The Covid pandemic from 2020 to 2022 not only wiped out millions of lives but it also brought an abrupt halt to the livelihoods of many people, myself included. Suddenly, during global lockdown, there was no demand for a travel writer, quite simply because nobody was travelling.
Now, over a year after the worst of the pandemic has passed, I’m finally beginning to pick up the pieces and get my stories published again. There are still lots of holes in my client list that used to be occupied by guidebook publishers, inflight magazines and the like, but a few have survived and I’m going to post some recently published stories on my ‘peridoicals’ page. These are:
Teak Trails (Fah Thai magazine, September 2023). An overview of the teak boom that took place around Chiang Mai in the late 19th century and buildings that date back to that era.
A Mindfulness Journey (South China Morning Post, October 2023). A tour of four temples in Chiang Mai that offer meditation courses ranging from one to 26 days.
Conquering Doi Luang Chiang Dao (Fah Thai magazine, November 2023). An account of a trek to the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, arguably the most enjoyable hike in Thailand.
Reflections on Ian McEwan's novel, Lessons
Way back in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I chanced upon a book that affected me profoundly. Here at last, I thought, is a writer who lives in my world, with all its weirdness and complexity, and can convey it beautifully in prose.
The book was First Love, Last Rites, a collection of short stories by a guy called Ian McEwan, and I became an instant fan. Since then, I’ve read most, though not all, of his work – most recently his longest novel of all, Lessons.
Lessons is basically a biography of Roland Baines, who has much in common with McEwan – same age, same upbringing, same boarding school education – though presumably McEwan was never tutored at the piano as is Roland, with a complete sex education thrown in.
The wonder of Roland, a ‘serial monogamist’, is that he’s not a superhero, just an average guy who muddles his way through life, reacting to situations such as being abandoned by his wife and left with their tiny baby while she goes off to become a famous writer. In a way, Roland is summed up by his part-time professions – tennis coach for the elderly, greeting-card writer and piano player of ‘munch music’ in fancy London hotels; a jack of all trades but master of none.
Yet Roland’s a likeable guy, and we tend to root for him as he tries to lose his virginity at the age of 14 before the Cuban missile crisis destroys the world because he doesn’t want to die a virgin. He also smuggles books and records into East Germany before the Wall comes down, avoids using the London Underground after terrorist bombs go off and sits out several lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic.
It’s a strange feeling when you’re reading about a fictional character and suddenly think “The author’s writing about me!” So it was as I read about Roland near the end of Lessons: “He was plausible within the digital age, like a man in a cunning disguise, but he remained a citizen of the analogue world.”
The epic scale of this novel brings to mind the marvellous Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which follows the life of a writer against a similar backdrop of world events during the 20th century. These references to shared problems of the past help us as readers to sympathize with the protagonist’s inability to steer a comfortable course through his existence.
As for the ‘Lessons’ of the title, like the rest of us Roland doesn’t seem to learn from his experiences, whether they be joyful or painful, though he does revisit the most powerful emotional connections from his past, namely the piano tutor and his estranged wife, for poignant end-of-life reunions.
On another level, I wonder whether McEwan is hinting that we humans should learn lessons from the tragic world events that chart the course of this book. Towards the end, his concerns are with the unchecked future of Artificial Intelligence and the fact that we are now beyond preventing a 1.5-degree temperature rise that many say will signal the end of our species.
I can’t help but think that McEwan wanted to publish this work before it is too late and we are expelled from Planet Earth for not learning our lessons.
I've been watching heated arguments recently in the UK Houses of Parliament that remind me of kids squabbling over sweets in a school playground, and I'm thinking "These are the people that run my country!"
I'm reminded of a passage in a novel I'm re-reading at the moment – News from Nowhere by William Morris. Written in 1890, it's about a man named William Guest who falls asleep and wakes up in the 21st century to find the grimy, stinky, noisy London of the Victorian era transformed into a peaceful, friendly, unpolluted utopia, where society is so enlightened and advanced that there is no need for money, policemen, prisons, or – get this – government!
As Guest is walking around with Dick, his companion from the future, he says "Why, there are the Houses of Parliament! Do you still use them?" Dick answers, "Use them? Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure. "
Let's hope that the recent antics in this hallowed building are an indicator that we're well on the way to Morris' utopia, and that eventually this building will serve its rightful purpose – for storing manure.
If you're interested in Southeast Asian history, I hope you'll check out my brief reviews of five of my favourite books that explore colonialism in Southeast Asia, which is posted on a newish website for book lovers called shepherd.com. The website seems to be making a big effort to put titles that readers will relish in front of their eyes. One small warning; the bookshop.org links don't actually link to most books!
Venerating Mae Phosop
It was one of those magical evenings that happen once in a while – a balmy evening at the height of the rainy season (but no rain!), in an idyllic location, with a heartfelt performance from a group of talented actors and dancers.
As I had recently written a story for the South China Morning Post about rice farming in Thailand and the importance of Mae Phosop, the Rice Goddess, I was curious to see how she was portrayed.
She appeared as a longhaired, attractive woman dressed in a gold, satin dress, clutching a sheaf of rice stalks and attended by a group of long-eared nymphs.
The dance was a wonderful example of how performance art keeps Thai traditions alive.
Fortunately, the Goddess has been kind to us this year, and whatever catastrophes may occur in the coming months, at least we will not go hungry.
Will weed be fully legalized?
Thailand has attracted global attention through its recent delisting of cannabis as a narcotic, which came into effect on 9 June 2022. The country has also been buzzing, and I wrote about how cannabis is being used in cafes, restaurants, spas and clinics in my hometown of Chiang Mai for the South China Morning Post, which you can read here.
From the use of terms like ‘delisted’, ‘decriminalized’ and ‘legalized’, many people understand that cannabis can now be used freely. However, the government has stated that the only legitimate use is medicinal, and that levels of THC in the plant must be less than 0.2%, which won’t get anyone high.
In the couple of weeks since the delisting announcement, this story has changed day by day, and no doubt there will be further surprising announcements.
A collection of short stories
Back in the 1980s, I studied an M.A in English (Emphasis: Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University. As part of the requirement for the degree, I wrote a collection of short stories called In Transit.
I recently pulled out a copy of this long-forgotten work, dusted off its yellowing pages, and have decided to share these stories on my website. They are mostly based on my own experiences and observations in Africa, South America and the USA, mixed with a heavy dose of imagination to be able to call it fiction. You’ll find these stories in a new section of my website called Short Stories, which I’ll be adding to as I dictate/transcribe the stories. I have begun with four stories, all set in Africa, and below is the first one--Beyond the End of the Road. I’ll be glad of any feedback that you would care to give. Happy reading!
Lost and found in the Sahara
I stood, literally, at the end of the road. The fresh tarmac ended in a neat ledge above the golden sand, and a clear blue sky pressed down on all horizons. From here, tyre tracks fanned out southwards into the vastness of the Sahara. It was only mid-morning, but already the sand burned my toes, which stuck out of my sandals. I pulled my pack under the sparse shade of a tree beside the last petrol station for 400 kilometres. All was silent, except for the rustle of leaves in a limp breeze.
Every journey has its point of no return and this had to be mine. I had followed the thin vein of my dream, a red line on a Michelin map of Africa, to where the road ended and the dust began. Beyond lay mystery—the infinite spaces of the Central Sahara, the biggest sandpit in the world and ghost of lush forests in former ages.
I had arrived the night before at In Salah just in time to see the bus pull out for Tamanrasset, the next stop on my route. The official told me the next bus was not for ten days. I wandered around the oasis. Mosquitoes droned above a stagnant pond surrounded by crumbling mudhuts and sagging palms. I walked out into the desert before lying down to sleep on my mat. In Salah—if God wills it. If God wills it, I will get a ride out of here tomorrow. If He wills not, then I will not either.
A review of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Everybody knows that Bangkok will drown one day. It sits a precarious 1.5 metres above sea level, which continues to rise steadily due to climate change, while the city is sinking under the weight of its concrete jungle by a few centimetres each year. Some give it ten years, others fifteen. For the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants, this is a cause for concern, and the government’s efforts to stave off the inevitable with multi-million dollar flood barriers have all the pathos of a madman trying to hold back the tide.
The scenario is ripe for a dystopian novel, which Pitchaya Sudbanthad has provided in the form of Bangkok Wakes to Rain. This wildly ambitious debut novel jumps back and forth through the city’s history from the mid-19th to the mid-21st century, and by the end all that remains of the former capital are the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, with floodwaters splashing at their windows.
I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
Life is tough for us folks who live in Chiang Mai, former capital of the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields (Lan Na). The problem is that there are so many festivals and ceremonies to celebrate that we never get time to rest, and it seems we’re out dancing in the streets almost every day.
Take this week for instance. Traffic was brought to a standstill by the Poy Sang Long parade, which snaked its way around the perimeter of the old city moat. Poy Sang Long is a Shan ordination ceremony, which is accompanied by plenty of singing and dancing.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.