Tag Archives: Cambodia

Comedian Chris Dangerfield is in love

Chris with water  in Edinburgh in August

Chris & some water in Edinburgh this August

Three days ago, I posted a blog in which Chris Dangerfield gave his opinion on the Dapper Laughs kerfuffle. Some of what he said did not fit comfortably into that blog. This is part of what I did not post…

“You’ve recently been to Cambodia,” I said to Chris.

“Yeah.,” said Chris. “Went to Cambodia. Went down to Phnom Penh.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“That’s hard to say,” Chris replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of the nature of my visit,” he laughed. “I got on a tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw taxi) at the airport when I arrived and the driver asked me: Do you want something to smoke? – I said Yeah – So he gave me some weed… Do you want some tablets? – Yeah – So he gave me some Xanax – And he said Do you want some China White (heroin) – Yeah.

“This was the first Khmer I had spoken to and he offered me weed, Xanax and heroin. I took all three of them, went to my hotel room and spent a couple of days crying.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Remember when I last talked to you (in September),” said Chris, “I mentioned I had left the love of my life? I went out to Cambodia essentially to escape a broken heart and, predictably, the broken heart came with me.”

“But now,” I said, “you are back together again?”

Chris in a famous UK chemist chain - a company which, he says," history suggests got rich on the back of the Opium Wars"

The drug section of a famous UK chemist chain – a company which, Chris says, “got rich on the back of the Opium Wars”

“Yeah. I sat out there for a couple of days shooting heroin and having Xanax for breakfast and thought: I need to get home, I need to get clean and I need to give that relationship a chance while I’m clean. Because there’s no chance while you’re using.  That’s bullshit to think that. How can you have a relationship while you’re using?”

“So why didn’t you get clean last time?” I asked.

“That is a question I’ll probably asked myself forever until I am clean.”

“But, you’re not clean now.”

“No.”

“So what about your relationship?”

“Well, I’m giving it a go now.”

“But you’re not clean.”

“But I’m trying,” said Chris. “I’m certainly trying. A couple of weeks ago, I was doing a gram a day of white Number 4 Burmese – the strongest smack in the world – and now I’m doing about 0.2 of a gram a day. By the time me and her go to Thailand in a few weeks, I’ll be down to an oxycontin a day.”

“Oxycontin?” I asked.

Chris Dangerfield yesterday with abandoned police bike behind

Chris Dangerfield in London’s Soho district last year

“Oxycodone,” Chris explained. “The brief must have been to the pharmaceutical companies: Can you make some heroin? Because all our addicts are giving Afghanistan and South East Asia money, so we would rather them be buying black market American-made goods.

“So, yes, oxycodone: that’s the plan. I’m on 0.2 (of heroin) at the moment; I hope before I leave it will be 0.1 and then I’ll get the oxycontin down and, by the time I come back, hopefully I’ll be clean or just a bit of ‘codeine’. To go from a gram of white heroin on the needle to a couple of dihydrocodeines a day, I’ll be happy with that.”

“How long have you known your girlfriend?” I asked.

“Four years, on and off. I’ve never felt like I do about her. It feels like real love. I actually make concessions for someone else’s feelings, which is something I’ve never done before.

“I love her like I’ve never loved anyone else. I have feelings for her that are new and I think it deserves… I mean, I want to be clean anyway. I’m done with this shit and I want that relationship to have a proper chance.”

“When did you start taking heroin?” I asked.

“I was 23.”

“And you’re how old now?”

Chris Dangerfield and his girlfriend

Chris Dangerfield and girlfriend this week

“42… Well, I think I started taking drugs when I was around 14. But I’m done with it. I’ve been talking to the American writer and musician Mishka Shubaly who does the music for Doug Stanhope’s podcast. He’s been five years clean of alcohol and he’s been an amazing person to communicate with.”

“And,” I said, “as for your girlfriend…?”

“I love her – I really do. Like any love affair, it has its ups and downs. But there’s nothing new there with the smack and it’s stopping me doing other things. It’s time to love, to create and to relax: and they are three things – the last one, anyway – that heroin interferes with. No, it interferes with all of them.”

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The government suggested they could turn the whole country into a Walt Disney theme park – the whole country

Schoolchildren - not yet Mouseketeers - in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1989

Children (not Mouseketeers) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1989

This is a true story.

In 1989, I was in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Eleven years after that – today fourteen years ago – in the year 2000 – I had lunch in London with a chum who had recently worked for the Walt Disney company, dealing with licensing for Walt Disney in South East Asia. He told me that, in Cambodia, a government official had suggested they could turn the whole country into a Walt Disney theme park – the whole country.

After some consideration, the idea was not proceeded with, possibly because of the thought of land mines. Mickey Mouse having his legs blown off is probably not an attractive PR image.

But it is interesting that basic capitalist ideas – even then, in 2000 – were spreading across South East Asian countries.

In his South East Asian Disney hat, my chum also wanted to hire the Rex Hotel in Saigon, Vietnam, one morning for a presentation. Unfortunately, the Rex Hotel was owned by Saigon Tourism, which owned large chunks of real estate all over Vietnam and was probably second only to the government in political and economic power. This inevitably meant bureaucracy.

Saigon, as I saw it from the roof of the Rex Hotel in 1989

Saigon, as I saw it from the roof of the Rex Hotel back in 1989

So, when my chum phoned to ask the cost of renting the Rex, he was called in to a meeting with the boss of Saigon Tourism. My chum arrived with his translator and was shown into a boardroom with a vast rectangular conference table where, inevitably, they were kept waiting for ages. Eventually, the bossman came in with twelve advisors, heads of departments and top executives. My chum and his small translator sat on one side of the table; the bossman and his twelve executives with briefcases and bundles of papers sat on the other side.

Remember this was not even to book the Rex. it was only to ask how much it would cost if my chum did want to book it.

Eventually, after tea and all sorts of interminable preambles, the boss of Saigon Tourism said he thought it would be a good idea if Disney opened a theme park in Vietnam. My chum explained it was not his section of Disney which was involved in the theme park side of the business: he only dealt with consumer goods licensing. He said he would pass on the suggestion but said he knew Disney took about ten years – literally ten years – to evaluate theme park possibilities. The parks were very big, very complicated to build and to run and very expensive, so decisions could only be taken carefully. But he would certainly pass on the suggestion.

“We could have a smaller theme park,” the Vietnamese tourist boss suggested.

A children’s playground in Saigon in 1989

A typical children’s playground in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1989

My chum explained again that it wasn’t really his area, but he knew Disney only really thought in terms of big theme parks. However, he said, he would pass on the idea and he knew it would be considered very seriously by the top Disney theme park people.

The Vietnamese tourist boss replied: “You could just give us the rides rather than build a theme park round them.”

My chum again explained it wasn’t really his area of decision but he would pass on the suggestion.

“You could just sell us the technology for the rides and we could build them ourselves,” the Vietnamese tourist boss persisted.

My chum went through all his polite rigmarole again.

“You could just give us one ride,” the Vietnamese tourist boss suggested. “Just one ride. I have been to Disneyland. The ride we would want would be the Earthquake Ride where you go in and it simulates the feeling of an earthquake.”

American B-52 bomb craters in central Cambodia, 1989

B-52 bomb craters seen from plane in central Cambodia, 1989

My chum was a bit taken aback, but did all the polite rigmarole again about how he would pass it on but pointed out that one reason why Disney included the Earthquake Ride in their Californian operation was that California was in an earthquake zone – there was the San Andreas Fault – and, in a sense, it was educational for the children who went there whereas, in Vietnam, there were no earthquakes and no history of earthquakes, as in California, so it wasn’t quite the same.

Immediately, the Vietnamese tourist boss suggested: “We could use the sensations to simulate the effects of carpet-bombing by B-52 bombers.”

My chum never did find out the cost of renting the Rex Hotel for an afternoon.

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Is copywriting gross capitalism and poetry pure art? And what you can do with a cow in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato and much else

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato

When I was in Totnes at the weekend, I met poet Matt Harvey who told me he had once made a radio programme for BBC Bristol called Beans Means Rhymes, about poetry and advertising.

“How did that come about?” I asked him.

“I had just written a love poem to a potato,” he told me.

“Why?”

“It was for a Waste & Resources Action Project Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. It was specifically created to modify people’s behaviour vis-a-vis the potato.”

“Specifically?” I asked.

“People,” explained Matt, “buy a lot of potatoes, eat a few of them and chuck the rest of them away. I was told I had to communicate in a poem that, if your potato does sprout in your storage area, you should not just chuck it away. You should peel, boil or mash it and, if you have some mash left over, you shouldn’t just chuck that away. You should put it in a bag in a freezer and have it later.”

“I would like to see what Tennyson would have done with that brief,” I said. “Why did they decide to do this in a poem and not in prose?”

“It was,” said Matt, “just someone’s very good idea to give me money to write a poem. They had a series of posters with pictures of specific food items on them and a little poem about each. The poem would contain within its crystalline purity little hints about the best way to relate to this food item.”

“How did you approach your potato poem?”

Brevity results from a good brief

A good brief breeds effective brevity

“They gave me a really tight brief. I now include it in performances I do because it’s so interesting: I read out the brief and then the poem.

“As soon as they told me the brief, I went and wrote a little bit of a gush of enthusiasm for the potato taking into account that your love of the potato should include not wanting to waste any part of the potato.

“I found writing to a brief was just a real pleasure: to write a six line poem that says it all. It made me more confident about writing poems to order. I always thought I would never be able to do that but the more specific the brief the easier it is to do, really.”

“Advertising,” I suggested, “is really the same as poetry in that you are selling a concept in a very few words.”

“Yeah,” agreed Matt. “Although, in poetry, you’re often focussing on something nebulous like a feeling of rapture or a nuanced feeling – as opposed to a vegetable.”

“Do you do widespread readings?” I asked.

“I do lots of village hall gigs,” Matt told me. “Have you come across the Rural Touring Forum?”

“I only heard about it,” I replied, “a couple of months ago from mind reader Doug Segal. He should have known earlier that I would be interested.”

“The Somerset one is called Take Art,” said Matt. “In Shropshire, it is Arts & Lung.”

“Sounds like pun,” I said.

“The Devon one invited me to offer a show,” said Matt. “It goes on the menu and village hall promoters get to choose what they want. I encourage people to bring Anglepoise lamps to my gigs, because I find a few Anglepoise lights will adequately light me and it’s really quite atmospheric.”

When we thought we had reached the end of our chat, Matt checked the messages on his mobile phone.

“Ooh!” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“There is some interest from a local snack manufacturer,” he said. “They want to talk to me about being creative with their foodstuff.”

“You are obviously a culinary cult,” I said.

“I was once a question on The Weakest Link,” Matt mused.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I was the official Wimbledon poet,” he replied.

“The London borough?” I asked.

“The tennis championships in 2010,” he replied.

“You stood up in the crowd and declaimed poetry?” I asked.

Matt declaimed his poetry to the BBC at Wimbledon in 2010

Matt read his Wimbledon poetry on BBC News

“I blogged poetry,” he explained, “and one morning, as a gimmick, I went out and read poetry to the queue. They stared at me, bleary-eyed, but they enjoyed it because they were filmed and they were excited. As soon a they saw cameras, they assumed I was important and assumed they should be excited, so they were.”

At the time, Matt told BBC News: “I have a rich inner tennis fantasy life.”

“How did you get that gig?” I asked.

“Wimbledon have had an ‘artist in residence’ for the past seven or eight years,” Matt explained. “The artist has usually been a water colourist or someone working in inks or oils. But, in 2010, they decided they’d have a poet and two enthusiastic women who had heard me on Radio 4‘s Saturday Live and who worked in the visual side at Wimbledon sold this idea to one member of the committee. The rest of the committee didn’t care either way, so they got it passed. The only thing they said to me was Don’t embarrass us.”

“So not too many references to balls, then,” I said.

“I must go,” said Matt.

And, again, we thought this was the end of our conversation, but it was not.

Comedian Matt Roper arrived.

“Did John tell you he went to Cambodia in 1989?” Matt Roper asked Matt Harvey.

“No,” said Matt Harvey.

Why would I? I thought.

“Matt has been to Cambodia too,” said Matt Roper of Matt Harvey.

“Oh?” I said. “Phnom Penh was very empty when I was there. The city had maybe only a third or a quarter of its previous population in it, so it felt very open and empty. The Vietnamese Army had left a month before, so people thought the Khmer Rouge might be back in power in a week or a month or six months. This was back in 1989. Now, from TV footage I’ve seen, I think it’s full of sex tourists and UN jeeps. S-21 was the saddest place I’ve ever been.”

The regulations at Tuol Sleng - S-21 - Phnom Penh

Regulations to be followed at Tuol Sleng – S-21 – Phnom Penh

S-21 was the former girls’ high school which had been turned into a Khmer Rouge interrogation centre and prison.

“S-21 is still on the list of tourist sites,” said Matt Harvey, “together with the Russian market and the royal palace. And you can also pay to fire a bazooka at a live cow.”

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Filed under Ad industry, Cambodia, Poetry

Why Chris Dangerfield’s new Edinburgh Fringe show is not the true story of him being a Lady Boy of the Khmer Rouge

(A re-titled version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)

Chris Dangerfield: addicted to strong stories

Chris Dangerfield with a suspiciously sweaty forehead

“There’s two interviews I did with you which I don’t remember doing,” Chris Dangerfield told me yesterday in London’s Soho Square. “When we had scones…

“There’s a photo of me with my forehead just sweating and I know I was really hitting the crack hard then. I look awful. And – I don’t know if it’s the same interview – there’s another one when I talk about my mate and his gun.

“They’re the two. I don’t remember doing them. Someone said to me: Why do you keep getting out of your head and doing interviews with John Fleming? and I said I haven’t talked to John for months and they sent them to me and the weird thing about them is that someone’s driving , someone’s doing the talking.”

“George the autopilot takes over,” I suggested.

“When you read an interview that you don’t remember doing,” explained Chris, “and it’s not like 20 years ago – it’s six months ago – it’s like haunting yourself, it’s like you’ve become your own ghost, it’s kind of… Freud calls it ‘oceanic’, like when you stand at the beach and the vastness of the ocean is something you can’t grasp. There’s a photograph of you; there’s words and sentence structures that you know you use. In a court of Dangerfield law, I’d say Yes, that is me, but I don’t remember anything about it.”

“It’s strange,” I said. “You’re actually very responsible and together. You turn up on time. You talk fluently. If you’re off your skull, you should be all over the place.”

“What you’ve got to remember,” said Chris, “is I set up my million pound company when I was taking 2 grams of heroin a day.”

“What million pound company?” I asked incredulously.

“You know about my lock-picking business!” Chris replied, equally surprised. “It’s worth a million pounds if I was to sell it. We manufacture and retail tools to pick locks. In the second year, it turned over more than £1 million and now I’ve got staff – three full-time, a couple of part-time, a couple of consultants. UK Bumpkeys Ltd. We’re the biggest lock-picking retailer in Europe at the moment. There were people on a level with us, but they no longer are.”

“Remind me why this is legal?” I asked.

“Remind me why is shouldn’t be!” said Chris.

“Picking locks is…” I started to say.

“I used to rob houses,” interrupted Chris, “and I never used a set of lock picks. They’re the wrong tools for the job. They’re non-destructive. Lock-picking is non-destructive entry.”

“But, if you’re burgling somewhere,” I asked innocently, “why would you want to be destructive? It’s noisy.”

“Because it’s quicker,” sighed Chris. “If you sit down at two locks and pick ‘em, you could be there a half hour. But if you put a foot through the door… Look, the only times I ever used lock picks for criminal activity – and this is going back 10-15 years – was chemists.”

“So,” I said, changing the subject, “you lured me here under the pretext – and I can quote the text message you sent me exactly – Yes, sweet tits, I have two exclusives for you – biggies – and now you tell me we can’t talk about either of them in print…”

“I’ve got an hour’s TV documentary,” Chris said.

“But we can’t say what?” I asked.

Chris Dangerfield in Soho yesterday

The self-confessed millionaire lock picker in Soho, yesterday

“Not in detail. But I’m writing and presenting an hour’s TV documentary about the usual Dangerfield palate of experience of activities on the margins of society.”

“You should be a copywriter,” I told him. “People get paid thousands of pounds to write things like that.”

“We got the green light this morning,” said Chris. “That’s happening. That’ll be on telly in November.”

“Probably,” I cautioned Chris. “This is a TV company. Things change.”

“Don’t say that, John,” said Chris. “It’s a respected terrestrial TV company. Respectable.”

Stuart Hall!” I said.

The veteran TV presenter Stuart Hall had admitted 14 charges of sexual abuse that morning.

“Who’s next?” I asked. “Sooty having a threesome with Mr Methane and Sue Lawley? It’s the Rule of Three… Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall… Who’s next?”

Ken Barlow, innit?” said Chris. “He’s got arrested, didn’t he?”

“I’m not sure I believe it,” I said. “He’s a Druid and he’s always been a bit holier-than-thou. But then, you think, what sort of man dresses up in robes and walks round Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice?”

“But you hit the nail on the head there,” said Chris. “That is over-compensating. They always do it. All the paedos I knew were like… As a kid, I joined a magic club. I got there early; no-one else was there; it was in their house; this bloke called Xxxxx Yyyyy; and he got out what he said was a magic magazine. To an 11-year-old kid it was like Wow! No way! and the house had magic tricks everywhere: it was like an Aladdin’s Cave. I could only afford little £1 tricks and they had expensive props.

“Then he put this magazine in my lap and I thought Wow!!! and, in my head, I thought I’d be a professional conjuror the following week. And this ‘magic magazine’, when I opened it, had pictures of all blokes. I just felt awkward. I put it down on the floor and he picked it up and said You can look at THAT one and I said No, I’m alright and there was this to-and-fro-ing with the magazine and then, when he’s finally forced the magazine on me, he just started wanking. And the hideous thing about that story is I don’t know the end. I don’t know what happened.

“I don’t remember leaving the room. The story ends there for me, in my head. How did we get onto that?”

Putting the past behind him in Soho yesterday

Putting the past behind him outside Soho shop

“A respectable terrestrial television company,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” said Chris. “My mum is almost going to look me in the eyes now. When she found out I had two celebrity chefs following me on Twitter, she told me: You have MADE it!”

“Getting back on track,” I said, “What’s the second thing I can’t write about?”

“The second thing you can’t mention yet,” said Chris, “is the sponsor for my new Edinburgh Fringe show.”

“Which is called?”

Chris Dangerfield: How I Spent £150,000 on Chinese Prostitutes.

“So,” I said, “after last year’s show Sex Tourist, when you were sponsored by an Edinburgh escort agency…”

“The criteria for choosing a sponsor last year,” said Chris, “was that I wanted a certain level of  inappropriateness. I wanted people to think: Oh! You horrible bastard! Last year, punters got a discount on the sponsor’s services if they had one of my flyers.”

“So,” I prompted, “this year, you originally thought you couldn’t equal the level of last year’s sponsor…”

“Yeah,” said Chris. “But this year there will again be the opportunity to get some free products from the sponsor. You know who the sponsor is, John, so you know why that’s funny…”

“Have you got a full gig diary?” I asked.

“I’m in a position now,” explained Chris, “where I don’t have to punt for work. My diary has drawings of naked women with wings and I’ve got a giraffe picture. I set myself the task of drawing something that was half-giraffe, half-tank – but sexy. Not comedy sexy. I wanted it to be erotic.”

“Did you succeed?”

“Depends on your tastes.”

“Ah!” I said, remembering. “Ah! Originally we were meeting up because you were going to talk to me about your gig at the Comedy Cafe Theatre next week when you’re doing the last-ever performance of your Sex Tourist show.”

“The tickets sold out three days,” said Chris. “A record selling-out for that venue.”

“That’s a level of success, “I said. “So what’s your goal?”

“I’m there,” said Chris. “I’m doing what I want to do. I wanted to be able to do stuff that I found funny about subjects that I know people like to brush under the carpet and I wanted people to laugh at that. And I’m doing that now.”

“And your next goal?”

“To live in South East Asia in the winter and be a comedian in Britain in the summer. The Edinburgh Fringe show this year about Chinese prostitutes was originally going to be a true story of me being a Lady Boy of the Khmer Rouge.

“Up in Laos and over the borders, there’s this big fight going on between the Chinese Communists and the Lao guerillas, basically over the heroin market – and now the crystal methamphetamine market – there’s the Burmese guerillas and the Marxists as well. And the Khmer Rouge are still in the jungle in Cambodia. It’s a massive fight. You can make the stuff for like £50 a kilo.

Chris’ bottom: he says it is called in Mandarin

Chris’ bottom, as seen on Twitter yesterday

“I was going to go out there… go to Phnom Penh,” explained Chris. “I had all the clothes. I had stuff my girlfriend had left. If you looked at my Twitter page this morning, there was a picture of my arse in some stockings. Amazing. I’ll send it to you for the blog.

“Pair of heels, little mini-skirt, bit of make-up, some electrolysis, get a Kalashnikov, get a Chinese No 4 habit – it’s the finest heroin in the world – and give it a go. Meet the Khmer Rouge and come back and tell the story at the Edinburgh Fringe… if I wasn’t dead.”

“And how did this tragically not happen?” I asked.

“I booked a flight to the wrong country,” said Chris.

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The killing fields of Cambodia and the trenches of World War One in London

The Imperial War Museum in London welcomes visitors

Two days ago, a friend and her 13-year-old son arrived at London Stansted Airport from Milan on a Ryanair plane. They sat in the plane at Stansted for 30 minutes because the airport, reportedly, had lost the steps to get off the plane.

Yesterday, we went to the Imperial War Museum. The son went to a room where a film was screened about various crimes against humanity. The Holocaust. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

All the greatest hits of genocide.

“In 1989, your mother and I visited the killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia,” I reminded him. “But they weren’t the worst thing. The worst thing was an entrance room at a building where people were kept and tortured and then sent off to be killed.

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre in Phnom Penh

Photos at the S-21 interrogation centre.

“The Khmer Rouge were very efficient,” I told him. “They photographed everyone. Black & white, head & shoulders pictures. Like passport photos but a bit bigger. Just the faces looking into the camera and they all had the same look in their eyes. They knew they were going to die and they had no hope in their eyes. The room you entered had photos from floor to ceiling on all four walls. All these faces. All around you. All those empty eyes. That was worse than the killing fields, which were just…”

“Bits of bone?” my friend’s 13-year-old son suggested.

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

Killing fields outside Phnom Penh in Kampuchea/Cambodia

“Yes,” I said. “Occasional little splinters of bone and a few scraps of torn shirts and things. But the room in the S-21 interrogation centre was much worse. Bits of bone and scraps of fabric are abstract. But the faces and the eyes were people.

“So just remember,” I said, trying to have a lasting impact on him, “that, if you ever think you’re having a bad time in your life, you’re actually comparatively well off. Other people have had it worse. Are having it worse.”

We got a bus into central London.

As it crossed Westminster Bridge, a photographer was taking a picture of a Japanese bride in a white wedding dress and her new husband with the Houses of Parliament behind them.

As we came off the bridge into Parliament Square and turned right into Whitehall, a red double-decker bus was coming towards Westminster Bridge, with a V-shaped white ribbon down its front, like a giant red two-storey bridal car.

WW1 Trench Art

One unknown British soldier’s WW1 trench art

In the afternoon, we were in Cecil Court in London, looking for a Tintin book and ended up in a shop selling military uniforms and mementos. There were a couple of items of ‘trench art’ – shell casings which men had decorated in the trenches in the First World War.

“They never signed them,” the owner of the shop told me, “because the shell casings were the property of the Crown and, by decorating them, they were defacing them. If you defaced any property of the Crown, you would get court martialed.”

So they never signed their names.

No-one will never know who made them.

This morning, my Italian friend’s husband – the father of her 13-year-old son – arrived at London Stansted Airport from Milan on a Ryanair plane.

He sat in the plane at Stansted for 10 minutes because the airport, reportedly, had lost the steps to get off the plane.

I wondered what the men engraving shapes on the shell casings in the trenches of the First World War would have made of it all. What the men and women in S-21 would have thought of the film screened at the Imperial War Museum. If they had lived. And what type of person the 13-year-old boy will grow into.

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Filed under Cambodia, Military, war

The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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