they couldn’t get rid of him. (Myself and Iain were in stitches a few weeks later, on returning from Redang, to hear he’d headed back home to Scotland. Obviously the financiers of KL had seen through him, as no offers of work had arrived, and he’d spent the money meant to keep him going for a month in just one week; talk about pissing it up the wall.)

Anticipating Alky’s return from placating the wet-backed gentleman, I moved to the periphery of our growing group to avoid him. A tubby fellow called James, with a shared Lancastrian accent, introduced himself. He frowned a little, his head tipped to one side; wagged a finger at my chest.

“I think I know you” he said with a degree of certainty. He did look vaguely familiar to me, too.

“Where you from?” I asked.

“Nelson.”

“Burnley Bastard, are you?”

“Yeah.”

We both laughed as I made a face like someone just farted.

“You?”

“North End.”

Football was discussed for a minute, but this wasn’t the connection, and we were still puzzled.

“How old are you?” I tried.

“39.”

“Same here.”

I suspected I now had the answer.

In the early 90s, Manchester University finally tired of sending me letters asking me to return and avoid wasting what creative talent I had. They’d sent me three before I received one telling me they gave up: I was out. It took me ten years and several shit jobs to realise this huge error, returning to MMU to study for a part-time degree and finding my way to London. But back then, I couldn’t give a toss about studying. In those days, you lived for the weekends.

The summer after being kicked out, I was working in the sun as a landscape gardener on a pleasant housing estate in Blackburn. Tending a footpath border between leafy streets, the strains of a favourite House record drifted on the breeze from a nearby garden. Laughing voices, and the smell of barbecuing chicken drifted with it. Bastards. As I moved up the path, breaking and turning soil with my hoe, the music got louder; and better. I needed to know where this mix was from. I approached the wall and popped my head over. Several lads of my age were sitting in the sun, drinking beer and passing joints around.

“Hey mate” I called to one of them “that tape’s fucking ace…where’s it from?”

“Monroes, in Blackburn.” He walked over.

“Heard of the place, whereabouts is it?”

He gave me directions, then paused. “Fancy a smoke?”

I grinned. “Too right, cheers. Can my mate come?”

“Sure.”

“Neil!” I shouted down the pathway. My co-worker looked over, and smiled as I climbed the wall. Downing tools, he ran over to join me. An hour later, we were pleasantly stoned, drinking cold beers and eating chicken, and I had some new mates. The toil in the hot sun went out of the window for the afternoon. The lad I’d initially chatted to was Chris, and between mouthfuls of chicken burger, his mayonnaise-smudged mouth offered “We’re going to Monroes this Saturday night…why don’t you come with us?” That was the start of a great summer.

Returning to 2010, I posed a question to James. Being the same age, and from towns 10 miles either side of Blackburn, there was only one possible connection: the Rave scene. “Did you go to Monroes?”

“Yeah.”

“Whereabouts?” Every group of mates naturally gravitated to the same area of the club every week, dancing and sweating out chemicals for hours on end. You knew the same faces, exchanged broad grins with the same eyes when a certain track was dropped. It was a brilliant club, a brilliant summer; some of the best days of my life.

“On the left, just as you walked inside” he said.

“So you may know my ex, Claire Holden? Used to go out with Jack?”

“And Damien, and Chris Reed?” he asked, and chuckled when I told him how I met Chris at his barbecue.

Despite being only on nodding terms at the time, it was quite bizarre to bump into each other in an Asian city. James has worked in KL for three years, and rented a nice pad in Sentral. He kindly offered me one of his spare rooms any time I’m in town. We had a great night reminiscing, aided by the few records he’d brought over from that era…it was the first time in eighteen months that I’d touched a pair of 1210s, and I couldn’t wait to mix a few tunes.

The summers of 1989, 1990 and 1991 are indelibly etched on my memory. I don’t regret getting kicked out of university, as I was part of the biggest youth movement since the ‘60s. If you weren’t there, it’s hard to communicate the excitement House music had generated in us as it escaped its relative anonymity in America, to be wrapped in loving Northern English arms. Saturday nights were never the same again; dancing for hours in a club; the waiting at motorway service stations for a car to streak through and lead us to a secret location; illegally-breached industrial buildings echoing with the hypnotic sounds of techno; gaunt masks in the early morning light, hallucinogens wearing off, seeing frightening faces and knowing yours was among them; the agony after the ecstasy, of swinging truncheons and banging shields as the police break in.

It all flooded back that night, and it was hard to believe it was half a lifetime ago. We reflected long into the night; 20 years; where have they gone?